TELEVISION / Fatal footage only just saved for posterity

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The Independent Culture
THE LATE SHOW'S film about 'The Zapruder Footage' (BBC 2) really came alive, if that's not an unfortunate phrase, when Mike Wadleigh, a film studies teacher, recalled his time in a New York film school with Scorsese and others. 'If you had a very, very high quotient of total amateurism in your technique but the content was superb,' he said, recalling their fascination with the footage, 'that was like 100 per cent on the Zapruder curve.' Before Wadleigh's contribution various people had spouted pretentiously (and unconvincingly) about the aesthetic nature of a wobbly image of the President's assassination taken by a Dallas dressmaker. Here, though, you saw how it might have been turned into art. Hollywood had taught everyone that cameras did lie; suddenly the Zapruder film revealed a secret passage back to verity, or at least a carefully crafted version of good, honest ineptitude. Film-makers would have discovered the virtues of the hand- held camera anyway (some already had) but the Zapruder film helped give cinema a new emotional shorthand.

The field of assassination studies is like a football ground after a rainy match - trodden into a muddy swamp around the goalmouth, a mud which makes it virtually impossible to distinguish any individual player's footprints. If you want to leave a clear mark now you have to go to the margins - as Helen Bettinson did in Dear Jackie (BBC 2), a simple but moving film about those who wrote to the dead President's widow, and as Tim Kirby did in his essay on that iconic strand of celluloid.

It nearly didn't exist. Mr Zapruder had forgotten his movie camera and went home to get it, despite the bemusement of his colleagues. He wanted, he explained, to do it for his children. They literally got more than he'd bargained for. Time-Life bought the world print rights for dollars 50,000 almost immediately and then stumped up another dollars 150,000 for all rights (a considerable sum of money at the time). But years later, when bootleg copies were beginning to circulate, they returned the film and television rights to the family for a dollar.

Time-Life's suppression of the moment the second bullet struck (decorous or deeply sinister, according to your tastes) fuelled the conspiracy theories and primed the market - 30 years after those few moments were fixed on celluloid and chemical emulsion they still earn money steadily. Zapruder's nightmare (he dreamt that he was in Times Square and looked up to see a marquee reading 'See the President Get Shot') has come true. It is shortly to be published on CD Rom so that everyone, not just Oliver Stone and a thousand documentarists, will get to manipulate its grim images.

Where Were You? (ITV) was altogether more conventional, a fairly straightforward reconstruction of the emotional impact of the news and the social context of the time. It might have been better titled Where Were You, Darling? it concentrated so heavily on showbiz types and television luminaries but again it was the sideline details that stuck in your mind. Deryck Wakem, a teacher, had been supervising cadet shooting at the school range and, against regulations, had left a boy called Kennedy to lock up the armoury. When a small boy burst through the door shouting 'Sir, Sir, Kennedy's been shot' he thought his world had ended. Such was his dread that he couldn't bring himself to say anything to the matron but 'Have you got anything to tell me?' His memory of hearing the news was of intoxicating, joyful relief.

Pierre Salinger, Kennedy's press secretary, suffered a crueller misapprehension. Jackie Kennedy had invited him to sleep in the White House and he was woken next day by a call from the bedside telephone. 'The President wants to talk to you,' a secretary said and for a moment he thought he'd dreamt it all. Then a voice said: 'Hello Pierre, this is Lyndon', and the irreversible truth returned. Somehow those two misunderstandings conveyed as much about the emotion of the moment as many more lachrymose recollections.