CONVERSATIONS: the round table discussion

      The other major event in this period was the ‘Knight’s Meeting’ or seminar, held in King’s College in July 1999. All of us were rather worried about this. It is all very well for a group of academics to meet and talk about large issues when they do not have an audience. They can disagree, score points, use jargon, and play games. But what would happen when a camera was on them? Wouldn’t the language and contents be far too esoteric for the general public, and might not the whole thing be boring or fragmented? The only precedent I had was when, in the later 1970’s I had run a series of seminars in King’s in which I had invited leading figures – Godelier, Leach, Goody, Bloch, Sahlins and others to talk about history and anthropology. This had been filmed, and the film was interesting – though in black and white and not particularly grippingly filmed. But only a few other academics had ever seen this. Now there might be up to 2 million ‘general’ viewers. Could it work at all?

     Even finding a nice looking room was a problem. Most rooms in King’s Gibbs building were elegant, but did not have the engaging ethnographic clutter of objects, books and scientific instruments, let alone the round table, that was needed. So the whole thing was carefully set up in Gibbs G.3, using the shell of the room and paintings, hiring a table, setting up a mini-rubber railway track on which the camera tripod could easily be pushed round. The excellent camera-man Chris Morphet was engaged to film the non-stop conversation over two days, a crane was hired to take shots of the knights on the grass, through the masonry, in through the window and other tricks.

     In the event, though, it seems to have worked and those who have watched the six or so hours of  film have found it exciting. The room looked marvellous. The books borrowed from John Dunn and others were authentic. The contributors were on their best behaviour. Only very light chairing by King Arthur (myself) was needed to introduce each session, which roughly paralleled the six films. It was certainly exhausting, lasting until mid-night on the first day and about 5 pm. on the second. But perhaps because of the cameras, or because we had already become involved in respective filming,  the five contributors worked very well together, and Simon was on particularly sparkling form. The first session, which could only deal with generalities since there was not much to say about one day, was least satisfactory, but it gathered momentum and there is very little that is below a good standard. Again, while I had implicitly expected that it would just be a matter of saying what we already knew, and I didn’t expect to learn much, in fact it was an amazingly intense learning experience. We really were searching for answers, spontaneously and in an unscripted way. There was no time for rehearsing and with only one or two interventions to cover something we had missed, we were given our heads. Perhaps another day to go over a few things would have been good, but the spontaneity of the field filming was replicated. And what was particularly extraordinary was the way in which what was said round the table echoed and was echoed by what was said when we were in Chicago, China, Japan or wherever.