REFLECTIONS: thoughts on making the series    

      In fact the book brought home to me something which one could easily miss. Namely that the series is actually intellectually exciting even for academics. I had imagined that the best documentary series on television could only rise to a level where a group of experts in one field, say in archaeology or medicine, could help inform the general public or others about recent findings in that field. For the experts in that discipline there would be nothing new to learn. It was spreading knowledge more widely. What I found in this series, working with experts on Chinese science and technology, historians of philosophy and science, experts on consumerism and American technology, was that the sum of the parts was greater than the parts. In other words, a kind of chemical re-action had taken place, so that actual high-level research had taken place in a sort of thought experiment. This means that in what looks like a coffee-table book, or mass broadcast television series, there are new ideas, new ways of looking at things, which have never existed before. I know this to be so because I have shown bits to very knowledgeable anthropologists and historians and they have said, even in areas where they have a general competence, that they had never thought of what was being suggested before – and how it illuminated a problem, or opened up a new area. For instance, when the anthropologist Adrian Mayer watched a short cut on the contrast between wheat and rice economies, he was intrigued as to the effects, particularly in relation to India where he has spent much of his life.

      I have tried to guess as to why something new emerged – the very unusual fact that academics in different fields helped to make a joint product is central to this. As Gerry Martin, who with his engineering background has often pointed out to me, non-science academics are very odd in that they still persist in trying to solve immensely complex problems single-handed. It is what Keith Thomas many years ago described as the ‘prima donna tradition’ in history and other fields. Yet when we try to collaborate, in seminars, co-authored books, edited collections, the results are usually patchy. It is very difficult indeed to pool time, effort and knowledge, as one would do in the sciences, in the pursuit of a common problem. In this venture, that is what happened. Constructing a film is a joint enterprise on the part of the filmmakers and some of this seeped through to the academics. We jointly ‘wrote’ the series as one  would write a book, but it is usually impossible to separate intellectual property rights. It became much more like a boat-crew, or an orchestra, or a football team, and hence both stimulating and produced an output which no individual could have done. It may well be that this will prove a model for a whole new way of doing research. I had learned about this in previous projects I have been involved with over the years, in particular making the Earls Colne Web site,  making the Naga Videodisc, making the BBC Domesday Disc. But previous film involvement had not allowed me to see that this could also occur nowadays (depending entirely, of course, on the special talents of the people at the film company and the chanciness of the academics) in filmmaking.  By changing the ‘product’ from a book, which, in the end, has to be single-authored, to a film, which is necessarily multi-authored,  the fusion of ‘self-love and social love’ as the eighteenth century moral philosophers would have put it, is encouraged. It is all hands to the wheel.

       Another reason why, at a more individual level, something odd happens in the process of filming can be shown by two examples. One part of  program 4 was on the origins of time. In the seminar I had put the well-known problem of whether mechanical clocks produced, or were produced by, a changing sense of uniform, repetitive, single-directional, time. I suggested that since clocks were developed in early monastic organisations, particularly in Benedictine foundations, we should look there to see whether a new sense of time had emerged which required mechanical clocks, or whether the mechanical clocks revolutionized time. Later we pursued this question in a visit to Pluscarden Abbey. As I actually watched a Benedictine Abbey at work, for the first time in my life, and heard the bells, watched the regular movement of the robed figures, I began to absorb a new insight. Then I interviewed the very articulate and thoughtful Father Giles (who had once read anthropology among other things) on the subject of time. As I talked, our conversation, memories of Landes and Mumford and others on time, the experience of being in the monastery all came together and there seemed to flash into my mind a new idea, a vision of what might have happened. What I said was as follows. ‘ What the Benedictines did was to enclose space and time physically in their architecture, socially in their social organization, and then divide it all up into tiny bits, so in a sense they were a living clock, a kind of physical social clock in their order. ‘  Father Giles then commented ‘Yes, in the sense that at such and such a time they would be in the rectory or at this time they would be in the chapel...’ I then continued ‘That’s right, so they were all little bits of a clock, each one of them was a little bit, and all that happened was that they miniaturised it down into an actual physical object which then became a mechanical clock, so this is an un-mechanical, this is an organic clock, which was later turned into a mechanical clock...’  (to which Father Giles added further interesting thoughts on architecture and theology). Now, as far as I know, I had never had this thought before, and had not read it in that form anywhere, though bits may be in Mumford. It was the experience, the conversation, the camera, all sorts of things suddenly made one see something new -–and try to say it.

       A second example occurred when I was sitting on a wall in Thak. David and I had agreed that one of the central themes in the fifth program would be the difference of crops at the two ends of Eurasia, of rice and wheat in particular. What differences did this make in the growing divergence of civilizations over a thousand-year period. As we climbed down through the fields to a place where I remembered that there was millet on one side (a grain that has to be manured and milled, representing what I called the ‘hard grains’ of the west) and wet rice on the other, I prepared to talk about the differences. All sorts of ideas that I had lectured about, read about, talked to experts about came into my mind, some explicitly attached to experts, some not. I knew that the interview, to be usable, must not last more than two or three minutes at the most. That I must avoid jargon, references to specific academics, etc. So I decided to string out the narrative as a history of the two grain systems side by side and the social, political and other implications. Although they did not use the whole of  what I said, there is enough in the sequence to show many of the main ideas. Bits and pieces of these are familiar to anthropologists, others to historians. But I had never attempted to weave them together and to explain to an interested  observer what we mean when we say that the two great grain systems of the world have had such different effects. Looking back on what I said, I realize that what I did was knit together ideas from, among others, Geertz on agricultural involution in Java, Francesca Bray on 'Rice Economies and Grain Economies', King on 'Farmers of Forty Centuries', a classic on Chinese and American  agriculture at the start of the twentieth century, of the Japanese economic historian and demographer Akira Hayami on the fundamental difference between 'industrial' and 'industrious' revolutions and of Marc Bloch on the impact of medieval water mills. But added to this was my experience of filming and observing a Himalayan community over thirty years, actually experiencing what producing different grains is like. Very few of the above authors or others had spent that sort of time living with farmers, and so each one only caught a part of the dynamic. Once said, my piece is pretty obvious, yet it is actually something that seemed novel and unexpected to me. The occasion created the integration, and this experience happened  a number of times during the various visits we made.

I also reflected on some of the practical things I had learnt about film-making during the series and jotted these down as follows.

Some first thoughts on the experience of filming with Windfall Films   (Heathrow Airport, 22.3.2000)

In no particular order, these are some of the things I have learnt.

1.      The importance of surprise and spontaneity in film-making. David took great trouble to make sure that the ‘talent’ had not over-rehearsed the answers. For example, he preferred the first shock of entering a new building, or meeting a new person (as in myopia) to be recorded on camera. The mind and body at work absorbing the new was important.

2.      The importance of filming the same interview several times, however well it had gone the first time, from different distances, angles and so on. Each time, in my case, the answer came out differently and often the second or third version was much better than the first. The first was thinking aloud as to a plausible answer. Then it was polished; after about three times it went off. Very like lectures – rough the first year, then good for a couple of years, then deteriorate as they get stale.

3.      The importance of relaxing (for example doing breathing exercises and stretching) before filming; breath control is extremely important since the sound of the voice, often used over other pictures, is crucial.

4.      I became aware of how difficult it must have been when anthropologists were accompanied by a film crew for a couple of weeks to make a ‘Disappearing World’ type film. When the film crew came to Nepal with us we were immediately involved in a complex ritual and social occasion. Watching the film afterwards, it became obvious that despite some suggestions as we went along by ourselves as to what to film, what would happen etc., the camera man  (David) did not know what to film. Obviously he knew nothing about the culture and was filming in the dark. This was also a fault behind some of the filming of the technical processes, where the most important bits were missed by a team who did not really understand (for obvious reasons) what was going on.

5.      The deeply collaborative nature of film-making. Unlike a book, which can be ‘made’ by one person (and now, with the net, also easily published by one person), a television film requires a set of connected skills. This is the source of both its frustrations (in communication etc.) and its pleasure when it works.

6.      The importance of the post-production stages when sound, graphics, colouring and so on are done and turn a reasonable film into something special. An enormous attention to detail is possible nowadays at this stage with digital equipment.

7.      I found that although nervous at first, with practice, it became moderately easy to talk to the camera, especially if there was someone standing just beside it to whom one could address one’s remarks. David and Carlo and others were very good at providing a face to talk to.

8.      That it is easier to talk to the camera in answer to a specific question, rather than just to launch out. If the question is put with real curiosity in the voice, then it almost becomes like a conversation and is much easier.

9.      That it is easier to talk if one is in a relaxed, informal, position, rather than standing up facing the camera. For example, sitting on a wall, leaning on a parapet, relaxing in a chair, the informality takes away from the rather artificial feeling when one stands declaiming to empty air.

10.  That the process of editing the film after it has been shot is both terribly important, making or breaking the film, and also far more arbitrary, inspirational and intuitive than I had realized. Furthermore, that the shape of the film continues to change very deeply right up to the last moment. It is like a painting, where just altering one detail can affect the whole, and require extensive re-working.

11.  On a personal note, I found that my best filming time was between nine and mid-day in the morning (as it is for writing). After lunch was pretty hopeless.

12.  That the filming itself is not very difficult. Although there is obviously a very highly skilled side to getting wonderful pictures, usable footage (such as that which Sarah shot in Australia) can be generated by any averagely competent person.

13.  That the general narrative or story behind a program, that is the ‘treatment’, which is worked out roughly on paper first, is the key to the whole enterprise.

14.  That production companies vary enormously. Usually, from my experience, they usually want the academic to answer one or two set questions in a set way, which will be slotted into a structure over which s/he has no control. This is the first time in which I have been encouraged to play a major role at all stages of the production, a sort of partnership.

15.  That the quality of the sound is more important in many ways than the pictures, and particularly the importance of radio microphones.

16.  That it is important to get some very close-up ‘cut-away’ pictures in a production.

17.  That lights, tripods and special filters are hardly ever used nowadays.

18.  That if one is doing a reconstruction of an historical scene, one should aim at a simple and suggestive portrayal with few people etc.

19.  That film-makers hardly ever zoom or pan. If possible come up close rather than using a zoom.

20.  That very interesting work can be done by using an 8 mm. camera with black and white film, if one wants to create a feeling of old film.

Launch and final reflections

      The pleasurable first viewing and party at C4 to launch the series was only marred by the fact that as I walked out of the studio in a few seconds I became deaf in one ear – the gods warning me against pride I expect. There was a delighted letter from Tim Gardam at C4 admitting that he had been wrong to worry, that it was a work of genius and the most interesting program made for the Channel in the last year, the enormously enthusiastic reviews by Polly Toynbee and all the other television critics. Warm and supportive comments by friends in the Department and King’s.

     Of course there are mistakes and missed opportunities, some of which we mulled over in a kind of post-mortem in David Dugan’s house with many of those involved as the first program went on air.

      The cuneiform tablet, held in the hand of a Sinologist, was the wrong way up. Some people found the film in the first episode too jerky. Many would have liked to see more of the discussion and more disagreement. On the whole, however it seems to have worked. Having done so, it might be thought that such an enterprise is relatively easy. In hindsight what David and his colleagues did seems the obvious way to do it. Yet as it proceeded, nothing seemed obvious. It was a journey in which the destination was never known until the last few weeks – as much writing is, though students are never told this. The difficulty is shown by looking at the other series which have been and are being shown on television. BBC 1 showed the huge series based on Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's ‘Millennium’. Ten episodes and ten million dollars later very little of intellectual substance was added. Peter Jay’s ‘Road to Riches’, of which I have only seen two episodes so far appears to lack a cohesive argument. We shall see what the huge series on English history that Simon Schama will be launching in the autumn is like.

     A lot of it was luck, a lot of it obstinacy in the face of scepticism. But whether it lasts or not, it may have had a deeper effect which is well stated by Polly Toynbee in her Radio Times (27 May-2 June; p.18) review. She asked ‘what can TV do with hard history, with ideas, analysis, cause and effect, great movements that don’t revolve around single charismatic characters? ‘ She answers that this series shows that something can be done; TV can be both education and entertainment. ‘This is the best, most serious history I have seen on TV for ages and is what Channel 4 is for, though these days it has mainly forgotten its early brave remit to do the nearly impossible.’ Certainly it was fun.

For the record… some reactions and follow up (from my diary)

Sat. 22nd April.  The Windfall people had heard from C4 Director of Programmes, Tim Gardam, who had watched the 1st and 5th episode. Carlo writes that he is ‘a big man who knows his history’ and ‘usually he writes to you with a long appendix of criticisms and changes. We were slightly taken aback with his letter which reads... “You have achieved something very original. I think it will be one of the defining programmes of the year – proof that television still has the intellectual ambition to get to the heart of things. I will ensure that it gets all the recognition it deserves.”’ Sounds good. Publicity people starting to work and already have an interview (on tea) lined up with the Times.

Mon. 8th May. Alan interviewed for Radio Shropshire this afternoon at the BBC local radio studio in Cambridge -–a 25 minute slot on the Windfall programme...’

Wed. 10th May    Alan broadcast on Radio Cambridge with Sally Dugan in Oxford.

Sat. 27th May .   The viewing at C4 of the first program in London was very encouraging – though ever since I have been deaf in one ear. On Wednesday a radio interview for series. Greatly encouraged mid-week by a superb review/pre-view by Polly Toynbee. And another (in general) very enthusiastic response on the Critics Program (‘Night Waves’) this evening on Radio 4. It will obviously cause much discussion and argument – especially my crazy ideas, which is all to the good.

Sun 28th May. First episode of ‘The Day...’  Slightly anti-climactic after all the wait and excitement – esp. as we’d seen it on large screen on Monday. But looked ok. and Gabriel Horn rang to say how much he and Prill had enjoyed it. Quite a thoughtful and moving picture which captured the two sides of Victorian Britain. Not triumphalist at least.

Tuesday. 30th May. Alan found splendid reviews in the Telegraph and Mail and did yet another interview this evening Stephen, Ken Moody, Peter Jones, Gil & Paul all liked it.

Thursday 1 Jun. Gerry very pleased with ‘The Day... Nice letter from my uncle Richard about it too.

Sat 3 Jun. Also lots of positive feed-back about the first film of C4 series – a number of King’s Fellows and others saying how much they had enjoyed it.

Sun 4 June. Watched second episode. Very intriguing, even though we had seen it half a dozen times – some new touches and on the whole very interesting. Gerry left a message to say he thought it excellent.

Friday 9th June. Went up to London… David had met head of programs (Gardam) at C4, who had said he thought the programs were the best series since ‘The Ascent of Man’ by Bronowski. Gardam also wrote to say hoe he admitted he’d made a mistake early on and David’s vision and enthusiasm of ‘genius’ we proved right – and would we all like to come to dinner!

Sat. 17th June.  Watched the fourth episode of ‘The Day ‘ on clocks and glass. Suddenly, having been a small player in series, I became probably the leading person – or perhaps equal with Simon. They had done it very well and it all flowed beautifully. Strangely evocative of all our trips around the globe. Just a few seconds brought back a whole trip – like Venice. Some lovely stuff and very rich in original ideas. Really made one think – and the visual and spoken word worked very well indeed together.

Sun. 2nd July. Drove to David Dugan’s house south of London, where we were warmly treated to barbecue etc. and then watched the last programme together. It was very nice to share those moments and I even managed to film two hours of a discussion of the history of Windfall etc.