I’ve been in the Lake District this weekend to see Public Service Broadcasting, the band/art project that makes music to archive newsreels.
Taking inspiration from founding Director General, Lord Reith’s, mission statement that the BBC should ‘inform, educate, entertain’, Public Service Broadcasting promise to ‘teach the lessons of the past through the music of the future’.
But far from lecturing, neither band member utters a single word throughout the the hour-long set. All communication is instead channelled through a computer generated compere with a BBC announcer’s voice, while the bow-tied duo get on with playing drums, guitar, banjo and programming the kind of soaring electronic music that you can almost dance to, but actually settle for a bit of a shuffle because it is better to watch films to.
The subject matter of Public Service Broadcasting’s song/films rarely strays too far from the Second World War, from a stirring reflection on Britain in the Blitz (‘London Can Take It‘), to ‘Dig for Victory’ and ‘Spitfire’, although they did end with a celebration of Hilary and Tensing’s first ascent of Peak 15 (‘Everest‘).
It’s good fun, but provides a fairly conventional image of wartime Britain. British Sea Power, another band that like to get the projector out, managed something more enlightening in their collaboration with Penny Woolcock for The Sea to the Land Beyond. It’s equally stirring, particularly in the extraordinary black and white footage of the Atlantic Ocean crashing on to early twentieth century British shores, but the war images, for example, focus on the role of women in the docks, while other scenes spotlight the dreadful poverty endured by much of pre-war Britain.
Similarly, Saint Etienne focus on hidden, rather than postcard-London in their wonderful film/album Finisterre, probably my favourite film about the capital.
Which brings me back to public service broadcasting. I knew that St Etienne drew inspiration for the cinematic style of long, lingering still images of the city’s underbelly from the James Mason narrated ‘The London Nobody Knows‘. But having after watching Lincoln (I’m not really into the Oscars, but Daniel Day Lewis had to deserve Best Actor), made me want to learn more about the American Civil War, I came across Ken Burns’ extraordinary ‘The Civil War‘.
First shown on the US Public Broadcasting Service channel, on one level ‘The Civil War’ is moving and educative mix of contemporary images, correspondence, anecdote and historical analysis. On another, it is a popular broadcasting masterpiece, achieving the incredible feat of enticing 40 million Americans to watch ten hours of what is essentially still photography, supported by talking heads. That really is public service broadcasting and I’m a fan!