Friend from the Future.

TV Bill? Well it is Shakespeare's birthday I suppose. Evening, and there we are, new companion Bill played by Pearl Mackie. Isn't she good? More in the Ace/Sam/Izzy/Lucie/Rose mould character wise so far, with the 90s revival costume and entire lack of fuck-giving in relation to the deadliest foe in the galaxy. We'll talk some more about this in a mo.  Here's the BBC's press release.

The approach to revealing companions has become increasingly sophisticated across the years with midnight press releases giving way to broken embargos on press releases to appearances on The One Show and now we have an actual mini-episode broadcast during Match of the Day of all things, or as has been indicated on the BBC website, "an exclusive scene from a future episode of Doctor Who" so it might not be the Christmas special.

Waiting for its emergence was of course torture for those of us whose interest in the beautiful game wouldn't stretch to even calling it the beautiful game despite Gary Lineker making us feel welcome with some Delgado cosplay. After some typical stoppage time we had to endure seemingly unending analysis of the kind that it's probably quite ironic of us to criticise given our behavior in the run up to the reveal.

Then it was time. Except, no it wasn't because at the moment when it seemed like discussion was ending and the fun was beginning, Gary segwayed into a clip of Graham Taylor discussing his time at Watford and his friendship with Elton John. Taylor probably hasn't been less welcome since he was manager of England. No, I can't do football jokes either.

Then, after narrating some maddeningly detailed fixture television scheduling information, Gary finally affected the ill at ease tone he previously adopted during London 2012 when forced to introduce those drama trailers, "And there's something else coming up on BBC One in the not too distant future, the Doctor has a new companion..."

And we're off and running because Doctor Who has to have lots of running.  And Daleks, not forgetting the Daleks.  Initially I thought these were shots repurposed from Into The Dalek or some other episode, but as the publicity shots indicate there was at least one on set for Capaldi to point over the head of.

The surprise was obviously spoiled by Radio Times writing about her yesterday after noticing a spike in the betting.  If there was a leak, judging by his Twitter, it wasn't the RT writer it went to, he was simply reporting.  Apparently Pearl just started following Billie and Freema on Twitter so that must have been an indication.  Let's see how long she continues tweeting.

It's a bit of a strange place to commenting on a companion based on two minutes of screen time and she's being played by an actor who's completely unknown outside of the theatre.  Most of the commentary is on the fact that she's a POC which is fine and worth noting, but let's not make that her defining characteristic shall we?

We simply don't know enough yet.  She's funny.  She has the capacity to turn on a dime and there's some obvious chemistry with Capaldi which is super important.  The timing is all there.  The script which was probably one of her audition pieces doesn't give much scope beyond screwball comedy, and although I didn't cheer at the end, when has Andy Pryor got this wrong?

She's another cockney, that's worth commenting on but in fairness we've not had someone from London since the RTD era (depending on what Clara's accent was doing that week) (or indeed which Clara).  Like I said the vibe isn't very 2016 at all from, like last, like, decade or the one before or the one before that.  Especially that t-shirt which looks like something Ace would wear.  See below.

Wild speculation: is she a historical companion?  It would be a bold move to have a character from the Wilderness years for example, the kind who might just as easily have travelled with the Eighth Doctor in the novels or comic strip.  What is Bill short for?  Is it short for anything?  It's unusual.  I've just googled "women called Bill" and now know a lot about presidential scandals.

Pearl's probably the least known new companion since the show came back.  Karen had some background on The Kevin Bishop show and Jenna had spent years on Emmerdale.  Pearl's IMDb indicates a bit part in an episode of Doctors from 2014 and a background artist on the John Hardwick's film Svengali from 2013.

Quick sidebar on Svengali's availability because we'll all be wanting to watch it now.  It's on Netflix.  Findable lists other sources where you can buy a stream though given it's mostly the same price as a month's subscription to Netflix, you might as well get Netflix and finally see Freema in Sense8 because she's brilliant and Sense8 is brilliant.  Or Svengali is £3.99 on dvd.

In all the excitement, Capaldi will probably be taken for granted but his performance in the above is extraordinary, his Doctor having apparently divested himself of his demons.  He's a bit crabby, but only with a Tenth facing down The Runaway Bride vibe, certainly the most Doctorish he's been yet.  If anything it's him which actually makes me excited to see the next series.  As it should be.

So nice to have an amuse-bouche in during this year of fasting and nice that there's nothing in here which is going to trouble us about the direction of the programme in 2017 at least.  After that?  Fuck knows.  But I've already said my peace about that.  Did Chibbers had any say in this selection?  Will she continue on into his era?

Two other things.  Two coincidences:

That t-shirt.  It looked familiar.  I tweeted and sure enough James pointed me towards this tweet:
When was this shot? Given that it's a proper piece of drama with grading, special effects sequences and editing, it wasn't going to be in the last couple of days, not least because it would have been signed off my BBC management. Graham Kibble-White was on the case:
Then this from Ed Russell:
Somehow Doctor Who managed to pay homage to someone they didn't know we'd be losing before he was gone.

Next.  Rachel Stott is the artist on Titan's Twelfth Doctor comic:
Oh my.  There we have it, anyway, a Doctor Who companion announced on Shakespeare's birthday.  What a day.

Updated 24/04/2016 Here's an interview with Pearl.

Shakespeare at the BFI.

Theatre The BFI now has a YouTube playlist of thirty odd Shakespeare related videos including the above essay about Shakespeare adaptations across the years. Also included are various examples of silent Shakespeare (as featured in the recent BBC radio documentary), Q&As from recent screenings at the South Bank and documentary clips of Stratford Upon Avon.

Speke Hall.

Speke Hall is a rare Tudor timber-framed manor house in a most unusual setting on the banks of the River Mersey. Restored and brought back to life in the 19th century, it is a unique and beautiful mixture of Tudor simplicity and Victorian Arts and Crafts' aesthetics.

Built by the devout Catholic Norris family - keen to impress visitors with the grandeur of their home and in particular the magnificent Great Hall - this beautiful building has witnessed more than 400 years of turbulent history. From the Tudor period when a secret priest hole was an essential feature, to years of neglect and decay in the 18th and 19th centuries (including a spell when it was used as a cow shed) and then being dragged into the Victorian era of improvement and technology, the Hall has seen it all.

In the 21st century, Speke Hall and its surrounding estate now provide a real oasis from the hurly burly of modern life. As you come through the gates, relax, take a breath and enjoy all that this wonderful place has to offer. The Hall is surrounded by beautiful restored gardens and protected by a collar of woodland.
Heritage My accent is confusing. Despite having been born in Liverpool, I haven't ever really developed a very strong local accent, the scouse accent. More often than not is settles somewhere in generic Northern but not enough so when strangers often ask were I'm from, or are completely baffled to the point of making random guesses. A taxi driver asked if I was from Oxford the other night and didn't seem very convinced when I told him the truth.  There's no particular reason why.  About ten years ago, a linguistic expert from the University told me that it was because I didn't really see myself as being from Liverpool but the world, which is partially true, but after forty years of living, breathing and working in this city you'd think I would have picked up some inflections, especially since sixteen of those years were spent in Speke which has one of the strongest Liverpool accents of them all.

Attending Speke Hall in that case should be something of a homecoming, but the surrounding area has changed a lot in the meantime.  Over the intervening decades, the fields in which I used to play and on one occasion hosted the final 1FM roadshow at the Mersey front have been replaced with the Estuary Industrial Park, a conglomeration of massive warehouses, an area which resembles the industrial zone glimpsed in the opening sequences of the film Blade Runner.  Most are anonymous, although discount chain B&M seems to have built their own country within its borders.  Construction continues and as the 80A bus winds through its streets, its almost impossible to believe that one of the National Trusts Tudor properties could be found anywhere between this maze of grey boxes and the John Lennon Airport.  As the vehicle stopped outside one of these boxes, if couple of retirees hadn't asked the driver if this was the right place for Speke Hall, I might missed it completely.

It's this couple I walked to the Hall with, up to the roundabout as directed by the driver and left into the reassuringly named Speke Hall Road.  A little further and we were in the Hall's grounds and the contrast couldn't be greater, industrialisation giving way to a long pathway framed on either side by rows and rows of daffodils, the sounds of vehicles falling into the distance replaced by birdsong.  Yesterday must have been the hottest this year and for a few moments I simply looked to the sky with its single shade of light blue in awe.  No clouds.  Even in Sefton Park, you're constantly aware that you're on the edge of the city, and although Speke certainly isn't that, more like the outskirts, if it wasn't for the jumbo jets flying overhead, you could almost imagine that you've stepped through a magic portal into part of the Lake District or the Cotswolds.

No wonder my parents brought me to the grounds so often as a child.  At least once a month we'd visit the gardens of Speke Hall when the grounds were still free to visit.  I would have been very young so my memory isn't that strong, but there were picnics, many picnics, in Tupperware pots on gingham blankets.  Philadelphia cheese and tomato baps.  Barrs Cream Soda.  Only once did I ever visit the house, as part of a school trip although again the memories aren't strong enough for me to remember anything now, a marble table is familiar.  Much of everything which happened to me as a pre-teen has dislodged itself, which is probably why I tend to feel more like a child of the 80s even though I was born in 1974.  The evening in the late 90s when the school choir visited to sing for visitors at is much clearer, stood in the front of one of the cafes amid Christmas trees, candles and mince pies.

The house itself hasn't been able to retain its own memories well either due to its many changes of ownership.  Permission to build a mansion in this spot was originally granted to the Norris family as early as 1314, and through a series of, as the guild book alliterates, "additions, adaptations and accompanying losses" the house was constructed across ensuing decades until it largely reached its present form by the late 1500s.  The Norris's kept ownership until the 1730s when Mary Norris entered a contracted marriage with Lord Sidney Beauclerk, the grandson of the actor Nell Gwyn.  He did not live at Speke Hall much and which is when the house fell into dereliction and related papers were lost so everything known about the house before then is through local research and comparative study.  Ask the volunteers about many of the earliest features and they simply don't know or have to resort to conjecture.

That's when the most damage was done to the earlier state of the house with the grounds keepers using the ground floor of the house as a place to store livestock and it's the Watt family to whom the Hall was sold in 1795, although it remained empty until 1856, when Richard Watt V took possession and it him we have to thank for renovating the property and largely putting it in the state it is now.  As part of the renovation process he purchased a large amount of heavy oak furniture in a Tudor style which were designated as heirlooms which is why they remain in the house now.  On his death Speke Hall passed to Watt's daughter Adelaide who leased the house to Frederick Leyland, the shipping line owner and art collector, with J.A.M. Whistler and  D.G. Rossetti being notable visitors.  He made further adjustments to the shape of the house, knocking a few walls through, which must have been quite strange for Adelaide when she later decided to move back in after the lease expired in 1877.

She remained there until her death in 1921.  During the ensuing Trusteeship, the connected surrounding farmland became an aerodrome, with old buildings turned into hangars and the farmhouse becoming the terminal.  The Hall itself passed to the National Trust in 1943, but due to a lack of finances it was then leased to Liverpool City Council who opened it to the public.  The guide book says, that between 1976 and 1986 it fell under the Merseyside Corporation which will have been when I originally visited.  They fixed the roof and so forth.  When the Corporation closed, the National Trust began full time management and although it is a full Trust property (despite continued funding from National Museums Liverpool), there is a sense that they're still dealing with decision taken during the intervening custody including parts of the art collection which the volunteers indicated are now within the collections of the art galleries which should still be within the house.

Despite having visited before, my lack of memory meant I could treat is as a new destination which was unsettling and not helped by being greeted on entry by one of the volunteers from The Hardman House last week, who remembered me.  But "unsettling" is the best description of the place in general.  Walking around you're very aware that although the house has a Tudor shell, the interiors are very much a mix of Victorian tastes and a Victorian attempt to fill the house with furniture from the earlier period so nothing looks quite right.  In one section, the Great Hall, the oldest part of the house gives way to The Blue Dining Room, the newest addition filled with Louis XV style furniture which was likened by Leyland when he saw to "a French plum box".  Between that and the billiard room, you're forever on your toes and surprised by what you might see next.  But I think the Trust have been right to keep the house in the state it is, rather like an old book filled with marginal notes, unlinings and crossings out.

For years I wondered why Speke Hall wasn't included in the arts collections survey and now I know.  When Leyland was a tenant, the walls were apparently covered with great works, pre-Raphaelites and French Impressionists.  But as it stands what's there is unremarkable.  Art UK (the successor to the BBC's Your Paintings) has just twenty-three oils and they mainly copies, apart from some romanticised images of the the Hall itself.  The bedrooms have a few nice tapestries and they're especially proud of a Mortlake tapestry depicting Diogenes and Alexander from c.1700.  Mainly the houses is lauded for its unusual architectural features, notably corridors, which is very rare for a Tudor house and suggests if Speke Hall wasn't a Trust property it could quite easily work as a hotel with the reception in the Great Hall (although given that it's a Grade I listed building that's unlikely).

Something I have learnt on this occasion is that in some of these properties you really do need a guide book in order to make the most of the visit.  Reading back through the Speke Hall volume, there's plenty which I missed so that's something I'll definitely consider in the future depending on the price.  Having gained the massive discount inherent in just paying a fiver a month for membership, adding £4.95 to the cost of the visit seems counterproductive although obviously not if it makes the visit all the richer.  That's an internal discussion for another time.  None of which is to say I won't be returning to Speke Hall.  After visiting the house, I didn't have time for the gardens, including a maze, which are massive, so I thought, given that this is one my locals, it would be best to leave them for another afternoon.  Even if I don't have the accent, my homeland keeps drawing me back.

Card Catalogues.

Books The Folger Shakespeare Library has still retained its card catalogue. In an age when "everything is online", more often than not it isn't because in some cases the process of transforming some texts isn't cost effective or there's a balance to be struck in relation to whether it's even worth the attempt due to how much it would actually be used.

Here they mount a defence for why it's still important in 2016:
"... card catalogs provide an opportunity for serendipitous discovery that is difficult to duplicate in an online catalog. The physical act of searching through the cards requires a somewhat different thought process than searching an electronic catalog. Flipping through the cards on your way to what you think you’re looking for is a great way to find items you didn’t know you were looking for. Because the cards can be physically arranged in different ways, it is possible for us to provide many different access points into our collection. For example, we have both chronological files and publication location files."
Yes it's true. Keyword searches in OPACs are fine as is visiting a shelf number and browsing the materials clustered around the book you're looking for, but there's serendipity to card catalogues, to randomly visiting the drawers and seeing what you'll find.

Share tha'

TV Find above the trailer for the The Hollow Crown: The War of the Roses with Camberwell Bandersnatch's Richard III foregrounded. Publicity for the BBC Shakespeare Festival is gaining ground with the BBC Shakespeare at the epicentre of publicity although I can't help feeling that in the olden days there would have been a blog and/or RSS feed keeping abreast of everything Shakespearean appearing on the BBC website.  No, no, don't look at me. I'm busy.

This week's episodes of daytime soap Doctors has a Shakespeare theme, with each episode inspired by a sonnet and with a scene shot at the RSC.  I'll give you that at least.

Anyway, here's a trailer for the rest of the televisual offer for the festival:
Though I expect they'll repeat a fair amount of the programming from the last BBC Shakespeare Festival four years ago.  And Shakespeare Retold.  And The Bard on the Box.  These things are coming around with increasing rapidity. Perhaps in two years we'll have a redo of Spread of the Eagle?

My Favourite Film of 1950.

Film One of the benefits of my MA Screen Studies course ten years ago was that many of the modules on offer were multi-discipline, or rather were being offered by departments other than drama. So although there was the potential to stay in that corner of the campus, I decided that I'd make my time there as eclectic as possible and so as well as courses in the Modern Language and English departments, I was able to avail myself of a "Science, Media and the Public" course in the science faculty.

Of all the modules, it's this which strayed far from the apparent remit of the MA because as well as screenings that included old episodes of US Horizon equivalent NOVA, Canadian sci-fi series Regenesis, British fantasies The Eleventh Hour and Afterlife, there were readings of such things as The Watchmen (years before Zac Snyder's adaptation). The one film we were shown was Destination Moon which was at least in terms of speculative fiction, how it was assumed people would indeed travel to the moon, a couple of decades before it actually happened.

The main theme of the course was that as with every aspect of human experience and culture, the communication of science is always about moulding a message, deciding which elements of science are relevant to a story being told and that even in shows like Horizon or scientific papers we're not always told the whole story, plenty is trimmed in order to make what we're presented understandable and palatable. There is always an agenda even if the agenda is understanding.

The final essay asked us to take a particular subject and compare and contrast how that subject has been communicated through two or three forms. Attempting to be clever clever I chose the longitude prize and particularly how Dava Sobel's seminal popular science history book began life as a magazine article and was adapted firstly into a co-produced episode of Horizon and NOVA and the Charles Sturridge drama made by Channel 4, co-starring Michael Gambon and John Harrison, the clockmaker who cracked the navigational problem and Jeremy Irons as the teacher who restored his time-pieces.

Here is the essay.  When this was submitted it also included a copy of the original article and other background material I think.  Here's a link to a pdf of the Harvard article. You can buy the book here.  The NOVA version of the Horizon episode is here. You can buy the Longitude miniseries here.

Now, onwards:

Dava Sobel’s 1995 book Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, charted the endeavour to discover a practicable method of defining longitude at sea for navigation. As indicated in the title, Sobel’s approach was to highlight the work of one man, John Harrison, and the series of clocks that he developed in an attempt to win a prize that was defined by an act of parliament and enacted by a ‘Board of Longitude’ who assessed all of the proposed methods over some decades. Sobel’s book was based upon an earlier magazine article and would later be adapted into both a television science documentary and a drama mini-series.

The appearance of the material in these four different formats offers the ability to compare how the same piece of science is presented and explained in four disparate media texts. Although to some extent it is worthwhile discussing how the communication of science within these works is effected by the elevation of Harrison’s contribution, because of the brevity of this essay a single strand of the science outside of that narrative, the definition of longitude, will be studied and each of the four media text will be compared to demonstrate how the creator has taken advantage of the relative benefits of each, and how successful they have been at communicating the message to and the effects it may have upon the intended audience.

Sobel’s first article on the subject of longitude as published in Harvard Magazine is atypical of the four texts being analysed because, whilst presenting much the same narrative, it is actually a report of the proceedings of a three day international symposium investigating the subject, which took place at the Memorial Hall in Harvard University between the 4th and 6th November 1993. The magazine had originally declined the idea for an article and Sobel had attempted publication in a series of popular science magazines, with National Geographic notably being interested although they were unable to decide how to illustrate the piece so the idea was shelved (underlining that in such magazines some kind of angle is usually required for a story to be published). Then, just two days before the symposium, when the size of event that was taking place was becoming apparent to the magazine editors, Sobel was contacted again and would attend saying later that it ‘was about the best science meeting I’ve ever gone to, and I cover these things all the time.’

Harvard Magazine’s readership contains a high proportion of alumni from the university (the letters page lists not only the name of the correspondent and their location, but also their year of graduation) but nevertheless Sobel has written this article in a style that would be legible to a general readership. Bernard Dixon argues that when writing scientific articles ‘non-specialised terms that are clear and unambiguous in their meaning should be used whenever possible in place of less familiar jargon, if only to make an article or paper as accessible to the widest possible range of readers.’ Although Dixon was writing in relation to articles that appear in science magazines, this piece has been composed to similar guidelines, with the more complicated elements being given a full explanation. Indeed, the writer has also taken advantage of the accepted journalistic technique of autobiographically describing the events including her own reactions to the science as it unfolds, quoting and paraphrasing from the speakers to present the information to the reader. This has the effect of placing the reader in Sobel’s point of view, giving them a sense of the whole event, as well as the content of the lectures themselves, making the science itself much more attractive.

Since the symposium was attended by academics who would have had a clear understanding of longitude concepts and therefore did not mention them during their contributions, Sobel cleverly adds extra commentary in places to clarify various points and it is in these short sections that the journalist explains which lines of a typical globe are longitudinal and how the degrees of the earth relate to time. Firstly, on the opening page during a description of the late Alistair Cooke’s humorous introductory lecture. Secondly, after a direct quote from a speech by David Landes, the Coolidge professor of history and professor of economics at Harvard, weighing up the relative methods of both the lunar and clock methods of navigation. Sobel apparently understood that to underpin the endeavour of finding longitude the reader must be aware of the concept and its importance to shipping. These additions have the effect of reminding the reader of a concept that they may already have been aware of through general knowledge or schooling in service of describing an endeavour that may be less clear to them. Since the concepts are given less weight in the text, they are easily ignored by readers who already have enough of an understanding to be able to follow the rest of the text, yet also accessible enough to those who require a refresher.

It should also be noted that although the article contains many illustrations, there are no pictorial representations of the lines of longitude, which implies that the editor believed that Sobel’s additional words were sufficient. The main illustration on the opening pages, of a naval disaster, is the first iteration of a narrative strand that appears in all four texts of the wrecking of a fleet because of poor navigation leading to the ratification of the longitude prize. The inclusion of the tragedy underlines for the audience the vital importance at the time of finding practicable method for recording longitude at sea – in other words that finding longitude is important because it saves lives, a methodology common in many popular science texts.

Given the opportunity to expand the subject matter of the conference and the article into a book length text , Sobel initially sought the advice of her publishers, who advised her to ‘keep it short. This is not an encyclopaedic treatise. This is an explanation of an aspect of science to intelligent people who know nothing about this subject. That’s what you’re trying to do.’ In its original none illustrated publication the book is just a hundred and seventy five pages long with fifteen chapters – this places it is more in the format of a novel than what might be expected to be a traditional science text. The writing style is chatty and anecdotal -- at a conference after publication related to popular historical science writing Sobel reportedly explained that she wrote the book ‘as an imaginary conversation with her mother (a sailing enthusiast)’ – which places the writer in the position of storyteller presenting a narrative to a receptive audience who are put at ease.

It would appear that Sobel decided that the readership might require a narrative hook and point of access into the story. As was indicated in the introduction, the approach was to highlight the contribution of John Harrison and give the book the tropes of a standard heroic narrative as a protagonist risks all against a villainous antagonist (in this case, astronomers) for the sake of an ideal. Whilst, the focus of this essay does not allow for a wider discussion of the accuracy of emphasising Harrison’s contribution to solving the longitude problem, it must be acknowledged that Sobel’s prioritising of his work does effect the presentation of the science in the text; in those first six chapter’s before Harrison is introduced, the writer is actually emphasising the weight of the problem that the clockmaker must surmount rather than offering an in-depth analysis of the whole story. This averts a reader who might be more interested in the human story from being alienated by the science that surrounds it.

Sobel’s central theme is of science as a human endeavour rather than as an abstract concept. Throughout the book, rather than offering dry, purely scientific explanations, Sobel instead contextualises the science using a repeated methodology of opening out the human element from Harrison’s story to the whole text. In the ensuing chapters, whenever an item of scientific idea is to be discussed, a scientist is usually highlighted first and then the science itself is presented as a result of their decision making process. This method is not always successful, since the coherence of the scientific concept at hand is frequently submerged in the apparent personality of that scientist. Since Reverend Maskyline is one of the antagonists of the ‘story’, as Davida Charney explains, the writer ‘frequently treats the lunar method as a patently inadequate approach, rather than as an alternative that was at least equally plausible’ which has the effect of corrupting the scientific explanation at the expense of the narrative agenda giving the reader a false impression. It should be noted, however, that in explaining how the distance between lines of longitude are measured the writer does not assign a particular identity; she begins with ‘Any sailor worth his salt can gauge his latitude well enough by the length of the day,’ making the measurement important to everyman.

Whilst this slant could be considered populist, it acknowledges Paola Govani’s argument that in these publications there should be ‘different levels of communication, for different readers, or for different needs of the same reader,’ because the target audience for the book will be interested in the human ingredients of the story. As well as layering her own explanations into quotations from scientists and technologists as a way of providing authority, Sobel introduces autobiographical elements that present a less obvious way of colouring the greyer theoretical aspects. The opening definition of longitude occurs during the description of a memory from Sobel’s own childhood, of a trip to New York and the gift of a skeletal globe by her father. The text is infused with a high degree of description, allowing the reader to visualise the globe in their imagination so that they are aware that the book will indeed concern itself with those vertical lines. Sobel herself returns to the narrative in the final chapter in which she described a trip to Greenwich, giving the book the impression of being a journey, that the reader is has discovered this science alongside with the author.

Sobel’s autobiographical introduction does emphasise a technique that would see greater prominence in the Horizon Special and is repeated throughout the text – the introduction of modern elements into the generally historical analysis so that they are more accessible to a contemporary readership. On page five, Sobel advises that ‘Precise knowledge of the hour in two different places at once – a longitude prerequisite so easily accessible today from any pair of cheap wristwatches – was utterly unattainable up to and including the era of pendulum clocks’ vividly illustrating how the relatively primitive technology of the time was being pushed into service to overcome a seemingly intractable dilemma. Contemporary social concerns are also invoked later to stress how much of a concern longitude was to the people of the time – ‘just as any alert schoolchild nowadays knows that cancer cries out for a cure and that there’s no good way to get rid of nuclear waste’ – again the reader is left in little doubt as to why the reward was so high and why so many people were searching for a solution.

The Horizon documentary was originally broadcast as part of the Nova strand on PBS in the United States, appeared on BBC Two on 4th January 1999 and premiered as the opening documentary in the ‘Time Season’. It was also the first programme to feature the BBC Millennium bumper signalling a twelve-month collection of programmes connected with what were the upcoming celebrations. Accompanying publicity in the Radio Times and at the BBC News website indicated to the potential audience that the documentary was based on Dava Sobel’s book. This explicit mentioning of the sourcing of a Horizon programme from an existing work (the book and author are crediting in the closing titles) is unusual for the programme and the connection to two major television events indicates that a marketing attempt was being made to attract viewers outside of the core audience of the series, including those who have read Sobel’s work. This would have some impact how the science is presented.

Roger Silverstone argues that science documentaries should ‘seek to entertain, to seduce by the beauty of their images, by their management of suspense, hope and tragedy, by the wit and elegance of their narration, by the power of their voice.’ This documentary is a perfect demonstration of this ethic. Led by an emotive voiceover, the programme luxuriates in dramatisations of Harrison in thought and work, with the clockmaker (as played by actor Patrick Malahide) soliloquising sections of his memoirs. As José van Dijck indicates, re-enactments are usually twinned with the exposition of an authority such as a scientist with the result being that ‘a fiction effect (is) made subordinate to the reality effect.’ In this documentary the realistic strand is spearheaded by contemporary footage of a training ship, Eye of the Wind, and the recreation of early navigation techniques, accompanied by interjections from William Andrewes, curator of Historic Scientific Instruments from Harvard University. A third strand utilises computer enhanced or generated montages together with the voiceover to explain scientific ideas that cannot be demonstrated in any of the other strands.

The programme makers marshal all three strands together to explain the theory behind longitude in even clearer detail than any of the other three media should allow. The rate of knots is demonstrated using the non-diagetic words of expert Andrewes over footage of a practical demonstration by the crew of the Eye of the Wind. The explanation of the vertical lines and the degrees between, are centred on two computer-animated sequences, each of which are presented in the same visual style. Silvestone argues that science on television should be presented to an audience of ‘presumed non-specialised and non-student audience’ and on this occasion the information is as clear as possible with an uncomplicated voiceover and deceptively simple imagery. Watching a swirling animated globe covered in a map contemporaneous with Harrison’s time, floating through a sepia universe, the audience is able to grasp that this is a historic issue dating back many centuries. In each sequence the globe is animated simultaneously with the voice over illuminating the science at hand – the latitudinal and longitudinal lines being removed, for example, to indicate to the audience which is which.

In essentially adapting the book into a documentary format, the programme makers take the opportunity to explain visually those elements that Dava Sobel’s book could only describe textually and metaphorically. The audience’s understanding of the science changes because they are able to appreciate it representationally rather than within their own imagination. That said, because it is an adaptation, those elements that changed the understanding of the science, the Harrison as hero narrative and the supposed inadequacies of the lunar method are also apparent; the computer animated sections are even employed later to present humorously the apparently less serious attempts at finding the answer, such as the ‘howling dog’ method. This has the effect of compromising the balance of a series that according to Carl Gardner and Robert M. Young is ‘unique in remaining totally expository’ and ‘neutral’ potentially fogging the audience’s understanding of the whole subject.

The Channel Four mini-series (broadcast as the linchpin of their millennium coverage on the 2nd and 3rd January 2000) is a wholly dramatic construct presenting the story of John Harrison. The programme essentially adapts as an adventure narrative, chapters seven to thirteen of the Longitude book. Unlike the Horizon producers, the intent of writer and director Charles Sturridge was not educational since he had been commissioned to produce something wholly entertaining, an approach highlighted in a publicity interview for Radio Times magazine in which he strenuous denied that the programme was meant to be intellectually demanding -- he was creating something that was ‘built to be as embracing as possible.’ As Rima and Michael Apple indicate, the science that appears on screen in these historical science dramas is filtered through ‘the demands of filmmaking itself.’ Unlike the book and the Horizon documentary which to some extent used Harrison’s story as a way of making the concepts palatable, in the mini-series the science becomes a slave to the narrative and is only included for dramatic purposes.

The most significant adaptation change is to split the storyline between parallel protagonists. As well as the Harrison, Sturridge introduces the story of Rupert Gould, the former army officer who had been instrumental in restoring the earlier clockmaker’s timepieces during the 1930s. Gould merits just a few pages towards the end of Sobel’s book, but Sturridge opens out his story, weaving it through that of Harrison. In dramatic terms, this allows the director to create tension when the Harrison narrative lacks excitement (for example during the twenty year creation of the H-3 clock) but it also provides the same capability, as the footage shot on board the Eye of the Wind for the Horizon documentary, of explaining in close to modern context for the audience those scientific concepts that were key to Harrison’s work (and also it has to be said underline for the viewer the Harrison legend).

Since the dramatic weight of the story is behind Harrison and Gould, that science which is included in the programme predominantly revolves around the technological innovations of the clocks. For example, in order to underline the evidence of Harrison’s craftsmanship before he became involved in the marine timepieces, one scene features Gould in the roof of a barn introducing the wooden clock and the grasshopper escapement to his daughter in simplistic terms and these are followed by a very expository scene in which the keeper of clock explains to Gould’s wife (in one of the few moments that she would appear express interest in time pieces) that it doesn’t require cleaning. There is little mention of the men who worked before Harrison’s time who attempted to solve the longitude problem (chapters one to five of the book) and the astronomical solution is now reduced to an antagonistic concept that is not explained with any great detail. The clarification of the concept of longitude occurs during two distinct but connected scene setting sequences at the opening of the programme separate from the main narrative, as though an acknowledgement has been made that the audience requires some awareness of these underlining concepts, but that they should not be understood to be as dramatically important part of the ensuing plot.

The first of the sequences is more successful in presenting the message than the second. Both include a narration read by someone presumed to be Dava Sobel (although this isn’t indicated) that outlines the concepts using words adapted from the opening chapter of the book. In the first pre-title sequence the biographical nature of the opening chapter of the book is melded with the pictorial representation of the Horizon documentary, as the lines of longitude are explained to the audience using sepia mock-home movie footage recreating young Sobel’s trip to New York with the beaded wire ball and the globe that Atlas shoulders above the Rockefeller centre appearing at the centre of the frame capturing the audience’s attention. In the second, the weight of didactic explanation for latitude and longitude is left to the narration during a virtuoso computer enhanced helicopter shot that begins floating across in a city, speeds across the ocean and ends in the thrall of the doomed English fleet. On this second occasion, although the accent is still on visual spectacle, because the narration and images are not connected, the audience’s attention is split and arguably the science on display becomes more confusing and complicated, especially since they are denied the ability to absorb the information again as they would re-reading the section in the book.

To conclude. In the Harvard Magazine article, Sobel was able through the words of the academics gathered for the symposium, to communicate clearly the story of longitude, her short textual enhancements improving the audience’s understanding of those concepts whose omission might have rendered the article less understandable. Whatever criticisms may be levelled at the author’s narrative approach to the book, highlighting Harrison’s contribution over others, because her writing is accessible and filled with vivid descriptions and metaphor the general audience towards whom the text is focussed is wholly able to grasp the key issues that made the quest for a practicable method so important. In the Horizon documentary, by engaging three different approaches to presenting the information at hand, the programme makers are able to offer explanations in a visually arresting manner with a voice over that is accessible without being needlessly simplistic. The mini-series works dramatically because it does not let the science overshadow the story at its heart, even if those concepts unlike the documentary do become slightly drowned out by the visuals. Although the same essential information is being communicated through these four media texts, each has unique properties that either enhance or betray the audience’s ability to understand the science of longitude.


Longitude: A Horizon Special (1998): Production: Green Umbrella, BBC and WGBH Boston. 45 mins. Directed by Peter Jones.

Longitude (2000): Production: Granada Film Productions. 198 mins (2 parts). Directed by Charles Sturridge.


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