Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

Finis coronat opus. Twenty-five years ago, when I was making The World at War for Thames Television, I used to drive to work on the Euston Road, passing on the right, just beyond Tussaud's next to St Mary-le-Bone, the headquarters of the Ronson company. On the facade was carved their motto; `Finis coronat opus' `Ending it crowns the work'. For a year I ignored it; in those early days it seemed we'd never finish. In the second year, I gave it a glance or two; we were getting there. By the third year, I looked hard at it every day, reminding myself not to relax till we had dubbed the final reel, and that the last of 26 episodes must be as good as those before.

In these last months, we have gone through the same tensions with Cold War, which BBC 2 will broadcast from September. World at War still had ten programmes to finish when the first one went on the air in October 1973. All 24 episodes of Cold War must reach CNN in Atlanta this Friday, four months before transmission. So the pressure has been on to complete: long hours till midnight to dub and on-line; endless finicky details to sort out. Every tape flies to Atlanta accompanied by fact check and clearance documentation; the source of every statement in commentary, every frame of film, every note of music attested and set out; every assertion by an interviewee corroborated; the whole to be deposited in archives accessible to scholars and the public and much of it made available on the Internet. Then there are the various digibeta versions for dispatch; texted and textless, for sales; in 4:3 ratio and, with an eye to a high-definition future, 16:9. All this involves long hours of concentrated effort by Stakhanovites behind the scenes. Just when everyone else - producers, writers, researchers - is moving on, they are at their busiest.

Music clearance is the most intractable chore: so many permissions to obtain, from publishers, recording companies and performers. If a military band or an accordion strikes up in the newsfilm background, we must obtain clearance. Another obduracy has been the estate of Martin Luther King, now in litigation with one US network. Astonishingly, they claim they hold copyright in all Mr King's public utterances. Twenty-five years ago, I had the same difficulty to overcome with agents representing the estate of Winston Churchill. On the advice of an American business friend, Churchill re-recorded his wartime speeches to re-establish copyright. I would have none of this, and, in the end, was able to use a phrase or two. But it was a tedious business. This year, the lastminute flap was caused by Fidel Castro; having denied us an interview for years, in spite of more than one hopeful sojourn in Havana, he suddenly relented. We recut four programmes to fit him briefly in. Last Wednesday, Kenneth Branagh, the narrator, came in to record one after-thought improvement, a single line of commentary, and to correct a howler spotted in the nick of time. A last concerted push over the bank holiday weekend, and we were there. Wrap.

Friends and others get it wrong when they enquire about `your series, Jeremy'. It takes 40 or 50 people to accomplish a task this size. We shot our first interview with the late, spry and lively Sir Frank Roberts - he went to Moscow with Anthony Eden in 1941- over three years ago, and it has taken the series producer - not me, but Martin Smith -- three years of seven-day weeks to bring Cold War in, on time and on budget. …

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