That '70S Show: Rachel Cooke Goes on a Nostalgia Trip, and Renews Her Love of the Present
Cooke, Rachel, New Statesman (1996)
Ways of Seeing: John Berger on the Small Screen
BFI Southbank, London SE1
Television dates like nothing else, as I was reminded the other day when I watched a DVD of Catweazle, the 197os children's drama about an 11th-century wizard who time travels to 1969. Oh, man. Slow? It made your average three-toed sloth, hanging quietly from a tree in some South American jungle, look like Lewis Hamilton. And yet once, Catweazle, in which the telephone was known as "the telling bone" and electricity as "elec-trickery!", was my idea of gripping good fun.
Of course, television also induces nostalgia like no other art form. People talk of a golden age, when TV was "serious", and to back up this argument inevitably rally the usual suspects, one of which is John Berger's 1972 series, Ways of Seeing. Well, engaged in furious debate, you would, wouldn't you? No one is going to contradict you for the simple reason that no one can check. Because of copyright issues, the series in which Berger, drawing on arguments first outlined in Walter Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age ofMechanical Reproduction, urges us to reconsider our responses to Caravaggio, Goya and the rest--has rarely been seen since.
Thanks to BFI Southbank, however, I'm now equipped to cosh this example, if not the argument itself. The BFI is midway through a John Berger season, one that has included a sell-out screening of all four episodes of Ways of Seeing, followed by a Q & A with its director, Michael Dibb. How does it stand up? Badly. Shockingly badly, I think. Elec-trickery was there none. The films pull off the rare feat of being both tediously high-brow (Berger's over-enunciated monologues make them feel like lectures) and hilariously patronising (ideas are repeated in the simplest of terms, the better that the dumbos at home might "get it").
There is light relief, but this comes not by way of Manet or Brueghel, but courtesy of the 197os. It's mildly startling, now, to see Berger nonchalantly smoking on screen and to hear--see episode two--a bunch of lefty women in broderie anglaise talking uninterrupted for the best part of12 minutes about nudes and narcissism. …