Newsnight Review in Edinburgh

Friday, August 13, 2004 by

A trio of prim yet blunderingly choreographed half hour talking shops are all we’re getting by way of nationwide TV coverage of this year’s Edinburgh Festival. Trotted out within minimal fanfare in the usual unflattering Newsnight Review slot – crammed between a round-up of the latest from the stock markets and a preview of tomorrow’s newspaper headlines – it was as if everyone involved wished they needn’t have had to bother. Which meant it was sorely tempting to feel the same.

Our first shot was grim enough: a dingy room empty save for three dour-faced souls seated behind a superfluous coffee table by a huge window overlooking, by some considerable distance, the centre of Edinburgh. Neither they, nor a great deal of the city, were much distinguishable from the murky surroundings. It was impossible to tell who these people were. The only recognisable face was that of Kirsty Wark, who was on her feet preparing to deliver an introduction. Clearly, you felt you had to assume, this unprepossessing tableau was but an overture to the main event. After the equivalent of curtains-up, everything would naturally become bathed in clean, crisp illumination, leaving our guests, and consequently our reason to stay tuned, rendered clear for all to see.

But no. Kirsty reeled off a thunderously underwhelming welcome (” …the usual shower of superlatives … biggest, best, largest, wettest …”) before finally getting round to name checking her companions, long after it was possible to retain any interest as to why they were there. Even then everybody remained cloaked in unflattering, creeping half-gloom. It was a reminder of how shows which advertise their post-watershed transmission time through names such as “late” and “night” almost feel obliged to appear on screen shrouded in semi-blackness. This is a trait as common as it is counter-productive. Indeed, if you’re watching TV after dark you’d generally want programmes to be better, not worse, lit than those trundled out in the full flare of the sun, especially if there’s not much to look at except, say, people sitting in a line by a large window looking wry.

As it was Kirsty had to squint to see the autocue, a tactic that merely made her look shifty, and which was all the more unfortunate given it occurred during her very first opening remark. Later on someone, perhaps realizing that given this was television there ought to be some kind of visual aspect to the conversation, decided to try slowly moving the camera from one side of the set to the other while remaining fixed on a shot of the contributors. This just made the shadows look even worse, as everyone suddenly aged 10 years during one sentence.

All of this, of course, combined repeatedly to distract your concentration away from much of what the guests were saying, and then to undermine those comments that did manage to call undue attention to themselves. The trick to panel-based discussion shows is surely to mask the fact that the whole thing has necessarily been pre-planned to the nearest minute, that there is only a limited time to debate each subject, and that clips or readings or pictures have been lined up for reference which then have to be folded into proceedings regardless. Kirsty, however, proved unable to really ever disguise the extent to which what we were seeing wasn’t loose, freewheeling and participatory criticism, but instead was meticulously apportioned and overtly prescriptive classroom-style instruction.

A potent example of this came during the first discussion about an exhibition of work by the Venetian Renaissance painter Titian and his contemporaries, when our attention was directed towards various examples Kirsty cued into shot with all the subtlety and poise of a teacher grappling with a cumbersome overhead projector. An accompanying film featured the director of the said exhibition choosing his “personal highlights” and ordering us to appreciate “a sensational picture … look at the way the flesh is painted, it’s remarkable … look at the elbow, the tips of the fingers … so marvellous.” The effect, inevitably, was to render the entire feature impossibly remote and archaic, the equivalent of a badly-delivered and pompous lecture where the more you’re told you’re supposed to like something, the more you never want to see or hear about it ever again.

The respective contributions of the three guests, who turned out to be Bonnie Greer, Ian Rankin and – looking most out of place – Stuart Maconie, were similarly lofty. Bonnie swooned over “the narrative power”. Stuart pondered “the nexus of the world.” “There is a subtext to this as well,” added Ian, at which point everyone fell about. “It was, it was, there was just so much to take in,” concluded Kirsty hopelessly. That this was actually the one topic on the programme most suited to being talked about on television – the others having no obvious visual angle – just compounded the now all-pervading air of general worthlessness. The panel moved on to ruminate over “an adaptation by a Scottish playwright written by a Palestinian played by an Australian,” and then a book that wasn’t even part of the Edinburgh Festival. The gloom continued to creep all over the camera.

There was quite clearly no need for them to be in Edinburgh at all. In fact they may as well have stayed in London, especially if it’d meant enjoying a better-lit studio and consequently a more logically and luminously designed backdrop. Nothing in the programme came close to evoking the unique mood and personality of the Festival, never mind persuading us to contemplate investing in the means to travel there and sample it for ourselves. When Kirsty, apropos bugger all, challenged Bonnie “Give me a definition – what makes this a novella, not a novel?” it was long past time for bed.

Evidence such as this only makes you wonder why the very notion of the cultural forum, the critics’ collegiate of the great and the good, still exists in the schedules. It’s one of the most untelevisual formats on television. It doesn’t so much ignore the potential of the medium, it positively turns its nose up at it in disgust. Perhaps it’s just a boxticking exercise. Perhaps it’s down to an unwieldy heritage that runs back through Ludovic Kennedy on Did You See? all the way to the continually revered Huw Wheldon on Monitor. Perhaps it’s merely a sop to Mark Lawson.

Far too late, Kirsty was busy bidding farewell with the exhortation to “let us know what you think – particularly if you’ve seen something stunning.” Edinburgh Castle continued to twinkle blithely several miles away beyond. Someone must have been having fun out there. After all, the Festival was on, rumoured to be one of the greatest international gatherings of artistic talent ever. As the panel finally succumbed to the ever-encroaching murkiness, Edinburgh was the last place on earth you wished to be. Our hosts’ collective endeavours had left you feeling supremely indifferent both to the relative merits of the subjects under review and, worse, the whole point of the subjects themselves.


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