'Tearing up History on BBC Four': Transferring academic research to the screen

Interviewer: Lucy Vernall (Interviewer, Ideas Lab)
Guest: Dr Richard Clay
Recorded: 16/01/2014
Broadcast: 30/04/2014

Intro VO: Welcome to the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast from the University of Birmingham. In each edition we hear from an expert in a different field, who gives us insider information on key trends, upcoming events, and what they think the near future holds.

Lucy: Our podcast today was recorded on the 16th January 2014 in the Barber Lecture Theatre in conversation with Dr Richard Clay who is Senior Lecturer in the History of Art at the University of Birmingham. It’s a question and answer session following a special screening of Richard’s documentary for BBC4 called Tearing up History, which has been produced by Furneaux and Edgar. So the questions and answers that follow are recorded after the screening and we’ve re-recorded some of the questions just to make the sound a little bit clearer for the podcast. So I began by asking Richard what the challenges were of taking his research and transferring it into something for the screen. 

Richard: Right, that’s a lot of questions.  

Lucy: OK, you get the broad gist of it then. 

Richard: Yeah I do, I’ll have a go. I’m going to talk loud because it’s a lecture theatre so I’m going to project. Is that going to cause you level problems? So, in that programme in one hour, 57 minutes, we’re trying to sum up what is ‘my God, I’m old now’. Probably 25 years of my life’s work, you know, I’ve been focusing on this stuff for such a long time and it’s trying to figure out which are the bits that are going to be of interest to a broader audience and I’m used to talking to really smart young people here at the university who have chosen to study the topics I’m talking about. And I write books that hardly anybody reads but they buy them or they read them because they’re really interested in it. So the great challenge was trying to sort out the key points of a really complicated story that I know a lot about that would really carry the key messages and that was enormously challenging, really hard, frustrating some of the time and getting into discussions with the production team about ‘no, I want this in’, but actually it was really really good for me I think. I think it really helped me to re-approach my own work, look at it and think a bit harder than I have to do most of the time professionally about how relevant quite a lot of the things I talk about actually are to the world I live in. It kind of reminded me in a way of why I started studying iconoclasm in the first place. In a weird way it was – this has only just occurred to me – a kind of re-visiting of who I was in my 20s, you know, when I was starting to decide I wanted to study Art History from below, I wanted to study iconoclasm and because I felt it was a way of telling the story of most people’s encounters with art in a way that art historians tended to ignore. So that’s both a sort of serious answer and a slightly weirdly autobiographical answer. 

Lucy: I think you probably had the best audience here for your film that it will ever have because when it’s on telly, the depressing thing is people there will be on Twitter, they’ll be doing the ironing, you know, while everybody here is sat beautifully and watched for a whole hour. 

Richard: I was sat with my colleagues and one of them – and because you’re podcasting this I’m not going to name her – was I think either tweeting or texting or something. 

Lucy: She was obviously tweeting about how brilliant it was. 

Richard: Yeah, maybe, yeah. Or maybe she was tweeting her colleague next to her about it and asking for her view, I don’t know. 

Lucy: The first question from the floor was, has Richard learnt anything about his subject through doing a documentary?

Richard: And did I learn something in a new way.  Yeah.

Lucy: And that was?

Richard: For example – so look, most of the knowledge that comes across in the film I already knew, mostly it was in my head, you know, the dates, the places, the facts, the images, what we should go and look at, that’s kind of how we did the film. We figured out, we were going to tell a chronological story where we’d shoot so we figured where the locations were and then got there, so there would be a conversation where the director would say ‘right, what are you going to talk about?’ and I’d say ‘I’m going to talk about this’ and he’d say ‘right’ and then we’d shoot it and sometimes I’d get it first time and most of the time I’d get it second or third time. So a lot of the time I wasn’t really learning a lot on site. I’d been to those places, I’d looked at this stuff before, but some of it was really new. The bit I liked best in the film, and there are bits of it that make my skin crawl and I’m really uncomfortable with and I’m embarrassed about and I don’t think they’re right. The bit I liked the best was the bit with the wall, with the Latin graffiti which embarrassingly I misread. It says omnia communia and it doesn’t it says omimea communia, just in case any theologians noticed! So that was amazing and that was a totally serendipitous find. It was being in Paris that meant that I saw it so we were staying on the Île Saint-Louis and every morning – you might have to edit this out because I don’t how the university feels about people talking about smoking in their podcasts – but every morning I’d go downstairs and smoke a fag and I’d stand on this street and on the first morning I looked down the street and I thought oh, there’s a church there. On the second morning I thought oh, there’s a church there, maybe I should go and have a look at it. And I got as far as the main doors and I thought that’s amazing, all the Fleur de Lys have chipped out. Next morning I went down and thought I’ll go and have a look at it further down the church – like it’s a long church, right, but you know – second day ‘oh, there’s a door with a triangle and there’s an inscription by the Revolutionaries, they used to store records here during the Revolution’. Third day, fourth day, whatever, I realised there was this crucifix and that evening I looked it up on my iPhone and there was and I would never have noticed that if I hadn’t been out and had time to look. And if I’m in the hotel, I’m looking up online now, using the Bibliothèque nationale every hour. I don’t actually go out and stand in the street really. So there's a lot of time where they’re setting up the shot and I’m just standing and thinking and to have a whole week to reflect on this stuff is really good. 

Lucy: The next question from our audience was whether there was any pressure to sex up the content for the screen. 

Richard: I’d just like to make it clear to the podcasters that the person who’s asking this question has never been in my lecturers. No, not really. I think we wouldn’t have been there at all if it wasn't for the fact that I thought they thought that I could communicate what I had to say in a way that was engaging. The pressure around, for want of a better phrase because maybe there isn’t one, ‘sexing up’ the way I deliver what I have to say about my research, hadn’t come from the makers or from the BBC. It had come years ago really and sorry, Lucy, but it kind of was Lucy and her team who came to me because they thought I was a good communicator and I had stuff to say and asked me to talk. And then they had to deal with the fact that I wasn’t actually very good on camera and they filmed me and it was really boring and we all agreed it was a bit boring. So we left it for a while and I thought about it for a bit and concluded it was boring because I was sitting down and it would be more interesting if I was walking around because the people who have been to my lectures, I tend to walk and think and talk at the same time. So they've worked quite a lot with me on, you know, get to the point, how do you make it more interesting. So there wasn't really any pressure and the weird thing is when you’re with a film crew, what they need is for you to deliver. So the pressure isn’t conducive, they’ll bend over backwards to the point where I could take the piss out of them about it because they talk about you as being ‘the talent’ and they will do whatever they can to make you not feel pressure, which I’m not used to that. 

Lucy: Apart from standing on lots of roundabouts where you look perilously close to being run over a few times. 

Richard: No, that was exciting. That was exciting. And climbing over that wall with the terrifying sharp spikes in very anatomically terrifying positions, that was exciting too.   That was scary actually.

Lucy: Another question from our audience for Richard was whether there were any problems with getting access to the graffiti artist and showing his work. 

Richard: There was a debate with the assistant producer beforehand and we were talking about venues and stuff and she said ‘do you want to talk to a graff artist?’, I said ‘yes but they’ve got to be really good or I’m not interested’ and she found ‘So What’ and the stuff that you saw on the film, the only bits – I’m slightly uncomfortable about it because I’m standing outside saying ‘wow, what amazing art’ but you can’t see the stuff which is actually inside. So ‘So What’s’ allowed us to use his footage of a film he’s made which is available online which is astonishing, absolutely astonishing. They’ve just transformed this entire car park; there’s incredible work in there and Philip Glass allowed him to use the music free and then he’s allowed us to use the music free. 'So What' is a man on a mission, he’s an incredibly smart, motivated man. There was no question he was going to work with us once he met me but he’d said, you know, come down and meet us and he’d warned the assistant producer that if he didn’t like me that would be it. But we struck it off. What could have gone wrong? 

Lucy: Next I asked Richard whether having been through the process of producing a documentary has affected the way that he now watches television.

Richard: No, not really. I just don’t ever watch TV very much. That’s the truth. The iPad’s a total revolution to me because it means I can just, you know, I can watch the entire series, every series, of the West Wing repeatedly and I don’t have to watch anything else apart from Newsnight. I know that might not be quite what you want to hear but it’s basically the truth. I watch so little telly and I remember talking to the director and the exec and commissioning editors and they’d say to me ‘so who do you think’s good in broadcasting?’ and there’d be an embarrassing silence and I’d say ‘Jeremy Paxman?’. I’m not a very TV literate man. 

Lucy: Many members of our audience were postgraduate students in History of Art and the next question was from one of them and that was to ask Richard, having made a documentary would that change the way he approaches teaching the French Revolution.

Richard: If the budget allowed, I’d take you all to Paris and teach you it all in the wild. That would be miles better but otherwise, you know, given the limitations of the lecture theatre or a seminar room, there’s not, I don’t think there’s that much I can do differently. I have found myself this year teaching the French Revolution to undergraduates and I’ve taught a couple of sessions on iconoclasm differently actually, on reflection. So the first one was entirely about more recent and contemporary acts of iconoclasm and it’s very much around the ‘what do we call this?’ debate and do we call it vandalism, do we call it iconoclasm, do we call it destruction of art, do we call it sign transformation? I’ve never really had the nerve to just do that and to miss out the historical stuff and I can’t remember if any of my undergraduates – I’m not sure if I recognise them – if my undergrads were here now on Friday, we’ll be doing the historical stuff so you need to do the reading. We’ve got Master’s students in but yeah, actually this isn’t quite answering the question but you started, Lucy, by asking me about compromises that might have had to have been made and in some ways the most fundamental compromise is that everything I’ve done on French Revolutionary iconoclasm allowed me to in my late 20s start to re-imagine how I talk about it and to introduce this idea of sign transformation and talk about value and meaning and apply semiotics to it and I did have the ambition of kind of trying to do a TV programme that was much more engaged with that, the basic tools of semiotics, but the director and producer weren’t comfortable with that. So there are little bits like a little bit where I’m looking very pleased with myself and I’m saying ‘so they melted these bells down and that’s the transformation of symbols’. That’s like me getting my own back on the director and I was having a bit of banter with him in Paris saying ‘I’ve explained the transformation of signs to the cameraman – he totally gets it’. So anyway, maybe we’ll get another chance at this and see if I can do that. 

Lucy: The next question that Richard was asked was to what extent was he involved in the editing of the programme. 

Richard: So quite a bit but not completely, which is good because it suited me. So there was a kind of relationship, there had to be a relationship of trust that I’d been clear with the production company because we’d been in discussions for a year and a bit – well, probably two years – that it was about whether I could trust them or not as to whether I’d bother doing it, that I didn’t want to be a TV star, that I had something to say and I had to be allowed to say it my way and I wouldn’t want to put my name to something that I was uncomfortable with and I ended up just really trusting the fact that they would, they wanted to hear what I had to say and they would honour whatever I felt was right or wrong. So on the other hand, you can’t ask an art historian to edit a film. I know nothing about film. I know marginally more now having been involved in making one but they did the amazing work of taking this enormous amount of footage which we’d shot in weird orders and stitching it into a narrative that we’d only every talked through really. That was their work. So I saw a first edit of it in full and in the edit suite and the exec producer came out and said it starts in the wrong place, that it started very full on with ‘So What’ and it should start much more gently, it’s BBC Four, you’re going to have to ease people into this, start with Versailles, start with the Jacques-André I think it was, that kind of thing, and work up to that. So I sat in on that. I thought it was great, the first edit and they re-edited it and then I had another viewing with them and we talked through it and we did voice-overs. So during the voice-overs I was editing the voice-overs saying ‘I’m not saying that, I want to say this’ and they’d just be fine with it most of the time or they’d say ‘you can’t say that, how about this?’. A bit of negotiation, a bit of horse-trading. 

Lucy: And he was asked who wrote the script for the voice-overs.

Richard: This is one of the amazing things of working with people in TV, you learn about what they do on a week by week basis. These people get up to speed on a topic incredibly quickly and the next week they’re working in a totally different area. There isn’t such a thing as a dull dinner on a shoot because you’re talking to people who are, you know, ‘next week what are you doing, Pete?’, ‘next week, cameraman?’, ‘oh, I’ve got to go to Siberia, I’m really worried about it because it’s 24-hour sunlight and there will just be no breaks’, you know, ‘what are you doing there?’, ‘oh, we’re digging up a woolly mammoth. Some Koreans are going to clone it’, ‘what?! You’re doing what?! What did you do last week?’, ‘oh, I was in America’, ‘what were you working on?’, ‘oh, I was working on this really worrying programme about psychosomatic illness that was actually self-harm’ and it’s like wow, very very far out. So the director had got on top of the story really effectively. He wrote a first draft of the VOs - the voice-overs, check me out! – and then he sent them to me, I edited, he edited, I edited. I got there, printed it out and then suddenly when you can see the film, you’re seeing the edits, you’ve got to think and make the decision. I don’t like all of them but they’re OK. That was the only change that the BBC requested. Well, there were two changes: one, our voice-over at the beginning, a new line, so it’s a clearer description of what you’re going to get to see and there’s quite a lot of multi-split screen edits going on which I think are really good actually, so they wanted the sound effects taken out of those, it’s not very BBC Four. That was fine and in some cases not so many multiple images; they thought it would be confusing to viewers. Fine. 

Lucy: And what about the non-script side of things such as the music and the pace of the programme. 

Richard: That’s nothing to do with me. I don’t disapprove of most of the music. So the director is a really interesting guy. He was in a band, a very successful touring band. He’s still a recording musician as a sort of hobby but makes money out of it. He’s very good as well as being an excellent director. He was choosing music and sending it to me. I did send stuff to him. I liked a lot of the stuff, everything actually he was coming up with. I loved the Nine Inch Nails stuff, he re-introduced me to Nine Inch Nails and I haven’t listened to that for years and I realised that it was great, so that’s all down to him. The pace of it is down to him as well and then in negotiation with the exec, who because he was a commissioning editor, has a very good eye I think for what will or won’t work with this audience and there’d be a bit of challenge coming back to the director to re-pace bits. But it’s really interesting to observe how that was being done.

Lucy: Richard was asked who he hoped might be the audience for his documentary. 

Richard: Well I’m hoping me mum’s going to watch it because I’ve given her a DVD and I tested her at Christmas, very carefully, and she hasn’t watched it! Otherwise most of the people I would really want to watch it have all watched it now because you’re all here. I don’t know. I’d like everybody in the world to watch it. Or nobody, I don’t really care, you know. I’m sorry to say that and you probably might want to edit that out but I actually don’t really care. I don’t care. People either watch it or they don’t. To sort of flip it, or the way I’ve been talking about it, I hope that what the film does that my classes don’t do for the reasons I’ve talked about, is give you an insight into the way that studying the past changes the way I see the world. That art history has made the way I see the world completely different, that I see stuff in the street that is very unlikely anybody else will. Unless they’ve read my book, which is available at all good bookshops!

Lucy: Was there enough swearing?

Richard: Was there enough swearing? Was the swearing appropriate or was it inappropriate?

Lucy: It’s BBC Four.

Richard: It’s BBC4, they’re talking about showing it at 8 o’clock, says ‘shit’ five times. 

Lucy: Five times? 

Richard: Yeah. My niece was counting. She’s very excited by that. Nine. Yeah, I think it’s appropriate but someone from the Centre had to watch the whole film to give us the go-ahead and say ‘yeah, we think it’s legitimate to say ‘shit’’, as opposed to some more academic term when talking about carnivalesque culture seemed appropriate to me.

Lucy: And at the end of the session I thanked Dr Richard Clay for showing us his film and for answering our questions.  

Richard: Thank you. 


Lucy: The documentary Tearing up History will be shown on BBC Four in March 2014. [Tuesday 6 May 2014, 21:00]

Outro VO: This podcast and others in the series are available on the Ideas Lab website: www.ideaslabuk.com. There's also information on the free support Ideas Lab has to offer to TV and radio producers, new media producers and journalists. The interviewer and producer for the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast was Sam Walter.