I must confess that I haven’t really partaken in most of the ‘quarantine culture’ events that have been thrown up in recent months. As I largely work in news these days, I found myself designated a key worker and in many ways life continued as normal, just with fewer colleagues, more remote working and some adventurous technical work arounds. (And lots and lots of hand gel and anti-viral wipes…) So unlike many people I wasn’t stuck indoors all day, needing innovative media to shake me from the malaise or distract from the same four walls. I spent all day trying to create some kind of normality for the listeners at home, so when I came home what i wanted was comfort viewing of my own. Which mostly looked like vintage cooking programmes, classic concerts, and hours and hours of Radio 3.
I’ve read and heard about all the dramas and comedies filmed in lock down, admired the innovation and resourcefulness of the makers and gradually come to accept that much like the hours of plays and Shakespeare that were also available, they just weren’t going to be part of my lockdown experience. That was until I discovered a range of short ‘culture in quarantine’ programming, from interpretive dance, to virtual art exhibitions to author talks. Perfect for short attention spans and dipping in and out of as the mood takes you.
Having been a dancer as a child, I’ve retained a deep love of dance and instinctively approve of it, however abstract or ‘interpretative’ it turns out to be. I do however have to be in the mood for it – unless it’s tap dancing, high quality tap dancing is always a drop everything and watch situation. I came to watching ballet in my late 20s so I gravitate to stories I know, as I struggle to follow the narrative – honestly I want to be down the front with the ten year olds watching the dancers feet. It seems that dance on the small screen shouldn’t work but the iPlayer has a selection of very different pieces with very different styles that really appealed.
There’s an amazing piece called Sofa Dance where a collection of acrobats turn their own frustrations at being cooped up into a delightful kinetic performance that makes a virtue of the confined space of the sofa to really explore the limits and possibilities of the form. Playful and entertaining it was the perfect duration to leave the viewer wanting more without getting repetitive. Another favourite was the Swan Lake Bath Ballet which should have been ridiculous but was actually sublime. Dancers from ballet companies around the world had come together to make something fun – and they were clearly having fun – that sounded like something from a comedy sketch, yet they brought such grace to it and took the work so seriously that it felt joyous rather than being silly.
Virtual Art Exhibitions
Over the last few years cinemas have increasingly tried to diversify their revenue streams by showing other kinds of art, with live theatre from the National or live ballet from Covent Garden. One thing I never quite got the point of were exhibition previews. Essentially an hour or so of wandering around an exhibition at someone else’s pace with someone else’s opinions. (There is perhaps a reason that I generally prefer to use an audio guide that I can stop and start at will, to a live tour when visiting a historic building.) Which may seem an odd perspective from someone whose first ‘steady’ job in this industry was with a company that made audio visual displays for museums, but those were designed to either enhance the wider exhibition or as a distinct element of the exhibition itself. They weren’t supposed to replace the exhibition itself. If they were going to appear on line they were either as essentially a trailer to encourage people to visit or to create a record of a temporary exhibition for the benefit of later researchers or academics. Preserving something ephemeral for posterity.
(But then, in terms of increasing the accessibility of art in general I prefer projects that bring art to audiences in rural/remote or disadvantaged communities than those that seek to bring people to the art.)
These virtual exhibitions on the other hand feel much more in line with the tradition of good audio visual displays, highlighting details and providing supplementary materials, such as interviews and film clips, while also making good use of a personable narrator to provide background information and tie all the threads together in a welcoming and accessible fashion. Successfully walking the line between tempting the viewer who may later get a chance to go in person to still attend, yet leaving those who can’t attend satisfied that you’ve had a good flavour of the exhibition.
Scenes for Survival
These were a collaboration between BBC Scotland and various theatre companies around Scotland (mostly via NTS) to create a collection of short theatre pieces, between 5 and 15 minutes long. The format is mostly monologues, but there are a couple of duologues thrown in for variety, and as such they’re quite intense experiences. The actors vary from famous faces to lesser known stage stalwarts to new faces that seem destined for great things, while the writers and directors are a similar mix of safe pairs of hands and new voices trying new things. They cover a wide range of topics and styles – I particularly enjoyed Babe Rainbow – so you can pick and choose as the mood takes you or let yourself ride the emotional rollercoaster by treating them as individual parts of a much greater whole. They’re releasing a few new ones each week – there will be 40 in total and currently there are 32 up, I think – so even if you’ve checked them out before, it’s worth checking back to see what else they have to offer.
Opera, in Scots
Of course it’s not just the BBC producing and showcasing great lockdown art. In June Scottish Opera released a short opera – just thirteen minutes long – called The Narcissistic Fish with a libretto in Scots. It’s a small but perfectly formed short film, with gorgeous music and visuals, cracking performances (both singing and acting) and fabulous sound design. It packs all the essential elements of a good opera – tragedy, comedy, death, love, secrets, betrayal and jealousy – into the hothouse of a restaurant kitchen, where tensions are high and the knives – both metaphorical and literal – are sharp. The use of Scots language helps add to the immediacy of the story, making it feel even more of this current moment than it would otherwise. It feels like an excellent entry point for young audiences who might not think that opera could be for them, and I highly recommend it to anyone who’s interested in giving opera a try but are reluctant to face a whole evening of historical drama in Italian to find out.