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Helen Wheatley - Ghost Town: Civic Television and the Haunting of Coventry

Helen WheatleyHelen Wheatley of the Centre for Television History, Heritage and Memory Studies is working on an exciting project that leads up to and into our City of Culture activities. Here she describes the aims of the project and calls for future collaborators to get in touch:

Ghost Town: Civic Television and the Haunting of Coventry is a project that speaks to the fact that cities are haunted places: they are haunted by the ghosts of people, buildings, businesses, ideas, of things which once stood and now no longer remain. These traces of the haunted city might be slowly lost to the passing of time and the vagaries of memory, but the city is also vividly recalled in another haunted place: the television archive. The television archive is uniquely positioned to capture and preserve the daily life of a city - its triumphal moments, its disasters, its changing opinions and fashions, snapshots of its people and places at a lost moment in time. The television archive, and the programmes it contains, thus capture the past life of the city in minute detail.

This project programmes a series of civic screenings or hauntings in cinemas and other more unorthodox venues around the city to unleash the city’s ghosts and to bring past and present (and future) Coventry together. This builds on the work done previously by Rachel Moseley and I on award-winning projects such as ‘The Story of Children’s Television, from 1946 to Now’ at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum 2015-17), and the ‘Pop Up Television Pop Shop’ (Shelton Square, May 2012). It has been our experience that the people of Coventry highly value reencounters with archival television and the calls to remembering that these encounters provoke. We feel that by situating civic television back in the city we might provoke recollections, reencounters, even the rediscovery of younger selves, for the people of Coventry. This will not only demonstrate the power of the television archive to connect us back to our personal, local and national histories, but will also inspire further conversations about the city’s past, present and future. These provocative hauntings thus allow us to look backwards whilst looking forward to Coventry’s City of Culture year.

The project is built on collaboration with a variety of academics, archives (the Media Archive of Central England (MACE), Kaleidoscope – and through them the BBC/ITV), theatres (Theatre Absolute, Ego Performance Company) and institutions (Coventry Cathedral, Coventry City Council). The screenings at the centre of the project, its ‘hauntings’, will be scheduled to lead up to and be part of Coventry’s (much hoped for) City of Culture year.

The pilot for this project, Remembering Coventry, will take place in Theatre Absolute’s Shop Front Theatre in the week beginning the 16th of April 2018, where members of the public will be invited to engage with screens in a series of vintage living room sets showing showreels of civic television co-curated with CTHHMR Associate Fellow Chris Perry (Kaleidoscope) and the Media Archive of Central England. Chris at Kaleidoscope is working with the BBC and ITV archives to negotiate screenings of extant programming, much of which hasn’t been seen since its original broadcast. Highlights include:

  • Coventry Kids: People of a Restless City (BBC, 1960) Philip Donnellan’s lyrical documentary about a multi-cultural postwar Coventry.
  • About Religion: The New Coventry Plays No. 1: ‘This is the End’ (ITV/ATV, 1962), the first of a series of modern religious plays written especially for the new Coventry Cathedral. ‘This is the End’ was written by Ken Taylor with a musical score by John Barry, and was performed as an outside broadcast from the porch of the brand new Coventry Cathedral
  • Arena: Rudies Come Back or The Rise and Rise of 2-Tone (BBC2, 1980) Adrian Thrills investigating what was then a brand new pop music genre at the heart of Coventry’s music scene, produced by Alan Yentob for BBC Bristol

MACE are going to digitise and restore new material from their archive of local news, current affairs and arts programming to produce four films for us under the following titles: Coventry Culture; the People of Coventry; Industry and Innovation in Coventry; Building and Rebuilding the City of Coventry. Here’s a flavour of the kinds of encounters with the ghosts of Coventry’s past this amazing archive will allow:

coventry_art_gallery_screen.jpg  Footage from the launch of the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in March 1960

Voxpops as Reg Harcourt asks various people in Coventry city centre to comment on the suitability of appointing black and Asian men in the police force in February 1966

 miners.jpg An interview with the wives of miners involved in a stay down strike at Keresley Colliery in September 1964
 cov_report.jpg A report from 1975 about the impact of the economic downturn on the people of Coventry and the city centre

Visitors to this pilot exhibition will be invited to share their reflections on this programming and the memories that these ‘hauntings’ evoke with researchers and students from the CTHHMR (the research is being built into the Department of Film and Television Studies’ undergraduate module ‘Television History and Criticism in the next academic year) and the findings from phase of the project will help to inform and develop our ideas for future hauntings.

These hauntings include:

  • See Yourself on TV! A Travelling Exhibition: As my research into television at the mid-twentieth century exhibition has shown, the ‘See Yourself On Television’ exhibit, where visitors could stand in front of a camera and see themselves on screen, was always the most popular form of visitor engagement. People would stand for ages, smiling and waving at themselves and their friends and family. Here we will borrow this idea with a mobile screen that will alternately show television footage of Coventry crowds from archival progamming (at sporting and civic events, during leisure time (at gigs, dances, in parks, etc.), on picket lines and in meetings, etc.) with a direct feed of the crowds gathering around the screen. This mobile screen will initiate conversations about the city’s past and its people with viewers in city parks, shopping centres and squares in the suburbs.
  • Behold the preparations, fire and iron: A collaboration with the CTHHMR, our archival partners, Michael Pigott (University of Warwick) and Coventry Cathedral. A large number of programmes were made about and in Coventry Cathedral leading up to, and just after, its consecration. At least 35 documentaries and televised services were shown by the BBC and ITV during the 1960s and 70s, and about a third of these are still available to view. In this installation, Dr Pigott will map extracts of these programmes onto the architecture of the old and new cathedral to reveal their stories to an audience who will explore both these spaces and the screenings.
  • Ellington in Coventry: A collaboration with Nicolas Pillai (Birmingham City University), Coventry Cathedral, Danny Greene (Coventry City Council), the Birmingham Conservatoire, and our archival partners, this event will incorporate a screening of Celebration (ITV/ABC, Sunday, 10 Apr 1966, 18:30 (55 mins)), the television programme of Duke Ellington’s performance of his suite ‘In the Beginning, God’ at Coventry Cathedral, on large screens placed next to the Sutherland tapestry, and a live performance of Ellington’s music at the Cathedral itself.
  • Bands don’t play no more (too much fighting on the dancefloor): A night of music and music television at EGO Arts Venue, where new and established local bands will be invited to play a short set in between excerpts of Coventry bands playing and talking on TV. Proceeds from this TV-gig will be donated to the charity Love Music Hate Racism.
  • Coventry on Screen: A series of curated screenings in small and large venues around the city and in village halls and Coventry community centres. An educational programme for Coventry schools will be developed to accompany this strand; pupils from local secondary schools will also be invited to the University of Warwick to watch and discuss some of this programming as part of the Department of Film and Television Studies’ Widening Participation programme.

If you want to get involved in this project, want to suggest a further haunting (more hauntings will be planned as the project develops), or want to be kept up to date with Ghost Town’s activities, please contact Helen dot Wheatley at warwick dot ac dot uk.