World in Action: Volume One Review
The concept behind this release is little short of superb. It takes a major strand of British television programming – in this case Granada’s World in Action - roots through its archive and comes up with twelve fascinating offerings made between the 1960s and the 1990s. It’s the kind of thing that’s too rare. Whilst the more populist likes of The Tube, Top of the Pops and even Match of the Day find themselves with lengthy and often decade spanning compilations, the weightier likes of Horizon, Panorama or the more culturally inclined Omnibus and The South Bank Show are left alone. And if such an example does make itself known on disc then it is almost invariably as a bonus feature. It’s as though the companies behind these programmes aren’t aware of the amount of history – and accessible history at that – which they hold in their vaults. Yet as confirmation all you need do is look at the twelve fascinating documents contained on these two discs: from 1967 opener in which a post-Redlands/pre-Performance Mick Jagger holds a civilised conversation with a Lord, a doctor, a Jesuit and the editor of the Times, to the closing double-length 1991 offering in which the Birmingham Six recount their experiences mere days after being released.
Of course, this demonstrates that we’re dealing with consistent or thematic level of content here, and the same goes for the tone and approach. There are, for example, three separate pieces on the Vietnam War to be found here, yet each is startlingly different. One offers a glimpse at a late sixties demonstration in Trafalgar Square. Another sees John Pilger reporting from the front lines in 1970 and observing the disillusionment amongst the troops at that time. And ‘The Siege of Kontum’ takes us into a hidden corner of the conflict, the neutral mountain dwellers who found themselves unwittingly at the centre of major offensive.
What this also shows is the fact that at approximately 27 minutes in length these assembled pieces can only offer snapshots. Yet as these Vietnam examples show, they also offer important parts of the overall jigsaw. Nobody would claim that all you need to know about the war is to found in these pieces, but that’s not to say that they are unimportant. Indeed, Triumph of the Will is not the definitive record of Adolf Hitler, after all, and neither is Nick Broomfield’s Tracking Down Maggie the essential document on Margaret Thatcher, but then they’re also irreplaceable. And the same is true here: ‘End of a Revolution?’, on the death of Che Guevara and the effect he had on the revolution in Bolivia, simply adds another part to the mythology.
As such what we have in World in Action: Volume One isn’t really a “best of” or what should be considered a definitive record, but something which works on far more levels. Owing to the lack of a governing structure – other than the fact that each documentary deals with a subject of importance, of course – we’re afforded more of a glimpse. And that glimpse can be into a number of different areas. The different shapes of documentary filmmaking will no doubt be one of these given the sheer range of styles utilised over these twelve examples. ‘Death of a Revolutionary’ is easily one of the most constructed 27 minutes to be found on the disc as it captures the funeral of Black Panther George Jackson. ‘The Man Who Stole Uganda’, on the other hand, which revolves around Idi Amin Dada, goes for a more straightforward and sober method of reportage. ‘Banged Up’, on prison conditions in Strangeways circa the late seventies, offers a “day in the life” structure. And ‘The Birmingham Six: Their Own Story’ even includes recreations courtesy of the 1990 John Hurt teleplay Who Bombed Birmingham?. Plus there are instances of vérité, talking heads and various other forms. More importantly, each serves its subject and each does just as well.
The other major use, of course, is of a historical nature. Though World in Action was a current affairs strand, it is now near impossible to see any of these pieces in such a light. Rather we have the benefit of hindsight and as such will no doubt interpret each of the inclusions in different ways than was initially intended. We can see the progress made in animal vivisection, say, when looking back at 1981’s ‘Killing for a Cure’, or contrast the “Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?” furore of popular imagination with the eloquent, well-spoken Mick Jagger who appears on this disc.
Moreover, individual knowledge is likely to play a deciding role in the effectiveness of these pieces. You could, for example, approach ‘The Life and Death of Steve Biko’ and come across nothing that you didn’t know. Or perhaps come to ‘A Prisoner of Terrorism’ and find that its tracing of the history of Baader-Meinhof opens up new windows. And this, ultimately, is why this compilation is so important: it will whet your appetite and allow you to fill in gaps. You may take a look at ‘The Man Who Stole Uganda’ and head straight to Barbet Schroeder’s wider ranging documentary of Idi Amin. Or you may see John Pilger’s ‘The Quiet Mutiny’ report and realise that there’s another, more immediate side to the Vietnam shown in countless Hollywood interpretations. Either way it should demonstrate that further volumes are needed, not to mention those for Horizon, Panorama and the others mentioned at the start of this review.
Though the price is low enough to perhaps justify the lack of extras (the RRP is a penny under £20), it would have been nice to have – at the very least – some contextualising notes on the documentaries contained within. That said, their respective presentations are generally pleasing. Of course, not all of the pieces are in the best condition – the videotape on ‘Mick Jagger’ seems to have taken a real beating at some point, plus there are instances of tramlining on ‘The Demonstration’, and a general level of dirt and grain here and there – but it’s certainly true that Network haven’t done anything to make them any worse, whilst all of them remain watchable. Likewise, the soundtracks (presented in DD2.0 mixes) are pretty much as should be expected; the newer documentaries are absolutely fine in this respect, some – such as ‘Mick Jagger’ again – waver in places. Indeed, there’s nothing to concern yourself with as long as you know what to expect.
• Mick Jagger (tx. 31.07.1967)
• End of a Revolution? (tx. 11.12.1967)
• The Demonstration (tx. 18.03.1968)
• The Quiet Mutiny (tx. 28.09.1970)
• The Man Who Stole Uganda (tx. 05.04.1971)
• Death of a Revolutionary (tx. 27.09.1971)
• The Siege of Kontum (tx. 05.06.1972)
• The Life and Death of Steve Biko (tx. 03.10.1977)
• Prisoner of Terrorism (tx. 10.07.1978)
• Banged Up (tx. 02.04.1979)
• Killing for a Cure (tx. 16.02.1981)
• The Birmingham Six: Their Own Story (tx. 18.03.1991)
Last updated: 28/04/2018 14:12:06