The Molly Dineen Collection: Volume Two Review
Before reading this review you may wish to first sample my piece on volume one here for the relevant background and context it provides into Molly Dineen’s career.
The second of the BFI’s three volumes devoted to British documentarian Molly Dineen focuses its attentions solely on her first television series, The Ark. A four-part look at the crisis-hit London Zoo of 1991, it was initially transmitted on consecutive Tuesday nights during the January and February of 1993. In chronological terms it therefore fits in-between discs one and two of the first volume, coming after her three individual films for the BBC’s 40 Minutes and before the three-part series In the Company of Men, which screened in 1995. In thematic terms it is undoubtedly closest to 1989’s Heart of the Angel, another look at a London institution in turmoil, in that case the Angel Islington prior to its comprehensive re-build and re-opening in 1992. Yet whereas Heart of the Angel had only the 40 minutes of its strand’s title with which to play around in, The Ark has a far more expansive four hours of screentime at its disposal. The 1989 documentary captured its chaos through brief character snippets and a general malaise of stress and dissatisfaction; the 1993 series understandably creates a far richer portrait of both its setting and those who populate it.
Dineen provides her own voice-over, setting down the situation during episode one’s opening minutes. The once-pioneering London Zoo in Regent’s Park has gone from being “the greatest in the world” (where, at one point in time, you could even ride an elephant) to one facing severe financial difficulties. A noticeable dip in attendances first began in the seventies, whilst the eighties saw Margaret Thatcher’s government provide its last instalment of funding. As Dineen’s camera reaches the action the management are in a position where the Zoo is losing approximately £2million per year and as such is unable to support itself without drastic measures coming into force. This means not only a cutback in terms of staff, but also the animal population too. Meanwhile questions of scientific concerns versus the demands of being part of the leisure industry also come into play: is London Zoo still relevant, either in terms of a being place of ‘entertainment’ for the general public or as a site for conservation, preservation, education and research?
Needless to say, these are tense times. Episode one sees the human cost of the cutbacks as staff members are asked to re-apply for their jobs and be re-assessed in terms of their worth and expertise. Of course, not everyone we meet during this initial hour makes it to episode two. The second instalment turns its attentions to the animals who are deemed extraneous to demand, which in itself prompts new tensions. Does the selection process err on the side of those animals and species which attract the general public or those which have the greater scientific worth and insignificance? Episode three demonstrates something of the former thanks to the headline-making appearance of giant panda Ming Ming at the Zoo, whilst episode four shows the outcome of these tensions between management and the increasingly dissatisfied keepers: a vote amongst the Fellows of London Zoo to decide its direction.
Despite there being a certain self-contained aspect to each of the episodes, The Ark is also in possession of a very obvious ‘story arc’, as it were. Tensions build over each of the hours, with episode three even concluding on a cliff-hanger. Dineen makes comparisons with the soap opera during disc two’s ‘making of’ featurette, though I wouldn’t go as far so to declare her series an example of the ‘docusoap’ subgenre that was finding its feet during the early part of the nineties. There are certainly elements of this at play courtesy of her focus on character - and the resulting dramas when those characters clash - but there’s also far more to her films and series than just that. Most pointedly there’s the fact that her subjects are always treated sympathetically rather than exploited for a good scene; she has a genuine interest in people that’s never wrapped up in irony or any other forms of distance. Of course a certain objectivity has to exist otherwise you risk losing the bigger picture, but the various keepers, scientists and management as captured by The Ark are all wonderfully open with Dineen and, by extension, her camera.
Importantly we do get a rich blend of characters and from both sides of the increasing ‘us and them’ divide. Dineen’s ability to get her subjects to open up is especially important here as it prevents The Ark from ever coming across as being biased towards either faction. As viewers we may very well choose a side, though no doubt such choices will be dictated, in part, by our own sympathies. What we get are simply the honest opinions of those experiencing the Zoo’s turmoil. It may be a member of the board discussing survival in terms of it being “a question of box office appeal”. Or it may be a keeper declaring that “basically I pick up shit, that’s what I do”. Either way there is always this sense that we are witnessing is entirely genuine; tellingly the phrase “don’t use that” comes up from time to time, directed straight at Dineen, but of course it has ended up in the final edit. Interestingly she tells a number of people that the finished series won’t air for at least a year or so (filming occurred during approximately nine months of 1991) meaning that they have no reason not to hold back for the camera.
Ultimately, this central focus on the people pays off almost twenty years down the line. The Ark undoubtedly works as a record of London Zoo during those turbulent times, sparking memories of the intensive news coverage especially when it came to Ming Ming. (I must admit that I had forgotten about Cilla Black putting in an appearance and her Blind Date-related gags - thankfully Dineen’s camera was there to preserve the moment!) But more importantly it stands as a record of people coping with change and looming cuts in the face of a financial crisis. Even if you have never experienced a situation quite so turbulent, it is hard to avoid recognition during confrontations with management or the inner absurdities that inevitable show their face. Moreover, the parallels with today’s economic environment are impossible to miss and so watching the series in 2011 feels just as relevant as it did back in 1993.
As with the other volumes in the BFI’s Molly Dineen Collection, the second instalment is spread over two discs, each containing a pair of episodes and an additional featurette. The discs are encoded for all regions and packaged within an amaray. The BFI’s usual fully illustrated booklet is also in attendance.
Dineen was heavily involved in these discs and as such it is safe to assume that she signed off, or at least approved of, the presentation quality. The Ark was shot on Super 16mm, though being an early nineties television production the masters exist on analogue videotape. It was these which were used as a source for the discs’ transferred and they look as good as could be hoped for under the circumstances. The occasional flaw makes itself known - artefacting during the less well-lit scenes, the odd audio drop-out - but the episodes do ultimately look and sound as good as, if not better than, they would have during those initial television broadcasts. Certainly there are no additional problems resulting from the transfer onto disc, whilst the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and mono soundtrack are adhered to. Note, however, that there are no optional subtitles, for the hearing impaired or otherwise.
Disc one also contains a 20-minute piece entitled ‘Editing The Ark’. Here Dineen and her editor Edward Roberts discuss the problems faced when attempting to shape the nine months’ worth of material that had been shot. Both talk about their favoured techniques honed over the years (Roberts’ career in documentary dates back to the early sixties) and provide a valuable insight into how both the series and particular scenes found their form. Disc two houses ‘The Making of The Ark’, an all-encompassing look that totals 30 minutes and sees contributions from Dineen, Alan Yentob (Controller of BBC2 during The Ark’s production) and sound recordist Phil Streather. Once again this offers up a thorough account, especially of the pitfalls involved in both getting the series off the ground in the first place and then, once Dineen’s camera had been allowed in, being able to capture the drama as and when it was happening. Unlike the ‘making of’ that accompanied In the Company of Men on volume one, there is, unfortunately, no input from any of The Ark’s subjects.
Also present is the 28-page booklet containing contributions from Mark Lawson and various members of the BFI National Archive, plus full credits, transfer notes, acknowledgements and plenty of illustrations. As always with the BFI discs, it’s fully worth a cover-to-cover read.