#BritainOnLockdown is a BFI National Archive project mapping the place of online video in the UK’s COVID-19 experience, enlisting the vital help of the British public.
Thank you for all your many excellent submissions so far. Our curators are ploughing through these as we write. In this and forthcoming articles we will pick up on recurring themes and forms to be found among your recommendations. In this edition we highlight the role of musical performance in enlivening our lockdown lives, and the surprising return of a genre of silent film…
Return of the phantom ride
Online video is forever full of surprises: startling innovations but also fascinating twists on film’s history. Driven to explore urban spaces eerily transformed by almost everyone staying indoors, digital filmmakers have, knowingly or not, revived one of the oldest genres in the book.
The ‘phantom ride’ was a staple of early film: a simple but tremendously effective and appealing format whereby the bulky cameras of the day were positioned at the front of moving vehicles, enabling viewers to experience their journeys vicariously. The transportation in question was usually a train (see fine, contrasting examples here, here and here) or a tram (as in this beautiful journey from country to town).
In the early days of lockdown, our streets emptied themselves of people and the opportunity was there for intrepid filmmakers, and their lightweight cameras (or phones), to take their own phantom rides through abandoned cityscapes – not, of course, using public transport, but in cars or on bikes.
Aided by editing software and modern music, the results are very different from their Victorian forebears but preserve two essential aspects: on one hand, an abstract quality, allowing us to wallow in the sheer giddy sensation of movement; on the other, documentary evidence of the locations through which they move, in these modern cases yielding precious, powerful records of places, and by implication an entire civilisation, transformed overnight.
Consider this beautifully-paced widescreen car journey by Louis Mackay (whose day job is directing and/or photographing advertising, fashion, sports and music videos) through iconic, now deserted areas of central London:
By contrast, an infinitely slower, oblique and offbeat take on the genre, shot in neighbourhoods outside central London and crucially adding voiceover, comes from the curiously calming yet utterly addictive YouTube series The Ogmios School of Zen Motoring:
Even music video is phantom riding. The promo for the latest Rolling Stones track, by director Joe Connor, sees yet another London ride captured with great flair by a fish-eye lens, giving a camera obscura effect, and skilfully interpolated into other types of shots:
Seeing as all these online rides are through parts of London, we’d love to know of great examples filmed outside the capital. Please get in touch.
Musical notes from lockdown Britain
Like most sectors, the music industry has been hamstrung by social distancing. Recording, promoting and performing have all become problematic under lockdown conditions, for professionals and amateurs alike. But thankfully the new Rolling Stones promo is just one example of the innovative ways that online video has helped ensure that the beat goes on.
The virtual performance, connecting musicians from disparate corners of the country via video conferencing and some neat editing tricks, has become a popular phenomenon. Orchestras, ensembles, divas and divos ranging from the National Youth Orchestra to Coldplay’s Chris Martin have all featured in entries to our lockdown videos project. Like graceful swans, the most impressive examples feature seamless performances that bely the hard work going on under the surface, capturing and synching performances from musicians captured miles, and sometimes days, apart.
The Banbury Quarantine Collective’s rendition of ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’ is a good example. It features an impressive number of local bands connecting virtually in a way that they could never have done on a real stage. The fact that they did it to raise funds for local NHS workers makes it even more laudable.
Credit should also be given to cellist Samara Ginsberg, who gets by without the help of any friends by virtually cloning herself. Her performances of themes from Star Wars, Inspector Gadget and Knight Rider on a single instrument, filmed eight times and compiled, are not necessarily a new idea. But they are distinctive because of her skilled arrangements, and for the attention they have garnered under the lockdown lens.
The difficulty of performing together at a time of social distancing has also been overcome by the family band, with the spirit of the Von Trapps given new impetus under lockdown. The Marsh family’s tweaked version of ‘One Day More’ from Les Miserables saw them ‘go viral’ with coverage on the BBC, The Guardian and elsewhere. But for a more eclectic homespun effort, the Kay family’s take on The Kinks’ song ‘Days’ featuring The #CoronaChins has proved popular with us.
Some of these lo-fi online music videos have real documentary value and will offer a unique perspective to the future researcher. Take this innovative re-versioning of ‘When This Lousy War Is Over’ from Theatre Workshop’s Oh! What a Lovely War. Many films cite all the common lockdown memes (loo roll, Joe Wicks, etc), but this ‘lockdown hymn’ succeeds in capturing the spirit of the times in an elegant and personal way.
Finally, this catchy little number by comedy duo Flo & Jo offers a delightful summary of the increasingly eccentric logic of lockdown guidelines.
Our thanks go to Sarah Janalli, Ian McCormick, Stuart Brown, Joe Connor, Tom Bodfish, Matt Raper and the Kay family for their suggestions.