TV-ing it    5                                                                                                                                                                  Posted 11th August 2013

Television feeds so much off the mother of the moving image, cinema, like a child in its thirties still needing to be breast-fed. In any week, a large proportion of the most nutritious fare the box gets will have been pre-digested by the parent medium. So it is nice to see some filial appreciation. "Hollywood" (Tuesdays, ITV) is a weekly love-letter home to mother. It also promises to be a marvellous series.

The history it tells is fascinating and pertinent to all of us, like hearing what our parents were up to before we were born. This week we learned about the early independent film makers' move from New Jersey to Hollywood, to ease the congestion that had given rise to shooting holes in one another's cameras, pirating reels of film and burning down studios.

The transformation of a sleepy village eight miles from Los Angeles into the mechanised imagination of the world was brilliantly told with the footage of old films and the memories of some of the people who helped to make them. Both the old clips and the age-freckled faces of those who had been involved in them were instinct with the joy of being in at the beginning of a new era. Nobody actually said, "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive." They all just demonstrated the fact.

Agnes DeMille spoke of "simplicity, fervour and excitement" and of how "every picture broke boundaries." She told how her father Cecil B. DeMille, had been aware that they were all preparing the way for great artists that they were discovering a great medium. "But we don't know what it is."

Adela Rogers St Johns - her age seeming to drop off her as she underwent the facelift of her own enthusiasm - said it most succinctly. "Now at last we were all one people all round the world and we had one language. And Hollywod was it."

The film-clips were a reminder of how immediate and potent that language can be. Watching Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks joyously develop its syntax through facial and bodily expression was to realise the impact it must have had then and to remember that it has changed the lives of all of us.

Without that esperanto of the image the cinema has given to us, our sense of ourselves and of the world would be different. Our very dreams would have another texture. No wonder "Hollywood" is proving so interesting. It is like being taken back to a childhood you hadn't known was yours.

But it can have an adverse effect on some of the other offerings, in much the same way that reading Shakespeare, with his sense of discovering new linguistic continents, can spoil your taste for more parochial practitioners.

"Ryan's Daughter" (Sunday, ITV) should not, you would think, suffer from comparison with the early silent pictures. But for me it did. David Lean's film is very, very long,and technically accomplished and goes nowhere very much that I can see except towards the gratification of the egos of those involved, rather like a colonnaded driveway leading to a mirror.

The problem for me was mainly in the disproportion between the content and the treatment, an anecdote rendered as an epic. That fresh, universal language they talked about in "Hollywood" had become self-regardingly portentous.People would climb a staircase as if it were the Eiger. Glances took a day or two to happen.

Everybody seemed very conscious of being guests in David Lean's reputation. Consequently, the stifling awareness of "art" was everywhere. John Mills died of it early on and was duly given an Oscar for heroically acting himself to death in an agony of tics and jerks and caperings.

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