In Those Circles

Five years ago I discovered a project called the Culture Concept Circle. It is run by Carolyn McDowall, an “independent cultural and social historian”. The YouTube channel comprises a long series of short documentaries about the history of art and design, a lot of them focusing on British architecture. The videos are not as polished as those you’d see on television – they are mostly just zooming or panning along stock still images (often low resolution) with a voiceover lecture – but this should not diminish their appeal for anyone already interested in the subject matter. If anything, they highlight how much of a modern TV documentary is essentially padding. The People Profiles are somewhere in between, as are History Matters and Extra History.

I’ve also recently discovered English Heritage podcasts. They cover an eclectic range of subjects from royal romances to Darwin’s gardens. The one that particularly caught me was How the railways shaped the nation. This is less because of its actual content than because it is narrated by collections curator Dr Matt Thompson, whose voice sounds remarkably similar to that of Ted Robbins.

A Princely Gift

I suppose there are worse things he could be wearing.

A few days ago I discovered the YouTube channel Documentary Base, whose content is what you’d expect. What particularly caught my interest was the series Crown and Country. The Prince Edward writes and presents a historical tour of England’s royal landmarks, one of many documentaries put out by his ill-fated Ardent Productions. This programme is about the same age as I, and now so obscure that its IMDB page looks to be mostly guesswork.

As far as I can decipher there were three series (in the years 1996, 1998 and 2000 – the former typed in the credits as such while the latter two are rendered as MCMXCVIII and MM). The YouTube playlist does not have them in broadcast order – and I think it may even mislabel a few of them, which makes it a little confusing. Series 1 and 2 are differentiated by swapping some of the clips in the opening title sequence montage. Series 3 switches from 4:3 to 16:9, and the title sequence is crudely cropped. The first two series credit the presenter as “Edward Windsor”, the third as “Edward Wessex”.

Technical details aside, the programme is pervaded by an otherworldly quaintness. As with so many films of this type it seems to be designed for international syndication rather than domestic broadcast, and while many specific events and locations are discussed the production itself is curiously timeless. It bulges with luxuriant panning shots of rolling countryside, weathered stone and ornately carved wood panels. The overall tone puts me in mind of Mitchell & Webb’s Sunday afternoon relaxation DVD. There are other curiosities, too, such as the title music which occasionally sounds like the middle eight of the Doctor Who theme.

The parts most interesting to me, as a blogger on heraldry, were the visits to the College of Arms and St George’s Chapel, neither of which get as much screen time as I would like.

In more recent news, the Prince of Wales has launched RE:TV, a channel (or platform, it’s not entirely clear) centered around his environmental projects. I also found this virtual interior tour of Buckingham Palace by interior design blogger Ashley Hicks.

A Strange Documentary Experience

In recent years several YouTube channels have emerged which play a large number of full-length old documentaries. One might be forgiven for thinking this was too good to be true and that these were pirate channels, but on closer investigation they appear to have been set up by the rights-holders themselves. The economics behind such a move are less than obvious – my best guess is that the content was not likely to be broadcast on television anymore and so there wasn’t much to lose by releasing them online.

One such documentary recently uploaded is the Channel 4 film from August 2012 The Girl Who Became Three Boys (here rebranded to changed “Girl” to “Woman”) about the late-teen aged Gemma Barker who created three online male personas in order to date her slightly-younger platonic female friends Jessica Sayers (who was extensively interviewed) and “Alice” (whose real identity was withheld). These relationships naturally ended badly and Barker herself wound up serving prison time.

I watched this documentary on the night it first aired. It was a confusing experience to say the least, and stuck with me for years afterwards. Almost nothing about the story makes sense: How did Barker’s victims not notice that she and her invented characters looked so similar? Why did Barker herself claim to have been assaulted? Why were all the adults in the girls’ lives (other than Jessica’s grandmother) eerily absent from events? How deep an emotional bond can you form with a man who has neither face nor voice (to say nothing of his other absent attributes)? If Barker had autism and “borderline learning disability” then how was she capable of manipulating her friends to that extent?

It might be expected, indeed hoped, that this film about two girls being abused in this way would be met with pity and grief, but instead the most common responses I found were confused frowns mixed with cackling laughter. The tragedy at the pinnacle of the narrative was greatly overshadowed by the farce of its foundations. The superfluous Sims-esque animated reconstructions did not help in this regard, nor indeed did Jessica’s contribution as a talking head in which, far from a sympathetic wounded victim, she often appeared to delight in milking our attention. Notably, her interviewer occasionally interrupted with incredulous requests to clarify the most especially outlandish points – such as how “Connor” would still communicate solely through text messages even when physically present. In online discussions of the documentary there were many who condemned the two victims for their apparent lack of intelligence or perception. Others found the events as presented to lie beyond plausibility, surmising instead that the documentary makers or the girls themselves were leaving out further details and fabricating their accounts.

What most fascinated me about the discussion, however, was that there were people who didn’t find this story absurd. A few even brought anecdotes from their own social groups in which girls whom they knew had pulled similar tricks. The most common refrain of this faction ran along the lines of “Well, that’s just what you’re like when you’re fifteen.” as if this kind of lunacy is to be expected as a standard part of adolescence! For as long as I can remember I have been fully aware that what most people assert as “normal” life is often sharply different to my own, yet here I cannot suspend my disbelief. Some months after the documentary aired it came up in discussion during an English lesson. I and the rest of my class were about the same age as Barker’s victims had been, yet all of us who had seen the documentary were baffled at the insanity on display. Our teacher’s reaction was little different. If what this documentary depicted is in any way representative of ordinary life then I am glad to be a freak.

UPDATE (December 2020)

The video I originally embedded has now been set to private for some reason, but the same documentary has also been uploaded whole here, and in pieces starting here.