Four Weddings and a furore
THE VIDEO ACTIVIST HANDBOOK. By Thomas Harding. Pluto Press, Pounds 11. 99.
Laurence Alster focuses on two essential handbooks
Little more than a decade ago media studies barely existed as a subject in its own right. Now, as the 1997 BFI Film and Television Handbook shows, universities and colleges (with the notable exception of Oxford and Cambridge) are falling over themselves to attract media students.
The handbook is a mine of useful information, covering film production, video, cinema and television, and offering information on film societies, legislation, press contacts and film laboratories.
The book gives some idea of the range of opportunities and qualifications open to prospective students. Some of these look mouth-watering - the chance to produce an interactive CD-Rom at Bournemouth University, for example. Those hopeful of working for the BBC or ITV will be grateful for addresses, fax and phone numbers, plus the names of key personnel. There are even press contacts and detailed particulars of other relevant organisations.
If all this is useful, it hardly makes for a riveting read. By contrast, Terry Ilott's chapter, "Film, Television and Video: Overview" is entirely absorbing - if bleak.
For Ilott, not only is the British public service broadcasting tradition under growing threat from expanding satellite and cable services, but British cinema is more than ever in thrall to Hollywood.
For instance, Four Weddings and a Funeral apart, the performance of British films in the domestic and foreign markets to 1995 was pretty poor.
Over here, the superb Shallow Grave took Pounds 5 million at the box office. But the film earned less than half that in the US. In the same year, Batman Forever took just over Pounds 20m from British audiences.
The problem is clear, even if the recent government promise of lottery cash holds out the prospect of better times. Hordes of media graduates will soon be in need of them.
Jeremy Beadle's TV show You've Been Framed is one of the lesser blessings of the past few years, which, as Thomas Harding points out in The Video Activist Handbook, have seen a boom in camcorder ownership. Harding views the camcorder as far more than a means of immortalising your cat's antics. If a hidden onlooker had not filmed the savage beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles policemen, a now infamous instance of unprovoked brutality would have gone unnoticed. There are many similar examples.
"It's amazing what you can do with a camcorder," writes Harding. This is true enough - but only if you can use the thing under ticklish circumstances. And then you have to make best use of your footage. In a book as well-informed as it is informative, these are the issues that concern Harding most.
He offers basic advice on buying, using and looking after your camcorder. Plus tips on types of shot, exposure, sound and interview techniques. Added to these are sections on editing and effects.
Of most value is the potential to capture incidents that would otherwise go unrecorded. This can mean going in where it hurts, as well as risking arrest ("keep filming even if you're being dragged away").
And this is only the beginning. Next comes the problem of getting your footage shown. Harding is good on approaching and bargaining with journalists, and his tips on contracts and copyright have the unforced authority of an old hand.
While many teachers will think twice about sending students off to local hotspots for their next BTEC media assignment, they should still find time for a book that, apart from giving some solid counsel on basic camcorder use, asks the right questions about what is and is not news. The increasing use of camcorder footage on TV news helps us to see, but does it help us understand?