Sunday, July 08, 2012


BBC Lèse-Majesté: Hollow Crown, Hollow Schedule and Hollow Laughter

Last weekend, the BBC’s new Shakespeare series The Hollow Crown was given a fanfare on the cover of the Radio Times. This weekend, it was given a raspberry as a Sixteenth Century fictionalisation of Fifteenth Century history was sabotaged by Twenty-first Century programming, weather and sport. When these days all you should need to record a TV show is to select its Electronic Programme Guide entry and let your digital device activate on broadcast, the BBC managed to mess up both broadcast and EPG, leaving recordings across the nation as less Henry IV, Part 1 than Henry IV, Part 0.5.

Regular readers may be aware that I’m not exactly a fan of sport. However, I do understand that live sport will occasionally run over time and delay other programmes. In the olden days, when people were out they had to set their own video recorders and hope that the TV schedules advertised might bear some relationship to reality. In theory, these days the channel’s programmers can update the EPG for a delayed programme and everyone’s digital recorders will simply act on the new information.

This requires, as do all computers for the information you get out of them, that the people putting in the information aren’t completely incompetent.

A Dumb Box and Dumber at the BBC

There are many different varieties of digital recorder, so I won’t claim to speak for them all, but ours is fairly standard: it’s a dumb box that assumes its users are dumber, so there’s no manual override. In theory, this is to prevent someone setting a recording going, forgetting about it, and using up all the memory in one great lump. In practice, when TV stations are rarely known for sticking to the precise minute of their schedules, this would usually mean missing the end or the beginning of programmes, as almost all start a minute or two early or finish a minute or two late. There’s no option to press a button that says, ‘Keep recording until I stop, you bastard!’

To correct this obvious problem, the manufacturers do allow you to change the default setting on the machine so as to top and tail your timer recordings with a few extra minutes (ours is set to start three minutes ahead and finish five after; sadly, you can’t set it by channel so that the BBC gets the full five at the end for running over time, while channels carrying advertising finish on time so most recordings don’t end in an extended ten minutes of ads and unwanted programming). But this only applies to shows you’ve checked by EPG in advance; if you simply press “Record” for something going out live, it will stop recording the very second that the EPG (that again) says it’s scheduled to finish, and no amount of swearing at it will extend that.

Last Night’s Stopping and Starting

I tuned in a few minutes before 9 last night to catch BBC2’s broadcast of Henry IV, Part 1. Or not, as they were still showing Wimbledon. Richard was away; I was meant to be, but not well enough; fortunately, this meant I could at least stop our EPG recording from saving us the tennis. So it clicked on at 8.57, and I switched it off, and waited. Within a few minutes, the EPG had changed to indicate a start time for the play of 9.15. So I selected the new EPG, and our machine started again at 9.12. It was still tennis. I stopped it again. Within another few minutes, the EPG had changed again to start Henry at 9.30. By this time, people who claim that live sport needs special treatment were losing the argument: the simultaneous broadcast on BBC2 and BBCHD was showing a mixture of interminable post-game sports babble, bits of game in daylight (and so clearly not live, unless the Isle of Dogs has suddenly switched to a different time zone from Wimbledon) and even minutes-long shots of the stadium in darkness from high above, cars driving away from it. Yet 9.27 and then 9.30 passed, still with no move to the scheduled programme.

By 9.35, the EPG had updated yet again to suggest a start time of 10pm. So I reset my digital recorder yet again… But noticed something was wrong. Henry IV, Part 1 was scheduled to show from 9pm to 10.55; on the first new EPG, all the programme times for the rest of the night were put back by 15 minutes; on the second, by half an hour; but this time, although the start time had been altered to encompass the hour’s delay, the BBC munchkins setting the EPG hadn’t altered the end time, with the next programme claimed to be starting at the original 10.55. Even though this couldn’t possibly be true, unless they were going to play the two-hour Shakespeare at double speed.

So I spent the next quarter-hour on hold with the automatic voices at the BBC, which eventually auto-hung up on me ironically mid-way through telling me for the 463rd that my call was important to them. Because I could see what was coming, even if the people who were paid to couldn’t.

You see, if you set a recording by EPG, then it starts when the EPG tells it to, and finishes when that EPG tells it to. If the EPG changes later, it’s too late – the machine’s had its instructions. So when the EPG changed a few minutes after 9, for anyone who’d set in advance and their machines had started recording at the proper time, it was too late. And the same for when it changed at about 9.20, and then 9.35. Had the people paid to programme the EPGs changed them in advance of the due time, even by a few minutes when it was bleeding obvious that they needed changing, then recorders would have sat patiently waiting for the live EPGs to tell them to start.

And if they’d bothered to put the correct end time for the eventual 10pm showing before about quarter past ten, by which time it was of no earthly use, my recording wouldn’t had stopped on the dot of 11pm, as I’d predicted it would an hour and a half earlier but the incompetents at the BBC hadn’t.

So, despite trying not to watch the play because I was hoping to wait and watch it with Richard, I had to watch half-way through for the moment when it stopped part-way into Henry telling off Hal. Then look again at 11.55 because, of course, it finished 3 minutes late on top of all the other lateness, which meant that the manual recording I’d had to start of the second half had neatly stopped, again, at precisely the moment the EPG said it was due to stop, half-way through Falstaff’s soliloquy. Splitting the play into three separate recordings, all because the EPG programmers didn’t do their jobs properly.

Richard is now home, and we’re now watching the hastily-arranged repeat on BBC4. It was announced immediately after the chopped-about first broadcast. The EPG wasn’t updated until today, of course, so you couldn’t set up for it right then.

Some might say that you can watch these things on the iPlayer. Well, yes, but if I’m going to spend two hours watching something, I’d rather do it on my big screen with no blurring and no buffering, and that’s what EPG recordings are meant to be for. And if you wanted to watch The Hollow Crown in HD, you’re stuffed. If you’re very, very lucky, the BBC might eventually release it on Blu-Ray – but, irritatingly, despite now making so many programmes in high definition, and ‘protecting’ them from copying with signals that mean you can’t back most of them up, those programmes they do release are usually just on DVD and not Blu-Ray. So, congratulations again, BBC, for making programmes in HD and then going to such lengths to prevent people watching them or keeping them that way.

And if you think that’s a rant, you should have heard me last night. Patrick Troughton used to say he didn’t do theatre because it was just “Shouting in the evenings” – I think our neighbours might agree.

After all that, the infamous ‘tennis as insult’ scene in The Hollow Crown’s finale Henry V in a fortnight is going to see almost bitterly satirical.

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You had me worried for a moment there Alex, so I've just checked my Sky+ box. Fortunately it managed to record Henry IV Part 1 on Saturday starting at 10:00pm for 122 minutes.

Much as I detest Mr Murdoch, at least his equipment works.
Ah, the Devil has all the best programmers.

I hope you (or someone) can persist with the complaints to the BBC so this doesn't happen again.

I don't have a TV, but I might try to catch this on the iPlayer :) Is it any good?
Certainly the first one, King Dick 2, was a superb alternative to the tennis on Beeb One.
Thanks Holly, thanks Paul!

I am Mr Complainy right now.

And we thought it was good, yes - Richard II was more unified in its line of plot, Henry 1.1 more split between the high politics and Falstaff's big box office, but both done well. And Tom Hiddleston's "Jeremy Irons" is outstanding.

I wonder if the casting director thought of Hiddleston as Richard II because of Loki, then the actor said 'But I've done that' and the director said 'And can't we have the star of the billion-dollar movie in three of them, not just one?'
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