Arena’s Strange Stories And Babylonian Afterlife

A collection of eleven extraordinary and essential arts documentaries for you to watch.

Arena, the BBC’s flagship arts programme, began in 1975 and somehow – despite the continual dumbing-down of television and the constant threat to close BBC4, where the show now finds a home, it still exists, at least in theory. Arena is unlike any other show, in that it is less a series and more a collection of one-off episodes that appear randomly in the schedules. Initially under the control of Alan Yentob, it reached a creative peak under editors Nigel Finch and Anthony Wall, who took the idea of ‘documentary’ into often fascinating and radical areas. As a series, Arena had no real boundaries – there was no set running time, so episodes might fit into an hour slot or might be longer. Sometimes, as with Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol, it entered the world of biographical feature film or slid entirely into fiction. The best of Arena plays with form and content, becoming a work of art in itself – and during its glory days, the series had an attraction to edgy and challenging artists. Each episode opened with the iconic title sequence featuring the programme name in neon, held inside a floating bottle that appears from the mist, (usually) accompanied by Brian Eno’s theme music; but beyond that, there was no set style to connect the films.

The closest we have to it now is the work of Adam Curtis, who is clearly very influenced by the way the show often mixed and twisted archive footage and fictional narratives with a more traditional talking heads format. But Arena‘s documentaries had less knowing pretension than Curtis’ work, as impressive as his films often are and instead feel more like genuine works of art and compulsive storytelling.

Typically, because these are TV documentaries, they have barely been archived. A handful – not the best episodes – are on the BBC’s Player, where the classic programming that was publicly funded is only occasionally revived for modern audiences. There has been no DVD or Blu-ray box set – while all 600 episodes might be too much to ask for, surely a collection of the best is not too much to ask for. You can, however, watch a number of the films online via the BBC’s Arena hub – the selection is, of course, slanted towards the more recent productions, possibly not available outside the UK and the list of episodes is far from complete.

Luckily, a handful of episodes have also made their way to YouTube and we’re featuring a selection here. Things being as they are, I can’t guarantee that these will remain available and so I suggest using your downloader of choice to grab them for posterity. This is just a selection and we’ll dig out more soon.

The Beano and The Dandy (1988)

Blackpool Wakes (1989)

Dali (1986)

Dear Antonioni… (1997)

Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon (1991)

Louise Brooks (1986)

Philip K. Dick – A Day in the Afterlife (1994)

A Pretty British Affair (Powell and Pressburger 1981)

Saint Genet (1985)

The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima (1985)

The Strange Story of Joe Meek (1991)

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