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  • Widescreen 1.78:1
  • 16:9 Enhanced
  • Dual Layer ( )
  • English: Dolby Digital Stereo
    English - Hearing Impaired
  • Audio commentary
  • Featurette - Making Of
  • Photo gallery - Montage
  • 2 Short film - Veronica's Story + Spig's Story

Shooting the Past

BBC/Roadshow Entertainment . R4 . COLOR . 183 mins . M15+ . PAL


The BBC really do make some classic television. In this 1999 mini-series, we are left to ruminate on the importance of photographs as historical documents. It’s something I’d never really considered, but libraries of photographs certainly have an importance regarding history and the stories of individuals. These libraries exist around the world and Australia has its own excellent facility like this in Picture Australia, a part of our National Library in Canberra. I’ve actually been there and it’s amazing. (And while on the theme I thought I’d add a couple of my own photos to this review).

"Ten million pictures... one story... out of all this..."

However, I digress. Our mini-series here deals with a small library of ten million photographs in the English countryside. It is staffed by an eclectic bunch of characters who learn one sunny morning that their building has been bought by Americans to build a new business school within the grounds. They have one week in which to find a buyer for the collection before it is removed and destroyed. This sparks a hasty series of calls and deals, all under the backstory of the narrator, Oswald Bates, the strangest fellow of them all. He is dictating the story before he dies later that afternoon, and this story finally merges in real time with the pursuit of a buyer.

This is a clever series and one that delivers an important message – even if it is a little hamfisted in its obviousness. However, there are a myriad smaller stories running along inside the major tale and this reflects the library itself in holding a million vagaries and vignettes about people and life. While told affectionately and urgently, the series manages to avoid the trap of sentimentality, choosing instead to run its race alongside the 21st century hastiness. This amplifies the fact that history can be easily brought up to date with modern technology and there’s no need to discredit it because it’s old – everything can, after all, adapt.

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All three episodes are included here along with two short films in the extras that first played to British audiences back in 1999. All have an eclectic length due to BBC programming of the time, but this also contributes to the library feel of odd assortments of sizes and lengths while still maintaining unity.

  • Episode One (1:10:31)
    The odd inhabitants of the Fallon Photo Library and Collection learn of a US company about to gut them and remove the collection. The day is played out with interviews and reflections on the incredible collection and attempts to save it.
  • Episode Two (52:31)
    Our narrator continues his dictum, informing us he is soon to suicide. The curator of the collection, Marilyn, continues her futile bid to sell the collection en masse.
  • Episode Three (1:00:36)
    In the time that remains for the library, Marilyn figures out Oswald’s plan and gets him to hospital. Then, using the final moments of the library, she uses Oswald’s clues to put together an incredible story about the personal history of the US businessman in a last attempt to save the collection.


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Made for television, we happily receive a 1.78:1 transfer with anamorphic enhancement. While mostly indoor shots, the screen size gives us nice full views of the claustrophobic corridors of the library and sets the scene nicely. While we lose some detail to thicker shadows, for the most part there’s nothing going on there anyhow. Just stacks and boxes of photographs. Occasional film artefacts crop up here and there, but I only noticed some larger ones like the full length scratch at 25:18 or at 1:02:30-33 in Episode One.

Some very nice use of black and white photographs as segues maintains the focus of attention here and the shooting of these photos has been accomplished well. There are moments when the photos look a little Photoshoppy, but these are for photos used to support smaller stories within the larger and still look okayish.

Otherwise this resembles a show made recently and so the picture is accordingly fine. Flesh tones are great and colour levels, while not always well lit, are even enough.


For a dialogue/music driven TV miniseries with the focus strictly on visuals, the sound is obviously going to be stereo. This works fine here though as dialogue is all well spoken (even through some cruddy American accents). The orchestral music that accompanies the story is quite beautiful and supports the story well in being moody or pensive or even sometimes quite odd.


There is a small bunch of extras here to help fill this two disc set, but I’m sure there’s still bags of room left over on them. However, our first is in the audio commentary. This is interesting enough, although the director seems to make a statement and then look for backup from the production designer a lot. It’s not so bad though.

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Next up we get two short films which are wholly related to the story. Basically, they are filler material for the bizarre scheduling of the BBC at the time to help pad out episodes. Quite interesting and entitled Veronica’s Story and Spig’s Story they are both tales dredged from photographs and (according to the optional commentary on these) one is true and one is not. They run for 4:42 and 7:02 respectively.

A Making Of featurette follows and runs for 19:48. The usual stuff here with cast and crew interviews, film footage and the sales pitch etc. Still, worth a look. Finally a photo montage of pictures used in two headlining stories within the miniseries. This is little more than filler material that runs for 5:30 with accompanying music.


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This is a very interesting story that has a good moral message to sell. I’d recommend this for anyone who enjoys BBC productions or anyone who has more than a passing interest in historical drama or photography or just a well made eclectic story. It runs a gamut of emotions throughout with occasional laughs, tragedy and tension, but the overall feeling is one of hope and that makes the show the appealing vehicle it is.

  • LINK: http://www.dvd.net.au/review.cgi?review_id=3259
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      And I quote...
    "A picture tells a thousand words..."
    - Jules Faber
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