Sense and sensibilities 

26 April 2004

Avid readers of this occasional column will notice that it has been a while since we last looked in on the old Victorian mansion where Madame Arcati and our fellow sitters congregate to contact the spirits of our dear, and sometimes not-so-dear departed. Well, I regret to inform readers that our wonderfully eccentric Madame has unfortunately been suffering from a sad case of what she terms ‘Medium’s Knee’, and as a result, we have not been able to have another sitting until very recently. The uncharitable among you will no doubt infer that ‘Medium’s Knee’ is a condition caused almost entirely by said medium using their knee to rap invisibly on the table, thus purporting to be in touch with spirits, but most of us, dear reader, know better.

Thus it was, that we assembled the other day in the dim withdrawing room with a fully-recovered Madame Arcati for another session, and I quickly wanted to catch up with news of broadcasting in the World Beyond, courtesy of our nautical independent television pioneer, the late Captain B. Unfortunately, however, you can’t always steer the Captain away from the otherworldy rocks when it comes to his pet subjects, and after a few guffaws about the departure of Mr Parkinson from the BBC after 33 years and some indiscreet murmurs about contracts and ‘Match of the Day’ – which, not being a terribly sporting type, quite passed me by – he turned his attention to the question of aspect ratios, of all things.

Now, readers who are either of too tender an age or don’t have their overcoats on, will probably not know that in the Old Days – even before the Captain had his own station, in fact – television screen aspect ratios were 5:4 and not 4:3 as they later became. This was because early CRTs were round, apparently, at which point the Captain made a joke of some kind concerning ‘crop circles’, but heaven knows what that was about. By the time that Independent Television came into being, anyway, things had long since settled down and nobody noticed, if they ever had. And, as Cap’n B quickly pointed out via the Astral Speaking Tube, this observation had absolutely nothing to do with what he was about to say.

It is, then, with quite a sense of fun, apparently, that the Captain gazes down on the antics of the BBC’s zoom and crop brigade who insist that the audiences hate to see black bars down the edge of their widescreen picture when archive programme clips are inserted into modern 16:9 programmes. This, no doubt, has a lot to do with the fact that, in the World Unseen, ARCing is carried out completely invisibly. You can watch in any aspect ratio you want, and if you look at old programmes, they occupy the whole screen but you don’t lose anything either – the Spirit World is a bit like that, in a kind of quasi-holographic way.

The Captain, it seems, is of the opinion that people are pretty much the same whatever channel they watch, and if they hate to see black bars down the sides of BBC programmes as the zoom and croppers claim, they will equally hate to see the aspect ratio whizzing about when a commercial channel broadcasting a 4:3 programme switches to 16:9 for the commercials and then back again. But the fact is, he notes, in reality they don’t seem to complain either way. At least, not in public. In private they no doubt eff and blind to their heart’s content.

The way they did it in his day, he remarked, was simple: just give people what’s good for them, they’ll never notice. “All this ‘choice’ business is a load of balderdash,” is actually how he put it, “So you do what you want to do. You just make sure that you do it properly – to the highest possible standard.”

His recommendation, then, is to show clips in their original aspect ratios – switch ’em where necessary, and don’t be ashamed.

And with that we closed another session. Perhaps next time he will have something a little more, well, interesting to talk about.

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Richard G Elen Contact More by me

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