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Modern Cliches: Helicopter journeys

Robert Weedon | Television | Friday 9th March 2012

"Oi Titchmarsh! This is my land, get off!"
Armando Iannucci, 2004: The Stupid Version

Ever since a helicopter came quite close to cutting Julie Andrews's head off at the beginning of The Sound of Music in 1965, there had been something quite special about a camera mounted on a helicopter; the way that they can float over a landscape seems to touch upon something quite primeval - man's wish to fly like a bird, and when used sparingly, they can lend a majesty and awe to a visual production.

Unfortunately, helicopter shots are now getting a bit boring. Rather akin to how audiences are no longer impressed by a live news report being beamed back from a far-off part of the world, the "camera floating over a landscape" shot has become a generic filler; the visual wallpaper for any TV programme about the landscape of the United Kingdom, and there are a hell of a lot of those about at the moment.

A pretty bit of Scotland, brought to you by Coast.

In one of those rashes of insipid commissioning that in the past have included doppelganger makeover shows, cookery shows and talent contests, the terrestrial channels appear to be obsessed by making shows where a personality goes around the more picturesque sections of the British countryside pointing out the same old things.

Once a journey has been completed, it's another TV personality's turn to do the same thing, but this time look at the same places using a different pretext. For me, this bland genre of prime-time screensaver is epitomised by the helicopter shot.

It seems that this began in 2004 with the catchily titled BBC series Alan Titchmarsh's British Isles: A Natural History. In this, everyone's mum's favourite gardener went around the UK looking at, unsurprisingly, the "natural history" of the British Isles, but generally the pointy/lakey bits that look quite nice.

Soon after, David Dimblebot went on a quest to look at the same places in his A Picture of Britain, but from the perspective of art. Perhaps the most blatant programme, indeed perhaps the archetype of this genre was 2008's Britain From Above presented by Andrew Marr where there was no pretext. He was just looking at Britain...from above.

These shots are achieved by attaching a sinister-looking rotating black globe containing an HD camera onto the bottom of a helicopter which makes the aircraft look a bit like a male sheep when it has an elastic band wrapped around one of its testicles.

If you're very lucky, you might get to see a helicopter in the programme itself, as they might have to use the shot when the helicopter accidentally projects a shadow of itself onto a flank of Ben Nevis. After all, it can't be cheap to hire a helicopter for a few hours...

These shots help fill up the bits of screentime when Nicholas Crane or Julia Bradbury or Michael Portillo are reading out whatever their researcher found out about whatever location they're talking about this week.

The Yorkshire Dales, perhaps, where James Herriot lived. Or the Lake District which was where William Wordsworth wrote some poems. Maybe Dartmore, if you're lucky, where apparently Arthur Conan Doyle set The Hound of the Baskervilles. Youknow, the one with the big dog, yeah? The audience didn't know this stuff, honestly.

They also appear as visual fillers in TV dramas or documentaries, perhaps to connect a scene to another, or even to act as a "noddy" shot to cover over any missing links. The Apprentice, for example, has a real penchant for hovering reverentially over the City of London or Canary Wharf.

The City of London. I don't think Lord Sugar actually has an office here.

Meanwhile drama series like Torchwood seem to be obsessed with showing us shots of Cardiff at night, which almost look like they're saying "and now a word from our tourist-board".

The thing is, there's nothing really wrong with these aerial shots, they're often very nice to look at. My criticism is that they have become so ubiquitous that their inclusion has become de rigeur for any programme about landscapes and, due to the endless parade of those on our screens for the last ten years, they have become tedious and repetetive. After all, one hill seen from the sky is probably much the same as another.

When I went to see the new Hammer cinema film of The Woman in Black the other day, there was a nice helicopter shot that followed a car down a causeway towards a haunted house. It could have been spectacular, and I guess it is, but it simply reminded me of yet another "report" on Countryfile or Coast.

The Woman in Black causeway shot.

By featuring these bird's eye views too much in bland TV fillers we've got to a point where the extraordinary, unnatural visual sensation of flying over a landscape has become as commonplace as a train steaming into a station towards the camera.



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