Material and Expositional Frames in BBC <i>Arena</i> ’s Visual Jazz Jukebox


  • Will Finch University of Bristol



TV, BBC, Arena, Soundies, Jazz Shorts, Film, George Melly, Slim Gaillard


Since 1975, the award-winning BBC documentary series Arena has broadcast programmes on a plethora of cultural subjects. Films focusing explicitly on musical cultures form around 30% of Arena’s programmes; while ‘rockumentaries’ dominate, jazz is a regular topic of Arena’s music documentaries. This paper considers Arena’s first direct engagements with jazz in two 40 minute programmes from 1983. It demonstrates jazz culture’s interrelationship with the audio-visual through an examination of Jazz Juke Box I and Jazz Juke Box II (broadcast on BBC2 on 15/2/1983 at 10:15PM and 23/11/1983 at 10PM respectively). I present the programmes as key sites through which we can better understand Arena’s negotiation of jazz culture through two interdependent layers: firstly, I consider the programme’s aesthetic and formal presentation of jazz and its audio-visual materiality; secondly, I examine the extent of expository material presented in the programmes and the meaning it generates in relation to Arena’s and the BBC’s wider mediation of jazz.

Jazz’s Visual Juke Box might serve a better title for the two programmes. Both programmes re-present a selection of, mostly full-length, promotional jazz shorts and ‘Soundies’. The films are introduced from a smoky bar by George Melly who directs our attention towards a visual jukebox that forms the centre of our engagement with the films. Ellington, Basie, Nat King Cole, Billie Holliday, and Bessie Smith are a few of the musicians featured in the, as the Radio Times called them, ‘witty, moving, surreal and always irresistibly entertaining’ short films. It is argued visual techniques are used in the programmes to blur technological lines between the materiality of different audio-visual modes and also spatio-temporal lines between the social spaces where Panorams were originally found and the bar Melly inhabits. In doing so, Arena draws our attention not just to the films themselves, but also the socio-cultural context that surrounded their consumption. The visual aesthetic is also argued to foreground and fetishize the ‘rareness’ of this ‘forgotten’ footage and its analogue mode of reproduction.

Between the films, Melly often delivers a contextual and interpretive script that, although educational, does not rely on didacticism nor fully problematize the film’s stereotyped depiction of black musicians. Nevertheless, the audience is offered some possible interpretations of the film’s complex significance to the understanding, remembrance and history of jazz culture. This and the programmes’ expository materials present a mode of documentary film somewhat at odds with the more meditative style for which Arena became famous. This paper discusses the extent to which Arena’s critical presentation of the short films is conditioned by the creator’s own artistic subjectivities and by wider discourses on race and jazz on small-screens in 1980s Britain. It is argued that Melly’s persona, defined as much by his jazz and blues musicianship as his art criticism and journalism, continues the BBC’s fraught negotiation of jazz as an (un)popular music.

Author Biography

Will Finch, University of Bristol

Will Finch is a doctoral student at the University of Bristol under the supervision of Dr Guido Heldt and Dr Angela Piccini. His PhD project explores music in the BBC documentary series Arena—on the means by which Arena constructs ideas about music, and on the uses the series itself makes of music. Prompted by a master’s thesis on jazz in La Nouvelle Vague, Will maintains an interest in jazz and its actors in other audio-visual modes.


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How to Cite

Finch, W. (2019). Material and Expositional Frames in BBC <i>Arena</i> ’s Visual Jazz Jukebox. Jazz Research Journal, 12(1), 110–137.