Essentially a high-definition aerial travelogue, Visions of Britain & Ireland is a four program set of episodes from PBS's Visions series, a production of WLIW in New York. The episodes - Visions of England, Visions of Scotland, Visions of Ireland and Visions of Wales - run about 56 minutes apiece, are presented over two discs, and include roughly 65 minutes of bonus footage, more of the same, also in high-def.
I had my doubts about watching 290 minutes worth of nothing but helicopter shots but the format works reasonably well, at least in small doses. If you've already visited landmarks like Stonehenge, Blarney Castle, and Covent Garden, seeing them from vantage point of several hundred feet in the air is pretty fascinating - I found myself tracing my steps in an aerial shot above Edinburgh from a trip I took there 22 years ago: "Hey, I went up this street! And then down that way," etc., etc.
It's also intriguing to see familiar sights like Buckingham Palace from above, rather like Google-Earthing Disneyland, or to study the layout of places like the famous St. Andrews golf course. Because the helicopter is always leisurely moving with some kind of Steadicam-type equipment employed, the camera glides above the landscapes as if it were smooth as glass. In high-def, this creates an almost 3-D effect.
Predictably, the footage is visually sumptuous. Visions of Britain & Ireland really give the format a workout, particularly in terms of the myriad, subtle shades of green on the landscape. The high-def cameras capture the textures of the White Cliffs of Dover, the mirror-like black lochs of Scotland; an amazing shot of a Scottish horizon simultaneously captures a rainbow in one part of the frame, a cloudburst in another, and sunshine peering through in yet another corner of the screen.
One also admires the details and character distinguishing, say, Cambridge from Oxford, or the architectures of castles and ordinary homes in Wales versus Ireland, the Highlands versus the Lowlands. There's a good balance of the rural and the urban, of the geometric shapes of a city's layout versus the simple majesty of mountains and coastlines. Helpfully, all the landmarks are identified with unobtrusive graphics at the bottom of the screen. I grew a bit weary of the endless castles, though all were visually quite interesting, and I was watching these shows back-to-back, instead of spacing them out like most viewers are likely to do. The films show only the beauty of these places and none of the ugliness - no smokestacks billowing toxic fumes, no aerial shots of nuclear power plants, landfills, prisons, etc. - and at times they play like an extended commercial for Thomas Cook (one can imagine these shows playing on an endless loop in their travel agencies).
The travelogue quality extends to the narration, which is a bit overly precious at times, tempered somewhat by well-delivered narration. The narrators are Franca Barchiesi (England), James Wallace (Scotland), Terry Donnelly (Ireland), and Geraint W. Davies (Wales). Roy Hammond is the executive producer and aerial director, with Sam Toperoff the producer-writer-director-editor.
Video & Audio
I've seen a fair number of these kinds of documentary and nature shows on Blu-ray and HD DVD, as well as the endless amount of programming of this type we get on the high-def channels here in Japan, but I must report that Visions of Britain & Ireland, despite being older shows (the earliest dating from 2003) in 1080i, has some of the best-looking material I've seen so far. For starters it's all extremely well-photographed, with wisely-chosen, sweeping camera angles under ideal lighting conditions (note where the shadows fall in most of the shots). Add to that, the transfers with their taut yet leisurely-feeling editing and strong background scores combine for an overall spectacular viewing experience.
The program is PCM 2.0 stereo, but the viewer has the option to switch off the narration and enjoy the shows in 5.1 Dolby Digital with the music track only. SDH subtitles are included.
One complaint, however: The menu screens aren't designed very well. The highlighted selection on each menu screen is too subtle to see, even on large monitors, making it difficult to navigate. For a while, I even thought the disc had loaded incorrectly.
The only supplement is more of the same, about an hour's worth of footage, also in high-def of edited and scored material for all the episodes save Visions of Wales.
Though I'd strongly recommend watching these at least a week apart, I was impressed and unexpectedly engrossed throughout Visions of Britain & Ireland, and it left me both curious about others in this series, and wonder when I'll ever be able to afford a trip back. Highly Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, Japanese Cinema, is on sale now.