Monday, 16 May 2011

The Old Crowd (Lindsay Anderson, 1978/9, LWT)

It’s difficult to write about the films and videos that, for the sake of clarity, we honour tradition in calling ‘television plays’ without falling into a sort of dualism, the video or film so labelled being treated as a production ‘for’ video or film of a text with its own anterior life. The critic racks focus from this text to the production, conceived of as a kind of glaze in which the writer’s intention is suspended, and praises or blames it according to whether it seems to support or hinder an intention that, in most instances, s/he cannot discover by reference to any text but the production itself. Often, an invisible work is called as a witness for the prosecution of the visible one through whose lineaments it has been perceived. My aversion to this mode (for want of a better term) is almost visceral, and I have no intention of practicing it here; my subject is one of its most prominent victims.

The Old Crowd seems to require italics rather than quotation marks; it isn’t an instance of anything extrinsic. Paul Sutton, the editor of Lindsay Anderson’s published diaries, describes it as a film, though it is unique among LWT’s ‘Six Plays by Alan Bennett’ in having been made entirely on videotape. Its proportions are cinematic in a sense inaccessible to the connotations of that word currently in the ascendant in the culture of television production.

The action: a piano is being tuned. George and Betty have invited friends for dinner in a house they moved into six weeks ago: Rufus, Pauline, Stella, Dickie, Oscar, and the young people, Peter and Sue. To wait upon their guests, they have hired two ‘slaves’, Harold and Glyn, ostensibly out-of-work actors specialising in policemen. The house is unfurnished and crumbling, the windows covered in newspaper. The blind piano-tuner, a former policeman, plays a waltz and leaves. The old crowd appear. The young people arrive. Dinner is served. There is a musical performance. Stella goes upstairs with Glyn for sexual intercourse. Dickie listens to his radio. Totty arrives. George shows some slides. Totty dies. Everyone sings.

With only an hour, we think we have a right to know them better, but they have had years, and their opacity is not a style of discretion. The space between Stella and Dickie is plain enough, as plain as the reasons why Totty’s equanimity soothes and Peter and Sue’s disturbs, why Pauline howls, why Oscar is odd rather than Queer; in their company we have the disturbing sensation that where polite conversation peters out, and the speakers refuse to understand, there is not the teeming unseemly life beloved of social realists, but blankness like a lapse in memory, an erased trauma, or the darkness before the front door: incomprehension a protection from the incomprehensible. If they weren’t being looked at, they would be unbearable.

A shot of a wall, cornice and ceiling, an ominous sound a beat after fading up from black, and then a title, ‘The Old Crowd’, in thirties-haunted font at the bottom right corner of the screen, beached by indifferent geometry; perhaps this is our first clue. To image a space like this –socially neutral enough to seem to make a careful word like ‘image’ seem needlessly scrupulous – would only occur to either an unusually curious or unusually interrogatory intelligence, so how could this be realism? A crack, cartoon-quick, across the ceiling. If the limits of their imagination were all, this would be the breaching of a tomb, would stand for “Bourgeois Society” as one critic misread it, but their confinement is not a fait accompli – this is why Dickie has been in Valparaiso. What Anderson opposes always is the will not to perceive – to deceive oneself, to equivocate, to attempt retrospectively to preserve an ignorance that has already been breached. The old crowd are terrified of what they might be about to learn. All definite information is potentially disastrous, so it is scrambled by the receiver; an anecdote of macabre violence is put at a remove by the hearer, assigned to New York; Dickie’s Valparaiso visit draws the laughter of elective ignorance; no-one dares anchor the indeterminate. Throughout Anderson’s work the most troubling figures are not the simply buffoonish or thoroughly deluded, but those who, like Dickie, know precisely how their position has been achieved, and what will be required to maintain it. Trailing behind the tour of the house, he alone notices the cracks appearing.

Something else endangers their confinement, of course. If memory serves, no-one has remarked upon the twinning of the fissures in the house’s structure with the rupturing of the dramatic space by shots that incorporate crew members, cameras and studio space beyond the edge of the sets. In standard accounts of the work, these moments are treated as part of Anderson’s ‘treatment’ of Alan Bennett’s ‘text’: Bennett himself remarks in the introduction to The Writer in Disguise that of all the plays included, The Old Crowd would be easiest to stage, which is inconceivable. In fact, these breaches are integral. Before the death of Totty seems to precipitate the camera’s departure from the dramatic space altogether, the most explicit of them occurs when the characters are most convinced of their seclusion: George and Betty’s dance to the blind piano tuner’s accompaniment; Rufus’s declaration that ‘you’re on your own these days’; Pauline asking George if they’re ‘overlooked’ and receiving the reply ‘there are neighbours, but we’ve never seen them’. ‘Nowhere’s safe nowadays’, Stella remarks at one point; these breaches underscore how much has been done, for so long, to keep the referents of characters like these safe.

It is Lindsay Anderson’s commitment to representational social intervention that gives these shots their disruptive indeterminacy. Conventionally, representational social intervention in British cinema and television has meant realism, and this generally requires of its adherents an elective incomprehension or active mischaracterisation of any technique eschewed by, or developed later than, its brief nineteenth-century heyday. If we think Anderson is a realist, then these shots must be self-indulgence. If we thought Anderson was a postmodernist, then these shots would seem the repetition of a joke, flattening one’s memory of the impact of its first use. It is because the application of either or both of these labels is problematic that these shots retain their disconcerting power, even for a viewer who expects their appearance: when camera 4 rises behind Rufus’s turned head, we are not watching an acting performance in a television studio, but a character unaware he is the product of a television studio. As he is unaware of a newsreader’s autocue later, as he is unaware of the labour making his privilege possible throughout.

Television is also something received. Mother will watch anything - her viewing takes in a documentary on eye-surgery (the video’s second paraphrase of Bunuel), a scene from a film of joyriders driving over a cliff, and an anthropological film of Africa without voiceover. These are included via reshooting from Mother’s black-and-white set. This process is a sort of quotation, but we are not expected to recognise the works on the television as distinct texts, but as examples of types; found footage rather than works cited, their disparate subject-matter is presented as an illustration of banal indifference rather than global engagement - it would be interesting to identify the films excerpted, but it wouldn’t necessarily be illuminating. Their use here could be mistaken for an expression of distrust or contempt towards the medium; in fact, they illustrate the ambivalence of the mode of attention it makes possible. Mother’s reaction to Stella and Glyn’s sexual encounter in her room is not voyeuristic; for a moment she watches them in transfixed dismay, before switching her attention back to the television set. Filtered, magnified and given shape, the representation is seized upon by a blinkered spectatorship grateful for the intercession of another will: the television, like the unread newspapers, keeps the world out.

These two ways of showing - looking at - television, generative mechanism and shuttered discourse, converge during the sequence of Totty’s death. She has been mediated from the beginning, her imminent death the subject of George and Betty’s conversation prior to the arrival of the ‘slaves’, but though regarded and inquired after, Totty, when she materialises, is evidentally real to her own satisfaction. Her absurdity - which is not to be overlooked despite the confidence she radiates and inspires – is the absurdity of an outmoded, outsize grandeur, so confident of mien and gesture as to make the old crowd’s fears seem unfounded. While she illuminates their gathering, it seems cosy rather than claustrophobic; she is almost a medium, viewed from the other side – a conductor or enchanter around whom incomplete and immaterial beings huddle for warmth; though neither Bennett, with his interpretavist attention to the chasm between aspiration and enactment, nor Anderson, with his interrogation of societies as circumstances perpetrated by individuals, allow these characters the postmodern luxury of being merely nexus, memories of the house. Totty asks George and Rufus about their children, but she is the only member of the company who appears as a subject in George’s ‘epidiascope’ show.

This occasion of collective memory evokes, at first, traditional responses – nostalgia, mystification, amusement at an upside-down slide or a trick photograph – before moving from received emotions to texts in quotations, submerged or declaimed; Stella recognises ‘Percival, before he went to India’ – the determining absence of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves – Rufus and Oscar take up quotation of Tennyson and Kipling, arranged between projector clicks. Dickie confines himself to identification of what is within the frame. Totty’s last words are those of a piece of public school doggerel; “this time tomorrow, where shall I be?”

Like a departing soul above a deathbed, the camera, no character at its side, withdraws to see the house in its fullest context, a nest of sets with no defined outer edge, as the party lift Totty’s body to the table, preparing their leave-taking. The question of where they will go from here – it is important that finally, like the ‘slaves’, they do not wish to wait on formalities – may seem, once the camera has reached the gallery, a naïve one, but their fear of being caught, their referents, and Anderson’s commitment, may be thought to invite the question.

Viewers bent on genre classification could call The Old Crowd a dystopia, and with dystopian works the great temptation for the viewer coming to them when they are no longer new is to compare the work’s fear of what could come with our knowledge of what did come. The two most immediately evident problems with this are the assumption that what happened left no mark upon our ability to perceive it, and the assumption that oppositional consciousness exists in a safe zone of imaginative continuity. At this distance, the viewer may be forgiven for imagining that while, when it aired for the second and final time on Channel 4, Dickie would have been a placeable type, Peter and Sue might well have seemed an inaccurate prediction – not at all pushy, callous Thatcherites.

What do the young people know? Their smiling, children’s-television-presenter manner is hardly less ominous than the biker gear in which they first appear; they are genuinely imperturbable where the old crowd are determinedly so. The old crowd’s anecdotes are routines like the announcement of dinner, impersonal, seldom recounted at first hand, a cue for response rather than a cause. All are revealing. A deadly virus is sweeping the country; holes are opening up in major cities; rabies has hit Burgess Hill. When Peter replies to Sue’s anodyne question ‘I’ve never seen anyone dead before, have you Peter?’ with ‘only at school’ he isn’t trying to be facetious or mordant. The capacity for outrage, or horror, or even opposition has been bred out of them; it is they – and not any imagined progeny of Stella and Glyn’s assignation, as one commentator fancifully, perhaps hopefully, speculated - who are the future, analogues of the appalling new life of Britannia Hospital. Peter and Sue will never mind the blood they wade through.

Bearing in mind, as we must, the necessarily provisional nature of any attempt to reconstruct the reception of this depiction by the audience of what is, already, another time – can it ever have been truer than it is now? Unseen, has it been coming truer since?

Introductory post 4

For a while I wondered if it would have been better had I never encountered television at all. I forgot the footholds it still provided when I first knew it – footholds not entirely of its own making, but neither entirely extrinsic, imported culture. Its own history, not yet corralled into immediately evident strands or channels; old and new programmes placed together for the sensibility to which they were likely to appeal. Television then, still, for a little while, provided one with so many routes out – prospects on its own place in time, its own relation to art, and its role in the world; roads leading towards experiences, works and modes of discourse beyond its borders. Someone said that the point of helping someone is to put them in the condition of no longer needing your help, and television, similarly, seemed to be made by people who believed that the purpose of television was to prepare the viewer for the day when they would no longer need to watch television. Once out, it seemed in memory a very restricted place – like C. S. Lewis’s description of an external observer’s impression of hell – and I felt relief at having kicked its dust off my shoes. Of course, it still had its uses, its place in my life. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As a child, once old enough to make distinctions, I liked little of the television of my own time. Repeats of classic telefantasy – Doctor Who, the Supermarionation shows, to a lesser extent the ITC spy series – were my main focus. The past was exotic. This vanished epoch was the first lost Eden of my acquaintance, and all of it was experienced via public-service broadcasting. Though I would not have phrased it in such terms, it was clear to me that only television unencumbered by the permanent present-tense of advertising could allow itself the luxury of a curatorial intelligence.

Moondial was repeated at the right time for me to have caught it, but I was put off by its VT look. A Pixley and Howe-Stammers-Walker-reading child, I had discovered that the programmes whose ‘old’ look so fascinated me were shot on 16mm. After Pertwee-era Doctor Who, school memories of Dark Towers, and the cannibalised ‘flashbacks’ of Sky Hunter II, Moondial looked like thin stuff to me. Now I prize that aesthetic, but that’s because it is distant enough to have become an aesthetic; then it was just the way telly looks now, too near in time to be of interest.

Then through reference books and television I discovered the Hammer films, followed them back to Universal horror films, thence to German expressionism, and out. The programming at the local art cinema was excellent, and, when I began to go there regularly in my mid-to-late teens, it became a second home, but television’s repertory screenings were still invaluable. Television no longer compared itself to this older culture – aesthetically, a culture of imitation had taken over television drama - but it could still show the films to which it no longer had any address, and that was all I needed it to do. By this time, of course, it wasn’t the same thing at all - the terrestrial and cable channels of 2001 still showed, taken together, fewer silent films than Channel 4 did in 1994 (or so it seemed – it’d be interesting to find out if this is actually the case).

Did I give television up or did it give me up? At some point, in any case, I became aware that I no longer watched it. How I returned to it, as an annex of film history, might be expected to predispose me towards work intelligible in the terms of authorship’s formulation in cinema, and indeed the work I discuss in the following post is an example of this, but although it is unlikely to bear very frequently upon my contributions here, I want to say something about my relationship with television as it now stands. For years, I never watched it. Now, I watch it, but not to look for traces of what it was. Bryan Magee will not come again. But this causes me less concern than many readers might think it ought, perhaps because as someone whose main field of interest is cinema, followed by literature, then music, I spend a lot of time with the dead. I am here not to mourn the television of the liberal consensus, but to rejoice in the number of great works created in its time.

Yes, there is ‘archive melancholy’, which Robin Carmody and I have talked about elsewhere; but for me there is little present-day regret. That television is not now, if it ever was, an artistic medium frees one from the duty to be, provisionally, interested in everything. It concerns me that there are countries I haven’t seen a single film from; it does not concern me that I haven’t yet seen all of Doctor Who, old or new. I will probably never see anything written by Paul Abbott. Generally, I resent programmes that demand I pay attention over a period of weeks, or expect me to maintain interest in a plot-arc, though the annoyance with which Hinchcliffe fans have greeted the new series of Doctor Who does give me a warm glow for old time’s sake – I may even watch some of it.

No longer stuck with its present tense, or what it says about other arts, I have little objection to what the best of television does now. What I have no expectation of liking, I avoid. Television now strikes me as being as good as it can be when one considers the society it is addressing. To attribute its failings to some incapacity of current practitioners has increasingly come, to my mind, to seem naïve – artists are not superbeings who become mortal as you approach them in age – so it was with excitement that I began reading this blog, in which television’s sea-change is rightly laid at the door of the society it was made in, and for.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Forgotten TV Shows I'd Like to See... #1

Once Upon a Time in the North (BBC 1, 1994)

First in an occasional series concerning programmes I've heard about or come across that seem tantalisingly out of reach. Programmes which have somehow had no DVD release, even in this age of Network DVD. If anyone has seen it and has any memories, please feel free to comment below...

I am prompted to mention this series, as it was mentioned on the same page of an old Observer I was reading today with the original purpose of researching the Eurovision Song Contest. I had literally never heard of this before, and it sounds interesting - and surely worthy of comparison with Peter Tinniswood's Uncle Mort saga, Early Doors (an equally fond portrayal of working-class culture as The Royle Family, but unlike that series, it did not outstay its welcome with endless specials) and the work of Alan Bennett.

This was its preview:

'The Simpsons have been made flesh and transposed to north-west England. This new six-part comedy from Tim Firth is probably the closest British TV has so far got to recreating the grim humour of working-class family strife. It also sees Bernard Hill emerging from the quagmire of poor scripts that have blighted his recent work to play downtrodden Len Tollit, who in this opener uses his redundancy cheque to set up a mobile phone company. Christine Moore plays his West End musical-obsessed wife Pat, Bob Mason his hippie, spirit-guided truck-driving brother, and Susan McArdle and Andrew Whyment his bickering children, whose exchanges could well prove weekly highlights.' (The Observer, 30/04/1994, p.16)