Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Becoming a Legend: Blakes 7 - Series One

TX: BBC-1, 02/01/1978 - 27/03/1978

'Fascism threatens to become fashionable. I use the term loosely, but then people do. Call it totalitarianism, and in some guise or other it is a staple theme of teledrama: an all-purpose enemy, decked out with military precision, paramilitary uniform, uniformity of thought, one fatal flaw - and of course - our hero as dissident, battling against the odds to defeat it or perish.'

-- Peter Fiddick, 'Television: Blake's Seven', The Guardian, 10/01/1978, p.8

Welcome to the first of four joint-essays on each series of Blakes 7, inspired by Neil and Sue Perryman's undertaking to watch the lot and write about it at Adventures with the Wife and Blake. I am a donor for their Kickstarter project and have greatly enjoyed reading the blog, after watching the episodes. Sharing the viewing and, now, the writing with me is Ben Brown, with whom I have also been viewing much 'classic' Doctor Who and unusual cinema in recent times... You'll see Ben focusing on narrative, character and dialogue and myself exploting the show's cultural context, themes and myths.


Kerr Avon - Thorn in their Side?

Since being introduced to British sci-fi, I have been confronted with numerous robots, aliens, monsters, spacecraft, laser guns, eccentric - sometimes megalomaniacal - characters and a host of smug one-liners. Eventually my time came to be initiated into the cult following of the dark-ish, somewhat messed-up but often hilarious Blakes 7. This was series 1 and it was 1978. Echoes of Star Wars were still pulsing through the air. [Editor's note: In the Times' TV listings for episode 2, the link is made specific: 'To keep us going until we can actually get tickets for Star Wars, BBC has come up with a new series series Blakes Seven. Worth watching meanwhile.']

The man who brought the Daleks to millions now brought us seven rebellious crew members aboard an errant spaceship eventually to be called the Liberator. This man was Terry Nation and he would make sure he would have an iron grip on the first series by writing every single episode.

The story begins with the plight of our hero, Roj Blake. His memory has been damaged, as is revealed to him ten minutes into the first episode. He has but one disturbing and intense flashback to fall back on. Consequently, we are exposed time and again to Blake’s gaping mouth and the repetition of him being clubbed over the head by an agent of the Terran Federation. It turns out that this tyrannical, intergalactic power had been responsible for the murder of his family and the subsequent wiping of his memory. Upon reacquiring his memory of the atrocities committed by the Federation, he is sentenced to be deported to planet Cygnus Alpha along with other prisoners. A prominent dissident, the Feds have really gone to town on preventing Blake from becoming a martyr. When the charges are outlined to him, charges which basically amount to paedophilia, the apparently innocent Blake realises he has been fit-up and exclaims: “You’ve done a BRILLIANT JOB!” to the security cameras.

"You've done a BRILLIANT JOB!"
Before mnemonic revival kicks in, we have to watch as Blake is told that he is guilty, and while pacing his cell like a caged animal, swears that he “is not insane!” and bellows out that he can’t “remembah… remembah… remembah… remembah…!” – a roar that still echoes in my ears to this day. Blake eventually escapes the Federation aboard the spaceship renamed The Liberator, and gradually acquires six fellow convicts to accompany him along the way:

Kerr Avon is acerbic, cool and ultra-intelligent, don’t you know? When the need arises, he is quite able to conduct himself as the ship’s resident sleuth. A Cluedo-like scenario arises in 'Mission to Destiny', where the only major difference to the usual set-up is the substitute of a manor house for a spaceship control room. It all begins when Mr Hopwood from Grange Hill keels over while trying to man the controls of a spaceship. This, of course, warrants the use of a screaming banshee named Sara upon discovery of the corpse. Eventually the members of B7 find that murder is apparent on this spaceship and Avon takes it upon himself to fit the pieces of the puzzle together.

AVON: … The plan had gone to pieces. The best the killer could hope for was to delay a full inquiry for as long as possible. As a matter of fact, I think that was a waste of effort. I know - we all know, that one of you is the murderer. But proving which one... Unless, of course, as seems quite likely, someone other than the murderer already knows...
A whodunnit in corridor land!

Avon completes his moment to shine in this episode by eventually socking Sara in the mouth when he discovers she is actually behind the murders!
AVON: You better get her out of here. I really rather enjoyed that!
Olag Gan is the ship’s strong-man, and although unable to kill, due to the implantation of electronic limiter into his neck, he is quite capable of threatening to tear off some one’s arms and legs if he gets rubbed up the wrong way.
GAN: Couldn't stop the... Couldn't stop the... implant [grunt!]
Vila Restal is a lock-picker and coward and can be relied upon to deliver the odd snappy one-liner, usually to himself, except when drawn into a confrontation with… you guessed it… Avon, over access through a door.
VILA: Listen, Fingers, computers are yours, doors are mine, right?
Jenna Stannis, initially the only female aboard the Liberator, is the sexy blonde action-woman who is more than capable of carefully choreographed martial arts. She seems to like Blake and show concern for him when he returns to the ship unscathed from some action on Cygnus Alpha.
JENNA: I was so worried!
BLAKE: I had a few sweaty moments myself!

Cally is an alien guerrilla fighter from planet Auron. Initially and understandably hostile, she is confronted by Vila who reassures her.
VILA: No need for belligerence, pretty lady. I'm harmless!
Zen, the Liberator’s computer, informs the rest of the crew of approaching planets, danger and encroaching ships in a bored voice which was probably meant to sound inhumanly electronic. When he asks Blake to be more precise about a question surrounding the whereabouts of his crew, the unfortunate Zen is on the receiving end of an impatient Blake who barks: "The others! My crew! Where are they!?"

By the time of 'Time Squad', our crew is virtually fully formed to the delight of an enthusiastic Gan. Avon cannot resist slipping in another caustic remark:

GAN: I think we make a great team 
AVON: Well, hooray for us!
It soon becomes apparent that the other crew members can only take so much of Avon’s saturnine comments. Gan soon gets his revenge on Avon when Avon knocks another one of Blake’s ideas:
GAN: For a clever man you're not very bright!
Presumably Gan replayed that moment over again and again to much satisfaction while lying on his bunk. Later on Blake finally snaps like a father to a misbehaving child:
GAN: We can talk and travel. We’re safer on the move.
AVON: Another one who’s prepared to let Blake do his thinking for him.
BLAKE: Enough, Avon!
The adventures that follow are sometimes ridiculous, sometimes entertaining and sometimes quite boring. Our crew land in the superfluous episode 'The Web', and we are presented with foetus-in-a-jar thing, Saymon, who chants to us in a spooky voice:
SAYMON: They. Must. Come. To. Us...!
Highlights of this episode include Cally turning evil and lamping Villa when he innocuously asks her what she thinks of his outfit. Green alien blobs, the tearful and vengeful Decimers are quite amusing as they hysterically dash about the place, clamouring at glass doors and hammering on them for dear life. They also count football as one of their native sports, traditionally played with a withered head. Jenna pays tribute to The Exorcist (1973) by becoming possessed, unfortunately without the projectile vomiting. Avon also manages to slip in some bile, in revenge to Gan’s earlier affront to his intelligence.
AVON: [The automatic repair system] It's slow - you should appreciate that problem.
Otherwise, the episode is needless and ludicrous with much head-fuddling jargon.

Every sci-fi hero needs their nemesis and Blake’s turns up in the form of eye-patch wearing Commander Travis, looking imposing with his hands on his hips. He complains to his superior Servalan that Blake is becoming a legend.

SERVALAN: Blake is just a man!
The pair extensively lock heads in 'Duel', a great episode which includes Blake in a noticeably lighter mood for the first time. This lasts until The Liberator is attacked. A hilarious scene of slowed-down speech and strung-out psychedelia ensues to evoke a feeling of calamity. The episode also has Blake’s face turning intermittently blue at one point! A real scene-stealer here is Patsy Smart as Giroc, the old crone who relishes the war between Blake and Travis. About Travis, she cackles:
GIROC: Not only is he primitive, he’s pompous as well!

'Breakdown' opens with what appears to be Gan suffering from a stroke. Grasping his head, he slowly turns evil as the electronic limiter malfunctions. 

Our Gan becomes a beast that needs neurosurgery to return to his non-killer self. A medical kit comprising tranquilizer pads - whatever the hell they are - is used to mollify the foaming Gan and he is restrained on a trolley with straps. A confused Blake is exasperated...
BLAKE: Because I don't know what to do about it! And if it is the limiter, I don't know how we can help him. Unless neurosurgery is one of your particular talents.
AVON: Unfortunately, no.
Vila warns that, unless something is done, the unfortunate Gan may end up like a vegetable – that is, more vegetable-like than normal! The stress begins to get to the crew members and Avon snipes at Blake again:
AVON: Staying with you requires a degree of stupidity I no longer feel capable of!
Fortunately the day is saved by the efforts of the brain surgeon, Professor Kayn and his assistant, Renor, who seems more horny than focused on the job in hand:
RENOR: Hello! This place is full of pretty girls.
Ultimately, Gan’s limiter is fixed and all returns to “normal”. Blake becomes uncharacteristically jubilant and surrounded by his crew members, says to Gan:
BLAKE: Oh and... by the way, welcome back!
This generates such uproarious laughter that it was at this point that I questioned the state of Blake’s mental health. I noticed his mood is “all or nothing” – he’s either seriously intense or in fits of laughter. Bipolar? PTSD? The stress of his family being murdered, accusations of child molestation and running a spaceship has clearly taken its toll on him by this point.

By 'Bounty' the crew feel compelled to help another prisoner of the federation, lepidopterist President Sarkoff. Playing his warbling record all day long, the man seems hell-bent on staying put, despite Blake’s appeal to him to leave with them. Eventually he relents when Blake smashes his precious record. A fair-to-middling episode, 'highlights' include futuristic Arab Sheik Tarvin groping Jenna but also his admission that he once sold his grandmother and another biting exchange between Villa and Avon:

VILLA: I'm entitled to my opinion.
AVON: It is your assumption that we're entitled to it too that is irritating.

In 'Deliverance' the crew land on planet Cephlon and again encounter primitives or “scavengers”, albeit not Decimers, but relatively human-looking ones. A frantic man named Ensor needs to get a box of power cells back to the planet on which his father lives, to save his life. At one point, Blake uses what sounds suspiciously like a sonic screwdriver to open the lid on it. First prize has to go to Ensor for the campest groan when he finally carks it.

Additionally, Avon encounters Meegat, who believes him to be a "Lord", which he revels in. 

Vila thinks the “poor woman” must be "insane". Vila is somewhat put out that it is not him.
AVON: You are hardly the stuff that Gods are made of.
The last episode contains the only recap in the series – a bloated one that smacks of padding. We meet daddy Ensor, the Prof with his mechanical ticker, who insults the helpful crew by calling them “morons”. He eventually dies anyway.

The series comes to an end when the crew acquire another computer – a supercomputer called ORAC, worth some 100 million credits. It has “all the knowledge of all the worlds”. It shows its sarcastic side when Vila speaks:

VILA: I think I've heard enough. I don't like him. Orac, be a good junk heap - shut up.
CALLY: I agree with Vila.
ORAC: Define the words 'Shut up.'
The scene is thus set for series 2.


‘Without computers we’re dead’

Blakes 7 is a strange beast and beast it most assuredly is. It lacks the possessive genitive and indeed an actual seven folk commanded by the freedom fighter or terrorist Roj Blake.

Nobody with any historical awareness would watch it expecting a 2014 level of special effects. Who cares about such concerns anyway? ‘Dated’ can be a positive label if it means that invention is to the fore in areas such as acting, direction and writing...

So, does Blakes 7 measure up?

Yes and no. Terry Nation is series one’s sole writer and it stands and falls according to this veteran telefantasy writer. Nation establishes a genuinely unpredictable, grim dystopia in the first episode. I haven’t seen any of his Survivors (1975-77) but assume it is similarly bleak. Opener ‘The Way Back’ is markedly more adult than his inane 1970s Doctor Who potboilers ‘Planet of the Daleks’ and ‘Death to the Daleks’. Indeed, it is more like Louis Marks’ ‘Day of the Daleks’ – with its guerrilla rebels – and LWT’s tremendous The Guardians (1971). He creates a dystopia with an absurdist show trial adjudicated by baubles in boxes, a summary massacre of unarmed civilians and accusations of child molestation. And this future also has an archivist jiving to his Walkman, a scene hinting at some of the ‘lighter’ moments to come in the series. Script editor Chris Boucher’s contribution is notable in adding a necessary acerbic humour.

Does Nation deliver in his thirteen episodes? Like Eve approaching verdant orchards and getting peckish, we invariably get the sort of Nation tropes that are guaranteed to be present whatever the programme he is writing for: caves, ice, genocide, radiation (sickness), carnivorous plants, cryogenic capsules, disease, genetic mutation and mutated viruses. (Thanks to West, Orton, Davidson et al.’s estimable tome Maximum Power! Miwk, 2012, for this inventory) 

On 19th February 1978, Michael Palin recorded in his diary attending a BBC Enterprises banquet at the Old Ship Hotel where the Corporation was promoting its current roster of programmes. He mentions chatting with Terry Nation; Nation congratulates Palin on 'The Testing of Eric Olthwhaite', broadcast as part of the sublime Ripping Yarns exactly five years to the day before my birth. Palin mentions returning the compliment regarding Nation's new series, Blakes 7. He surely can't have caught 'The Web'!

Weaker episodes: well, there isn’t a dearth. Unlike my comrade in this project, I found ‘Time Squad’ tedious and inconsequential, with the cryogenically frozen astronauts a cringe-worthy ‘threat’. The aforementioned ‘The Web’ is just risible, making Doctor Who’s ‘The Mutants’ seem like Satyajit Ray’s Distant Thunder (1973). I may have been ironically entertained by it during the 2000 BBC-2 repeats, but this time I was struck by the preposterous monotony of solemn proto-New Romantics wandering around a meagre holiday camp, which is being pelted by tot-sized ‘savages’: the Decimas. On top of all this, there’s a foetal monkey thing in a tank. This is assailed at the end by the Decimas running amok – in scenes that rival any in television for their rowdy absurdity. 

Certain episodes have potential – the Avon turns detective trope in ‘Mission to Destiny’, the simulacrum of the twentieth century exemplified by Sarkoff’s dwelling in ‘Bounty’. But these promises aren't consummated. The curious scene where Blake breaks Sarkoff’s antique opera record has no impact whatsoever, as the writing has not previously elicited concern about his supposed ‘plight’ or predicament. It is just T.P. McKenna being laid back and urbane listening to some tunes. 

For me, the strongest episodes are ‘Duel’ and ‘Orac’. The former is mainly down to Douglas Camfield’s direction, which gives it a psychedelic and energetic gusto. Strangely, Cornell, Day and Topping describe ‘Duel’ as doing ‘little to inspire confidence’, mentioning its similarity to a Star Trek episode. (The Guinness Book of Classic British TV, 1993, p.299) However, its tone and weirdness distinguish it; Camfield treats us to slowed-down voices, frayed 1970s colours and flashing lights: the non-naturalism and ripe acting make it the highlight of series one. 

‘Orac’ possesses refined plotting and urgency, ably bringing several threads together to round off the series. It features a range of settings – a beach, caves, a greenhouse-type science lab – which benefit the narrative. 

It also subtly associates with JG Ballard; like in his evocative novel The Drowned World (1962), cities have been overtaken by environmental catastrophe and reptilian life-forms have come to the fore – they are mercifully used sparingly, kept in the shadows. The imagination is enticed not satiated.

Throughout the series, the music does get a little wearing; predictable Dudley Simpson soundtrack follows… predictable Dudley Simpson soundtrack. Most of his music is competent but uninspiring and becomes the archetypal aural ‘wallpaper’ that limits the drama. ‘The Way Back’ is intensely more effective, due to the sparring use of its more ambient, electronic soundtrack. ‘Duel’ is also made more unusual and engaging by its drifting, distant Popol Vuh-esque undertow of synths.

The acting tends to salvage things, although it is by no means consistent across the series. There are some utter stalwarts – Julian Glover imbues the preposterous melodrama ‘Breakdown’ with gravitas when he shows up thirty minutes in as surgeon Kayn. Brian Blessed enlivens the middling ‘Cygnus Alpha’; a year or so on from his subtle and spellbinding turn as Augustus in I, Claudius, he is in the default deafening mode exhibited in two guest appearances in Space: 1999 and, frankly, the rest of his post-Vargas career. This sort of performance is necessary to enliven a plodding episode, and his death scene is wonderfully ludicrous, to the point of surrealism. 

"I... RULED!?!?"
Best of all is Derek Farr in the season finale. The veteran TV and film actor plays the cantankerous Professor Ensor with dynamism and heart. Farr’s CV included films like Town on Trial (1957) and The Dam Busters (1955) and TV programmes as various as Play for Today, Days of Hope, Bergerac, Star Maidens, The Avengers and Dixon of Dock Green. I have seen some of Nightingale’s Boys, Granada’s thoughtful 1975 series reflecting on grammar schools and idealism – Farr plays the old schoolmaster, Bill Nightingale. At the end of ‘Orac’, he voices that titular character, an impudent and imperious piece of hardware, which will hopefully mean Farr plays a significant part in series two.

The regular cast do their best with often variable material. None of them were household names and they do not appear in Jonathan Meades’ mordant book This Is Their Life, ‘a fascinating look’ into the hobbies, habits and home-life of ‘your favourite T.V. personalities’. By 1979, Darrow, Thomas et al had clearly not joined the favoured roster that included Dave Allen, Joan Bakewell and Derek Nimmo.

It's better than Shakespeare, this! You even get to wrestle monks.

The RSC trained Gareth Thomas came to B7 soon after an authoritative performance in HTV West’s eerie and uncanny Children of the Stones (1977) and, as Cornell, Day and Topping argue, he lends a solid, down to earth quality to Blake, grounding his quest. He can be liked or disliked depending on one’s feelings about Avon and Blake's particular tactics – and he forms, in Servalan's words, a plausible "rallying point for malcontents". Sally Knyvette retains a certain dignity despite the accumulation of inapt implied rape threats that Jenna is confronted with. Michael Keating is underused as Vila, yet deftly delivers lines which serve his function as ‘comic foil’. Jan Chappell is ill-served as Cally, contributing little to the narrative other than to be patronised. 

David Jackson drew the shortest straw as Gan, the hulking great barbarian who cannot kill. He can only overact, as in ‘Breakdown’ - his centrepiece, where Gan is given next to no lines but plenty of chance to grip his bonce and out-gurn Jon Pertwee. Or, fail to make crass Neanderthal lines sound sincere, as in ‘Time Squad’: “He killed my woman…”

That same story has Gan’s chirpy “I think we make a great team!” answered by Avon in utterly languid, sardonic tones: “Well hooray for us.” Paul Darrow’s Avon is by far the strongest character in series one. Terse, sarcastic, deadpan: as the episodes accumulate, his icy asides grow in number and quality. Darrow facilitates what this show fundamentally is all about: a fractious group comprised of idealists, ne’er do wells and selfish malcontents quite frankly not getting on. American television often thrives in portraying harmonious groups; B7’s British cynicism and awkwardness is often vastly entertaining.

“We could be up to our armpits in homicidal maniacs within the hour!” (1.4)
Part of the problem with the narrative of this first series is Travis: he’s a monotone baddie, clad in black with a ‘sci-fi’ eye patch. Stephen Grief infuses Travis with less charm and genuine threat than Roger Delgado did with his similarly omnipresent Master in Pertwee era Doctor Who. In multiple appearances, he speaks about how much he wants to kill Blake but invariably fails to do so. With each reappearance, his general aura of haplessness increases. Servalan is relatively insignificant in this series – I assume she’ll get more to do as B7 develops. Too many episodes revolve around Travis’ ill-starred pursuit of Blake: for instance, ‘Project Avalon’. Unlike Cornell, Day and Topping, I didn’t find this ‘snowbound resistance melodrama’ remotely interesting, merely leaden. We could also have done with a deeper portrayal of the Federation, through a greater number of characters. 

Jenna’s self-description as a ‘free trader’ gives food for thought, considering B7 accompanied Thatcher’s rise. Avon is both self-interested individual and detached computer nerd, suggesting he is a man of the future - in several senses. As a supposed smuggler Jenna seems rather easily won over to Blake’s idealistic cause. ‘Bounty’’s villain Tarvin (Marc Zuber) represents the mercantile tendency; he is given one great line, confirming he sold his own grandmother to stop being sold himself. But, fundamentally, Tarvin is a stereotyped Arab rogue, with little sense that he or his values matter in the show’s world. The preceding ‘Breakdown’ has Glover’s surgeon make several irate attacks on bureaucracy through its ineffectual embodiment in Farron: “You bureaucratic fool” “You gutless nothing!” Characters of such poise as Kayn and Avon are shown to be superior to the dull systemic thinking of the Federation, which may represent a future socialist or fascist Britain, depending on your viewpoint. From Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death onwards, British culture took a critical stance towards hidebound thinkers like Farron, hiding behind the directives of state planning: “You pathetic feeble minded little bureaucrat!”

There is a strangely telling moment at the end of ‘Breakdown’; the independent space station has been destroyed, killing hundreds of people, including Kayn and Farron. This was a preferred ‘bolthole’ for Avon to escape to and make some money. After a brief moment’s solemnity speaking to Avon, Blake goes over to Jenna and Gan and they are all quickly laughing jovially about Gan’s restoration to health. Avon’s reaction is not shown. 

Series one went out on Mondays at 7.15pm on BBC-1*; it averaged an impressive 9.22 million viewers – starting out with 7.4 million and closing with the 10.6 million who watched ‘Orac’.

*Barring 'The Way Back', that slice of brutality which went out in the Doctor Who time-slot of 6pm. In a DVD commentary to 'Space Fall', producer David Maloney mentions many in the audience coming to it after being DW viewers from a young age. This scheduling clearly has much to answer for in how it shaped today's British forty-somethings!

How was the show received critically? 

In The Financial Times, Chris Dunkley saw it as looking cheap in comparison to Space: 1999, Star Wars and Alphaville and mentions tightening BBC budgets. While he describes it as more ‘derivative than hoped’ from Terry Nation who created Survivors and the Daleks, he can see the ‘human story’ becoming a ‘compelling habit’ over the series. There was a preoccupation on science and its fictions beyond Lucas land: Carl Sagan’s Planets lecture having shown on BBC-2 over Christmas 1977. More broadly, Dunkley identified British television’s over-focus on a perpetual British middle class in a state of ‘permanent hilarity’, with fictions set between the mid-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. He also slams the ‘xenophobic’ Mind Your Language and the unimaginative, ‘slavish’ aping of The Sweeney, not just by Target, but by a new series called The Professionals.

The Guardian's Peter Fiddick perceived that B7 did not trade in jokes', but then he was reviewing the show two episodes in, before its change in tone. It is described as 'a mix of olde worlde space jargon, ray guns, Western style goodies and baddies, and punch ups straight out of The Sweeney.' He locates it within the television tradition inspired by Orwell: Nineteen-Eighty Four, The Avengers, The Prisoner, The Guardians and 1990, describing 'The Enemy as Bureaucracy' and the prison ship with its 'ethics straight out of the warders' room at Belsen'. The Daily Mail - via critic Shaun Usher - gave a typically upbeat assessment of both Britain in 1978 and B7's dystopia, saying the show depicted 'the future as being much the same as the present, Lord help us, only worse.'

In The Times, Stanley Reynolds reviewed 'Time Squad'; he praises B7's seriousness: its being 'straight, with real villains' and also its episodes being self-contained yet adding to a 'saga'. He enjoys the script with its 'terse commands' and its sense of action: Jenna 'fighting off the Findus fiends'. He mentions Cally as 'the latest addition to Blake's outer-space merry men' and the prospect of her spelling 'love trouble for blonde Jenna', of a sort not faced by Maid Marian in Robin Hood: incidentally, a powerful British myth that Blakes 7 taps into.

Despite such motifs as air ducts, corridors, gullible guards, sundry pygmies, nomadic scavengers and medieval types; despite excess sexism on several fronts and perpetual lines like “Do you read me…?” B7 series one seems worthwhile. There are just enough well-crafted episodes and acidic one-liners for it to achieve a distinctively down at heel British charm. 

Here's how we rated each episode, plus attribution for writing and direction - the former shows impressive variety! Also recorded are dates of transmission and the viewing figures:

Ben Brown lives in Newcastle Upon Tyne. He works in the Medical Records department at the RVI in Newcastle and has studied Psychology at Master's level.

Tom May also lives in Newcastle Upon Tyne. He is a lecturer in English Language and Communication & Culture at a local Sixth Form College, having studied English and Film at universities southern and northern. He is working on a book about British culture and the cold war.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Pissing in Duchamp's Urinal: Arts Television in the Early Nineties

The Thing is... Brian Eno
TX: Channel 4, 13/05/1992

The South Bank Show 15.13: Douglas Adams
TX: ITV, 05/01/1992

Paul Morley to Brian Eno: "You're good at lying aren't you?"

Maybe you are also bored with the mind-numbing, formulaic Arts TV of our times. Maybe you just might want to take a trip back to 1992: the past they do things less diffidently there.

I was over a friend's house in Darlington and the opportunity to watch recordings fromhis VHS collection. He hadn't even used his video player in two years! It was the time for that to be remedied. In addition to the two main programmes, I was treated to side courses of Adam and Joe's Vinyl Police - installments that featured a game Gary Numan and a quarrelsome and belligerent Mark E. Smith.

Then, a programme I had heard about and been curious about seeing: a half-hour documentary-'interview' on Brian Eno, conducted by Paul Morley. Morley is a knowledgeable, irreverent figure damned by many for the cardinal sin of being in love with the English Language - and moulding it according to his own directions. Reviewing an earlier The Thing Is... in The Times, Lynne Truss attacked the 'stream of gabble' - presumably Morley's use of some polysyllabic, aka. nasty and foreign lexis. Also in The Times, Richard Morrison attacked his 'pretentious name-dropping' of writers; as if mentioning Beckett and Sartre is verboten in British culture. Perhaps it is a dig from the Oxbridge graduate to the grammar school boy Morley, who didn't go to university. He goes on, in cynical fashion:

'Sometimes Morley walked round and round in a warehouse. Sometimes he knelt in a Buddha temple. "There is a pure boredom", he mused transcendantally, "that goes with being bored with East-Enders".' (The Times, 30/04/1992)

I cannot comment on all that much of Morley's written work, other than to say that his memoir Nothing captures a deeply affecting melancholy and last year's Earthbound is a laudably concise piece of cultural analysis centering around the Bakerloo line and taking in the Sony Walkman, Maida Vale and much else. That book is incisive and inspired in identifying less than obvious cultural connections and currents.

Compared with the 1980s and early '90s, he is less commonly on television today, though did feature in an engaging BBC4 documentary, wherein he attempted to try his hand at classical music composition - and he crops up periodically as 'talking head' on music documentaries (e.g. one on John Cooper Clarke) and is a BBC4 Review Show regular. Here he is a revelation as TV host; serious when he needs to be but also humorously dispensing asides to the audience like a particularly wise Shakesperean fool. In December 1990, he had presented a thirty-minute documentary on Channel 4 looking into the cultural origins of the Christmas tree, card and decorations. The Thing Is... grew out of the Without Walls (C4, 1990-97) documentary strand and Morley helmed half-hour television disquisitions on topics such as motorways (featuring JG Ballard), money (featuring Dennis Taylor), animals, hotels and even 'an existential quest into the heart of boredom' (The Guardian, 26/04/1992).

Just over two weeks before the Eno programme, The Guardian described him as looking like a 'cast-aside teddy bear in a fashionably baggy suit'. 'Names such as Ionescu, Roland Barthes and Beckett pepper his conversations with cultural theorists and Thora Hird.' Morley as a link between the worlds of continental cultural theory and Alan Bennett?

In his anti-interview, brilliant tactics include imploring Eno, on behalf of the audience, to start singing again; Morley makes reference to the four great works of 'pop song' that Eno produced in his verdant 1970s. And then the ultra dry questioning regarding his more recent collaborations: "It must be really rewarding, helping out the small bands: U2..."

A particularly amusing sequence is where he gets Eno onto the topic of sex and the bald East Anglian gives notably detailed reflections on the merits of European and American pornography. The programme cuts away to Morley clearly filmed later on, giving a few somewhat amused looks.

There is a deadpan, European surrealism to proceedings. Eno speaks positively of the creativity that could be enabled by the karaoke phenomenon. Then we cut to Morley in a high street record shop, headphones on, listening and intensely singing along to Eno's very own 'Third Uncle'.

When his rendition has finished, there is a deliberately faked 'studio audience' 'applause' followed by a delighted reaction shot from Morley.

It's a delightful programme, getting all the more under Eno's skin by avoiding linear questioning tactics and opting for an editing strategy that plays up the oblique moments, rather pushes towards any conventional denouement.

Pleasingly, the programme can be watched in its entirety here.

"High on a rocky promentory sat an electric monk on a bored horse..."

Next was a South Bank Show from the same year, but four months earlier: broadcast before the Grey Man himself ushered in another enlightened five years of Tory rule. Its subject was the mercurial Douglas Adams, whose death before he reached fifty was a loss to British culture was of a magnitude greater than if, say, IDS were to meet with a freak ATOS inspired drubbing in Easterhouse.

It explores Adams' much publicized difficulties in finishing his writing projects; so thoroughly, that they even feature his literary agent visiting him on behalf of the publishers. Everything is in place for the fifth HH novel, Mostly Harmless, except, well, the novel itself being written! The Guardian's television listings for the day mention an abortive Hollywood script project and his involvement in computing, but strangely, these areas are barely touched on.

Like Morley's documentary, there is dry humour present in its satire of the documentary trope of focusing on his 'Cambridge Days'. The past is demystified and we even get a sense of Cambridge's present in Adams' sharply edited appearances in the city. His College - St John's - won't allow the film crew to film anything at all in the grounds of the College, so Adams philosophically sits with a pint in the Baron of Beef pub. There was filming nearby for Adams' strike-scuppered 1979 Doctor Who serial, 'Shada', recently issued on DVD.

We also get an excellent sequence of Adams ruminating on getting artistic inspiration from his post-university days as a hotel attendant, having to watch the elevators open and close all day. He relives this unusual rite of passage, appearing on screen in the situation - in the best droll Jonathan Meades style.

John Carlaw had previously directed the acclaimed eight-part series Playing Shakespeare, made by LWT in 1982. His direction here is notable in its artistry, far removed from the plodding conservatism of the South Bank Show's form and presentation in its latter years - and perhaps even its norm back then. Wittily edited, it contains actors from the HitchHikers' TV series reprising their roles and engaging in postmodernist querying of their own identity. We even have the aforementioned electric monk, well and truly part of the bizarre proceedings.

While it fails to focus - somewhat surprisingly - on DA's associations with Monty Python's Flying Circus and Doctor Who, it is the sort of genuinely satisfying arts documentary that many directors, producers and writers would do well to learn from today. Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins, now bastions of whatever remains of 'Liberal Britain', are used intelligently to make points that add to our understanding of Adams' work. His application of Wodehousian humour - to infuse potentially alienating science fiction ideas with the bathetic everyday - is discussed by Fry, who was then still immersed in making the superlative sketch series A Bit of Fry and Laurie. Dawkins is used to draw out DA's good humoured antipathy to religion, but also to helpfully explain his integration of Quantum Physics within his narratives - which were moving into the area of parallel realities and all being subject to contingency.

Most of all, there is gratifyingly little stuff of this ilk: straightforward filming of cosy chat with old uncle Melvyn. Carlaw does the Arts service by making art himself. Gratifyingly, it seems that you can see this redoubtable documentary here.

Both programmes live up to Jonathan Meades' desire to see documentaries that combined the lecture theatre with the music hall. Humorous knockabout is a much more useful tool than sombre, portentous prattle while walking around 'famous sites'. In these past exemplars, we see rounded, idiosyncratic contributors to British - and world - culture: Adams and Eno. Emblems of a sceptical, worldly liberalism that has been supplanted by the shallow neo-liberal generation of Clegg and Laws - Eno, indeed, has been a regular participant in Liberal Democrat campaigns in recent years and was bizarrely appointed a youth affairs adviser by Clegg.

These are major cultural contributors who were taken seriously by television. And this is television which avoided reverence towards them or the cardinal sin of patronising its audience. It complicated the picture by fusing registers and tones; such a dexterous approach is what people deserve, rather than neatly packaged, simple narratives peddling partial myths.

-- With thanks to John Robinson.