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.