In 1964 Studio Vista published a handsome hardback celebrating the ABC TV arts series Tempo. With a profusion of plates on high quality photographic paper, plus a quirky text from critic and novelist Angus Wilson (on yellowy-beige interleaving), this was a prestige production out to demonstrate that an ITV company could compete with the BBC at the classy end of culture. The volume overall deserves more detailed consideration, but today I want to use Wilson’s ruminations to look at another of the films from Network’s recently-released double DVD set of items from Tempo (which I introduced previously here). Remarkably, The Medium Sized Cage was produced for Tempo by Royal College of Art students and broadcast with a slightly nervous introduction by Leonard Maguire on 31 March 1963. ‘Neither play nor documentary nor plain performance,’ is how Wilson correctly describes the offering, ‘peculiarly designed by the students I suppose, to illustrate the special qualities of that medium-sized cage – the television box.’
The Medium Sized Cage (there is no hyphen in the television title sequence) mixes studio drama shot in a single set with a single film sequence. Our hero is a disaffected student moving out of a bedsit and recalling the time that he arrived there. The film element is a flashback (I think) from the streets of perhaps Notting Hill as he arrives at this ‘medium-sized cage’. The phrase is an acknowledged reference to Samuel Beckett’s Murphy where it refers to the deadening anonymity of suburban living pods. Throughout the 15 minutes or so of the piece, we listen to an interior monologue from the 24-year-old sculpture student as he reflects on his preoccupations.
Seven years at college and what have I got? Philosophy. My philosophy – anarchism. More on how I feel about things than worked-out ideas. Interests? Sex. Sex. Motorbikes. Being alive and myself. Perhaps that should come first. War and death, definitely first-person. Another house, another room. I hope this landlady is better than the last nosey old bag. Interests? A way you can believe in God on Thursday, an atheist a week later. A bit curious about religious experience, a dislike of most of the traditional ways of achieving it. Organised religion and churches and all that sort of thing repels me.
The students were from the Film and Television Design department of the RCA, which was headed at the time by Peter Newington, a film cameraman and director who had worked for Tempo (including on a profile of Graham Sutherland that I intend to consider in a future post). Maguire in his intro is concerned to lay the authorship firmly with the students who, he says, have had ‘only the very minimum of supervision from us’.
Angus Wilson’s text is a bit approximate about transcribed quotes from the programme, but then he didn’t have DVD playback to help him. The last sentence of the passage included above he renders as ‘Organs, religion, churches repel me.’ And he says of the thoughts that they are ‘familiar’ but authentic. The familiarity, he thinks, come from their expression in the realist cinema of the moment – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and This Sporting Life (1963) are his two key references.
This seems to me to get The Medium Sized Cage just about exactly wrong. For the monologue has little interest in class and family and disconnection from one’s roots. Rather it is a precisely-pitched expression of the place of Pop culture in the lives of the young, and as such is a richly interesting companion piece to Ken Russell’s film for Monitor from just about exactly a year earlier, Pop Goes the Easel (first broadcast on 25 March 1962). Russell’s film also has a strong connection with the RCA, for all four of subjects (Peter Blake, Peter Phillips, Pauline Boty and Derek Boshier) were or had been painting students there.
The Medium Sized Cage has little of the bravura style of Russell’s exhilarating film, although it mixes stills with studio and film with confidence. But it has the same obsession with the objects (including comic figure masks, like the one above) and the image world of the moment, as well as something of the same concern with contemporary music (we hear snatches of The Rooftop Singers’ hit of the moment ‘Walk right in, sit right down…’ and The Isley Brothers’ ‘You make me wanna shout’ as well as some cool jazz).
Our anonymous hero has sufficient self-awareness to recognise that the images, the pin-ups and the news photos, which he sticks on his wall, in some sense constitute his identity. The camera caresses the assemblage of these shots on the wall, as he recognises that the shots are part of his defence against the world, part of how he hides something more essential, more ‘real’. The images then take over in a montage of blondes and cowboys and astronauts and motorbike riders and gangsters. ‘They may be substitutes, but what I feel about them is the main thing.’
Angus Wilson suggests that the programme was ‘the story of the inventing and making of a television comment by a group of students’ and that ‘the programme ends with a return to the students telling us of their backgrounds and ambitions’. In fact, in the recording on the Network disc, there is no sense of this ‘story’ apart from some closing shots of the makers accompanied by Leonard Maguire introducing each one in voice-over.
(The ‘six’ students, who include the director Trevor Preston, later a significant writer for television, are in fact seven. Along with the six boys Annette Green is introduced – ‘she danced the Twist’, Maguire rather redundantly points out of her role in the programme – but she fails to secure a place in the end credits. ‘She’s married to Terry Green,’ Maguire says, explaining that he is the producer – and of course he does get an end credit nod.)
One last quote from Wilson, which perhaps speaks to to the confusions of the time about the cultural status of television. With The Medium Sized Cage, he says
… we are still with one foot in documentary, and the other foot in television itself, which, alas, is a tautology if we wish to show that television is an art.
Rather than worry about whether or not television is an art, today we can recognise that The Medium Sized Cage caught something of Pop sensibility of the moment at which it was made – and we should also celebrate the fact that we can now access it after Tempo and so much of the other television of the time has remained hidden in archives for far too long.