Tonight at BFI Southbank I am introducing three documentaries about the arts made for British television more than fifty years ago. The screening is part of the excellent BFI project Visions of Change about television documentaries from the 1950s and ’60s. Although much from these years has been lost, there is nonetheless an extensive archive of rich and resonant material from which to choose. It might have been interesting to mix up the genres more, rather than to have this evening devoted to films about the arts and another with Tim Boon looking at science documentaries, but nonetheless the triple offering tonight makes, if I may say so, for a great programme. John Read’s foundational profile Henry Moore (1951), British television’s first film profile of a living artist opens proceedings, followed by Ken Russell’s delightfully inventive Monitor film Watch the Birdie (1963) about photographer David Hurn. And to conclude there is the extraordinary New Tempo: Heroes, directed by Dick Fontaine in 1967, which now looks more like an avant-garde classic made perhaps by Bruce Conner than it resembles anything else that ITV might have shown on a Sunday afternoon 48 years ago.
I have written extensively about John Read’s film before, including for the blog here and also in a recently published essay for Tate Research, ‘Myriad Mediations: Henry Moore and his Works on Screen 1937–83’ (about which I intend to write another blog post). Russell’s profile of his friend Hurn is also well documented, but it will be a particular treat to see a good print of it tonight at BFI Southbank. Watching it again I was struck by how much it’s a kind of self-portrait of the director, who was a photographer before he began working for the BBC. Among the photo-essays that Russell shot in the late 1950s were ones on the order of nuns known as the Little Sisters of the Assumption and on Soho strippers, both of which are assignments for Hurn in the film. But I wonder if I am the first to spot that the “director” of a steamy love scene supposedly being photographed for movie publicity (above, in a detail of a screengrab) is in fact a brief appearance from Ken himself.
As you would expect, Russell liberally mixes and matches factual sequences with the obviously fictionalised and draws on a host of visual references, including Eastern European art movies, as well as a brilliant soundtrack. Whether, as Russell later claimed, this film was what inspired the fashion shoot scenes in Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) is uncertain, but this is a vivid slice of ‘swinging’ London life in 1963. And there are some delightful personal stories hidden just below the surface, including the fact that Hurn had apparently met the model Alita Naughton in Paris a few days before the shoot. He asked her to come to London to be in Russell’s film (she’s the woman who emerges from the smoke in the opening shots), after which she married Hurn and starred in Russell’s first feature French Dressing (1964) [the link is to a very good recent essay by David Cairns about the film].
Although the juxtaposition is largely accidental, Watch the Birdie sets up Heroes rather well, as the latter film is all about image culture and celebrity. But rather than have his film unfold like a journalistic essay, Dick Fontaine collides in a dense collage found footage, fragments of audio, stills and insistent shots of media machines, including cameras, tape recorders and slide projectors. Starting with a lengthy sequence presented in negative, jump-cutting like crazy and building an allusive and suggestive sound mix, this really is British television at its most radical and experimental. Heroes was made for ATV, which had to fulfil certain public service obligations in return for its ITV franchise, and the series was produced by Mike Hodges, who was later to direct Get Carter (1970), without – one senses – all that much corporate interest or oversight. The film’s influences, including Marshall McLuhan, Pop Art and the Godard of Two or Three Things That I Know About Her, are perhaps a little too apparent from this distance. Yet Heroes, much like Watch the Birdie, has a good deal still to offer about our image world, even if was all 35mm in those days and digital selfies were undreamt of. Above all else, Heroes has a striking sensorial impact, so if you can, grab this rare opportunity to see it on a big screen.