Essays: Banging the door open |
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Banging the door open

LAST WEEKEND your reporter was asked by a representative of some unknown outfit called the Basement Project Film Group to look at a piece of the rough-cut of their first film and deliver an opinion* which would be incorporated into their Open Door programme (BBC-2) on the Monday.

Surrounded by East End kids of various colours I saw the footage winched through an editola, found it unexpectedly vital, taped a piece saying so during a few spare minutes on Sunday afternoon, and tuned in on Monday night with small hope of being entertained by the show, since the Open Door efforts I had so far seen had mostly been dire. Well, folks, fate worked the big switch: the programme, called ‘East End Channel 1,’ was jumping with good ideas. In a blinding flash that lit up the road to Damascus, I was finally won over to the concept of Access television.

Most of the groups who take advantage of Open Door slavishly imitate the box’s clichés of presentation. The Basement kids had the bright idea of turning the imitation into parody, and it worked like a charm. The notion of calling everybody Alan Whicker was copied from Monty Python, but was given a new dimension when black and beige Whickers cropped up all over the East End to spell out the living conditions and extract vox pops from the locals.

All that was on film, but the live studio stuff was mostly pretty smooth too: caftans and brazen afros brightened the screen as a two-man News at Ten-style presentation came hammering over. The programme was tied into its territory not so much by the people ringing up the programme as by the programme ringing up the people — congratulations on diamond weddings were phoned out, and somebody tried to ring up Heath. The director of their film, Tunde Ikoli, did an interesting improvised dialogue with guest-star Johnny Speight. To top off the good things, there was a young singer, Pam Nestor, who has a mighty talent and was the most unspoiled artist I saw in a week’s viewing.

The show lasted an hour plus and a lot was done with slim resources: the Speight/Ikoli dialogue, for example, was done with clip-on mikes instead of a boom. Inexperience showed in some of the sketches which weren’t concentrated enough — but sheer vitality salvaged even those. The only thing that dragged was the unscripted discussion at the end, in which Marty Feldman and Johnny Speight mostly sat quiet while the kids demonstrated that the protocol of argument was not amongst their natural equipment and that impassioned persuasion could turn counter-productively into arrogant pressure in the heat of the moment. David Kossoff phoned in to warn them (wrongly in my view, but not unkindly) that they might be creating the impression that they thought the world owed them a living. He got shouted down, which was bad tactics and worse manners.

On the whole, though, the programme made its points and had a whale of a time doing it. You were given a large hint of what community television might be like. A very important show, and probably a turning point for Rowan Ayers, who has master-minded Access telly from the start and must have been waiting anxiously for the show that would seize its moment. ‘East End Channel 1’ was the clincher: anybody who tries to close the Open Door now can be opposed from a strong position.

The Philpott File (BBC-2) started a new series with a howlingly funny probe into the world of the great white hunter. Rich, boring Continentals blasted grouse in Scotland at staggering expense, while brave Spaniards massacred maimed pigeons and the standard wind-up American pantaloon explained why shooting a deer was like seducing a woman. A man who had killed one each of everything in the world lounged in his vast trophy room and went through an Allan Quatermain routine that pushed the litote to the limit. ‘What there is most of in India is people. People are meat, and this has occurred to the tigers.’ Some other people are buffoons, and this has occurred to Philpott. Terrific show, brilliantly photographed by Mike Spooner.

On World in Action (Granada) there was a couple forced to live in a caravan with three kids. My little daughter was donging me on the head with a spoon as I watched. Mentally I multiplied her by three and divided the size of my living-room by four. Terror gripped the heart. On That Monday Morning Feeling (BBC-1), which is turning out to be must viewing, there was a lorry driver who used to he a philosophy teacher. Now he’s up early every morning, hearing the birds sing and driving past the frosty plough-land. His name was Bob Harman, and it was remarkable how interesting he could be without sacrificing his privacy for a second. Horizon (BBC-2) was on about memory. There was a frightening girl whose memory was eidetic: she could remember every detail of a painting after one look at it a year ago. People who forget nothing end up institutionalised, it appears. Scary.

There was a straight clash between Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle (BBC-1) and Sidney Lumet’s film The Appointment (BBC-2): if you were bored half to death by the first, you could switch over and be finished off by the second. In the first 10 seconds of the Brecht a man in a Mongolian outfit raced on and shouted ‘Delegates! Delegates!’ in an accent acquired from Plaistow, E13, and I realised with despair that I was out of my skull with ennui already. Punch the button, though, and you got Omar Sharif: a packet of pressed dates still in its Cellophane. Back to Brecht, and someone was shouting ‘This will increase our fruit production!’ A rough night.

The latest instalment of the play series Between the Wars (LWT) had the excellent Sarah Badel and some good twenties dialogue. ‘Why do they always give one kippers for breakfast in nightclubs?’ trilled the mad beauty. ‘One can’t eat them in this light.’ A pause, then the capper: ‘I always mangle mine to make sure they can’t use them again.’ Milligan in Spring (BBC-2) invented a marvellous character called the Beautiful, but Criminally Insane, Mrs Frau Girda Schwortkopf from Catford. I split: I did a rib.

The Observer, 20th May 1973

* Here is the text of Clive’s film review, included in the BBC’s ‘Open Door’ programme:

When I was asked to give an instant opinion on Tunde’s film, I agreed, with a bout of agonised heart-searching, since most first films aren’t much good, no matter how talented the people involved might eventually turn out to be. Early on, people tend to overrate the uniqueness of their own lives, and think it’s enough just to give the flavour of what they’ve been through. When I saw the script of Tunde’s film I quickly realised however that here was a real attempt to tell a story. This is a black movie, and the view of life is pretty dark too. If anybody doubts that blacks in the East End of London get a rougher trot than whites, all that he has to do is take a look at the script and raw footage of this movie. And, as often happens, it isn’t the actual story that conveys the sense of deprivation: it’s the automatic choice of theme — kids versus cops. It’s also the vocabulary, which is always inarticulate and often plain incoherent, as if words belong only to the oppressor. Now I don’t say this is true, I just say the film makes you realise how a victim can believe it’s true.

The script ends up dreaming of an armed protest against the police. It’s not very likely that such a protest will ever happen, but it’s interesting that Tunde should think of it as something necessary — interesting and very worrying. I’ve seen about a third of the footage, roughly cut together, and I think Tunde, in addition to his preoccupations, which would be worth listening to whatever medium he chose, is probably a natural film director. Quite how he shares the work with Maggie Pinhorn I don’t know, but he gets actors improvising around a theme, rehearses the scene a few times to plan his camera movements, and then doesn’t lose the spontaneity when he goes for a take, and this is a hard trick which quite a lot of pro directors can’t manage. Also his camera movements are simple, which is a sign of early maturity, since nearly all directors start off doing what the Hollywood editors used to call ‘shooting through the wagon-wheel.’

I hope the editor, Nick Lewin, doesn’t overdo the cut-aways. Where the simple long takes work I think they should be kept, but it’s not my movie. Some of the scenes just haven’t got enough coverage. The long shot is full of action but gets monotonous without the necessary minimum of close-ups and mid-shots. Still, that’s a mistake every beginner makes, and you’d be surprised how many quite well-known directors have no idea of how to shoot a scene with the editor in mind. They just shoot the scene from a dozen different directions and send the resulting footage, or mileage, to the editing room in a lorry.

I liked the talk all through. I didn’t know the East Enders called the police ‘Old Bill,’ and I like to find things like that out. The film’s at its strongest when the detail of the life is coming through without comment. In particular there’s a reggae dancing scene at the start which is solid gold, and ought to be brought back at the end. On the whole, Tunde’s film looks like being interesting at worst and very unsettling at best — a real thought-provoker. Taking similar urban themes, some of our most prestigious professional directors created their reputations twenty years ago with films that weren’t half as vital as this one.

I think when the picture comes out that the dancing scene will upstage the whole movie, but Tunde’s going to find out that that’s the fate of the artist: he burns to tell a social story and yet quite incidentally he brings something else to life. I hope Tunde, and Maggie Pinhorn and all the kids in the Basement Film Group go on with what they’re doing. But it’s a tough business, and there’s no way it’ll ever get easy, specially not for blacks. But then I don’t have to tell Tunde that. He’s telling me.