Artist, musician, screenwriter, novelist, theatre actor and filmmaker: Richard Woolley has been active across the full spectrum of the arts since the 1960s. He’s also been a strong presence in teaching and in academia in general from the nineties up to the present, and is currently the holder of the Greg Dyke Chair of Film & Television at the University of York. This four-disc DVD box set from the BFI explores his emergence as a film director and script writer in the 1970s up to the end of the ‘80s, across three feature films and four shorts which are also accompanied by a series of in-depth video interviews that put the work in its historical and social context.
Woolley’s work in film began as a graduate of the Royal College of Art, where he started out heavily influenced by Ingmar Bergman and expressionism, but was then diverted into the world of radical student politics, French cultural studies, and the fad for semiotics that was all the rage in the early 70s. This change of direction resulted in some initial extremely experimental and avant-garde filmmaking that was organised from a purely structuralist point of view -- although his very first project outside of college was a documentary that looked at social attitudes to homosexuality in the late sixties in the wake of the passing of the 1967 Reform Act.
One of the themes that emerges strongly from watching the three early films included in this set, and also from the accompanying interviews with the director, is how Woolley’s subsequent filmmaking career became something of an exercise in attempting to find a middle ground between that austere, purely formal exercise in avant-gardism – with its precise, ordered and unemotional examination of the relationships that could be formed between sound and vision -- which dominated his work while he was under the influence of the dominant ideological strains of the early-1970s, and the more conventional, ‘manipulative’ forms of cinema, the influence of which he’d started out wanting to expose and neutralise.
By the time he came to make “Illusive Crime” in 1976, Woolley had found a unique style combining a formal, mathematical approach inherited from his art school days while on an exchange programme in West Berlin, with a mode of cinema that still utilised actors, dealt in elements of genre fiction and flirted with narrative cinema, but all in such a way that their techniques and the assumptions which they sought to impose on the viewer were constantly being held up to the spotlight. One of the things that remains constant in the work and is an emblem of the director’s early radical left wing philosophical leanings -- especially the issue of gender politics -- is a constant questioning of the orthodoxy in all manifestations of social and political relationships. This almost inevitably leads to disillusionment with whatever ideological programme happens to be in vogue and is being accepted as ‘the truth’ by the majority at any one time, whether it be the’ truth’ of the mainstream media at large or, indeed, of the various schools of the avant-garde Left that were percolating through the education system at the time.
DISC ONE: KNIEPHOFSTRASSE (1973)/DRINNEN UND DRAUSSEN (1974)/ ILLUSIVE CRIME (1976)
This set begins with two films shot in West Germany. The first, “Kniephofstrasse (1973)”, is a complex formalist film made soon after Woolley had moved to the country in 1973 on the DDAA artists’ programme. It consists of a single shot of a street scene filmed with a Bolex camera from a balcony view which displays a car park, a flyover, a tree and a block of flats. The film consists of a structuralist analysis of this ‘view’, which examines different ways the image can be processed and interpreted on film. Woolley variously makes use of different film speeds, shoots the same image at different times of day, in different weather conditions etc., then switches, combines and overlays combinations of them to make complex patterns. The sequence is further complicated by the image also being subdivided into forty separate blocks (obtained from dividing the image into a grid system and shooting each one with the camera at full zoom) which are then also mixed and edited into the resulting patterned collage. Sound is also used in an equally formalist, precise and mathematical way to examine and illustrate how different sounds alter our perception of image. There are voice-overs, news reports and abstract musical sounds and tones, often associated with particular variants of the image.
The second film, “Drinnen und Draussen (“Inside and Outside” –) introduces actors and a set, but is equally experimental and abstract, although the beginnings of a certain sense of playfulness can be seen in this otherwise earnest examination of the conformity that the social systems of both East and West supposedly tacitly enforce. The two protagonists, a male and a female, quote various pieces of political text at each other throughout the movie, and seem to represent the West’s privileging of the family structure on the one hand and the rigidity of East Germany’s Soviet political ideology on the other, suggesting their equivalence in so far as both lock their subjects into a limiting view of humanity, how society should be conducted and of gender relations by blocking off any ability to see outside the system of thought they both uphold.
Although both are difficult films to watch, between them they represent a change in outlook that overcame Woolley while he was living in West Germany. The first film was made against the historical backdrop of debate within Left Wing circles in the late-‘60s and early-‘70s about how film should be approached: there was the social realist or agitprop school which fully embraced the use of all the manipulative tools in the filmmaker’s arsenal in order to further the cause of the working class etc., and then there was the school to which Woolley belonged, which saw the way viewers were routinely manipulated and ‘brainwashed’ by the power of cinema as something which should be exposed and undermined. For some in this circle, even Woolley’s utterly abstract formalism was politically suspect because it was financed by ‘imperialism’ and produced ‘bourgeois, elitist films’.
Nevertheless, “Kniephofstrasse” offers a fearsomely austere, off-putting and completely purist approach to the deconstruction of an image and its various uses. The single image is so minutely analysed and mathematically formalised that the viewer feels their faculties of perception being unpicked, the image fragmenting into a series of abstract patterns which Woolley has meticulously created according to a precise set of formal rules. On the accompanying interview which discusses this early period of his career, Woolley tells of staying up all night, religiously clicking a still-frame shot of the same image every thirty seconds by hand, while friends would visit every now and then to provide him with food.
The image being analysed in this methodical and puritanical way was the view from the balcony of the very flat in which he was staying when he first moved to West Germany. Woolley tells of sharing this flat with a Japanese avant-garde formalist filmmaker who he was affronted to find making vast amounts of money simply by editing together ten frames of black and ten frames of white and then flogging the resulting ‘work’ to galleries all over the world for huge sums! Woolley began to think that avant-gardism could be dismissed as a con as it became ever more associated with being a financial proposition, and it was at around this time that he moved to a commune where he found himself listening to lectures over breakfast on how men and women related to each other under a capitalist society! This was the kind of place in which there was a rota for stealing from supermarkets because the practice was seen as a form of acceptable direct action against the capitalist system. But it was also where the politics of the 1970s began to have more of a direct influence on Richard Woolley’s filmmaking.
West Germany at that time was the hub of the Cold War, with the Baader-Meinhof group’s terrorist form of ‘direct action’ then constantly in the news, and where there was a crazily fragmented collection of Left Wing splinter groups in circulation -- Maoists, Marxist-Leninists, radical feminists etc. – all vying for prominence. Woolley became associated with a group of what he calls ‘undogmatic Marxists’ who saw both western capitalism and the totalitarian Soviet system as being equally corrupt and manipulative, and his new-found political commitment and his disillusionment with the purely avant-garde is what ultimately led to his second film in West Germany, “Drinnen und Draussen” (1974).
There are clear elements of the social realism he had previously rejected here, but also a lingering interest in the way the techniques of film-making can be used to coerce and influence the viewer’s consciousness. Thus, the film illustrates how, even as it makes every effort to expose its own artificiality (the piano score is provided by a pianist who is seen on set in the corner the whole time and who at one stage gets up and walks out; and various aspects of cinematic cliché are isolated and made to look abstract and ridiculous), the power of cinema to involve the viewer in its illusion tends to assert itself anyway. This becomes Woolley’s metaphor for how the human mind is formed by the social structures dominating society (the whole notion of human nature was seen as a capitalist myth in those days). The protagonists of the film are locked inside various scripted scenarios on the makeshift set (which was actually the communal study of the commune he then belonged to), while outside, through the window, the unscripted everyday life of a West Berlin city street can be seen, offering the possibility of breaking out of the ‘reality’ that society has scripted for its subjects. This leads to a rather amusing moment in the film when one of the couple breaks the fourth wall to earnestly deliver a political tract directly to screen, while a gang of mischievous little boys turns up outside and press their faces up against the window while pulling funny faces at the camera!
The journey which Woolley’s experiences in Germany took him on (from a purist’s abstract formalism to a more hybrid artistic position, where various aspects of conventional filmmaking could now be accommodated within his work as part of a more politicised engagement with various issues surrounding gender relations and social coercion) ultimately led to his most controversial film (at the time), which was made soon after he returned to mid-‘70s England, and found himself once again confronted with the class-conscious, Establishment dominated country of his youth.
“Illusive Crime” (1976) is the most confident distillation of the director’s unusual mixture of avant-garde method and conventional storytelling modes. Once again, the formalism asserts itself in the rigorously precise construction of the film, which is composed of the same cycle of shots repeated twelve times but with variations, like a musical score. We see certain rooms in the home of an upper-middle class couple, but we only ever fully see the business-suited husband on screen; the wife is visually represented only by parts of her body – usually a hand, arm or leg. Within this mathematically composed sequence of shots, a complex ‘plot’ nonetheless begins to emerge that involves the wife being apparently attacked by two assailants who break in while the husband is out buying a bottle of wine for their evening meal. We don’t see them and only ascertain what might be happening from the soundtrack, our imaginations being encouraged to fill in the gaps by certain brief flashes of various parts of the woman’s naked body, while a thriller-like plot continues to unfurl wherein it is implied that the woman has been involved in some sort of politically subversive activity and that the attack and ensuing rape are part of an interrogation being carried out by police officers!
Within the same series of shots, the film develops from portraying a somewhat smug, middle-class male who patronises his submissive wife, to a scenario wherein the same group of images ends up presenting an aggressive husband who treats his wife’s assault dismissively once it becomes part of a thriller in a context where the assault appears to have been part of an aggressive anti-terrorist interrogation technique carried out by Establishment authority figures. Woolley makes use of standard genre modes -- establishing shots and dialogue etc. -- with the end result being the first illustration of the theme that would become the central assertion of Woolley’s first full-length feature film later on: namely, the popular media’s ability to influence the collective consciousness of society, with its chosen forms of mass entertainment and news reportage, in favour of the establishment who control it.
The film controversially suggests that our very need to find out ‘what is happening’ and to know ‘what will happens next’ (which the film ably exploits by never giving us a clear look at what is going on, with the camera always prowling around rooms where events are being played out just beyond the frame or behind the next doorway) produces a form of voyeurism that colludes in society’s oppression of women. It produced a great deal of frenzied debate among radical feminists at the time, some of whom felt that by flirting with titillation and briefly showing female nudity, the film was as much to blame as the wider society it claimed to excoriate -- which all seems rather quaint these days, considering you only ever see one, brief, two-second flash of female buttock! But although the politics of it is very much of its time and seem more than a little simplistic and insanely didactic these days, the film is hypnotic and fascinating nonetheless. Woolley’s cinema was about to get even more adventurous, complex and ambitious, though, with his first full feature-length film.
DISC TWO: TELLING TALES (1978)
In this film we see an obvious development of the mixture of experimental techniques and the more traditional narrative effects Woolley had combined in “Illusive Crime”. Three inter-related stories unfold during the course of ninety minutes, each told in a different way as the film attempts to highlight the ideological motives behind the various storytelling techniques as part of its examination of the connections between class relationships and gender roles.
The protagonists in these various stories consist of an upper-middleclass couple, the Willoughbys, and their home help Shelia Jones; Shelia and her shop steward husband Bill Jones -- who is organising a strike at a local factory; and the owner of that factory, Paul Roberts, and his terminally ill wife Ingrid. The first section of the film is shot in cold, Bergman-esque black & white, mostly framed from the doorway of the Willoughbys’ kitchen (as though we are watching a theatre performance) where their house-maid prepares their dinner and generally seems to wait on them hand and foot. This also recreates something of the atmosphere of “Illusive Crime”, in which we are always peering into rooms from a distance, not quite involved with the action but eavesdropping on what seems a chilly husband & wife relationship hidebound by the unspoken class division between the couple and their skivvying maid who is only ever addressed whenever the couple want her to do something, although a façade of pleasant politeness is maintained throughout these interactions.
When the camera is finally allowed into the dining room, where certain elements of a plot are finally unveiled, the camera seems to prowl around the room in tight close-up on various items of furniture or cutlery, ignoring the two dinners themselves and creating an oppressive, fragmented and claustrophobic atmosphere, as we learn of the poor state of the Willoughbys’ marriage behind closed doors. Mrs Willoughby indeed (Patricia Donovan,) wants a divorce from her rich industrialist husband (James Woolley), but after he informs her that any settlement would depend on the outcome of a deal to sell his company to his colleague Paul Roberts, and that that deal is being jeopardised by a threatened strike at the workplace, by workers seeking parity in their pay, she decides to ‘hold her fire’ until the matter is resolved.
Discussion of Paul Roberts leads into the first part of the second story, with Mrs Willoughby turning to address the viewer directly and then becoming the voice-over narrator to a story that mimics the conventions of 1970s soap opera, telling of Paul Roberts’ (the character is also played by James Woolley) personal unhappiness, despite his successful high-flying business career, and his lonely search for love while crippled by his great shyness and personal reserve. Then one day he meets Ingrid (also played by Patricia Donovan) … All this is told in lush-looking colour, like many of the glossy film dramas of the time, exploiting the sentimentality and unchallenging, simplistic narrative codes of such television drama.
Next we re-join Shelia, the Willoughby’s house maid, at home -- and the film switches back to black- and-white. Rather than the staged static shots of a drawing room theatre piece and the precise, mathematical formalism that marked the first part of the film, here the relationship between Shelia and Bill, her shop steward husband, is charted in terms of ‘serious drama’ with Shelia addressing the viewer in a lengthy monologue about the struggles of her best friend (who happens to work at the factory where her husband is the union representative) and who is attempting to gain equal pay for the women who work there. First of all though, we note that the domestic relationship between Shelia and Bill is hardly very different from that of Shelia’s working relationship at the Willoughby’s home: with her cooking and cleaning constantly while Bill sits reading the paper at the kitchen table and complains about the women who are threatening the strike action at the factory by making their support of the male workers’ fight for parity conditional on the union’s support of their battle for equal pay.
Later Bill is invited for drinks at the Willoughbys’ while his wife prepares the food for a dinner party the couple are giving later that evening. The ensuing discussion between Mr Willoughby and Bill Jones naturally sees them rehearsing their opposite political positions with respect to the up-coming strike, but Mrs Willoughby takes a different tack and tells Bill about the sad fate of the factory owner Paul Roberts’ wife, Ingrid. Once again, Mrs Willoughby becomes the sympathetic voice-over narrator to the lush tale that now unfolds on the screen in full-colour. This time the story of Paul and Ingrid mimics the conventions of the Hollywood weepie, with lots of shots of sunlight glinting through the trees and the protagonists featured in various montages, engaged in long romantic walks and such like. Then, the dramatic reveal that Ingrid is suffering from incurable leukaemia and has only a short time left to live!
The manner in which all these different methods of telling a story through genre are told back to back, with the same actors playing multiple parts in different sections and the film switching from austere black-and-white to lush colour, results in the viewer continually being made aware of how their reactions and expectations are being manipulated, not just by the content that’s being conveyed but from the texture and form in which it is being related to them. The ultimate aim of the film is summed up in the disc’s accompanying 14 minute interview with Richard Woolley, in which he pinpoints his interest in the issue of how class issues affect our understanding of feminism. In some respects both Mrs Willoughby and Shelia are equally unfairly oppressed by chauvinistic male attitudes and societal structures, but when Mrs Willoughby realises that her divorce settlement indirectly depends on the factory strike being averted, she ends up on the same side as her husband, since they both ultimately share the same interest in maintaining the status quo. The film is at its most sneakily satirical in chronicling how mainstream entertainment becomes a tool in the Establishment’s armoury of techniques for maintaining that status quo, highlighted with the colour segments that represent those mainstream forms of media. The factory boss is represented, here, as an unfailingly sensitive, sympathetic and fragile character, and placed within a genre that privileges the most overt forms of sentimentality possible. It is Mrs Willoughby’s soothing, cultured tones that lull us into acceptance of the tale that’s being told during this section of the film with her cooing narration and the ‘70s Swedish pop group Abba coming to her aid as well, with one of their most freakishly melodic outbursts swelling up ironically on the soundtrack at the moment Ingrid’s imminent end is revealed. Woolley keeps all this poised on a knife’s edge beyond which lies overt kitsch.
At the end of this section Mrs Willoughby speaks of her ‘award winning performance’, the clear implication being that Bill Jones will probably now think twice about going ahead with the strike, despite not being convinced by Mr Willoughby’s bourgeois justifications for the unfair pay settlement. Mrs Willoughby’s narration of this sentimental personal story always starts with her addressing the viewer directly, and Shelia Jones also gets a similar chance to talk directly to the viewer during an extended monologue in her kitchen. The film’s most crafty moment occurs during this sequence, when the Paul-and-Ingrid weepie section that is to occur later in the film, is trailed on the Jones’ TV in the background (‘that looks good, I’ll watch that!’ says Bill) and at one point almost drowns out Shelia’s very direct and factual-sounding tale of her friend’s struggle to get the union to listen to her demands for equal pay for women in the workplace. Whether the politics of this still entirely stands up today is another matter (arguably, working class culture has become equally romanticised by the media, and the kind of lush film dramas being satirised by the colour segments are now seen as rather quaint old-fashioned period pieces) but the film is an interesting experiment in the deconstruction of the relationship between artistic expression in drama and political and gender forms in society despite once again being very much of its time, in an age before post-modernism became the accepted mainstream genre vehicle it is now.
DISC 3: BROTHERS AND SISTERS (1981)
Despite its use of actors, storytelling and genre, “Telling Tales” was clearly identifiable as an art film, full of the distancing elements that sought to foreground the viewer’s relationship with the material. “Brothers and Sisters” was the next stage on from that mode of filmmaking, and saw Woolley now working with a full professional film crew -- still on a low budget by mainstream film-making standards, but way in advance of the kinds of financing he was used to. The film was made with help from the BFI Production Fund, shot on 35mm in full colour and saw Woolley’s work reach its most accessible stage yet: here we have the director making full use of realist conventions for the first time. And there is naturalistic acting from the performers, with an identifiable emotional progression of character over time. The film has a much less stylised approach to form, which signals ‘authenticity’ through its use of copious, atmospheric location shooting. Indeed, in the latter regard, the film now seems an extraordinarily potent time capsule of Leeds in the early eighties and of the clash of competing attitudes -- both reactionary and radically ‘right on’ -- towards gender roles at the time. There is also, for the first time in Woolley’s work, a marked autobiographical element in the story, with one of the main characters being a radical left winger from a privileged middle class background who lives in a commune – something Woolley himself had plenty of experience of from his period in West Berlin. The film also involved careful research, and incorporated a lot of the findings about the lives of prostitutes who were active in the area at that time into the finished script.
The film’s subject matter springs from the fact that Woolley was living in Chapeltown in Leeds at the time of the investigation into the Yorkshire Ripper murders. In the excellent 25 minute interview on this disc, Woolley talks about the cloud of guilt and suspicion that all men in the area were living under during that time: the constant thought that any man you saw could be the killer, and the realisation that anyone you saw – especially if they were a woman – might be thinking the same thing about you. In the film this specific issue becomes the motivating factor for a wider look at the gender relationship issues that were already being examined back in “Illusive Crime” and “Telling Tales”. The framework of the narrative is built around the investigation into the murder of a Leeds prostitute called Jennifer Collins (Carolyn Pickles) and the two brothers who become chief suspects. The film is oblique about just how implicated either of the brothers might be, and indeed, we never learn who the killer actually is. The structure of the film is built from a complex web of snapshots, taken from before the crime, the same night as the crime and just after the crime, and (dis)ordered in such a way that we are often unsure just whereabouts in the narrative we actually are until some way into a particular scene. Shot in a naturalistic style amid the leafy neon-lit suburbs of Leeds in 1980, the film nevertheless makes use of recognisable thriller conventions to encourage us to view both brothers with equal suspicion -- doing this by meticulously documenting their relationships with the women in their lives (both of which prove equally hypocritical in various different ways) and juxtaposing them with atmospheric flashbacks to the actual night of the crime as Jennifer Collins moves steadily towards her fate (meeting clients, chatting with colleagues, being stalked by a shadowy figure behind a tree, and meeting her demise in a derelict house on the edge of town) and both men float in and out of her orbit.
Sam Dale plays David Barrett: a left wing social worker who lives in a commune with his live-in lover Tricia (Jenifer Armitage) and another man and a woman who are not a couple. All of them are involved with various Left Wing action groups of one shade or another, as well as working in teaching or in Local Authority Government. David comes across as almost laughably right-on, much given to loud denunciations of the exploitation of women in the media and so on, although the viewer also feels his sense of outrage at the dismissive manner in which the police who interview him about his connection to the dead woman talk about prostitutes as ‘old bags’ and inadvertently display their reactionary opinions through their cynical line of questioning.
David’s brother Major James (Robert East), on the other hand, seems to embody smug middleclass complacency and the attendant misogyny associated with it, living in a large country house on the outskirts of Leeds with his wife Sarah (Elizabeth Bennett) but not seeing anything wrong with visiting prostitutes as long as his wife doesn’t find out about it. There is another link between the dead woman and the two brothers: James and Sarah employ Jennifer Collins’ sister Theresa (also played by Carolyn Pickles) as an unqualified nanny for their infant son, and David has been having an affair with her behind his lover’s back and without telling Theresa that he’s already in a relationship. The exposure of both brothers’ different forms of hypocrisy and their attempts to justify them intertwine with the contrivances of a conventional thriller plot in which their relationships with women become elements in the putative mystery that we as an audience inevitably use to try and place ‘the blame’ as we attempt to figure out who ‘did it’.
Of course, although the film never foregrounds it to the extent that “Telling Tales” did, Woolley is still subtly toying with our expectations and with the clichés and tropes of genre fiction, in an echo of his more overtly structuralist filmmaking methods. The very first shot of the film shows us what turns out to be David’s shadow, looming up against the blind in front of the front door of the commune as he enters the house after a weekend at his brother’s estate, as ominous thriller-type music swells up on the soundtrack. But the camera then pans back to reveal that the music is part of a thriller David’s flatmate seems to be continually half-watching in a disinterested fashion all the way through the film. Yet the same music does re-occur again when we finally do get to the murder sequence at the end of the film, with the chilling enactment of Jennifer’s murder repeating many of the tonal elements that have already been ‘satirised’ in the late night thrillers always playing in the communal living room, but being no less effective and involving despite their artificiality already having been exposed. The film seems fairly pessimistic about the chances of honest relationships between the sexes ever panning out: James’ reactionary views seem in some respects more honest and realistic, while David can be characterised as the biggest hypocrite of all, descending into obscuring flurries of trendy jargon whenever his impeccably Left Wing credentials are threatened by the exposure of his sexual hypocrisy. Yet David is ultimately portrayed as someone who genuinely wants to change, even if he’s much farther away from achieving it than he once thought. James on the other hand, is happy with his comfortable existence and with the dishonesty that is implicit in his keeping-up-appearances attitude.
Dealing as forthrightly with the issue of violence against women as it clearly did, the film was bound to create some degree of controversy, especially so soon after the Ripper Murders. In the early ‘80s, horror films and thrillers came in for a great deal of criticism from feminist critics during the period when the Ripper was in the headlines and, all the while, the police seemed to be powerless to stop him; theories about the male gaze in cinema were in vogue and films such as “Dressed To Kill” could often find themselves picketed by feminist groups who saw them as perpetuating the notion of women as objects and as victims (this was the milieu in which Italian horror director Dario Argento attempted deal with the feminist critique in “Tenebrea”). The Right Wing-facilitated Video Nasty scare was also just around the corner. Before “Brothers and Sisters” came out, The Sun newspaper tried to whip up controversy by claiming Leeds’ prostitutes were up in arms over a ‘Ripper film’, although Woolley had interviewed many women involved and explained the intentions behind the film at the time. An amusing postscript to the film’s reception, and which tells us loads about the heady atmosphere of the times, comes in the form of an anecdote Woolley relates in the interview, in which he tells of seeing a poster for the film on the Underground which had been defaced with the words “This Film Exploits Women”. A few weeks later he noticed someone else had added another line underneath saying “This Film is Okay” – signed North London Lesbians!
The film exists on the cusp of mainstream thriller and arthouse movie, not fitting comfortably within either bracket. The complex structure is at first off-putting, but rewards future viewings as copious ironies and visual rhymes spring up once we know how all the pieces fit together. Viewed today, the constant male hand-wringing seems extreme but the film survives as a fantastically intricate document of a firmament of changing social attitudes at a heady time when the politics of gender never seemed so vital. Visually, it brings the sights and sounds of the early-eighties, and the atmosphere of terror on the city streets that was extant back then, flooding back, with moody shoots of West Yorkshire by night and frequent shots of eighties pubs and clubs, and the array of bad fashion choices that could be spied in such establishments during the decade. “Brothers and Sisters” is possibly Richard Woolley’s film masterpiece and still stands up as exciting piece of alternative filmmaking.
DISC 4: WAITING FOR ALAN (1984)/GIRL FROM THE SOUTH (1988)
After several years of attempting to get various projects off the ground (including a comedy about the Miners’ strike that was to have starred David Jason and Judy Dench!) with financing either from the BFI or the newly active Channel 4 and its Eleventh Hour late-night arts slot, Richard Woolley eventually got the go-ahead for “Waiting For Alan” (the title an ‘in-joke’ at the expense of Channel 4’s commissioning editor at the time), which was originally to have been the first of four films in which the same story would be told from multiple viewpoints utilising various musical forms – a sonata, a fugue and symphony etc. In the event, only this first film in the proposed quartet ever got made.
Shot in three ‘movements’ as a film-based sonata accompanied by piano music from Beethoven, Satie and Chopin, “Waiting For Alan” sees Woolley returning to the theme of ritualised middleclass boredom first seen in his representation of the Willoughbys in “Telling Tales” and in the cultivated country house existence of James and Sarah Barrett in “Brothers and Sisters”. Here, Marcia (Carolyn Pickles) and her husband Alan (Anthony Schaeffer) once again live in isolated, tastefully civilised surroundings, in a large house that we learn has been inherited by the husband ten years ago. Woolley returns to the direct-to-camera address device he made extensive use of in “Telling Tales”, with Marcia turning to look straight down the lens of the camera and chatting about her life while her stolid husband sits unawares, reading his paper. But here the device becomes less alienating or distancing for the audience, and functions more as a way of allowing the character of Marcia to draw the viewer into her confidence as she rails against the loneliness and boredom of the tastefully civilised routine that makes up her day to day existence.
Every day consists of the same ritual: preparing the drinks trolley, her husband’s newspaper placed on the arm of his chair with a selection of nibbles at hand. Every night spent knitting an endless supply of sweaters, preparing and checking on supper, and making Alan’s mug of Horlicks before bedtime. And the same conversational ticks, day after day, month after month, year after year for ten long years. Marcia tells us all about this shallow life of routine amiably enough, but there are subtle signs that enough is enough: while Alan is at work, Marcia uproots the flower bed and bolts through the back gate in the garden and runs wild in the stretch of grassland beside a level crossing, before resolving to give Alan ‘three chances’ to do something differently that night, or else ‘things will change’ for good.
This is a much lighter, easily accessible piece from the director, although the familiar themes and devices of his previous arthouse projects are still being heavily utilised. A combination of factors, from TV audiences now starting to become a little more sophisticated, to Woolley simply having become increasingly more interested in engaging a general audience rather than playing to a small arthouse clique who were already receptive to his style of filmmaking, meant that “Waiting For Alan” sees the mainstream and the arthouse meeting in the middle and producing a work that is both light-hearted in its treatment of the familiar Woolley themes but also structurally stimulating in its mimicry of musical form. Once again we have a workingclass housemaid character, Mrs Betts (Joyce Kennedy) who circulates in the background, and also a gardener as well. Carolyn Pickles’ chameleon-like ability to switch personas is once again made prominent: it’s hard to believe that the passive-aggressive politeness of middle class Marcia springs from the same body that presented us with the rough-hewn Northern guile of prostitute Jennifer Collins in “Brothers and Sisters”. Humour emerges from Marcia’s attempts to vary her husband’s evening routine in order to make something different happen for a change, and in the distress and confusion these relatively minor variations cause. The ending, in which both Mrs Betts (who’s unemployed husband still insists that she have his supper on the table each evening) and Marcia independently and simultaneously decide to disappear, was to have led into another episode in which we would have presumably seen events from the apparently routine-loving husband’s point of view, but that was never to be. The film does function as an indicator of Woolley’s increasing comfortableness with traditional forms of popular storytelling, though. This trend would reach its fullest expression with his final film “Girl From The South” (1988).
With this, his last film, Richard Woolley fully embraced traditionalism, in that the film’s colour cinematography was pleasing to the eye, its shots were aesthetically composed in a conventional manner and it had a clear narrative line with a beginning, middle and an end. And there was a moral message underlying the simple to understand story. The film is also more specifically aimed at a different, much younger audience than anything else Woolley had written or directed before. Despite its more easily digestible form, though, “Girl From The South” has plenty to say about the process of storytelling itself -- its pleasures and its dangers. It also sees Woolley using sound – in this case music – in a very sophisticated manner to convey the internal world of the film’s characters and the relationship between their fantasy life and the real world.
It tells the story of Anne (Michelle Mulvaney): a bored teenage girl from a wealthy family in Sussex, who faces the displeasing prospect of spending the summer holidays with her Gran (Daphne Oxenford) and Grandfather (Alan Thompson) in the North of England. It turns out that her Grandparents live in the same sort of tastefully middleclass household on the outskirts of Leeds as was seen in “Waiting for Alan”, “Telling Tales” and “Illusive Crime” – if a somewhat smaller version. Anne is an avid consumer of Mills & Boon-style romances and sees the world in terms of its opportunities for romance and adventure, her ideas of which have been formed and focused entirely by her choice of reading matter. Fed up with the limited opportunities available to her in these areas, Anne decides to ‘write her own story’ as she embarks on her holiday. It starts with her reciting the words ‘Once upon a time, there was an uncommonly attractive young girl called Anne …” and proceeds with the teenager adding lines in her head as she goes along, always on the lookout for any chance of adding some more material to her story as her travels around the red brick rows of houses in the poorer parts of the Leeds area progress.
The film is partly about the clash between the expectations Anne entertains that have been born of her privileged middle class upbringing (the perennial Woolley theme), and those of the considerably more impoverished inhabitants of the less well -off sections of the Leeds estate she decides to explore in search of a ‘tall dark stranger' to complete her self-told story. This is where she bumps into ‘Granny White’ (Rosamund Greenwood) one morning, and invites herself into the old lady’s dimly lit abode. It turns out that the arthritic old woman -- badly in need of a hip replacement, but stuck on an interminable NHS waiting list -- spends much of her time lost in the romance of old films from the ‘40s. This is something which gives Anne and her new friend one thing in common, at least. They bond over “Brief Encounter” and Anne begins to call round regularly with spare lumps of coal she’s filched from her well-off Grandparents’ fireplace, and more VHS cassettes of old films. She also becomes rather fond of Ralph (Mark Crowshaw), Granny White’s devoted black Grandson. He fits the ‘tall, dark and handsome’ equation perfectly and so finds himself being written into Anne’s story … with devastating results.
Woolley challenges the usual class stereotypes by writing the poor, working class black boy as a fan of classical music, in particular that stalwart of Englishness, Elgar. He’s particularly enthralled by the Enigma Variations. Ralph also loves traditional portraiture art and enjoys wandering around peaceful art galleries – an escape from the noise and bustle elsewhere in his life. Anne on the other hand, who has had enough ‘peacefulness’ to last her a lifetime in her well-heeled middleclass suburban world, much prefers loud popular music (which she listens to constantly on her Walkman), and as for art galleries – there’s nowhere she’d less rather spend her days! When Ralph takes her on a date to see a band (‘a local group’), it turns out to be a string quartet. Nevertheless, Anne becomes determined to mould the hapless Ralph into her idea of a romantic hero. This involves persuading him to help her burgle her Grandparents’ house in order to pay for Granny White’s hip replacement, having discovered that her own Grandmother didn’t have to wait at all for her operation, and that the insurance will cover the cost of any missing stolen items. Ralph is not exactly enthused by the plan, but after persistent emotional blackmail and jibes at Ralph’s masculinity (“Too much Mozart’s made you go soft -- night-night, Wolfgang!”), the boy finally relents and agrees to wait until the early hours of the morning to be let in through the kitchen door by Anne.
Anne’s naive belief in romance, the unassailability of happy endings and the nobility of her endeavour to take from the rich and give to the needy poor is, ironically enough, soundtracked by Ralph’s tape of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Woolley makes use of sophisticated experiments in diagetic and non-diagetic sound throughout the film, using Ralph and Anne’s habit of ‘tuning out’ the world with music as a means of inducting us into their consciousness and making us aware of their particular moods. When Anne uses the late night robbery at her Grandparents’ as a means of sharing a tender romantic moment with Ralph, the passage of Elgar they’re both listening to at the time switches from the tinny noise projecting from their headphones to a full-bodied rendering on the soundtrack of the film, illustrating both the characters being lost in the moment and our own implicit tendency to willingly share with Anne the lure of romance, as the scene inevitably mimics the type that exists in Granny White’s favourite old films.
When harsh reality finally intrudes into this fairy tale, and Anne’s misguided attempts to make Ralph her handsome dark prince lead to disaster, the false world of romance has to finally give way. The twin issues of race and class are rather sophisticatedly handled here. Throughout, Anne is unknowingly attributing all sorts of exotic, romantic connotations to Ralph’s colour and race – one of the reasons she falls for him. But a more noxious form of racism reveals itself when the burglary is discovered and Ralph (who Anne’s Granny has already seen ‘loitering’ in the garden when he was waiting for Anne on a previous occasion) immediately becomes the number one suspect. When Anne tries to reveal the truth – that it was all her idea and that she gave the stolen items to Ralph herself – no one believes her, not least the arresting officers. “Three pieces of advice luv,” says one of them as Ralph is lead away in handcuffs: “don’t make up silly stories to help your friends; stick to your ‘own kind’; and don’t mix with coloureds!” The film ends with Granny White switching off one of her old VHS cassettes -- no longer in the mood for old-school Hollywood romance now she is left alone, with no Ralph and Anne having been shut out on the doorstep -- and Anne herself on her way to the police station to try and make the truth known once and for all, having finally realised ‘this is no time for stories.’
Perhaps it is rather fitting that that should be the last line of what became Richard Woolley’s final film, although he found plenty of other avenues subsequently for storytelling that didn’t involve directing. This DVD set from the BFI, made available with the participation of the Yorkshire Film Archive, presents some very decent looking prints of all the films and interview sections on each disc in which Richard Woolley is extensively quizzed by an unseen Andrew Tudor of the University of York about the background to each one and often about the ideas informing the making of them. Woolley is an articulate and thoughtful interviewee, making the videos a vital accompaniment to understanding the films and embellishing our understanding of the cultural and political context in which they appeared. This is an often difficult but always stimulating collection of material from a challenging and provocative writer, director and producer, whose work sums up the philosophical interests and concerns of radical opposition politics during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Even while some of the ideas and themes seem a bit out-dated these days, the work that encompasses them is always complex and thought provoking, making this collection a very worthwhile addition to any discerning film lover’s DVD collection.