The BFI continues its celebration of some of the most neglected and overlooked corners of the British film archive in 2013, with another release in its essential Flipside series. This time we’re presented with a miscellany of works conceived in the visual medium by the London-born writer, broadcaster and film-maker Bryan Stanley Johnson.
Johnson was something of a marginal figure in many respects during his short lifetime, whose work met with little in the way of popular appreciation or a wide dissemination; yet he was an artist who has since gathered a small but devoted cult following (and a formidable reputation as a versatile experimenter across a wide range of disciplines) in the forty years since his death by suicide in 1973. This BFI release already comes on the back of an upsurge of interest in the man's work marked by Picador publishing new editions of four of Johnson’s novels plus a new collection of selected prose and drama from among his many other scattered writings. This follows the publication of novelist Jonathan Coe’s biography, “Like a Fiery Elephant – The Story of BS Johnson”, in 2004, and a panel discussion about his life and work recently staged by the British Library in celebration of the 80th anniversary of Johnson’s birth. The diverse material included in this dual-disc Blu-ray/DVD collection ranges across many areas, including the experimental narrative short film from which the release derives its title, to Johnson’s obscure adventures in the worlds of animation, agitprop, TV drama, personal reminiscence and (in its most intriguing instances) a semi-documentary form that’s almost unclassifiable, and which creates a tele-visual poetry that seems to exist somewhere between the cracks separating the more recognisable genres -- melding documentary and comedy with whimsical performance poetry and personal anecdote.
In fact, this collection can only hint at the enormous range of singular artistic practise Johnson involved himself in during his career, almost all of it crammed into the last ten years or so of his life. His complete body of work represents a staggering plethora of creative endeavour which saw him assuming a multiplicity of roles -- everything from essayist, documentary maker, dramatist, playwright and film director to poet and broadcaster; he even worked as a sports commentator for The Observer for a time, although he’s perhaps primarily remembered, still, for being the writer of seven novels, published between 1963 and 1973 (the last of them, posthumously in 1975), each notable for their playful attempts to expand the modernist project first brought to prominence by James Joyce and by Johnson’s literary hero Samuel Beckett in the middle part of the twentieth century.
Johnson considered the standard novel form to have reached its zenith by the end of the nineteenth century, and believed that it had failed to move adequately beyond the populist set of narrative techniques developed by its greatest practitioners during the form’s heyday. Continued unthinking adherence to such techniques was now threatening to topple the modern novel into a state of stale irrelevance in Johnson’s opinion, because of its failure accurately to represent the truth of the human condition. Johnson’s attitude to the novel remained ambivalent, despite it being the form that continued to provide him with the main platform for most of his own artistic output. His work continued to be characterised by persistent attempts to challenge and stretch the printed medium in ways intended to contort the novel into a new form of literature that was more conducive to it representing a truer reflection of the types of internal states that constituted human consciousness and the workings of memory. To this end, Johnson’s novels were often quirkily put together artifacts in their own right -- with holes in the middle of pages so that the reader could see further ahead into the text, or -- perhaps most famously in the case of his 1969 novel “The Unfortunates” -- with the pages left unbound, and presented in a loose leafed box, with only the first and last sections properly labelled to indicate chronology, while the rest of the pages were supposed to be shuffled by the reader and could be read in any order one preferred.
This was perhaps Johnson’s most ambitious attempt to re-create the free association randomness of human memory, but perhaps his best known work, published just before his death, was “Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry” (later made into a movie), which was an irreverent deadpan comic-drama in which the artifices and conventions of novel writing are parodied as a contrast to the artifices and conventions of a society in the thrall to alienating capitalist business methods, and in which the ‘hero’ -- an unassuming young accounting clerk for a chocolate making firm – indulges in a series of acts of small rebellion which escalate into terrorist atrocities organised around the debit/credit form of double-entry book keeping routinely used in business accountancy.
But after the publication of his second novel, Johnson, like Beckett before him, also began to consider the ways in which his prose might be adapted to other media, an interest which led to his first short film finding sponsorship under the auspices of the BFI in 1967, after Johnson applied to the British Film Institute’s Production Board for a small grant of several hundred pounds to be used to adapt one of his poems (which he’d previously intended to dramatise as a play) for the screen. Despite his never having directed a film before, “You’re Human Like the Rest of Them” won two festival awards and gained much praise for its idiosyncratic editing patterns, based on the decasyllabics of Johnson’s verse.
After this small-scale success Johnson began to seek further opportunities to work with film. However, his second short, “Paradigm”, met with the complete opposite of the response afforded his first effort: The Polish film director Walerian Borowczyk cited it as the worst short film he’d ever seen and its Polish-Belgian producer all but disowned it, so poor was its reception. Thereafter Johnson’s work in the visual medium seems to have remained anarchic in spirit but somewhat directionless in form, being difficult to quite pin down to any particular aim after Johnson abandoned any thought of becoming a film-making auteur and instead began to hire himself out to the BBC or ITV as something of an intellectual pundit, tackling documentary essay subjects one minute but cheer-leading for the Trades Union movement by writing socialist propaganda films for the TUC the next. However, all of these tenuously linked works embody a playful un-predictableness and an impish sense of humour rooted in the absurdity of human existence, a quality immediately identifiable as Johnsonian despite the disparate nature of the work in which it frequently appears.
Johnson seems to have been willing to take on any kind of film or TV job he could get, much of his work in the medium running contemporaneously with his writing career, although his relationship with television often seems to have been a strained one, as evidenced by the traumas behind the scenes of his “Thirty Minute Theatre” dramatisation for the BBC in 1972. The play was commissioned especially by the BBC and directed by a young Mike Newell (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”), but Johnson had running battles with both the director and its star, Hugh Burden, over their (mis)interpretation of his work, and it is always the case that someone who holds as singular a vision as Johnson needs as much creative control over the production of his own work as possible, otherwise pain and despair inevitably follow.
The film which remains still his crowning glory in the medium of television is also the very last project Johnson embarked upon just before his death in 1973, having recently forged a fruitful professional relationship with the producer and director Michael Bakewell, the former Head of Plays at the BBC during the 1960s who also became Johnson’s agent around the same period. “Fat Man on a Beach” is an offbeat series of related monologues, filmed on a stretch of anonymous beach in North Wales during October, 1973. It addresses the obsessions and thematic concerns which had largely dominated Johnson’s creative life, but here they take the unusual form of a whimsical, light-hearted outside broadcast film that mimics the documentary form while poking fun at its aesthetics, resolutely refusing to fix on any particular subject matter, but instead becoming a loose, free association meditation on the presenter’s (BS Johnson himself) own personal relationship with the Welsh beach location, conducted as a series of irreverent talks to camera.
It’s hard to assess exactly how much of an influence, if any, BS Johnson may have actually had on TV in the decades since his death. It’s interesting that one of the contributors to the booklet that comes with this disc, composed of short summaries of each of the works that can be found on it, includes the comedy writer and former music critic David Quantick, who has worked in the past with satirist Chris Morris on both “The Day Today” and “Brass Eye”. Is it too outlandish to suppose that there might be a connection between the peculiar, slightly disturbing ambiance of a piece like “Paradigm” for instance, and the kind of genre-warping work Morris was attempting with his bizarro series “Jam”? Also, the meandering, idiosyncratic style of television broadcast presentation Johnson created (or stumbled on) for “Fat Man on a Beach” seems to have a close analogue with the similarly abstruse formulations of cultural commentator Jonathan Meads. In the end, this collection is a singular grab bag of odds and ends and curios; by turns intriguing, bewildering, stimulating and original -- these films articulate Johnson’s own unmistakable brand of disordered orderliness, facing down the meaningless chaos of existence with wit, verbal dexterity and unerring charm.
This set includes the following works:
You’re Human like the Rest of Them UK|1967|black and white, and colour|17 minutes
Written and directed by BS Johnson/ Photographed by David Muir
The collection is bookended by Johnson’s two most appealing works and “You’re Human like the Rest of Them” is also the most easily accessible piece here, notwithstanding the fact that it is based on a poem written in decasyllabics. A compelling and yet humorous meditation on ageing, death and being aware one’s own mortality in a world intent on ignoring death, the film segues between a hospital lecture room in which a physiotherapist gives a talk on the ‘design’ of the human spine to an audience of geriatrics, a school staff room, and a classroom in which a form teacher (played by William Hoyland) tries to get his unruly pupils to appreciate the unavoidable fact that they all face a cruel and unappealing end, as he has a slow nervous breakdown in front of them.
Up Yours Too Guillaume Apollinaire! UK|1968| black and white|2 minutes
Written and directed by BS Johnson/Photographed by David Muir
A short animated film commissioned by the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in which Johnson pays tribute to the French poet famous for his concrete poetry, or Calligrammes, using animated words to form moving pictures, in a piece which also seems to reference the poet’s surrealist musical “The Breasts of Tiresias”.
Paradigm UK|1969|colour|9 minutes
Written and directed by BS Johnson/Photography by David Muir
A strikingly odd short film that looks like something David Lynch might have ended up making if he’d been working in the UK in the 1970s in a studio that looked like a cross between the set of Playschool and the site of an Open University lecture about topology. William Hoyland appears again, in a series of guises, starting out naked and verbose and ending up as a speechless old man, as he attempts to deliver a monologue in an incomprehensible made up language (‘Mip, shub shub shub, shub shub shub … shub’) while an irritating electronic whine drones on off-puttingly in the background. As David Quantick states in his commentary, written for the set’s accompanying booklet, this film plays like your quintessential ‘difficult’ arthouse movie, but the strangeness of the visual imagery and the incomprehensibility of its words rather accentuates rather than obviates the piece’s ability to convey its meaning. Once again Johnson returns to a meditation on the ageing process, but this time he considers the decline of morale and of mental faculties rather than just the body. By divorcing the subject from the actual content of Hoyland’s monologue (who delivers an amazing performance, not least because he had to memorise pages and pages of what can only be described as gibberish!), Johnson forces us to confront the existential horror of a person being gradually denuded of his confidence to speak, finally falling into enfeebled muteness.
The Unfortunates UK|1969|colour|15 minutes [DVD Only]
Directed by BS Johnson/Script by BS Johnson/ production company BBC
This little documentary piece, made for the BBC arts programme “Release”, features Johnson himself explaining the thinking behind his 1969 publication, the famous ‘Book-in-a- box’ “The Unfortunates”. Johnson relates how a visit to the ticket office of a train station in a city he’d been sent to in his capacity as a sports reporter, pricked memories of a deceased friend whom he’d forgotten came from the same city. His sudden realisation that he already possessed a deep familiarity with the landscape of this city, elicited further memories about this old friendship, and so the book’s structure is an attempt to echo this random free association of memories, description and the need to report on a game of football (Johnson succinctly captures the frustrations of writing to a deadline: ‘writing the first words that come into my head … not good!’). The voice of William Hoyland is also heard reading passages from the novel.
Unfair! UK|1970|black and white|8 minutes
Directed by BS Johnson/Written by BS Johnson and Alan Burns
March! UK|1971|colour|13 minutes
These films are two shorts conceived by the ACTT union (Association of Cinematograph, Television and allied Technicians) in opposition to the 1971 Industrial Relations bill, which was being introduced by the then Conservative Government, led by Ted Heath. Johnson was a member of the ACTT and was invited to produce what are essentially propaganda films for screening in the workplace. The bill was an attempt to limit the powers of the Trades Unions by way of the introduction of a National Industrial Relations Court, which would have the power to judge any union action to be unfair and thus render it illegal at a stroke. The first of these films is a piece of filmed agitprop theatre starring Bill Owen – an actor more familiar to British audiences for his role as Compo in the interminably long-running sitcom “Last of the Summer Wine”. It has to be said, the style and tone of this issues-based piece comes across all a bit Legs Akimbo Theatre Company, and one does get the impression of it being something that Olly Plimsoles from “The League of Gentlemen” might have dreamt up. The second film consists of documentary coverage of a protest march through central London ending at Trafalgar Square, which was organised by the TUC in February 1971 in opposition to the same bill. BS Johnson again provided his services by writing the rousing narration that can be heard as a voice-over accompaniment to the images of marching union members led by the powerful union barons of the day, many of them sporting some fairly impressive facial hair! Such a show of union strength and solidarity as is seen here, and the male dominated working class culture of Welsh male voice choirs and marching brass bands then associated with it and which lead the marchers in the film, seems these days to be a thing of the past and the heady sentiments expressed here belong to a different world to the one we’re familiar with today; although Heath’s Government succeeded in getting the bill through parliament, it was repealed the minute Harold Wilson’s Labour Party was returned to power in 1974, only for a sustained assault to be launched on the bastions of union power in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher took power, resulting in any such similar display today being almost unthinkable.
Poem UK|1971|black and white and colour|1 minute
Directed by BS Johnson
This is an evocative short made by BS Johnson to accompany the fourth of Samuel Beckett’s Quatre Poems, shot around the same time as the publication of Johnson’s novel “House Mother Normal”. Beckett’s spare verse speaks of graveyards, dying love and mourning, while Johnson fills the screen with images of decay and urban decrepitude – smashed windows, piles of discarded junk in cobble-stoned streets, graffiti on crumbling walls and flashes of the head and shoulders of an unnamed woman, who looks as though she’s posing in a mirror ... There are shifts from grainy black and white to colour; edited patchworks of images are juxtaposed with long tracking shots and the effect is the production of a pictorial stream of consciousness that accompanies Beckett’s haunting repeated refrain, once again voiced by William Hoyland.
On Reflection: B.S. Johnson on Dr Samuel Johnson UK|1971|colour|26 minutes
Directed and presented by BS Johnson
“On Reflection” was a long-running documentary series broadcast in ITV regions, in which artists, writers and academics contemplated the life and works of a selection of notable historical figures. Although this film consists of a fairly conventional ‘talking head’ presentation, with Johnson seated in front of a camera and delivering a straight monologue down the lens, it’s also indicative of his own dry humour and taste for quirky interludes in his work. Repeated flash frame messages punctuate Johnson’s erudite reflections upon the life and work of his esteemed subject, such as ‘All Publishers are Parasites!’ Johnson himself proves to be something of a natural in front of the camera, presenting in a relaxed broadcasting style which helps make what could have been a dry and monotonous piece of history an accessible and dynamically structured work which accurately conveys the author’s own interest in Johnson’s love of language while capturing something of his subject's ebullient personality.
Thirty Minute Theatre: Not Counting the Savages UK|1972|a black and white presentation of a colour production|28 minutes [DVD Only]
Directed by Mike Newell/Written by BS Johnson
This BBC play had been considered lost for decades, until a black and white video recording was discovered in the Johnson family home, a few months before this collection was to be made available. It’s of poor quality and only appears on the DVD in this dual-disc release. A tense, strange and enigmatic piece of work, Johnson himself was never satisfied with the version of “Not Counting the Savages” as it was broadcast, although it undoubtedly remains a compelling and tersely bitter drama, examining dysfunctional human relationships with a rapier wit as it dissects the everyday domestic cruelties of family life with painful accuracy. The play centres upon the revelation made by a middle-aged woman (Brenda Bruce) to the members of her family, that she has been flashed at by a pervert while visiting the grave of a family member (who one gathers is probably a deceased child). Her husband (Hugh Burden) is indifferent to the account and seems completely and insensitively unaware and uninterested in the fact that his wife has been severely traumatised by the experience. Meanwhile, her two grown up children visit after she phones them to tell them what has happened. The daughter, Rosa (Fiona Walker) offers brittle, shallow sympathy while her son Jerry (who directs porn films for a living), played by Johnson’s film alter ego William Hoyland, finds the entire story absolutely hilarious and is more concerned about badgering his timid mother into supplying the juicy details than offering her comfort. Johnson intended the dismissive patriarch, played by Burden, to be portrayed as a grotesque brute to provide contrast after the revelation, made at the play’s climax, that he is in fact a highly respected surgeon who saves people from cancer when he's at work, this being all the more of a shock when set against his behaviour towards his own wife. Instead, Burden highlights the eccentricities and tics of his screen character but does not necessarily make him appear all that unlikable -- or at least he’s no more so than the rest of the unfeeling family who surround Bruce’s mother character. But despite Johnson’s own reservations about Burden’s performance and Newell’s direction, this is still a powerful short piece of drama which holds the viewer’s attention throughout.
Fat Man on a Beach UK|1974|colour|40 minutes
A Film by BS Johnson/Directed by Michael Bakewell
Fat Man on a Beach – mute outakes
This is a film about a fat man on a beach … Did you hear what I said? This is a film about a fat man on a beach! Do you really want to sit there and watch it? Well don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Filmed in the bay of Porth Ceiriad on the Lleyn peninsular in Gwynneth, North Wales, “Fat Man on a Beach” was the last TV work of BS Johnson. An irreverent combination of whimsy and personal reminiscence, it’s rather a hard piece of work to categorise … and that is perhaps its point, if there is any point. BS Johnson was a person who saw the world as chaotic and stories as lies we tell to impose meaning on that chaos. In this film, Johnson tells stories, reads some of his poems and relates anecdotes taken from his own experience, but also he uses the strangeness of the context to highlight the editing process used in constructing these accounts, sometimes mimicking a natural history presenter by pointing out random odds and ends on the beach as though they’re the most wondrous of objects, and frequently using cutaways to a bunch of bananas as a visual signifier for the editing breaks. Despite how this all sounds, there’s nothing pretentious about the way it comes across; once again Johnson proves to be a charming and likeable host as he holds forth on a variety of diverse subjects, incorporating quirky asides and humour but also showing himself capable of switching gear and offering thought-provoking reflections on mortality and memory.
The Johnson Papers UK|2013|colour|16 minutes
Produced and directed by Sam Dunn
Finally, this short extra feature consists of a presentation by Joanna Norledge, curator of the B.S. Johnson archive at the British Library. The archive offers a rich resource of relevant materials incorporating everything from Johnson’s background research notes for his novels and screenplays, to shooting scripts, scribbled directorial notes and correspondence with his collaborators, distributers and funders, etc. The collection even includes collected beach debris picked up during the filming of “Fat Man on a Beach”!
In addition, this film collection comes with an entertaining booklet of writings to accompany each one of the films in the set, and opens with an introduction by Johnson’s son Steve Johnson and an overview by his biographer Jonathan Coe. The films included here exist in a variety of conditions, some extremely good, others very poor; but the BFI has, as usual, done everything possible to present them in versions which have been taken from the best available elements. It’s undoubtedly something of a niche interest release for the Flipside strand, perhaps even more so than usual, but “You’re Human Like the Rest of Them” makes a fascinating adjunct to BS Johnson’s work as a novelist, which looks set to find a justifiably deserved new lease of life after the recent publication of brand new editions of most of his best fiction. His film work never quite lived up to the genius of his literature, but it was always just as daring and it's author willing to experiment with the parameters of the form ,as this collection so ably demonstrates.
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