Orbital Operations for 30 July 2023
Hello from out here on the dark and rainy Thames Delta.
Honestly, it’s been a shit week, so let’s talk about something wonderful instead.
In 1982, David Bowie started in a BBC TV production of Bertolt Brecht’s first play, BAAL. It was, somehow, never repeated. The only living sign of it was Bowie’s EP of the songs, featuring one of his greatest vocal performances in BAAL’S HYMN.
For the next few weeks, it can be watched again on BBC iPlayer, and I would urge you to do so. Why the mighty BBC can’t put out the energy and resources to ensure such marvels are permanently available in the online archive, I have no idea. I imagine it’ll turn up on YouTube or elsewhere in due course, now it’s been aired again.
It is really good. Bowie gives a great, theatrical performance (that is, on occasion, also very mindful of the close eye of the camera and its ability to pick up small motions - toothless Baal slowly licking his lips), and there are wonderful actors in support, and even early Brecht is great writing.
Some of us, right now, are misty for the days when BBC 1 could drop a Brecht play starring David Bowie and Zoe Wanamaker at 9.25 in the evening, right after the national news. Can you even imagine a comparable thing happening now?
The production uses a split-screen effect for interstitial pieces, often playing a still on one side against motion on the other.
It never forgets that it is theatre, and yet also never forgets it’s television.
Television, I have done, but I never did anything for theatre. It has, however, always been a powerful influence, in theory and abstract. FELL was a sequence of one-act plays, to varying degrees of success. In doing DEPARTMENT OF MIDNIGHT, I have channeled that - one-act plays with only two actors. Audio often being as close as you can get to black box theatre - which, like audio drama, could be considered a “theatre of the mind.” In film, you see a version of black box theatre in DOGVILLE, where the actors are working to lines painted on the floor in place of buildings, sets and objects.
(Imagine how Wes Anderson would cope with a black box production! Wouldn’t it be something to see him solve that and still be Wes Anderson?)
The BAAL interstitial compositions are very reminiscent of comics panels, of course, but I was also reminded of devices that came later, such as the “multi-panelling” of Greenaway and Phillips’ A TV DANTE, of which the below is among the simplest:
I realise I should explain that one. Peter Greenaway, the experimental film director whose most accessible work was probably THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER, which features Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, cannibalism and murder by book — teamed with painter and collagist Tom Phillips to produce a tv adaptation of part of Dante’s Inferno for Channel 4, another national tv network here. So, like BAAL, this is free-to-air national television we’re talking about here.
There is a halfway decent copy of A TV DANTE on Ubuweb. I have a DVD copy. It does really interesting stuff with multiple video windows within the screen, which were kind of revelatory at the time (1989) and which Greenaway developed further in later films like THE TEMPEST and THE PILLOW BOOK.
This has just reminded me that I haven’t done a deep dive into Ubuweb in ages, and also that I once did a personal curation list for them: let me see if I can just copypaste it here:
1. Ketjak: The Ramayana Monkey Chant
2. Orson Welles - The One Man Band (1995)
3. Sun Ra: The Berkeley Lectures, 1971
4. Tuvan Throat Singing
5. John Berger: Ways Of Seeing
6. Samuel Beckett: Film
7. Charlemagne Palestine - Four Manifestations on Six Elements (1974)
8. Delia Derbyshire: Dreams
9. The Ancient Order Flyers
10. Eliane Radigue: Kyema, Intermediate States (1992)
I dearly wish there was a copy of the BBC Four screening of REVISOR by Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young floating around. It was stunning and inspiring.
Well, that was a mad ramble, wasn’t it? I hope something in there introduced you to something new and marvellous.
My name is Warren Ellis, and I’m a writer from England. These newsletters are about the work I do and the creative life I try to lead. I send them every Sunday to subscribers. Feel free to send your friends to orbitaloperations.beehiiv.com , where they can read the most recent letters and subscribe for their own.
I’m represented by Angela Cheng Caplan at the Cheng Caplan Company and David Hale Smith at Inkwell Management. Please add [email protected] to your email system’s address book or contacts.
IN THE DIGITAL STACKS
“Homicide is not a sin. It is sometimes a necessary violence on resistant and ossified forms of existence which have ceased to be amusing.”
“An image must be transformed by contact with other images as is a colour by contact with other colours.”
“Don’t run after poetry. It penetrates unaided through the joins.”
WARRENELLIS.LTD is my personal notebook, in which I make new entries several times a day. Think of it as all the things I can't fit into this newsletter, from links and bookmarks to reviews, random thoughts and life notes. If you use a RSS reader, it generates a feed at https://warrenellis.ltd/feed/ .
Quick correction from last week: I haven’t spoken to Grant Morrison in ages, and I am not extremely online, so I was entirely unaware that Grant now identifies as non-binary and prefers they/them pronouns. Two people wrote to tell me. I immediately made the correction on the web version of that letter, and apologise and issue a correction here.
It’s always later than you think, but there’s always still time. Look after yourself. See you next week.