By the mid-1950s the years of Orson Welles scrambling this way and that for some money to finance his cinematic and theatrical efforts were well underway. He hadn’t yet descended to the level of semi-literate frozen pea voiceovers, but he had begun his years defined by the endless process of trying to drum up some cash to make The Trial or F for Fake or Chimes at Midnight.
Anyway, in 1955 a young writer friend of his named Wolf Mankowitz (no, not Herman Mankiewicz, Pauline Kael will be happy to tell you all about their collaboration) in England hit upon the idea of an informal storytelling show featuring Welles, which he thought would work well on the BBC. At the time Mankowitz was best known for his novel A Kid for Two Farthings.
The show ran in 1955 under the title Orson Welles’ Sketch Book. There eventually appeared six episodes, each lasting 15 minutes, Welles would free-associate with a sketchpad, and every few minutes a sketch relating to the story he was telling would be shown to the home viewer. In the show Welles discoursed on bullfighting, his infamous 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, Harry Houdini, critics, a story involving an earthquake, and the Gate Theatre in Dublin, among others.
Welles’ stories always have an air of self-serving horseshit to them, but they are undeniably entertaining. In the show Welles is frequently shown using an actual quill to sketch with, which for some reason I find hilarious.
On the original conception of the show, Barbara Leaming reports in Orson Welles: A Biography:
Eager to work with Orson in England, Mankowitz made a deal with the BBC for a series of television shows titled The Orson Welles Sketch Book that would pay enough to keep Orson going until they put together something for the London stage. Mankowitz had created the television show to fit what he saw as Orson’s innate restlessness: “The problem with Orson,” says Mankowitz, “was to get him to stay i the same place in front of the camera for very long. So as he draws quite amusingly well, I had the notion that we could have him with his sketchbook, and that we would simply cut to the drawings when we wanted to get off him. You see, we simply needed a device to intercut so that we could lay his voice over and then when we had him back in the eye of the camera, pick it up from there.” The BBC programme turned out to be a big hit, and Orson was eventually offered a second series, titled Around the World with Orson Welles.
All six of the shows are on YouTube—and they’re all embedded here as well:
Orson Welles Sketchbook, episode 1: The Early Days
Orson Welles Sketchbook, episode 2: Critics
Orson Welles Sketchbook, episode 3: The Police
Orson Welles Sketchbook, episode 4: Houdini/John Barrymore/Voodoo Story/The People I Missed
Orson Welles Sketchbook, episode 5: The War Of The Worlds
Orson Welles Sketchbook, episode 6: Bullfighting
Here are a few more of the sketches:
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
F is for Orson Welles’ FBI file
‘Future Shock’: Orson Welles narrates gloriously schlocky documentary on techno-pessimism, 1972