J.G. Ballard was a 20-year-old medical student in his second year at Cambridge University when he jointly won a crime story competition organized by the local student newspaper Varsity.
Ballard’s story “The Violent Noon” recounted the events of a violent and gory terrorist attack on a British officer and his family during the Malayan War. It has been described as a “Hemingwayesque pastiche” allegedly written to please the judges. According to “an an unsigned summary of the judges’ reasons for picking” Ballard’s story:
‘Violent Noon’ was the most mature story; it contains patches of high tension, the characters come to life, and the ending is brilliant in its cynicism. The author should, however, avoid a tendency to preach.
“The Violent Noon” was Ballard’s first published work. When it appeared in Varsity on Saturday 26th May, 1951, the paper printed a profile of the author—which included Ballard’s first ever published interview:
J. Graham Ballard who shares the first prize of ten pounds with D. S. Birley in the “Varsity” Crime Story Competition is now in his second year at King’s and immersed in the less literary process of reading medicine.
He admitted to our reporter yesterday that he had in fact entered the competition more for the prize than anything else, although he had been encouraged to go on writing because of his success.
The idea for his short story which deals with the problem of Malayan terrorism, he informs us, he had been thinking over for some time before hearing of the competition.
He had, in addition to writing short stories, also planned “mammoth novels” which “never get beyond the first page.”
What these “mammoth novels” were about one can now only imagine. It was four years since Ballard had returned to England from internment at a Japanese P.O.W. camp—the horrors of which were filtered through his work as he later said:
The experience of war is deeply corrupting. Anybody who witnesses years of brutality can’t help but lose a sense of the tragedy and mystery of death. I’m sure that happened to me. The 16-year-old who came to England after the war carried this freight of ‘matter-of-factness about death’. So spending two years dissecting cadavers was a way of reminding me of the reality of death itself, and gave me back a respect for life.
Ballard harbored plans to become a psychiatrist. But this was quickly dropped after his success with “The Violent Noon.” He quit his medical studies at Cambridge and enrolled at Queen Mary University, London to study English Literature.
More on young Ballard plus full documentary, after the jump….
Toast of London: Francis Bacon and friends at the Colony Room
If you want to know about the artist Francis Bacon then there are his celebrated interviews with David Sylvester, two biographies by Michael Peppiatt (Anatomy of an Enigma, Francis Bacon: In Your Blood), a memoir by his longtime friend and boozing buddy Dan Farson (The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon) and a film Love is the Devil starring Derek Jacobi and Daniel Craig. Then there is this: Melvyn Bragg’s access all areas documentary with Bacon from 1985 that is one of the finest portraits of an artist ever committed to film.
What makes this South Bank Show documentary so utterly brilliant is the honesty and directness with which Bacon answers Bragg’s questions. He often pauses and considers his answer before committing himself to a reply. When he does, Bacon reveals his essence as an artist.
Bragg asks him how he paints:
‘Until the images come through you’re not in control. When they come up you have to control them.’
‘So you come up with an overall image which you don’t want to define except by working towards it?’
‘Yes…no…yes, that’s exactly how it is.’
‘You’ve thrown paint at the canvas?’
‘Once or twice. I couldn’t stand the sight of them so I just threw a pot of paint at them.’
‘You put yourself at risk.’
‘You have to, otherwise you’re an academician.’
‘When is a painting finished?’
‘I know instinctively when it’s finished. There it is…I’m always hoping chance will work in my favour. I don’t want to tell a story. I’ve no story to tell. I like the starkness of the image. I want it to give me a sensation. Shock, you could say. It’s a form of experience. A visual shock.’
‘What does your painting mean when you’ve finished?’
‘Nothing. Except what people want to read into it.. Nothing.’
Bragg always allows his subjects to present themselves as they want to be seen. Unlike too many other presenters, he does not interpose himself between the camera and the subject. He is the unseen hand who steers the ship through the storms, around the hidden rocks, towards its final destination. Bragg once told me in an interview (long, long ago) why he wore suits:
...basically because it’s easier if you are doing a television programme to wear the same thing all the time then you don’t get in the way over the programme. Another way to get people to forget about me and concentrate on the person I am talking to.
It’s advice worth heeding.
In 1985, when Francis Bacon was being hailed as the world’s greatest living artist and on the verge of his second Tate Gallery retrospective—a major feat in itself—Bragg interviewed Bacon at length about his life and art. At one point during the filming, while at lunch in Mario’s restaurant in Kensington, London, Bacon and Bragg became increasingly drunk. As Bragg later wrote in his book The South Bank Show: Final Cut:
There’s bound to be truth in cliches some of the time or they wouldn’t be. In vino veritas is less spouted now that there is less Latin about but still the notion persists that people when drunk tell the truth. That they also tell lies, come out with rubbish, destructive abuse, venom, hysterical hyperbole and all manner of degrading speech has not entirely impaired its claim. When Francis Bacon and myself appeared on The South Bank Show and for a few minutes were caught in a state of naked inebriation it provided, I think, a true insight into Francis as a man and as a painter. So I left it in the film.
As the wine flowed, Bragg asked Bacon if he paints the real world, to which the artist replied:
‘Yes! Between birth and death has always been the violence of life. I paint images of sensation. What is life but sensation?’
‘Do you think anything exists outside “the moment”?’
‘No. I believe in nothing. We are born and we die and there’s nothing else.’
‘So what do you do about it?’
‘I do nothing about it. I just drift.’
‘Yes, but my own life is just going from bar to bar and drifting, that sort of thing. I’m an optimist. But I’m an optimist about nothing. I was born with that nature.’
Bacon was seventy-five when this film was made. He had enviable stamina managing a four-hour lunch at Mario’s before climbing the rickety stairs of the notorious Colony Room, where he dispensed fifty pound notes like confetti and gargled the millionaire’s mouthwash—champagne. Throughout, Bacon is old school courteous—even when utterly pissed—and collaborates with Bragg in creating an unequaled intimate film portrait.
A loft in Manhattan, New York, 1979: Talking Heads are working on their latest album Fear of Music. A TV crew from England are present making a documentary for the UK arts series The South Bank Show. They interview and film the band at work—writing, rehearsing and recording songs. At times, listening to Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison and David Byrne talk they all make it seem what they’re doing is really quite ordinary, almost mundane. Frantz says he considers his life quite normal when not on tour. He gets up early rather than sleeping all day and going to the clubs at night. Byrne, who sounds at times like Andy Warhol—nervous, shy—discusses his thoughts about dressing like ordinary working people in ordinary everyday work clothes, though he soon discovered keeping up with ordinary fashions was expensive. Tina Weymouth points out the band plays under full house lights and eschew spotlights on solos. They are earnest, conscientious, and make it sound as if what they are doing, what they are creating, is quite workaday when in truth this talented quartet are producing something very, very extraordinary.
As the documentary develops, the disparity between their artistic aspirations and their personal points of view of what they’re all about becomes apparent—with Frantz musing on whether it’s good old rock ‘n’ roll or actually art that they are producing. History’s jury has already returned the verdict on that—a unanimous decision in favor of art—great art.
Weymouth, Frantz and Byrne first played under the name The Artistics. They had an idea of “combining conceptual and performance art with popular music (their sound earned them the nickname The Autistics).” Then a friend suggested the name “Talking Heads” lifted from the TV Guide—which appealed as it had no genre defining angle. Dressed in button down shirts, sensible shoes and corduroy in amongst the ripped T-shirts, leather jackets of New York’s punk clubs, Talking Heads was a vision of the future, belonging to no genre or scene, ultimately. This became more than evident through the eight studio albums the band produced between 1977 and 1988.
Here’s a wonderful blast of 1960s NYC cool, in the form of a 1986 episode of The South Bank Show dedicated to the Velvet Underground. It’s slightly jarring to hear host Melvyn Bragg in the opening credit VU as being a precursor to punk rock and a major influence on artists “as diverse as David Bowie, Talking Heads, and the young Jesus and Mary Chain.” (It’s difficult to imagine Bragg putting on Psychocandy as he reads the morning paper, isn’t it?)
The show features ample interviews with all of the members of the band, including Nico, as well as personages like Gerard Malanga, Victor Bockris, Henry Geldzahler, and Robert Christgau. Naturally Warhol pops up in the archive footage. There’s a bunch of so-called “underground” footage, including some clips filmed by Jonas Mekas of the band’s “first appearance” (according to a helpful title card) at the Delmonico Hotel in New York City on January 14, 1966.
There’s nothing truly earth-shaking here, but it’s still quite interesting to see the whole band willing to be interviewed, and at a moment when their reputation was not quite as towering as it has since become. (Today, the premise that they were one of the very most influential bands of the 1960s is a no-brainer. In 1986 they were still seen more as the forefathers of punk, with their back catalog only coming fully back into print in the US around that time.)
‘All of my films have really been statements about America, strangely enough,’ said director Terry Gilliam in this documentary about his work and career, made for The South Bank Show in 1991.
If you look closely at them, or I sit and try to describe them in some way, they’re all me reacting to that country I left. They’re seen through the eyes of somebody who lives in Britain, who’s been affected by this world, but they’ve all been messages in film cans back to America.
They’ve been disguised with the Middle Ages and the Eighteenth Century and everything, but it’s about that. This one [The Fisher King] has no disguise—that’s what’s interesting about it. It’s there, it’s naked, this is the world.
Gilliam concludes the interview by dismissing any possibility of complacency in light of the success of The Fisher King .
Let’s say this film is successful and America is going to offer me money, there will be that tendency to say, “Oh, I’ll make more like this.” It’s easier to make films like this because I don’t have the same battles and I hope the perverse side of my nature is still there to rescue me from this, because I think that’s what’s kept me going is the sheer perverseness and because the easy path is that way…(Makes hand gesture) [and] I don’t do it
I think I’ll know when I’m really middle-aged when I go that way. If the next film is an easy film—you know it’s over. You’ll know he’s middle-aged, he’s fat, he’s a slob, he’s given up the battle.
As if that is ever going to happen, Mr. Gilliam!
Watch Terry Gilliam’s latest film ‘The Wholly Family’ after the jump…
Ken Russell had thought about making a film on Debussy for some time. He was ‘hovering on the feature film fringe,’ having just made his first movie French Dressing, in 1964. But it had sadly flopped and he had returned to work as a producer and director for the BBC’s arts series Monitor.
Making a feature film had encouraged Russell’s ambitions, and he now had a revolutionary idea for a new kind of documentary arts film, but he wasn’t quite sure how best to achieve it. This was when Russell met Melvyn Bragg, a young Northern writer, who was also working in the Monitor office.
At twenty, Bragg had decided to become a writer, but thought ‘quite rightly as it turned out,’ that he wouldn’t be able to make a living from it. So, he got a job, to support his literary ambitions.
‘I got a BBC traineeship when I was twenty-one,’ Bragg told me in 1984. ‘Went into radio, which I liked an awful lot. Worked in Newcastle. Worked in the World Service, Bush House. Then I worked in Broadcasting House, in the Features Department. I was going to stay there—I didn’t like television, except for Monitor—and I said I’d only go into television if I could get an attachment onto Monitor. Eventually, one came up, and I got it.’
Russell wanted to share his idea with Bragg. He met him in a cafe, and told Bragg about Debussy and his plan for a new kind of arts documentary—a film-within-a-film. Together they wrote a script, and Bragg turned it into a screenplay.
‘When I did Debussy, Ken’s first talkie on television, nobody had done that before I did that as a screenplay as a way to make it work. The real problem you’ve got with biopics about people is that there is no structured drama in anybody’s life. You’ve got to make it.
‘What you’ve got are pits, which are very good, all over the fucking shop, and you’ve got to have that bit because [they’re] terrific, and you’ve got to have that bit because there’s hardly any relationship between them. Where, if you write a play, or write a book, there is a relationship because you’ve written it like that. But in people’s lives, something happens there, and 7 years later, something else happens. This enables us to dip in-and-out.’
It was a lunchtime in May, and I was interviewing Bragg in his office, at London Weekend Television, where he worked as editor and presenter of the (now legendary) arts series, The South Bank Show. Bragg sat behind his desk, dressed as usual in a suit (‘Another way to get people to forget about me and concentrate on the person that I am talking to’), eating an apple for his lunch.
Bragg said he thought Russell ‘a very brilliant, eccentric and erratic talent, he can be marvelous.’
The Debussy Film was the first of several highly successful collaborations between Russell and Bragg—as director and writer. A partnership that lasted until The Music Lovers (‘I had a big row with [Ken] on that which is fairly public. I hated it.’) The pair later worked together again on several documentaries for The South Bank Show .
It was also Russell’s first collaboration with actor Oliver Reed, who later described the director as:
Jesus is not Christ, only Russell.
Reed was a rare talent, who had been slightly over-looked by film producers because of a scar on his face, which he had received on a drunken night out. But Reed was more than just a feared Hell-raiser, he was a brilliant actor who brought an incredibly complex and emotional depth to the role of Debussy.
‘Debussy was an ambiguous character,’ Russell told one of his biographers, John Baxter in 1973.
...and I always let the character of the person or his work dictate the way a film goes. Also, one was a bit critical of artists like Debussy and I thought the time had come to ask questions, and the natural way for me to ask questions was to have a film director [Vladek Sheybal] talking to an actor [Oliver Reed], because an actor always asks questions about the character he’s playing and the director usually had to answer them, or try to, often to keep him happy. And when I found Debussy was friendly with an intellectual named Pierre Louys from whom he derived a lot, it seemed an analogous relationship to that of a film director and an actor. There are some points in the film, I think, where it doesn’t matter if it’s the director talking to the actor or Louys talking to Debussy—passages of intentional ambiguity.
Born in his music and his life, Debussy was a great sensualist. There’s a line of his in the film: “Music should express things that can’t be said,” which simply means to me that music is something which, the moment you talk about it, disintegrates and becomes meaningless. That’s what I mean by sensuality—something that’s felt rather than reasoned.
Ken Russell directing ‘The Debussy Film’ (1965)
While The Debussy Film may at first appear a film that is “felt rather than reasoned,” it has to be understood that every element of it is based on fact, taken from letters and personal details of the main characters. Also, by presenting inter-linking narratives, Russell was able to question, examine and comment on Debussy’s creative life, and the damage it caused him to those he loved.
With Debussy I felt it was important to say something about his music and attitudes to it as well as relevant facts of his life. A good example of this is his relationship with his mistress Gaby, and her inability to understand either him or his art. There’s a scene where the actor playing Debussy goes to a party with his girlfriend (playing Gaby) and puts on a record of Danse Sacre et Danse Profane. He wants to listen to it, to be immersed completely; he sees in it images of art nouveau. But everyone else in the room, instead of carrying on talking, or dancing to it, or giving it half an ear, all become silent and listen to the music with a mixture of duty and piety, which is all too often the case. His girlfriend, who just sees him as being perverse, does a strip-tease to it and ridicules both the man and his music. People are very wary of the heightening of experience, and want to knock it down. It’s fear as much as anything that makes her do the strip dance, fear of something she doesn’t understand and so can only get level with by ridiculing. A lot of people still do that, not just with art but with life.
I wasn’t totally on Debussy’s side; in a sense he had no right to disrupt the party. But artists are dogmatic and pig-headed, and they over-ride people. Most of the people I’ve dealt with in films have quite dispassionately sacrificed someone in their way who understood them. It’s not nice but that’s how it works. The end of the film, the music from his unfinished opera The Fall of the House of Usher, with Debussy alone in the castle and his ghostly mistress—whom he drove to attempted suicide—rising up, was an analogy of the lost romantic ideal he had destroyed by his disregard for people. You can be an egomaniac up to a point but in the end it can destroy you, or your work, or both.
The Debussy Film is Russell developing the style and technique that would make him internationally recognized as one of the greatest directors of the twentieth century. His approach was revolutionary and brilliant, and The Debussy Film changed television and cinematic biography for good. It also revealed another side to Oliver Reed (who is quite brilliant) and Vladek Sheybal, who was usually typecast as KGB agents. The film also contains cameos form artists Duggie Fields and Pauline Boty.
The wearing of a cravat is a sign of sophistication and style. Only the most self-assured can carry it off. Look at Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, or, David Niven telling us The Moon’s a Balloon, or the dear Master himself, Noel Coward, accessorized with smoking jacket, tinkling the ivories, saying how he would go through life in First or Third Class, but never Second. Yes, it takes considerable confidence to wear one, for it signifies a sense of the wearer’s identity and self-importance.
Elvis Costello wears a cravat in this documentary on the making of his 1981 album, Almost Blue. He carries it off, in his own way. In much the same way as the Post-Punk, New Wave singer made this album of classic Country and Western covers his very own.
It was an inspired decision, one perhaps touched by genius. At the height of his Indie Pop success, Elvis moved to Nashville, hooked up with legendary producer Billy Sherrill, and learned to make a near perfect C&W album.
The South Bank Show followed Elvis Costello during the making of Almost Blue, and captured almost the whole process by which Sherrill and Costello chose, worked on and recorded the album. It is an excellent documentary, revealing the talent, arrogance and self-belief required to make a landmark album, or to wear a cravat.
Originally broadcast in 1986 in the UK, The South Bank Show’s Velvet Underground documentary was directed by Kim Evans with the help of Mary Harron. It contains interviews with Lou, John, Sterling, Moe, Nico, Warhol and lots of early Velvet performance footage, including stuff shot by Jonas Mekas. For hardcore Velvet fans none of this will be new, but isn’t it nice to have it compiled in a visually pleasing package? And for the casual VU fan, this is essential.
John Cale: “The only reason we wore sunglasses on stage was because we couldn’t stand the sight of the audience.”