From THE OBSERVER Dated Sunday 9th June 1968
SHOUTS AND MURMURS
An ancient doctrinal dispute has lately been revived at the BBC Television Centre. It has to do with Artistic Categories, and is being conducted with all the hair-splitting passion that pamphleteers and polemicists wasted on the same subject four centuries ago. It arose out of ‘Five Women,’ written by Tony Parker, produced by Tony Garnett and directed by Roy Battersby for the Wednesday Plays.
The author had spent hundreds of hours tape-recording conversations with five female ex-convicts classified by the law as habitual criminals. He appears in the film as a self-effacing interviewer, gently nudging the women into delivering what emerge as five sustained autobiographical monologues. – The quizzed quintet are played by professional actresses, who soaked themselves in Parker’s material and then improvised their answers to his questions. There are no flashbacks, and the interviews take place out of prison, mostly in shabby bedsitters. The style is naturalism pushed to its logical extreme—the total suspension of disbelief.
And this is what caused the fuss. Huw Wheldon, Controller of Programmes, refused to show the film because he felt that it blurred the dividing line between fact and fiction: viewers might be in danger of mistaking it for reality. In other words, it was too well acted to be tolerable as art. (I should add that there’s no parallel with ‘The War Game’ or Orson Welles’s Martian broadcast: nobody has suggested that ‘Five Women’ might plunge the nation into chaos.)
Tony Garnett, who ran into similar trouble with his productions of ‘Cathy Come Home’ and ‘In Two Minds,’ replied that the credits clearly stated the author’s name and identified the women involved as actresses. But Wheldon was adamant. He clung (and still clings) to a simplistic argument that hasn’t been seriously invoked since certain puritans and neo-classicists used it to attack the Elizabethan theatre. It runs as follows: playwrights are essentially liars, and the cleverer they arc. the more we should beware of them, because they present their perversion of reality as if it were the truth.
This is just what Roy Battersby’s actresses do in ‘Five Women.’ I saw it last week at a private screening: what chances it offers the girls, and how thrillingly they seize them! Bella Emberg as the burly lesbian who occasionally slashes her wrists ‘to let the badness out of me’; Edith Macarthur as the prim Scottish confidence trickster who always gives her real name to her victims because ‘I’m not a liar’; Cleo Sylvestre. bubbling with pure, unresentful laughter as she describes her progress from one approved school to another; Natalie Kent, stolidly knitting in middle age, incestuously seduced in puberty; Fionnuala Flanagan, as the Irish girl whose man got himself married and murdered while she was still in jail.
They blame only themselves: none of them feels inhumanly treated, either by society or the law. Its very lack of explicit indignation is what makes the film such a memorable indictment. To ban it because it violates a discredited sixteenth-century dogma would be a ludicrous impertinence.
ANOTHER admirable British film that has yet to find an outlet is ‘The Committee,’ an independen production directed by Peter Syke and based on a chilling fable by Max Steuer. Its length (58 minutes) is inexplicably offensive to commercial distributors; and its style (polished professional realism) abhorrent to such addicts of underground cinema as Michael Kustow. Although discernibly influenced by Harold Pinter, R. D. Laing, Kafka and recent Czech movie like ‘Joseph Kilian,’ the film has a savage narrative life of its own In a summery glade, a cool hitch hiker (Paul Jones) casually be-heads a man who has given hin a lift. Soon afterwards, Jones is summoned to join a mysterious ‘committee,’ convened in a country house by the people who exercise power. It seems that he has ‘a contrary imagination.’ The smiling young director of the committee cross-questions him:–
Director: Some people think that the criminals and the mad are the real heroes.
Jones: Why not, in a corrupt world ? . . .
Director: But in a reasonable society ?
Jones: There arc no criminals.
Director: So one criminal act, could turn a reasonable society into an unreasonable one ?
Oblique, open-ended, the film is about the implications of that one criminal act. There is music by the Pink Floyd, and a macabre cabaret intrusion by Arthur Brown. ‘The Committee’ should thrive on the major circuits: let the art-houses wait their turn.
IS THEATRE an art form worthy of public subsidy ? Not according to Terence Hawkes, an Eng. Lit. lecturer at Cardiff, whose radio talks on the subject I have lately been reading. Hawkes maintains that theatre today is an archaic, literary medium, kept alive by vested cultural interests. Elizabethan drama, by contrast, genuinely mirrored the vitality of its age. The modem equivalent is television. which he calls ‘the only really “national” theatre our society is ever likely to have.’
But, even at its best, television is one-way communication with a fragmented audience: theatre is two-way communication with an undivided audience. It is a public experience, where television is private. The presence in one room of a thousand human beings, simultaneously engrossed, is what confers on theatre its peculiar intensity. Of course it is a minority art: it always was. The redeeming point is that it can speak for majorities. As Peter Brook says In his forthcoming book. ‘The Empty Space’ (out in September).
In almost all regimes, even when the written word is free, the image free, it is still the stage that is liberated last. Instinctively, Governments know that the living event can create a dangerous electricity.
I’m not proposing that the theatre should compete on all fronts with the mechanical media. Rather, it should withdraw to the positions that history has prepared for it. It must focus its energies on the strongholds it is uniquely fitted to defend-—the citadels of subsidised drama.