May 26, 2009

A short history of British entertainment

British Sounds opens with a controlled drift down the assembly line of the BMC plant in Abingdon. Splashes of metallic red. Layers of cacophonous noise: grinding, screeching, submerged conversation. Workworld. With interventions, crude intertitles, a child's voice repeating details of significant episodes from radical history: dates, names. The virtuosity of Godard's aesthetic abdication is painful to watch, a riposte to the romance of British post-documentary realism: Albert Finney acting (very effectively) in the cycle factory at the opening of Karel Reisz's film version of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Sound, for Jean-Luc, is truth. Punctuated by silent flashes in which the ill-rewarded labour of the city continues and is observed. Sometimes men with picks and shovels stare right back at the camera.
And then the stairs: white walls, a naked woman (borrowed from the Electric Cinema in Notting Hill) performing a zombie-walk, out of one door, in through another. Sheila Rowbotham's voice reading from her Black Dwarf polemic. In her book, Promise of a Dream, her memoir of the 1960s, there is a photograph of Godard, up against a high wall, lighting one corn-yellow cigarette from the stub of another, standing inches behind his cameraman. The crumpled raincoat, the polished shoes: a British winter. Posters have faded to blanks. The wall could be anywhere in London.
Essex University: students sitting around penning agitprop revisions to a John Lennon song. Colin MacCabe, in his book on Godard, notes that "some of those filmed subsequently set up the Angry Brigade, Britain's only terrorist grouping". A voice lists the currently active cells: "Cambridge, Essex, Bristol". And Hackney. Always Hackney. Poets, squatters, bomb-makers: theorists.
This unseen film, commissioned (and killed off) by London Weekend Television, resulted in the sacking of Michael Peacock from the LWT board. Followed by the resignation of Tony Garnett and Kenith Trodd and other programme-makers. The board decided on a realignment, a serious grab for ratings. They brought in -- sympathy for the devil -- an Australian newspaper proprietor: Rupert Murdoch. Great result! As Godard might have thought: collapse of liberal consensus, the well-made drama, the illusion that television can tolerate any real form of dissenting content. Welcome to the coming age of robot celebrity, reality shows like CCTV with sequins, crash footage from motorways as entertainment, not news: the prophetic visions of JG Ballard made manifest. All-day TV to complement all-day British breakfasts.

-- Iain Sinclair from his remarkable Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire (Hamish Hamilton, 2009), variously a "confidential report", a "personal record", a "documentary fiction". That Murdoch intervention is entirely true, as is the story of Godard's suppressed British Sounds (1969). But nothing stays unseen any longer: British Sounds is now as close as your nearest YouTube.