John Marston’s play The Malcontent (c.1603) is currently being performed at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (part of the Globe Theatre complex) in London. As was the case in the 1600s, the play is being performed by children in an indoor theatre. Marston’s play was first acted at the Blackfriars theatre by the Children of the Chapel Royal. The boys’ company began performing plays at Blackfriars in 19602 and such performances became very popular. In Hamlet, Shakespeare has Rosencrantz complain of such productions:
Nay, their endeavour keeps in the wonted pace: but there is, sir, an aery of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question, and are most tyrannically clapped for’t: these are now the fashion …
Marston wrote most of his plays for boys’ companies, yet his plays must have come across peculiarly through young mouths, being as they are often satirical in tone and scathing about human kind in general. Marston himself was a misanthropic, cynical character, habitually at war with society. His personality seems to have been expressed through the play’s title figure, Malevole, the malcontent. Malevole is a duke named Altofront who has been deposed by his brother. He disguises himself as a hanger-on to regain his dukedom and in the process expresses his disgust at the life of the court. A complicated plot sees Pietro turn remorseful over his behaviour and join forces with Malevole to turn the tables on upstart courtier Mendoza, the villain of the piece.
The malcontent is a staple figure of late Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. The world-weary cynic who tries to stand outside the ugliness of the world, while expressing his contempt for it, but gets sucked into it eventually (often to enact some revenge) is there in Malevole, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Jacques (As You Like It), in Vindice (The Revenger’s Tragedy, by Cyril Tourneur or Thomas Middleton, depending on who you consult), in George Chapman’s eponymous Bussy d’Ambois, and in John Webster’s Flamineo (The White Devil) and Bosola (The Duchess of Malfi). Such discontented social commentators seem to be plausible guises for the playwrights themselves: outsiders with privileged insight, disguising their disgust at the world’s ways to try and protect themselves from that world’s vengefulness, yet forced to speak, and ultimately (like Hamlet and Malevole, who bears a some resemblance to Shakespeare’s character – written a few years earlier) to act.
The malcontent is not quite the same as the numerous Machiavellian characters that populate Jacobean drama (of which The Malcontent‘s Mendoza is one), though the two sometimes overlap, and both are symptomatic of the disquiet and malaise prevalent in Jacobean times. Una Ellis-Fermor writes of the “sense of defeat” characteristic of the times following the death of Elizabeth and the accession of James, in The Jacobean Drama:
This mood, culminating as it did in and about the year 1605, took the form for public and private men of a sense of impending fate, of a state of affairs so unstable that great or sustained effort was suspended for a time and a sense of the futility of man’s achievement set in.
I don’t know whether the comparison has been made before, but another malcontent figure is Edmund Blackadder. One of the reasons the television series Blackadder II, set in Elizabethan England, works so well is that Blackadder is such a recognisably Elizabethan/Jacobean character. He is the cynical outsider, familiar with the court yet standing outside it, who sees human ambition and desires for what they are. That sense of impending fate hangs over him, making him a creature of his times (and ours), even if strictly speaking he is Elizabethan, not Jacobean. Blackadder is not driven by a thirst for revenge, nor does he have a residual belief in a goodness from which humankind has turned away, as Malevole does, but his outsider status seems very much the kind that Webster, Shakespeare and Marston created, maybe as alter egos. Consider these words from The Malcontent, spoken by Malevole, and imagine them being uttered by Edmund Blackadder:
Think this: this earth is the only grave and Golgotha wherein all things that live must rot: ’tis but the draught wherein the heavenly bodies discharge their corruption, the very muckhill on which the sublunary orbs cast their excrement: man is the slime of this dung-pit, and princes are the governors of these men: for, for our souls, they are as free as emperors, all of one piece: there goes but on pair of shears betwixt an emperor and the son of a bagpiper: only the dyeing, dressing, pressing, glossing, makes the difference.
Such savage indignation suits a skilled adult performer such as Rowan Atkinson. The effect when spoken by a boy actor (Joseph Marshall) is rather odd. The production at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre – the new Globe space that recreates indoors theatres of the period such as Blackfriars, down to the wooden construction, candle lighting, and hard narrow seats – is performed by children between twelve and sixteen. They are talented, they have learned their words well, and perform with such passion and conviction as they may, but one loses all sense of moral indignation and inner horror. They capture the humour in the play very well (particularly Sam Hird, in drag, as the sluttish Maquerelle), but cannot reflect anger at a world they do not as yet fully know.
It’s an odd experiment, recreating how the play would have originally been seen, when we are not the original audience. It certain persuades you that the past is a foreign country when you realise just how many of the plays in the early seventeenth century were seen like this, performed by children (all boys then, but mixed now). What was the appeal? How did audiences react? Some of the present-day audience reaction may give a guide. We laughed at times at children uttering words whose import lay outside their experience; we laughed at other times at how piquantly Marston’s bitter phrases came across when spoken by teenagers. Perhaps the contemporary audience was similarly amused, though one feels they would have been more attuned to the words and their import, and hence more stirred by the savagery within.
There was a charm about the production, but do not expect such child performances to become a vogue. We can see how things would have looked in a Jacobean theatre, but it does not brings us any nearer to the Jacobeans. One of the best-known television comedies of our times does that far better. John Marston would have recognised something of his creation, and himself, in Edmund Blackadder.
Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad
Chemistry – well, technically chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change. Now just think about this. Electrons, they change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements, they combine and change into compounds. But that’s all of life, right? It’s just the constant, it’s the cycle. Solution, dissolution, just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation. It is fascinating. Really.
In the pilot episode of the US television series Breaking Bad, the main character, Walter White, an over-qualified high school chemistry teacher, lectures his students on what chemistry is. White’s rhapsodic explanation not only pinpoints his profession and his way of thinking, but offers a key to all that we are about to encounter, over 62 episodes and two years in the lives of White, his family, and his antagonists. Breaking Bad is a drama about change, about solution and dissolution, about both the power and the mutability of bonds, and about the growth, decay and transformation of a person.
I have spent the past month wholly engrossed in watching Breaking Bad on Netflix, watching two or three episodes in an evening. I’ve come late to the party, since the series started in 2008, ending with season five in 2013, and long before its finale it has been acclaimed as one of the finest television dramas yet made. I would agree entirely with that. It is hard to think of a more intelligently structured piece of television. This post is my attempt to unpick why it works so well, and what it says about video drama and the art of narrative.
Breaking Bad tells the story of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who discovers he has terminal lung cancer and turns criminal (‘breaking bad’) by producing the drug methamphetamine, ostensibly to provide for his family. As the series progresses we discover, or White discovers within himself, that he is driven less by an urge to provide than by than a desire to assert himself and think only for himself. We learn that White has seen a fellow chemist with whom he worked closely turn their once shared business into a multi-million dollar concern, while he was bought out at an early stage for a pittance. He has made wrong decisions all his life. He is browbeaten by his family and gently but insistently mocked by his macho brother-in-law Hank Schrader, who works for the Drug Enforcement Agency. Decisions are always being made for him.
The lung cancer should have been the final blow, but instead it becomes the catalyst for extraordinary change, as White discovers first that he is able to produce the best methamphetamine anywhere, then that he possesses a propensity for lying and an ability to think he way out of impossible situation by the application of analytical thinking and practical chemistry. As the series progresses he reveals more and more of a heartless streak that insidiously burrows into audience expectations, as the man for whom we expect to root for disgusts, frightens and ultimately bewilders us.
Walter White and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), cooking
Walter White’s transformation has its effects on a wide cast of people – fatally so for quite a number of them. There is his wife (the supposed moral centre to the drama who gradually becomes compromised herself), his son Walter Jr. (who has cerebral palsy), brother-in-law Hank (the Javert to his Jean Valjean) and Hank’s kleptomaniac wife Marie. There is his former pupil and now collaborator in drug production Jesse Pinkman, and as the story progresses an extraordinary array of characters, notably among them the elegant fast food proprietor and drug kingpin Gus Fring, the crooked, quick-talking lawyer Saul Goodman, word-weary hitman Mike Ehrmantraut and corrupt business executive Lydia Rodarte-Quayle. Not least among the pleasures of Breaking Bad is the matching of compelling names to compelling characters.
Breaking Bad is about many things. It is very obviously and topically about the drugs trade in America, particularly the fears over crystal meth and the traffic in drugs and drug-related crime from Mexico (the action is set in Albuquerque, New Mexico). It is about the attraction and repulsion of family life, prefigured in White’s words about ‘bonds’ (the White family themselves, the violent Salamancas – for whom “family is all” – but also the camaraderie of the DEA agents and Jesse’s drug crowd). It is about gun-related violence in America and the travails of living with insufficient medical insurance. It is about father/son, teacher/pupil relationships. It is about business models. It is about class. It is about money versus morality. It is about morality versus survival. It is about cancer. It is about chemistry.
Giancarlo Esposito as the elegant but quite ruthless Gus Fring
There is a lot of chemistry in Breaking Bad. The opening credits feature a criss-crossing of chemical elements, the letters from which are also highlighted in the credit names. Walter White’s supreme knowledge of chemistry (we know that in the past his research into crystallography helped contribute towards some Nobel prize-winning work) allows him to make a fortune and repeatedly to outwit those faced against him. He applies the scientific method to every situation, calculating that for every action there is reaction and a solution. The dehumanizing aspect of this is noted early on when we see a flashback to his youth when he lists all the compounds that go to make up the human body in conversation with his then love Gretchen (who will go on to marry the man who made a fortune out of White’s knowledge). There seems so little to a human when all you do is add up the chemicals that make up one such being. “What about the soul?” asks Gretchen, when his numbers do not quite add up to 100%. Meanwhile, intercut with this scene is the ugly reality of White and Pinkman having to dispose of a drug dealer’s body that has been insufficiently dissolved with acid. We are more than flesh, more just a collection of elements, surely?
This tension between science and humanism, or maybe between science and art, is exemplified partly by Walter’s relationship with his would-be fiction writer wife, but more so by his relationship with Jesse Pinkman. Pinkman is the most uncalculating of people – not a good person, but someone who believes that there things that are good. The contrast, and indeed chemistry, between the two is at the core of Breaking Bad‘s success, and it is hard to believe that the writer Vince Gilligan originally considered killing off Pinkman at the end of series one. In Pinkman, flawed as he is, we find a little hope for ourselves; in Walter White we see none.
There are many reasons why Breaking Bad is compelling to watch, but what lies at the heart of its success is its control over narrative and time. Everyone who has sung the series’ praises says much the same thing about how brilliantly its plot developments evolve, how ingeniously it introduces not so much twists as new vistas. Just as you think that you know where you are and how everyone relates to one another, a new element is introduced which pulls the rug from under your feet. Yet these developments are never gimmicks for their own sake; in every case they simply redefine our perspective. The naturalistic, convincing way in which these plot developments are introduced is another hallmark. Breaking Bad has its contrivances, but they are so well hidden that they never jar. An inconsequential action of character in one episode is revealed to have major significance three or four episodes later, forcing us to rethink where we think the story is going.
Such control over narrative over 62 episodes and five seasons is all the more remarkable given the uncertain nature of television production. The first season of seven episodes (reduced from nine after a Writers Guild of America strike) had to lay the groundwork for plot developments that might never happen if audiences had rejected it and the networks had not commissioned further seasons. Gilligan was certain about some plot developments, but others emerged as writing progressed as an the internal logic of the dramatic situation suggested new directions down which to travel. Breaking Bad could have gone in many directions, or could have been any length, even while in its finished state it feels wholly thought through, without padding or irrelevance. It is fully orchestrated drama.
The control over narrative and time is seen as the micro as well as the macro level. Individual episodes are distinguished by the extraordinary amount of action they pack in while never seeming to rush things in any way. Time is played with through flashbacks, and by the regular use of time-lapse photography. Episodes frequently have pre-credit flash-forward sequences, teasing as to the outcome of events, so that we do not think so much what will happen next as how will be get to the point from where we started (notable examples include the effects of the plane crash that ends season two, or White’s return from disappearance under a new identity in season five). It doesn’t matter what happens next: what matters is how we will get there – what matters is the method.
Bob Odenkirk as lawyer Saul Goodman
The mastery over the experience of time – something of which Walter White has little left, of course – is there in the different ways in which audiences have been able to watch the series. Those with it from the beginning back in 2008 saw each weekly episode in turn until the end of a season, then had to wait until the next season came along. Those who have found it on DVD, or like me on Netflix, in its full state have the opportunity to watch it in any way that we choose, even in a single sitting should one have the time and the stamina. It works just as well. In effect it is a 50-hour movie.
Comparisons have been drawn between Breaking Bad and the works of Charles Dickens, and this does seem valid. Writers of Dickens’ period produced novels in multi-part form in magazines, which only later were collected into volumes, and then single volumes. They had the overarching vision of where their story was to go, yet had to work in an environment where their story was made available to the public and to the market while they were still writing it. They, the story, the characters and the audiences, all grew as a necessary part of the publication model. The process could not be endless (such as a soap opera): there was always a dramatic end in sight. So it is with Vince Gilligan and other writers of multi-season television dramas which lie at the mercy of the audiences and the networks, yet which have a magnificent canvas on which to paint if they get the model right.
There is a Dickensian quality to Gilligan’s creation. Walter White is a very different character to Pip, David Copperfield or Nicholas Nickelby, not least in how his actions lead him to the bad rather than Dickens’s model of trials-leading-to-redemption, but all show a man asserting himself in the contexts of his time, through a narrative rich in character and incident, incidents that he eventually is the generator of rather than the victim of, as he gains mastery over his domain. There is the same combination of epic sweep and domestic detail. Dickens’ understanding of money as the engineer of society is powerfully echoed. There is same use of counterbalancing comic characters (Breaking Bad is frequently very funny), from the splendid creation of lawyer Saul Goodman (Micawber-like in comic stature) to the comic chorus of Pinkman’s friends Badger and Skinny Pete. It is narrative attuned to, and determined by, the temper of the times. Breaking Bad says, as Great Expectations once said, that we are living in the most dramatic of times.
The White family: left to right – Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt), Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), Walter White Jr. (RJ Mitte) with baby Holly, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), Skyler White (Anna Gunn)
The Dickens analogy doesn’t entirely fit, of course. Dickens operates in a narrative world where good must be rewarded and evil punished. Breaking Bad observes moral decisions, but is not determined by them. The bad frequently prosper, the good invariably suffer. Those who live or die do not do so because of some sense of reward, or justice. They die simply because someone points a gun at them and pulls the trigger. Yet it is not a nihilistic drama where unhappy things just happen. Walter White goes to the bad, and we know that it is bad. He and other characters becomes obsessed by their need for money, and this desire is invariably their undoing. We know that there is good, and that there is evil – it’s just that life’s rewards are not quite allocated in the same way. Stories depend on rewards and punishments for we as readers or viewers to find them satisfying – it is why we choose to read them in the first place. It is Breaking Bad‘s notable achievement that it both satisfies our sense of a moral world while showing us the realities of the real one.
I’ve started watching Breaking Bad all over again, and there is just so much else to enjoy. There is the poetic yet naturalistic use of language. Here’s Jesse Pinkman saying reasoning with Tuco Salamanca is a bad idea:
What is that? Conjecture? Are you basing that on that he’s got a normal, healthy brain or something? Did you not see him beat a dude to death for like nothing? And that way, that way he just kept staring at us. Saying, “You’re done.” You’re done?! You wanna know what that means? I will tell you what that means! That means exactly how it sounds, yo! Alright, we are witnesses, we are loose ends! Right now, Tuco’s thinking, “Yeah, hey, they cook good meth, but can I trust them?” What happens when he decides “no”?
There is the inspired use of music (often alt-country music bands quite unknown to me, but I must explore further). There is the casting – everyone is so ordinary, and convincing because they have the peculiar stamp of ordinariness about them. It is a series without stars (I only knew vaguely of a couple of the actors when I started watching for the first time). There is the skillful use of mobile phones to drive the narrative and connect characters (watch The Killing for comparison, where the characters’ continual use of phones teeters over into absurdity). There is the way White and his wife Skyler try to have amicable conversations only for the suspicion between them to creep in. There is the playful use of significant objects. There is the exceptional cinematography, with any number of surprise camera angles that are wholly appropriate to a drama where we’re not too sure where to look or what will happen next, and a sly use of colour coding that could take up a whole blog post in itself.
The boxed set TV drama, now further invigorated by catch-up services such as LoveFilm and Netflix, is one of the creative triumphs of our time. Tremendous stories are allowed to unfold, stories of our times rather than times past, stories which take on grand themes that appeal to that which is intelligent in all of us. 24, The Wire, House of Cards, The West Wing, The Bridge, The Sopranos – they transcend the limitations of the movie or the one-off TV dramas which needs must compact what it wants to tell into a couple of hours. They transcend television itself, finding a new home on disc, tablets or smart TVs that puts the audience in control of what it reads. These multi-part dramas revive the spirit and intent of the nineteenth-century novel and should be considered as co-equal with it, in their art and in their science. We are living in a classical age.
286. I remember the Double Deckers
287. I remember Tiger Tim
288. I remember Zager and Evans (“in the year 2025, if man is still alive, if woman can survive…”). Remarkably they still gave human kind an outside chance of surviving up to 9595
289. I remember Lance Gibbs
290. I remember town carnivals with floats and cars advertising local businesses that for some reason we turned out to watch them drive by, year after year
291. I remember hot pants
292. I remember Lord Snooty and his pals
293. I remember adventure playgrounds arriving just too late for me to be of an age to enjoy them
294. I remember following every game, every move of Fischer v Spassky
295. I remember the eleven plus
296. I remember boating lakes, where they did actually shout out “number 9, your time is up”
297. I remember my jigsaw set with pieces made out of all the counties of Great Britain
298. I remember we saved on bills by reusing bath water
299. I remember being unnerved by a children’s science fiction TV drama in which one of the characters travelled through time and was shocked to come across his elder self (a dowdy man with glasses, as I recall). The inevitability of adulthood must have struck me for the first time
300. I remember when eating scampi denoted class
301. I remember measuring my height each birthday
302. I remember when circus acts (always with Charlie Cairoli) were considered a great idea for children’s television
303. I remember that every Friday afternoon my primary school class put on a short play which one or other of us had written – particularly I remember one which boldly took as its subject the arrest of hippies
304. I remember my pedal car
305. I remember Spirographs
306. I remember Johnny Morris
307. I remember spending hours and hours trying to decode Kit Williams’ Masquerade book in the hope of finding a golden hare
308. I remember skipping rhymes
309. I remember Please Sir! (and its follow-up series The Fenn Street Gang) and how on the playground we would decide which member of the cast members each of us was
310. I remember Melody Maker
311. I remember bagatelle boards
312. I remember deciding that I could take my 5-year-old brother and mould him into a great football player through careful training. It didn’t work
313. I remember playing blind man’s bluff
314. I remember Biafra
On Saturday I went to the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, part of the Shakespeare’s Globe complex on London’s south bank. The theatre is an approximation of what an indoor theatre of the Jacobean theatre would have looked like, based on idealised plans for a theatre that date from the 1660s and which were only discovered in the 1960s. In Shakespeare’s time there were both open-air and closed theatres. We’re all familiar with the Globe, with the round building open to the elements, a central pit for the groundlings with protruding stage, and galleries around the edge. The indoor Blackfriars theatre, which was used first by child companies taken from cathedral schools, and later by the King’s Men (for who Shakespeare wrote) was converted from the refectory of a former monastery and put on performances during the winter months.
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse recreates the experience with great technical skill and sympathetic imagination. It is lit by candlelight – six chandeliers, plus candles around the inner perimeter – by window light (which is how things were in the Jacobean theatre) and some underseat lighting (which is a twenty-first century blessing). There is seating for around 300, with a small pit (seated) with gallery behind it, and an upper gallery. The stage juts out into this space, with a musicians’ gallery above. There are trapdoors above and below, stage entrances to the sides and rear, and above it all a beautifully painted ceiling. Though the notes in the programmes record the agonised debates over authenticity, it looks right. Certainly the cramped seating gives the theatregoer a keen sense of Jacobean discomfort. The only real downside is the Globe’s mean refusal to allow any photography, even when the theatre is empty.
The play I saw was The Knight of the Burning Pestle, written by Francis Beaumont and first performed around 1607. It has long been a favourite, since I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production back in 1981, using the stage settings left over from the RSC’s legendary production of Nicholas Nickelby, and starring the then unknown Timothy Spall as Rafe, the grocer’s apprentice (he went on to name his son after the role, who is now the actor Rafe Spall).
The play is distinguished by a startling avant garde coup. It starts off by having the Chorus come on and announce that we are to see a play entitled The London Merchant. At this news, a grocer (The Citizen) and his wife who have been sitting in the audience get up and complain that they never see the lives of the common city folk properly celebrated on the stage. So they volunteer that their apprentice, Rafe (played by Matthew Needham), should join the company and experience adventures according to their directions. Thus we see what tries to be a conventional Jacobean drama about an heiress torn between two suitors rudely interrupted by Rafe pretending to be a knight (with the burning pestle as symbol of his trade) in a series of scenes that having nothing to do with the main action, though inevitably the two plots find that they have to converge and the actors gradually accommodate themselves to the bizarre interventions of Rafe and his companions, all the while being cheered on by the Citizen and Wife (played by the productions two star names, Phil Daniels and Pauline McLynn). “Plot me no plots” cries the Citizen, when one of actors complains that his stage directions have nothing to do with the action of their play. It’s a play that admits its plot has no meaning. Spectacle, action and the demands of the audience are all.
The bold imagination on display here makes the play feel post-modern before there was even a modern to be post to. Its deconstructive spirit extend to assorted parodies of Jacobean theatrical conventions, from supposedly dead people springing out of coffins (surely a spoof on Romeo and Juliet), to the ostensibly dead Rafe (he has an arrow through his head) giving a speech that apes that given by the ghost in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (“When I was mortal, this my costive corpse / Did lap up figs and raisins in the Strand”). However, its purpose is never satirical. Beaumont may have set out to mock stage conventions alongside the aspirations of the rising commercial class, but he clearly liked his theatre too much to do anything other that celebrate its diversity and heritage through parody, while his heartening sympathy towards Citizen, Wife and Rafe is free of any snobbery. It is simply a happy play.
It’s also a very long play (over three hours), but the time never dragged, and if the action occasionally strayed into incoherence, there was plenty of music and song to enjoy. The character Merrythought, a mixture of Falstaff and the Green Man, sings more than he speaks, and the multi-instrumental occupants of the musicians’ gallery took us beyond pastiche to a spirited and infectious celebration. I have see a few too many Elizabeth and Jacobean plays where the company’s attempt to portray jollity embarrassed more than it entertained, but here – as with the theatre itself – they got the balance just about right.
All that said, it’s an odd thing to build a facsimile theatre and to put on productions as though we were in the seventeenth century rather than the twenty-first. It reeks a little of sentimental historicisation, of a fear of the modern in drama, or the modern overall. The 1981 production of The Knight of the Burning Pestle that I saw made this point all too clearly, by having the start of the production seem like a portentous, doom-laden undertaking, which the Citizen and his Wife (in modern dress, as I recall) overturned with their demand for traditional entertainment of the kind that they could understand. The Globe’s production shies away from any such irony. Francis Beaumont would have been disappointed – but then would have gone along with the game. It’s that sort of play.
Natasha Richardson (as the art teacher Kathleen Bridle) and John Docherty (as William Scott) in Every Picture Tells a Story
Just under thirty years ago I went to a tiny cinema, the name of which escapes me, somewhere off Piccadilly, London, to see a dramatised documentary about the Irish painter William Scott. It was directed by the painter’s son, James Scott (who had won an Academy Award in 1983 for the Graham Greene short film A Shocking Accident), and was called Every Picture Tells a Story (UK 1984). Humble a production as it was, it nevertheless made a great impression on me. It told the story of the painter’s childhood up to the time when he left Northern Ireland for the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
It was a costume drama intercut with commentary from Scott himself, and three elements have remained stuck in my memory, along with the general impression of a fine film. One was when the teenage Scott is asked by an art teacher (played by Natasha Richardson) to draw an apple, to show what he can do. The very simplicity of this made a great impression on me. Another, oddly, was the abrupt ending, when Scott says that everything in art was changed by Cezanne, and the film ends there (I now know it was intended as part one of a trilogy, but the remaining parts were never made).
‘Table Still Life’, 1951. All the paintings in this post are reproduced from from williamscott.org and are © Estate of William Scott
Third was the film’s most distinctive feature. One would witness a scene from Scott’s childhood, played out by actors, when abruptly the film would cut to one of his abstract or semi-abstract works, as a kind of flashforward showing how what impressed the child’s mind was later recapitulated as art. It was a startling, exhilarating innovation, which impressed me as a film enthusiast and turned me into a lifelong admirer of Scott’s art. The visual coup stayed with me, and though I never had the chance to see the film again I filed it away as a hidden gem, forever confirmed as one of my favourite films of that period.
2013 was the centenary of Scott’s birth and was marked by a major exhibition at the Ulster Museum in Belfast. I managed to get there on the very last day of the exhibition, 2 February 2014, when it so happened that there was screening of Every Picture Tells a Story. Would it still stand up? I spent the morning touring the exhibition, a thrilling experience being in the huge white space of the Museum’s main gallery, with Scott’s immaculate works all about me, and not a soul there (bar the occasional guard). What a rare joy to have an art gallery all to yourself. Scott’s paintings are best known for their use of domestic images such as tables, saucepans, jugs and cutlery, and for the skilful arrangement of line and plain blocks of colour. The works are abstract to a degree, but figurative also – they relate to something, yet need not relate to anything. To be in a room filled with them is heavenly.
‘Two and Two’, 1962-63 © Estate of William Scott
And so to the film, shown in the Museum’s lecture room. It did not disappoint. I’d forgotten much of it (so mostly it was like seeing the film for the first time), but its special economy of style, at one with its subject, was what arrested me back in 1984 and which remained true. The film shows the Scott family living in Scotland when the father (a loving portrait played by Alex Norton) returns from the First World War. He moves the family to his home town of Enniskillen in Northern Ireland and makes his living as a sign painter Among his large brood of children, his son William is drawn to art, sketching objects on the kitchen table and helping out with his father’s work. The father takes him to a local art teacher, and after the father dies in an accident the local Presbyterian community see to it that the talented son is able to go to the Royal Academy in London.
The narrative is irrelevant, however. What matters is what is seen, and felt. There are the saucepans, plates, pots and tables that most obviously recur in Scott’s later art, which is revealed – as I remembered – by the startling cuts from figurative memory to abstract expression as the film cuts from story to paintings. There is the collapsing of time, between the unfolding story and the figure of William Scott himself, heard speaking but filmed sitting wordlessly, and between past and present most ingeniously (and economically) where Scott’s father prepares to go on an Orange parade in the 1920s before we see a 1980s parade taking place outside. Nothing, incidentally, is made of politics or religion, in the film. It is simply a part of the picture, of what is seen and felt.
‘Egypt Series No. 2′, 1972, © Estate of William Scott
Which leads me to the film’s title. This was the part of it that had always bothered me. ‘Every Picture Tells a Story’ is a tired cliché, and an odd thing to say about art works which tend towards abstraction. The beauty of abstract art is that it does not tell a story. It is not dependent on narrative, be that figures arranged in a recognisable setting (e.g. historical) or a portrait, where we are encouraged to think who that person was, what thoughts lie behind their eyes. It is art that requires a key. In the film someone asks the young Scott why a book of paintings has no descriptions to say what the pictures signify, to which he replies that “pictures are for looking at – the picture tells the story”. The real-life Scott then tells us that “every picture tells a story”.
This is not ‘story’ as in narrative, but the abstraction of things seen and felt. They signify something of the story of William Scott, and that was obviously part of the filmmaker’s intentions, and his reason for the choice of title. But what ‘every picture tells a story’ really means is that the picture renders the story unnecessary. The pictures do not need a narrative explanation. The paradox could have made Every Picture Tells a Story a bad film, but instead it’s a film that is able to have it both ways. The pictures spring out of the story of William Scott, and they have no story at all. All that is there is all that you can see.
William Scott, ‘Morning in Mykonos’, 1960-61 © Estate of William Scott
I returned to the gallery after the film screening, and passed through the rooms once more, which were now filled with people. The spell cast in the morning had been broken. Too many other eyes were looking, interpreting, confusing the narrative, breaking up the abstraction.
But do we ever have pure abstract art? Every picture plays upon something in our memories, even the simplest shape or a single colour must connect with something in the way that we see the world, or we would not see the picture at all. Art, in that respect, is the distillation of experience. Perhaps purely abstract art only exists in an empty gallery, where no one can see it, where there are no stories to be told. So I like to feel that, being in that gallery in the morning, when there was only me, that I might have come close to seeing it.
The main gallery at Ulster Museum, showing the William Scott exhibition
- The official William Scott website has examples of his work, a biography, details of collections, news and events
- The Ulster Museum site has details of its collections, exhibitions and events
- James Scott’s personal site has information on his artworks and films, including Every Picture Tells a Story
- An informative interview by Kevin Gough-Yates with James Scott on the making of the film
Walgensten’s Laterna Magica, drawn by Dechales in 1665, from www.magiclantern.org.uk
Back in July last year I had an idea. I had been interested for many years in eyewitness accounts of people’s experiences of cinema-going. I’d collected a lot of these while researching the early years of cinema in London, treasuring the special quality they had for making history come to life in all its untidy, untheorized, individual complexity. The idea was simply to start publishing these online as a collection, classified in some useful way to aid anyone interested in researching in this field in the future.
I had the idea in the morning, and by the end of the day I had secured a web address, picturegoing.com, selected a template, and had started entering the first texts. In September it went live, and has built up to some 240 entries so far. However, I knew right from the start that what I wanted to cover was not just the experience of going to the cinema, but the broader visual experience. What did I mean by that? The inspiration was to do for the visual what the Open University’s Reading Experience Database has done for records of people reading (the RED collects written testimony of people reading, and classifies these in precise detail). But what is the visual experience?
In early cinema studies it has long been understood that the supposed ‘invention’ of cinema did not occur at some magic moment around 1895 but was in fact part of a continuum of visual experiences and entertainments that was preceded by (and led out of) optical toys, panoramas, phantasmagoria, magic lanterns and other such optical inventions of the nineteenth century and before, and which in turn led to television and other forms of motion picture projection. Images on film projected intermittently in rapid succession onto a screen to create the illusion of motion were not a self-contained historical phenomenon, even if cinema differently greatly from that which came before it through his huge social and economic impact.
So the broader visual experience could be defined as though optical toys and other visual entertainments that preceded, and in some cases then co-existed with cinema, with television as the natural successor technology, which now we see being followed, or absorbed by the new media of multi-platform visual devices. It some academic circles it has been called screen studies, though it is not a term that has caught on greatly. But what about theatregoing as a form of visual experience? What about art galleries, photography exhibitions, fairground entertainments, posters, cartoons, cave paintings, hieroglyphics, stained glass? What are the boundaries?
Maybe the answer lies back in 1666. On August 19th that year – just a couple of weeks before the Great Fire of London – Samuel Pepys visited a manufacturer of optical instruments and recorded this in his diary:
He did also bring a lanthorne with pictures in glasse, to make strange things appear on a wall, very pretty.
I think that is as good a definition of the visual experience as I have been looking for – something that makes strange things appear on the wall, which are on the whole very pretty. It’s not just the projection – it’s the strangeness; that something which is of this world yet out of it at the same time, and which delights the eye. Theatre shows and art exhibitions and their kind belong to other histories, even if there are overlaps. One could argue that television lies outside the history of projection on a wall, but here the screen is more important than the box, and TV’s familiar strangeness links its profoundly to the cinema, to the magic lantern, and through to the tablets, PCs and smartphones of today. Here though the history gets confused, perhaps because it is not yet properly history and we compare it with what went before, when the perspective that we lack is that which can only be provided by the future.
Samuel Pepys’ account of a lanthorn is the first record in English of a magic lantern, the projecting lantern with lens that threw pictures (from slides) on a wall that is generally understood to have been invented by the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens in 1659 (various earlier, speculative claims for the invention exist, but have been largely discredited). It is a good starting point for the history of a particular history of the visual experience, and I will start building on it.
Slide from the Bamforth series Don’t Go Down in the Mine, Dad (GB 1910)
I have to say, though, that I have never been that much of an enthusiast for the magic lantern. There are people who are deeply engrossed in the lantern and its history, people for whom the history of projection more or less comes to an end in 1895. They thrills to the technology, and put particular value on recreating magic lantern shows, with their brightly coloured slides, the dissolves, the lighting effects, the accompanying patter and the tearful sentiment (or broad comedy) of another age. The images, and their performance, seldom move me, alas. The images, for all their eye-catching colour, are poor art, of a kind one would scarcely consider were they in a picture frame rather than on a slide. But the art of the image is not the point. What these modern magic lanternists want to recreate is the emotion – the feel of wonder audiences had at the time, who could be transported by a few pictures and a story. They want to find the secret of the magic lantern’s enchantment.
And that is what Picturegoing is about: finding that audience, where they speak as individuals about what moved them so, when strange things appeared on the wall, very pretty. So I shall start adding magic lantern testimony alongside cinema testimony, and the bigger picture will begin to emerge.
- LUCERNA is an extensive and scholarly database of magic lantern history (though searches take ages…)
- The Magic Lantern Society offers a good general guide to lantern history, with plenty of links to other resources
- The full Samuel Pepys diary is available online, with a post per diary entry, and extensive hyperlinks and background information
I’m back. This site has suffered an attack from the gremlins and went down for a week. It’s a strange life when your virtual identity disappears, even if I do have several other websites and web feeds to reassure other denizens of the virtual world that I still exist (virtually). It makes you think that we are nothing if we cannot communicate who we are.
Anyhow, normal service has resumed, and I must get back to writing again. Meanwhile, here’s an image from the moat at Lloyd Park in Walthamstow, which I visited over the weekend, to fill a space until the words come.
256. I remember ‘It’s number one, it’s Top of the Pops!’
257. I remember the heatwave of 1976, and how rain only started to fall soon after the unfortunate Denis Howell had been named as minister for drought
258. I remember the illustrated history books of R.J. Unstead
259. I remember when the 1970 World Cup sent us all out into the playgrounds trying (and dismally failing) to bend football shots like the Brazilians
260. I remember my 1970 World Cup wall poster, though the only three players featured I can specifically recall now are Bobby Moore, Luigi Riva and Ladislao Mazurkiewicz (the Uruguayan goalkeeper)
261. I remember Tyrannosaurus Rex and T Rex
262. I remember when it seemed plausible that aliens could live on Mars
263. I remember Zena Skinner, the commonsense TV cook
264. I remember the news report that said that smallpox had been eradicated from the world, and marvelling at what a different kind of a news story this was is, in theme, scale and positivity
265. I remember Roger Whittaker
266. I remember “It pays to increase your word power”, the regular feature to be found in Reader’s Digest while you sat in a dentist’s reading room
267. I remember i before e except after c
268. I remember Top of the Form
269. I remember drum solos
270. I remember looking out for the changeover cue marks at the cinema when a projectionist changed to another reel
271. I remember Scorcher (and when it merged with Score)
272. I remember Belle and Sebastian (the French TV series, not the music group, which is too recent for me to remember it at all), particularly the boy’s piping voice calling for his dog ‘Belle’ and the heavily-accented voice of his grandfather crying ‘Sébastien!’
273. I remember scratches on records and missing the particular points where they occurred when I bought CD replacements
274. I remember one potato, two potato, three potato, four
275. I remember learning poems by heart by setting them to tunes
276. I remember Judge Dread, whose banned reggae singles were much discussed on playgrounds but had not actually been heard by anyone that I knew
277. I remember Polaroids
278. I remember a rhyme learned at school: “A noun is a name, a place or a thing; Archibald, Caroline, London, Berlin” (I also remember that it came with illustrations and that Archibald and Caroline were cats)
279. I remember Noele Gordon
280. I remember going rock climbing with my father on the sandstone outcrops around Tunbridge Wells, with mugs of tea afterwards at Terry’s Festerhaunt, run by Terry and Julie Tullis (who died climbing K2)
281. I remember the Mekon
282. I remember stylophones
283. I remember our four-speed record player – 16, 33 1⁄3, 45, 78 – though we had no 16 rpm records and I do not recall having ever heard or seen one, but you could have fun playing 45 rpm records at 16 rpm speed
284. I remember hot water bottles
285. I remember paper chains
Well, in 2013 I…
Slept for 2,372 hours
Sat down for 4,940 hours
Walked, ran or otherwise moved about, or stood still, for 1,448 hours
Ate 1,095 meals
Drank 1,460 cups of decaff white Americanos
Posted 3,118 tweets
Sent 10,000 emails
Read 18 books
Wrote 274 blog posts
Sent 350 texts
Typed out 638,970 words in total
Took 10,707 photographs
Posted 253 photos on Flickr
Posted 4 videos on YouTube
Bought 13 CDs (physical and/or download)
Watched 150 films
Watched 1,460 hours of television
Listened to 547 hours of radio
Visited 3 countries
Travelled 20,864 miles
Gave 7 talks
Attended 5 conferences
Published 3 papers
Produced 1 book
Had 1 change of job title
Acquired 1 niece
In 2014 I shall get out more
The other Newsroom
Every now and again someone will come up to me and say that they like something on my blog, and I have to ask them which one. I have produced too many websites, blogs and the like these past few years, leaving several by the wayside (Screen Research, Diving for Pearls, Moving Image, BardBox, The Bioscope) while pressing on with others (Picturegoing, Charles Urban, Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema). The plan was to cut down on these peripheral activities and to concentrate as much as possible on this personal site, but it’s not a battle that I’m winning.
And so it is that I have started up The Newsroom. This is not my site, however – it’s a blog about the British Library’s news collections, and though I’ve kicked things off and named it, the plan is for it to have multiple authors from the Library’s newspaper reference and curatorial teams, as well as guest writers. The name is meant to express a place from where any kind of news might be generated (i.e. not just newspapers), and doesn’t have any particular connection to the HBO television series of the same name – which I’ve not yet had the chance to see. But I can say that the staff of the British Library writing for The Newsroom will be scarely less glamorous, nor any the less committed to the truth.
Here’s what the blog has to say about itself:
The British Library has one of the world’s greatest news archives. Our collection of UK, Irish and world newspapers numbers over 60 million issues, from the 17th century to the present day, and we have growing collections of television, radio and web news. Whether you are studying history, politics, society, international relations, economics, media history, sports history or family history, our collections will have something for you. This blog provides the news about yesterday’s news, and looks to where news may be going in the future. It informs you about aspects our collections, provides guides to their best use, and reports on activities in news production and news-related research.
So that’s it. I hope it will be primarily a useful reference guide, explaining aspects of the collection to the wide range of researchers who use our news holdings. The challenge will be to strike a balance between telling the story of news for its own sake, and recognising that most researchers who use our newspaper collections (and it is primarily newspapers that they seek out) are seldom interested in the news per se. They want to find any mention of their subject, picking up clues that will take them further down a research trail that will eventually result in an essay, a thesis, a book, a programme, a blog, or a family tree.
But what binds all such activity together is the news itself – the noteworthy events of the day, archived and recoverable, providing specificity. So it is right to try and illuminate how news has been produced, and what changes are taking place to the production, distribution and consumption of news today. The blog’s byline is “News about yesterday’s news, and where news may be going”. Perhaps we should change that “may be” to an “is”. I don’t know. But connecting news past with news present is essential. It’s what interests me at any rate, and I’ll be using the blog to show the ways in which the news media combine, today and yesterday.
The blog will properly kick into action in January, and there will be an accompanying Twitter account, followed by a entirely reshaped version of our news collections web pages, all in time for the launch of the British Library’s new News and Media Reading Room in March 2014. It’s going to be a busy, newsy few months.