The films of BS Johnson.
You’re Human Like the Rest of Them is the strangest addition to the Flipside yet. Swerving slightly from the usual approach, it abandons the main-feature-plus-support model in favour of an assemblage of shorts, miniatures, documentaries and television efforts. Contained within are animation, agitprop, jokes, deadly seriousness and Compo from Last of the Summer Wine. The connecting tissue is the novelist B.S. Johnson and his dalliances with the moving image between 1967 and his death in 1973. These included a production for the BFI, a commission from the ICA, (self-) portraits for LWT and the BBC, and more besides. Ten films in all, in fact, making this among the meatiest of Flipsides too.
Johnson was born in 1933 and published his first novel, Travelling People, in 1963. Making use of a different narrative method for each of its chapters – including one in the manner of a film script – it established a playfulness of form that continued throughout his short career. His 1967 novel The Unfortunates, for example, was famously published as a “book in a box” containing 27 individual sections; with the exception of the first and the very last, each could be consumed in whichever order the reader wished. For Johnson the mode of expression was something to be toyed and experimented with, so it should hardly be surprising that his first cinematic venture began life as a poem, then a play intended for the Royal Shakespeare Company, before becoming a short.
The BFI Production Board aided Johnson in his directorial debut. As Bruce Beresford explains in the accompanying booklet, “virtually anyone wanting to make a short film could apply for financial and technical assistance.” Beresford, long before his own efforts would earn him Oscar nominations or play in competition at Cannes, was a film officer for the Board at the time and recalls that Johnson had no problem in securing interest. He’d published two novels by this point (Albert Angelo, with its cut-out pages, followed Travelling People in 1964) plus a collection of poetry and clearly knew what he was after. Beresford would handle the miniscule budget, install his compatriot David Muir (later to shoot Jack Bond’s Separation and Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly) as director of photography and serve as co-editor, but You’re Human Like the Rest of Them is very much Johnson’s film.
Totalling a mere 17 minutes and consisting of just three scenes, You’re Human Like the Rest of Them puts the viewer inside the mind of Haakon. First we see him in a hospital among a group of (mostly elderly) patients who are being educated about spinal damage. Next we find him in a school staff room among his contemporaries before, finally, we have him talking to a class of children. As the film progresses we begin to realise Haakon’s preoccupation with his own mortality, culminating in a speech to his pupils: “Shut up you little bastards […] You’re all going to die but before then you’re going to decay. Rot, for years, rot, slowly your bodies are going to rot. Slowly, mind, just slowly, for years, slowly, and painfully, your bodies just give up.”
Johnson ends on a flourish – a sudden, unexpected switch from monochrome to dazzling colour – and has a wonderful command of the medium throughout, yet You’re Human Like the Rest of Them is also a deeply personal work. It was first written in late 1964, around the time that a close friend, Tony Tillinghast, was dying of cancer aged just 29. (He died in November of that year.) The pair has known each other since Johnson’s student journalist days and that friendship would most obviously inform The Unfortunates, which mostly consists of its narrator’s memories of his dead pal, Tony. Facing up to mortality at such a young age (Johnson was just two years older) evidently had a huge effect on the author. Indeed, it has a tendency to weave itself around the dramatic works contained on this set: the cancer surgeon/bullying patriarch in Not Counting the Savages or the bleak outlook to You’re Human Like the Rest of Them’s follow-up, Paradigm.
According to David Quantick’s booklet essay, the Polish filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk considered Paradigm to be the worst short film he had ever seen. It played the Oberhausener Festival in 1969 to an intense dislike whereas You’re Human Like the Rest of Them had screened to acclaim and awards. To look at the credits, it would appear to be in a similar vein: Johnson writes and directs once more, William Hoyland occupies the lead role again, while Muir, Beresford and John Furse all return to shoot, edit and art direct respectively. (Johnson’s wife Virginia also worked as an assistant on both productions.) Yet this particular film is quite unlike anything else you have ever seen.
In essence, Paradigm is a highly imaginative take on the idea that the older we get the less we have to say. Hoyland sits in a sparsely populated studio that brings to mind old memories of children’s television. At first he is naked and addresses the camera with enthusiasm and good humour. But as he ages before us the energy and the dialogue drains away. Every word is nonsense – Johnson and his actor having conceived of an entirely made-up language – so that we focus not on what is being said, but rather the hows and the whys. As a realisation of its concept, the film is pretty much perfect, though it is Hoyland who sells the film. He brings a heavy dose of humanism to the material, not to mention virtuosity. Every line of dialogue was carefully calibrated by Johnson (no improvisation here) and each is delivered just so. Who knew that “trustranshub shub shub shub che valna don darve ot tar mulst dersend knacker ludba” could contain so much feeling?
The reaction to Paradigm –topped by producer Bronka Ricquier asking to have her name removed following the Oberhausen screening – effectively killed off Johnson’s filmmaking career in one respect. It was the last of his made-for-cinema works intended for a general audience (intended being a key word here as the film failed to pick up a UK distributor) and prompted a transference of his energies towards television and political documentary. He’d begun an association with the BBC arts magazine show Release in 1968 with a now lost documentary portrait entitled Charlie Whildon Talking, Singing and Playing and The Evacuees, which interviewed the likes of Michael Aspect and Jonathan Miller about their experiences as young children during wartime. Shortly before Paradigm played Oberhausen, Release also dedicated a section to The Unfortunates, which Johnson wrote and hosted and which finds a place here. Extracts are read and context is provided, with much of the discussion turning to Tillinghast’s death from cancer.
The Release segments, and perhaps Johnson’s affable presence, led to further TV commissions. He made a 25-minute documentary on the architects Alison and Peter Smithson for the BBC in 1970 and contributed to a pair of On Reflection episodes for LWT in 1971. The latter ran haphazardly during the first half of the decade and would find a contemporary figure talking about a historical figure; for example, John Mortimer on Oscar Wilde or Ralph Steadman on Sir Frank Brangwyn. Johnson’s input was to direct one instalment (Alan Brien on Alexander Herzen, for which he employed Hoyland as the voice of the 19th century journalist) and to front another. His chosen subject was Dr. Samuel Johnson and the end results were suitably effusive. On the surface, it’s a straightforward piece of portraiture: our host talks to camera amid heavy tomes and the like. But he also introduces his usual playfulness that’s simultaneously subversive and appealing. Arguments between Johnson and his friends or his wife are rendered as football scores (Johnson 0 Tetty 1) and text inserts appear to underline a point: “Publishers are PARASITES!”, “Still relevant TODAY!”, “Cheeky!”
This balancing act between respect for the subject matter and a little bit of stylistic cheek is best laid out in the two films Johnson made in relation to the Industrial Relations Bill. One of them, March!, is a documentary record pure and simple. The other, Unfair!, is an inventive dramatized affair that gets to the root of the issue through mostly comic means. The bill, which became an Act when it was approved by MPs in August 1971, set out to introduce the National Industrial Relations Court as a means of limiting the powers of the unions. If the NIRC deemed a union action unfair, that action would then become illegal; in other words, the voice of the employee could be diminished. Prior to the bill’s passing the TUC organised a mass protest in London on February 21st that would become the subject of March!. Johnson is believed to have penned the commentary (and possibly, according to Jonathan Coe’s biography, directed too), which is simple, clear-eyed, no-nonsense and effective.
The anger so clearly detectable in March!’s voice-over translates itself into absurdity in Unfair!. Co-written with fellow experimental novelist Alan Burns, this eight-minute piece enacts the potential consequences of the Industrial Relations Bill using three actors (Bill Owen as the worker, Freddie Earle as the employer and George Colouris as the judge) and a strain of easy-to-swallow, expertly-performed and colourfully-languaged satire. The sloganeering that would appear in B.S. Johnson on Dr. Samuel Johnson also makes itself known in case the humour was not already punchy enough: “WHAT IS UNFAIR? THE TORIES WILL DECIDE!”
Johnson worked on the two agitprop films for nothing and seems to have encountered little in the way of difficulty when it comes to their budgetary limited. His voice remains cogent and each does exactly as it sets out to do. Indeed, you suspect that he enjoyed limitations as is especially apparent in Fat Man on a Beach, the self-portrait he made shortly before his death. As Michael Bakewell, the director, explains in his booklet essay, “The brief for the film […] could hardly have been simpler. The programme was to consist of Bryan talking to camera. No one else was to appear on screen and shooting was to be confined to a single location.” That location was a bay on Lleyn peninsula where Johnson had spent some of his post-student years and the setting for a number of his short stories and poems as well as Travelling People. Thus it invites him to reminisce and generally hold forth on a whole range of ideas and anecdotes, plus the occasional gag.
Fat Man on a Beach is a pleasingly ramshackle affair. A “bloody aeroplane” interrupts one shot and a bulb burns out during another. Johnson and Bakewell also employ Bruce Beresford’s old “cut to a banana” technique (explained within the film) to mask any editing problems they might have. Yet ramshackle also means relaxed, with Johnson even more affable than he was in his earlier television documentaries. All of which, perhaps, makes his suicide mere months later all the more of a shock. It eventually screened almost a year to the day after his death, acting as a tribute and maybe introducing some of its audience to the man for the first time.
It’s likely that You’re Human Like the Rest of Them will do something similar. For a long time the only Johnson-related film that was easy to see has been Paul Tickell’s 2000 adaptation of Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry. It’s an interesting effort, notable for its Luke Haines soundtrack and the recipient of pockets of acclaim during initial release, but hardly the best entry point and a bit out of time. (Ideally it would have been filmed shortly after the novel’s publication, possibly with Tom Bell in the lead role.) This new BFI compilation, however, gets straight to real meat of Johnson’s work with the moving image. It doesn’t contain absolutely everything – though it does contain some titles which I’ve barely touched upon or neglected entirely – though that is hardly the point. Anyone wishing to have their eyes opened by a startling (and short-lived) career should check out the ‘best prices’ in the top right-hand corner of this page and get clicking…
You’re Human Like the Rest of Them is the 25th entry in the BFI’s Flipside range and comes in the now-standard dual-format package containing both Blu-ray and DVD editions. By a strange quirk, the Blu-ray is region-free and the DVD comes encoded for Region 2 – the reason being the two BBC films (The Unfortunates and Not Counting the Savages) appearing in standard definition only. For a full list of contents see below…
Given the variety of works and their different sources, the presentation quality understandably varies from one film to the next. You’re Human Like the Rest of Them and Paradigm were both sourced from their negatives and therefore look expectedly superb. Less fortunate is B.S. Johnson on Dr. Samuel Johnson which has succumbed to mould damage over the year, while Not Counting the Savages (originally a colour production) is derived from the only known copy, namely an open-reel black and white video recording possibly taped by Johnson himself. Of course it says something that the BFI have still deemed these works vital enough to warrant inclusion despite the unavoidable presentation flaws, especially since the former also gets the HD treatment. Also worth a mention is the role Nicolas Winding Refn has played in this release by donating the monies required to ensure high definition masters.
The soundtracks similarly vary from film to film, again owing to original production circumstances and existing materials, though do be aware that optional subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are also provided on all titles, including the extra features where applicable.
As for those extras, it could be argued that this release already offers plenty in its 10 films and their combined running time of approximately 160 minutes. Yet the BFI have also unearthed some brief (and mute) outtakes from Fat Man on a Beach, produced a new 16-minute documentary entitled The Johnson Papers which demonstrates some of the film-related materials held in the British Library’s BS Johnson Archive, and provided a 28-page booklet that is among their very best. Here you’ll find extensive notes and full credits for each of the inclusions from a whole range of contributors. I’ve already mentioned Bakewell, Quantick and Beresford. To them we can add Jonathan Coe, Dan Fox (editor of Frieze magazine), Carmen Callil (who worked for Johnson’s publisher, Panther Books) and more besides. Coe also provides a general essay and there is an introduction by Johnson’s son, Steven. There’s a wealth of information contained within, plenty of which came in handy when writing this review.
You’re Human Like the Rest of Them (1967, 17 mins)
Paradigm (1968, 9 mins)
The Unfortunates (1969, 15 mins, DVD only)
Up Yours Too Guillaume Apollinaire! (1969, 2 mins)
Unfair! (1970, 8 mins)
March! (1970, 13 mins)
Poem (1971, 1 min)
B.S. Johnson on Dr. Samuel Johnson (1972, 26 mins)
Not Counting the Savages (1972, 29 mins, DVD only)
Fat Man on a Beach (1974, 39 mins)
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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