Every Picture Tells a Story Review
This year marks the centenary of William Scott, the British artist who attracted international acclaim for his abstract paintings over the course of six decades. Centennial exhibitions and events will be taking place throughout the coming months, with the first having just concluded at Tate St Ives. It moves to Hepworth Wakefield in June before taking up residence at the Ulster Museum in Belfast from October. Each location change will also signal an expansion of the exhibition, drawing on major collections from across the UK and Ireland, plus there will be further separate events at the Jerwood Gallery Hastings (currently in motion) and the Victoria Art Gallery Bath (from September). Tate are also publishing a four-volume Catalogue Raisonné of Oil Paintings in association with Thames & Hudson, which goes on sale next week.
One of the components of the Jerwood Gallery’s exhibition, entitled Divided Figure, is a series of screenings of the 1984 film Every Picture Tells a Story, which was directed by Scott’s son, James. A one-off showing also takes place this week at the BFI Southbank as part of the British Film Institute’s ‘Projecting the Archive’ series which will have the advantage of James Scott in attendance for an introduction and post-film discussion, plus support from his five-minute 1965 experimental effort, In Separation. In fact, Scott Jr has been doing rather well out of the BFI recently thanks to rare outings of two of his documentaries in recent months, 1969’s Richard Hamilton (as part of an evening of Pop Art pictures) and 1971’s two-screen projection The Great Ice Cream Robbery (on Claes Oldenburg), not to mention the appearance of three short films as supplementary features on a trio of BFI Blu-rays. His very first effort, The Rocking Horse, accompanies Gerry O’Hara’s The Pleasure Girls; Barney Platts-Mills’ St Christopher (which Scott produced) sits alongside the 1971 feature Private Road; and Love’s Presentation, a 1966 doc on David Hockney, compliments A Bigger Splash, Jack Hazan’s 1973 film on the artist. Those eager for further big-screen showings should also keep June 26th free, as the Hockney, Hamilton and Oldenburg films will be playing the ICA, again with Scott in attendance.
Yet, for all this activity, the son of William Scott remains little-known as a filmmaker. Indeed, his most widely-seen work is also among his least typical: an episode of Inspector Morse first broadcast in the January of 1989. It’s something of a shame as his is a fascinating career, taking in unexpected shifts and even an Academy Award whilst still maintaining its idiosyncrasies. It’s also a reason why these one-off screenings and Blu-ray appearances are so vital, offering as they do a rare lifeline that may not register with many (though I would assume that someone who picks up, say, The Pleasure Girls on disc finds the time to enjoy its extras too), but at least show a move in the right direction. Essentially, what Scott really requires a series of dedicated volumes with which to highlight his many facets as a filmmaker: the sensitive director of documentaries on contemporary artists; the co-founder of the politically- and social-minded Berwick Street Collective; the man behind offbeat features that are like no other (Coilin & Platonida, made in 1976, relocates a Russian novella to Irish soil with an amateur cast and almost complete silence) or found him combatting with the Weinstein brothers (1989’s Graham Greene adaptation Money Talks, aka Strike It Rich, aka Loser Takes All, later advertised solely on Molly Ringwald’s presence).
Scott first stepped behind a film camera whilst barely into his twenties. Students at the Slade School Art fired up by Thorold Dickinson’s lectures, he and Drewe Henley (later to marry Felicity Kendal and play a tiny role in Star Wars) raised £100, secured equipment from University College London Film Society and set about making The Rocking Horse, a 25-minute short that charts a night in the lives of a young female artist and a teddy boy (Henley, equal parts Marlon Brando’s Johnny Malloy and Albert Finney’s Arthur Seaton). It was completed thanks to the BFI’s Experimental Film Fund and premiered at the National Film Theatre in 1962, attracting the attention of Tony Richardson and plenty of word-of-mouth thanks to its – for the time – sexual frankness. Scott should have followed it with The Sea, a debut feature to be produced by Richardson’s Woodfall Films, only for a falling out between the two causing production to be halted. In Separation, another short and again made with financial aid from the BFI, would instead be his next work.
Perhaps spurred on by his disagreements with Richardson, Scott went independent in 1966 and set up his own company. Maya Films was formed with Barney Platts-Mills and Adam Barker-Mill, both of whom he’d met via John Fletcher, an ever-present if much unsung figure on the ‘Free Cinema’ scene. Maya’s early output was mostly documentary shorts, with Platts-Mills making St Christopher about a school for the mentally handicapped and Scott directing the earliest of his films on artists: as well as those already mentioned, there was also one devoted to R.B. Kitaj. Around this time Platts-Mills also began his friendship with Joan Littlewood which led, first of all, to the 1968 doc Everyone’s an Actor Shakespeare Said (about a drama group in London’s East End) and then his 1969 feature Bronco Bullfrog, utilising many of the same faces in front of the camera. Though produced under the Maya Films banner, they signalled a shift in direction: Platts-Mills pursued social realism, whilst Scott went down less travelled routes – his own feature debut, Adult Fun from 1972, was a curious blend of Godardian industrial thriller, documentary and something more fantastical. Barker-Mill, meanwhile, stuck around and served as regular cinematographer for both.
The seventies combined features, more documentaries on artists (Chance, History, Art…, which devoted itself to six practitioners, and Antonio Tàpies) and a move into collective filmmaking. In conjunction with Marc Karlin, Humphry Trevelyan and Richard Mordaunt he formed the Berwick Street Collective; Karlin and Trevelyan having previously been a part of Cinema Action. In 1970 they began work on Nightcleaners, about the campaign to unionize London’s female cleaning staff, which was shot over a number of years and finally screened in 1975. The Collective also made two films on Northern Ireland (Ireland: Behind the Wire and Ireland: The Hour Before Dawn) and a sequel to Nightcleaners (’36 to ’77, released in 1978) as well as assisting in the production of Sweet William, a comedy starring Jenny Agutter, somewhat surprisingly.
This latter work, which premiered in 1979, signposts a move into more mainstream filmmaking as the decades changed. In 1981 Scott edited a short film by the name of Couples & Robbers that was also made by his new production company, Flamingo Pictures. A sharp little crime comedy starring Rik Mayall and peppered with anti-Thatcher barbs, it would earn itself BAFTA and Academy Award nominations for Best Live Action Short. Flamingo’s follow-up, A Shocking Accident (adapted from the Graham Greene short story), one-upped that achievement by securing another BAFTA nod and an Oscar win. Scott was writer and director in this case, and suddenly commercial ventures had become a possibility. The first result was getting Channel Four to commit to Every Picture Tells a Story, a documentary drama about his father’s early life.
Initially conceived of as three hour-long projects, an 80-minute feature would emerge at the 1984 London Film Festival. Filming lasting for five weeks, with editing adding another six to that tally. The production was mostly situated between Ireland and Scotland (William Scott having been born and raised in Greenock but later relocating his family to Enniskillen, the hometown of his father) with a little shooting in England. Scott senior was also filmed and some voice-over recollections recorded, though the majority would be period recreations with a cast of professional actors. Scottish actor Alex Norton, a familiar face from film and television (Comrades, Local Hero, Taggart, etc.), played the role of the painter’s father, with fellow Scot Phyllis Logan (best known for her appearances in Lovejoy and, more recently, Downton Abbey) taking on that of the mother. Viewers should also recognise Natasha Richardson (daughter of Tony, funnily enough) here giving her first substantial onscreen performance.
William is played by three actors, each at a different stage in his childhood and adolescence. Every Picture Tells a Story focuses on the years between the end of the First World War and that of Scott’s acceptance to the Royal Academy of Art in 1931 aged 18. Despite opening with present day footage of Enniskillen, jumping back to 1927 and the day on which his father died, and occasionally having the septuagenarian painter occasionally intervene on proceedings, the film mostly settles into a straightforward chronological recreation of key events in the artist’s life. We see the poverty of the Scott family’s existence (there were ten children altogether), his father’s work as a painter of shop signs, his tutelage under Kathleen Bridle and his time at the Belfast College of Art. Each scene is presented as a vignette, designed to capture a specific mood or moment, and arguably to something of a mythological degree; a shot of fish frying away, for example, will cut away to Mackerel on a Plate from 1951-2, which lends an extra weight.
Needless to say, there’s a connection to Scott’s earlier artist films despite the dramatization. Just as Hockney provided his own voice-over for Love’s Presentation, so too Scott the artist supplies a narration, however light, for Scott the filmmaker. Interestingly all of his previous subjects had been contemporaries or younger, which perhaps adds to the veneration already in strong supply thanks to the father-son connection. There is little of the waywardness or experimentation that typified Scott’s pre-eighties work; instead we find a sober, respectful work. I was reminded, in part, of Ken Russell’s Monitor film on Sir Edward Elgar: there’s a simplicity to those scenes unfolding, albeit one that’s incredibly lucid and shows off a wonderful lightness of touch. Some might describe Every Picture Tells a Story as a quiet film and they wouldn’t be wrong. However, that shouldn’t be perceived as a criticism. Certainly, Scott could dazzle behind the camera – and he very often did, from The Rocking Horse onwards – but not all of his pictures required a plan of attack, as it were. Indeed, as the end results show here, a more reverent means could be just as rewarding.
Following its showing at the London Film Festival in December 1984, Every Picture Tells a Story received a low-key theatrical release in May of the following year before turning up on Channel Four one Wednesday night that November. As seems to be so often the case with moderately budgeted British films of the time, it pretty much disappeared thereafter. Scott had initial hopes that it would trigger a pair of follow-ups, thus seeing out the initial three-project plans, though this came to nothing. Instead, he was drawn to Hollywood for Money Talks (the aim being to replicate the success of his previous Greene adaptation) only to find himself at odds with US production methods in general and the Weinsteins in particular. He subsequently retired from filmmaker and instead focused on his own painting. The Last of England, a 2005 experimental work made in conjunction with an artwork by the same name, represents the sole return to a camera to date. But still there’s an impressive body of work worth investigation, which is why screenings such as the one this Thursday are so important. As said (though it’s worth repeating), hopefully it will trigger a much more widespread reappraisal.
EVERY PICTURE TELLS A STORY screens at the BFI Southbank on Thursday May 9th at 6.20pm. Click here for booking info and further details.