An Unflinching Eye: The Films of Richard Woolley Review
Although he’s worked variously as a musician, filmmaker and author, Richard Woolley may not be a name immediately recognisable to most. From a purely cinematic perspective he was active across two decades, earning his film directorial credit in 1970 and his last in 1988, the result being one documentary, seven experimental short films, two featurettes and three features. Prior to An Unflinching Eye, the new four-disc boxed-set distributed by the BFI, my own knowledge of Woolley amounted to a pair of reviews that have survived the Time Out Film Guide’s various editions, one which described Brothers and Sisters as “too simplistic by half”, the other commending Telling Tales for being “very funny and revealing”. With this release we are finally able to consider these appraisals and, more importantly, sample the vast majority of their director’s output. An Unflinching Eye doesn’t offer up a complete collection of Woolley’s filmic ventures, although it comes close - omitting the 1970 documentary We Who Have Friends and his shorts made whilst at the Royal College of Art, but picking up the scent with his two West German productions from the mid-seventies and encompassing every subsequent effort.
Thus we have seven films to get our teeth into and, moreover, seven films which reveal Woolley as a highly distinctive, singular filmmaker. Part of the pleasure of An Unflinching Eye is not only the ability to catch up with a writer-director who has remained hidden for so long (television screenings having petered out during the eighties) but also to chart the progression of his voice as it grew and mutated over the course of these titles. What we find is a director who having initially set out, through his various early experimental works, to discover what made film as a medium tick, eventually used the cinema as means of exploring what it was that made him tick. For these are personal works, each firmly tied to Woolley’s personality, whether it be his erudite, enquiring mind, his politics or his own background as an upper-middle class Northern white male.
The first hints come in Kniephofstrasse and Drinnen und Draussen, both made whilst Woolley was living in a commune in West Berlin. The longest of his experimental shorts (at 35 and 40 minutes, respectively) they continue the structuralist methods of his earlier RCA films. The principle concerns are with shot duration, fixed camera positions, precise editing methods and the interaction between sound and image. Understandably both can come across as a little dry, especially with their expanded lengths in comparison with Woolley’s previous shorts (the briefest was a mere minute in length, the longest stretching to just 12 minutes), yet there are elements which intrigue beyond their formalistic concerns. Kniephofstrasse, for example, is far more playful that a quick description would suggest - which would go something along the lines of an investigation of a specific area of West Berlin, captured by a single camera standpoint at various times of day, at various frame rates and in various weather conditions. You sense that Woolley is conducting this experiment more for himself than any intended audience; the whole process is allowing him to get to grips with the properties of film and its potential. Meanwhile, Drinnen und Draussen introduces actors into the structuralist games as well as autobiographical elements having been filmed in the commune Woolley was living in at the time, thus blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction (explicitly so: the title translates as Inside and Outside, the former referring to the drama enacted, the latter to the passers-by who occasionally stop at the giant window in the background to take a peak at what’s going on).
Admittedly the interest in Kniephofstrasse and Drinnen und Draussen is predominantly from a retrospective stance and the clues they offer in relation to what Woolley was to do next. Certainly, there were plenty of examples of structuralist cinema being produced at the time, and superior ones at that, yet these two shorts nonetheless bleed into each of their director’s subsequent films once he returned to the UK. Their tight structures, visual games and carefully plotted soundtracks are to be seen in Illusive Crime, Telling Tales and Brothers and Sisters especially, albeit with a series of significant additions. For starters the personal element is more thoroughly pronounced as Woolley sets about discussing and dramatising his political concerns, specifically those relating to sexual politics and gender issues. Moreover, there is also a much clearer reliance on narrative - Woolley is telling tales - but with it an underlying subversion. The films from Illusive Crime onwards can be read as crime dramas, police procedurals, thrillers, ‘whodunits’ and, in the case of Girl from the South, a romantic fiction, yet also commentaries on these genres.
Indeed, Illusive Crime offers the perfect demonstration of this technique, whilst also remaining truest to the structuralist methods. In terms of length, locale and plot this 50-minute featurette resembles an episode of Brian Clemens’ anthology series Thriller. The setting isn’t too far removed from the ‘stockbroker belt’ that Clemens would regularly draw upon, with Woolley situating his action within the plush home of a wealth middle class couple (at one point the husband even discusses stock options with a friend). Furthermore, as the title readily suggests, a crime occurs, in this case a particularly brutal rape of the wife by a number of assailants. Yet whereas each and every episode of Thriller was, of course, very much a thriller, Woolley’s intentions head off in another direction. Structurally Illusive Crime retains the methods of the West German films, in other words shot duration and arrangement is highly important. The camera is situated in various points within the house, ten in total, which are repeated a number of times as the drama plays out. As such we are not always placed in the most beneficial of viewpoints meaning we have to rely upon the carefully calibrated soundtrack more than we do the visual element. In other words the elements relating to ‘whodunit’ (and arguably the suspense) are both heightened and diminished: the audience is asked both to work harder towards filling in the gaps, and effectively completing the narrative, but also essentially told that there will be no answers.
However, this lack of resolution is entirely the point as it allows Woolley to play on the ambiguities and, subsequently, draw out various insinuations and allusions. The relationships between the female character and the men she comes into contact with (her husband, her assailants, the police) are at the forefront, especially their respective reactions to her, all of which, in varying lights and degrees, paint her as a victim. The husband-wife interaction, meanwhile, points towards issues of class complacency and blindness, the latter of course aped by the viewers’ own given that we never see what is going on from what could be described as a vantage point. Plus, occupying the sidelines, we have aspects of casual racism and institutional failings, all of which - to some extent or other - find their place in the remaining films to be featured in the boxed-set.
Effectively then, the template had been set, one to which we can also add the controversy Illusive Crime sparked thanks to its unconventional treatment of the rape scene. Perhaps unexpectedly, Woolley’s first feature, Telling Tales, and then his first 35mm feature, Brothers and Sisters, would both provide extensions of these various themes and issues. The former does away with any crime elements and instead focuses its attentions on two couples, one wealthy and middle class, the other poor and working class. The Time Out review saw the film as a subversion of the soap operatics common in Crossroads and Coronation Street (which would neatly tie in with Illusive Crime’s subversion of Thriller), though I’m more inclined to see it as a variation on Mike Leigh’s class deconstructions, notably his Who’s Who, Meantime and High Hopes. The one couple have a son who goes to boarding school, a maid and discussions of divorce thanks to the wife finding their life “provincial” and “boring”. The other couple, the wife being the maid in question, also have a son, far more pronounced accents and an involvement in the union movement (the working class husband about to go on a strike that will affect the middle class husband).
Once again, the set-up, on paper, reads as fairly conventional and could easily produce a work akin with the Leigh examples cited. Yet once again, Woolley’s approach is more considered and nuanced than simply delivering a piece of storytelling. Here the exposition of the police’s voice-over that would occasionally enter Illusive Crime’s soundtrack is replaced by the characters breaking the fourth wall and delivering narration to camera. To supplement this Woolley also provides a switch from black and white to colour for these narrated sequences whilst the rest of the film retains the very specific framing of his earlier films. The former is notable inasmuch as it allows for the injection of some fun and mordant humour into other fairly dour proceedings: these sequences are shot as though they were commercials for some coffee product - one of them is even set to Abba’s One Man, One Woman - albeit with a punchline that firmly and purposefully kills off any mawkish sentimentality this may suggest. The latter, meanwhile, and its recourse to corridors, doorways and mirrors means our sight is as obscured as our perceptions. As with Illusive Crime we really do need to pay full attention to the detailed soundtrack in order to grasp at the complex sexual and class politics on display; no easy answers once more, but again a rich seam of discourse with which to engage.
Approaching such material a third time may suggest that Brothers and Sisters would simply be a lazy variation on Woolley’s favoured themes and techniques. Yet for his first 35mm feature, made through the BFI Production Board with Keith Griffiths installed as producer, we see arguably the director’s richest work, a fulfilment of the promise laid down by the two previous films as opposed to a rehash. In part this is clearly down to the more overtly personal nature of the material, to such an extent in fact that Woolley provides an obvious character surrogate in the central figure, a middle class man in his mid-thirties living in a commune in Leeds and engaged in political issues. Moreover, Brothers and Sisters also addresses some of the feelings prompted by the Ripper killings at the time of its inception. Woolley was living in Chapeltown at the time, immediately making him a potential suspect and, indeed, seeing all other males around him in such a light.
The plot revolves around the murder of a prostitute played by Carolyn Pickles (as seen on the cover to An Unflinching Eye). Brothers and Sisters then follows the effect this event has on our central character, those with whom he shares the commune (two females, one other male), his brother and his family, and the prostitute’s identical twin sister, who works as a maid for the family and therefore is an acquaintance (and occasional lover) of our lead. This collection of people, as should be easily deduced, therefore brings in many of the themes and ideas found in Illusive Crime and Telling Tales: issues of class, sexual politics, works relations, and so on. Furthermore, Woolley tells there story not only in his usual fashion of subverting the film’s given genre - the opening scene reveals that the clichéd thriller soundtrack is in fact coming from the television in the front room rather than scoring the action - but also plays with timeline and multiple perspectives.
Needless to say, resolution and a full disclosure of events in never high on the list of Woolley’s priorities, rather it is the interaction of the various layers and the resultant ambiguities and insinuations which come into play. However, it’s worth pointing out that Brothers and Sisters, as well as Illusive Crime and Telling Tales, should not be viewed as anti-narrative. Even though they subvert the conventional police thriller, crime drama, etc. you also sense that Woolley has a grudging respect for these genres and as such his films do still satisfy on these levels. Whereas you could accuse Kniephofstrasse and Drinnen und Draussen of being dry intellectual exercises, his subsequent works do possess a great deal of entertainment and quality beyond their more high brow concerns. Woolley, for example, is an excellent director of actors and Pickles, say, delivers a superb pair of performances in Brothers and Sisters which go beyond her better-known in TV dramas such as We’ll Meet Again, The Bill and Emmerdale. In a manner of speaking, these films are able to have it both ways, especially Brothers and Sisters with its superior production values, working as both high quality, engaging filmmaking and, despite Time Out’s complaints, complex handlings of their given concerns. Indeed, it comes as something of a surprise to see such examples of British filmmaking having been forgotten for so long; reason enough, of course, to investigate An Unflinching Eye immediately.
During the interview material also present on these discs Woolley notes how his next potential project, again to have been for the BFI Production Board, was the subject of internal changes and disputes and as such never saw the light of day. It would be four years before his next venture, a 45-minute featurette produced in conjunction with Channel 4 entitled Waiting for Alan. In contrast to Brothers and Sisters it cannot help but feel comparatively slight, although that’s not to say it doesn’t complement Woolley’s previous films quite nicely. On his website the brief description notes that Waiting for Alan is a “tale of the unexpected”, which of course has obvious implications towards the Roald Dahl anthology series. Meanwhile Pickles returns to play the wife bored of her middle class existence and addresses the camera directly for a series of monologues. In other words it’s Woolley-lite, although there is one significant shift in pattern. Here we do get a concrete resolution which ties up all of its loose ends and, moreover, it’s a rather cute one demonstrating that its director could subvert the thriller in a decidedly cheeky fashion as well as the more serious means seen elsewhere.
For his final film (to date) Woolley turned his attentions to the world of Mills & Boon as his target for subversion. Girl from the South, made in 1988, sees a well-to-do young teenage head to Leeds for her annual visit to her grandparents, her head full of ideals of romantic love. As we’ve come to expect any such ideals don’t exactly come to light as her blossoming relationship with a working class black boy of a similar age not only upsets her expectations (as an attempted recreation of the scene from Brief Encounter where Celia Johnson gets grit in her eye demonstrates) but also leads into darker areas. What’s particularly interesting is the manner in which Woolley has opted for an entirely different lead character and, moreover, the effect this has on the film. Here the questions of class and race are viewed through the eyes of a much younger protagonist and, as such, with all of that added naïveté. There is, therefore, little of the complex discourse or multiple layers seen in earlier works, but rather a simpler, lighter tale. Certainly, it’s an engaging piece and nicely played (with particular mention worth making for Rosamund Greenwood in her penultimate film role), yet it’s also decidedly slight when placed alongside the likes of Illusive Crime, Telling Tales and Brothers and Sisters, all of which offer up a lot more for the viewer to get their teeth into.
With that said the overall context is worth considering and, certainly, An Unflinching Eye is greater than the sum of its parts. Of course, the quality of the strongest titles far outweighs one or two slighter efforts, but more importantly this boxed-set would feel incomplete had it stopped at a point prior to when Woolley himself no longer made films himself. Essentially An Unflinching Eye allows the viewer to (re)discover a director who has remained forgotten for too long, and via the vast majority of his output at that. (Excerpts from the earlier student films can be viewed on Woolley’s website here.) Furthermore, there is such a sense of cohesion to this output that it makes sense to view them all in quick succession, to see how the early structuralist films informed the features or how Woolley was able to adapt to increasing - and decreasing - budgets yet nonetheless maintain his voice. Hopefully I’ve demonstrated over the past few thousand words that it’s also a voice worth listening to.
It’s worth stating immediately that An Unflinching Eye is being distributed and marketed by the BFI but was not produced by them. As such usual expectations such as an extensive contextualising booklet and English subtitles are not present, although otherwise this amounts to a very impressive set. In terms of presentation there is little to complain about. Original aspect ratios are maintained (1.33:1 for all except Brothers and Sisters which comes anamorphically enhanced) and the prints in each and every case are in a fine condition and blemish free with Telling Tales and Brothers and Sisters are arguably the best of the bunch. The black and white films demonstrate excellent levels of clarity and contrast, whilst the colour films are sufficiently sharp and as rich as could be expected. (Note that the colour sequences in Telling Tales are intentionally hazy and saturated.) Soundtracks are similarly crisp and clean, which is obviously an important consideration given Woolley’s attention to them, especially in the case of Illusive Crime. Meanwhile the English subtitles on the two West German films are burnt into the print, no doubt a side effect of these being the best materials available.
Extras are limited to interviews with Woolley appearing on each disc. They are split up according to where the films included meaning that the first disc discusses his time in Berlin and the making and reception of Illusive Crime, the second relates to Telling Tales, and so on. In each case they are also undoubtedly worth a listen as they’re packed with personal detail, considered approaches to every one of the films and their subsequent reactions, plus various anecdotes (being invited to gay nightclub by Rainer Werner Fassbinder whilst on the festival trail, for example) and discussion of unfilmed projects such as Woolley’s miners’ strike comedy that almost got made through the BFI. There’s no discussion of the Art College years or before, although these interviews do feature on Woolley’s website [link].
Kniephofstrasse (1973, 35 mins)
Drinnen und Draussen / Inside and Outside (1974, 40 mins)
Illusive Crime (1976, 50 mins)
Telling Tales (1978, 90 mins)
Brothers and Sisters (1981, 96 mins)
Waiting for Alan (1984, 45 mins)
Girl from the South (1988, 84 mins)