British Artists' Films: Ian Breakwell Review
Before his untimely death in 2005 Ian Breakwell had sought artistic expression through various media. Performance art, sculpture, installations and the written word (fictional, autobiographical, academic) all existed alongside the film-making; it was merely one string in a quite remarkable bow. Fittingly perhaps, this DVD compilation follows suit by offering just a selection of Breakwell’s works on film, a little capsule to sum up his concerns and most prominent considerations.
At first glance the programming choice seems a little uneven: the “continuous diary” works for which Breakwell is best known figure only slightly and by no means take prominence. Begun as a personal project, the diaries were soon published, performed, then performed for camera (an excerpt from the initial recording appears on the disc), documented by Alan Yentob for the BBC, and later commissioned by Channel Four for miniature television screenings over, firstly, six weeks and then the Christmas period. They culminated, in a fashion, with BC/AD (2005-7), effectively Breakwell’s equivalent to Derek Jarman’s Blue, in which he documented the cancer that would eventually kill him. Yet alongside the video excerpt from 1975 we find only two episodes from the television series, nothing of the Christmas series and no BC/AD.
However, whilst it should be argued that we need, at some point, a complete DVD collection of the diary works, their scant presence here is understandable, even for the best. Occupying only 26 minutes of the total running time they allow both equal prominence to Breakwell’s other filmed works and a realisation that all of this work was interconnected, one piece bleeding into the next until the preoccupations become most apparent. Breakwell’s sense of the absurd, for example, was never confined to the manner in which he expressed the banal and the everyday in the diary entries – it was always there. Witness the earliest short presented here, Repertory from 1973, and you’ll see it in both the narration (human-less theatrical events involving oddly juxtaposed “ordinary” objects) and the execution (the theatre supposedly housing these events shot only from the exterior in long, prowling tracking shots, a conceit reminiscent of Peter Greenaway’s pre-feature work). Or there’s The News (1980) and its quickfire relaying of strange events, a bizarre and very funny parody of local news shows rendered almost authentic by the presence of real-life Border Television anchorman Eric Wallace and maybe even prefiguring Chris Morris in certain ways.
Similarly it is easy to see how nostalgia plays a key role in Breakwell’s artistic make-up. Most overt here is the Continuous Diary entry Growth (1984) whereby an old photograph prompts memories of his Derby childhood, his working class background and his relationship with his father. On the accompanying interview (recorded just a month before his death) we hear Breakwell speak of “Zen vaudeville”, his term for those bottom-of-the-bill, true underdog and barely talented individuals who occupied the stages of his youth. They are key to Repertory, later works Auditorium from 1994 (in which the audience becomes the performance) and 2001’s Variety (a BFI commission for which he trawled their archives in order to collate such performances; perhaps not in the assured manner of a Martin Arnold or Bill Morrison, but heartfelt nonetheless) or indeed another Diary entry, The Walking Man, in which the eponymous member of the public takes on this mantle of being one of the heroic unsung.
Perhaps there is also a sense that Breakwell sees himself in much the same light. His compassionate, friendly presence on those films in which he does take centre stage make it fully understandable as to why Channel Four would commission numerous screen hours from him, even during the hectic Christmas schedules. Yet at the same time he’s also on the outside, another artist toiling away and never quite making the headline slot. But then this only serves to make the disc all the more appealing – a chance for Breakwell and his amiable, personal films to enter our homes and occupy our undivided attentions for a number of hours, no longer one amongst many but subject to his own, rightfully deserved top-of-the-bill placing.
Owners of the other releases under the BFI’s British Artists’ Films umbrella will know exactly what to expect of this particular disc. The presentations of the films are uniformly excellent, maintaining original soundtracks and aspect ratios, whilst demonstrating each – despite their various ages, film stocks and formats, and comparative obscurity of course – in their best possible light. Those recorded onto video may be difficult to access with full confidence given the soft, haphazard nature of the format, especially in its early years, but given the results elsewhere – and indeed on other British Artists’ Films discs – it is safe to say that any flaws are wholly the result of original filming conditions/materials and not the result of the disc’s mastering.
Extras similarly follow the template set out elsewhere. There’s the lengthy interview Breakwell himself, taking us through his career and liberally peppered with clips (including One, shot on CCTV despite being made in 1971). We also find liner notes by Will Self and an exhaustive 20-page booklet complete with notes and bibliography covering all of Breakwell’s prolific output. The only complaint, as it were, is that it can’t help but whet the appetite and make us wish for further releases.
Repertory (1973, 9 mins)
Excerpts from the Diary (1975, 9 mins)
The News (1980, 12 mins)
Ian Breakwell’s Continuous Diary: Growth (1984, 12 mins)
Ian Breakwell’s Continuous Diary: The Walking Man (5 mins)
Auditorium (1994, 32 mins) co-directed with Ron Geesin
Variety (2001, 20 mins)