Around the World with Orson Welles

Orson Welles’s series for British television in 1955, on Blu-ray from the BFI.

Orson Welles made his initial impact in theatre and radio, before making his cinema debut in 1942, aged just twenty-six. That film was of course Citizen Kane, which frequently makes Top Ten lists of the greatest films of all time, topping Sight & Sound’s once-a-decade poll in 1962, 1972, 1982, 1992 and 2002, coming second to Vertigo in 2012. It is as a film writer-director-actor that his reputation primarily stands, despite the difficulties of his later career, with films left unfinished and others taken out of his hands and re-edited. Chuck Workman’s 2014 documentary Magician, released to mark Welles’s centenary simultaneously with the present disc, is a good place to start with an appreciation of Welles’s life and career, and is reviewed by me over on the The Digital Fix film site.

Thirteen years after Kane, Welles made his first excursion into the relatively new medium of television A television service had begun in the United Kingdom when the BBC launched its television service in 1936. Television was suspended in 1939 due to the outbreak of World War II and resumed in 1946. In 1955, a second channel was launched: Independent Television (ITV), funded by commercials instead of the licence fee which then as now financed the BBC. Welles had made that year Orson Welles’s Sketch Book for the BBC, a series of six monologues to camera. This caused ITV to approach Welles to make a series for them, and this was Around the World with Orson Welles. It was produced for Associated-Rediffusion (later just Rediffusion), which was the franchise holder for ITV for weekdays in the London area from ITV’s launch until 1968. The series was shot on 35mm film – a luxury when most television then was made on 405-line video, and a likely reason why this series survives when so much else from the time has been long since wiped. The initial plan was ambitious: twenty-six episodes. However, only six were made and broadcast, with a seventh left unfinished. The tendency for Welles not to complete his work which had affected his film career affected this television series too. In the final episode, set around the Spanish bullfight, theatre critic Kenneth Tynan and Elaine Dundy (billed as “Mr and Mrs Kenneth Tynan” – married 1951, divorced 1964) being used as guest co-hosts with Welles to plug gaps in the episode, which unlike its predecessors, is called Round the World with Orson Welles, not “Around”.

In the end, Welles didn’t go around the world but remained within the borders of Europe: two episodes in the land of the Basque people, then Austria, France, England and finally Spain. The programmes all involve Welles as our host on camera, talking to locals who interest him and whatever takes his fancy, relying on the fact that if he finds them interesting no doubt the audience would too. Given his later weight gain (at the age of forty, he’s much trimmer here than he would later become) it’s telling that he spends much of the Viennese episode discussing pastries and cakes and the legendary Sachertorte, as well as noting how much rebuilding has taken place half a decade since he last visited, to make The Third Man. Subtitling was not on the agenda and many of the interviewees speak in English, and often are indeed anglophone expatriates. The series also shows Welles experimenting with the new medium. He foregrounds the means of production, with a camera (often held by Welles) and microphone often in shot. Cutaways to Welles during his interviews were shot later and edited in, and often shots from the same such sequences appear in several episodes. Welles’s experimentation also means that one episode barely resembles the next. The French episode begins with a spy-movie pastiche revealing that Welles and his crew are under investigation.

The series was a success with critics and the public, though the showing of a real bullfight in the Spanish episode attracted controversy. However, no more were made. Welles’s later appearances on television mainly were in the form of a regular interviewee and chatshow guest, but his next work for the small screen as director, host and narrator was The Fountain of Youth, a half-hour for American television, for Lucille Ball’s company, based on a John Collier short story, in 1958. His most substantial dramatic work for television was the hour-long The Immortal Story, made for French television in 1966 and also given a cinematic release.

Unseen for many years, with the Viennese episode long thought lost, Around the World is delightful. What was then contemporary is of course now a historical piece sixty years later, with no one or almost no one we see on screen still alive, Welles included – and especially not the elderly widows and Chelsea Pensioners in the London episode. It’s sustained by Welles’s charisma and evident deep interest in the people and places he meets and visits, but that takes us a long way. It’s also a fascinating look at how one of the twentieth century’s geniuses of the cinema took to the different demands of the smaller screen.

The Disc

Around the World with Orson Welles is released by the BFI as a limited-edition single Blu-ray and an unlimited-edition two-discDVD. The former was received for review as a checkdisc and comments and affiliate links below refer to that edition. Affiliate links for the DVD can be found here. Around the World, being a documentary, has been exempted from BBFC certification. The episodes on the disc are as follows, with a Play All option:

“Pays Basque I – The Basque Countries” (26:07)
“Pays Basque II – La Pelote Basque” (26:38)
“Revisiting Vienna” (26:38)
“Saint-Germain-des-Prés” (26:35)
“London – The Queen’s Pensioners” (27:40)
“Spain – The Bullfight” (27:40)

Around the World was shot on black and white 35mm film, using a combination of a heavier sound-enabled camera and mute footage (soundtrack added later) courtesy of cinematographer Alain Pol’s much more lightweight camera. The aspect ratio is the original 1.33:1. The Blu-ray transfer is from a HD scan of the original 35mm materials. Clearly we are watching on sets far larger and less forgiving than the 405-line sets this would have been viewed on in 1955. Greyscale looks fine, though contrast is higher than a feature film of the time would likely have been, most likely taking account of the far lower definition and smaller size of those TV sets.

The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0., and copes well with the relatively limited demands of the soundtrack: Welles’s voice, music and sound effects. Unfortunately there aren’t hard-of-hearing subtitles available, which is an unusual lapse for the BFI.

As mentioned above, six episodes were broadcast and a seventh was left unfinished. That is the basis of The Dominici Affair (53:59), made by director Christophe Cognet in 2000. This also serves as a making-of documentary for the whole series, and features interviews with key personnel, including DP Alain Pol (speaking in French, with subtitles). The second half of this featurette is given over to a reconstruction of the missing episode, “The Tragedy of Lurs”, which it is revealed was almost complete: new commentary plugs the remaining gaps. In August 1953, Sir Jack Drummond, his wife Anne and ten-year-old daughter Elizabeth were murdered at their home in the village of Lurs. Gaston Dominici, a local farmer, was convicted of the crime and sentenced to death, which was later commuted to a life prison sentence. Dominici died in 1965, still in prison and still insisting on his innocence. Welles and his crew filmed in the village in 1957, just after Dominici’s trial, interviewing locals, several of them participants in the events leading to Dominici’s arrest. The featurette ends with bringing the story up to date (that is, 2000) with Dominici’s death and his family’s continued efforts to clear his name.

Also on the disc is an interview made in 1967 for ATV (the then ITV franchise-holder for weekends in the London region) with Welles by Bernard Levin. This runs 27:52, which would have filled a half-hour slot with the commercials. This is a career overview and shows why Welles – now jowlier and smoking a cigar – was in such demand to appear on shows like this. However, Levin, who rightly introduces his interviewee as a “multitudinous man”, does go into some depth, asking Welles about his working methods, his politics (which prompts an anecdote about then governor of California, later President, Ronald Reagan, which is hilarious with hindsight) and whether he was satisfied with what he had achieved – as you might expect, no.

The BFI’s booklet runs to twelve pages, half of it devoted to a useful overview of the series by Ben Walters. This is followed by credits for the six broadcast episodes (most of which don’t actually appear on screen), credits and notes for the two extras, transfer notes and stills.


Updated: Aug 24, 2015

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