Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969-1989): Psy-Warriors/Baal

Psychological interrogation and Bowie does Brecht, in Disc 9 of the Alan Clarke box set.

This is one of a series of reviews of the BFI’s box set. For the other reviews, in chronological order, go to:

Half Hour Story
George’s Room/The Last Train Through Harecastle Tunnel/Sovereign’s Company
The Hallelujah Handshake/To Encourage the Others
Under the Age/Horace
The Love-Girl and the Innocent/Penda’s Fen
Penda’s Fen (standalone release)
A Follower for Emily/Diane
Funny Farm/Scum
Danton’s Death/Beloved Enemy
Stars of the Roller State Disco/Contact
Elephant/The Firm

Psy-Warriors (73:08)

The present day. Turner (Rosalind Ayres), Stone (John Duttine) and Richards (Derrick O’Connor) have been arrested for a pub bombing which killed six people, and are interrogated by team of investigators led by Warren (Anthony Bate)…

David Leland (born 1947) began as an actor and first worked in that capacity for Alan Clarke as the latter title character in The Love-Girl and the Innocent. He had progressed into theatre directing as well, working at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. Developed from his interest in psychology and military interrogation, Psy-Warriors was his first work as a writer. It was staged at the Crucible and then at the Royal Court in London. Leland invited Alan Clarke to see a performance. Clarke wasn’t able to, but did read the play. As a result he commissioned Leland to write Beloved Enemy.

Meanwhile, Clarke was trying to interest BBC producers in Psy-Warriors as a television play. Just about everyone passed. Anything related to the Irish Troubles – while the three suspected terrorists in the play aren’t Irish, it’s not a big leap from the bombing they are accused of to actual IRA activity – was a very touchy subject indeed. Finally, producer June Roberts took it on, and Psy-Warriors was made as a Play for Today, Clarke’s eleventh and last in that particular slot. It had its one and only broadcast on 12 May 1981, just three months after Beloved Enemy. It was likely to prove controversial and it was, for reasons I will go on to in a moment.

The bombing Turner, Stone and Richards are accused of is in a pub in Aldershot, with one soldier there for a drink described as entering at five foot eleven and now being three foot five due to the loss of both legs in the explosion. (This is fictional, but there had been an IRA bombing at the army barracks in Aldershot on 22 February 1972, killing seven people and injuring eighteen others, and certainly within the memory of those watching Psy-Warriors on its broadcast in 1981. As an addendum to this, Aldershot is the town where I have lived since 1990.) The interrogation methods are brutal, with bags placed over heads (bags which people have previously been sick in), the prisoners deprived of sleep or edible food, Stone being stripped naked and sprayed with water. This is Clarke direction at its most pared-down, with many scenes shot front and centre, often in sets which are mostly black and white. The first time we are in a room which doesn’t have such monochrome décor, it’s a visual jolt. In the opening shot, we can’t see clearly, as lights are shone directly into the camera and our eyes, and every so often Clarke cuts to black with a metallic grinding noise on the soundtrack. It’s pared down to a fault: there’s no backstory to the people we see on screen, only what we see them say and do. This also applies to the captors and interrogators: they’re men (Rosalind Ayres’s Turner is the sole female character in the play) doing their job. In its way, this is another Clarke study of an institution at work, and a plot twist halfway through doesn’t negate this.

The cast by all accounts found the production as uncomfortable to make as it is to watch. Clarke’s friend and colleague Grenville Middleton thought the play was right-wing, aiming to persuade viewers of the necessity of using torture. Its broadcast coincided with the IRA hunger strikes and it went out on the same day as the death of Francis Hughes, the second hunger striker to die. (Leland, in the extra on this disc and elsewhere, erroneously says that Psy-Warriors was broadcast on the day of Bobby Sands’s death, but that was seven days earlier, 5 May.) The BBC switchboard received many complaints that the play was “IRA propaganda”. I’ve suggested that some of the plays and films in this set stand up variably well as drama when the events they comment upon are long in the past: Nina very well, Beloved Enemy less so. While the IRA’s bombing campaigns are no more, Psy-Warriors hasn’t dated at all. With revelations about Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, it’s no less timely than it ever was.

Baal (63:34)

In early-twentieth-century Germany, Baal (David Bowie) is a wastrel poet, fond of drink and even fonder of women, prone to seducing and abandoning them…

When Baal was announced, it was big news, and it made the cover of that week’s Radio Times. While it wasn’t David Bowie’s first acting role for television – he’d appeared in a 1968 Theatre 625, The Pistol Shot, now lost, and a 1970 short for Scottish TV, Pierrot in Turquoise or the Looking Glass Murders – his profile was far higher in 1982 than it had been. And that was a profile as an actor rather than as a musician, though Baal does draw on both talents. Given the anticipation, and Bowie’s continuing high profile, it’s rather surprising that its first broadcast on 2 March 1982 has been its only one to date. 1982 was well into the homevideo era so no doubt copies did circulate, though I doubt they compare to this new release on DVD.

For those following Alan Clarke’s career – and there no doubt were quite a number of those at the time – his involvement might seem odd. Clarke preferred to work with lesser-known actors rather than star names, often discovering talent rather than drawing on talent others had already discovered. Eleanor Bron in Nina had been an exception, and so indeed was Bowie. It was also an adaptation of a stage play – not one in the classic repertoire, in Britain at least, but a known play by a very prominent playwright, one of the major names in twentieth-century theatre no less. Clarke had adapted the then-living Alexander Solzhenitsyn for The Love-Girl and the Innocent back in 1973, but Baal has more in common with the stage adaptation Clarke had made three years earlier, Danton’s Death. Those two plays are the two of the three works where Clarke has a (co)writing credit, for adapting the play for television, along with translator John Willett. The source plays, both written in German, are debut works by young men: Bertolt Brecht was a twenty-year-old student when he wrote Baal. Georg Büchner not much older. But while Büchner died at twenty-three, while still leaving behind not just Danton’s Death but also Woyzeck, Brecht lived to fifty-eight and was prolific, and is without a doubt one of the major, and most influential, playwrights of the twentieth century.

An important part of Brecht’s technique in what he called his “epic theatre” is the verfremdungseffekt, usually translated as “alienation effect”. This would be a constant reminder that the audience is watching a play. There should be no identification with characters (though Brecht wrote more than his fair share of memorable roles, rather undermining himself as a result), no losing of oneself in a plot, no escapism. Instead, the audience is invited to maintain a critical distance, to think through the implications of the story, to the social injustices being depicted, with a view to political action. (Brecht was a lifelong Marxist.) The means of doing this involved direct address to the audience, music and song interspersing and commenting on the action, placards marking sections or describing the scenes they preface. While not all playwrights share Brecht’s politics, his techniques have been widely influential. Clarke, who had directed Brecht plays in the theatre, was certainly aware of them. He finds televisual equivalents, such as introducing each scene in the play with a split screen: Baal on the left singing and accompanying himself on the guitar, a still image or a caption on the right. The scenes in between show Clarke continuing his experiments with long lenses, placing characters in large and elaborate sets rather than making them stand out from them. In the case of Baal, audiences at the time were expected to think of popular plays like Hanns Johst’s The Lonely, whose antihero finds redemption. To Brecht, redemption is impossible and for Baal there is none.

This production’s relative lack of availability means it has had a lower profile to Bowie’s big-screen acting roles, which began in earnest with The Man Who Fell to Earth. But I would argue is that it’s amongst Bowie’s finest performances, playing to his strengths in a relatively limited acting range. Given that he is playing someone amoral, promiscuous and ultimately a murderer, it’s an asset that someone with considerable natural charisma is in the role, ratty-haired and gap-toothed, and he and a solid supporting cast deliver Brecht’s vernacular-poetic dialogue extremely well. Bowie apparently had to be taught to play the guitar for this role, which may come as a surprise to those following his musical career. (He’s the only credited guitarist on his debut album David Bowie from 1967, though it’s fair to say that he usually left the guitar heroics to others, especially Mick Ronson in the Spiders from Mars days.) Bowie released the songs from Baal as an EP, which made number 29 in the UK singles charts. With hindsight, Baal sees Bowie on the cusp. He was one of the key performers of the 1970s, reinventing himself several times, and anticipating trends as much as following them, from glam rock, to “plastic soul” to European-influenced electronica. The following year, 1983, saw the release of Let’s Dance, in which Bowie embraced the Eighties, and his influence began to wane. If there had been a cutting edge in music, Bowie had been on it almost the whole of the previous decade, but now he was about to retreat from it.

The Disc

This is Disc Three of the six-disc DVD boxset Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC Volume 2 (1978-1989) and Disc Nine of the limited-edition thirteen-disc (eleven Blu-rays and two DVDs) set Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969-1989). As it contains two video-shot productions, the disc is a DVD in the larger set, and a checkdisc was provided for review, encoded for Region 2 only. Both boxsets carry 18 certificates, but the two productions here are both rated 15.

Psy-Warriors and Baal were shot on 625-line PAL video, in both cases mastered from Digibeta copies of the original two-inch Quad broadcast tapes. Both seem sharper than the video-shot works elsewhere in the set (upscaled on the Blu-rays, though these two remain at their original resolution on DVD). But again, this is how they have always looked, even if we are watching on larger sets than we would have done in 1981 and 1982.

The soundtracks are the original mono, with dialogue and sound-effects (and in the case of Baal, the music) clear and well-balanced. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available on both features but not the extra.

That extra is Part Nine of Alan Clarke: Out of His Own Light (19:08). If Part Eight was almost a two-hander, this part is exactly that, with just one person talking about each production. For Psy-Warriors, it’s David Leland, giving the background to his play and talking about the parts of its production he witnessed. Clarke’s very stylised use of lighting met with an enthusiastic response from the technicians involved, with the result that twice the normal amount of light shone onto a set, giving the play its harsh look. Playwright Simon Stephens is on hand to talk about Baal. He translated The Threepenny Opera for the National Theatre, so is ideally qualified to talk about the difficulties of translating Brecht from German to English and praises John Willett’s translation of Baal, in fact prefers it to Willett’s translation of the same play as performed on British stages. He also makes the surprising claim that Baal as a play doesn’t actually work all that well, and that Clarke’s production is the best one he’s seen of it. He’s an admirer of Clarke too, rating Elephant as one of his greatest films. Granted his expertise is in a particularly specialised field, one that doesn’t often turn up on Blu-ray or DVD, but future disc producers could make good use of Stephens.

The book essay on Psy-Warriors is by Mark Duguid, who places the play as the first of an informal “Northern Ireland” trilogy, along with Contact and Elephant, and mentions the IRA hunger strike that was in progress when the play was broadcast. He goes on to discuss Clarke’s shooting style, subtly varying the head-on camera angles and quick, disorienting cutting as the play goes on. Ashley Clark talks about Baal, linking him to a more contemporary figure like Johnny in Mike Leigh’s Naked, a street philosopher whose flair for language offsets a dark, amoral and sometimes violent nature. As someone who had locked horns with the establishment on many an occasion, it’s entirely possible that Clarke identified with Baal to some extent. The book also contains stills, full credits and transfer notes.


Updated: Jul 07, 2016

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