Archive for June 2nd, 2018

by Adam Ferenz

The British Broadcasting System, or BBC, is known for many things. Low budgets. Reuse of sets and costumes. Accusations of bias from whomever is in or out of power. Doctor Who. Missing episodes of classic programs. But they are, or were, known for brilliantly original and challenging programming for adults, and during the 1960s, two directors in particular stood out. These were Peter Watkins and Ken Russell. While Russell is now the better known of the two, Watkins deserves special attention, because he achieved success with a series of documentary-like works that approached their action, and often their re-enactments, with a reality that even the most well intentioned and mounted documentaries often fail to achieve. Presented here are two films, both relatively short, and both, arguably, among the best or most unique work either artist ever created. Both works stand as testament to the BBC that used to be, when one looks beyond the costumes of the dramas, to the real heart of the matter.

Culloden, by Peter Watkins, arrived over the air in 1964, and Dance of the Seven Veils, after some legal issues, saw its one and only, and greatly delayed, airing, in 1970.

Ken Russell did many crazy movies during his career, with The Devils often cited as his most insane work, and that is hard to argue. Unless, of course, one has seen Dance of the Seven Veils, which is impossible to find in an unbowdlerized edition. His final film for the BBC, and for television, this film can be seen as a bold “f*** you and goodbye forever” from its director. Here, Russell upends the music of Strauss-here made caricature by a director who despised him- and explores themes that today might be considered offensive to sensitive types on the bullying right, particularly their Swastika wearing idols, but such was the bravery and openness with which Russell approached this material.

What we receive as viewers is an impression of Strauss, as hollow metaphor, for a failed view of the world and philosophy of control. In this film, Strauss kills his critics with his music, plays his music ever more loudly to drown out his ignorance and culpability in the rise of Nazism, and, most importantly, is credited as co-writer on the film. Despite being a true story told in part through the unwitting confessions of its subject, the film is not a straight biography nor one hundred percent genuine. Again, it is an impression.

Culloden, on the other hand, is like watching Edward R. Murrow reporting from the battlefield during the Second World War, had motion pictures existed in the 18th century. With this film, director Peter Watkins shows the other way in which the BBC was brave and innovative. Here, the work has a veracity almost uncanny in presentation or feel. Never once does Watkins shy from showing the horrors of war, of speaking of the cruelty and stupidity of both sides of “Bonnie Prince Charlie’s” failed conquest and, when the final card tells the tale of how the Scots were forced to live, everything you have seen suddenly seems to come to you, again. For an instant, you relieve the battle and understand the outcome anew.

This is, of course, a fairly straight forward production in terms of visuals, but it is in the telling that it sets itself apart, allowing the viewer to understand the historical figures, because we “see and hear them” talking to us from the battlefield, and it is never once played for laughs. This is a grim hour plus of television, but well worth seeing. It is worth seeing because by the end, Watkins has achieved what he set out to do, which is to enlighten his audience. What that means is up to the individual.

Both of these films are milestones in television history, and in each director’s filmography. As such, each is thus worthy of being given your time. Some would claim television was only great during the “golden age” of the 1950s, or that it has only recently, or at least in the last twenty years, come of age. These two films prove that the medium, with a little digging, has always offered work as thought provoking and challenging as anything found in a movie theater.

Dance of the Seven Veils can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u7r2JHq7LMs&t=9s

Culloden can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAdlS2Hdw28&t=6s

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