Monday, June 30, 2008

Television That Dares Question Itself

Last night watched Dennis Potter’s “Follow the Yellow Brick Road”. It’s been a long while since I have seen any of his material, and I was quickly reminded of the reason for this – the thick, pervasive presence of a particularly rank and troubling relationship with matters sexual. In the play, the breakdown this engenders is portrayed as being an immediate result of the Denholm Elliott character finding his wife in bed with another man, but Jack’s deeper sexual dysfunction (the cause of her estrangement) is not explored beyond a few slabs of “insert psychosis here” dialogue.

I remember watching "The Singing Detective" as a child of nine or ten, and in retrospect the dark and unpleasant world of guilty, damaged relations between the sexes had a pretty significant negative effect on my subsequent murky perceptions of the adult world. This is pretty ironic, as one of the other strands of “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” is the media’s colonization of one’s interior space. The main character is disgusted by the permissive filth and Socialist dissent propagated by the beardy TV authors of the day, and seeks solace in the bright clean world of the commercials. This concept also manifests itself in an (early?) appearance of Potter’s trademark use of self-aware dialogue – the character convinced that cameras are watching his every move, and that everyone is speaking from a script. This initially promises to be annoying and hackneyed-in-retrospect, but is actually quite effectively handled.

In the penultimate scene of the play, there is a sense that Potter is working us around to some sort of insight – Jack Black’s obviously ludicrous paean to the virginal virtues of his agent’s young and vacuous wife is the play’s clearest statement about the dangers of confusing imagery with reality, of substituting How Things Are Supposed To Be for how they actually are. Perhaps it is a mistake to look for any clearer enunciation of a tidy message in a play that purposefully sets out to denounce the media’s ability to distort perception – there is certainly an almost reckless lack of resolution (excepting a deliberately hollow pat ending) which is hugely refreshing in today’s environment of micromanaged television narrative.

The play feels like the confused work of a brilliant yet troubled mind. While its themes are hugely potent, they feel somewhat undermined by a lack of clarity in their deployment – Potter himself has commented on the raw nature of this work, and there is a certain sense of being privy to mental processes that are not under the artist’s control. Yet this savage honesty has its own virtues, and one is left to wonder at a time when this complex and fascinating piece of work would be commissioned by a major broadcaster, filmed with a quality cast (Billie Whitelaw! Richard Vernon! Dennis Waterman!) and served up to an unsuspecting public. In recent times I’ve been having plenty of lively arguments about whether television today is of generally inferior quality to the “golden age” of the 1960s and 1970s. “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” - relatively obscure, spiky and provocative and worthy of a sustained ponder - is definitely a valuable piece of evidence for the prosecution.

What else?

The stuff about God, and his disappearance - as a deeply irreligious sort I am perhaps too prone to skip over this sort of stuff, and should perhaps try and weave it into my understanding of the piece. Some of this dialogue was reminiscent of Tom Stoppard's Jumpers at times (as is the ultra-modern set where the two seductions occur). A different loss of innocence, feeding into the sexual / commercial material.

The title design, both of the Sextet franchise and the play itself, is causally amazing.

Our old friend Interiors on VT and Exteriors on Film. So comforting.

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