I think I am definitely getting to an age where looking back on the past doesn’t so much happen, as surge into your life at times with a surprising power of yearning and delight. Not for who you were, but for what the experience of a time was like. It’s something which is certainly nudged on by the death of certain famous people from your youth, because when you are young enough these people are like gods that would live forever in a world lit by the same quality of light.
Such was the case recently when the British film director Ken Russell died. I loved Ken Russell and his films, and I associate them with the gleeful passion of the late sixties to seventies. He was iconoclastic and brave and serious about sensuality and opening up to vision. He understood that cinema was magic I’m sure. In that world “artist” was not an ironic word, and personal, direct experience changed lives and drove them in search of meaning and answers. Cinema, like television, was a democratic medium by virtue of distribution and replication (and Ken started off in TV as a film maker). His artistic heroes were human and fallible and extraordinary, and ordinary people were poetic. We watched “The Music Lovers” after his death, and it was so obvious that nobody made films like this anymore. In fact nobody ever made films quite like Ken, but it’s difficult to imagine anything remotely like his films being made now, which isn’t to say that something as good couldn’t be made, but conditions are different, and so are audience expectations. We were, relatively speaking, cultural virgins then.
Another thing we saw recently (with gentler effect) was a documentary from 1971 called The Power of the Witch. This had a lot of unintentionally funny bits, but was certainly interesting to see now, featuring interviews with people like Doreen Valiente, Eleanor Bone and the Sanders, all figures from the development of modern Witchcraft. I think most touching was the quality of the people interviewed who often seemed rough, idiosyncratic and unencumbered by a sense of style which modern media sensibilities seem to decree as needing to be slick, or exhibiting attitude. On film these people were less of a performance than the average person speaking on a mobile phone is nowadays. The documentary looked quaint now, part Hammer Horror, part village policeman, part earnest and respectful. It’s a subject which could still have a good documentary made about it, but I can imagine the allure this had at the time.
Both TV and film have become far more a matter of personal choice nowadays, and I think that has changed how the medium works. DVDs, satellite and cable TV channels and online streaming means you really don’t have to be watching what the rest of the national population is watching at all. How it used to work was if you wanted to see a film you had to go to the cinema and watch it with other people in a large, darkened movie theatre. If it wasn’t at your cinema, you didn’t get to see it until it came on TV, when the premier was a big deal. Films were enormous, and not just a matter of entertainment. The 70s was also a great time for independent film making. As for TV, we used to have a max of three channels (actually two in our household till the mid 70s).
What all this meant was that when you were seeing something, so were a whole lot of other people at about (or exactly) the same time. Film and TV had a real impact on the collective psyche; something that flopped really flopped and could disappear without trace, but “getting through” to broader consciousness was also more definitive. The TV play was a real art form in which the medium was part of the message, because it was part of how it worked.
When “The Naked Civil Servant” screened in 1975 it really made a big impression. When something made a big impression on TV (especially a controversial one) there would be people talking about it at work or school the next day, it would be in the papers, interviews would probably follow, and so on. In short it entered into national life and could significantly shift a little bit of that life. Other plays worked a bit more like modern media, having a big impact on a minority of people who remembered them (eg Penda’s Fen and Stone Tape for me), however as there was not the option of repeat availability and sharing (Penda’s Fen is still unavailable except for poor quality pirated versions), these tended to get carried as memories of the experience of having first seen them, which tended to intensify their natures.
I am certainly glad that choice has opened up and I can now select what I want to watch (I didn’t give up having a TV for twenty years for nothing!), and I’m also glad that it is so much easier to make a low budget movie or record and get it to its self selected audience without losing out and disappearing entirely in the attempt. But when it was good you knew damn well the old style TV and film was not just changing your world, but changing a load of other people’s worlds at the same time, and that now seems unique to a time when a relatively newly established medium was open to breakthroughs and eccentric voices and visions, and a particular kind of reflection going on between artists and the public at large.
I can’t help looking back at Ken and thinking “yes! we did it”, even though it was him and his crews who did it. But we all felt a part of it somehow. That’s what I remember those times doing. And somehow he’ll always be there, in some better, more interesting part of our psyche.