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You’re Human Like the Rest of Them: The Films of B S Johnson

By Juliet Jacques.

You’re Human Like the Rest of Them: The Films of B S Johnson

Compared to the fertile interactions between the literary and cinematic avant-gardes in Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union, British Modernism and film was virtually a non-event. Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticists, the most militant movement, scorned the medium entirely; of the British Surrealists, only Humphrey Jennings emulated French counterparts Robert Desnos and Jacques Prévert by working in cinema, and when he did, he adopted a naturalistic style, primarily influenced by the British documentary movement, rather than the Surrealist films of Luis Buñuel or Man Ray. Virginia Woolf wrote one brief text on cinema after seeing The Cabinet of Dr Caligari; Dorothy Richardson and US émigré H.D. contributed to Close-Up, the internationally-minded journal that ran from 1927 to 1933, but otherwise, the inter-war Modernists displayed little interest in the newest art form.

After the war, British critics reacted against Modernist literature’s restless experimentation and celebrated the formal conservatism and measured rage of the Angry Young Men. At the same time, in France, several high-profile authors were finding new directions for the ‘innovative’ novel, and some — notably Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet — took their ideas into filmmaking. Disillusioned with the post-war cultural climate, B. S. Johnson argued tirelessly for a continuation of Joyce and Beckett’s interrogations into the limits of language, striving with his friend Alan Burns to collate a circle of British neo-Modernist writers that would rival those in France.

Few of the writers promoted by Johnson worked in film. Like Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute, Rayner Heppenstall often explored the inner workings of a protagonist’s consciousness, in response to cinema assuming the 19th century novel’s exteriorised narrative function. Ann Quin had no involvement; nor did Angela Carter. Of those praised for ‘writing as though it mattered’ in Johnson’s Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs?, only Stefan Themerson had made films, with his wife Franciszka, the last two of which were propaganda films after they relocated to Britain during the Second World War.

Johnson, however, sustained an interest in filmmaking, with most of his works included in the new BFI collection You’re Human Like the Rest of Them, released to commemorate the 80th anniversary of his birth. Alongside Well Done God, a collection of Johnson’s prose and drama, it forms part of an effort to understand Johnson as more than a ‘novelist’, and appreciate his talent in its entirety. Featuring several short films, agitprop pieces, TV play Not Counting the Savages and several television documentaries that he directed or presented, it is a fascinating package, not least because it shows how Johnson paid scant attention to currents in avant-garde filmmaking, and developed his own utterly distinct practice: like his novels, they are all very different, in subject and style.

You’re Human Like the Rest of Them (1967) was Johnson’s directorial debut — a short film about schoolteacher Haakon, played by William Hoyland, who is painfully aware of his own mortality, and distressed that those around him, particularly his pupils, do not collapse with this shared knowledge. It is often said that Johnson’s voice too closely resembled Samuel Beckett’s — see his contemporary Eva Figes, writing in 2004 — and You’re Human shares Beckett’s concerns with ageing and pointlessness, as well as a similarly stark, detached tone and bleak sense of humour. Little philosophy builds out of Haakon’s despair: a sense that everything is futile can put people, conversely, in a position of power — as it does in Johnson’s novel Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973), where Malry decided to avenge every ‘debt’ he feels that society owes him — but here, all Haakon can do is “make myself … bloody awkward”, ending, like many of Johnson’s works, on a decidedly defeated note.

Johnson wanted to cut on each word of You’re Human, but settled for one at the end of every line of dialogue. This is not dialectical montage — the contrasting of opposing forces through cutting — but Eisenstein’s influence is apparent, as is, to a limited extent, that of the French New Wave. It is worlds away from the Structuralist approach of the London Filmmakers’ Co-op, however, and nothing in Johnson’s published writing on film suggests that he even knew about the Co-op, who largely shared his aesthetic and political sympathies, and who might have provided vital theoretical and practical support.

His next short, Paradigm (1968) was even more Beckettian, its set stripped down to some coloured blocks against a cloudy background, with a discordant tone rumbling throughout. Its opening credits state that it is the ‘international version’; then, a naked Hoyland presents a monologue in a nonsense tongue. Over its ten minutes, Hoyland interprets this invented language remarkably well, becoming slower and more melancholic as his character ages with each cut, but Paradigm was disastrously received at Cannes in 1969: its producer disowned it after Walerien Borowczyk called it “the worst short film [I’ve] ever seen”. In the DVD’s accompanying notes, David Quantick expresses his admiration for the film, and it’s nowhere near as bad as Borowczyk suggested, but You’re Human far better makes Johnson’s point about the inevitability of ageing and sadness of having expressed everything possible, and similar linguistic experiments had been conducted more wittily by Kurt Schwitters, Raoul Hausmann and others fifty years earlier.

Paradigm effectively ended Johnson’s career as an avant-garde film artist, though he made two very short films inspired by his favourite poets. The ICA commissioned Up Yours Too, Guillaume Apollinaire to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Apollinaire’s death: a two-minute animation drawn by John Furse, its visual style recalls Cocteau’s drawings and the Themersons’ illustrations for Ubu roi. It references the World War I head wound that ultimately killed Apollinaire, as well as his late work Les Mamelles de Tirésias and his visual poetry, through a letter B that turns into ‘best’, ‘beast’ and ‘breast’, before the word multiplies and turns into a breast in profile. It’s a strange, slight work, but wryly amusing for those familiar with its subject; one suspects that Apollinaire (who also wrote pornographic novels) would have approved.

The mysterious Poem complements the Apollinaire film. Filmed in 1971, and just one minute long, it was directed by Johnson and narrated by Hoyland, who delivered the last four lines of Beckett’s Quatre poèmes (in their English translation) over shots of derelict London houses and chimneys, litter, graffiti and a woman undressing. Nobody knows who the woman was or where the film was shown, but the juxtaposition of Beckett’s pessimistic text, and Hoyland’s repetition of its signature line (‘I would like my love to die’), with the sad, subtle images make Poem the most moving piece in this collection, its beauty only reinforced by its brevity.

Johnson directed two more short films — agitprop pieces made in 1971 for the ACTT union to protest the Conservative government’s Industrial Relations Bill. Unfair was co-written with Alan Burns, and used stereotypically sturdy workers and crapulent bosses in its attempt to connect with its intended audiences. Both Unfair and March, which documented a TUC demo in Hyde Park in February 1971, are intriguing period pieces, capturing both the relative strength of the unions before the miner’s strike, and, at one point in Unfair, the homophobia prevalent amongst the Left (seemingly imported from Seventies sitcoms), where a decadent capitalist is asked when we might see a woman as Prime Minister, and replies “Oh, I thought we had one now, dear!” Had Johnson lived to endure Britain’s first female leader, and her equally barbaric policies on unions and LGBT people, his sympathies may have shifted.

The rest of the DVD showcases Johnson’s television work. Not everything is featured: The Smithsons on Housing, a 26-minute documentary about Alison and Peter Smithson’s design for the Robin Hood Gardens estate in Poplar, which the BBC found so ‘dour and inaccessible’ that it ended Johnson’s directorial relationship with them, does not appear — although it has surfaced on YouTube and, like Unfair, it is an interesting record of its time, recording a curious mix of detachment and utopianism.

Johnson continued to write for the BBC, however, scripting Not Counting the Savages for its Thirty Minute Theatre strand in 1972. Plenty of BBC broadcasts from this era have not survived, and the copy presented here is in poor condition; the notes tell us that Johnson fell out with director Mike Newell over the casting of Hugh Burden in the lead role, and the finished product feels slow and oddly stilted. Johnson’s range of literary influences was far broader than has sometimes been credited, but the shadows of Orton and Pinter loom too large over Not Counting the Savages, and the relentless non-communication leaves the characterisation too thin for the contrast between the patriarch’s domestic coldness and his life-saving medical work to have its desired impact.

Finally, there are three television documentaries about writing. B. S. Johnson on Samuel Johnson, made for London Weekend Television in 1971, is an absolute revelation. The 18th century Johnson — wit, raconteur and, most famously, dictionary author — may seem a surprising choice for the 20th century avant-gardist, but the chemistry between them is perfect. LWT’s low budget meant there were few frills — and the wretched ‘docu-drama’ format had yet to be dreamt up by TV executives who thought audiences to be too inattentive to follow non-fiction — and so B. S. Johnson provided an intelligent, humorous biography of Samuel Johnson as a public figure, who wrote “when something force[d] him to”, punctuated by various still images.

B. S. Johnson worked as a teacher, and his presenting style is rather scholarly, but his directorial control allowed him to draw empathetic parallels with his subject — and have some fun with the televisual form. Several slogans flash up momentarily, most memorably ‘Publishers are PARASITES!’ after he has explained how certain proprietors, then and now, would treat writers to a “free lunch” in lieu of payment. (If Johnson would be distraught at what’s happened to the unions since his death, he would be horrified at the widening gulf between authorial creativity and remuneration.) There are plenty of fascinating insights — not least that the dictionary was an attempt to stabilise English when Greek and Latin were still seen as the languages of record — and a delicious ending, as B. S. Johnson quotes one of Samuel’s particularly sharp put-downs and simply says to the camera: “Follow that!”

Johnson also presented a BBC documentary on The Unfortunates, filmed in 1969 as part of their Release series. There’s a deep sadness to him, and the programme, not least because his famous ‘book in a box’ dealt with his friend Tony’s early death from cancer. Johnson drives around Nottingham, reading from The Unfortunates’ stream-of-consciousness text, before covering Nottingham Forest’s match against Fulham — the narrator, like Johnson, is a football reporter who hopes that he may cover something extraordinary, like Joe Payne’s ten-goal haul for Luton Town. The jumps between this routine League tie, everyday life and Johnson’s rather modest explanation of his decision to present the novel as a series of unbound chapters to represent the chaotic nature of existence make this a fascinating, metatextual piece of television, where Johnson both discusses The Unfortunates and re-lives the events detailed within it.

The collection concludes with Johnson’s best known film, Fat Man on a Beach, a forty-minute ‘documentary’ — although the word barely feels adequate — directed by Michael Bakewell for ITV in 1973. Narrator Johnson opens proceedings by telling the viewer that “This is a film about a fat man on a beach” and asking, provocatively yet somehow invitingly, “Do you really want to sit there and watch it?” (How could you refuse?)

The mood constantly shifts: Johnson is friendly, then slightly over-enthusiastic, and then relaxes as he remembers his time in North Wales, reads his poetry and considers the mechanics of filmmaking. These changes in tone often spring from the tension between the presenter-led format and Johnson’s bizarre, disjointed monologue, which meanders from in-jokes about covering gaps in film with shots of bananas to a horrific anecdote about a motorcyclist catapulted through a wire fence and being cut like cheese — “a metaphor for the human condition”, Johnson tells us, refusing to restrict his characteristic morbidity for the prime-time slot.

Forty years on, it seems astonishing not that people watched Fat Man on a Beach, but that it got through any commissioning process, let alone on ITV, now notorious for its pursuit of the lowest common denominator at any cost. Given the contempt in which 21st century television holds its audiences, to be explicitly told that “Now might be a good time to get a cup of tea” before Johnson recites his poetry feels like being credited with an unusual level of intelligence — at least, the viewer could opt to refuse to be patronised, and be rewarded for choosing to stick with the host.

Much has been made of the ending, in which Johnson walked fully clothed into the sea, echoing the death of Ann Quin months before filming, and three weeks before he killed himself. It’s difficult not to see Fat Man on a Beach as a valedictory statement, including as it does so many of Johnson’s preoccupations, but perhaps it’s more interesting to speculate on what might have happened had Johnson continued — could he have built on these short films and television programmes to become an underground-overground artist-activist to challenge the horrors of Thatcherism? We’ll never know, sadly, but You’re Human Like the Rest of Them allows us to consider just how close he might have come.


Juliet Jacques is a freelance writer for The Guardian, The New Statesman and others, who writes about literature, film, art, gender and football. Her Transgender Journey blog for The Guardian – the first to serialise the gender reassignment process for a major British publication – was longlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2011.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013.