Arden / Bond / Sound / Vision

By Sean Kaye-Smith

jane-arden.jpgJane Arden

“...the modern technology of images like cinematography and telecommunication enhances the power of ghosts and their ability to haunt us” – Jacques Derrida in Ghost Dance (Ken McMullen, 1984)

When Vertigo first turned its attention to the work of the British writer, actor and director Jane Arden (1927-82) two summers ago, the prospects for anyone wishing to follow up the article – Unknown Pleasures (Issue 11 | August 2007) – by actually seeing Arden’s films were pretty grim. On some counts they remain so. The two crime thrillers Arden starred in the late 1940s are currently as invisible as ever. Neither film has ever been released on video or DVD nor shown on television. This is not entirely surprising in the case of Richard M. Grey’s wonderfully titled A Gunman Has Escaped (1948); even the copy in the BFI National Film and Television Archive is incomplete. So this sounds like a job for the irrepressible Matthew Sweet, who is already, no doubt, scouring the boots of abandoned Vauxhall Crestas in search of a complete print.

The case of Black Memory (Oswald Mitchell, 1947) is much more puzzling. There is a complete print and a viewing copy in the NFaTA and, in view of the fact that it features the much-loved Michael Medwin and is Sid James’s first screen credit, this historic film is a baffling absence from commercial film catalogues. Even the British comedy expert Robert Ross, who has written an excellent book on Sid James, does not have a copy; so hopefully one of the successful reissue companies, like Odeon, specialising in classic British films will remedy the situation soon. The author has certainly suggested this to them.

As for Arden’s television legacy, it must be presumed that some of it is lost, including the Bobby Howes/Sidney Tafler/Joan Sims comedy vehicle Curtains For Harry (1955), one of the first dramas to be broadcast by the newly-founded ITN, and the gritty Alan Bates drama The Thug (1959), both directed by her then husband Philip Saville. It is quite easy to find Arden acting alongside Harold Pinter in Saville’s BBC production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos, and presumably more Arden/Saville collaborations will emerge when the BBC fulfils its promise of putting its whole back catalogue online. Perhaps this will include the intriguing Exit 19 (1963) in which Arden plays ‘a commentator’ and, hopefully, The Logic Game (1965), the first BBC drama to be shot on film and an important item in Arden’s oeuvre. The latter was shown at the July 1983 tribute to Arden at the National Film Theatre and she seems to have regarded it as her first film.

separation-jack-bond.jpgSeparation, 1967

Fortunately, on other counts, those interested in Arden’s work are about to receive a massive boost as the three feature films which she made between 1967 and 1979 with the producer-director Jack Bond are due to be released on DVD and blue ray by the British Film Institute on July 13th 2009. These are Separation (Jack Bond, 1968), which Arden wrote and starred in, and which is a sort-of sequel to The Logic Game, The Other Side of the Underneath (Jane Arden 1972) and Anti-Clock (Jane Arden/Jack Bond 1979). The disc of Anti-Clock will also feature the 1974 experimental Arden/Bond film Vibration which has been described as a ‘meditation on meditation.’ The features will be shown at the National Film Theatre in a short season between 14th - 18th July and will then transfer to The Cube Microplex in Bristol for 20 - 22nd July.

In the theatre the Midlands-based director Hannah Phillips and her Pink SpaceTheatre Company staged Arden’s most talked-about play, Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven (1969) at the Birmingham Library Theatre in the Spring, and the theatre historian Susan Croft has been looking closely at Arden’s work as part of the excellent Unfinished Histories: An Oral History of Alternative Theatre project. In this connection, a long interview with the distinguished actress Sheila Allen – a long-time Arden collaborator on stage and screen – makes particularly fascinating viewing.

jane-arden-2.jpgJane Arden

Considering the numbing inactivity around Arden’s work over the last two decades 2009 is therefore virtually World Cup Year. And it is particularly heartening to see that Jack Bond has given his blessing to this large flurry of activity. He has responded positively to requests to introduce Separation at the NFT on July 14th and has generously endorsed the Arden/Bond season at The Cube. He has even recorded a director’s commentary for the Separation disc. After Arden’s death he returned to work in Arts documentary – his skills in this area having been firmly established in 1966 with the excellent Dali In New York – and also branched further into pop video. This included the feature length It Couldn’t Happen Here (1988) which showcased the Pet Shop Boys. The film editor Robert Hargreaves, who was sound editor on The Other Side of the Underneath and who went on to work with, amongst others, Ken McMullen and Chris Petit, has said that he thought that Arden’s visions were essentially theatrical and that Bond’s vital role was to make her ideas work in cinematic terms. Interestingly Bond receives some credits for cinematography in addition to producing and directing. All in all, it seems that at last Jane Arden, albeit posthumously, and the Arden-Bond team are being rightfully restored to the culture and perhaps acknowledged properly for the first time.

Without wishing to spoil the party, it cannot be ignored that important and intriguing questions are raised by the Jane Arden issue, particularly about the shaping and recording of cultural history. How could she have done such a significant amount of work in film, theatre and television (whilst also raising a family!) and yet, until relatively recently, be virtually forgotten? How could she have been involved in various professional and personal capacities with such luminaries as Charles Laughton, Albert Finney, Alan Bates, Harold Pinter, Philip Saville, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, etc., and some of the UK’s finest acting talents like Sheila Allen, David de Keyser and Victor Spinetti, and yet be absent from most official histories of both theatre and film? The fact that The Other Side of the Underneath (1972) is the only British feature film with a solo female directing credit should be enough, regardless of its subject matter and quality, to ensure it at least a few lengthy footnotes, but until the BFI began its vital work recently the film was often feared lost. Contemporary reviews declared it to be a powerful, disturbing and profoundly serious work. The 2009 reviews will be very interesting.

separation-jack-bond-2.jpgSeparation, 1967

If the debate could be briefly opened here, it does seem that to take one’s place in cultural history, apart from being extremely successful and therefore un-ignorable, eg. The Beatles or Stanley Kubrick, it is necessary to become one of the ‘pet’ subjects of an influential critic or academic. Other voices will then probably follow suit, even if some are dissenters. (As the Monty Python Oscar Wilde – Graham Chapman – famously said, ‘There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.’). As an illustration, something like this, thankfully, has occurred recently with Mark Kermode’s championing of Ken Russell, who had, distressingly, come to be regarded almost as a joke in the UK, if he was remembered at all. For example, Russell’s masterpiece The Devils (1971) was repeatedly trashed in writings by other critics and it took someone of Kermode’s high profile and courage to stand up and counter this. Whilst we are still waiting for a remastered and restored The Devils, it is still gratifying to see that Russell is now suitably lauded having reached his ninth decade. Similarly, the championing of Michael Powell in the 1970s and ‘80s by people like the writer Ian Christie and director Martin Scorsese restored Powell to his rightful place as one of the cinema’s finest directors and brought renewed recognition to his collaborators like the writer Emeric Pressburger and cinematographer Jack Cardiff. The inevitable hazards are that this process can sometimes charge down the wrong valley and develop into a ‘kings new clothes’ scenario, such as when a very patchy Beach Boys’ album, which was not really finished properly, and which Brian Wilson himself had reservations about, has been regularly declared to be the greatest album of all time (or thereabouts). But it is a small price to pay for otherwise hugely positive results.

separation-jack-bond-3.jpgSeparation, 1967

Daring – and vital – rescues are taking place in all areas of culture, such as Jonathan Coe’s superb Like a Fiery Elephant: The Life of B.S. Johnson (Picador 2004); and the ongoing adventures of Iain Sinclair which regularly include his returns from the ‘badlands’ – often with Chris Petit and a film crew - with forgotten literary figures, such as Roland Camberton or the rock guitarist, book collector and occultist Martin Stone. Jane Arden is back amongst us, but a champion like Kermode or Sinclair would be a major boost for her legacy.

Charles Shaar Murray once said that critical writings are just personal opinions given a kind of bogus authority by their appearance in print, and with this in mind it will be very interesting to view the ‘opinions’ about Jane Arden as they emerge over the next few months. There is undoubtedly the possibility that she will be ignored all over again, but hopefully not. The last words should go to her, taken from You Don’t Know What You Want, Do You? (1978). Discuss:

Night is day…dawn is already here
As the stars appear in the purple sky.

Sean Kaye-Smith teaches Media Studies and English at Ashton Park School in Bristol and is looking forward to next season’s Unibond Premier fixtures.