Artemis 81

Hywel Bennett, Dinah Stabb, Dan O'Herlihy, Ian Redford, Sting, Roland Curram.
Film Cameraman: David Jackson.
Design: Gavin Davies.
Painter (glass-shots): Brian Bishop.
Organ Passacaglia: Gordon Crosse.
Produced by David Rose.
Directed by Alastair Reid. 

Again for BBC Pebble Mill, producer David Rose: an ambitious 3-hour venture, originally conceived as a co-production with TV Denmark - hence the Danish dimension to the story.

Gideon, a successful novelist, insulated from reality and emotionally arid, is deeply and ruefully loved by two people: a woman musician, and a man who teaches film. But Gideon flinches from all human contact. From an alien planet, an angel of love descends, to try to unlock Gideon's emotions and save him. But an angel of death comes not far after, seeking to imprison Gideon in his frigidity. At the climax, high within the tower of an abbey, while an organ recital proceeds below, Death's trap is so sprung that, if Gideon succumb to him now, the whole world will be destroyed.

An existential morality, told in terms of Gothic fable, with powerful organ music (coming from the woman's part in the story) and Hitchcockian allusions (refracted from the film-obsessions of the other man). I can see why some disparage it now as a 'pretensh-fest' by a 'hi-aim author' (okay folks, let's all be happy little epsilons and aim low...); but where people positively respond to it, it's to its prodigality with images, and its mythic charge that flows into parts of us that meaner contemporary tv drama (and cinema for that matter) do not even know are there.

1987 New York Film Festival Gold Medal for Screenplay.

I acknowledge that the piece is uneven - in the writing and in the realizing. I feel also that some of the playing lacks inwardness - in a very tight shoot, technical and budget considerations predominated, thus the director had little time to do the deeper exploring with the actors that is necessary, so that they were working mainly on technique. (By contrast, Sting, nervous and awkward in his first 'legitimate' rôle, is moving in this very nervousness and awkwardness - with no technique as yet to trust to, he has to use his emotions.) For director Alastair Reid, I think the shoot was a Hellish experience - especially during the mere three days we had for the Danish location work. On the North Sea ferry there and back, there were shots that he had only one chance to get right. He needed all his commitment to the piece, and all his formidable technical mastery.

Some of the futuristic design is too close to '70s Doctor Who for comfort - but to be honest so was my own technical imagination somewhat limited there. Another feature that dates this piece is that the author doesn't have a mobile phone or word-processor: he comes from those few years where the technological cutting edge for a successful author was the IBM golf-ball typewriter. Some of the film's visual devices derive from features of this machine: the Gothic inscription that vanishes letter by letter backwards, the conversion of text into a symbols code... It's a lesson for an author to ponder, that where my own imagery is at its most original, that's where it is most thrillingly realized: the dream-sequence with its stained-glass window (and vanishing inscription) looking out over the sea; the nightmare city where the deconstructed Gideon is taken to be reborn (Birmingham and Liverpool skylines disturbingly fused); the terrifying cathedral, and the murderous set piece with the couple hiding in its great bell; the alien planet with twin suns... The glass-shots are beautiful and unafraid: the insolent red telephone kiosk on the wild green headland; the monstrous ocean-liner dwarfing the dockside street (an affectionate filch from Hitchcock's Marnie)... There was a lot of good will behind this production. On the creative side, everyone involved gave it everything they had.

Then came post-production. The producer David Rose left BBC to take up a senior post at the then new Channel Four, and although he kept a watch on things, in effect we lacked his controlling presence. I nurse a particular grievance about the editing. The up-and-coming young editor I thought right for Artemis, and who wanted to do it, was not even considered: this was a 'big' project, and so was allocated to the Senior Editor - with whom I was never granted so much as a discussion. On Penda, I had been given reasonable access to the edit and the dub, and my responses had been sought and sometimes acted on. On Artemis I was allowed to see no rushes, no rough assembly, no rough-cut; my first invitation to a sighting was together with members of the publicity department. I protested, and was granted a viewing before that; but it was a formality. As I feared, much had been done to Artemis in the cutting-room and dubbing-suite that I could never have endorsed.

But it had been an extraordinary enterprise, and in its making some beautiful things had happened for me. Among the giants I was privileged to work with here, was one of Hollywood's great actors, Dan O'Herlihy, who had been in Carol Reed's classic 1940s IRA film Odd Man Out and later played Robinson Crusoe for the legendary Buñuel. And there was Sting. As an author not celebrated and not glamorous, I was shy of my first meeting with so iconic a being. Sting reversed the situation with a gesture of true grace: the megastar asked me for my autograph - on the script of an old play of mine he had seen years ago in Newcastle, before he was famous.

Then there was the Hitchcock dimension. For the film-lecture sequence, we needed the climactic 360-degree tracking-shot from Vertigo. (An hommage to it is to occur at Gideon's and the loving angel's farewell embrace.) Even if we could have afforded financially to incorporate that sequence, it was not physically accessible: together with several other mid-period Hitchcocks, Vertigo was under some legal embargo at that time, and not even the old British Film Institute black-and-white 16mm print could be hired, even for reference purposes. Alastair Reid's brilliant solution was to have the film-lecturer draw a story-board of the 360 sequence, and use that for his class. But Hitchcock's sequence is optically very complex: as Kim Novak and James Stewart embrace, the camera slowly circles sideways around them; as it does so, the hotel-room background dissolves to the contrasted background of an earlier embrace, then becomes the hotel-room background again as the camera's encircling movement comes to rest. Our story-board would need to represent that circular tracking-shot precisely, stage by stage as it proceeds. I was working from memory of the film, which neither Alastair nor I had seen for over 20 years. To prepare such a story-board, we needed to study the sequence itself, somehow, somewhere. Through the good offices of a friend in Paris, we were granted a private (and clandestine) showing of the film at the Cinémathèque. Afterward, in an editing suite there, Alastair quickly did sketches of the sequence as he passed it through a moviola while I stood guard at the door.

For the organ music, I specified for the Gwen's audition piece a late work by Brahms, elegiac and troubled. For the climactic scene in the abbey (shot in Southwell Minster) I specified, among the recital pieces, works by Buxtehude and Nielsen (the Danish connection). But for organ music at the climax itself, we needed a customized piece that advanced in short regular modules, growing in intensity, specifically composed 'to' the shooting-script for this sequence, and so composed that the montage of images could be edited to fit it. I recommended Gordon Crosse for this, a composer with whom I had worked before (see music). I devised a twelve-note theme for him, a demonic distortion of Brahms' theme heard earlier, and using all semitones of the chromatic scale once each and in such an order that they evoked an onward-moving classical harmony; on this, Gordon built a passacaglia, an ancient form in which increasingly complex variations build up over a recurring 4- or 8-bar bass that never changes. Onscreen, the music is interrupted at its climax by the catastrophe from the tower; Gordon later composed an ending for it, and now it stands as an organ piece in its own right: Passacaglia: Artemis. He's a composer whom producers and directors should use much more: he understands film, and knows what film-music needs to be.

Alastair Reid went on next to direct a technically much less spectacular piece, The Secret Servant, that quietly contains (in Jill Balcon's confession speech) one of the most remarkable long-takes in the business - a living demonstration that control and mastery do not need to be demonstrative. He also, soon after that, directed the first Inspector Morse - on which he lavishes a skill and a precision worthy of his beloved Hitchcock, and demonstrating something that Hitchcock's mere imitators will never understand: it's not a question of copying Hitchcock's effects; it's a moral matter of framing an image with that emotional accuracy that makes its inner meaning visible.

Artemis 81 is now available on a BBC DVD. It's unfortunate that the DVD's producers have issued it under an inaccurate title: the 81 is as in the number of a distant star, not the abbreviated number of a year. The IBM golfball typewriter featured in the film is my own, and is now in the IBM museum at Chandlersford.