Why do you deliberately set out to shock your audience?”, a film critic once asked my father. “I believe in mass therapy!” he answered. On this occasion, it was my mother, Vivian, acting the role of a critic and I, at four years old, playing the role of my father (who had written the lines and dubbed his voice over mine). Shot in our garden, with me wearing clothes from our fancy-dress box and the local party store, it could have been just anyone’s home movie. In a sense, it was. But it was more than that, too. It was an autobiographical documentary for The South Bank Show. When it aired in 1990 it was billed as A British Picture: A Portrait of an Enfant Terrible. If the world saw him as a terrible child he’d get his own terrible child to play him – me.
Naturally, Dad wrote and directed it. And not only did he have the privilege of scripting his own life story as he saw it, but he took the liberty of playing all of his true-life antagonists as well. In our kitchen, he dressed up as the belligerent Army corporal, shouting the very obscenities at a young me that he himself had heard as a young lad. Later, it was his turn to play his own critic, one of the old European variety complete with a cheap false beard, plastic nose, square glasses, and a fake moustache and stuck-on eyebrows. Through a cartoon-ish German accent, he charged that he was a “sex maniac” who had “made sport with the truth!”
Filled with dream sequences composed of fantasy images set to classical scores, he was giving himself the “Russell treatment” so derided by the critics, that he’d subjected the lives of Mahler, Tchaikovsky and Liszt to. In one scene, I was dressed up as an astronaut and told to hold onto a broomstick as two crew-members lifted me several inches off the ground. I was zooming off into outer space. It was symbolic of his conversion to Catholicism which, at the time, he saw as a science-fiction adventure where rosary beads were a cosmic communication device to the great spaceman himself, God. Now, at least, the critics couldn’t say he was inconsistent.
My mother-as-critic went on to say: “You virtually invented the drama-documentary and you’ve had many imitators. The genre is now exhausted. What next?” My written line was a single word, “satire”. But, for whatever reason, I wouldn’t say it. I can remember the scene itself vividly – my mum pleading, with bribes, my father yelling louder and louder as his skin turned that distinctive hue of purple of whenever he lost his temper, the cameras waiting and costing, and finally tears and a tantrum of my own – but without revealing the reason for my refusal. Somehow the word eventually formed in my mouth and came out in a choked whisper but the incident was never forgotten. My sister Molly drew a large crayon picture of the scene, complete with both speech bubbles and thought bubbles of the entire cast and crew, that Dad hung above the staircase in his cottage until it burned down in 2006.
The question and answer was a segue to frame the transition from his more traditional docudramas, such as those on Delius, Elgar, and Isadora Duncan, to his flamboyant 1972 biopic of Richard Strauss. He described Strauss’s music in the voice-over as an “overblown domestic symphony where he set his family life to music”. Dad’s interpretation was literal. One scene begins with Strauss making love passionately only for the camera to pull back and reveal a full orchestra crammed into the bedroom.
The irony is that, while Strauss put domesticity into music, Dad put movie-making at the heart of his domestic life. We lived in the Lake District, a National Park carved out of lakes and mountains in northern England. He’d filmed everything he could there; black-and-white gems in the 1960s for the BBC, the Hollywood pictures Mahler and Tommy, a television drama series on William and Dorothy Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the 1970s, a pop video for Cliff Richard, and DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow in the 1980s. The interior of the cottage was pure production design for a Victorian period piece. A large antique organ was the centrepiece of the living room, flanked by five-foot angels on the walls. Most important were the two enormous speakers that would provide the score to our everyday domesticity. After I came home from school, we’d play with elaborate steam-train-sets he had built in a small hut. Even these toys didn’t escape his cinematic imagination: they were a staple feature of his films, in Savage Messiah, The Music Lovers and others.
None of this is surprising. After all, the line between director and father is slim. Movies, like families, are patriarchal. Perhaps I didn’t say “satire” because I was just entering a typically Freudian Oedipal struggle. Or maybe his contrarian genes were maturing in me at a comically coincidental moment. Either way, the satirist found himself in his own satire: the controlling director who could not control his actor, or his son. Which, I guess, is what satire is all about.
This article originally appeared in the UK’s Independent.
A British Picture is available for watching on youtube: