Sunday, 18 August 2013

Sunday 18 August 1963

At the outset, Living Image feels like it's going to be a long slog.  The opening credits unfold at a snail's pace, accompanied by ponderous classical music.  It feels like an age between the credit "Written by" and the appearance of James Broom Lynne's name.  All this is introducing us to the stately, genteel world of portraitist Robert Manders (Alec Clunes).  The opening line helps dispel the air of gentility a little: "My left buttock is going to sleep!" The speaker is the crotchety, newly created Lord Foden (Kynaston Reeves), sitting uncomfortably in his finery for his old friend Manders (there's a brilliant moment here with a microphone sheepishly ascending out of shot, for those who enjoy such things).

But Manders' quiet world is due to be rocked by something more serious than a grumbling peer.  His beloved son John, also an artist, is returning home from a long sojourn in the US.  Robert hasn't seen any of John's work for years, but knows he's started making a name for himself, and plans to offer him half of his studio (Lord Foden, for his part, is deeply sceptical ofany American's capacity to appreciate art).  Several enormous canvases have arrived in packing cases, and Robert's both excited and anxious about seeing what they're like.  Ominously, John's return is signalled by his sounding of an antique battlehorn.  His eventual appearance, in the form of the beautiful Alexis Kanner, leads to him and his father indulging in the kind of bizarre horseplay you only see in early 60s drama.

Before we can get to know John properly we're transplanted to surroundings as different from Robert's comfy, crowded studio as possible: the ultra-modern, minimalist home of Blackie (James Villiers), John's sponsor and self-appointed art guru.  Or, as John's willowy girlfriend Anne (Elizabeth MacLennan) describes him, "A rich ape, so aware of his own mediocrity that he has to find a talented host he can manipulate into producing the work his own basic poverty cannot conceive".  She's not really a fan of his, despite hanging around with the same group of central-casting beatniks (Bill Wallis, Harry Baird, Clive Colin Bowler).  For this scene Philip Saville's direction pointedly shifts from the glacial pace of the opening to a giddy style as self-consciously arty as the characters and their surroundings.

This lot are heading over for dinner with John, and Blackie's relishing the opportunity of seeing his protegé's latest work.  Blackie, who despises everything the old guard of the Royal Academy like Robert represents, seems just a little bit too exaggeratedly villainous - though this might just be because his goatee and Nehru jacket are now irresistibly reminiscent of the Master from Doctor Who.

Back at the Manders home, father and son catch up.  The pair clearly have an extremely close relationship - it could be interpreted as too close (as John describes his first meeting with Anne the pair touch each other tenderly).  But John's mother died years ago, and theirs is the natural closeness of a parent and child who've faced the death of the other parent together.

But John's conflicted: despite his great love for his father, he shares Blackie's belief in the obscene outdatedness of the old man's style of art.  He tries to phrase his views gently, so as not to cause upset.  "Are you... political now?" Robert asks with deep suspicion.  John shakes his head: "I'm for truth.  Sweep out the old.  Get rid of the superstitions, the pixies, the fairies.  Bring in something new.  The fresh air of truth.  And when that's stale, sweep that out too.  Everything that's effete - chuck it out, bang!"

"Yes... bang," his father muses sadly.

Despite his convictions, John's worried that his father will be somehow hurt by seeing his paintings and discovering how far from conventional figurative art he's strayed.  He doesn't have long to find out.  When Robert heads out for the evening Blackie, Anne and the others arrive.  Blackie's overawed by the unveiling of John's canvases ("You've made me the greatest Prophet since Elijah!")

But Blackie's excitement about John's work just fuels his contempt for the work filling the rest of the studio ("Must be the Berkshire Hunt," he says of a painting of a woman in riding gear, showing off his knowledge of rhyming slang).  He commands his beatnik henchmen to torture John and forces the artist to confess how much he loathes his father's work.

When a distressed John escapes elsewhere to make love to Anne, Blackie runs riot in the studio, callously destroying the work he considers to be the most loathsome of all (not realising it's actually an early work of John's), and adorning Robert's latest painting with an unflattering moustache.

It's now, of course, that Robert unexpectedly returns home early.  John tries to keep him out of the studio but Anne, who realises a confrontation between his opposing father figures (although we're told Blackie was a schoolfriend of John's he appears much older) is the only way to ultimately make him his own man, encourages the older painter to go in.  They enter just as Blackie's voicing his plans to deface a painting of an "old trout".  It's actually John's mother, and Blackie's comments earn him a punch in the face from the young artist.

Living Image is a fundamentally conservative play: while it depicts John as helplessly trapped between the stifling establishment world of his father and the shallow iconoclasm-for-the-sake-of-it of Blackie, Robert's by a long way the more sympathetic figure of the pair.  The play's emotional climax comes when Robert exhaustedly admits he simply can't fathom the art John produces ("I'm not with it"), and, in response to Blackie's jeers explains that it's not just his style of art that's different, but his whole understanding of what art is.  The most memorable part of the episode is his remarkable speech rebuking Blackie and his crowd for their pretensions, wrenchingly delivered by Clunes (who himself is now best known as the father of a famous son):

"All right then, I'm a tradesman, and I don't mind because my work's never had any message or any challenge, and I've never wanted to be an evangelist.  And if I did, I wouldn't try to change the world by painting pictures or putting my fist through them, I'd go out into the world.  Like an, oh, a militant angry saint I'd take a whip to the moneychangers and I'd fight injustice with the proper weapons, with my very life, and not with the weapons of children."

Elizabeth MacLennan's sensiperformance as Anne is also a standout, though there's a tang of sexism in how the character's portrayed.  She's given up her own art in the belief that supporting John in his is more important, and there's a suggestion that she manipulates Robert and Blackie's confrontation in order to free him from both, but keep him for herself.  John's question to her at the end of the play, before they escape into a symbolic garden of Eden together, is singularly charmless "Woman, are you coming?"

Particularly in the case of Blackie and his gang, Living Image now looks risible in places, but it's a thoughtful piece of work, and especially in the case of Philip Saville's direction it's easily hethe most blatantly 1960s thing I've yet featured here at TV Minus 50.

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