Leslie Megahey, 1944–2022

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TV producer & film director Leslie Megahey died at the end of August but the news has taken a while to filter through to these pages where his BBC TV productions have been the subject of several posts. My recurrent comments about his work were effusive enough for him to send me a handwritten note of thanks a few years ago, plus a promotional card for one of the films in the Artists and Models series. If more of his productions had been available online or on disc I would have written something about them as well, but old television, especially the documentary variety, remains persistently inaccessible to future audiences.

There are biographical details in the link above so what follows is a list of the Megahey productions that, for this viewer at least, made his name one to look out for in the TV listings. Some of these are on YouTube, a couple are available on disc, while the rest have yet to resurface anywhere. Everything here is highly recommended…if you can find it.

Omnibus: All Clouds are Clocks (1976/1991): An hour-long interview with composer György Ligeti. I caught this one on its updated rebroadcast in 1991 when Megahey revisited Ligeti to see what directions his career had taken over the past 15 years. Currently unavailable.

Schalcken the Painter (1979): Another Omnibus film, and a ghost story (after Sheridan Le Fanu) that’s as good as any of the BBC’s MR James adaptations. Released on (Region B) blu-ray & (Region 2) DVD by the BFI.

Arena: The Orson Welles Story (1982): A two-part interview (165 minutes in total) which caught Welles in a rare mood when he was happy to talk at length about his career. The TV equivalent of the huge book of Peter Bogdanovich conversations. Part One | Part Two

Artists and Models (1986): Three drama/documentaries about French painters: David, Ingres and Géricault.

Cariani and the Courtesans (1987): Another historical drama about an artist, Giovanni Cariani (c. 1490–1547). Very much in the mould of Schalcken the Painter but without the supernatural element. Currently unavailable.

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (1988): The best film version of Bartók’s opera. The Region 1 DVD by Kultur seems to be deleted but is worth seeking out for having removable subtitles. There’s a copy at YouTube.

The Complete Citizen Kane (1991): A 90-minute documentary about Welles’ film using extracts from the Arena interviews and the Megahey produced TV series The RKO Story, plus new material. No longer on YouTube (or anywhere else) due to a copyright complaint. This is why I’m always saying you should download these things as soon as you find them.

The Hour of the Pig (1993): A feature film about a medieval animal trial, this one was hacked around by Miramax then released in the US as The Advocate where it flopped. The hard-to-find UK version turned up on YouTube a few days ago.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Men and Wild Horses: Théodore Géricault
The Complete Citizen Kane
Schalcken the Painter revisited
Le Grande Macabre
Leslie Megahey’s Bluebeard

Phantom Cities by The Sodality of the Shadows

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Book by HV Morton (1926) not included.

I like night music, any kind of night music, whether it be the shimmering sonorities of Béla Bartók and George Crumb, Julee Cruise exploring the dark, or the rumbling atmospheres of Thomas Köner. Phantom Cities by The Sodality of the Shadows is night music of another kind, more musically determined than the numerous purveyors of post-Köner dark ambience, with a character defined by weird fiction. The latter quality is perhaps inevitable given the people who comprise the group: Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker have been running Tartarus Press for the past 30 years; Mark Valentine is an author and editor (and occasional publisher) of many story collections, and Jon Mueller’s name has appeared here in the past via the soundtrack CD for the Swan River Press edition of The House on the Borderland that I illustrated. Phantom Cities sidesteps Robbe-Grillet’s Topology of a Phantom City for an older lineage, looking back to Arthur Machen (the group’s name is borrowed from a secret society formed by Machen and AE Waite) and the spectral metropolis of pre-war London photographed by Harold Burdekin in London Night (1934). The music is slow, sombre and reverberant; guitars pluck notes from the embracing dark while Mueller’s drums maintain a funereal pace; sporadic squalls of feedback suggest a deeper darkness, the latent possibilities of unpeopled streets. Mark Valentine had an earlier musical persona as The Mystic Umbrellas but his contribution here is textual accompaniment in the form of 12 fictional pieces, some of which are read by Rosalie Parker over and between the music. This isn’t a collection of readings, however, the album may be taken either as illustration of Burdekin’s photos and the texts or as a work that stands alone. A soundtrack for the longer nights of encroaching autumn.

Phantom Cities
Strange Houses Of Sleep

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Smoke
Two albums
Thomas Köner

Bluebeard’s Castle, 1981

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Filmed performances of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle continue to find their way to YouTube. Clips of this film from 1981 have been around for a while but not the entire opera which I hadn’t seen until now. On a theatrical and cinematic level this performance isn’t as successful as the superb version Leslie Megahey made for the BBC in 1988; director Miklós Szinetár gives us a rather traditional Gothic reading that’s only contradicted by the slight stylisation of the sets. The climactic moment when the Fifth Door opens delivers a simple blaze of white light that can’t compete with the equivalent moment in Megahey’s version when the castle floor opens up and Bluebeard’s kingdom is revealed in miniature. The musical recording is excellent, however, with Georg Solti conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Kolos Kováts plays Bluebeard and Sylvia Sass is Judith. Watch it here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Michael Powell’s Bluebeard revisited
Joseph Southall’s Bluebeard
Leslie Megahey’s Bluebeard

Max Ernst album covers

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The Road To Ruin (1970) by John & Beverley Martyn. Art: Un Semaine de Bonté (1934).

Having already looked at cover art featuring the work of Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, a similar post for Max Ernst seemed inevitable. I did search for Ernst cover art after the Dalí post but at the time there were fewer examples. As usual there may be more than these since Discogs is the main search tool and they (or the albums) don’t always credit the artists. Despite having several books of Ernst’s work I’ve not been able to identify all the artwork so the Ernst-heads out there are welcome to fill in the gaps.

The Road To Ruin was John Martyn’s fourth album, and the second he recorded with wife Beverley. I’m surprised that this is the earliest example, I’d have expected a classical album or two to have predated it.

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Martinu’s Symphony No. 6 (Fantaisies Symphoniques) / Vorisek’s Symphony In D Major (1971); New Philharmonia Orchestra, Michael Bialoguski. Art: Bottled Moon (1955).

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Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartók (1976); Tatiana Troyanos, Siegmund Nimsgern, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez. Art: The Eye of Silence (1943–44).

Bluebeard’s Castle is my favourite opera, and The Eye of Silence is my favourite Ernst painting, so this is a dream conjunction even if the match doesn’t work as well as it did for the cover of The Crystal World by JG Ballard. One to seek out.

Continue reading “Max Ernst album covers”

Monsieur René Magritte, a film by Adrian Maben

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Until the end of his life, [Magritte] preferred to take the tram.

Now there’s an attitude I approve of. George Melly in his BBC film about Surrealism mentions visiting Magritte at his home in Brussels, and we see Magritte’s house at the beginning of Adrian Maben’s 50-minute film about the artist’s life and work. Maben’s film was made in 1978 as an Franco-German TV production but the narration, by Maben himself, is in English. Surrealism seemed to be back in vogue in 1978: as mentioned yesterday, the Hayward Gallery in London staged an exhibition of Surrealist art that year, the BBC commissioned George Melly’s film as a result of this, while over on rival network ITV there was the marvellous documentary about Surrealist patron Edward James who modelled for one of Magritte’s most famous paintings, La reproduction interdite (1937).

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Adrian Maben’s name will be familiar to Pink Floyd obsessives as the director of Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii (1972), and if you’re familiar with that film you can recognise the same shooting style in his Magritte film which deploys similar slow zooms, tracking shots and images sliding in and out of the frame. The music is credited to a surprising combination of Béla Bartók (mostly piano) and Roger Waters, although some of the pieces from the latter are actually by Pink Floyd, there’s even some of the opening of Obscured By Clouds. In style and content the film is as good as anything the BBC were producing at the time, with extracts from a TV interview with the artist, and also some of Magritte’s high-spirited home movies made with his wife and friends.

Magritte and Pink Floyd are a fitting match, some of the Floyd’s album covers could be Magritte paintings rendered photographically: two men shaking hands, one of whom is on fire; a giant pig adrift over a power station. Storm Thorgerson always acknowledged the debt that Hipgnosis owed Magritte’s example, it’s there in the title of the first Hipgnosis book, Walk Away René, and in this short Tate interview from 2011 where he mentions the Wish You Were Here album as being a very conscious Magritte homage.

Previously on { feuilleton }
George Melly’s Memoirs of a Self-Confessed Surrealist
The Secret Life of Edward James
René Magritte by David Wheatley