Brecht and Bowie


While David Bowie is still making the news it’s worth revisiting Baal, an hour-long BBC TV adaptation of the Bertolt Brecht play broadcast in 1981. Bowie stars as the title character, a thoroughly disagreeable poet and café singer who ruins the lives of those around him. This caused a stir at the time more for Bowie’s presence than for the content although Brecht wasn’t exactly a popular choice for evening entertainment. Prior to this most of Bowie’s acting had been in films, with his television appearances being limited to song performances or chat show discussions. The Man Who Fell to Earth aside, I’ve been somewhat dismissive of Bowie’s acting at times, his accent and the sheer weight of his musical persona overwhelm whatever role he’s given, but he’s good in this. He throws himself into the role, and is more convincing than I remember him being a couple of years later in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence.


For many people Bowie will be the sole attraction in Baal but for me there’s also the presence of the great Alan Clarke as director and co-adaptor (with John Willett). Clarke directed the cult TV play Penda’s Fen in 1974, and was later responsible for a handful of other notable TV films including Scum, Made in Britain, Road, Elephant (1989), and The Firm, all of which are distinguished by a singular intensity and dramatic power the likes of which is usually only found in the best feature films. Compared to those plays Baal is a minor piece, filmed entirely in the studio, and made deliberately stagey to honour Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt. The cameras keep their distance from the performers, and Brechtian distance is also achieved by the use of split-screen, title cards, and Bowie’s direct addresses to the viewer. If this seems like challenging material for a general audience (never mind the singer’s fans) consider that Baal was broadcast in primetime on BBC 1 when there were only three television channels in the UK. This would not happen today.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin

One thought on “Brecht and Bowie”

  1. The Bowie flirtation with fascism seems to be subtly ignored by the V&A exhibition author

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