Fitting image by Geoff Dyer from The New Statesman, 1986
Mike Dibb has made films with John Berger, Raymond Williams, Charles Tomlinson, Peter Fuller and C. L. R James; he has made programmes about Cuban culture, drawing, cinema, literature and sport; he has made series about art, time and the nature of play. He is a socialist and one of the most innovative film makers working in television.
Until then, television’s coverage of cinema had been negligible; Dibb directed films on Antonioni, Renoir and Godard. He also made films about painters and in 1972, in collaboration with Berger, he directed what has become the most provocatively influential series on art ever made for British TV: Ways of Seeing.
Although most people’s contact has been with the book of the same name, rather than the series, Ways of Seeing is, before anything else, superb television. Berger’s commentary is unswervingly didactic and polemical; camerawork and editing are deft, suggestive and delicate. What later emerge as distinct hallmarks of Dibb’s style are already there in fairly developed form in 1972.
He has a masterly knack for visual argument. Discussion is not decorated with images but constructed through them. Ideas are turned into compelling narrative, enacted through editing and juxtaposition rather than simply explained. Sound and vision tug at each other, coaxing out extra significance. An image slightly precedes the word that will explain it. You watch in a state of perpetual expectation which is simply another phrase for active absorption -following clues instead of being led by the nose. In a film made later, the painter Robert Natkin talks of using the tongue of his eye; Dibb’s is an eloquent eye.
Such visual agility does not exist for its own sake (if Dibb has a weakness, it is for a too contrived detachment, a too pointed casualness) but as a means of discovering the full expressive content of his subjects. The series About Time (1985), directed by Dibb and Christopher Rawlence, tries to find visual equivalents for synchronous, dislocated, non- sequential temporal rhythms; Seeing through Drawing (1978) attempts to contain the patient labour of artists sketching; a film about the squash player Jonah Barringron (1976) concentrates on the tension on his face, the muscles straining in his legs, and attempts through swiftly changing camera angles to make the viewer participate in the game’s sweat-drenched strategies.
Dibb is distinguished not just by his filmic skill but by his intellectual sensitivity, range and depth. He does not make film profiles of artists or writers; he makes films with them, developing and expanding on their ideas. He doesn’t simplify, he elaborates, foregrounding politico-cultural issues usually ignored by television. His film about Natkin examines the relation between artist and critic, art and psychoanalysis through the writing of Peter Fuller. A film on Alicia Alonso and the Culban National Ballet explores the uses to which high culture is put in post-revolutionary Cuba.
What then of Dibb’s own work in relation to a larger framework of cultural representation in the mass media? While arts coverage on TV has always been ostensibly flexible, the ideological underpinning of the consensus of taste within broadcasting has meant that he has been working, tacitly, against the grain. Even after the success of Ways of Seeing, Berger and Dibb’s next project - based on Berger’s study of migrant labour, A Seventh Man - was blocked. Dibb’s series Fields of Play, first proposed in 1969, was not made until 1980; his film with Raymond Williams of The Country and the City was proposed in 1973 and eventually squeezed into a documentary series six years later.
If Dibb now enjoys considerable freedom it is not only because he has managed to create a space for himself within an existing cultural formation; it is also because of a more general shift in the orientation of cultural broadcasting – a shift to which Dibb has himself contributed. Arena (and its one-time editor Alan Yentob - now head of Music and Arts) has enjoyed considerable prestige as an arts forum but that position of prominence grew out of a tradition forged by editors like Leslie Megahey (Omnibus) and producers like Dibb. By making programmes, in other words, Dibb has also helped prepare a platform for this own and other people’s programmes.
Similarly, Dibb’s work has always shown the influence of theorists such as Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall. Such figures have been a marginal influence on the BBC (which Dibb left to go independent in 1983) but are much more central to the orientation of Channel 4. A liberal view may see Channel 4 as representing the institutionalisation of this alternative/dissenting cultural tradition; a harsher view sees it as having been simultaneously marginalised.
‘Radical’ film makers were active in the planning of Channel 4 but once it came into existence they became (not surprisingly) preoccupied with making their individual programmes. While producers can enjoy some new editorial freedom within Channel 4, the larger aim of changing the cultural prerogatives of broadcasting as a whole remains remote. That can only be worked towards through an informed alliance of editors, producers, previewers, critics and viewers. The Left is still developing this kind of integrated strategy, but already the work of Mike Dibb can be seen as having set a pioneering example.