UK Award-winning Arts Documentary Film-maker

Mike Dibb: UK Award-winning Arts Documentary Film-maker


by Mike Dibb

This article appeared in the Independent Producers’ journal PACT, to coincide with the transmission on Saturday March 25th 1994 of The Further Adventures of Don Quixote, made for the BBC 2 series BOOKMARK.

To the Duke of Bejar (henceforth to be known as The Commissioning Editor for This, That or the Other):

“Trusting in the favourable reception and honour your excellency accords to all kinds of books ( henceforth to be known as TV programme proposals ), and as a prince well disposed towards the liberal arts, especially those which have nobility and are not reduced to the service and profit of the vulgar, I have decided to publish “The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha” (henceforth to be known as “The Further Adventures of Don Quixote”) under the shadow of your excellency’s most illustrious name. I trust you will not disdain the poverty of so humble an offering”

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (henceforth to be known as Miguel de Londres Dibb)

Once upon a time I was complacent enough to mock Cervantes’ ingratiating self abasement to his patron. Not any more. We independent film makers are now well attuned to self-abasement. Day after day we send off our programme proposals, anticipating the dull thud of indifference as they flop on to the desks of commissioning editors. And each of our accompanying letters uncomfortably echoes the tone of Cervantes’ humble offering.

The truth is that Cervantes, as with so much in his astonishingly prescient novel, knew what was coming and got it right. He even foresaw Don Quixote’s own cultural after-life. As early as Chapter Two of this very long novel his hero was already aware of impending immortality: “Happy shall be the times and happy shall be the age, in which my famous deeds shall come to light; deeds worthy to be engraved in bronze, carved in marble, and re-created in painting, as a monument to posterity!”. Cervantes’ clairvoyance didn’t quite stretch to the invention of film and television; but I’m sure that, if he had known about them, he would have guessed that a programme about his two great literary characters would happen sometime. He just didn't know when, but then neither did I.

Way back in the 1960’s I was a film editor, applying for a job as a director in the Music and Arts department of the BBC. During one of my interviews I was asked what kind of a film I would like to make. Among other things I suggested a documentary exploring the ways in which the novel of Don Quixote had been reinterpreted over the years, to the point where it was more familiar to people from paintings, music, ballet and cinema than from a reading of Cervantes’ original text; and maybe, I said, this process was turning it into the most famous least-read book in the world. The idea seemed to go down OK, in so far that I got the job. I didn’t however get to make the film; which is why the synopsis I gave to the present editor of Bookmark was dated October 1967.

At the top of this synopsis Humphrey Burton, then Head of Dept, had scribbled in red ink, “We must get Orson Welles as narrator...”, And I vividly remember meeting and talking with Orson Welles in Soho Square about his own ‘home movie’, which he was trying to complete at the time. Of course he never did finish it but, in a way that I never anticipated but now feels appropriate, the film I’ve finally made begins with Welles’ familiar voice and a short sequence from the highly personal and idiosyncratic movie which has now been reconstituted from the un-cut bits of film he left behind. In fact Orson Welles heads a distinguished list of directors who have tried and so far failed to get films based on Don Quixote off the ground; back in the 70’s Sir Peter Hall had a go, today John Boorman and Terry Gilliam are still trying, and this is just in the UK; which makes it rather surprising that the earliest feature film I found in the BFI archive was British, a silent movie, inventively directed by Maurice Elvey in 1923. George Robey, the music hall artiste, played the part of Sancho and the action takes place in a landscape that looks very like the Lake District. Ten years later Robey played the part again, this time singing, in a film directed by G W Pabst which also featured the Russian bass Chaliapin as DQ.

In fact the Russians have always taken to the novel; they go for its melancholy. Dostoevsky wrote one of the best essays about it, quoted admiringly by the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes in his eloquent contribution to my film “It proves that in fiction truth is saved by a lie”, said Dostoevsky, a useful point of departure for the film director Grigori Kozintsev, when he set out to make his version in the political climate of the Soviet Union in 1957. For him (as indeed for Cervantes himself) Don Quixote was an appropriately ambiguous metaphor through which to speak. As the old knight galloped off to challenge the windmills, his words and actions could be interpreted, either (by those in authority) as the embodiment of the idealism of the Communist State, or (by dissidents) as the heroic individual challenging the state’s centralised bureaucratic power.

In fact this most famous of Don Quixote’s adventures takes up barely two pages in a novel of almost a thousand. But it is the image that has stuck and, needless to say, there isn’t a movie that doesn’t include it and the phrase ‘tilting at windmills’ has entered the language, indeed has become the familiar image for all those who feel they know the book without having read it. It certainly describes much of the life of the so-called ‘independent’ film-maker, (maybe our trade association PACT should be re-named PAQT, and re-launched as the Producers Association of Quixotic Traders?).

Centralised bureaucratic power also seems to ring a few bells... when, wherever you look in our industry (in fact wherever you look), more and more decisions are taken by fewer and fewer people. Needless to say Cervantes had something to say about this too~ in the warning given to Quixote's loyal side-kick Sancho Panza, before he goes off to govern the island of Barataria : “If once you taste power, Sancho, you will lick your fingers for it, so very sweet is it to command, and be obeyed.” I'm sure we could all think of people above whose door, we would like to nail that sentence! But, of course, we don’t; and too often in fact we don’t say anything, or rarely quite what we mean. Like Cervantes, though without the complications of dealing with the Inquisition, we comment obliquely on the powers above, preferring to bite our lips rather than the hands of those that feed us (or not, as is more normally the case).

For Cervantes irony and humour were his most potent weapons. Indeed irony touches every aspect of his own quixotic enterprise, from its conception in his mind, to its promiscuous after-life in the imagination of others. Cervantes first sat down to write a short satire on the novels of chivalry so popular at the time; what he actually created was an extremely long, sad and funny treatise on the nature of reality and illusion. Don Quixote looked back to books from the past, but his fictional life is still the most modern of novels. He never existed, yet today he and Sancho seem more real than any other Spaniards in history. Dulcinea lived only in Don Quixote’s mind, yet today you can visit her house in the town of El Toboso. Don Quixote is a story about a failure but the book itself was an instant success. Both Don Quixote and his alter ego Don Juan, (created just 30 years later), are quintessentially Spanish, yet they touch a universal nerve. Cervantes wrote other ‘more serious’ works by which he thought he would be better remembered, but today Don Quixote is the only one of his books that everyone knows.

The novel is a triumph of profundity masquerading as folly. It is a wonderful testament to the unexpected; the novel’s success surprised the author as much as the world. Yet again, there is a lesson for us today, as success in our multi media world is market researched, analysed, quantified and re-packaged (quite often, of course, without success). Don Quixote testifies to the power of the playful imagination, which becomes real in the act of making something new, where the most interesting things are often discovered by chance, and where the best of what is possible only happens because it is unpredictable.

For me as for many others, the greatest sections of the novel are in Part 2 (rather a pity, because many readers don’t get that far). Cervantes began writing it because the first part was so successful. It also allowed him to take ironic revenge on another obscure writer, who had plagiarised him and published an alternative part two under the pseudonym of Avellaneda. So, in Cervantes’ own second part, Sancho and the Sad Knight become aware that accounts of their lives have already been printed; they keep meeting people who actually know about their exploits; indeed they are more ‘real’, both for themselves and others, because their lives have been written and read. It is an astonishing moment in the history of literature. Cervantes has given birth to the first major modern novel and, at the same time, discovered post-modernism a few hundred years before anyone gave it a name!

And one last thing, he did all this when he was over 50, after a hard impoverished life, much of it spent earning a pittance as a travelling tax collector. I heard recently that 90% of the BBC are now under 50. If so I take comfort in Cervantes’ age, and in the fact that Velazquez was in his 50’s when he painted Las Meninas, that most of Goya’s greatest work was produced between 1796 and 1828, when he died aged 82. And finally, to keep it just to Spain, that Luis Bunuel was over 60 when he started directing his last memorable sequence of films. It’s important for us ‘oldies’ to remember this, before we get steam-rollered out of the way by the cult of youth!