Talking Heads – Clockwise by John Dugdale on About Time from Stills magazine, June/July 1985
‘Films about ideas needn’t simplify or degrade them, or follow a book or script slavishly’ maintains Mike Dibb. ‘You can use the expressive language of film playfully to juxtapose ideas and make them live, And what TV can uniquely do is connect together areas of experience normally kept separate like art and politics or ideas in books and the people they affect. You can arrange a kind of dialogue on film between, say, academics and shiftworkers’.
The most recent and ambitious result of this philosophy is Channel 4’s About Time, a series of six documentaries on ‘our culture’s obsession with time’, made by the production company Third Eye and co-directed by Dibb and Christopher Rawlence, The easiest way to place Dibb for many people is to mention his work with John Berger on the films Ways of Seeing (1972), Pig Earth (1979) and Parting Shots From Animals (1980). Indeed, one film in the new series consists solely of Berger telling various stories on the time topic in and around his house in the French Alps.
But Dibb is much more than ‘Berger’s director’. About Time is the outcome of Dibb’s careful development in more than 30 films of ‘a non-elitist form’, dealing with a range of subjects and ideas.
The foundations of his career were laid when he was studying at Trinity College, Dublin, in the early sixties: ‘It was just before TV arrived there, so there were cinemas all over the city and the biggest audience for film in western Europe. You could see anything American between 1940 and 1960, and all the French New Wave. I became really obsessed, I was seeing two films every day’.
He entered the cutting rooms of the BBC in 1963, and went on to make documentaries on such subjects as Antonioni and Godard (the latter an acknowledged influence on Ways of Seeing, ‘not directly, but in the confidence to be bold with ideas’). His work since 1972 divides naturally between films based on books by socialist thinkers (eg Berger, C L R James, Raymond Williams ) and single documentaries on virtually every art form - most recently on John Ruskin, William Morris and Cuban music and dance.
He singles out Seeing Through Drawing (1978) as the crucial work after Ways of Seeing because it pursued the demystification of art without a central Berger figure: ‘There were conversations, while they drew, with artists like Hockney, Jim Dine and Ralph Steadman, kids drawing various things and amateur adults sketching a landscape, all interleaved and linked by an on-going conversation with the art critic Philip Rawson watching sequences on a Steenbeck - all those different levels of drawing and talking about drawing folded into each other through editing. It was very relaxed and unpolemical, with the idea of drawing as a primary activity, not just for “great” artists’.
The next big advance was Fields of Play (1979/80), which took this method beyond the privileged freedom of the arts documentary into a five x one hour film series on ‘every aspect of play in our lives’. The non-Berger films in About Time have a style reminiscent of these earlier works - the mobile camera, shifting away from the talking head mid-conversation; the questioning voice off-camera, neither awe-struck by intellectuals or patronizing ordinary people; the complex editing, seeking ‘the idiom of conversation’ between speakers; the absence of a simple narrative line and voice-over.
Dibb’s inclinations (‘the voice of authority is something people want, and something I don’t like’) make him ambivalent in retrospect about Ways of Seeing, which was still ‘the guru delivering the tablets - though very different from the Kenneth Clark tradition’.
The structure of the About Time films emerges, he says, ‘from a continuous modification and layering process that goes on as you get different inputs and the films develop in ways that weren’t foreseen. They’re the most collective films I’ve ever worked on. There’s the input from Chris Rawlence, who did much of the initial work, the producer, researchers and two creative film editors – in fact, all the people we worked with and spoke to. You can’t locate the authorship of these films – at any one time it could also be Dora Russell, or a nurse, or a steelworker’.
Dibb has recently been back at the BBC, working on an Omnibus about the American writer, Studs Terkel, to go out this month. For the future, he rules out more directly political work (‘cultural politics are more sympathetic to me’), and would like to move into fiction, with a plan for a musical with Rawlence about Victorian holidays. But his more immediate commitments are to documentary; in the form of a collaboration on a Channel 4 series about television and two more films with Peter Fuller. For the moment, he'll continue ‘challenging the approach of most documentaries by working, as it were, “poetically”, rather than by direct exposition - using a collage of images to suggest how ideas interact with people’s lives and feelings’.
John Dugdale June 1985