Appreciation: John Schlesinger

John Schlesinger's work as a maker of documentaries received disappointingly short shrift in your otherwise admirable account of his work as a film-maker.

John Schlesinger's work as a maker of documentaries received disappointingly short shrift in your otherwise admirable account of his work as a film-maker (July 26), but 45 years on, his surviving colleagues on the Monitor arts programme remember him with great affection and admiration.

He became a founder member of the team, happy to accept Huw Wheldon's offer of an escape from his contract with the Tonight programme, where no item lasted much longer than a couple of minutes. Wheldon saw himself as a latter-day John Grierson, encouraging film as art, and he revelled in Schlesinger's sharp mind and poetic sensibility, a foil to his own military and Arts Council background.

Schlesinger's output between 1958 and 1960 was prodigious. His first film, shown in Monitor's opening edition and soon repeated, was a classic impression of life in a circus; he followed that up (a film nearly every month!) with a loving backstage account of a visiting Italian opera troupe, an acerbic report on the new architecture at the 1958 Brussels World Fair (commentary by Kenneth Robinson) and a deeply felt portrait of Benjamin Britten at Aldeburgh in the year of his children's opera Noye's Fludde.

John had a wonderful way with young people, revealed again later that year in a film about a brilliant student orchestra playing a new work by Walton; also in The Innocent Eye, a heart-melting film about the springs of children's art which won a prize at the Bergamo Festival, and in the 50-minute long The Class, a tribute to Harold Lang's riveting teaching method at the Central School of Speech and Drama.

There was also a welcome satirical streak in John's creative make-up, much to the fore in several of the films I worked on with him. The first (still in 1958) was Backstage At The Rep, based on a fictitious ASM joining the Oldham Rep, and next year his wickedly accurate Hi-Fi-Fo-Fum, about the hype surrounding the newish stereo recording industry, from pop to classical.

Playing the role of an omniscient radio reviewer, I was encouraged to send up the critical cliches (one conductor was said to be making too much play with his winds) while ostensibly comparing three versions of Beethoven's Fifth, actually the identical excerpt. The most memorable scene assembled four earnest young aesthetes searching for the optimum spot to appreciate the new sound equipment as express trains thundered through the living room and ping pong balls clattered from left loud-speaker to right and back, watched equally attentively by the family kitten.

For the record, John also directed a substantial study of four young artists at the outset of their careers, entitled Private View (1960), and an elegant portrait of Georges Simenon (1959) which faifhfully catalogued the writer's obsessive routines preparatory to writing, such as the sharpening of many pencils and the selection of characters' names from the Lausanne phone book, but gave no hint (presumably because he and Wheldon were offered none) of the master's secret sexual obsessions.

I can't say I thought Terminus (1961), John's acclaimed documentary for the cinema screen, was any artistic advance on his Monitor films, but we all knew that his ambition was to work on features. So it came to pass, all too soon for BBC colleagues like me who were learning so much at his side - about the craft of film-making, of course, but also about life itself and the need to laugh at the absurdity of it all.


Humphrey Burton

The GuardianTramp

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