Beyond the Fourth Wall: Experiments in TV Drama: David Bowie in Baal (BBC, 1982)

Alan Clarke’s television production of Bertolt Brecht’s play Baal (BBC1, 2 March 1982) is being screened as part of the ‘Beyond the Fourth Wall: Experiments in TV Drama’ season at BFI Southbank on Friday 30 November. Booking details can be found here. Billy Smart, author of ‘Brechtian Television: Theatricality and Adaptation of the Stage Play’, considers the unique style and qualities of this production:

The play

Baal was Brecht’s earliest play, written in 1918 as a student diatribe against Hanns Johst’s expressionist piece The Lonely One. Satirising Johst’s tale of an unacknowledged artist who redeems his dissolute lifestyle and dies at peace with the world, Brecht created in Baal a monster of sensuality and self-gratification, a ribald, drunken strolling player named after a bestial pagan deity. Despite his repulsive appearance and egocentric amorality Baal is irresistible to women, which makes him envied, admired and despised by men. He seduces every girl who comes his way before abandoning them to pregnancy or suicide, and finally murders his best friend, goes on the run and dies alone in a woodcutter’s cottage.

 (Pegg, 2002, pp. 461-2)

The 1982 production

Because it was made in 1981, the technical opportunities and mode of production available for Baal’s director, Alan Clarke, were more flexible than those used by previous directors of Brecht’s plays for the BBC, Rudolph Cartier (World Theatre: Mother Courage and her Children, 1959) and Charles Jarrott (Festival: The Life of Galileo, 1964). Clarke had the opportunity to re-edit the piece extensively in post-production, as had become customary in the production of studio television drama (Jacobs, 2000, p. 24), an innovation that might encourage the creation of the “Brechtian television” that had been called for by John McGrath, Ken Loach and others in the 1960s. Clarke’s production achieves its Brechtian distancing effect through montage and editing in places, but is also committed to the perceived virtues of ‘as live’ recording, featuring long scenes of continuous performance unfolding. However these long scenes are shot in a completely different way to Charles Jarrott’s intimate directorial style in Galileo, and show how the ‘as live’ studio mode of production could be used to create a mood of objectivity and detachment on the part of the viewer, instead of being used to create empathy.

The role of Baal required a charismatic performer who could sing, and who was prepared to play an unattractive character. Clarke’s initial preference for the role was Steven Berkoff, but he was persuaded out of the choice because Berkoff would present too unambiguous a sense of social origin for Baal (Kelly, 1998, p. 138). Instead, David Bowie was chosen, whose singing, background in mime[1] and ability to adopt the role of outlandish and outsider characters made him well qualified to fulfil these criteria. Having a major international star in the production undoubtedly changed the circumstances of its marketing and reception, the play being billed as David Bowie in ‘Baal’. This promotion of star over play[2] led to questioning of the BBC’s values in several quarters (Sunday Times review 7 March 1982, quoted in Pegg, 2002 p.463, Gardner and Wyver, 1983, p. 126). Bowie also capitalised on the production by releasing an EP of re-recordings of the five songs featured[3]

The inclusion of David Bowie altered perceptions of the play, and probably helped to militate against it being seen as a mainstream television production. Although David Bowie was a hugely famous performer by 1981, he was still largely perceived as a cult figure, rather than as a popular entertainer[4] or as a conventional actor, his two major roles previously having been as an extraterrestrial in The Man Who Fell To Earth (dir. Nick Roeg, 1975) and as the deformed Elephant Man on Broadway (1980). This meant that unlike Mother Courage (with Flora Robson) or Galileo (Leo McKern), Baal was a production whose casting worked differently for two different sets of viewers; a pop audience, and a general one.

Bowie’s participation in the production was due as much to the status of Alan Clarke as to that of the play, Bowie having seen Clarke’s 1979 film version of Scum and responded with enthusiasm (Fenwick, 1982, p. 7). Clarke occupied a difficult position within the hierarchy of the BBC by 1981, as being one of the most prestigious and talented directors working for the Corporation, but also one of the most contentious, this difficult relationship between director and institution having reached a critical point with the decision of Alistair Milne, the BBC’s director General, not to screen Clarke’s original television film of Scum in 1977, ostensibly on the grounds of excessive violence and presenting an exaggerated picture of the failings of the borstal system (Kelly, 1998, 103-5). After this incident, Clarke’s work for television became more uncompromising and nihilistic, culminating in the exceptionally violent and bleak television films of Elephant (BBC2, 1988) and The Firm (BBC2, 1989)

Clarke’s production can be seen as the second part of a pair of complementary works, following on from his 1978 Play Of The Month BBC1 production of Georg Buchner’s 1835 early modernist play Danton’s Death. Both plays share a similarity of style and theme; written by very young authors, they present a bitter view of human existence as being a struggle to preserve the life force, in Buchner in the dialectic of revolutionary principle that results in Robespierre staying alive at the expense of Danton, and in Brecht, through Baal’s amoral use of others for his own gratification, particularly women. The depiction of this struggle can give both plays a harsh, cold, feel for the viewer, and the two plays are possibly the most scabrous, bleak and cruel theatrical adaptations ever transmitted on BBC1[5].

Clarke’s production of Danton’s Death accentuates this mood by using the studio of Television Centre One in a way unlike almost any other drama, using design, groupings and camera technique to emphasise its artifice and great scale. The production was shot on long lenses, in a way common in film but rarely used in television, breaking away from the familiar visual grammar of “zoom lenses and it’s all close-ups, mid-shots, one-shots” (Stuart Walker, the production’s designer, in Kelly (ed.), 1998, p. 110). With the use of narrow lenses, the cameras were never closer to the actors than fifteen yards away, changing the nature of performance, and the extent to which it was mediated by the director, with actors less aware of which camera they were performing to, and crew on the studio floor uncertain as to what Clarke was shooting unless they were looking at monitors (Kelly, 1998, p.110). The play’s producer, David Jones, described the effect of this process as achieving “a cool, detached feel” (Kelly, 1998, p. 110)

This sense of detachment was augmented by the production’s design, which attempted to give definition to the large-scale scenes enacted by the use of bright chiaroscuro lighting, concentrating on whites, greys and blacks, with very little primary colour (often used for tricolour flags), which created a sense of defined and shaded outlines for both performers and sets that recreated the effect of eighteenth century engravings (Kelly, 1998, p. 110). For his production of Baal, Clarke continued to use the methods of direction and design that he had innovated in Danton’s Death.

Play of the Month: Danton’s Death (BBC, 1978)

The source play Baal has as much dissimilarity of form and structure with Mother Courage and Galileo as it shares with them, especially in the 1918 first draft version (unpublished in English translation[6]) that Clarke chose to use. The play contains a multiplicity of scenes of varying length (unlike the 12 scenes of Mother Courage or the 15 of Galileo). The nineteen year old Brecht created a world which is more defined by a sense of non-realism than his later works, where, although scenes may be parodic or melodramatic in register, they are based around realistic situations of human power relationships (for example, Mother Courage’s bartering or the aged Galileo’s feigning of senility may require levels of theatricality that would be improbable if applied in real life, but the intention of Mother Courage and Galileo in acting in such a manner is established to the audience as being real).

The story of Baal operates on a much more mythic level than those of Mother Courage and Galileo. While their journeys are defined by the need for money, patronage or safety, Baal’s actions are defined by a more abstract life-spirit. Speirs (1987, p. 18) suggests that the play should be seen as a realisation of the struggle between Eros (life) and Thanatos (death) through the actions and figure of Baal. Baal is much closer to the bardic tradition of epic theatre than Brecht’s later plays in realising this struggle through poetic language that contains a complex series of codes dramatised through imagery, not incident; Baal continually talks of either trees (functioning as symbols of life), rivers (which function as symbols of life’s transience and the force of death) and, especially, the sky (the changing colours of which indicate the ever-changing fortunes and circumstances of life) (Speirs, 1987, p.18, Pegg, 2002, p. 462).

To realise this poetic sense of life-essence, Baal is a play which is realised through an expressionist realisation of the stage, which is intended to function not as a realistic representation of the world, but as a spiritual or intellectual space, reflecting Baal’s own thoughts and reflections. The play’s rapid sequence of short scenes required a sparse and flexible stage layout, realised in its 1923 Leipzig premiere through the use of a cyclorama (curved backdrop), a design used again by Brecht for Mother Courage. Where the two plays differ is that Mother Courage is a play entirely set in exteriors (battlefields and camps), while Baal is largely set in interiors (dining rooms, attics and inns), leading towards scenes of Baal’s flight and death in the forest. While a theatrical audience are aware of the representative space of the stage, a television audience are more familiar with naturalistic staging, from the great majority of television drama.

Clarke staged the play by using very large, representative sets shot through narrow lenses for the interior scenes, with entirely non-representative tunnels of gauze for the countryside (Kelly, 1998, p. 138). The juxtaposition between these two settings is less jarring than might be expected, due to the blurred sense of reality in the interior scenes. Speirs suggests that a Baal’s essence is communicated through the imagaristic language of Baal “making the surface of social relationships transparent, revealing the mythical conflict underlying it” (1987, p.18). Clarke’s use of the television studio, and design aesthetic, accentuates this sense of non-realism. The large sets are detailed, highlighting shade and shadow, and convincing, but are also disconcertingly expansive. Baal’s attic is first shown to the viewer[7] in an extensive wide shot that shows it to be on the scale of a warehouse, rather than a garret.

While this view allows the viewer to take in the scale of detail of such a large space, it also serves to alienate them from the human situation of the characters, dwarfed by their surroundings. Clarke’s long lens shooting of interiors also works to highlight the story’s mythic properties in the first scene, where Baal disrupts a bourgeois party held in his honour by a rich patron, Mech, by seducing his wife. The scale of the dining room allows the viewer to observe the full figurative movements of both Baal and Emilie, and to give the figure of Emilie a great symbolic weight in the composition of the entire scene, by making her pale dress the only point of light in a dingy room.

The lighting is also made deliberately artificial and theatrical at points in the production, noticeably when  a curtain is opened and the studio lights bounce up, quite deliberately, a second later, or when Baal switches the stage lights off to sing.

The distancing effect of the near-continual use of long shot is well illustrated by the climax of the scene[8] backstage at ‘The Night Cloud’, the club where Baal has scandalised and excited his audience by performing a salacious song[9] on stage with his lover Sophie. The chaotic and confused reaction to this performance is shown through the room becoming crowded with various nightclub figures (dwarfs, showgirls, drinkers, the club owner, a drug addict) each responding volubly to the event in a series of monologues that express their own concerns. Clarke’s decision to show this scene in long shot discourages the viewer from forming any understanding of the individual motivations of these characters, but to follow the chain of events in the room instead.[10]

The structure of Baal operates around a more confused chronology than that of Mother Courage or Galileo. Whilst the scenes of Baal’s life are presented chronologically they are broken and framed by the narration of Baal himself, each scene being heralded by a chorus of ‘Baal’s Hymn’, in which Baal refers to himself in the third person, singing in the past tense about the events which the viewer is about to see. This device confuses notions of past and present and their understanding of Baal as a character for the viewer, emphasising both the intensity of his experiences that are enacted, and his detachment from them as a poet. Each scene is also given a title through a caption (such as “Baal abandons the mother of his unborn child”).

Advances in studio technology meant that Clarke had opportunities to realise this narrative that would not have been available before the introduction of sophisticated post-production. Few of the songs in Rudolph Cartier’s 1959 production of Mother Courage are used because they would have to be separately recorded and orchestrated in a sound studio and then mimed in an ‘as live’ production, an effect liable to be unconvincing (the two songs which are used being shot in filmed inserts, where shots could be pieced together in the cutting studio). Clarke could record all of the verses of ‘Baal’s Hymn’ in one session, and then interpolate them into the recording of the play. These scenes were recorded of David Bowie against a red background, addressing the viewer directly by looking into camera (the only times that Baal does this in the production), accompanying himself on banjo[11]. Whenever the song is sung, the screen is split into two halves, the other half displaying a picture of the sky or a forest, sometimes overlaid with a caption.

The split screen effect becomes more prevalent in the later, exterior scenes of the play. With the studio representing a forest through tunnels of gauze, a sense of location is provided only through the dialogue in the live action half on the right of the screen and the symbol on the left. The effect is not dissimilar to the picture behind a newsreader during a bulletin, acting as an aide-memoir to the viewer of where the action is taking place, but the repetition of the same unremarkable pictures means that the poetic imagery in the dialogue has to do most of the work in engaging the viewer’s imaginative powers. A similar effect is achieved during the only other song of the five in the production to be sung by Bowie separately to camera, rather than performed as part of the diegetic action of a scene, ‘The Drowned Girl’, where the right hand side of the screen is filled with a freeze-frame of the face of Johanna (Tracy Childs) underwater.

The boldest use of postproduction technology occurs in the scenes in the forest, where Baal’s dialogues with his friend Ekhart (Jonathan Kent) are conducted entirely on the march, with the two men performing their dialogue while “repeatedly walking towards the camera, cutting back to the start of an identical shot each time they reach it” (Pegg, 2002, p. 463).

The effect of this is to concentrate the viewer’s understanding of space and time, making how and where the dialogue is supposed to follow uncertain, and to accentuate the physicality of the act of marching and how the two men respond to each other. This is a form of montage, but one specific to the conditions of a television studio draped with gauze. In a filmic location treatment of the same idea, the background and lighting would be liable to have changed from shot to shot, giving an idea of the men’s progress through the forest space.

Clarke’s production had the misfortune to be scheduled against another high-profile stage adaptation on ITV, John Mortimer’s A Voyage Round My Father (Thames, 1982), starring Laurence Olivier and Alan Bates. The aesthetic of this production[12] is almost a parallel opposite of Baal, being shot on location on film, telling a linear story through the familiar convention of voice-over, and being reliant upon the star personae and charm of the leads to create a sense of empathy on the part of the viewer.  Critics made unfavourable comparisons between the two productions, most emphatically Hilary Kingsley in the Daily Mirror:

It seems daft to say we had a contest between Lord Olivier, our greatest living actor, and David Bowie, professional weirdo, rock idol and actor on TV last night. (…) Baal was a total flop. I cannot believe even the most besotted of David Bowie’s fans could have tolerated more than a few moments of it. The hero, a tramp-poet haunting German society in 1912, was rotten in every sense – a drunk, a slob, a know-all, a seducer, a murderer, who apparently decomposed before our eyes. That the BBC could spend a small fortune on this repulsive and rightly ignored tableau is a cause for top level concern

(Kingsley, Daily Mirror, 3 March 1982, quoted in Pegg, 2002, p. 463)

Clarke’s use of the studio and casting had proved effective in creating an alienating and objective understanding of Baal on the part of the viewer, though this uncompromising, highly stylised reading also resulted in a sense of hostility and bafflement towards the play on the part of some viewers and critics.


Bowie, David, Baal’s Hymn (EP), RCA (RCA BOW 11), 1982.

Brecht, Bertolt, Plays I, London: Methuen, 1970.

Brunsdon, Charlotte, ‘Problems with Quality’, Screen, 31/1, 1990, pp 67-90.

Fenwick, Henry, ‘The man who fell for Brecht’, Radio Times, 27 February 1982, pp 6-7.

Gardner, C. & Wyver, John, ‘The Single Play: An Afterword’, Screen, 24/4-5, 1983, pp. 125-30.

Kelly, Richard (ed.), Alan Clarke, London: Faber, 1998.

Pegg, Nicholas, The Complete David Bowie, London: Reynolds & Hearn, 2002

Speirs, Ronald, Bertolt Brecht, London: Macmillan, 1987.

[1] He had recently completed a six month Broadway run of The Elephant Man. Clarke’s preference for long shots and crowded groupings suited a performer with a background in physical theatre.

[2] See, for example, the Radio Times publicity for the play, with Bowie on the cover and accompanying feature ‘The man who fell for Brecht’ (Fenwick, 1982) concentrating on Bowie’s domestic life.

[3] The unmelodic nature of the music meant that this was only a minor hit, reaching number 29 in the singles chart.

[4] This perception changes in 1983, with Bowie’s album Let’s Dance and its attendant singles, which were not associated with the creation of an outlandish persona as previous stages of Bowie’s career had been, and which formed the most commercially successful period of his pop career, attracting a wider audience than previously. Also in 1983, the film Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (dir. Nagisa Oshima, 1983) presented Bowie for the first time in a leading role in a comparatively conventional film.

[5] See BBC WAC R9/152 (VR/78/209) for viewers’ complaints about the coarse and depressing nature of Danton’s Death.

[6] Because of this, where I have referred to scenes, they are taken from Peter Tegel’s translation of the 1922 production (in Brecht, 1970)

[7] In Scene 4(i) of the 1922 version (Brecht, 1970, p. 17)

[8] Scene 7 in the 1922 version (Brecht, 1970, pp 27-9)

[9] Called ‘The Dirty Song’ on the Baal’s Hymn EP (Bowie, 1982)

[10] For an example of adverse viewer reaction to this technique, Joan Bakewell’s review of Danton’s Death in the Times (24 April 1978) suggests that having to watch multiple groupings in shadowy lighting is confusing and hard to follow.

[11] The onscreen music for ‘Baal’s Hymn’ is extremely rudimentary, as Bowie could not play the instrument (Kelly, 1998, p. 138)

[12] A Voyage Round My Father fulfils all of Charlotte Brunsdon’s (1990) signifiers of quality; a literary source, “the best of British acting”, money spent and a clear sense of Englishness that could be exported. Baal fulfils only some of these criteria, and less overtly.

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7 Responses to Beyond the Fourth Wall: Experiments in TV Drama: David Bowie in Baal (BBC, 1982)

  1. John Wyver says:

    Billy, this is an excellent post, which (to my shame) I only discovered after I’d written my own post on Baal, which is here

    I particularly appreciate your comparison with Clarke’s extraordinary Danton’s Death, and your comments on the sense of space and time in the later, exterior scenes of the adaptation.

    One footnote: I believe the first broadcast was 2 March 1982 (not 29).

  2. Pingback: David Bowie in Baal (BBC, 1982) « SCREEN PLAYS

  3. Mel says:

    Another very interesting post…I did plan on going to Southbank to watch this but didn’t make it. Friends who did make it however, didn’t seem overly impressed =/ Great post though – keep them coming!

  4. Vivien Haines says:

    I remember this vividly as a perfect interpretation of Brecht for television. This blog also fills in superb analysis.

    My main question is where can I gat a copy of the TV production. The music is available but the actual televised production is not to be found anywhere. This is a great loss to students and lovers of Brecht, Drama and German. Please let there be a record of it somewhere.

  5. billysmart says:

    Our friend John Wyver has also written about the production –

    There has never been a commercial release of Baal, but recordings can usually be found on YouTube –

  6. Sumita Singha says:

    A very fine article- thank you. Do you know where was this filmed? one source says BBC studio One and another says Acton. Do you know and also if this studio is still around? I know the BBC studios in Shepherds Bush are now flats.

  7. Billy Smart says:

    Baal was recorded in Studio One, Television Centre and rehearsed in the BBC’s rehearsal studios at Acton. Sadly, neither building is now used for television production.

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