Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Imagine: Ray Davies - Imaginary Man (BBC documentary)

Have just finished watching the above BBC TV documentary about Ray Davies and a review in the Independent, readable here, gets it roughly right, so I probably won't say too much more. The review ends:
if there was a lingering sense that Davies was being indulged, that his nostalgia was slipping into downright despondence, we could forgive him on the grounds that he has done so much for us.
A mighty Amen to that.

One slightly odd complaint raised by the critic was that snippets of song weren't immediately identified with a strapline - surely that would have destroyed the sense that we were somehow magically privy to Ray's thoughts? And I did wonder at that same critic's inability to identify The Last of the Steam-Powered Trains, one of many songs Ray briefly sang to himself as he rambled over London, looking at a more recent replacement.

That breaking into song was quite a touching aspect of the programme: unaccompanied snatches of Kinks hits as the various locations took him, which they did most of the time - though it felt very Ray-ish that he flatly refused the tailormade opportunity of walking over Waterloo Bridge to regale us with his masterpiece: too obvious, perhaps.And he had to be bribed - onscreen - to sing She's Got a Hat Like Princess Marina.

Still, he plugged away at several numbers on a battered grand at Hornsey Town Hall ("I have a theory the best songs can be played on an out of tune piano") and perhaps that was what he was referring to over the final credits when he said "Pete Townshend wouldn't let you do that" - meaning, I think, that his rival would have too acute an awareness of his own importance to mess about with his oeuvre in similar fashion (which, from my memory of various Who documentaries, seems entirely plausible).

I missed the first fifteen minutes of the programme, so I'm not sure whether the interviewer was Alan Yentob or not - normally he is an all-too-visible presence - but for the portion that I saw there was no voiceover and only the odd interjection from an offscreen interviewer plus an occasional small footnote at the bottom of the screen.

It  may have been that there was more guidance for the interviewee than was obvious in the final product by questioning which was subsequently edited out, but the effect for the viewer was that of Ray was largely being allowed to talk for himself - which freedom, combined with the revisiting of around old haunts, was dubbed "ramblism" by the Independent.

But the point is that it worked. One of the intentions of the documentary was undoubtedly to publicise his new album of collaborations, See My Friends, but footage of those sessions was carefully rationed out over the ninety or so minutes - and as the album itself was about going back to the past, it made sense anyway. It didn't seem like a glorified advertisement.

This was a programme which told you a lot about Ray and the Kinks without lapsing into trainspotterish detail - and there were even moments where Ray quite reasonably refused to discuss certain songs, preferring the listener to take what he wanted from them, though you were never left in any doubt of their importance to the composer.

This didn't seem - except, perhaps, in the case of Lola - about withholding information: you got the distinct sense he wanted to keep some of the mystery for himself as well, rather than diminish the songs by analysis. In the case of See My Friends, for example, he would go no farther than saying it was about loss, giving a good impression of never having considered the matter before. And as I talked about the painterly effect of Waterloo Sunset in an earlier entry (here) it was interesting to hear that he could only explain the effect he wanted to the producer by talking in visual terms, of seeing his voice as a leaf.

This was not a programme populated by talking heads - other than Mick Avory (not Dave), there to offer the odd half affectionate, half Sancho Panza-ish comment about his former bandmate, the most telling of which was that if a day were to be named in Ray's honour (top image), rather than relaxation it would probably involve everyone having to work harder than usual.

Otherwise, we alternated between Ray at the battered piano in Hornsey Town Hall and wandering around north London - and that was more than enough. The wandering about was interesting as there didn't seem to be a huge amount of public recognition. Could one or two early morning or evening joggers have been extras or was it, as Ray said, that people didn't recognise him? Either way, it called to mind the line
Ghost-like I paced round the haunts of my childhood
from a poem which may well have an appeal for Mr Davies.

But as though some kind of compensation was thereby required for the absence of adulatory spoutings from peers or critics, the editing of the film seemed at times self conscious and mildly irritating. There was lots of archive footage including a fair amount, uncredited, from The Loneliness of the Long Distance Piano Player, used to suggest the strain Ray had been under in the Kinks, which all seemed fair enough, but a brief reference to Ray not being allowed to watch a notorious BBC adaptation of 1984 (in 1954, when Ray would have been ten) led to snippets from that programme cropping up ever after, for reasons which weren't always immediately clear.

Then again, the director was Julien Temple, maker of Absolute Beginners, who had presumably been approved by Ray. And there were lots of visual juxtapositions which worked on a first viewing, so I'm probably carping. The intercutting of images came into its own when original Kinks recordings or live performances were played, so you had a sense of experiencing them subjectively as you might have done at the time. And the final leavetaking after Ray sings the song which gives the documentary its title is poignantly done: we see a long shot of the Hornsey Town Hall stage with Ray barely visible, a pointillist dot (it all goes back to art) as he bows then walks off.

The bottom line for those who have read so far is probably this: knowing the essentials of the story already, is it worth seeking out this documentary? And the answer is undoubtedly: yes. Ray Davies may have been over this material many times, in X Ray and his solo shows and other documentaries, but unlike certain other stars there is less sense of a readymade anecdote.

And the simple device of taking him around those old familiar places definitely seems to bring more out. When he talks of his delight at discovering a direction for the singing of a folk song -
To be sung intimately, as though among friends
-  that seems true of his presence in this documentary.You may be watching a performance but he seems less guarded than a Macca, say, would be.

I have now watched the beginning of the film - available for the next seven days, in the UK at least, on the BBC website here - and there is rather more of Alan Yentob in those opening moments as Ray leads him into Hornsey Town Hall, but that Yentob-rich prologue is essential in establishing the importance of this location - scene of one of the first ever gigs of the future Kinks - to him.

And having watched the film again I'm now more inclined to say that if it draws attention to its visual effects, so what? It's stylishly done, on the whole. So see it if you can.

Related posts and links:

Posts about Ray Davies as an influence on Bowie's songwriting here (main one) and here
Post about Waterloo Sunset here
Post about Alan Klein's 1964 album Well At Least Its British, cited by Damon Albarn as a likely influence on Ray Davies and Bowie, here
Keiron Tyler's Arts Desk review here.
Julien Temple article in the Guardian about making the documentary here.

The BBC version of 1984 with Peter Cushing as Winston has survived. It has not been commercially issued but is occasionally repeated on TV; I remember seeing it around 1975, and it still packed a punch. It is available to view in fifteen parts on youtube; Part 14, here, features the run up to Room 101 and part 15, here, features the climactic scene which caused outrage at the time. Orwell's novel was adapted by the late Nigel Kneale. Find out more about it on a Donald Pleasance website here.

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