sat 13/04/2024

DVD: You're Human Like the Rest of Them - The films of B S Johnson | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: You're Human Like the Rest of Them - The films of B S Johnson

DVD: You're Human Like the Rest of Them - The films of B S Johnson

A cult novelist's film output rediscovered

Fat man on a beach - B S Johnson in Porth Ceiriad, North Wales

The author B S Johnson would have been 80 this year. An accessible "experimental" writer, cheekily described by the author Jonathan Coe as “Britain’s one-man literary avant-garde of the 1960s”, he’s best remembered for The Unfortunates, a book in which the chapters can be shuffled and read in random order.

Johnson also took film making very seriously and a peek into his British Library archive shows the level of care and detail with which his film projects were planned – every camera angle and frame painstakingly prepared.

Which is surprising when one watches the most entertaining item here: Fat Man on a Beach is a free-flowing, digressive joy, made for peak-time television in 1973. It’s introduced in typically self-depreciating style: “This is a film about a fat man on a beach. Do you really want to sit there and watch it? Well don’t say I didn’t warn you!” Johnson’s mood is ebullient, his rambling, discursive monologue delivered with confident swagger. You’ll never look at a bunch of bananas in the same way again. The film’s final shot, Johnson wading like Reggie Perrin into the Irish Sea, is made more poignant by the knowledge that he committed suicide less than a month afterwards.

You’re Human Like the Rest of Them shows us actor William Hoyland’s teacher, wracked with thoughts of mortality, unravelling in front of his baffled class. Paradigm is tougher viewing; Hoyland’s virtuosic, incomprehensible soliloquy becoming sparer as he ages  - presumably reflecting the drying up of an ageing writer’s creative juices. Johnson’s short documentary about The Unfortunates is an eloquent, heartfelt introduction, outlining the novel’s autobiographical starting point and why such an unconventional structure was necessary. The archive footage of late 1960s Nottingham is wondrous, especially an extended pub scene. There’s a witty, intelligent introduction to Dr Samuel Johnson, and two short films protesting against the 1971 Industrial Relations Act. The one disappointment is a grainy transfer of Not Counting the Savages. A clunky 30-minute television play directed by the young Mike Newell, the repulsive central character’s unexpected redemption never feels deserved. A superb, beautifully annotated release.

The film’s final shot is made more poignant by the knowledge that Johnson committed suicide less than a month afterwards


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