October 08, 2003



J. G. Ballard season , BBC Four

Like his admirer Jean Baudrillard, Ballard has for a long time resembled a rogue AI, repermutating the same few themes ad infinitum, occasionally adding a sprinkling of contemporary detail to freshen up a limited repertoire of fixations. Fixations, fixations. Appropriate, since, after all, Ballard's obsession is .... obsession.

In the BBC Four Profile - nothing new here, the old man gamely and tirelessly going over his favourite riffs, once again - Ballard repeated one of his familiar, but still powerfully sobering observations. People often comment on how extreme his early life was, Ballard said. Yet, far from being extreme, that early life - beset by hunger, fear, war and the constant threat of death - is the default condition for most human beings on the planet, now and in every previous century. It is the comfortable life of the Western Suburbanite which is in every way the planetary exception.

Thus Home , BBC Four's brilliant adaptation of Ballard's short story The Enormous Space . Home is the kind of thing the BBC used to excel at: drama that was genuinely, unsettlingly weird without being insufferably, unwatchably experimental. Not that Home has much hope of appealing to popular taste stuck away on BBC Four, of course. A sign of the times.

Home revealed itself to be a perverse cousin of the suburban drop-out situation comedy, The Good Life or The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin spliced with Polanski's Repulsion. (No surprise to see director Richard Curton-Smith namechecking Polanksi as an influence). Anthony Sher was superbly, charmingly unhinged as Gerald Ballantyne, an accident victim who, instead of returning to work after his convalescence, decides to embark upon an experiment. 'Decides' is no doubt too active a word; in every respect the typical Ballard character, Gerry discovers rather than initiates, finds himself drawn into a logic he is compelled to investigate. (In many ways a faithful Freudian, Ballard has no doubt that obsession always has/ is a logic.)

The experiment, it turns out, has a simple premise. Gerry will stay indoors, indefinitely, living off the supplies of his well-stocked larder and freezer until... until what? Well, that is what the experiment will establish. Can he survive by 'using his front door as a weapon'? What unfolds is the descent into the maelstrom Ballard has explored since High Rise and Concrete Island , a quest to the outer edges of the human that follows a well-defined sequence, whose stages can be readily enumerated:

A letting go of the old identity . This is given up easily. Ballard's twist on the disaster novel as far back as The Drowned World lay in the readiness of his characters to embrace rather than resist the new conditions which catastrophe had visited upon them. Ever since High Rise , Ballard has seen characters going one-step further, actually initiating disaster as a revolt, not so much against conformity, as against air-conditioned comfort. Here, Gerry burns all his correspondence, his photographs, then his birth-certificate and - in the most sacreligious act of all, which made mortified my Protestant soul - his money.

The loosening of the hold of civilization [Bataille phase] Ballard is endlessly rewriting Civilization and its Discontents , and his fictions are attempts to imagine a libidinal utopia in which the pay-off between survival and repression spelled out by Freud's mordant pessimism is somehow circumvented. The return to savagery, even the experiencing of raw hunger pangs, are eagerly savoured opportunities to relax civilization's impulse control and neutralizing of affect. In Home, when Gerry's conventional food supplies are running low, he turns first to the flowers in his garden and then to his neighbours' pets. The scene in which Gerry's neighbour questions him - in that middle class ever-so slightly insinuating way - about the disappearance of his dog 'Mr Fred' and his wife's cat is a masterpiece of grisly comedy. 'Perhaps they've eloped,' Sher gibbers, by then constantly on the edge of all-but illegible hysteria. Laughter, a strange, snorting, sniffling chortle that he can barely contain: it is that laughter which signals, more than anything else, that Gerald has left polite society, never to return.

The exploration of the transcendental beyond [Kant/Blake phase] I mean transcendental in its strict Kantian sense, of course. Ballard likes to refer to this as his exploration of inner space, but I have always found this to be a profoundly misleading description. Much more than astronauts floating in empirical space, it is the 'Outer' which Ballard's suburban cosmonauts investigate: what they confront is time and space themselves, as preconditions of all perceptions and experiences, and what their explorations open up is an intensive zone beyond - outside - standard perceptual thresholds . Hence Home becomes an aberrant version of The Incredible Shrinking Man . Cut off from the world beyond his door - I refuse to call it the outside world - Gerry's sense of space massively expands. 'The rooms are getting bigger.' The attic becomes an antarctic 'white world' of blank, freezerburning vastness, the irruption of the transcendental outside into the empirical interior of the house, now a very cosmos, teeming with texture and previously unsuspected detail. 'I feel like an explorer, or an astronaut.'

Curton-Smith's use of the video-diary format gave the film a queasy intimacy and a suitably unheimlich relation to Pop TV Now, something underscored by Gerry's sign-off remarks about undertaking the 'ultimate home makeover.' Yes, that's one way to make the most of your space.

The man whose head expanded. 'Are you on drugs, Gerald?'

And self-denial, starving, the withdrawal from company, it's all very topical. I wonder - I hope - something Gerald-like is going on in David Blaine's head right now.

Posted by mark at October 8, 2003 12:42 AM | TrackBack

How do BBC Four do it on an annual budget of thruppence?;

Documentary on the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Sunday October 19, 9-10pm, repeated 1:10am.

Posted by: michael at October 8, 2003 05:59 PM

What would we do without you Michael? Thanks for the information....

Posted by: mark at October 8, 2003 11:44 PM

You'll have them thinking I look like David Walliams.

Posted by: michael at October 9, 2003 10:33 AM

Sorry, you've lost me a bit there....

Posted by: mark k-punk at October 9, 2003 02:31 PM

He played Jeff 'Lurky' Monks, the obsessive, solicitous-looking organizer of a Children of the Stones cruise convention in Cruise of the Gods.

Steve Coogan also starred.

Posted by: michael at October 9, 2003 04:20 PM

Yeh, I'm with you now, squire.... Saw that, yes, a bit disappointing I thought...

Posted by: mark k-punk at October 9, 2003 05:39 PM

Partially penned by Baynham, curiously enough it's one of the few comedy dramas set aboard an ocean liner actually written by someone licensed to pilot one.

Posted by: michael at October 9, 2003 09:17 PM

LOL! One of the few? You mean there are more ?

Posted by: mark at October 9, 2003 10:04 PM

Think of it in terms of a modified Drake Equation: if we multiply the number of Navy and Merchant Seamen (tens, possibly hundreds of millions) by the fraction to have have obtained a pilot's licence by the fraction with an interest in the arts and dramaturgy by the fraction pursuing popular comedy by the fraction which would consider large, ocean-going vessels a suitable vehicle for popular comedy, then we already have a figure in the tens of thousands.

Posted by: michael at October 9, 2003 11:53 PM

Maybe so, and - maths isn't my strongpoint, I'll admit - but surely the amount of comedy dramas is strictly limited to something in the hundreds at most; and the number of those set on ocean liners is even more limited; and the number of _those_ also writtten by someone who is licensed to pilot such a ship is _even_ more limited. I'd wager that we're left with a figure approximate to 1.

Posted by: mark at October 11, 2003 10:37 AM

But if we were to multiply your end figure by the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy by the fraction of stars with planetary systems by the number of planets per star capable of sustaining life by the fraction of those planets where life actually arises by the fraction evolving intelligent life, then light-hearted ship-bound comedies by former senior crewmen become the rule, rather than the exception.

Posted by: michael at October 11, 2003 02:42 PM