The Surreal Thing

The Arts

There are subjects I return to again and again for a final word. This is one of them.

It started, as so many things do, with art. Magritte and Duchamp, Buñuel and Dali, ‘Un Chien Andalou’ and ‘L’Age D’Or’ and ‘Dr Caligari’.

Many critics wrote off Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech because of his unabashed commercialism, his bad-boy antics and his clown-prince behaviour. An easy mistake to make, but a mistake nonetheless. Beneath the tomfoolery was a bedrock of original thinking and technique that few modern artists can match. Visit the places where Dali grew up and you instantly appreciate his connection to a landscape that provides his colour palate.

An astonishing draughtsman who could paint in virtually any style and was strongly influenced by Renaissance masters, he angered those who tried to take him seriously.It seems inevitable that a man so affected by the subconscious should meet Sigmund Freud, who called him a fanatic. Dali refused to politically commit, feeling that an artist should be apolitical, and was further distanced from other surrealists by seeking commercial endorsements. Yet much of his work remains profoundly disturbing.

Accompanied by his lifelong muse Gala he turned his hand to virtually every imaginable art form, from shop window displays to theatre designs, sculpture, fashion, jewellery, furniture, film and literature. In Dali’s museum in Figueres an entire room turns into Mae West and a ruby heart brooch pulses with life. And weirdly, I got to meet him. But you know that already if you’ve read ‘Film Freak’.

In America’s 1950s, psychoanalysis looked to the surrealism of dreams and became a cocktail party topic. Films like Hitchcock’s ‘Spellbound’ employed Dali to design those dreams, and he’d been employed by Disney on ‘Fantasia’ on a section called ‘Destino’ (above). Surrealism encourages interpretation where none can exist and became naturally allied to symbolism and psychological states as books and films sought to understand and define neurotic behaviour. Naturally, women’s dreams quickly revealed hysteria, repression, depression and other female ‘weaknesses’. What the doctors should have been looking at were the subconscious fears of men.

Surrealism became quite a fad. ‘The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T’ takes the dream-tales of Dr Seuss and renders them real and disturbing. Even mainstream Hollywood fare became surreal. In ‘The Girl Most Likely’, families climb to the top of Daliesque ladders while singing about the pressures of social climbing.

In the psychedelic sixties a peculiarly English form of surrealism appeared via Charles Wood, Spike Milligan and John Antrobus, ‘The Bed Sitting Room’ and ‘How I Won The War’. Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’ was given a sharp point thanks to his sage choice of Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown on script duty. Stoppard’s play about Magritte staged some of his most famous paintings in tableaux vivants.

Roman Polanski tapped into the surrealism of dreams in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, ‘Repulsion’ and the discombobulating, little-seen ‘What?’ By this time, surrealism found a new younger audience via Monty Python, who revelled in seeing how they could alienate viewers with fractured logic, unsettling images and inexplicable juxtapositions.

To look back at some of the shows today (and to see them uncensored) is quite shocking. But to understand them you need to put them into historical context, which even the immense Python script book ‘All The Bits’ can’t manage.

I was always attracted to disjunctive, disturbing narratives. It’s hard to understand why, but NJ Simpson, John Antrobus, Joe Orton, Fellini, Spike Milligan, Bunuel, Lynch, Caro & Jeunet, BS Johnson and Ronald Firbank all made sense to me. The acid test is trying to get anyone else to watch ‘The Bed Sitting Room’ – or even imagining a time when a major motion picture like it could have been made. The golden years of surrealist media from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies hit the mainstream, and I still cannot shake off the influence of those childhood years.

Eventually David Lynch returned a more sinister sensibility to surrealism, using it to explore our damaged society. And Charlie Kaufman turned up, frustrating and amazing in equal measure. Am I the only person who really likes ‘Synedoche, New York’? When reality becomes too unbearable and unreal, surreality can break through it to better capture the strangeness of the times. In Peter Barnes’s ‘The Ruling Class’, Jesus turns into Jack the Ripper, fourth walls are broken and the House of Lords fills with rotting skeletons.

Death is part of the surrealist temperament, often allied to sex. When we finally look back on the deranged kleptocracy of Mr Trump we may only be able to understand it through surrealism, although of course the most reliable key to those four years is simpler; ‘Follow the Money Through The Family’.

You can be an artist and make a ton of dough. But if it came down to a moral fist-fight, I’d put my money on Dali every time and let Damien Hirst go down for the count.

Today surrealism is used sparingly because a little goes a long way. We live in terrifyingly cautious times. Today’s newspaper headline here was ‘Tis the Season to be Jolly Careful’. Surrealism is profligate, gaudy, tasteless, vulgar, unknowable. All the things we are no longer allowed to access.

30 comments on “The Surreal Thing”

  1. John Griffin says:

    The double bill in Nottingham at the arts centre in late1973 was Yellow Submarine + BedSitting Room. I went with two friends (one male, one female). We partook of a couple of smokes beforehand plus Cola and hash brownies for victuals. Yellow Submarine was a jolly experience, but halfway through BSR Rob said “This is one bad trip, man” (or similar) and decamped. Said lady and I made it to the end, went back to my place stoned and quite in mental disarray; went to bed and spent the next day in mental tatters. Rob turned up 24 hours later, having been on a munchy bender, and swore blind BSR had rewired his brain. I doubt the teens I teach these days would last 5 minutes stone sober. A remarkably weird film.

  2. Brian Evans says:

    I just don’t understand so much of surrealism. I thought “After Magritte” tedious, and “The Bed Sitting Room” is one of worst films I have ever seen. I have never liked Milligan, even as a child, and when he was alive he was one of the last people I would have wanted to be stuck in a room with. A self-indulgent pain in the neck. His one aim seemed to be entirely to entertain himself. Mind you, I find that with “The Crazy Gang” also. That dates me!

    “One Way Pendulum” is also a stinker. As much as I like/d Python, to me the cartoons were almost as bad as having to sit through an advert break.

    I’m with you with “The Ruling Class” though-that I do like. I have seen the play and the film. The film is great, partly due to Arthur Lowe’s scene-stealing turn as the Bolshie butler.

    I am going to be contradictory here: what about the amazing “Avengers”-the Dianna Rigg ones. I find them very surreal and totally unbelievable in many of the episodes. Yet I loved them at the time, and I love them now. Pure magic. I still think it is the best television of all time.

  3. Ian Mason says:

    I actually saw the theatre version of The Bedsitting Room on the 1967 tour, with Spike himself on the stage. My mother took me because it was theatre, and therefore culture, and I was a big Milligan fan. It all seemed to make, somewhat surreal, sense to me at the time, my mother was nonplussed. I was seven or eight years old.

  4. Roger says:

    When TBSR was rediscovered/revived and shown at the NFT one of the first questions from the audience for Lester was: “How did you get the producers to give you the money to make it?”

  5. John Howard says:

    Unlike Brian I’ve loved Spike ever since I listened to the Goon show on the wireless back in the ’50’s. I read The Bed Sitting Room and love the film but would don’t really know anyone that I would make watch it. Apart from possibly my brother.
    In the Dali museum at Figueres, in one of the back rooms, there is a small painting of a loaf of bread in a basket. It took my breath away with the detail and I just stood there looking at it for ages whilst everyone milled around me. I need to go back and have a look at it once everyone is allowed to move around again.
    Quite accidentally I came across a lovely Dali museum in Bruges. It’s on one of the corners in the big main square. It has a lot of illustrations for a book of Alice in Wonderland, which I never knew he did, as well as many other unseen, by me anyway, treasures.

  6. Liz Thompson says:

    I thought the House of Lords WAS full of rotting skeletons. It’s remarkable how surreal things can seem if you approach them in the right way.

  7. Paul C says:

    I studied art history and you’re right : Dali’s reputation in the academic world is low because he sold out (a famous anagram of his name is Avida Dollars). I think he’s marvellous. Surrealism is exciting, imaginative and boundless – an antidote to an often dull grey world. Realism seems a lot easier.

    There’s a fine book on the surrealists by Ruth Brandon : Surreal Lives : The Surrealists 1917 – 1945. She also wrote the best biography of Houdini : The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini. Both highly recommended.

  8. Vic says:

    Marty Feldman (TBSR) almost naturally surreal. RIP

  9. Brooke says:

    See also the Dali/ Elsa Schiaparelli collection.

  10. Peter T says:

    Is surrealism mainly visual? There’s not been much mention of literature apart from Alice. Is it significant that it’s a children’s book written by a mathematiciam?

  11. Peter Dixon says:

    Anyone remember a fairly surreal kid’s record called “Sparky’s Magic Piano’?
    A talking piano takes over the mind of a kid called Sparky.
    Used to scare the hell out of me when they played it on the radio in the late 50’s

  12. Brian Evans says:

    I remember it Peter. It was often on “Children’s Favourites” on a Sat morning. It didn’t scare me, I just found it irritating. Ditto Burl Ives, “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly”. Ditto “The Billy Goats Gruff” -I think it was called. But I loved Guy Mitchell with “She Wears Red Feathers and a Hooly-Hooly Skirt. Still do-nice story and cracking tune.

  13. mike says:

    I remember Sparky! Don’t remember it being crepy though.
    However, The Runaway Train used to annoy me after the first chorus

  14. mike says:

    That should be “before” the first chorus

  15. Brian Evans says:

    Same here Mike.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Anyone know Tubby the Tuba – who never got a pretty melody to play?

  17. Ed DesCamp says:

    Helen – we had a 78rpm with Danny Kaye doing Tubby the Tuba when I was a kid. I haven’t thought of that in ages!

  18. mike says:

    I’d forgotten Tubby. The tune at the end has just sprung into my ears. That’ll be today’s earworm!
    Tubby sparked off another memory- The Ugly Duckling also by Danny Kaye I believe.
    Much more of this and I’ll be buying rusks for lunch.

  19. Chris says:

    So a song that worried me as a kid.The Beep Beep Song by the Playmates

  20. Jan says:

    Isn’t the idea of these times being terrifyingly cautious quite surreal in itself?

  21. Ian Luck says:

    The allure of most childrens’ songs was lost to me by the time I was about six or so. I much preferred things my parents played – The Beatles, The Kinks, some tremendously earwormy Rogers and Hammerstein tunes; the beautifully cracked voice of Edith Piaf; Shirley Bassey, giving it loads, high on dial; the rather sinister Johnny Cash; George Melly, who my father knew – he made odd records that I didn’t really understand, but were interesting; the other jazz records dad liked, but mum hated – it sounded like it came from space, to me. Plenty of big band records, too. I did like, and still like, the tight musicianship of a lot of them. And then, in 1971, I went to stay with my nan, my dad’s mum, for a week. My cousin was there, and he had lots of records – and played me some that were so strange, and alien, that they were almost frightening to me. They were by someone I’d never heard of before: David Bowie. Mind blown, aged 8. Never looked back. Never listened to kids’ records again.

  22. Brian Evans says:

    Ian, I liked what you said about enjoying your parents choice of music, eg the Beatles. It is usually the other way round-the children liking their own choice of up to the minute music which is often beyond the understanding of the parents.

    I was bought up in Liverpool and when the Beatles came out I was in my early teens and Liverpool was a great place to be brought up in. However, my Dad and I had a complete role reversal. Dad (and his mum) thought the Beatles and all the other groups of the time fantastic, whilst I was discovering the music of the days when they were young,
    eg the bands of Henry Hall, Jack Hylton, Jack Payne etc. Dad’s jaw used to drop in total disbelief when I used to dance round the kitchen when they were played on what we used to call the wireless. He was even more staggered when pocket money was saved to buy them on LPs-who remembers the “Music for Pleasure” label?

  23. Ian Luck says:

    Brian – My younger brother and me often bought EMI ‘Music For Pleasure’ albums, from our local newsagent, who had a rack of them in his shop; the ones with film and TV themes on, which were credited to ‘Geoff Love and His Orchestra’. They were fun, and we played them to death. I found out recently, that the arrangements on them were by a brilliant musician and arranger called Nick Ingman, who composed a lot of ‘Library Music’ used by TV companies to soundtrack various shows – ‘The Sweeney’ is a good example. It had dedicated beginning and end themes, but music for action scenes, etc., was selected from various musical libraries. Most of this music is simply incredible, being recorded in studios like Air, and Abbey Road, and using the cream of session musicians. The best of this sort of music can be found on the ‘KPM’ label, and is well worth a listen. You’ll probably even know some of it, if you watched any British TV in the 60’s, 70’s, or 80’s. Oh, and a great deal of the ‘Music For Pleasure’ output is available on the ‘Dutton Vocalion’ label. I bought several to see what the quality was like, and I wasn’t disappointed. They were good. Very good, and listening as an adult, you can really appreciate them.

  24. Brian Evans says:

    Ian, thanks for the great info on “Music for Pleasure”. You’ve brought it all back, esp the memory of Geoff Love. He used to be around a lot. The MFP records were very cheap, about 60pence a go in today’s money. They did some very good film and play soundtracks. I’m very interested in “Library Music” as well, as I love light music. Nice to learn it was used in “The Sweeney! A lot of the library music was used in films too, esp B pictures.

    I am now going to look at the 2 labels you can recommend, and thanks for all the details.

  25. Ian Luck says:

    Brian – Several years ago, a Sweeney soundtrack album was released on the Castle label, entitled: “Shut It!” (Of course it was), and contained Harry South’s iconic themes, and a great selection of library tracks. Even better, it contains dialogue tracks featuring some great Regan and Carter banter. The booklet has full details on every track, even down to what episode the track was used in, and in some cases, where. It’s well worth getting. Like the ‘Get Carter’ album on the same label, for me, buying it was a no-brainer.

  26. Brian Evans says:

    Ian, I have a confession to make. I don’t like “The Sweeny” and “Get Carter”. I watched very little TV in the 70s as at that age I was out most evenings and this was pre video. I never liked “Minder” either, despite being a fan of George Cole.

    However, you have given me a lot to look forward to. I realise now that I have quite a few Vocalion CDs which I bought in the past. I have forgotten about the label as I have all my music on my computer now. Looking at what is on offer from the label now, I will be buying quite a few to add to my collection.

    BTW, I used to have the soundtrack LP of MCOB. I have an idea it may have been on the MFP label, but may be wrong. I quite liked the music, separate from the film, as it did rather swamp the film when watching it. I was especially keen on the theme song as sung by Jimmy Durante, and I like the music of Ron Goodwin.

    Thanks again, Ian.

    Thanks again, Ian.

  27. Ian Luck says:

    No problem, Brian – you don’t have to like a show to enjoy the music. Here are a few Library music albums that I greatly enjoy:

    Unusual Sounds (Kemado Records)
    Music For Dancefloors (KPM/Strut)
    New York Trouble/Electric Progression (TummyTouch)
    Conrad Recorded Music Libraries (Vocalion)
    Bite Harder [the Music De Wolfe Studio Sampler, Volume 2] (De Wolfe)
    Music For Biscuits (Trunk Records)
    Magpie [20 Junkshop Pop Ads And Themes] (RPM/Cherry Red Records)

    It’s not a great step from that sort of thing to this sort of thing:

    BBC Radiophonic Music (Mute Records)
    The Radiophonic Workshop (Mute Records)
    The Soundhouse (BBC Recordings/Silva Screen)
    Burials In Several Earths – The Radiophonic Workshop featuring Steve ‘Dub’ Jones & Martyn Ware (Radiophonic Workshop/Room 13 Recordings)

  28. Brian Evans says:

    Thanks Ian. I really appreciate the trouble you have gone to. I spent the afternoon looking them up on amazon etc.
    I really didn’t know that so much library music was available.

  29. Ian Luck says:

    No problem, Brian. The KPM ‘Music For Dancefloors’ has a bonus live album – the guys who played this stuff 50 odd years ago are astonishing. Wish I’d been at the gig, in fact.

  30. Brian Evans says:

    Hi Ian. You’ve been fantastic! I have downloaded from Amazon KPM 1000 series vol 1 and it’s great! Just the sort of music I love. I have quite a few CDs of light music that I have bought over the years, but this series has so much that I didn’t know was available, so I will be downloading a lot more. It’s quite a treasure trove.

    Thank again, and I do so appreciate the help you have given me.

    I’m sorry Mr F if we have got a bit side tracked on this!

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