Making the Series

Notes on this work

Back to main work

A TV Dante, released on DVD by Digital Classics

A TV Dante (Cantos I-VIII)

Once the go ahead was given A TV Dante quickly found its working rhythm. It is difficult to imagine in these more jaded days the initial euphoria of energy that followed this order of release. Fantastic schemes came and went. It was not so much a problem of cooking up ideas as of boiling down the excess of them. A format emerged, many aspects of which are crudely discernible in the pilot programme.

Since we now had a proper budget I no longer had to play all the parts myself. The search began for actors for the roles of Virgil and Dante. Many combinations of unlikely principals passed under review (Clint Eastwood as Dante, Max von Sydow as Virgil etc.). The extras for the cantos proper were Dutch volunteers filmed in The Hague. The two-day shoot gave me my first experience as cameraman as I climbed none too nimbly among the gantries with a camcorder, to obtain different perspectives on the action which Peter was organising below.

Much of the rest of the cast, human and animal, was supplied by Eadweard Muybridge. I found in Peter a fellow enthusiast for the great and eccentric photographer and, as I had used the Muybridge doves for Canto V both in the book version and in the pilot episode, we decided that our horses, hounds and symbolic personages could all derive from these proto-cinematic sequences.

Although the soundtrack was being prepared all the time we were editing, it inevitably became somewhat of a poor relation to the screen imagery. In what was an amazingly harmonious collaborative relationship between two opinionated artists we only had two running disputes. One of these concerned the presence of music. I maintained that it was axiomatic that Hell itself was devoid of music, although references to the outside world could of course have a musical content. Peter felt, justifiably, that composed music would contribute to the atmosphere of the film. In the end we found a compromise by restricting ourselves to the use of sound from our source material, which with the odd tape-loop (and a tinny fanfare I made up on a synthesizer) gave us our sound world.

Where we quoted any extended music from our archive sources we tended to choose fragments that had been what antique dealers call 'distressed' to give a parallel with battered and scratched film.

As with painting, I found that poor sources are much more useful than stylish or perfect ones. Just as the blurred and battered postcard leaves more scope for imaginative interference and infill, so the grainy stretches of archive footage or snatches of a mawkish old film can be treated, tinted, shifted and transformed to bring them into a unified texture with other material. The access we had to a Dutch archive was invaluable and our researcher, given cryptic headings like 'military women' or 'eye surgery', turned up raw and random seconds of dumb actuality. Amongst all this were three great treasures. A Marconi radar film of aeroplanes circling about an airport gave us, with its concentric circles and aetherial blips of movement, the ideal image of mediaeval cosmology, complete with angels in flight. Some cardiographic records from a Dutch hospital provided us with a gauge for Dante's changing emotional states, from the stoppage of a swoon to the pounding pulse of fear, and the hasty heartbeats of excitement. Our complete medical ignorance was a great asset in the free use we made of it. We adapted its schematised and lettered format to accommodate other pieces of information about time and textual division (clockface, date and canto number) and improvised from small areas of its activation the mouth of Ciacco or a vapourous marsh. The greatest of these archival treasures, however, was an obscure Italian epic film of the forties (l'Apocalysse) which included Roman scenes of cities, military action, and bacchanalian delight. It is from this the haunting music comes that emerges to accompany the end credits.

A TV Dante has often been described in terms of its technical sophistication. While that is true of the editing itself the constituent elements tended to be quite crude. In the initial stages, as with the pilot version of Canto V, I spent a lot of time on the Quantel Paintbox generating complex computerised images. Since these, when inserted into the general texture, tended to have a glib electronic feel we gradually abandoned this route in favour of improvising as we edited. The editing suite in which we worked had a rostrum directly linked to its own hardware, which meant that any word or number I might want to write or stencil could be fed straight into the picture. The Muybridge animations were also inserted by this method and we soon were introducing artefacts (coins, flowers etc.) when and where they were needed. Thus the squirming worms that appear in Canto III were brought in by Peter and spent the day writhing in an open tin awaiting their cue.

Despite the urgency of the declared deadline it was eighteen months before the eight Cantos reached the screen. They were shown in pairs interspersed with advertisements for corn-flakes and dogfood (whose sales cannot have been much helped). It was one of the all too many attendant ironies that, by the time they were shown, to some critical acclaim, the project (as a result of a change of hierarchy at Channel 4 and the loss both of Michael Kustow as guardian spirit and the patronage of Jeremy Isaacs) had been called off. Peter and I had been poised at the end of making Cantos I—VIII to continue with the whole Inferno as we had been ready to do four years before. In 1991 the work won the Italia prize.

Had this been the end of the affair it would have been a clean break, just another of those truncated columns that litter the landscape of art history and testify to the death of a princely patron, the running out of money, the interference of political upheaval etc. What happened in fact was much murkier. But that is another story.

Despite the abrupt end to our experiment I felt we had got a long way towards redefining some important aspects of television: the benefits of our joint researches have fed into my own work in ways that I cannot easily describe and (as can be seen from Prospero's Books) have enlarged Peter Greenaway's cinematic vocabulary. Thus all was not lost.