The Pilot

Dante in his study

silkscreen print

Notes on this work

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The making of A TV Dante, Cantos I—VIII, is a long saga. As the book occupied seven years from notion to realisation so the same span separated Michael Kustow's original suggestion that I might like to make a television version of the Inferno and the final announcement in the TV Times that it was on the screen.

Michael was at that time a sort of salaried Diaghilev at Channel 4 and this was no empty offer. Since however I didn't then realise that, although TV might be boring to watch, it could be fun to make, I was hesitant about the whole idea. He later introduced the proposition that I might have a co-director and I was more intrigued. Shortly after this he brought Peter Greenaway to my studio. Although I had seen none of Peter's films it was soon evident that I had met my match.

One year and many lunches later we found ourselves about to make some practical television; a pilot version of one of the cantos. We chose Canto V since illicit love seemed a more likely subject to engage the potential backers than, say, Simony: it is also the Canto in which appears the only female resident of Hell to have a speaking part.

In the initial stages we took on separate tasks with Peter supervising the shooting and myself learning how to use a Quantel paintbox to generate the flames and faces, words and flying birds, and various other graphic devices. We shot the whirling souls in a fairground centrifuge-machine, and the experts (mostly friends like David Rudkin who turned up for next to nothing) in my kitchen. When it came to the off-line editing we worked as one. We tried to turn a lot of disparately assembled material into a coherent narrative, using as a template my reciting to camera (from mem-ory in order to avoid moving eyes inexpertly scanning an autocue) the whole text of the Canto.

It was only when we got down to the business of on-line editing with the help of Bill Saint that we learned the whole alchemy of the process with all its fluid un-filmlike possibilities of elision and layering. In spite of the straitened circumstances and the frontiersman feel of our shoestring enterprise we managed to make a unified whole which in fact needed little doctoring when we came to remake it three years later.

Painting, unlike filming, is a solitary activity and, with most artists (in contrast, as usual, to the myth, which likes to externalise inner turmoil) dogged and regular, responding only to its own pressures. It is not expensive to do, and you need not have a meeting every time you want to buy a brush. Its competitiveness is implicit and often you are competing with people who have been dead for hundreds of years (who are not going to do you out of a commission or plant a knife in your back). Artists meet each other infrequently.

Television, with its monstrous daily devouring of hours that take weeks to produce (albeit that its dietary preference is for the long and thin), is a social, if not always sociable, process. One gets to know an awful lot of people (mostly called Bill or Jeff) on terms of ephemeral intimacy. The credits of the pilot included five people I never met at all.

Nonetheless it is a healthy life as one joins the non-stop night and day parade, through the narrow streets of Soho, of hurrying souls carrying circular containers like Lilliputians out to spend Gulliver's shillings. Regular vigorous exercise is also provided by siting all offices and facility-studios on the fifth floor of liftless buildings. The general atmosphere is highly charged: frustration and enthusi- asm are joined like incompatible Siamese twins in a mood of thwarted excitement.

After we had finished the pilot, which (after some months) was shown to a promisingly mixed reception ranging from 'TV's first masterpiece' to 'terminally pretentious twaddle', the months turned into years as the Channel dithered, finances teetered, programme lengths were changed, other (cheaper) possibilities were explored, a new pro- ducer was introduced and a shaky company was formed. It was three years after finishing the trial version of Canto V that the go-ahead was given to start the series proper, when suddenly, after the torpor, all was urgency and talk of deadlines again.