What we can learn from the innovative artist’s 1955 BBC TV program.
The BBC once broadcast a television program where a man sits in front of a camera and directly addresses his audience, reexamining significant aspects of his life to (in his perspective) an imaginary audience. No, this was not the latest YouTube personality’s transition from the World Wide Web to television screens, but instead the creation of the American filmmaker best known for Citizen Kane or the infamous radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. This man is, obviously, Orson Welles, and the show, Orson Welles’ Sketch Book.
Produced by Huw Wheldon, Orson Welles’ Sketch Book put Welles in the role the filmmaker was an expert in: the storyteller. Rather than being hidden beneath makeup, prosthetic noses, detailed costumes and intricate lighting, Welles is neither ‘Orson Welles as Citizen Kane’ nor ‘Orson Welles as dramatic and looming figure,’ but instead is simply ‘Orson Welles as Orson Welles’. The elements of construction that do take place in Orson Welles’ Sketch Book, however, mainly present themselves as being present in order to connote the world of storytelling viewers are being drawn in to. Welles acts as their faithful and omniscient storyteller; their guide.
In each 15 minute episode, the versatile artist wears a formal suit accompanied with a bowtie, making it feel as though the viewer is listening to one of his famed dinner party stories, dramatized for effect rather than a series of monologues. For The Guardian, Ben Walters describes how Welles “was always more comfortable as a storyteller than performing in character,” continuing to posit that the choice of platform – television – was intended for its conversational tone and contrasted with the grand spectacle in which the artist and viewer are separated by fiction, as well as the inevitable interferences of the powerful studios and producers that hindered much of Welles’ film, radio and theatrical work. It is in Orson Welles’ Sketch Book where viewers can see the comfort Welles finds in being a storyteller. The suit he wore, like his quilled pen and habit of leaning forward on his desk towards the camera, are a part of who ‘Orson Welles’ as a public figure was. And, as viewers would soon witness thanks to the success of Orson Welles’ Sketch Book, the filmmaker’s later programs – Around the World with Orson Welles, The Fountain of Youth, Orson Welles’ Great Mysteries – come to prove the importance of storytelling in relation to who Welles was and what he did, with his suits and distinctive voice continuing through to these later programs, ensuring his storyteller persona.
“The audience is not so much a compliment to an actor’s ego as a challenge to his capacities.”
This construction of the broadcasted Orson Welles figure is just that: a facet or impression of who Orson Welles was or wanted to be, presented to viewers in the form of a storyteller; an author of a book; a father reading his child a tale. As seen through commercial work such as the outtakes of a voiceover advert Welles did for a British food brand, it’s apparent that Welles, as a storyteller, takes his role and voice as guider of a story with a sense of duty and importance. The six commentaries, titled after the main subject Welles focuses on, break the fourth wall entirely. In the first episode, called The Early Days, Welles explores his own flaws and abilities through storytelling, with the first moments focusing on the construction of stories and their ability to manipulate. Told through an anecdote of Welles forgetting the ending of a story at an important Hollywood dinner party, he describes how an earthquake – a force of nature – saved him from ruining his career. From the very idea that one’s career could be destroyed by a lackluster story, it’s clear that for Welles the story, the storyteller, and their reputation are intrinsically linked together. Contrasting his anxieties felt in this tale, Welles takes viewers back in time to his “bliss of ignorance” at age 15, about to perform for a Dublin audience at the Gate Theatre. Here, Welles notes the importance of the presence of an audience – making his command of the camera all the more impressive – as he describes them as “not so much a compliment to an actor’s ego as a challenge to his capacities.” For Welles, these are the early days of his acting career. He presents these experiences of life as stories from which something is to be learned.
In the second episode, simply called Critics, Welles provides vivid imagery around and related to stories that its title suggests. In one story from the episode – about gunfire going off in the audience and hitting the Dean of Critics – it becomes clear as to why the stories within Orson Welles’ Sketch Book are so compelling. Since they are all from the artist’s perspective – as actor, filmmaker, radio host, and so on – the viewer is able to travel through the looking glass into an unfamiliar world. Welles creates a subtle sense of paradox when telling his stories to the camera as the tales he is relating to the audience are often about another tale he has told to another audience. In a particular story in Critics, Welles brings his past story of an artist performing a story to the reality of the artist, yet by relating the tale in the present to the camera, to the audience, Welles fictionalizes his tale once again and thus renders it a work of art – in the everyday, in real life, there are always stories to be found. The episode continues in describing negative reviews of Welles’ production at the Lafayette Theatre, Voodoo Macbeth, a play in which critic Percy Hammond gave it a review concerned with race rather than art, resulting in the critic being cursed by a member of the production.
The Police focuses on the story of Isaac Woodard, an African American World War II veteran who was attacked by police and left permanently blinded. Welles describes how he brought public attention to the attack on Isaac Woodard through his radio show Orson Welles Commentaries for ABC, resulting in the police man facing the court of law. Welles then uses this set up of bad police to contrast with good police, but ultimately does not describe examples of good police at all. Instead, he comments on the representation of them and the iconography that has become an inescapable part of our culture, such as passports, the idea of the individual and protection, and bureaucracy. Episode four, The People I Miss, introduces Welles drawing on a sketchbook, placing viewers in a meta position as Welles draws attention to a new perspective; to the fact he is preforming to a camera and not an audience.
People I Miss continues with Welles discussing actors’ use of prompters for theatre and teleprompters in American television, as well as the use of idiot boards. He then looks at the people he misses, including Harry Houdini, an “expert in miracles,” and John Barrymore. As the title of episode five suggests, The War of the Worlds is an episode in which Welles tells stories surrounding the use of sound and musical effects in his famous Mercury Theatre radio broadcast about Martians invading earth, which many listeners believed to be true. And in episode six, Bullfighting, Welles finishes his series of stories with a story about Bonito the bull; the true story that was to be explored in one of Welles’ unfinished feature films, intended as a follow up to The Magnificent Ambersons, It’s All True.
Yet, throughout each episode of Orson Welles’ Sketchbook, and particularly in The War of the Worlds episode, Welles directly asks viewers to suspend their disbelief by repeating variations of “I must ask you to believe this” and emphasizes that he is not exaggerating. Welles was a boy when he was taught magic tricks by Harry Houdini, and Welles’ account of the mass hysteria surrounding his Martian invasion broadcast does seem exaggerated. While It’s All True remains unfinished largely due to the termination by RKO, there is significance in the fact Welles planned to create one of the first “docufiction” pictures, in which documentary images and stories were combined with that of fiction. Instead, Welles is forced to end the story in a direct address to his viewers rather than a construction played out on film.
As seen with It’s All True, Welles’ unfinished Orson Welles’ Magic Show and the completed ITV series Around the World with Orson Welles show how the filmmaker often turned reality into constructed stories, with Welles unconcerned with the hard facts but instead focusing on the importance of what the audience are seeing and hearing. The closest modern day example viewers have of the particular self-awareness witnessed in Around the World… is within Richard Ayoade’s Travel Man: 48 Hours In…. Just as Welles is more concerned with the lives of the locals than the country he is in, Ayoade is not concerned with presenting accurate facts surrounding the countries he visits, but instead with creating a self-aware and constructed narrative surrounding a self-created persona.
It’s clear from Welles’ mid-50s program, however, that the creation of fiction does come into play. In episode four he says that he “makes it up as I go along,” after describing the use of teleprompters. While Welles may not have used a teleprompter – the sketchbook he uses to draw and construct the story he is about to tell, the position of the camera that places him at the center, the cuts between Welles’ face and the drawings he creates, and the formality created through his suit and bow tie all suggest Orson Welles’ Sketch Book is not as spontaneous a conversation as it seems. Similar to the props that surround Welles, like the sketchbook, the characters and events within his stories are also props, used to advance the story Welles is telling in order to entertain his listers; they may be exaggerated and far from the truth, but that doesn’t matter. Welles ending the program with the line “they lived happily ever after” is not a mistake – the stories that have just been related are as cleverly constructed as the fairytales one is told as a child. Welles uses this line to show that what truly matters are the stories, and the way they are told.