.29 The Time Orson Welles Met Hitler
YouTube’s algorithm, for whatever nefarious purpose, has been recommending clips from 1970s television and I’m now addicted. In particular, I’ve been working my way through clips from The Dick Cavett Show, which ran from the late 60s through to the 90s.
It is a celebrity talk show like any other except - this guy had some of the most remarkable guests: Orson Welles talking about the time he met Hitler! 😲 Richard Harris, with a huge unexplained cut on his head, convinced he was living with a ghost! 😯 John Lennon explaining why the Beatles really broke up! 🤯
Essentially: long gone titans of the second half of the last century, often talking about encounters with people who have themselves passed into historical legend.
This interview with a (relatively) fresh faced Dick Van Dyke where he admits to his battle with alcoholism is a great example of why I like this show.
Unlike today’s celebrity talk shows, which try very hard to move from one funny anecdote to another, The Dick Cavett Show feels more like a podcast. Cavett asks deep and thoughtful questions and isn’t afraid to linger on a subject or to add an anecdote of his own. It feels like an intimate conversation and while there is a studio audience in the room, you’ll barely notice them.
Plus, because it is the 1970s, the guests are constantly lighting up. The way John Lennon casually pulls out a cigarette from his shirt pocket in the above clip renders him briefly as what he was: just an ordinary 30-something guy.
Now I think about it, the 1970s produced some pretty excellent factual television, a lot of which is free to watch online.
John Berger’s Ways of Seeing is spare in its production but rich in ideas and writing. There’s an episode on the female nude in European art where Berger basically says “I’m a man and probably not best placed to talk about this” and hands the rest of the programme over to women, an act of woke-ness 42 years before the rest of us got there.
Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation is snail-paced, and strolls through long sequences of oil painting close ups, set to organ music. You’d get kicked onto the street if you went to a commissioning editor with that today, but its earnestness embraces you; watch an episode and you feel like you’ve just eaten a really good meal. Like Berger, Clarke has a funny English accent which becomes very soothing over time.
And then there is Connections, from science historian James Burke. I binged this show when I was working on my earliest video essays and his direct, informal presentation style was a big influence on me. The opening 30 minutes of episode one is a terrifying eye-opener about our dependence on technology, more relevant nearly half a century later.
They might seem quaint to us now, but I really feel a sense that every shot has been carefully considered, every word of the script crafted alongside the images.
I received some really thoughtful responses to letter #27 when I wrote about getting older. Several of you took the time to let me know you found comfort from hearing about my own feelings and experiences, and I was struck by a sense of how privileged I am to have this channel through which I can turn my own fears, crises and negativity into something positive for other people. I am very lucky indeed.
A few parents rightly pointed out that having children does not necessarily insulate you from the feeling of not knowing what to do next. You can have children and still feel lost.
And while I struggle to find role models, Tim wrote in with a huge list of artists who inspire him; people who, while obviously not perfect, are (in Tim’s words) “all fighting the good fight — for better art, for a kind of beauty in this life, and for values such as compassion and courage”:
Jacob Aue Sobol
Karl Ove Knausgaard
Gus van Sant
I am inspired by how some of these artists are on Tim’s list not for their artistic brilliance but because of the work they do outside of their “job”. Thank you for sharing this, Tim.
Thank you to everyone who has written to me recently. I owe you all a big apology: a mixture of work deadlines and a painfully arduous flat-hunting process have absorbed the time I usually set aside to respond to your messages.
I promise to do better, just as soon as we have a new place to live!
On Thursday we are scheduled to shoot in a studio for one day for my series with Jaron Lanier (see letter #18.) I am a little out of my comfort zone here - we are filming with actors and props and, although there is no dialogue being recorded, it feels like it is a scenario ripe with things that can go wrong.
But - assuming nothing does go wrong - once it is in the can, the series will be almost finished. I started work on it in December, so I’m excited to see it all come together.
Meanwhile The New York Times is publishing another video I have made tomorrow.
This has been a collaboration with a guy my age who has spent the last 16 years at San Quentin State Prison in California. I’m really proud of what we’ve made - it’s a fresh take on a really important topic.
I will share a rundown of the visual storytelling behind it next week.
Until next Sunday,