“I was being observed… by a tree!”

The BBC’s Forty Minutes was a documentary programme that, in the words of The Day Today, had an extraordinarily wide brief. One week you’d get a hard-hitting look at divorce, the next you’d get a nostalgic look back at Skiffle, and then on another week you’d get a full on piece of Art with a capital A.

It was that one edition broadcast in the early 80s — Thursday 26th April 1984, to be exact — which caused a minor ruckus, though not so much out of someone’s Christian values being attacked by a load of naked ladies covered in blue paint or some such thing, but rather from the belief of many at the BBC, and possibly the newspaper TV critics of the time, that it was just ludicrously pretentious and a waste of that license fee money. The general public seems not to have noticed at all, however, apparently being otherwise engaged on 26/04/1984. Here, from the BBC’s Genome site (and complete with OCR errors), is a listing from the Radio Times of that fateful programme.

BBC2
21:30
Forty Minutes
… of documentary

A series of films portraying issues, institutions and individuals.

O Alien
A film by David Gladwell

The narrator of this imaginary documentary has invented the idea that tar[sic] out in the universe alien beings have heard that here on earth there exists a species which has developed an instinct and a means to destroy itself and its world. An alien arrives to find out what he can about the species. How, the narrator asks, would this world appear to the visitor? bven[sic] the grass underfoot would be a new experience. So would a tree, a road, and the high street of a market town. And if the alien who came to earth to witness its end arrived at the town early on a Sunday morning, he would assume he had come too late. There is no sign of life, not a living creature.

But there are bodies without life, behind glass, together with artefacts of all kinds, like Egyptian kings buried with their possessions….

Photography ALEX HANSEN
Radiophonic sound JONATHAN GIBBS
Film editor TERENCE TWIGG
Executive producer ROGER MILLS

(The full page with that listing can be found here.)

Despite a very brief bit of notoriety, with a BBC producer claiming it was “the worst programme ever made” — not in a world that’s had The Black & White Minstrel Show and Balls Of Steel, I’d wager — the years since saw O Alien (and also Forty Minutes itself, come to think of it) being utterly forgotten. Although not by some younger and impressionable sorts who had seen it at the time — and ultimately the internet will help us remember those dim and distant TV shows of the past, and even help those of us who missed them see it, partially at least in this case.

I first heard about O Alien via a thread on British message board Cook’d & Bomb’d, most well known for its discussions of comedy and for making TV executives cry during the mid 2000s. The first poster said that O Alien had been mentioned in passing during BBC2’s 40th anniversary celebrations, which is where that producer publicly aired his opinion. The OP also described some of what happened in O Alien. There were two scenes that had stuck with him — the final section of the programme showing graphic slow motion footage of farm animals being slaughtered for meat, and a scene where a woman (also in slow-motion) takes her top off and lets loose a huge pair of breasts. There was some talk over whether it had a point, or was just doing all of this for the sake of it.

The thread only got a few posts and seemed to fall silent, but then about four years later the thread was revived when someone managed to find some footage from it on Youtube. (And then it got sidetracked onto something completely different within two further posts.) It wasn’t the complete show, but a small edited segment of it that was featured in the surprisingly high quality “laughing at weird old telly” clip show TV’s Believe It Or Not. The show, narrated by Sean Lock, very honourably went way off the extremely well trod path that every single other clip show does (you know, the kind that gets repeated late at night on Channel 5 and always digs out that Saturday Superstore bit of the kid asking Five Star why they’re a gaggle of twats, or whatever it was), and made a special effort to mostly cover a lot of equally ridiculous and dreadful British television that previous researchers had overlooked.

One of those clips was, obviously, O Alien. And you can see that segment, along with Lock’s piss-taking, at the start of the video linked below (although some careless editor thinks it was just called Alien — that’s a different thing entirely, mate):

https://youtu.be/4HiSj9O9D9I

Lock’s quips at O Alien’s expense are certainly amusing — the business with the tree at the start, for example — but speaking as someone with an interest in the arts, it’s also quite sad. It looked to me like a fascinating, absurd thing that might have had more of a chance had it not been shown at half past nine on a Thursday night on BBC2, and instead at an arthouse cinema. And I recently discovered that there’s a reason for that.

O Alien was, in effect, a short film by David Gladwell, mentioned all the way up the page there in that Radio Times listing. Gladwell is best known as an editor, notably for his work on Lindsay Anderson’s If… and O Lucky Man!. His first directed films were made in the 1950s and were shorts that were unapologetically experimental and abstract, though not in a “blobs of paint on clear film” kind of way. I came across this article on the blog Celluloid Wickerman that describes his early work, and it’s clear from those descriptions alone that O Alien is very much a continuation of themes he had been exploring and developing throughout his career.

The scenes of the countryside, the unsettling use of music (sometimes electronic), the use of slow motion, animals being killed for food — these are all things that crop up in his early films and that reoccurred elsewhere in his filmography, whether it be for his own work or the work he did for others. This was not just a load of stuff thrown together, it was not merely an attempt at some sort of pointless provocation — it had a meaning and a purpose. Do read that article I linked to, and then take a look at this latter-day trailer for his first feature film, 1975’s Requiem for a Village:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cp1-cOSagAQ

I don’t know about you, but after watching that trailer, those gags about calling that tree a tosser kind of rub me up the wrong way. I really want to see O Alien in full now, and I’ll be picking up a copy of Requiem for a Village as soon as I can. (The BFI have released it on DVD.) David Gladwell was (is! — he’s still with us) an artist, and a documentary strand on BBC2 in 1984 was no place for artists. It bloody ought to have been, though.

Chris “Chriddof” Lyons

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Producer of various types of online content since the early- mid 2000s, all of it quite odd and usually pretty niche…