Written and directed for the BBC by Welles himself, Orson Welles’ Sketch Book presents a series of six 15-minute commentaries by the filmmaker on a variety of subjects, including his early days in the theater, his views on critics and the role of the police, his interactions with famous figures like Harry Houdini and John Barrymore, his infamous radio production of The War of the Worlds, and bullfighting. Welles addresses the camera directly, creating an intimate, conversational space in keeping with his early views on the potential for the television format and celebrating his comfortable role as a storyteller.
Welles’ first foray into television came in 1953, when he agreed to participate in Peter Brook’s production of King Lear for CBS’s Omnibus. He was impressed with the ease and affordability of the production, remarking, “Technologically, television is a hundred years ahead of film.” Welles continued to pursue his interest in television while in Europe and his first opportunity came as a series of short, expository dialogues shot for the BBC. The conceit of Orson Welles’ Sketch Book was that Welles would share his own doodlings and use them as inspiration for improvised musings, pithy comments, and outrageous war stories from the world of entertainment. He humanizes himself in his first episode, “The Early Days”, wherein he recounts the trials and travails of his first efforts in the theatre. In his remaining 5 episodes, Welles reflects on the peers he’s admired (discussing Harry Houdini and John Barrymore in “Houdini/John Barrymore/Voodoo Story/The People I Missed”), describes some more notorious moments in his radio career (recounting his Martian invasion broadcast in “The War of the Worlds” and his public advocacy for Isaac Woodard, the victim of a lynching by law enforcement, in “The Police”), assumes the role of storyteller (telling Robert Flaherty’s story of Bonito the bull in “Bullfighting”), and takes on groups allegedly acting in the public’s interest (gently done in “Critics”; more harshly in “The Police”).
Welles noted that on TV “you’re only addressing two or three people. And above all, you’re addressing the ear.” Sketch Book is a decidedly casual and intimate affair. Welles sits before the viewer in medium close-up, occasionally scribbling on his sketch pad, contemplating more than pontificating. He flatters, teases, hints, and chuckles his way through the series. Ben Walters observes, “This was first-person T.V., programming that made eye contact with the viewer. It was rather like having Welles over for dinner.” Welles was always most comfortable as a raconteur and Sketch Book provides him a captive audience. The series succeeds by Welles’ endless charisma, his sonorous voice claiming him authority and his often hushed tone producing a conspiratorial flavour. Remarkably, the series has aged well. “To our digitally accustomed eyes,” Walters notes, “the one-to-one timbre of the programme comes off like a monochrome forebear of Skype or YouTube.” Pleasantly welcoming, full of wit, and easily paced, Orson Welles’ Sketch Book may be the closest thing we have to conversing with Welles the man, and that makes it deserving of at least a wacky “E”.
Credits: I mentioned Ben Walters’ essay on Welles’ television career in the previous post. A briefer version, “Orson’s TV revolution that never was”, was written for The Guardian as a companion to BBC Four’s re-airing of the series in 2009.