BBC’s Arena celebrates one of the great modern film makers.

Mick Jagger in Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell's Performance.

Mick Jag­ger in Nic Roeg and Don­ald Cam­mel­l’s Per­for­mance.

Nico­las Roeg has only made 13 films in total, but the first sev­en of them makes up one of the most impor­tant bod­ies of work in Euro­pean cinema.

He began in the cam­era depart­ment, and by the 1960s he was the cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er on some of Britain’s most icon­ic films, work­ing on Lawrence of Ara­bia, Far From the Madding Crowd and Doc­tor Zhiva­go, though he remained un-cred­it­ed on that last one after a falling out with David Lean.

Then in 1970 he made his direc­to­r­i­al debut Per­for­mance, which, unusu­al­ly for a British film, he direct­ed togeth­er with Don­ald Cam­mell. Roeg con­cen­trat­ed on the look of the film, and Cam­mell worked with the actors and on the script. The gift­ed but trou­bled Cam­mell then made Demon Seed in 77, but when the stu­dio man­gled their cut of his Wild Side in 1995, he com­mit­ted suicide.

Julie Christy in Don't Look Now.

Julie Christy in Don’t Look Now.

Although the world of Per­for­mance is very much the one that Cam­mell inhab­it­ed, with its heady mix of the May­fair set and gang­ster Lon­don, it looks and feels like a Roeg film. And the cast­ing of Mick Jag­ger in one of the leads would be fol­lowed sub­se­quent­ly by Roeg with David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth and Art Gar­funkel in Bad Tim­ing.

Walk­a­bout, his first film prop­er, was next in ’71. A star­tling­ly orig­i­nal take on the clash of civ­i­liza­tions as a white boy and girl are left to fend for them­selves in the Aus­tralian out­back after being aban­doned there. But it was Don’t Look Now in ‘73 that real­ly caught the world’s attention.

Don­ald Suther­land and Julie Christy are in Venice try­ing to come to terms with the death of their child. The film unfolds with an ellip­ti­cal, almost casu­al­ly poet­ic mould­ing of time, and it is this more than any­thing that char­ac­ter­izes Roeg’s work.

David Bowie as The Man Who Fell To Earth.

David Bowie as The Man Who Fell To Earth.

This strik­ing­ly lat­er­al, almost anti lin­ear sense of time, and one of the most mem­o­rable and grown up sex scenes in mod­ern cin­e­ma woke the world up to a seri­ous Euro­pean film maker.

The Man Who Fell To Earth fol­lowed in ‘76, Bad Tim­ing in ‘80, Eure­ka in ‘83 and then Insignif­i­cance in ‘85. All are crim­i­nal­ly over-looked. They each man­age to be daz­zling­ly orig­i­nal in their look and feel as they tack­le exis­ten­tial themes with a deft light­ness of touch. Intel­lec­tu­al depth explored with visu­al bril­liance, panache and orig­i­nal­i­ty, so that form and con­tent per­fect­ly merge.

Teresa Russell in the criminally overlooked Insignificance.

Tere­sa Rus­sell in the crim­i­nal­ly over­looked Insignif­i­cance.

If you’ve yet to see any of them, lucky you, it’s all ahead of you.

Cast­away was some­thing of a damp squib in 86, but Track 29 in 88, script­ed by Denis Pot­ter was a return to form. But his film of Roald Dahl’s The Witch­es in 90 was anoth­er mild dis­ap­point­ment, falling some­where in between a children’s and a grown up’s film.

And that alas is pret­ty much it. There have been three films since, but they are hard­ly worth men­tion­ing in the con­text of what had come before. And ever since, Roeg has been talk­ing to var­i­ous pro­duc­ers and financiers about mak­ing a come­back. So the Are­na pro­file, apt­ly titled It’s About Time on BBC4 was some­thing of a mixed blessing.

Gene Hackman in Eureka.

Gene Hack­man in Eure­ka.

On the one hand, it was final­ly some sort of recog­ni­tion for, arguably, the most impor­tant, and cer­tain­ly the most orig­i­nal film mak­er that Britain has ever pro­duced. On the oth­er, if felt like an admis­sion of defeat as far as any future projects are concerned.

Watch the Are­na pro­file. And then treat your­selves to one of those first sev­en films of his.

Rather like David Bowie’s six albums between Young Amer­i­cans and Scary Mon­sters, those first sev­en films of Roeg’s man­age to be at once extra­or­di­nar­i­ly var­ied and yet vis­i­bly, dis­tinct­ly craft­ed by the same bril­liant hand.

In the mean­time, here’s the trail­er  for Don’t Look Now. And this by the way is how you cut a trail­er. Every stu­dio head in Hol­ly­wood should be forced to watch this at least once a week.

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