Orson Welles Sketchbook, Episode One is shown on BBC Four about Welles’s debut at the Gate Theater in Dublin; Plus Welles expert Christian McKay on why Welles should get a star for his TV work on the Hollywood walk of fame!Monday, December 21st, 2009
The recent BBC Four showing of the first episode from Orson Welles Sketchbook dovetails nicely into something Christian McKay and I recently discussed during dinner when Mr. McKay was in San Francisco to promote Me and Orson Welles.
Namely, how Welles work in television, which has probably remained the least celebrated aspect of his work, is also in many regards, quite as sensational as his work in film, theatre and radio.
What is amazing to me, is that it took my talk with Mr. McKay, along with a article by Ben Walters on Welles television work at Columbia University's website, to make me realize just how much Welles did for the artistry of television.
Ah, but therein lies the rub...
Because for me, at least just the mention of the words "artistry" and "television" makes me blanch. Yet there is no doubt Welles brought his artistic gifts to television, as can be attested by his TV shows such as Fountain of Youth, In The Land of Don Quixote, Orson's Bag, The Immortal Story, and even his many guest appearances on television shows like Dean Martin, Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett.
Christian McKay and I discussed Orson Welles and his work for television in this excerpt from our long talk, below, which is followed by a complete transcript of the first episode of Orson Welles Sketchbook.
I found this missing episode from the Sketchbook series especially entertaining, as it sets the tone and ideas that will be presented in the following five shows, and even if the events Welles talks about are not totally believable, they are certainly quite entertaining. I for one would love to hear Welles expound about the night "The police had to be called out to protect him from the wrath of an Irish audience. But that’s another story. Maybe I’ll tell that some other time..."
What I also found to be especially interesting, is that both Mr. Welles and Mr. McKay talk about the innocence they experienced when working as actors for the first time (albeit in different mediums.)
In Welles case, on the stage in Dublin in 1931, and Mr. McKay, his first major role in a movie shot at the Gaiety Theater, on the Isle of Man, just off the east coast of Ireland, over 75 years later.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: If you should get a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Me and Orson Welles, I’m sure you’d want to promote a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Orson Welles work in the theatre.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: But I’ve already seen two of them for Welles.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Yes, but you can get three. Welles doesn’t have a star for theatre yet, and you can get one for television as well. Bob Hope actually has four stars, but I don’t think Welles will ever get a star for his work in American television.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: You don’t think so?
LAWRENCE FRENCH: No, not in this country, anyway.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: What about The Fountain of Youth?
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Oh, that’s right!
CHRISTIAN McKAY: That was astonishing!
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You’re absolutely right, and if you consider all the TV shows he did in Europe, he should have four stars. Wouldn’t that be terrific! Bob Hope and Orson Welles would each have four stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame! It's just that I don’t know if they would actually consider Welles for his television work in America.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: What about Around the World with Orson Welles, and Orson Welles Sketchbook?
LAWRENCE FRENCH: They are great, but I’m not sure if they would consider that work, because they were made in England. Here they remember Welles for his appearances on the Dean Martin Roasts and Johnny Carson.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: But what about all the skits he did? Putting on his make-up for Falstaff on The Dean Martin Show. That is absolutely brilliant.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You're right! He also did a staggering version of Shylock on The Dean Martin Show. It was the best scene of Shylock I’ve ever seen. Stefan Drossler used it in his compilation of scenes from the various versions Welles made for The Merchant of Venice, and the version Welles did on Dean Martin is far and away the best reading of “Hath not a Jew eyes” he ever did.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: Orson was absolutely brilliant on those shows! And that was all television work.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: And one of the greatest speeches ever given on an awards show was Welles acceptance speech after he received the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1975. That was a television show broadcast on his old station, CBS.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: Where he talks about “My own particular contrariety.” That’s the title of my book, you know.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Yes, it's where Welles quotes Samuel Johnson.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: I love that speech and I wrote a book called My Own Particular Contrariety, which is about me playing Orson. I had a publisher in London who wanted to do it, but I suddenly got cold feet. I thought, “No, this is ridiculous this is one the first good roles I’ve ever had, so it’s silly." I wanted to share the experience, but it was brutally honest about other people, as well as myself. My own failings, and it talks at great length about preparing for the role and playing Welles, but I thought it was too early.
Orson Welles' Sketchbook
Episode One - April 24, 1955
On: Stage props, an earthquake in Hollywood and debuting at the Gate Theatre in Dublin
ORSON WELLES: I hope you haven’t gathered from the title of this that you are in for a televised art exhibit. The sketchbook part of it is frankly, just a prop. A prop is a stage term, it’s an abbreviation of the expression, stage property. Anything that you may see up on stage besides an actor and the scenery is likely to be a prop. For example Yorick’s skull is a prop, Romeo’s vial of poison and the telephone in Dial M For Murder, they’re all props. There are also props in real life -- when we are self-conscious we put our hands to our neckties and light a cigarette -- all that sort of thing. In other words a prop is just what it means in the dictionary. It is something to prop us with. It’s a crutch, something to lean on. So the sketchbook is exactly that, it’s a prop, something for me to turn to when I lose the thread of what I’m talking about and it’s something for you to look at besides my face which ought to come as a nice break in the horrid monotony.
I remember the first night I was ever in Hollywood, I would have been very grateful indeed for a prop like the sketchbook, because I did lose the thread. I was speaking after dinner. I had been introduced as a great after dinner speaker, I don’t know quite why, because I’m not, but I had been and this was a great Hollywood dinner with every star I’d ever seen in my life. I was tremendously impressed and there they all were with a lot of other grand people besides: Maharajahs and all kinds of titled folk. I had been called upon and of course, being very frightened and very eager to please I started a funny story which I heard that day. I had gone on for a while when it dawned on me that I had forgotten how it ended. I continued with the story and I hoped that somehow I would find an ending. Somehow find a way to invent one. The people were all looking at me very eagerly, waiting for the finish, because they knew that although the story was very boring, it must be boring for a purpose. Obviously it was boring because the end was going to be so tremendously amusing that they all looked up at me eagerly and I continued and continued and I thought “how in heavens name can I get of this thing? I could pretend to faint or drop dead, or rush out and yell “fire,” or continue to invent comical finishes that elicited no titters whatsoever -- quietly and secretly praying to myself to heaven -- and then my prayer was granted. Ever since then I’ve been a great believer in the efficacy of prayer because just as I’d given up hope, just as I was wondering how I could get out of the situation, the walls started to shake, the chandelier fell down from the ceiling onto the table, people jumped under the table – this was California, remember – it was an earthquake! So I was saved and my Hollywood career was saved by an earthquake. I can’t pretend my drawings are any sort of an earthquake, but they’ll have to stand in for that sort of distraction.