B.S. Johnson 1933-1973
This balancing act between respect for the subject matter and a little bit of stylistic cheek is best laid out in the two films Johnson made in relation to the Industrial Relations Bill. One of them, March!, is a documentary record pure and simple. The other, Unfair!, is an inventive dramatized affair that gets to the root of the issue through mostly comic means. The bill, which became an Act when it was approved by MPs in August 1971, set out to introduce the National Industrial Relations Court as a means of limiting the powers of the unions. If the NIRC deemed a union action unfair, that action would then become illegal; in other words, the voice of the employee could be diminished. Prior to the bill’s passing the TUC organised a mass protest in London on February 21st that would become the subject of March!. Johnson is believed to have penned the commentary (and possibly, according to Jonathan Coe’s biography, directed too), which is simple, clear-eyed, no-nonsense and effective.
The anger so clearly detectable in March!’s voice-over translates itself into absurdity in Unfair!. Co-written with fellow experimental novelist Alan Burns, this eight-minute piece enacts the potential consequences of the Industrial Relations Bill using three actors (Bill Owen as the worker, Freddie Earle as the employer and George Colouris as the judge) and a strain of easy-to-swallow, expertly-performed and colourfully-languaged satire. The sloganeering that would appear in B.S. Johnson on Dr. Samuel Johnson also makes itself known in case the humour was not already punchy enough: “WHAT IS UNFAIR? THE TORIES WILL DECIDE!”