George Melly (1926-2007)
The Memoirs of a Self-Confessed Surrealist (1978)
A tribute to George Melly, a classic Arena documentary, made in 1978. His indirect journey, inspired by the Surrealist derive, takes him through rooms, streets, a strange cafe, with brief curious encounters on the way. Among them, the last of the surrealists in England (Eileen Agar, Conroy Maddox, Robert Melville and Roland Penrose), punk rock band The Stranglers, and an elephant. Melly intersperses the journey with memories of Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and E.L.T. Mesens, talking about the influence of Dada and Surrealism on his early life
It’s a short step from Dada to Surrealism, and George Melly provides a brief skate through the philosophies of both in this 25-minute BBC film from 1978. Melly, like JG Ballard, was struck by Surrealism at an impressionable age, and the love affair was a lasting one. Both Melly and Ballard championed Surrealism during periods when it was deeply unfashionable, an oppositional stance that Ballard at least often seemed to relish.
Melly’s enthusiasm was so well-known that he was often called upon as a token advocate of Surrealism whenever one was required by the TV channels, hence this film whose title implies an admission of something disreputable. A major exhibition of Surrealist art was taking place 1978 at the Hayward Gallery in London, and it’s to this exhibition that Melly journeys, explaining (and demonstrating) what it means to be a Surrealist along the way. I saw this when it was first broadcast, and the absurd phone calls to strangers inspired myself and a few school-friends to similar activities; teenage pranks seemed less frivolous with an artistic justification. There’s a slight connection to yesterday’s post in Melly’s recounting of an anecdote from the 1950s when he was spared a night-time beating by his reciting of Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate to a group of belligerent youths. Elsewhere you get to see punk band The Stranglers scowling at the camera—Melly suggests that the punks might be inheritors of the Dadaist attitude—and director Alan Yentob standing at a urinal.