Part Four of the Berlin Trilogy: Bowie in Baal

The past is a different country. They make wilder TV there. Take March 2 1982, when, just after The Nine O’Clock News, the gentle viewers of Britain heard the continuity announcer say this:

“On BBC One now, a star vehicle for a Big Star – Bertolt Brecht’s first character creation, the anarchic genius Baal, is portrayed in tonight’s television presentation by David Bowie…”

If it’s difficult to believe there was once a time when Bowie could turn up on BBC One at 9:25PM on a Tuesday night in a bleak, abrasive adaptation of a difficult 1918 play by Brecht, well, get used to the feeling – or, at least, get used to it if you’re planning going anywhere near Dissent & Disruption, a 13-disc BluRay box (also available as two 6-disc DVD sets) gathering the surviving BBC productions of director Alan Clarke, a colossus who died in 1990. The 23 dramas included range widely in style and subject, but all leave you wondering that there was ever TV being made like this in the UK. Or, perhaps, wondering why it isn’t being made like this anymore.

Clarke’s collaboration with Bowie is a good way in: it’s not the greatest piece here, but it is extraordinary, and, although relegated to a footnote in Bowie’s work, it marks a pivotal moment – his last art-for-art’s-sake auf wiedersehen to Berlin and all that.

Baal was Brecht’s first play, and it rages with strange, provocative adolescent glee and anger, all angst, spite, spiky angles and bitter humour, while foreshadowing both the fascination with outcasts and the experimental techniques for which he would become famous, not least the use of song and heightened dialogue.

The eponymous anti-hero is a filthy, dissolute artist running on schnapps, sex and his all-encompassing loathing of polite Weimar society and its hypocrisies. Blessed with a divine gift for poetry and performance, he’s a user, a manipulator, a self-aggrandising, self-pitying narcissist and all-round bastard – a prototype rockstar, you could argue. We follow him down, from elite salons through sodden barrooms and fetid garrets, through debasement, abuse and abandonment, rape and murder, finally out into the wild uncaring heart of the Black Forest.

When Clarke first conceived of filming the play, in collaboration with Brecht scholar John Willet, he considered Steven Berkoff for the role. It was Willett who suggested Bowie, who, when the programme was recorded in summer 1981, had not long completed his run as The Elephant Man on the American stage. He brings lessons learned there, as well as during his time with Lindsay Kemp, and, of course, the years stalking stages as Ziggy and The Duke. (The beautiful annunciation he brought to his Peter And The Wolf narration was also good training.)

Clarke mounts the piece with a degree of stylisation that terrifies current British TV. Intercut with abstract split-screen monologues and songs, the cast perform as though in a live performance against huge, detailed sets erected as frieze-like tableaux, the camera usually at a distance – as if, indeed, you were sat in the stalls viewing a theatre stage. A filthy, snaggletoothed scum-seer, Bowie himself suggests an expressionist woodcut come to life, yet exudes a fitting naturalism the cast around him avoids.


He clearly responded to the project. “He understood the play and had thought about it,” John Willet later commented. “It was my impression that he knew more about Germany as a whole and Brecht’s ambience in particular than anyone except possibly [fellow Brecht expert and Cambridge don Louis] Marks and myself.”

To mark its broadcast, Bowie decided to cut a 7-inch EP of the five Brecht songs he performs in the drama, acting as his own Greek chorus. In the TV version, he accompanies himself with bare plucks at the banjo he perpetually clutches. For the Baal EP, however, Bowie returned to Germany’s Hansa studio with Tony Visconti and 15 woozy Berlin players, the last time he would record beside the Wall.

The resulting record has become something of a semi-obscure curio, but two songs, “The Drowned Girl” and “Remembering Marie A,” rank among Bowie’s most affecting recordings of the 1980s. Listening to these, watching the rank, ragged bohemian rat of his TV performance, it’s astonishing to remember that the next time the world saw him would be as the bopping blonde pop Apollo of “Let’s Dance.”

Deceptively stagebound, Baal may seem uncharacteristic of Clarke, who is best known for the visceral, prowling “realism” of television films like Scum, Made In Britain and The Firm. But everything here is united by attitude, anger and irreverence, by an unflinching gaze, a jabbing intensity of style and an explosion of ideas. Next time someone tells you we’re currently living in the Golden Age of TV, think of Clarke, and spit.