Tip; You know Baal's a bit of a cunt because he refers to himself in the third person. As it is today, so it was in the 1900s.
Following the naturalistic almost documentary like Scum (both the banned 1977 Play for Today and the subsequent 1979 feature film) and preceding his trio of stripped down BBC plays Contact, Christine and Elephant as well as the feature film Rita, Sue and Bob Too, it would appear - at first glance at least - that Baal was something of a backward step for acclaimed director Alan Clarke; a return to the videotape TV drama he had made in the previous decade. But Clarke was a devotee of Baal's author, the German modernist playwright Bertolt Brecht, and would go on to employ similar modernist techniques in his remaining films (most notably the trio mentioned previously for the BBC) With that in mind, this is - if anything - a natural progressive step forward in his career.
Brecht's first full length play, written when he was just twenty in 1918, is set in the years before the Great War and employs a the minimal narrative through a succession of scenes concerning a wastrel young poet, proclaimed a genius, whose disillusionment, intelligence and acerbic cynicism alienates everyone he encounters, whether at refined dinner parties or in rowdy dingy taverns. He ruthlessly conducts a series of sexual affairs, abandons an unborn child, commits murder and ultimately dies alone in a woodcutter's hut in the mountains.
Given that Brecht pioneered the techniques of epic theatre, the dramatic style which presented the action in a manner which left the audience in no doubt that they were watching a play at all times, Clarke rightly shoots his adaptation as a piece of theatre. Studio bound (the production was mounted at Studio One at BBC Television Centre) Clarke chose to shoot at a distance on long lenses, eschewing close ups, giving the TV viewer a sense of watching from the stalls. The interiors are bleak but lavishly detailed resolutely placing Baal amongst those he chooses to show contempt towards, as if he is condemned to be there or as if to highlight his dramatic role as the uncouth intellect who remorselessly uncovers the hypocrisies of the world around him. His is a character who rejects the trappings of the bourgeois society but cannot, by Clarke's staging and by his nature as a character within a story, break free of them. It is only really in the split screen shots - which serve as brief pauses between vignettes - that Clarke truly places the rock and roll superstar turned actor in close up; his uneven coloured eyes shark-like staring out at the viewer as he strums a guitar and sings verses of the Baal hymn flatly whilst, at the other side of the screen, he is paired either with one of the other characters or with a caption introducing the next scene.
As for Bowie himself, its a typically mannered, magnetic and rather detached performance complete with jerky head movements and chin tipping. I can imagine it seems wooden - and let's face it, though I love him, Bowie was never the greatest actor and his best performance (to my mind) Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence was still a year off when Baal was transmitted in March of 1982 - but it is nonetheless right for the lead role in a play from the pen of a man who willfully used 'Verfremdungseffekt' an effect which deliberately alienated the audience and expected his actors to perform in the 'gestus' style, that is to say a combination of physical gestures and 'gist' or attitude. We have to thank the man who adapted Brecht's work for the screen here, John Willett, to thank for casting Bowie as Clarke had initially wanted Steven Berkoff!
But Brecht's style is a hard one and one can only imagine what viewers made of this as it made its debut on primetime BBC1 at 9:25 one cold March Tuesday evening in 1982 (unthinkable now!) Baal is not an especially engaging watch but the brilliance and/or the natural correctness of the techniques on display cannot be denied. If watched at 'the right age' (teens/late teens) I could well imagine this being a pseudo-intellectual, pretentious delight to analyse over and over again as I'm sure young Bowie fans did at the time. As a bloke in his mid 30s I can safely say that when it comes to art, I know what I like. I admire the workmanship on display here, but I wouldn't necessarily hang it on my wall.
This film remains unavailable on DVD and can only be watched on YouTube. It's rather ridiculous that one of the UK's finest directors has so much of his work under appreciated/little screened.
To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic TV plays please sign the petition I started here