Arena: Dylan in the Madhouse

Wednesday, September 28, 2005 by

“Come gather round, people, and hear what I say, ’bout the time Bob Dylan was in a BBC play, we’d all like to see it but they threw it away, and the tape it is a-missing”.

If you’re a fan of 1960s music, it can sometimes seem almost as though the BBC archives had a grudge against you personally. If you’d like to see the famous editions of Juke Box Jury in which the panelists were the full line-ups of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, or witness the almost unthinkable spectacle of the original roster of Pink Floyd on Top of the Pops, or just find out how on Earth The Small Faces managed to mime to The Universal, you’re out of luck. And then there’s the small matter of Bob Dylan’s first major television appearance.

Directed by industry legend Phillip Saville, the BBC’s production of Evan Jones’ The Madhouse on Castle Street was broadcast early in 1963, and featured the 21-year-old Dylan – in his first visit to Britain – singing and acting in the role of an idealistic young student sharing a boarding house with a recluse being sought by his family. Although the ambitious and challenging play got mixed press reviews, it seems to have been well received by the more sympathetic sectors of the audience, and is generally regarded as something of a landmark small-screen drama production of its day. And then in 1968 – as the documentary reminded us to the ironic strains of Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower – the BBC destroyed the only known copy.

Although such wiping of tapes was routine at the time and there are certainly many more missing treasures, some of them of far greater social importance than The Madhouse on Castle Street, it is nonetheless somewhat odd that it should have been considered surplus to requirements when enough time had elapsed for Saville, Jones, Dylan and co-star David Warner to have become major figures in their respective fields. Even when serious-minded television rock music shows first began to mine the past in the early 1970s it was nowhere to be found, and for years all that was known for certain to remain of it were the script and a couple of on-set and rehearsal photos.

As an accompaniment to Martin Scorsese’s recent two-part BBC2 documentary on Dylan, BBC4 screened Dylan In The Madhouse, another production of the Arena team that chronicled the background to this curious event in his performing history. From the look of the rest of their themed scheduling they would much rather have been able to screen the play itself as well, and to this end the documentary extended its focus to examine the producers’ attempts to recover any footage that might still be in existence somewhere.

As regards the actual production of Castle Street, the programme took an interesting and highly distinctive approach to its subject, blending the recollections of cast and crew with anecdotes about Dylan’s performing engagements and assimilation into the homegrown folk scene during his stay, and general scene-setting of the sociocultural backdrop of the broadcast. This served the purposes of the documentary extremely well; in particular the shifting between black and white photos of Dylan and company being directed around the set and news footage of harsh weather conditions overlaid with erstwhile Light Programme presenter Brian Matthew introducing the hits of the day gave some feel to the visual remnants, and the recollections of those who watched the broadcast as viewers at home – most of whom conveyed the impression that their parents would not necessarily have approved of their viewing such subversive works – built up a strong picture of what the television and pop music industries were actually like at that almost prehistoric point in their development. Of course this could never be any sort of a replacement for the actual play itself, yet it still gave a very definite flavour of what it must have been like.

This was only half of the story, though, and the ongoing saga of the production team’s attempts to trace a copy of the drama was related in fragments throughout the documentary, introducing elements where considered appropriate to the narrative. So what do you do when you want to make a documentary about a television programme, but have little of substance to illustrate it with? The answer, my friend, is rummage in the bins. Or to be more accurate, ask around Dylan fan circles and put out as many widespread appeals as possible. The constant intrusion from a typewritten caption asking “Do You Have It?” at regular intervals may have been overstating the case a little, but even so it is exactly this sort of dogged persistence that led to the production team discovering more significant material from the play than had ever previously been known to exist.

Unsurprisingly the cast and crew members who were interviewed were somewhat bitter about its disappearance, in a couple of cases darkly hinting there may have been some deliberate motive behind its junking. Sadly none of them could shed any light on its whereabouts, although it did emerge that the tape had been transferred to film for editing, which makes it more likely that an unauthorised copy could still be out there somewhere; something that Arena editor Anthony Wall remains optimistic about. Elsewhere, a series of high profile appeals by the programme managed to uncover some amazing material; a lengthy letter from a member of the production team who was able to fill in some of the information gaps regarding the technical detail of the play, and no less than three off-air audio recordings of the play in part or full. One of these was made completely by chance; another by the owner of an alternative bookstore which Dylan had called into shortly before the broadcast, and one by a major Dylan fan who had elected to keep his ownership of the treasured tape quiet until now. It’s a shame that nothing visual was recovered – and from an audience viewpoint it was immensely frustrating to discover that when the documentary somewhat excitingly overran, it was doing so to accommodate the third audio find rather than any footage (although this was more than compensated for by hearing The Ballad of the Gliding Swan in something approaching reasonable sound quality) – but the fact that the discoveries included three otherwise unrecorded songs alongside the earliest known version of Blowin’ in The Wind (included in the play after Saville overheard him singing it) makes them important discoveries in their own right.

Some reviewers commented that Dylan in the Madhouse was somehow unsatisfying due to the lack of any available illustrative footage, but that is missing the point entirely – the documentary only ever existed because this fascinating corner of television history itself didn’t. Its purpose was to provide, in addition to the story behind the play, some semblance of what it was like for the viewer at home, and this it did to tremendous effect. On this evidence, if by some stroke of luck there is a film reel languishing in a vault somewhere, the recovered The Madhouse on Castle Street would be worthy of a BBC4 season in its own right.


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