Maintaining its commitment to preserving the disparate underbelly of our post-war national cinema, the BFI has just released a 4-disc DVD box-set of the all too brief output of Richard Woolley, another auteur that never was.
After studying structuralist aesthetics at the Royal College of Art, Woolley won a scholarship to Berlin in 1973, where he joined a group of ‘undogmatic Marxists’ concerned with the angst of capitalism and the inequalities of sexual politics. A determined avant-gardist, he made a few Godardian shorts and let his spare room to Takahiko Iimura, who he says taught him how to make money from being an artist - make it cheap!
Returning to the UK in the mid-70s, Woolley’s first featurette, Illusive Crime, was part funded by Yorkshire Arts, though its geography is far removed from Emmerdale. Filmed mainly in one location, the narrative develops over 12 revolving shots, with non-sync dialogue and off-screen action. The camera, often static and locked off, observes from a distance. It was shot on Ektachrome reversal stock, and there’s an apology/disclaimer at the front of the film for the slight imperfections and edge fogs on the print available here. Beginning with a long typewriter explanation of the film’s exposition, complete with sneezing and spelling corrections, it’s a voyeuristic exploration of a faceless rural housewife as she is sexually assaulted by the police, who believes her to be guilty of the non-existent event of the title, and dismissed as hysterical by her returning husband.
Telling Tales, Woolley’s first full-length feature, continues his exploration of gender and class politics. A middle-class couple bicker on the verge of divorce, while their servant couple grind their coffee and fetch the bottle openers. Framed through faraway doors, the film suggests that ultimately there’s little difference between both parties, all susceptible to money and greed. With Brechtian deconstruction, colour flashbacks and manifesto texts sometimes delivered direct to camera, it becomes a bleak comedy of manners.
In 1980 Woolley got his ‘proper’ break with Brothers and Sisters, a 35mm film funded by the BFI and inspired by the Yorkshire Ripper murders. A more conventional, realist film with professional actors and a quasi-whodunnit plotline, though retaining Woolley’s fondness for framing through doorways and his recurrent class and feminist themes, it achieved a wider distribution, but ultimately suffered from straddling the line between commercial and art-house. A final film, Girl from the South, followed in 1988, about a poor little rich girl who dreams of Mills & Boon, falling for a poor black boy who loves Elgar.
Strangely, by moving to a cosier and more accessible narrative form, Woolley became exhausted by directing and years of frustrated script development (the 1984 short Waiting for Alan is a reference to the Channel 4 commissioning editor). In the 90s Woolley turned to education, setting up the Northern Film School in Leeds, and then to music, and more recently has published three novels. An interview with Woolley on each disc extra includes an amusing anecdote about his encounter with R.W. Fassbinder. In his moment, Woolley had ranked alongside Peter Greenaway and Terence Davies in the pecking order of that elusive, contradictory category, British Auteur, and this box-set is a tragic reminder of how the UK gatekeepers have always missed the boat when it comes to nurturing a cinema of the left-field.