A Cathode-Ray High-Rise

Filmmaker and writer Adam Scovell delights in remixing and reworking the photographic techniques and film stock of the past to disturbing new ends. In his latest work, a trailer for a nonexistent 70s TV series of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, he captures the novel’s atmosphere with brutal relish. Here he talks about Ballard’s impact on the television of that era.

 “She referred to the high-rise as if it were some kind of huge animate presence, brooding over them and keeping a magisterial eye on the events taking place.” High-Rise, (1975)

‘Reading the fiction of J.G. Ballard can be an unnerving experience for a modern day, city-dwelling millennial such as myself.  The accuracy which so many of Ballard’s fictions achieved in hindsight – predicting the architectural, cultural and political trends that dominate today with a sage-like precision – means that it sometimes feels like having been being born into one of his novels.  Tower blocks, business parks, retail centres, celebrity obsessions and a constant bombardment of violent imagery have all been normal for quite some time.  With novels such as The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974) and The Unlimited Dream Company (1979), Ballard fed the raw material of 1970s Britain back to itself, merely accelerating its tendencies and obsessions to the fever pitch that is now recognisably the everyday norm of twenty-first century life.  Walking around London today, it’s not difficult to be consistently reminded of his most prescient novel, High-Rise (1975); a complex and violent prediction of what such structures were capable of doing to the human psyches that resided within them.  With Ballard’s warning unheeded, London took on the high-rise model of living which still continues today, the skyline being more and more littered with protruding blocks and shards vying for the clouds.

Yet, with Ballard’s most prolific period of writing being the 1970s, it’s sometimes easy to forget that he was channelling themes and ideas ubiquitous in a certain type of British culture, especially that found on the decade’s television.  The strangeness, the brutality and the surrealism of Ballard’s writing can be found reflected in even the most popular of 1970s programming; for example, catching the right episode of the police series, The Sweeney (1975-1978), can sometimes be a far more Ballardian experience than actually watching genuine adaptations of his work.  It was with a recent and constant engagement with such television that I decided to put together a fake trailer for what High-Rise itself could have looked like if the BBC had adapted it then, perhaps for one of their many (much missed) single drama slots such as Play for Today or The Wednesday Play.  Ballard had had a brief affair with the BBC in terms of adaptations, including a dramatisation of his short story, Thirteen To Centaurus (1965), for the series Out Of The Unknown, and a short adaptation of his Crash! chapter from The Atrocity Exhibition in 1971, starring Ballard himself opposite actress, Gabrielle Drake.  With so many potential slots for Ballard to have worked in, it’s a shame to find so little else.  But other series were carrying many Ballardian torches even before the typical themes for the writer himself were really lit.

SIMON OATES as Ridge JOBY BLANSHARD as Bradley JOHN PAUL as Dr Quist ROBERT POWELL WENDY HALL

Most of the footage for the trailer comes from an episode of the science-fiction series, Doomwatch (1970-1972).  The series was infamous for causing several controversies at the time, namely through latching on to real-life research and science problems.  It caused a storm with its tale of mutant rats on the loose in London in Tomorrow, The Rat.  Though Doomwatch largely dealt with themes of ecological disaster, similar to those in Ballard’s earlier work such as The Drowned World (1962) and The Drought (1964), it also managed to predate High-Rise with a remarkably similar assessment of tower block living in the episode, The Human Time Bomb.  Written by Louis Marks, it addresses almost all of themes in Ballard’s novel but several years before its publication.  It makes one wonder whether Ballard actually watched the episode.  More importantly, there’s a grain to the footage.  This grain captures London’s continued obsession in this period with brutalist structures and housing but also naturally captures the casual nastiness underneath the surface of 1970s Britain.  It’s the sort of thing that can only be forced on a modern drama in hindsight but, behind every shot in The Human Time Bomb, there’s a sense of tension derived from reality itself.  Ballard wrote his novel in this same atmosphere, attuned to prying neighbours, misogyny and a violent release from boredom:

“A new social type was being created by the apartment building, a cool, unemotional personality impervious to the psychological pressures of high-rise life, with minimal needs for privacy, who thrived like an advanced species of machine in the neutral atmosphere. This was the sort of resident who was content to do nothing but sit in his over-priced apartment, watch television with the sound turned down, and wait for his neighbours to make a mistake.” (1975).

We will never know what a full Ballard adaptation from this period would have looked like, such is the great tragedy of Nicolas Roeg’s attempt at the project falling apart in the late 70s, but excavating the strange artefacts and anomalies of popular television from this period does allow a brief a glimpse of what could have been.  We are, of course, also spoiled with a genuine adaptation recently by Ben Wheatley in 2015.  Yet the absence of any adaptation of Ballard’s work in this period means that the writer ghosts 1970s television, his shadow gradually casting as he would fine tune the themes that naturally bled into everything from science-fiction to police dramas.  He may have haunted television and 1970s London as a whole but, as Ballard himself writes in High-Rise, “…this was an environment built, not for man, but for man’s absence.” (1975).’

Words by Adam Scovell

J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise is out now in paperback.

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