Ways of filming: Mike Dibb in profile

Mike Dibb’s films about art and thinking, made for mainstream television, are considerable works of art in themselves.

9 February 2021

By Matthew Harle

Mike Dibb (left) with John Berger filming Pig Earth (1979)
Sight and Sound

In 1972, the BBC Arts department partnered the director Mike Dibb with writer John Berger to make a four-part series on the history of art. Fourteen years Berger’s junior, Dibb was surprised at how collaborative and trusting their working relationship became. Scripts were written and rewritten on the shared understanding that the fundamental assignment of the programme was to introduce the public to three radical concepts: the impact of photographic reproduction on oil painting, the influence of the male gaze, and the role of visual arts in consumerism and commodification.

Made on a shoestring budget and filmed in a goods shed in Ealing, Dibb named the series Ways of Seeing. The series was an immediate success; its opening scene depicting Berger, scalpel in hand, cutting out the head of Venus in Botticelli’s Venus and Mars issued something of a public riposte to the luxuriant connoisseurship of Kenneth Clark’s earlier BBC series Civilisation (1969). Ways of Seeing had captured a public mood receptive to radical post-1968 politics, and half a century later it remains the blueprint for bringing Marxist criticism to a wider public.

Dibb maintained a lifelong friendship with Berger, the pair making three more films together. Crucially for Dibb, Ways of Seeing established a collaborative practice as a film essayist which has endured in his work. Each of Dibb’s films is a dialogue, and his filmography post-Berger includes conversations with a number of other major thinkers and artists: David Hockney, Edward Said, Stuart Hall, A.S. Byatt and the jazz musician Barbara Thompson have all shared and questioned their work through his lens.

Mike Dibb filming David Hockney sketching Celia Birtwell for Seeing Through Drawing (1978)

Dibb’s films haven’t always relied on the authority of a central presenter, however. Some of his best work can be found in thematic series such as Seeing Through Drawing (1978) or, notably, Fields of Play (1982), a ruminating, abstract series, devised entirely by the director, which explored the meaning and necessity of play in human society. 

Fields of Play contains the best examples of what makes Dibb the leading exegetist of ideas in television. In the first episode, Plays of Meaning, a conversation between Dibb and Brian Sutton-Smith, the leading theorist of play, is overlaid with a montage of quick edits, before Dibb’s camera strays from the academic to focus on small details around the room – first his bookshelf, then a photograph on the wall – just as one’s attention might wander in person. Dibb is employing a sense of filmic play to engage with Sutton-Smith.

In doing so, he departs from the traditions of documentary television: where other directors point at and film talking heads, Dibb’s editing and camerawork have an impish attraction to detail and anecdote to illuminate his subject. Often the focus is on hands: the hands of artists, factory workers and musicians, or the gesticulations of a storyteller. In other instances, brief, subtly composed set pieces provide diverting yet deeply considered context for the film’s subject: Dibb interviews assembly-line workers at the Dunlop tennis ball factory in Barnsley before meeting John McEnroe at a publicity launch; he settles into the stands to watch cricket with C.L.R. James in Yorkshire; he films detectives from the Detroit police department reading passages of Elmore Leonard aloud to Leonard himself; then we see Dibb’s camera perusing inner-city advertising billboards while Raymond Williams’s commentary describes English literature’s nostalgia for a mythic rural past. 

Mike Dibb and crew filming C.L.R. James for Beyond a Boundary (1976)

While contributing to the canon of British arts television, Dibb has simultaneously subverted it, bringing a series of socialist, internationalist essay films to mainstream television. His work occupies an exceptional space in British filmmaking, shared by a small clutch of artistically and socially engaged documentarians, including the late Marc Karlin, Penny Woolcock, Molly Dineen and Kim Longinotto.

As the stylistic breadth of nonfiction television contracts, and the categories of documentary and artist’s moving image expand, it is clear that if Dibb were under 50 his collaborative practice would find its natural home in galleries and arthouse cinemas rather than in primetime terrestrial schedules, as it did in the 70s and 80s. The success and recognition he has had within traditional television has been remarkable; but the nature of broadcast has meant that, aside from the permanent presence of Ways of Seeing on YouTube, there are few opportunities to revisit his work after its transmission date. The Whitechapel Gallery’s online season does offer the opportunity, though; and there is more work to come: his next film – a profile of Donny Johnson, an American prisoner in decades of solitary confinement redeemed by a radical art practice – is due to air this year on the BBC.

Further reading

Image lib: John Berger’s Ways of Seeing

By Jonathan Conlin

Image lib: John Berger’s Ways of Seeing

How John Berger gave us new ways of seeing Hollywood cinema

By Brad Stevens

How John Berger gave us new ways of seeing Hollywood cinema