An interview with “Year of the Bodyguard” director Noel Burch

Noel Burch

 

Our sincere thanks to Noel Burch, who agreed to answer some questions pertaining to his 1982 television docudrama The Year of the Bodyguard.

Q: Can you describe your interest in women’s self defence circa 1900?

A: I think I was first excited by the idea of women learning jiu-jitsu in the West at the beginning of the twentieth century when reading Kafka’s Amerika, in which Karl is humiliated by a young American woman with the then still mysterious art of jiu-jitsu
– and of course, since then I have understood that Kafka too was a masochist.

Many years later I came across a cover of Sandow’s Magazine where a “Mrs. Garrud throws her Japanese teacher”. I’m not sure how I found out about the Bodyguard, but it was still later, I think …

For years I had been a militant male feminist, and when I finally understood about the role of the Bodyguard in the suffragette movement, and had a privileged contact with Allan Fountain’s 11th Hour (documentary series) slot at Channel Four, I decided this was a good “politically correct” subject to propose, dealing as it did with women’s violence, and which would also fit in with my personal passion … which is actually alluded to in the film itself, on the demand of certain members of what was an almost exclusively female crew, including Debbie Kermode, daughter of Frank and a very hip feminist (she comes into the shot where I am challenged).

Q: How did you go about researching Year of the Bodyguard?

A: As I recall, I spent a good deal of time in a library in Hackney devoted to the suffragette movement. My main source was that book by Antonia Raeburn, which was, I believe, devoted to Edith Garrud and which several sequences in the film are copied from, including the pseudo-TV interview with “Edith Garrud” herself.

The hardest part was digging up and paying for the Blondie comic strip which opens the film and which had revealed my passion to myself at the age of 7.

Q: Can you describe the artistic/political choices you made in presenting the Bodyguard story for a television audience?

A: I wasn’t very interested in the TV audience, which may explain certain errors in the film, such as the Bernard Shaw Androcles excerpt, shot in an overly long shot to evoke the early cinema framing. The whole film was made as if I were working for the cinema.

The film reflects a long-term concern I had had with the hybrid documentary, involving different materials, different styles, etc. And involving here the mixing of periods – the TV interviews with Chesterton and with a bobby beaten by the women, etc. This was meant to be a pedagogical “de-alienating” form in those days, when we believed the classical film-language was “bourgeois”. I personally was into the forms of the early cinema as proto-avant-garde practice. I was writing a book about the emergence of film language. Today, I have problems with that avant-garde crap, but at the time, many of us working for Channel 4 were into that.

Q: I was wondering about the scene in which an actor playing a psychiatrist, in modern dress, is commenting on the psychological state of the suffragettes as masochists and martyrs. Was that monologue based on a published report, or was it written for the docudrama?

A: The psychiatrist scene, I wrote myself, possibly basing it on bits from the papers at the time, but more generally on a type of discourse we on the left all know from the dominant schools of analysis and therapy, tending to reduce political commitment to the individual psyche. Marcuse called it “neo-Freudian revisionism.”

Q: That seems apt. Changing tack, do you remember who served as your fight choreographer or martial arts advisor?

A: I had no martial arts advisor. I was the one who brought the actress some books and advice. I’ve been poring over (self defence) manuals for sixty years and I have a vast collection. She was the one who choreographed the demonstrations. She was both an aspiring actress and a teacher of women’s self-defence, and her physique vaguely resembled that of Edith Garrud; those were the reasons she was chosen.

Q: What was the public response to the docudrama?

A: I haven’t the slightest idea; does one ever know? The critics (but they are not the public!) were few and far between; not necessarily hostile, but nobody was very enthusiastic.

Q: How about individual reactions?

A: I remember one reaction by a former student of mine at the RCA, at the time a promising independent director but who now does routine work for the BBC. He felt that the scene where the bobby comes down to the gym where the women have just hidden their street-clothes under the tatami (mats) should have been filmed from the point of view of the police; it would have been more suspenseful, he thought. I tried to explain that I was on the side of the women, that the film was on the side of the women, that such a view-point would have been out of the question. He didn’t understand and, thirty year later, I think I understand why …

Q: I believe that the Suffragette Bodyguard was essentially fighting battles at two levels; the practicalities of street-fighting and evading the police, and as symbols of feminist militancy in the propaganda war against the Asquith government. Do you have any thoughts on that subject?

A: I really don’t know any more about the Bodyguard’s activities than you do, probably less, though your remark seems quite credible. But I should point out that when the film was shown to some committee at the BFI Production board at the time I was submitting a different project to this august body (which was turned down), some feminist historian, whose name I do not remember, was reported to have said “He doesn’t understand anything about the Bodyguard” or words to that effect. At the time I suspected this woman was simply picking up on the perverse underpinning of the film.

Q: Finally, are there any other anecdotes from the production that you’d like to share?

A: Well, after we had spent a whole day shooting that single long take where the women who have just smashed all the windows on Oxford Street take refuge in Mrs. Garrud’s studio (an authentic anecdote, drawn from Antonia Raeburn’s book), I was so happy to have achieved what was a kind of tour de force (a seven minute take, I think), that I failed to go thank that bunch of actresses who had been knocking themselves out all day for “my film” and they were complaining in the dressing room. My producer bawled me out and I tried to make amends.

Also, during the casting, there was one very beautiful actress who was quite skilled but whose agent wouldn’t let her be in the film because her role wasn’t important enough.

Also, and this is the best, the actor who plays the policeman on whom “Mrs. Garrud” does her demonstration at my reconstruction of the women’s festival, tried to get more money afterwards because he hadn’t been warned that he would be “hurt” (which he wasn’t at all, of course, it was just machismo … he didn’t like being thrown around by a woman!)

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