TV review: Orson Welles Over Europe | The Story of Slapstick

THE year 2009 has been one in which the BBC has faced increased criticism from self- interested media rivals, politically motivated liars and people who view the licence fee as an invitation to moan just for the sheer hell of it.

So how better to end it than with a rather impressive festive line-up that seems like a defiant poke in the eye of those who would complain the corporation fails to fulfil its original Reithian remit, namely to educate, inform and entertain. Where else would you find such an eclectic buffet of Shakespeare, sci-fi, sitcom, period drama, arts documentaries and opera? Not on ITV2, that's for sure.

It seems particularly fitting that the peerless BBC4 – which must surely be in line for some form of knighthood for its commitment to quality broadcasting – has produced a festive season devoted to Orson Welles, who, as seen in Orson Welles Over Europe, brokered a long and fruitful relationship with the BBC.

Presented by actor and Welles biographer Simon Callow, this fascinating documentary shed light on the great man's comparatively little-known later period. Shunned by Hollywood for being too damn difficult, Welles fled to Europe to embark on a smrgsbord of self-financed triumphs, failures and outright curios.

Restlessly creative and endlessly inventive, he scattered his genius over everything from Shakespeare to ballet, Kafka to Melville, and a series of intriguing projects for the BBC. He even produced a few radical travel documentaries for the nascent ITV (described by Callow as "home movies made by a genius"). Fortunately for documentaries such as this, most of these TV projects still exist in the archive, although little evidence remains of his experimental theatre productions. Alas, we can but dream of his Moby Dick Rehearsed, starring Welles himself, alongside Patrick McGoohan, Kenneth Williams, Joan Plowright and a young Peter Sallis.

Welles once opined that "the theatre is written in sand". For him, it was just another one of his conjuring tricks, as elusive as the man himself.

The mercurial, multifaceted Welles is a notoriously difficult character to pin down. But Callow put up a good fight, arguing that Welles' feelings of victimisation, of being a man out of time, coursed through his European oeuvre, whether in his striking adaptation of The Trial, or his toweringly vulnerable Falstaff in the remarkable Chimes at Midnight.

Courtesy of the visual effects department, Welles' distinctive shadow literally loomed large over this appropriately playful film in which Callow chased his idol through the unexplored side-streets of his career. And if Welles still remained something of a mystery by the end, well that's just as he – and perhaps even Callow, who clearly thrives upon the puzzle – would've wanted it.

Right, enough BBC-love: why can they never produce satisfying documentaries about comedy? This rich subject is always treated in such a superficial and careless manner. Take The Story of Slapstick, a frustratingly rushed history of physical comedy typified by glib historical contextualisation, bizarre inclusions and inexcusable omissions. Where on earth were Jerry Lewis and the films of Peter Sellers, for God's sake? This programme would have you believe they were of less importance than Horne and fornicating Corden. Still, it was worth it if only to see that clip of Charlie Drake knocking himself unconscious during a live stunt. That's commitment to your art.

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