Entertainment & Arts

How 1970s Hockney film pre-empted reality TV

David Hockney in New York
Image caption A Bigger Splash was filmed intermittently between 1971 and 1973

With the media full of coverage of A Bigger Picture, Hockney's new show of Yorkshire landscapes at the Royal Academy, the 1970s movie A Bigger Splash is a reminder of the fashionable young artist before he became the Grand Old Man of British art and seems to anticipate elements of reality TV by three decades.

A Bigger Splash starts with a caption which says 'June 1973, Geneva'. Then comes a scene, apparently in a hotel room, where David Hockney is flirting with a young man called Joe.

The film's director, Jack Hazan, laughs when he thinks about the shoot. "We were never in Switzerland. It was a hotel in London, but David Hockney never even went there; I just did a couple of establishing shots and everything else was his flat."

Yet today one Hockney biography refers to the Geneva trip as an actual event. "Well, that's the power of film," says Hazan. "People tend to believe what's in front of them. There are date captions throughout the film but they're just a device."

In the '60s people had thought of Hockney primarily as a portrait painter, and Jack Hazan's original idea had been to look at the people who sat for him.

"But the project changed totally as we went along. David Hockney had recently broken up with his boyfriend Peter Schlesinger and we realised that was the drama we had to follow."

Prepared plot

The opening credits introduce the characters as though it's a drama: Hockney, Schlesinger, the designers Celia Birtwell and Ossie Clark, Hockney's assistant Mo McDermott.

There's an intense Hollywood-style score and Hazan's obvious skills as a lighting cameraman - he worked on 35mm film - mean the movie looks better than many feature films of the period.

Image caption Hockney was originally upset by the intimacy of the finished film

"I didn't want to direct the action too much," says Hazan. "If it was a scene, say, between David and Mo McDermott. I'd give one of them a question to ask, just to get things going.

"But I only gave that cue to one person, so the other had to react on camera. After that I just followed the conversation. I plotted out what I wanted on the back of an envelope the evening before."

The result - halfway between scripted drama and an intimate documentary portrait - is something which the producers of The Only Way is Essex would recognise.

Hazan discovered that Hockney was dedicated to his work above all else. "He was completely prolific as a painter; it was all he wanted to do.

"If you talked to him, after a couple of minutes he'd just drift away back to his studio and start painting again. But emotionally he was very upset at this time after the break-up with Peter Schlesinger."

The film's title was borrowed from Hockney's famous 1967 painting A Bigger Splash, an image of a Californian swimming pool that remains one of Hockney's best-known works.

X-rated

Hazan thinks the pool sequences were important to the film. "They identified David Hockney in those years. In fact, I think it's still how many people think of him.

"There are two pools on screen. One was in Palm Desert near Palm Springs. The other was in Beverly Hills and belonged to Betty Freeman who was a great supporter of music and art."

Image caption Hockney offered Hazan £20,000 to destroy his movie

The film is now rated 15. But in 1974 the nudity in the pool sequences (and a scene in London of Peter making love to an unidentified young man) attracted what was then an X certificate.

Yet Hazan denies he was just trying to make a sexy movie. "If the pools look sexy and the boys look sexy, that's because I was following David Hockney's paintings."

Hockney hadn't taken much interest in the details of filming - in fact there are large sections in which he doesn't appear at all.

He'd expected something more like a traditional documentary and when finally he saw the film he was extremely unhappy - he thought it revealed too much of his private life.

Christopher Simon Sykes has just published the first volume of his biography of the artist, taking him up to the mid 1970s.

"Peter Schlesinger had been the first true love affair of David's life. Peter had an older man who he looked up to and respected; David had this absolutely perfect Californian boy - the boy he'd always dreamed of.

"So the break-up was the first truly terrible thing which ever happened to David. He was hugely uncomfortable with seeing it all depicted on screen, even though of course it was semi-fictionalised."

Hockney offered Hazan £20,000 to destroy his movie. Hazan refused and eventually A Bigger Splash became a modest hit that won some excellent reviews at the 1974 Cannes Festival.

The film is a valuable record of a world now vanished. Its view of the shabby Bohemia of early '70s London is unique.

"But it's a fictionalised replica of the era: it's all artifice. It's not fly on the wall. These things didn't really happen," says Jack Hazan

Forty years on, he recalls one early comment on the film. "Ossie Clark said it was truer than the truth. I liked that."

A Bigger Splash is released by the BFI on DVD and Blu-ray on 30 January.

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