Last orders: Antonia Quirke on radio

A seducing documentary used recordings of Orson Welles speaking unguardedly over lunches in a restaurant in Hollywood between 1983 and 1985. 

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The Lost Tapes of Orson Welles
BBC World Service

A seducing documentary (30 November, 8.05pm) used recordings of Orson Welles speaking unguardedly over lunches in a restaurant in Hollywood between 1983 and 1985. The film director Henry Jaglom made the recordings with a small tape machine when Welles, his mentor, was in his late sixties and basically unemployed. Endlessly voluble (“I’m going to order and then talk”), Welles frequently orders for both of them (“You’re not having the cassoulet?”) and, although depressed and catastrophically in debt, holds forth with confidence, memorably about Woody Allen: “That kind of man. What he’s basically saying is, ‘What a small penis I have and don’t you adore me for it?’

Of Robert De Niro, who had offered to play a political candidate in a prospective movie, he says: “A great actor. But as a candidate? Can you imagine this man saying, ‘I’ve got to carry Kansas?’ I really don’t see him carrying Kansas.” Welles sounds so convin­ced, but is surely wrong on this. De Niro’s 15 different smiles in Taxi Driver, the dead look in his eyes in Meet the Parents – was he not born to glad-hand at a rally?

This was the period of Welles’s life when he would turn up on American chat shows, obese and ostensibly forgotten, retelling familiar showbiz stories. One of his daughters, the rather inconveniently named Christopher (Orson once said to her, “Christopher Welles . . . your name has such a fabulous ring to it, don’t you think?”), recalled in her memoir going to meet him at the Algonquin and how she found him wearing a huge white kaftan, with a dog tucked under his arm (“Kiki will bite if you come too close”), eating Cobb salad after Cobb salad and telling those stories to her yet again. But for Jaglom, it seems, he varied his patter, any monologue ranging from the suspicious toe lengths of Greeks to Chaplin being scarcely as talented as Johnny Carson.

No mention was made at the end of the programme of Welles’s appallingly ill-attended funeral at a crematorium in downtown LA in 1985, though there is more than enough tragedy in the tapes themselves – in the way Welles talks as if he has always been there with his cassoulet, only mildly fazed that the 1980s have sprung up around him, waiting for anyone to turn up and listen. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

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