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Film

Exploring the work of Orson Welles' series 'Sketch Book'

@SamWKemp

Orson Welles was, first and foremost, a storyteller. He began his career as a stage actor, treading the boards in all manner of productions before moving into radio. It was here, on the airwaves, that Welles would deliver his famous adaptation of H.G Welles’ The War Of The Worlds.

It’s said that the fake news bulletins the actor issued on the CBS broadcast sparked nationwide hysteria, convincing the American public that the world really was under attack by Martian forces. In truth, only a few listeners were fooled, but their phone calls to police stations and newspaper offices led journalists to believe the panic was much more widespread than it actually was. Regardless, it demonstrates the way in which Welles seemed to attract stories in the same way that moons orbit planets.

He told many of the most exciting of these tales on Welles’ Sketch Book, a six-part series of televised commentaries for the BBC. Aired in 1955, the 15-minute episodes feature the Citizen Kane director discussing a range of subjects, frequently drawing from his own experiences, many of which are illustrated with his own sketches.

Episode One sees Welles recount stories from his early days in show business, including the embarrassing moment he forgot the end of a story during an after-dinner speech for “Maharaja’s and titled-folk”. Episode Two focuses on the role of critics, especially that of the new “television critic”. Episode Three deals with the police, Episode Four with Harry Houdini, Episode Five with The War Of The Worlds, and Episode Six with – of all things – bullfighting.

The episodes provide a remarkable insight into Orson Welles‘ influences, his formative experiences, and his ambitions for the future. They are also a testament to just how hypnotic a presence Welles was. With his fixed stare, he conveys all manner of emotions, betraying his training as a theatre actor. If you’re a fan of Welles, you’re in luck; these short episodes are a treasure trove of interesting facts about the director and his work. Better yet, you can catch them all for free.