tue 28/05/2024

Tubular Bells: The Mike Oldfield Story, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Tubular Bells: The Mike Oldfield Story, BBC Four

Tubular Bells: The Mike Oldfield Story, BBC Four

Forty years on a brilliant new documentary charts the making of an unlikely classic

MIke Oldfied today with classic album sleeve

Tubular Bells stands alone in the history of late 20th-century music: a rock album without vocals. But it turns out as well to have been a kind of one-hit wonder for multi-instrumentalist and composer Mike Oldfield. The piece apparently came out of the blue – at least that is how it felt in 1973, when Virgin Records adventurously made it their first-ever LP release.

As we discover in an outstanding music documentary to be shown on BBC Four, Oldfield never again touched the same source of original creativity, in a working lifetime dominated by acute emotional and mental distress and the very mixed blessing of celebrity.

I have a personal connection with Tubular Bells. As a young blood at in the BBC’s Music and Arts department in the early 1970s, I was responsible for convincing the powers that be on the Saturday night arts flagship, Second House, to shoot a "live" version of the album’s first half. I had first met Richard Branson in 1966, when he had dropped in to see me in my room in Oxford. I was then editor of Isis, the university’s weekly magazine and rather full of myself. Branson was 15, and he completely blew me – and my arrogance – away. There was something both totally charming and convincing about the kid’s "can-do" attitude. He was about to launch Student, the first national student publication and he seemed to know so much about the business of selling advertising and making a magazine work that I was instantly humbled.

It's appropriate that such a remarkable piece of music should be graced with an unusually well-made music documentary

A few years later, our paths crossed again. This time he had started a record label – with no experience whatsoever of the music business: we discover from the documentary that his favourite group was The Bachelors, purveyors of bland feel-good pap. The aptly-named label Virgin was being launched with the release of a purely instrumental record by an unknown. It was largely because of Branson’s chutzpah – that spirit we have all learned to love and hate – that Tubular Bells ever came into existence.

There was no way that Tubular Bells when it was first released was likely to be dismissed as pompous prog-rock. That came later. The likes of John Peel and music writer Karl Dallas (one of a number of extraordinarily good contributors in the BBC documentary) – and myself – were seduced by the Terry Riley-ish minimalist flavour, a gentle English pastoral feel that transcended folk clichés and the energy and humour that filled the piece.

We learn, in director Matt O’Casey’s continually fascinating film, that Oldfield (pictured below) went through living hell to make the record. How he was able to come through, in spite of terrible emotional and mental suffering, is hard to believe, but Tom Newman – the sound engineer at the Manor where the album was recorded – and others describe the process in riveting detail. They are joined by Oldfield himself, who is clearly in a much better space today and speaks with openness and humour that is incredibly engaging.

The background story is laid out with great skill, with sensitive use of home movies to support contributions from brother Terry Oldfield and sister Sally, with whom Mike had formed the avant-folk duo The Sallyangie. Oldfield’s mother was unstable herself and the images of her in Super-8 movies are revealing, in an oblique way. O’Casey never hammers the case home, but the suggestion, hinted at again toward the end of the film, is that having a mother who could not properly "hold" him emotionally may have contributed to Oldfield’s endemic vulnerability.

The vulnerable Mike Oldfield in 1973But as the film eloquently explains, it’s that very wounded quality that made Tubular Bells possible. Oldfield is hardly the first (or last) artist to have made music of genius from deep in a vale of infernal turmoil. After Oldfield had been "cured" thanks to sessions with the New Age catharsis-dispensing group Exegesis, and eventually found, as it were, his emotional feet, he was never again able to tap into the vein of originality that had produced his haunting greatest hit.

Tubular Bells is now part of the soundtrack of our times: it was appropriate that Danny Boyle – who speaks with great clarity and emotion in the film  - should ask Mike Oldfield to create a new version of the piece for the brilliant celebration of the National Health in his Olympics opening ceremony.  It is also right that the BBC should celebrate Tubular Bells tomorrow night – they will also be showing Tony Staveacre’s inspired Second House TV studio rendition of the piece. It’s appropriate that such a remarkable piece of music should be graced with an unusually well-made music documentary: sharply intelligent without ever being didactic, informative without piling on the information, and often funny, but always with a touch of humanity – not least when engineer Tom Newman, accompanied by producer Simon Heyworth, remembers the ups and downs of Oldfield’s career. Miraculously, this is a BBC documentary without the smothering presence of excessive commentary: there is none, and yet, there isn’t a moment when a viewer - even if he or she were to dash out to make a cup of tea - might feel lost. It is a great story, very well told.

  • Tubular Bells, The Mike Oldfield Story is on BBC Four on Friday 11 October at 9pm, followed by the BBC Second House Live Performance (1974) of Part 1 of Tubular Bells
Having a mother who could not properly ‘hold’ him emotionally may have contributed to Oldfield’s endemic vulnerability


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Share this article


I look forward to seeing the documentary for myself. The performance of Part One of 'Tubular Bells' following it can also be found on the DVD accompanying the deluxe edition of that album. Personally, I find 'Ommadawn' to be a more cohesive and satisfying album than 'Tubular Bells', and I prefer the fourth of his albums, 'Incantations' to be superior to both, and comes much closer to the Riley-esque exquisiteness he was seeking, and also has the sublime Maddy Prior in peak form gracing its grooves.

A correction: the documentary said that Richard Branson's favourite song was Cliff Richard's 'Bachelor Boy' - which makes the same point about his musical taste, only more so!

It indeed was a very engaging film that paid attention to both the recording process of Tubular Bells as well as the emotional roller coaster that Oldfield went through at the time. I remember being shoehorned into a room stuffed with musicians in Holland Park for the rehearsal of the Second House TV recording and being acutely aware that here was something very special athough for Oldfield it was clearly a nightmare. The actual recording that was shown after the documentary seemed of course rather leaden and static by today's music video standards but it was good to know it has been preserved. Whether Tubular Bells is more than the sum of its very disparate parts is another matter and I didn't think Charlie Hazelwood's recent reconstruction managed to make it anymore coherent but the audience were clearly reliving a time when TB was a revelation.

rather enjoyed this documentary.History was made when Mike Oldfield produced this musical masterpiece.

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters