Richard Billingham

Premiered on BBC 2
13 December 1998

Excerpt from Fishtank

5 minutes 51 seconds
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It's not my intention to shock, to offend, sensationalise, be political or whatever, only to make work that is as spiritually meaningful as I can make it — Richard Billingham

A high-rise council flat in the Midlands in England. A family: father Ray, mother Liz, brother Jason and some animals. The father drinks a lot, the brother plays around a bit, the mother just about holds things together.

Richard Billingham's book Ray’s A Laugh was published in 1996 and hailed as the photo book of the decade. Billingham then used the hi-8 footage shot in the family flat at the same time to create a 50-minute film, Fishtank for BBC 2’s acclaimed TX series. It was originally broadcast on BBC 2 on 13 December 1998.

At their home in in Cradley Heath, Dudley, Billingham filmed his family very close up, recording whatever was going on. The video verité of Fishtank was contained within the compressed space of the flat. Ray sits alone in the kitchen, drinking and feeding the fish. Liz plays with her pet snake and her computer games. Sometime they talk, sometimes they fight.

Dispassionately yet compassionately, Billingham’s film registers the emotional roller-coaster of life inside the flat: the chaos, the pathos, the despair and the hope.

Video: Excerpt from Fishtank 

Also available to watch on Vimeo and Youtube.

Making Fishtank

Richard Billingham on filming Fishtank
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The best footage was when I'd been just looking and not really thinking (trance-like) so that the camcorder was more an extension of the eye. Also, I did choose to hold on things – a head, a mouth, the sky... – for long periods, in order to build up emotional tension. — Richard Billingham

Making Fishtank

Richard Billingham on making Fishtank, April 2002

I first got a camcorder in 1996. The main reason was that I wanted to make some short films for gallery spaces. Also, I wanted to take photographs from the TV screen, of the video footage I'd recorded played back. The third reason was that I'd been trying to write a screenplay for some time, but what I was finding difficult was the dialogue. So I figured the camcorder would help by recording people's voices and gestures, which I could later study. I didn't originally intend to make a film for TV. If I had, I would have got some better quality equipment. But when I began putting particular short pieces of footage together, I realised they would make one long coherent film if I could put them in the right sequence. The best footage was when I'd been just looking and not really thinking (trance-like) so that the camcorder was more an extension of the eye. Also, I did choose to hold on things – a head, a mouth, the sky... – for long periods, in order to build up emotional tension. The relationships that came out in the film, between my father, mother, brother or me are inherent to looking through my eye in those ways.

Writing: Absorbed onto a Screen

James Lingwood
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Absorbed onto a Screen

James Lingwood on Fishtank, May 2002

Even though it has been seen as a film and has been screened at film festivals, the scale, the subject matter and pacing of it – even the kind of quasi-documentary / anthropological forms it played with – related to different kinds of television film, to natural history programmes and domestic dramas. Screens keep appearing throughout the film – the idea of being absorbed into a screen as a form of escapism is quite strong, whether that screen is a Playstation or a television.

Richard had been making this video material of his family over the course of time. There was a huge amount of material to work from, and there was a lot of extremely interesting footage which stayed on the cutting-room floor. It was a big challenge for Richard to work out how that material could be edited into a form which might both inhabit but also somehow break out of the documentary mode of TV.

Early on, I showed some of Richard's material to Adam Curtis. It was important to have someone involved who had made exceptionally distinctive television films but who didn't come from an arts TV viewpoint. We didn't particularly want Fishtank to be seen simply as an artist's film.

Image: Video still of the artist's mother applying eye make-up, from Fishtank (1998)

In The Artangel Collection

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Fishtank is part of The Artangel Collection. Since the launch of The Artangel Collection, Fishtank has been shown at:
Art Exchange, Colchester; Museum of the Home, London and g39, Cardiff.

  • Artist: Richard Billingham
  • Title: Fishtank
  • Date: 1998
  • Medium: Single-screen video with sound  
  • Dimensions: Overall display dimensions variable
  • Duration: 43 minutes
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Billingham’s TV debut pushes you so close to his fighting, drinking, low-income family that it hurts. – Louisa Buck, Artforum

Selected Press

Billingham’s TV debut pushes you so close to his fighting, drinking, low-income family that it hurts. His photographs have always wrong-footed any neat interpretation, and now Fishtank uses a camcorder to up the emotional ante with an often excruciating, sometimes exquisite fusion of intimacy and objectivity. It’s a strange sensation to scrutinize mother Liz as she puts on her makeup, or to be made to linger on the ravaged face and sagging throat of father Ray. But Billingham doesn’t ask for your sympathy or empathy – his work is neither soap opera nor social documentary. In this film, flies on the wall tend to get swatted. — Louisa Buck, Artforum, December 1998.
...with each new show we hanker for more of the story: did Liz ever finish that jigsaw, the one we last saw strewn over the carpet, a dazed Ray slouched among the pieces? What became of the kittens, the ones Liz was feeding with an eye dropper? More importantly, has Ray begun to take the first of those 12 difficult steps recommended by Alcoholics Anonymous? It’s just like the soaps, except we never do find out. — Adrian Searle, frieze, January/February 1999
Billingham’s refreshingly direct approach works precisely because of his constant focus on veracity, with little respect for the technical niceties. The unremitting attention to his extraordinary, yet ordinary, subjects (alcoholic, emaciated father; large, colourful, tattooed mother and quite gormless kid brother) employs a “snap-shot” technique that is simplicity itself . — Richard Pinsent, The Art Newspaper, No. 87, December 1998.

About Richard Billingham

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Richard Billingham

Richard Billingham (b. 1970, Cradley Heath, England) shot to fame in 1996 with his groundbreaking photographic series Ray’s a Laugh, extraordinary images of family life in his childhood home, a tower block in Cradley Heath in the West Midlands. Ray’s a Laugh was exhibited internationally and featured in the pivotal show, Sensation (1997) at The Royal Academy of Arts. He was awarded the Citibank (now Deutsche Börse) Photography Prize that year, and was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2001.

He has continued to photograph his family, and presented a major new body of work in 2010. An ongoing engagement with landscape has seen Billingham working in Britain (Norfolk, ‘Constable Country’ in Suffolk, the South Downs, Black Country, the Gower) and further afield (Ethiopia, Greece, Germany, Italy, Pakistan). In his series of photographic and video works entitled Zoo (2001-2006) he explored the lives of animals in captivity.

In 2012 his work was featured in PhotoEspana, Madrid and was also part of the British Council exhibition ‘Observers’ in Sao Paulo. Two works were featured in Seduced By Art: Photography Past and Present, at the National Gallery in London, which travelled to the Caixa Forum in Barcelona and Madrid. In 2015 a series of panoramic landscape works were exhibited at the Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne. The major show referenced the pictorial rhetoric of British landscape painting from the nineteenth century to the present day.

And in 2016 Billingham is revisiting his most famous body of work, with a major new three part feature film, Ray & Liz. Working with Producer Jacqui Davies and cinematographer Daniel Landin (Jonathan Glazer's UNDER THE SKIN), Billingham returns to the striking photographs that he captured of his family during Thatcher-era Britain to tell a universal story of everyday conflicts, loneliness, love and loss. 

His work is held in numerous private and public collections worldwide, including Tate, Arts Council England, the V & A, Moderna Museet Stockholm, the Fotomuseum Winterthur, and the Metropolitain Museum of Art in New York

Billingham lives near Swansea, Wales, with his wife and two children, and teaches Fine Art and Photography at the University of Gloucestershire.  He was recently appointed Professor in the Creative Industries at the University of Middlesex.

He is represented in London by Anthony Reynolds Gallery.

Image: Portrait of the artist Richard Billingham, 2014. Photograph: Courtesy of Anthony Reynolds Gallery, Lomdom


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Who made this possible?


Fishtank was an Illuminations production for BBC 2 in association with Artangel. Fishtank is included in The Artangel Collection, a national initiative to commission and present new film and video work, supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. 

Artangel is supported by Arts Council England, Artangel International Circle, Special AngelsGuardian Angels and The Company of Angels