Tuesday, 5 June 2018

King Lear (BBC, 2018)

(This review has also appeared, in slightly different from, on the Wales Arts Review.)

Anthony Hopkins must be one of the few people in the world with instantly recognisable wrinkles; the two vertical lines on the left side of his forehead are as much an identifying mark as Liz Taylor’s violet eyes.  Those wrinkles play star parts in his performance as the BBC’s King Lear (2018), on a face that carries as much history as the map that he divides in the opening scene.

It’s inevitable than any actor’s performance should bear the weight of other parts and personal history, and Lear, which an actor usually plays towards the end of his (or for Glenda Jackson, her) career, is more than usually affected by this kind of real-life intertextuality.  In 1982, a similarly aged Laurence Olivier played the part for Channel Four, with the actor’s own weakened physique and voice, shrunk to childish treble, becoming central tools of the performance.

With Hopkins, the baggage is more personal than professional – a history of depression and alcoholism that kept him intermittently off both stages and screens for nearly ten years, until his masterful returns as Lambert la Roux in Pravda and Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs.  Hopkins has said, in a line that could have come from Lear, that having being an alcoholic is a blessing for an actor ‘because wherever I go, the abyss follows me’, and his performance, especially at the beginning, carries something of the heavy drinker’s capriciousness, turning on a sixpence from humour to fury and back – it’s clear from his daughters’ shared looks that this was not an easy man to have as a father.

Pravda was also directed by Richard Eyre, who here surrounds Hopkins with a starry, but surprising, cast, so that Emma Thompson, Emily Watson and Florence Pugh, as Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia respectively, cover a wider age range than the three daughters usually do, suggesting a backstory of royal bereavements or divorces, while Andrew Scott is a bookish Edgar and John Macmillan a Machiavellian Edmund – a lesser director would have cast them the other way round.  Eyre’s television direction is fluid and witty, using techniques – long tracking shots down corridors, direct, conspiratorial address to camera – popularised by shows like House of Cards and The West Wing, themselves heavily influenced by Shakespeare’s histories.

The style is what the scholar Peter Holland has called the ‘materialist’ school of Shakespearean production (1); realistic, evocative locations (here including a lot of stately homes), emphasis on naturalistic details, props that reappear at significant moments, and precise character distinctions so that, for instance, Goneril and Albany (an ineffectual, patrician Anthony Calf) are stuck in a sexless marriage, while Regan and Cornwall are adventurers, getting off on the blinding of a cable-tied Gloucester (Jim Broadbent) as if it were the 51st shade of grey.

The milieu is militaristic and macho – many scenes are played before a chorus of camouflage-clad squaddies, so that when Goneril stands before them in a blue dress to berate her father, she sticks out like a butterfly caught in mud.  When Oswald (a camp, against-type Christopher Eccleston) gets called a ‘base foot-ball player’, it makes perfect sense – these raucous hard men are clearly more the rugby-playing type.

Not everything works – battle scenes are always a weakness in televised Shakespeare; stock footage and offscreen noise, as used here, looks cheap, while a blockbuster CGI-fest, even if affordable, would be missing the point.  Some modern parallels are more effective than others – setting the ‘poor naked wretches’ speech in what looks like a refugee camp seems self-indulgent, trivial in comparison with the much larger real-life tragedy (maybe that was the point).  In contrast, the coming together of blind Gloucester and mad Lear (pushing a supermarket trolley, and wearing the hat that belonged to his dead Fool – a Milligan-esque Karl Johnson) among the concrete of a new town shopping-centre works beautifully, giving a new pathos to ‘this great stage of fools’.

In the end, Hopkins is the reason for the production’s existence, and he seizes the opportunity like a man who can’t believe his luck – playful, almost flirtatious at times, occasionally sliding into a Lector-like purr, ranting when he needs to, at other times taking it right down – the climactic ‘Howl, howl, howl!’ is played not as a cry to the heavens but as a genuine appeal to the stiff-upper-lipped military chorus.  Eugene Field once said of an actor in this part that he played the King as if afraid that someone else was going to play the Ace; Hopkins has every single trump card in his hand, and doesn’t mind letting you know it.

1.  Peter Holland, English Shakespeares: Shakespeare on the English Stage in the 1990s (Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 100.




Sunday, 20 May 2018

Explore the Mundane! - the Boring Conference 2018

(This blogpost also appears on the Wales Arts Review)

In his 1998 book The Mezzanine (‘novel’ isn’t really the right word), Nicholson Baker took the events of a particularly uneventful lunch break, and used them as a starting point for a series of meditations on apparently trivial questions – the physics of shoelace tying, the logistics and technique of the paper straw – that turned out to have significant implications.  The conclusion was simple – anything is worth considering if you look at it deeply enough.

Something of the same spirit motivates the Boring Conference, which takes place every May at Conway Hall in London, and which is described by its founder, James Ward, as ‘a celebration of the mundane, the ordinary, the obvious, and the overlooked ‘.  You can get a flavour of it on the Boring podcast or at  a spin-off event like the Boring Talks at the British Library on June 26.

The day consists of a series of talks, covering subjects that over the conference’s eight years have included wooden pallets, the history of the double yellow line, the noises made by vending machines, the menus of chain restaurants, the word ‘the’, and the multi-lingual safety warnings that accompany Kinder eggs.

Speakers come from a variety of backgrounds, though a disproportionate number seem to be academics, exploring an obscure side alley leading away from their central area.  One of this year’s speakers, seaside historian Dr. Kathryn Ferry (and incidentally, isn’t that a great job to have?), prefaced her talk, on those toilet roll covers shaped like ladies in crinolines, by saying ‘I’ve wanted to talk about this for years, and this conference is possibly the only chance I’ll get.’    (She was also one of two speakers, both women, to mention the difficulties that their spouses had in coping with their enthusiasms.)

As well as the crinoline ladies, subjects this year included the eighteen-minute gap on Nixon’s Watergate tapes (which apparently you can listen to in its entirety at the Richard M. Nixon memorial library), call centres, the aesthetics of wall stains, Hook, an unbuilt new town in Hampshire, and the phenomenon of insects caught on CCTV (in a talk by Hayley Stevens, a professional ghost debunker).

One paper arguably went against the ethos of the conference by being interesting on the surface as well as underneath, Giles Rhys Jones spoke on What3words, a worldwide scheme to improve international addresses by dividing the world into three-metre squares, all referred to by a three word combination.  (You can find your location at https://what3words.com – I’m currently writing this at struck.trio.organs)  This turns out to have considerable applications for industry and aid, particularly in parts of the world where people don’t necessarily have street addresses.

However, for the most part, the appeal of the day is in the disjunction between the subjects’ ostensible blandness and how interesting they turn out to be – the alchemy that produces gold from apparently base (or at least dull) material.   In this respect, the day is a celebration of the interconnectedness of things – every subject, if looked at properly, yields a little insight into a larger issue.  The popularity of crinoline ladies on toilet roll covers is a hangover from their wider currency in the interwar years, which is itself a product of Regency nostalgia in that period  (hence, incidentally, the introduction of Quality Street chocolates in 1936).  While we’re talking about confectionary, Kinder eggs’ multi-lingual warnings turn out to give an insight into how businesses deal with international tensions.  The languages used include Arabic but not Hebrew; the Arab world won’t accept goods with that language on, while Israel won’t accept anything with Arabic.  As the former is the larger market, it makes more economic sense to include Arabic in the standard rubric, and print a special set of instructions for Israel.

Similarly, and maybe more significantly, the wooden pallet turns out to be, as its advocate Liam Shaw points out, the ‘single most important object in the global economy’.   Their internationally standardised design means that importers don’t have to wait for their goods to be unloaded, but can just take away the same number of pallets that they brought, which makes cross-border trade much more efficient.  Because they’re made of wood, and therefore potentially disease-carrying, they have to be subject to stringent health procedures, again dependent on a complex web of international agreements. The pallet stacks up as a symbol for the Boring conference itself – uninteresting in itself, it turns out to be one of the things that make international trade possible, ignored but crucial.

If pallets are a symbol of connectivity, Alex Baxevenis’ ‘Doormats: a Comparative Study’ (available to read here) dealt with a subject that is, in the most literal sense of the word, liminal.  It arose from an incident when he got off on the wrong floor at his block, only realising when he got to what he’d thought to be his flat, and realised that it had a doormat, which his flat doesn’t.   This inspired him to study the demographics and style of the doormats in his building.  Roughly fifty per cent of the flats had doormats; some were blank, some had geometric designs, some pictorial (mostly of rural subjects) and some text.  He found three cases of duplicate doormats, including two flats that had a Star Wars ‘Welcome to the Dark Side’ mat, one facing towards the flat, one facing away, which makes you wonder about the residents’ different views of the world, and themselves.  He ended with an exhortation that epitomised the philosophy of his talk, and of the conference itself:

‘Think of all the things and places that are so close to you but you know nothing about.

One day, on purpose, take a wrong turn. Get off at the wrong bus stop. Get off the lift at the wrong floor.

Look at what’s there, and it might inspire you.

Go forth, and explore the mundane!’

Sunday, 31 December 2017

West End Vignette

So... yesterday afternoon, I'm in a West End theatre, waiting for the show to start (this is going to get more interesting, I promise) and the two women in front of me turn round and introduce themselves to me, and to the two people by my side, a mother and her 19 year-old son.  The women are from Washington DC, and are great anglophiles (they're Harry Potter fans, and are very amused when I say that I'm sometimes mistaken for him), the mother and son are from Weybridge and are there as his Christmas present - he's a big musical theatre fan, currently studying at Italia Conti.  She says that he's always been musical - 'He was born that way - it didn't come from me.'

He starts talking about shows he's done, and mentions that he's been Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar.  It turns out that one of the Washington women runs a seminary and the other is an Anglican priest, and they take a photo of themselves with the son, saying that they can't wait to tell people back home that they were in a theatre with Jesus.  (I congratulate him on his recent birthday, and apologise for making such an obvious joke.)  The priest says that, of the people she sees training for the priesthood, a lot come from a theatrical background.  The mother, who's a Catholic, says that when her son had his first communion, she said that he'd make a good priest, but he said 'You know the Golden Rule?  I don't always keep it.'

The priest starts taking about her attitude to religion which is, as you might expect, fairly heterodox ('After all, we're not exactly a traditional married couple.'), and says that she's hoping that she lives long enough to see a Coronation, because there's a bit in it that isn't found in any other ritual, where the Archbishop of Canterbury will hand the Bible to Charles (or whoever) and say 'Here is Wisdom; this is the Royal Law; these are the lively Oracles of God.'

The phrase 'lively oracles' is from Acts 7:38, and according to this woman, is only ever used at the Coronation.  (I don't know if she was right - I tried googling the phrase, but it leads to an evangelistic rabbit hole.)  To her, it sums up the way in which the Bible should be seen - 'It's not history, it's not philosophy, god knows, it isn't science -'  (at this point she looks around, as if saying something forbidden) ' - it's something alive, it changes.'   I debate whether to mention my own atheism, but decide against it.

At this point, the lights go down, and the show starts.  We don't chat much at the interval or after the show, so that's probably the last communication I'll have with any of them.  I can't honestly say that I often get into theological discussions at theatres, and I'm not sure why it particularly happened here - the fact that we were at Hamilton, which is partly about the lively, mutable nature of nationhood, might have had something to do with it.   Art is all about ambiguity and uncertainty, and you might say the same about religion - I once heard a preacher saying at St. Michael's Mount in Cornwall that 'If you enjoy one of Christ's parables, it means you probably don't understand it.', a line I've frequently quoted in discussions of didactic art.  As it stands, I'm just happy that a West End theatre is a place where I can find myself talking about religion with an Anglican priest from Washington and her wife.  Happy New Year.




Sunday, 12 November 2017

‘FLIPPIN’ ‘ECK, TUCKER’ – When Is It Appropriate To Swear in Class?

(A conference paper given as part of my PGCHE earlier this year.)

Two things I should maybe say before starting.  Firstly, it would be a little dishonest to discuss contentious language without using it, so I’m going to swear a certain amount during this paper.  If that bothers anyone, I can only really suggest you leave the room for a quarter of an hour.

Secondly, for those who aren’t British or middle-aged, I should explain my title.  In the late ‘70s/early’80s, there was a BBC television series called Grange Hill, set in a comprehensive secondary school just outside London.  It was a children’s programme, so there was no swearing in it.  Anyone who’s ever worked in a secondary school will know that creates a problem of realism, which the scriptwriters dealt with by using euphemistic swears, so that the characters, including one Tucker Jenkins, would often say ‘Flippin’ ‘eck’!.  Now, in real life, so secondary school child has ever said this but, as viewers, we accepted it, as a substitute for the stronger language that the characters would actually be using.   It’s an example of the way in which an audience accepts a convention, so long as it’s clear.

For most people in the room, the answer to the question in the title of this paper is probably ‘never’, and that’s fine – I have no especial interest in getting people to swear either more or less.  However, in my discipline, it’s more complicated.  I teach Creative Writing, so the thing I teach  – language – is also the material I teach it with.   Writers need, by definition, to understand the ways in which language works, so that a willingness to explore language, including its problematic aspects, may be considered an essential part of our community of practice.  Someone who has a problem with swear words, as such, probably shouldn’t be studying writing.  This is made especially clear with some of the texts that we use – you can’t afford to be prissy if you’re teaching or studying the television series The Thick of It or Mark Ravenhill’s play Shopping and Fucking, which I took a group of first years to.

I often make this point early on in the first year.  I teach an exercise in which students have to think of someone in their own life, write down ten things that this person has said, read them aloud in pairs and then for each student to say what they would conclude about the character from those ten lines – age, gender, ethnicity, attitudes.  It’s an exercise in the way in which dialogue reveals character.  When the students are writing their initial ten lines, someone will often stick up her hand and say ‘Is it alright to swear?’.  To this, I always say the same thing ‘Fuck, yes.’.

This serves a number of functions – it gets a laugh, which is always useful, it establishes the principle that no use of language is – in and of itself – barred within the seminar room.  It also, indirectly, introduces one of the threshold concepts of creative writing, which in linguistic philosophy is called the use/mention distinction. 

‘When a word is used to refer to something, it is said to be being used.  When a word is quoted, though, so that one is examining it for its surface aspects (typographical, phonetic etc.) it said to be being mentioned.

(Douglas R. Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern, p. 9)

I’d argue that to quote a line from someone else, or to write in a script is to mention it rather than using it.   My own ‘Fuck, yes’ occupies a slippery place between the two – it appears to be a use, but because of the context in a conversation about swearing it’s actually a mention.  (That’s why it gets a laugh.)

So far, so good.  I think it’s uncontroversial to argue that a creative writing lecturer can mention swear words in an educational context.  Is it ever alright for students or lecturers to use them?  I think that’s more complex.  The university regulations don’t say anything on the subject that I can see though they do say that students must not use:

‘violent, indecent, disorderly, threatening, defamatory or offensive behaviour or language whilst on University premises or engaged in any University activity’  (Middlesex University Regulations, p.59, B.3). 

 ‘Indecent’ and ‘offensive’ are of course quite ambiguous terms, especially in an environment as diverse as Middlesex.  Again, I think this relates to one of the central concepts of dramatic writing, which in this case is a core concept rather than a threshold concept, and this is the idea of ‘actioning’.  

This was invented by the director Max Stafford-Clark, and is based on the idea that every line of dialogue can be linked with a transitive verb, that expresses the character’s intention in saying it.  The important thing is not what’s said, but the action that’s behind it.  If you look on YouTube, you can see a video of an actor saying the same line ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ with the actions of seducing, patronising, jeering and about twenty more.

Now, this applies to swear words as much as to any others – it’s fairly obvious that ‘Fuck off!’  (I threaten)  is different from ‘Fuck off!’  (I wind up). 

Once you start thinking in terms of the actions rather than the words, it becomes a lot clearer.  I think it goes without saying that neither we nor our students should ever use (as opposed to mention) swear words such as racial, homophobic, gender-based or ethnic slurs where the action is to threaten or insult.  (Nor should we ever do those things without swearing.)

Similarly, we should never swear with the intention of excluding, as with the macho swagger of Malcolm Tucker.    My first year film students seem to understand this instinctively – on the code of conduct that the wrote for a film production course one of the rules (along with ‘Don’t be a dick.’) is ‘Don’t swear too much.’

The wording here is interesting – it seems to acknowledge that it’s unreasonable to expect people in a creative environment not to swear at all.  So, does the same thing hold true for lecturers?   It seems to me that the central principle here is that of authenticity – of what therapists call ‘congruence’.  This is a concept that was identified by Carl Rogers, one of the key thinkers of the humanistic school of educational theory, and the originator of patient-centred counselling, as one of the core conditions in which such therapy can take place.  Within the counselling profession, it’s defined as relating to one’s clients as an authentic human being:

“What you say and how you say it rings true.    You do not hide behind professional facades or wear polite social masks.  Congruent communication is characterised by honesty and sincerity. […]  Congruence does not mean ‘letting it all hang out.’.”

(Richard Nelson-Jones, Introduction to Counselling Skills: Texts and Activities, p.50)

Congruence in a teaching context means that you don’t swear as macho swagger, like Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It or to be ‘down with da kidz’, but equally that you don’t self-consciously avoid it, like the writers of Grange Hill.  Either way, your students will pick up that you’re not being authentic and, at least in my discipline, that’s death to the teaching environment, which depends on a degree of self-revelation.    The playwright and writing tutor Noel Greig says something very similar in his book Playwriting: A Practical Guide:

‘… I do believe that, if we are going to challenge any group or individual to reveal their souls through a creative practice, we must be prepared to offer something of ourselves, in whatever way is appropriate to the circumstance.’

(Noel Greig, Playwriting: A Practical Guide, p.203)

The key word here, of course, is ‘appropriate’.  I’d just like to finish up by telling a story of an occasion where I did swear in class, where I will absolutely defend my right to do so, and a rather unexpected consequence.

I give a first-year lecture on Tragedy, in which I recount the story of Oedipus.  One of the things I say is that people are often mealy-mouthed about this story.  People will say that it’s the story of a man who kills his father and marries his mother.  No, it’s the story of a man who kills his father and fucks his mother.  I would argue that, in that case, the sentence needs the swear word – I could say ‘sleeps with’ but that’s an euphemism, I could say ‘has sex with’ but that’s clumsy.  No, the sentence needs the opposition of the two words, both Germanic, both monosyllabic, and with those alliterative K sounds.

So, I gave the lecture; a week later, one of my students took me to one side, and showed me a meme that had been going round the class:




Now, I have mixed feelings about this - I wish it wasn’t grammatically incorrect, and I’m a little worried as to where they found the photo - but broadly, I was very happy about it – at the very least, it shows that they’re listening.  So, if you ask me if it’s ever appropriate to swear in class, my answer has to be (wait for it)  ‘Flippin’ ‘eck, yes.’ 




Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Richard III (1995)

 (The following, in a slightly shorter form, was originally written as a programme note for a screening of the film at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, on 28th April 2016.)
‘Playful’ is an unlikely word with which to describe a Shakespeare film, especially one in which the protagonist is a multiple murderer, but here it seems appropriate.  A lot of the best film adaptations of Shakespeare were the result of an existing stage performance meeting up with a specifically cinematic sensibility.  Often (Olivier, Welles), the stage and film specialists were contained in the same body; here, they're two people: Ian McKellen, repeating a role he played at the National Theatre in 1992, and joined forces with film and TV veteran (also, incidentally, the inventor of the executive toy Newton's Cradle) Richard Loncraine.
Like the stage production, directed by Richard Eyre, the film locates the action in an alternative British 1930s, with Richard evoking the Fascist leader Oswald Mosley, or an imaginary member of the House of Windsor, a psychopathic third brother for a womanizing Edward and an introverted George.  McKellen, adding another to his portrayals of Shakespeare’s peacetime soldiers (he's also played Macbeth, Coriolanus, and Iago) de-emphasises the character’s physical disability; taking a cue from his self-reference as ‘scarce half made-up’, he gives Richard a weakened left side.  This Richard’s malevolence comes not from his physique, but from people’s reactions to it; he learnt to hate from his Queen Mary-like mother (Maggie Smith).
The film adds the directorial skills of Richard Loncraine – his debut Slade in Flame (1975) is arguably the best rock movie ever made by a British director  (Richard Lester is an American).   Loncraine, neither a Shakespearean nor a theatregoer, is responsible for some of the film’s most striking visual sequences, such as the death of Robert Downey Jnr’s Earl Rivers, which uses the same method as that of Kevin Bacon in Friday the 13th (1980).
The film version develops the period setting.  In Shakespeare (and history) the Woodvilles, Edward IV’s in-laws, are outsiders to the London court: McKellen and Loncraine wittily reimagine them as American, with Annette Bening’s Elizabeth inevitably suggesting Wallis Simpson.  At times the parallels are more international: Jim Broadbent’s Buckingham, with his Himmler glasses and Goering smile, puts us in the milieu of Hitler, with whom this Richard shares a sweet tooth and a fondness for early morning meetings.
McKellen and Loncraine’s method is epitomized in the opening sequence.  A small budget is used skillfully, with the Wars of the Roses evoked by a single interior set (recycled from a BBC period drama).  Richard is introduced in a gas mask, his heavy breathing providing a subliminal introduction to the iambic pentameter.  McKellen had originally intended to introduce this through the footsteps of the fleeing soldiers, but discovered (as others have pointed out) that it's quite hard to run in iambics.  I once mentioned this in a seminar, and one student suggested that he could have achieved it if Richard had shot one of them in the leg.

A jazz song, with lyrics by Christopher Marlowe, and played by a jazz band with 'WS' on their music stands, takes us into the world of Dennis Potter (Loncraine directed Blade on the Feather on television and Brimstone and Treacle on film), as the characters’ relationships and attitudes are set up in a series of visual vignettes, so that we know who everybody is before the first ‘Now’ of Richard’s opening speech. 
McKellen recasts this speech as a public oration – again, easing in an audience unused to the formal language - before switching to a gents’ toilet, where Richard goes into soliloquy, catching sight of the camera (and therefore, the audience) in a mirror.  Here, McKellen’s performance echoes that of Laurence Olivier, whose 1955 Richard had a similarly flirtatious relationship with the camera, at one point even beckoning it closer.  (Loncraine also nods towards that film in his casting: the Vicar of Bray-like Lord Stanley is played by Edward Hardwicke, whose father Sir Cedric was Olivier's Edward IV.)
At times, the Shakespeare film that this most resembles is Theatre of Blood ; both feature a series of imaginative deaths, and a charismatic, role-playing protagonist.  There are coincidences of casting; Vincent Price played both Clarence and Richard in the two films of Tower of London (1939 and 1962), a horror-fied version of the Shakespeare play, while Jim Broadbent took over Price's role in the stage version of Theatre of Blood.  Both films also use an eclectic collection of London locations.  Loncraine made an early decision not to use iconic buildings like Buckingham Place and Downing Street, so the film takes place in an alternative geography of decayed industrial and imperial grandeur – Battersea Power Station, St. Pancras Chambers (also the location, around the same time, of the Spice Girls’ Wannabe’ video), and Strawberry Hill House, home of the Gothic novelist Horace Walpole. 

Like Theatre of Blood’s Edmund Lionheart, this Richard dies in a conflagration and Lucifer-like fall, with Loncraine adding an Al Jolson song that echoes James Cagney’s dying cry of ‘Top of the world, ma!’ from White Heat (1949).  As Richmond takes over the throne (and Richard’s relationship with the camera), the film reminds us of the time of its making, towards the end of the John Major government, and during the rise of Tony Blair; if the story began with a winter of discontent, it ends with us questioning whether, under the new regime, things really can only get better.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Theatre of Blood (1973) - Notes

(The following, in a slighter shorter form, was written as a programme note for a screening of the film at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff on 18th April 2016.)

Stories of serial retribution have existed since at least Alexandre Dumas Pere’s 1844 novel The Count of Monte Cristo.  They focus on characters, left to death or dishonour, who return and take their revenge on those who have wronged them, one by one.  The sequence of killing gives the piece a structure and, in the cinema, allows for a good cast; each victim only needs to be paid for a few days of shooting.  The protagonist can be an investigator, an intended victim, as in My Learned Friend (1943)a vehicle for the English comedian Will Hay, or the avenger, as in the most famous British example, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), which shares a scriptwriter, John Dighton, with the Hay film.

In the post Bonnie and Clyde 1970s, there came a mini-cycle of horrors in which the focus was not on the fact of revenge, but the methods of killing.   Vincent Price appears in three of them:  The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) in which the murders follow the Biblical Plagues of Egypt, its sequel Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972), and Theatre of Blood.  In this film, Price plays Edward Lionheart, an actor who murders a series of hostile critics, using methods drawn from Shakespeare plays.  He’s assisted by his daughter, Edwina (Diana Rigg), who serves him as both Miranda and Cordelia, and a chorus of spirit-like down-and-outs; the film bears a surely unique credit for ‘Choreographer of Meths Drinkers’.

Lionheart has something in common with the idee-fixated villains of the British TV series The Avengers, and it’s not surprising that the cast includes former Avengers Rigg and Ian Hendry, the latter as Devlin, most likeable of the critics, and a male equivalent of a splatter film’s ‘final girl’.  Anthony Greville-Bells’ hyper-literate script gives both Price and Hendry a number of James Bond-ish one-liners after each death; the most characteristic comes after the revelation that one murder is dependent on making an alteration (or ‘one rather large cut’) to The Merchant of Venice: ‘It’s Lionheart alright.  Only he would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare.’  - how many horror films use the word ‘temerity’?

In-jokes and actor allusions abound: Robert Coote’s bibulous critic meets his end in a wine merchant labelled ‘Geo. Clarence and Sons’, Dennis Price, the murderer in Kind Hearts and Coronets, turns up as a victim, as if passing on a torch,  Robert Morley, a gourmet in real life, plays one in the film, and gets fed his own poodles, cooked in a pie by Price, a real-life celebrity chef.  This murder, taken from Titus Andronicus, is the one that people tend to remember with greatest discomfort when recalling the film, and confirms what Robert McKee said about Fatal Attraction (1987); as audience members, we’ll happily lend our sympathy to a character who kills people (or tries to), but withdraw it once s/he attacks an animal, especially one that’s cute.

When Shakespeare is used in genre films, it’s usually as a sign of ‘high’ culture, either to give a touch of class to a character, as when Christopher Plummer quotes Mark Antony in Star Trek VI; The Undiscovered Country  (1991 - 'You haven't heard Shakespeare until you've heard him in the original Klingon' - a variation on an old Cold War joke) or to oppose it against the more dynamic ‘low’ culture of film – witness Last Action Hero (1993) which imagines Hamlet as played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Theatre of Blood is unusual in that its opposition is not between ‘high’ and ‘low’, but between two kinds of ‘high’.  Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart – his name evokes a nineteenth century actor and an eighteenth century playwright – loses the Critics’ Circle Award to William Woodstock, whom he describes as a ‘twitching, mumbling boy’, suggesting a Brando-ish methodist.  Lionheart belongs to the theatrical past – as superannuated as the actor-managers like Johnston Forbes-Robertson and Frank Benson whom we see on silent film under the opening credits.

The film is ambivalent towards Lionheart; his victims, played by an array of British character actors, are an unpleasant bunch (and far more well-heeled than any real-life theatre critic has ever been - Devlin's riverside flat is in Alembic House, currently occupied by Jeffrey Archer) but it’s never made clear whether they're right about his acting – the most complimentary word used about him is ‘vigorous’ (by Milo O’Shea, no shrinking violet himself).  This is complicated by the fact that Price, though very well-spoken, is clearly not a Shakespearean – when he plays Shylock to Rigg’s Portia, it’s like watching an amateur boxer getting in the ring with Mike Tyson.   It’s implied that Lionheart’s murders may be his greatest performance, more credible than anything he ever did on a stage.

The film retains a considerable cult following, among fans of both Shakespeare and horror  (a remarkable number of people seem to have seen the same television screening at Christmas 1979) and extends its influence into gimmicky murder films like Se7en (1995), which reuses several of its motifs – death through force-feeding, a pound of flesh, body parts in a box.  In 2005, Lee Simpson and Phelim McDermott of Improbable Theatre produced a stage version at the National Theatre (which was itself being built while the film was made), with Jim Broadbent as Lionheart and Rachel Stirling, Rigg's daughter, in her mother's part (here renamed Miranda - the play was more explicit about the Tempest parallels than the film).  The play imagined Devlin as a possible future Literary Manager of the NT, a fictionalised successor to Kenneth Tynan, and positioned the Lyttelton theatre, where the show took place, as the critics' final triumph over what Lionheart represents:

'Look at it!  Look at it!  Hard, empty, coy and sexless.  Look at it!  Smooth and gray so you can wash the blood away when you have done the deed and killed the actor.  It should be ours!  It should be mine!  Brave and foolish, ludicrous and magnificent, wasteful and awesome.  Knowing nothing, understanding it all, expressive and inarticulate.  We are dead.  Murdered like mafia hits and buried in the concrete walls of this mausoleum lest we misbehave, lest something not considered by the brains and the nice boys should spill messily onto the stage.  We are the dead.'

(Lee Simpson/Phelim McDermott, Theatre of Blood, p. 92)

The stage production got mixed reviews; for my money, Jim Broadbent was miscast as Lionheart - a quirky character actor, he was never believable as a barnstormer.  (Steven Berkoff would have been perfect.)  It is, however, appropriate that the play should focus on (and criticise) its own location.  One of the film’s incidental pleasures is in the spotting of London locations, including, in the final scene, the Edwardian Putney Hippodrome, which had lain empty since 1960.  Like Lionheart, and the Lear that he plays at the film’s end, the building was a leftover from the past – Theatre of Blood allows all three to make one last grand exit.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

The Four Feathers, the British Colonial Film and Culturally Specific Dramatic Irony



(A paper given at the Screening Politics conference at Pitt University, Pittsburgh, on the 2nd October, 2015)

I’d like to talk about the 1939 British film The Four Feathers, its status as part of the genre of the British colonial film, and particularly, the concept of culturally specific dramatic irony.


To elaborate on that a little, ‘dramatic irony’ in this context refers to the device whereby the audience’s knowledge is greater than that of the characters, and the production of dramatic tension through this. Period dramas, especially those that feature historical events or real people, inevitably create dramatic irony. To take a very obvious example, our view of the lovers in Titanic (1997) is coloured by an awareness that the ship’s going to sink.


Culturally specific dramatic irony is a concept that occurred to me quite recently, when I watching the show Memphis. In case you don’t know, this is a musical written by David BrIan and Joe DiPietro that ran on Broadway between 2009 and 2012, and which has been running in London since last year. It’s about a 1950s white disc jockey in Memphis who starts playing black music, loosely based on the real-life DJ Dewey Phillips. Towards the end of the show, he’s being considered for a job presenting his music on television. A TV executive says to him (I won’t attempt the accent) ‘It’s between two people; you, and a boy called Richard Clark..’.


In London, that line doesn’t get a laugh – most people over there, unless they’re music geeks (like me), haven’t heard of Dick Clark. Over here, where he was a television fixture for three decades, the effect is very different – the audience knows from that moment that the protagonist is doomed. The line depends on a piece of information that is possessed by audiences in the United States, but not (on the whole) in the UK.


I want to apply this concept to the 1939 film of The Four Feathers, which is an adaptation of a 1902 novel by A.E.W. Mason. The story of one of serial revenge, like a less bloody version of The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s the story of Harry Feversham, a young British Officer from a military family, who resigns his commission the day before his regiment is due to go and fight in the South Sudan in 1882. Three of his colleagues and his fiancée, Ethne, send him white feathers, the mark of a coward. Feversham travels to the Sudan and returns three of the feathers, performing great deeds of heroism in the process, and returns to the UK, where he gives Ethne back her feather, and the two of them get married.


There are implicit references to the story of Ulysses (Feversham’s dog is the first creature to recognise him when he returns) and explicit ones to that of Hamlet, to whom Feversham is compared by Lieutenant Sutch, a friend of his late mother:


‘Did you ever read ‘Hamlet’? he asked.
‘Of course’ said Harry, in reply.
‘Ah, but did you ever consider it? The same disability is clear in that character. The thing which he foresaw, which he thought over, whch he imagined in the act and the consequence – that he shrank from, upbraiding himself even as you have done. Yet when the moment of action comes, sharp and immediate, does he fail? No, he excels, and just by reason of that foresight.’

(A.E.W. Mason, The Four Feathers, p. 51)


The story had already been filmed three times in the silent era, most recently by Merian C. Cooper in 1929, and has beeen filmed three times since.  It’s a story with the quality of myth - any of you who know Jospeh Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces will recognise many of the features of the archetypal Hero's Journey - the call to adventure, the refusal of the call, the journey to another world, and the triumphant return.  Given this, the most surprising thing about the novel is how little it's concerned with this central story.

Of the novel’s thirty-four chapters, the first six set up Feversham’s story, ending with his decision to return the four feathers (in screenwriting terms, the first act climax). Mason then spends the central section of the novel, roughly the next twenty chapters, focusing on the character of ethne, Feversham’s fiancee and her suitor Durrance, a colleague of Feversham who has been blinded in battle. Feversham returns in the final eight chapters as the protagonist, but its still Durrance who has the final words, heroically abandoning Ethne to Harry, and returning to the Sudan. To come to the novel after seeing a film version (as most modern readers surely do) is a disconcerting experience, like discovering that Homer originally wrote the Odyssey from the point of view of one of Penelope’s suitors.


The 1939 film was produced by Alexander Korda for London Film Productions, which at that time was the British equivalent of M.G.M., by which I mean that their films were prestigious, expensive, frequently set in the past, and often based on a pre-existing literary property. Korda had produced The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), the first British film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and the one which set the template for British success at the Oscars – when the Academy honours a British film it tends to be one that includes at least two elements of Henry VIII’s combination of history, royalty and sex (or at least scandal): witness Tom Jones (1963), Shakespeare in Love (1998) and The King’s Speech (2010).


As well as being an Alexander Korda film, with all that implies, The Four Feathers is a British colonial film. Korda had already produced three examples of this genre in the ‘thirties: Sanders of the River (1935), Elephant Boy (1937) and The Drum (1938), all directed or co-dirceted (as was The Four Feathers) by his nephew, Zoltan Korda.  Rachael Low describes these films as a British equivalent of the Western, and there’s a degree of truth to this – like Hollywood Westerns, these films mythologise landscape (both Elephant Boy and The Drum start with captions thanking the Indian rulers on whose territory they were filmed) and treat it as a sort of blank canvas on which can be played out mythic dramas of personal and national identity.


The analogy break down on two specific issues, at least as far as the three films preceding The Four Feathers are concerned. The hero of a Western, whether a rancher, an outlaw or a gunslinger, is typically a rugged individualist, defining him- (or, less often her-) self outside the system. There are exceptions, particularly films that deal with the U.S Cavalry, like They Died With Their Boots On (1941), although even in these the protagonist (in this case, Errol Flynn as General Custer) is often a maverick within the organisation. By contrast, the hero of a British colonial film tends to be an establishment figure, a military man, or (like Sanders) a Commissioner. Where the values of the Western tend to be those of the outsider, who gradually makes himself redundant as the frontier moves West, the British colonial hero already works within an institutional framework.


The second issue where these films are unlike Westerns is to do with the representation of what their makers would probably refer to as the ‘natives’. Before the ‘fifties, Hollywood westerns tend to treat Native Americans as part of the landscape, rather than active characters (again, there are exceptions). Again, by contrast, all of the films before The Four Feathers feature a character played by a top-lined non-white actor – Paul Robeson in Sanders of the River, Sabu in both Elephant Boy (where he gets the title role) and The Drum. All three films are unquestionably paternalistic in their treatment of non-white characters – both Sabu’s boyhood and Robeson’s large, slightly awkward physique contribute to a sense of the characters (and implicitly their countries) as overgrown children (I'm told that in parts of modern-day India, the name 'Sabu' is used as an insult, meaning something like 'Uncle Tom') – but it’s striking that these characters are the ones that carry the burden of their stories.


The Four Feathers is an exception to both of these rules, and is thus more like a Western than any other British colonial film – its protagonist is an outsider, and white.  Indeed, there are hardly any named non-white characters in the film – the most significant one, the Mahdi, is played by the white, Scottish actor John Laurie (familiar to British people my age as Private Fraser from Dad's Army).


The screenplay for The Four Feathers was written by R.C.Sherriff, who is better known as a playwright – he wrote the classic First World War play Journey’s End (1928) – but had a long career as a screenwriter. He worked initially in the United States, working for the two most Anglophilic studios, Universal – he wrote The Invisible Man (1933) – and later M.G.M. – Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), and later in the U.K. where his last significant credit was for The Dam Busters (1955).  His archive, kept at the Surrey History Centre in Woking, contains two drafts of the screenplay, and I'm going to be referring mostly to the first of these.


Sherriff makes many changes in Mason’s novel. Like the writers of almost every film version, he alters the name of the protagonist from Feversham to Faversham – it’s possible that when you actually have to say it, the echo of ‘feathers’ was a little too on-the-nose – and changes the focus, so that Faversham is much more the protagonist. Most significantly, he changes the historical period.


Mason’s novel is very specific in terms of its location in British military history. We’re told that Feversham’s father was a General, a veteran of the Crimean war, and was invalided out of the services on June 15th 1855, the day of the Battle of the Redan, and also the day that Harry was born. The campaign that the adult Harry and his colleagues are going to fight in is he 1882 Sudan campaign, a notoriously unsuccessful campaign that led, in 1883, to the defeat of Hicks Pasha by the Mahdi, the only time in African colonial history that a European power was defeated by an African leader. Although the book’s original readers will have been aware of the ultimate success of the Sudanese campaign, and the decisive British victory at the Battle of Omdurman in 1897, the book ends with that event in the far future.


Sherriff changes the dates significantly - the film starts with the death of General Gordon at Khartoum in 1887, an event that coincides with Harry Faversham’s tenth birthday, and ends ten years later, with Harry playing a significant part in the victory at the Battle of Omdurman. The story thus becomes one of redemption, both for Harry and for the British army. To use Joseph Campbell's terms, Sherriff changes the story from a fairy tale to a myth:


‘Typically, the hero of the fairy tale achieves a domestic, microcosmic triumph, and the hero of myth a world-historical macrocosmic triumph. Whereas the former – the younger or despised child who becomes the master of extraordinary powers – prevails over his personal oppressors, the latter brings back from his adventure the means for the regeneration of his society as a whole.’

(Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. pp. 37-8)

Sherriff’s other changes emphasise this linking of the domestic and political. In Mason’s original novel, General Feversham, Harry’s father, is still alive at the time of his resignation of his commission (rather improbably, he continues to pay Harry’s allowance during his adventures in the Sudan). In the film, his death provides the motivation for Harry’s resignation. Sherriff makes this explicit in the first draft version of the screenplay:


‘I should have taken this action months ago – when my father died. I accepted a Commission for his sake, because all his family were soldiers. When my father died, my duty towards him was done. […] When my father died I took over an estate on the verge of ruin because every man of my family has neglected it to fight in India and Africa – in every country but his own. If I do my job here I may save my home – with a hundred good farms and a hundred good men who are starving through my family’s neglect. If I go to Egypt I shall be away for years and the ruin will be complete.’


The finished film thus conflates Harry’s Hamlet-like desire to placate a dead father with a redemption of the British military, from the failures of the Crimean War and the death of General Gordon, to the successes of Omdurman and the triumph of Lord Kitchener.


This is made explicit in the final scene of the screenplay’s first draft. Faversham has returned three feathers to his colleagues, and has to return the fourth to his fiancée (called Daphne in this draft) who ask the same question that the audience must be thinking: ‘What deed of reckless daring are you going to do to make me take back my feather?’. The answer comes when her father, General Burroughs, (played in the finished film by C. Aubrey Smith, the definition of an old buffer) starts talking about the failings of the modern army.


HARRY
General Burroughs – you’re a great soldier and I acknowledge it; but let me tell you, General, here and now – that the wars you fought were garden parties compared with ours! The reason you never got any breakfast was because your organisation was rotten and your sanitary arrangements so bad that the maggots got your breakfast before you got a chance! The reasons your battles went on for three weeks was because both sides only had three cannon balls between them and you had to go and find them before you could fire them back again! Your feather, Daphne!


Harry holds out the fourth feather to Daphne. She takes it and holds his hand in hers.


The General is too astonished to say a word.


FADE OUT.


This speech neatly ties up several of the script’s themes – it marks Harry’s final act of courage, finally standing up to the military generation that had also included his father, winning the hand (literally) of Daphne and establishing the superiority of the modern army over that of General Burroughs’ generation. This works on two levels, historically, which brings us neatly back to my original point about culturally specific dramatic irony. Historically, the speech draws on the audience’s awareness of the Crimean war, a notoriously under-prepared and poorly equipped campaign, which is contrasted with the successes of the 1897 campaign.


In terms of the 1930s, the speech also carries a subtextual contrast between the army of the First World War (which Sherriff had portrayed in Journey’s End) and that of 1939.  The film was released not long before the start of the Second World War, and is clearly aimed at both appeasers in Britain and isolationists in the United States. This is less explicit in the finished film than in Sherriff’s first version of the screenplay, which opens in the House of Commons where the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, is arguing against sending further aid to the besieged General Gordon: If we send an army we engage ourselves in a senseless war of no concern to us […] Let the Egyptians work out their own destiny, and let the British Empire mind its own business.!’


The historical parallels were clearly seen at the time, particularly in Britain. At the film’s premiere, A.E.W. Mason, the author of the original novel, made a curtain speech. The London Evening Standard reported on this in an article headlines ‘Fine Film of British Heroism’:
“‘There is a peculiar constancy and endurance in the English character’ said Mr. Mason, implying that the picture had demonstrated those qualities.
‘And if the occasion should arise they will be demonstrated again.’
The audience cheered.”
(This speech is made more remarkable by the fact that Mason was no red-faced Jingoist - he had sat as a Liberal M.P. between 1906 and 1910.)

Sherriff’s screenplay, by a number of means, including the switch of period, makes the audience draw two sets of parallels – one between the Crimean and First World Wars, and one between the Second Sudanese campaign and the war that was on the horizon. Faversham doesn’t just redeem himself – he redeems the British Army.

Although this historical context isn't available to the modern viewer, the film has gained a third parallel since it's release, in terms of the writing of Sherriff himself, which also tells a story of redemption of the military, starting, ironically enough, with Journey’s End and finishing with the The Dam Busters (1955), an unambiguous celebration of military heroism, and, as a World War Two film, part of the genre that arguably took over from the Colonial Film as the British Western.