Tag Archives: Films

The difference between Jane Austen and Tracy Austin

 

The Open University is marking its 50th anniversary, so no surprise that the BBC screened a programme in celebration. Rather disappointing, though, that the programme made no mention of that popular play and film which was such a great advertisement for the OU, ie Educating Rita.

I first saw Willy Russell’s play during its first run in 1980 and on my first ever visit to London. Russell’s name meant little to me: what attracted me to Educating Rita was that it starred Julie Walters who I had liked in her first couple of TV plays by Victoria Wood . It was staged in the Warehouse, which was then the smaller of two London theatres run by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Since 1992, it has been the ever-more starry and successful Donmar Warehouse.

I remember that in general I enjoyed Educating Rita, and its story of working-class Open University student Rita and middle-class middle-aged alcohol-soaked academic Frank. Clearly, many others shared my opinion because the play transferred to the West End and later toured the UK. In its original cast, Julie Walters was, at least to me, better known than the actor who played Frank, one Mark Kingston. In fact Kingston, although not a star, was an established theatre and TV name, and it’s perfectly possible that he was chosen to reduce the pressure on the new play and the younger actress. On other occasions, though, the person who played Frank was usually better-known than the one who played Rita. When I saw the play in Glasgow during its tour in 1982, Frank was played by Tom Baker, well-known from Doctor Who on television, while Kate Fitzgerald was Rita. And of course, in the film directed by Lewis Gilbert in 1983, although Julie Walter’s stock was rising fast enough that she was chosen to reprise her stage role, she had a far lower status than did Michael Caine. That practice has continued when the play has been revived in recent years.

The film was rated highly enough at the time of its release to earn three Oscar nominations. It certainly seemed to reinvigorate Michael Caine’s career into some more varied roles and eventually into two Oscars. The original play with its two characters and one set was “opened out”, to use the popular term, with additional characters and additional scenes.

One of Willy Russell’s jokes which I didn’t grasp the first time was where Frank asks Rita, “Do you know Yeats?” and she responds in puzzlement, “You mean the wine lodge?” At that time that chain of pubs was not known in Scotland. So my artistic appreciation was definitely enhanced a day or two later when, exploring further the centre of London, I saw a sign for – Yates Wine Lodge. Nevertheless I was surprised that the joke remained in the film script:  would other audiences outside England not have been equally mystified? Especially when the film chose not to use what I feel is a better word-play joke with a wider reach – “an educated woman is the sort of woman who can tell the difference between Jane Austen and Tracy Austin”. Austin’s tennis playing career continued for ten more years after the film’s release, and she still appears on TV as a commentator and pundit.

There is one place where the film is immeasurably better than the play. Rita is a hairdresser, and the play ends with a scene of comic innuendo where she takes off her jacket as she says suggestively to Frank, “I’m going to take years off you!” – before revealing she plans only to cut his hair. In the film, this scene is the second last and the final one shows the neatly coiffured Frank revealing Rita’s successful examination results. A much more suitable conclusion to a drama about personal progress and empowerment through education.

 

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What Carry On carried on from

 

In recent times I have acquired a greater tolerance towards the Carry On films. Whereas, once, like many people who thought of themselves as modern/intelligent/liberal/progressive, I believed they represented everything old-fashioned, unsophisticated, crass and unpleasant in British culture!

One reason for my change of heart has been an increased appreciation of the link between the Carry On series, all directed by Gerald Thomas between 1958 and 1978, and earlier British cinema.

Many of the regular actors in the  series – Hattie Jacques, Charles Hawtrey, Joan Sims, Bernard Bresslaw, Terry Scott – had begun their careers in the 1950s or even in the 1940s and had appeared in these other, better regarded, films. The most diverse career perhaps belonged to Kenneth Williams (performing with Maggie Smith, in Peter Brook’s The Beggar’s Opera with Laurence Olivier, directing plays by Joe Orton) –  but another of note was definitely that of Sidney James.

James’ early film career was varied and productive. He features in The Small Back Room, one of the films made by the great writing/directing partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the J.B. Priestley-scripted Last Holiday, two of the most fondly remembered Ealing comedies The Lavender Hill Mob and The Titfield Thunderbolt,  another famous comedy The Belles of St Trinian’s,  Carol Reed’s circus drama Trapeze, Basil Dearden’s boxing drama The Square Ring, the gangster Shakespeare Joe MacBeth. A later return to his native South Africa for the drama Tokoloshe suggests a continuing appetite to expand his range.

In these films he appears with stars like Alec Guinness, Alistair Sim, Burt Lancaster, Kenneth More, Laurence Harvey and Peter Sellers.

Alongside James’ film work was his fame as Tony Hancock’s regular co-star on Hancock’s Half-Hour, on both radio and television. In fact it was widely rumoured that James was removed from the programme at the star’s request because of his popularity.

The first Carry On film in 1958 was Carry On Sergeant. Those first few films bear closer resemblance to other British comedies of the 1950s like Doctor in the House or Folly to be Wise or Brothers in Law or Love in Pawn or The Galloping Major  in their tone and casting and observations of post-war British life than to the series’ broader, farcical later titles. James’ own first appearance in the fourth film Carry On Constable has him not yet typecast, playing a long-suffering but even-tempered police sergeant. Later he was invariably the manipulative, lecherous and cackling centre of his social group, whether in Tudor England, the Wild West, the Indian Raj or the contemporary Britain of either local government or the “permissive society”.

An interview with James’ daughter on Talking Pictures TV raises the point that, if James had lived longer – he died in 1976 – he might have benefitted from the new fashion of encouraging veteran comic actors into dramatic parts. Contemporaries of James who did benefit included Max Wall and Charlie Drake each in Samuel Beckett and Charles Dickens and Jimmy Jewell in Trevor GriffithsComedians. Later on, Robbie Coltrane, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Lenny Henry would all be able to combine careers in TV comedy and perhaps more challenging dramatic work. Certainly James seemed to have a reputation for being well-prepared and hard-working, and many stereotyped actors have flourished through a good script, co-operative fellow performers and an imaginative director.

Perhaps we see signs of what might have been in the few surviving episodes of his post-Hancock TV series Citizen James where the scripts present him with the opportunity to develop a character more fully. However, the stronger, richer version of his character is definitely the one created by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson in the first series, who is a disresputable Soho gambler and shirker of responsibility, in contrast to the more suburban and respectable man which he became later as written by Sid Green and Dick Hills. That makes Citizen James rather similar to his Carry On characters, so maybe that does clinch the argument that in the second half of his career James had moved into a productive routine which it might have been difficult to deviate from. But at least he seemed to enjoy and appreciate his career, which, by all accounts and tragically, his co-star Kenneth Williams did not.

 

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The influence of Katherine

 

The name of James Hilton is rather forgotten now, his having died in 1954, but novels like Lost Horizon and Random Harvest were popular enough to be transferred quickly by Hollywood into films which were regularly on TV screens during my youth. The Hilton novel which has held its reputation longer than others is possibly Goodbye Mr Chips. Its 1939 film version, directed by Sam Wood, earned six Oscar nominations and a Best Actor prize for Robert Donat. Stuart Orme’s British television version, first screened in 2002, is still regularly shown, at least partly due to the continuing popularity of its lead actor, Martin Clunes.

Hilton’s novel tells the story of the 60-year long career of a schoolteacher named Chipping at a boys’ boarding school called Brookfield. This is another one of those narratives through which the events of World War One cast a long shadow. A startling scene towards the end has Brookfield attacked by enemy aircraft and describes Chipping’s courage and humour in the face of this. It is sobering to realise that, just a few months after the first screening of Sam Wood’s film, and even before Robert Donat had received his Oscar statuette, its audience was facing, in real life, a second war.

More significant even than the 1914-18 war for the lead character is the period of two years during the 1890s. During this time, Chipping, by now in his mid-40s, meets on holiday a young woman called Katherine Bridges. They marry and enjoy a life together which is happy but tragically short.

While Chipping, or Chips, the nickname given by Katherine, is present throughout the whole narrative, Katherine’s own presence is brief. The allegorical significance of her surname is never openly commented on, but it seems likely that Hilton wants the reader to see Katherine as the force which directs and guides the middle-aged Chips to the second, more rewarding, part of his life.

In the novel Chips is trying to save Katherine from a mountain ledge but he hurts himself in the process: “Thus he found himself the rescued instead the rescuer”. In the 1939 film director Sam Wood shrouds Chips in mists on the mountain and it is Katherine’s voice which guides him to a safe place.

 

A scene from the Lake District photographed in 1996. Chips meets Katherine while on holiday there. “He went up… with Rowden, a colleague; they walked and climbed for a week, until Rowden had to leave suddenly on some family business. Chips stayed alone at Wasdale Head, where he boarded in a small farmhouse. One day, climbing on Great Gable, he noticed a girl … ”

 

Chips has always been shy of women, and Katherine is more intimidating than most. She is an example of “that monstrous creature… the New Woman of the nineties”. She is a political radical who believes women should have the vote, an admirer of Shaw and Ibsen and William Morris, who enjoys cycling and is unafraid to visit a single older man alone in his lodgings. However she also believes that teaching is a noble and important profession and is attracted to Chips’ gentle manner and to his opinions which, although old-fashioned, are held honestly. To the modern reader it still seems an unlikely match. The 2002 TV version felt it necessary to add a scene where she leaves Chips a book by Shaw as a farewell gift, which encourages him to cycle after her in a classically bold romantic gesture. Her fatherly group leader cautions, “I hope you are not going to forget yourself, my dear”, to which she calmly replies “I believe I already have”.

Married and at Brookfield, Katherine is popular with other teachers and all the pupils. Hilton says she is also popular with other teachers’ wives – but both TV and film versions felt it too complicated to introduce such characters. The novel mentions the school concerts and the prize-giving garden party, the TV version shows afternoon tea and picnics. She organises a football match between Brookfield and a mission school in working-class Poplar in east London, which is remembered years later by one of the Poplar boys when an adult. (The TV producers perhaps felt there had been enough scenes of sport already when it was decided to change the latter social inclusion initiative into a dance with a nearby girls’ school).

Hilton says that Katherine often asks Chips to be lenient in dealing with pupil misbehavior – because she understands that the boys had often been sent to boarding school against their will and that living together with others was “an unnatural arrangement” – but she is described as shrewd enough to realise that leniency is not appropriate in every situation. The TV version shows her use the Aesop’s fable of the sun and the north wind in her argument against “uncivilized” bullying to the shocked Brookfield headmaster, which the latter recalls when he compliments her later at the mixed gender dance.

Katherine’s death in childbirth is dealt with briskly by Hilton and in both adaptations. Chips refuses to take any time off after the tragedy and returns immediately to his class. Because it is 1 April, the pupils have already organized an April Fool’s joke which he tolerates. Hilton adds that Chips “nearly” says “ ‘you can go to blazes for all I care. My wife is dead and my child is dead and I wish I were dead myself’ ” –  but he is held back by social formality and professional dedication.

The story is still only half-way through, and Hilton makes clear that Chips’ continuing popularity and status and success within the school is due to the influence of the deceased Katherine. So although one theme of the story could be said to be tradition or service or the English class system, another could certainly be the positive influence which one person can exercise in unlikely circumstances when will and effort are applied.

For me, Hilton’s most insightful description is that Katherine’s “radical-socialist… idealism” has combined with Chips’ more conservative “maturity” to produce “an amalgam gentle and wise”. With the new century, despite the pain of his bereavement, Chips gains “a mellowness (and) harmony” and becomes “supremely and confidently himself”.

 

Reference:  Hilton, James (1980)   Goodbye Mr Chips    London: Coronet

 

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Supporting film history

 

My most valuable new cultural resource in the past year has definitely been the television channel Talking Pictures TV.

Free throughout the UK, it has been an unceasing supplier at all times of the day of fascinating and rewarding films and television programmes from the past.

Some of its schedule are celebrated films which I have known about and would have sought out at any time. For instance, Joseph Losey’s The Servant with its still transgressive story and cinematography of the manipulative manservant and his supposed sister, or Seven Days to Noon, an early nuclear terror drama with an authentic newsreel tone, or Chance of a Lifetime with its attractive political narrative, in keeping with the mood of the times, about how the workers of an agricultural machinery firm take over its management, or The Swimmer, the simultaneously bizarre but convincing allegory of 1960s US middle-class society.

Many more are titles which I knew slightly or had never heard of.

Almost all, even during a few minutes’ viewing, provide wonderful insight into the customs, behaviour, fashions and landscapes of previous generations, plus the earlier performances of dozens of actors you know from later films and TV.
As well as conventional movies from the 1930s to the 1970s, the channel provides short informational films of the type which would have once been a regular part of cinema programmes, plus TV drama from both Britain and the USA.

The channel was launched by Noel Cronin who runs it with his daughter Sarah. An interview with Cronin with BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme gave rather too little information for an aficionado like me about how you might go about setting up such a TV channel – although I did work out it was helped by libraries of old films which could be bought cheaply because they were deemed to have no commercial value and also by available television bandwidth.

“Thank you for supporting film history by watching Talking Pictures TV”, is its regular on-screen announcement. I’m not sure how much practical support I am actually providing, Noel and Sarah, but “appreciating”? Certainly yes.

 

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Simple but effective

 

Although feminism has been a continuing powerful cultural theme in the 21st century, Hollywood’s earlier treatments of its ideas and values are often seen to be dated, and therefore nowadays rarely seen. Films such as those from the late 1970s and early 1980s such as An Unmarried Woman, Julia, The Turning Point, Norma Rae, Coalminer’s Daughter, Gloria, Places in the Heart, Country. Although Nine to Five is still popular…

One of those neglected films is The Rose, set in the world of rock music. The lead character – a confident and assertive woman on and off stage, a white performer of black R&B influenced music, vulnerable to drink and drugs – was already something of a stereotype at the time of its release in 1979. However, she would probably still be a recognised type today, in the light of the death of Amy Winehouse. She was always presumed to be based specifically on Janis Joplin, who died in 1970.

The lead role was one of the first for singer Bette Midler. In some ways, she was an unusual choice for the character as her own music experience had been at the jazz/cabaret/Broadway end of the spectrum, such as with covers of  “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” and “The Big Noise from Winnetka”.

The most enduring part of the film is certainly its theme song. Written by someone who was and has remained relatively obscure, Amanda McBroom, it is in many ways a mainstream romantic ballad, played on piano and using familiar lyrical imagery. However, for me, it does its job with particular force and with a significant simplicity.

The first stanza offers four metaphors of love. Three of these suggest pain and difficulty and hardship: deep water, a sharp razor blade, the lack of food. The fourth, of a flower, offers potential and growth.

The second stanza is still using abstract nouns but is also clearly addressing individuals, and how people are often too shy and cautious and unambitious, and so will never exploit their full potential. Lack of effort and lack of courage, it bluntly states, will lead to failure.

The third and final stanza begins with more metaphors of physical suffering and difficulty – the long journey, the lonely night, the winter snow – to summarise life’s challenges, but then becomes more sympathetic and more encouraging that these difficulties can be overcome. It ends by repeating the first stanza’s metaphor of hope and potential, a flower, and now makes it more particular, a rose.

As the song progresses, the piano is supplemented , inevitably if not really necessarily, by other instruments and other voices. But it is a strong melody and in the last couplet it is again allowed to be on its own with solo piano and quieter vocals.

The song was a big hit in the USA but not at all in Britain, and my acquaintance and fondness for it was built solely on my then regular listens to the US Charts programme on BBC Radio 1 presented by Paul Gambaccini.

The song has been covered by many artistes, and I can well imagine some performances may have used primary colours rather than subtlety. Its lyrical ideas are not entirely radical or adventurous, but I found (and still find) the song powerful because of how the writer applies those ideas sparingly and simply and clearly. About happiness gained, preferably through intimate and compassionate partnership, but certainly through individual effort, resilience and courage. Many more famous songwriters have done less well.

 

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Some causes and consequences of gambling

 

D.H. Lawrence’s The Rocking-Horse Winner, first published in 1925, is an intriguing short story, not least because it has elements of form and content which might not be expected from the celebrated analyst of social class and sexual and emotional intimacy.

For instance, Lawrence used several of the tropes of fairy-tale, or perhaps parable, in his narrative. He opens with, “There was a woman who was beautiful” and continues “there was a boy and two little girls”. The boy appears to have magical, or supernatural powers, which allow him to gain great financial riches, albeit not through classic devices of physical combat or exploration, but through the more prosaic 20th century practice of betting on the results of horse races. The family lives in a house which itself seems to be alive, frequently whispering to all its residents for more money. More personal details about his characters are revealed only slowly.

A story by D.H. Lawrence seems an unlikely source for a horror film, but Anthony Pelissier’s 1949 film version does bear similarities with a couple of classics from the genre of that period. First, with the Ealing Studios compendium Dead of Night, where one story features rooms in a family home which are haunted by a dead child, another where a malevolent mirror transfers the evils of its previous home to its new modern sophisticated owner, and, more peripherally, two others have sports backgrounds! Second, with Victor Fleming’s version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, where some of its rather Freudian scenes representing Hyde’s animal appetites seem to have influenced Pelissier in his depictions of Paul’s adolescent physical efforts to bring to mind the name of a money-winning horse.

Lawrence is critical of the materialism of Paul’s middle-class parents and, in general, of people living beyond their means. This couple “lived in style” but “there was never enough money”. The desire for wealth and possessions and status saturates the home – so that “the children could hear it all the time though nobody said it aloud”. The mother’s greed psychologically damages her young son who is determined to gain money (through luck, not work) in order to help his parents.

Paul makes an astonishing amount of money by predicting successfully the winners of horse races. Half-way through the story Lawrence mentions winnings of £10,000, the equivalent of half a million pounds in today’s money. Where does Paul’s success come from? Perhaps he has inherited it: his Uncle Oscar is clearly very interested in horse racing and bets frequently, his mother says hers was “a gambling family” which suggests the habit goes back at least to her own father. Paul says only that God has told him he is lucky.

So Lawrence seems to hint that Paul’s success in gambling is some kind of spiritual gift. Possibly to underline how the selfish materialism of parents like his leads them to fail to notice or understand their children’s qualities and interests and talents. Religious imagery is frequently used. When Paul’s ally, the young gardener Bassett, talks about the boy’s betting practice, he “was serious as a church…as if he were speaking of religious matters” and explains that Paul gets his betting tips “as if he had it from heaven”. When Paul dies prematurely, Uncle Oscar seems to acknowledge he has gifts from God which have been abused: “a poor devil… (who’s) best gone out of a life where he rides his rocking-horse to find a winner.”

Paul introduces the idea of money and luck to his mother “vaguely” and “timidly”, but his behaviour in putting his vision into practice is, in contrast, intense and driven and disturbing. He is described as “in agony” when trying to identify the winner of the Lincoln Handicap, presumably akin to Christ’s agony in Gethsemane. He rides his wooden rocking-horse “madly” and “wildly” and in “a frenzy”; his eyes show a “strange glare” as he slashes at it with a whip, a gesture which hints at capacity for violence and an incipient sexual energy. His mother observes the incongruity anxiously: “You’re not a very little boy any longer, you know”.

Other sexual undertones could be interpreted in a description like “his sturdy long legs straddling apart” or in Paul’s statement “I got there…where I wanted to go”. Pelissier’s film certainly follows this line, through close ups, sweeping camera, low angle shots, dark shadows, staring eyes and clashing music. In Paul’s final night-time encounter with the rocking-horse which helps him identify the winner of the Derby, his hair is damp against his forehead, his pyjama jacket is open and his chest is bare.

Pelissier characterises Uncle Oscar, as played by Ronald Squire, as pleasant and supportive but roguish, and inherently as selfish as his sister and brother-in-law. Lawrence’s minor character of Bassett is aged and expanded in the film to exploit the casting of John Mills. Mills usually played characters of integrity and he does so here, as a disabled working-class war veteran who looks after Paul’s winnings and is never tempted to steal any. However, at the end, he shares guilt and regret for Paul’s death. Paul’s mother wants Bassett to burn the banknotes which she sees as “blood money” but Bassett determines to take it to the family solicitor so that the money which “cost (a life) …might (now) be able to save a few lives”.

Although Lawrence’s narrative method is spare, he does include some period domestic details. The father’s workplace is described dismissively as “some office” (probably the character’s view of his work rather than Lawrence’s). The mother does show enterprise and initiative on occasions, such as her venture as a commercial artist. Each parent earns or has inherited some money “but not nearly enough for the social position which they had to keep up”, which is perhaps why the employment of servants has to be “discreet”, since they might have to be dismissed prematurely. The film adds some additional scenes: a debt collector visits unexpectedly so Paul’s mother has to rush off to a pawn broker in a shabby part of the nearest town to raise some money by selling her things.

The film’s closing image of the “funeral pyre” of the burning rocking horse seems to want to leave the audience with the idea that the toy has been the primary cause of the disruption in the family, rather like the haunted mirror in Dead of Night. Lawrence’s story makes clear that “the shining modern rocking-horse” is just one of “the expensive and splendid toys” which has absorbed the parents’ money and distracted them from their obligation to care properly for their children. It has been a device to ignite energy and ideas which were already building just below the surface in Paul’s personality. He is aware of the flaws in his parents’ marriage and therefore in the instability of his family life; he is reaching out to make things better and find his mother’s love through her aloof selfish materialism.

Most online analyses of Lawrence’s story seem to concentrate on the mother’s greed and its consequences for her son. Both the story and Pelissier’s film could also be seen as highly relevant to our present-day concern about the reasons for gambling and the psychological damage it can cause.

 

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Ensemble reading

 

It’s hard to be sure whether the fashion of book/reading groups has passed. Some evidence that it has: it was 15 years ago that the Glasgow-set comedy series The Book Group screened on Channel 4 and then for only a year, the much-publicised book strands of the TV programmes of each of Oprah Winfrey and Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan have long gone and BBC Radio 2 has just ended the book club element of Simon Mayo’s programme. On the other hand, the Richard and Judy Book Club continues as a commercial website, the BBC Radio 4 monthly programme Bookclub presented by James Naughtie is still broadcasting after 20 years, and the Reading Agency charity feels that it is a strategy which is still worth supporting.

I too was once part of the book group phenomenon, for eight years between 2003 and 2010, based at my local library. My initial motivation was that it would give me the opportunity to become acquainted with some less known contemporary writers. In the event, I found myself reading only a small minority of the group’s choices, although I was never disappointed by the monthly discussions.

Book groups were sometimes ridiculed because the novels which were read were perceived to fit a stereotype. Their choices were often set in the past, not too literary in style, perhaps linked to a distinct social/political theme, certainly not too long – all of these features thus providing a sense of the books being educational as well as entertaining. My own experience was that there was some truth to this stereotype.

In addition, certain titles seemed to be recurringly popular, such as Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian; books by Ian McEwan, Tracy Chevalier, Nick Hornby, Margaret Atwood. Publishers sometimes included book group questions in their editions, appearing to see ensemble discussion as more important than individual discovery.

In addition to the enjoyable social interactions, did I gain any literary satisfaction? Well, our group’s very first read was one of my most memorable: Under the Skin by Michel Faber about the extra-terrestrial visitor to Scotland was much more chilling and engrossing than the subsequent film. The other best one was Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell, set in a hillbilly poor community in the USA – the meatiness of the dialogue recalled that the same person had written the source novel for Ang Lee’s film Ride with the Devil.

A few other memories? The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón successfully wove its romantic spell partly because I had recently visited Barcelona; The Road Home by Rose Tremain gave a convincing picture of a refugee experience in modern London and Louise Welsh’s The Cutting Room an equally believable one of a Glasgow demi-monde; Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama provided more insight about the newly-arrived global cultural superstar. A more established book was Guiseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard whose complexities about 19th century Italian society I would definitely like to explore again one day.

One professional author visited us: Jonathan Falla, after we had read his Blue Poppies, set in Tibet. He talked engagingly about his work in progress, which drew on his experiences with the charity sector working in Africa, and which became Poor Mercy.

Popular books have been adapted into films since the early days of Hollywood. But it is noticeable how many book group favourites go on to be filmed, such as, from our group’s list, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger, Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, Brick Lane by Monica Ali, I’m Not Scared by Niccolò Ammaniti, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishigiro, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, Suite Française by Irene Nemirovsky, The Ghost by Robert Harris, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Anne Barrows. (And there have even been films about fictional reading groups such as The Jane Austen Book Club and the current Book Club!) Are those aforementioned book club characteristics (set in the past, not too literary etc) especially alluring to movie producers? Or are these films just the latest examples of a long tradition?

Of course, with willing participants, interest groups of any sort will thrive. The book group in the aforementioned TV comedy included several members who were not native Scots. By coincidence, the Gramnet research network into migration, asylum and refugees, based at Glasgow University, has a book group which regularly reads and discusses relevant novels on their areas of interest.

 

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Reaching the harbour

 

Portpatrick is a picturesque harbour town in the south-west of Scotland. In the past, as well as being a fishing port, it enjoyed a period as the ferry port to Ireland.

It features as a key location in the last section of the 1950s film Hunted, as a murderer, Chris Lloyd, played by Dirk Bogarde, escapes as far as possible from his crime in London.

The town is not actually named in the film, and we are not even told we are in Scotland: Lloyd says only that he is travelling “north” to where his brother lives. We see only a harbour crammed with fishing boats and hear Lloyd’s information that “the herring fleet’s in” so a boat might be commandeered for further escape. The film is sometimes compared to The 39 Steps , although, since Lloyd is accompanied by a young boy, I was also reminded of Kidnapped.

Seeing the film recently, I was struck how little Portpatrick has changed between its working heyday and its current life as a tourist destination.

 

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Three great film openings

 

Favourite film openings? One obvious one, short but celebrated: Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. The cameras zooming through the familiar tourist sights of central Edinburgh to the drum-driven tune of “Lust for Life”, then onto the five-a-side football field and into the heroin users’ gathering place, accompanying the cynical but revealing narration of Ewan McGregor’s Renton (“Choose life, choose a job, choose a career…”). Until that time I had been familiar with the Iggy Pop/David Bowie track only through its reputation; afterwards, like many people, I could never again separate the music from those pictures. It was especially ironic that, a year or two after the film’s original release,  I heard the song re-employed as the “empowering”(!) soundtrack to my workplace’s corporate start of year presentation!

The second, John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven. Not the very first scene in the Mexican village, but the next in the American border town. No flashy camera work here, but just an engrossing narrative. A few minutes in the life of two men who have advanced skills in a very specialised area – shooting accurately to wound or kill – which they rarely need to use, and who are therefore continually searching for any challenge to relieve the boredom while covering their living costs. Yul Brynner’s cigar-smoking Chris explicitly drives the funeral cart to the cemetery simply because he has overheard a conversation and has nothing else to do; Steve McQueen’s Vin accompanies him perhaps also because he wants to display his skill and character to the one other man in the town who might understand and respect him. Like the onlookers, Horst Buchholz’s willing acolyte and the Mexican farmers who are searching for help, we are impressed by the casual way in which Vin waits for the shot from the upstairs window, reasonably confident that the gunman will miss and definitely confident that he, Vin, will not miss. A few minutes later, Chris shows equally astonishing gun skill by firing two shots instantaneously with no apparent time to aim, yet succeeding in wounding the two gunmen in front of him and allowing him immediately to gain control of the situation. Elmer Bernstein’s music cheers his cart back down the hill. The first challenge has been dealt with – but the two mystery men have not yet been pulled out of their comfort zone, and the tasks ahead may be more arduous.

Third, perhaps least obvious, the minutes before and during the opening credits of Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing. From the start of his career, Branagh has been keen to show that, although a product of the classical theatre, he can direct a full-length feature film with the same flair and flamboyance as any 1960s cinéaste or any 1990s music video maker. Branagh cast some big Hollywood names not previously associated with Shakespeare: Denzel Washington, already with one Oscar and two more nominations, Michael Keaton just out of Batman, Keanu Reeves just before Speed. Shakespeare’s romantic comedy is one which you could categorise as being about older lovers in the way that Romeo and Juliet is about and for young couples, and Branagh’s version employs a number of eye-catching devices in the opening. First, the poetic lament “Sigh No More” about men’s inconstancy to women is moved from the middle of the play where it is spoken by a minor male character, to the very start, written onto a blank screen as it is spoken by a woman, Emma Thompson, over a light strings backing. When the visuals arrive, it turns out that Thomson’s character, Beatrice, has been reading the poem (in a comic faux-serious manner) to a large picnic gathering of Leonato’s family and household.

News comes of the arrival of the victorious soldiers of Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon. This is in line with Shakespeare’s text but depicted with far more spectacle and flourish. The prince’s small Spanish/Italian company is presented more like a US Seventh Cavalry patrol. Flags wave, horses pound, riders swagger. Patrick Doyle’s theme music is brilliantly rich and melodic and powered by full brass orchestration.

The household of Leonato is clearly thrilled to welcome these glamorous visitors. The camera zooms and cuts, picking out characters young and old, male and female; the music has become less bombastic but still urgent, with a background of girlish squeals. The real surprise is the frequent flashes of sensual nudity as both men and women prepare to meet their guests; the soldiers strip off outside and wash alfresco in a long stone water trough, the women do the same indoors. The activities are carried out communally, with gusto and without embarrassment. Editing is fast and flirtatious, contrasting white clothes and grey stone with running, bending, curving smiling flesh.

Now the music changes again as the preparation is almost over. Don Pedro, played by Denzel Washington, leads his soldiers in formation up the steps and into the courtyard of Leonato, played by Richard Briers, while the household arrives from the other direction, pointing from balconies and windows. An aerial shot makes a pleasing X shape of the principal characters together as the music comes to a stop. “Good Signior Leonato, you are come to meet your trouble,” says Don Pedro. “Never came trouble to my house in the likeness of your grace,” replies Leonato.

No ordinary film could live up to this incongruously alluring opening, and Much Ado About Nothing doesn’t. So perhaps that means it is actually a poor opening and betrays a self-indulgence connected more to Branagh’s professional and personal confidence at that time, rather than a genuinely fresh and imaginative perspective on Shakespeare’s text?  Certainly I have watched the opening rather more often than the complete film. But actually that also applies to the other two, more famous, examples. That’s probably why they came to mind as Great Film Openings.

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In no man’s land

 

The series of five Westerns which James Stewart acted in for director Anthony Mann in the 1950s are celebrated for how they allowed Stewart to play some more ambiguous, less obviously likeable characters. In contrast, Stewart’s life-long friend Henry Fonda only once acted in an Anthony Mann Western, The Tin Star. Generally regarded as weaker than Mann’s other films of the period, The Tin Star is still interesting for its similarity to the superior Warlock, also starring Fonda, directed shortly afterwards by Edward Dmytryk.

In both films Fonda’s character is a figure who occupies a murky “no man’s land” between legality and crime. In both he visits a town where a group of leading citizens have strong ambitions about how the town should develop commercially.

His character in The Tin Star is Morgan Hickman, a bounty hunter who brings the bad men in dead, in contrast to the legitimate lawmen, who keep them alive, to face trial. He says that he makes a living by “(working) inside the legal system for money” and in that way, he suggests wryly, he is no different from any other businessman or tradesman. However, he is presented as a generally sympathetic character, willing to advise and support the idealistic young sheriff Ben Owens and becoming attached to the young widow Nona Mayfield and her son.

In Warlock, he plays Clay Blaisdell, who has been employed on short-term lucrative contracts as a marshal by several towns, because of his reputation as a skilful gunman who can intimidate and kill troublemakers and criminals.

It is in Warlock that Fonda’s character shows an intensity similar to Stewart’s characters in the latter’s Mann films: a hard, tough face below his blackened coiffed hair and above his expensive clothes, slow and careful in his movements. Whereas Hickman explains that he is a former lawman who turned to bounty hunting to improve his income for his family, Blaisedell seems to have discovered a particular talent which he could best use in only one way. “I’m a simple man, good only with Colts,” he says to his younger girlfriend Jessie. This has led inexorably to his career as an admired and feared gunman who accepts work within the legal system as long as it pays well, and understands that it can come to an end suddenly and bloodily. On more than one occasion he comments bluntly about how he will shoot and kill one of the troublemakers – as long as he is not shot first.

In one scene we see Blaisedell practising shooting, saying to the admiring Jessie, “Just like you practise on the piano, I practise on the Colts; the stakes are a little different but the reason is the same”. In another scene, he is greasing the inside of his gun holster. These are the practical disciplines which help him to feel always prepared and confident. Another is following “the rules”. “I remember when I first killed a man,” he reminisces to the official town sheriff Johnny Gannon. “It was clear and had to be done – but I went home afterwards and puked my insides up… Afterwards nothing was ever clear again.” All that he can do to retain some personal integrity, he adds, is to keep strictly to “the rules” in any gunfight. While striving to stay alive yourself, you give the other (probably inferior) gunman as many chances as possible.

Blaisedell’s fine clothes are part of the evidence that he does not know for sure how long his life will last and it is one way in which he enjoys the material benefits of his violent risk-taking. In contrast, his partner Tom Morgan, club-footed and possibly homosexually attracted to Blaisedell, also appreciates furnishings and art. Despite the danger, Blaisedell does enjoy the status which comes with being a town’s lawman, and disparages alternative peaceful employment such as a shopkeeper, a farmer or a miner. He accepts that his chosen lifestyle is anachronistic and that “times are changing” but feels           “there’ll be enough towns to last my lifetime”.

Hollywood Western narratives reach their happy endings either by community effort or individual heroics, depending on producer, director, star actor or period. In Warlock, made in 1959, these different factors combine to deliver a complex conclusion. Official sheriff Gannon, injured and isolated, hopes that the townspeople will help him quell the rancher McQuown and his lawbreaking employees. Blaisedall says scornfully, “I wouldn’t bet on it” – but that is actually what happens. This shows that it is the community which will enforce legal progress in Warlock and that the era of the star gunman has passed. Arguments between Blaisedell and Morgan lead to the latter’s death at the hand of the former, which effects on Warlock are shown metaphorically by the saloon first being set on fire then extinguished by a thunderstorm. Gannon has been shown to be an inferior gunman to Blaisedell, but the latter has decided that his time in Warlock is over and leaves the town without a fight, tossing his bespoke gold-handled Colt revolvers into the sand.

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