Thursday, 31 March 2011

The Films of Val Lewton Part Thirty Four

Bedlam - Part Four

Pompey's pompous preening
From the night streets of London, we dissolve to the corridor outside Lord Mortimer’s bedchamber, which serves as the waiting room for his summoned guests and supplicants. We see Pompey, the black boy, seated to one side of the door. His immaculate turban and princely peacock finery lends him an air of affected aristocracy which he plays up by closely examining his fingernails with studied disdain, directed to the unseen person for whom he is acting as usher and gatekeeper. This costume is taken from the Hogarth print The Countess’ Morning Levee, the fourth in the Marriage a la Mode series, in which the black boy is one element of the extravagant foppery with which the Countess in the story surrounds herself. Pompey’s absurd headgear is another example of the array of hats and wigs sported throughout Bedlam, all of which convey something of the status or self-definition of the characters wearing them. In Pompey’s case it is a displaced indication of Lord Mortimer’s self-importance and rich, gilded tastes. Pompey is a reflective barometer of his Lord’s current moods and the direction in which his favours are likely to be dispersed. Our gaze is directed by his sideways glance, and we realise that it upon Sims, who sits on the other side of the door, that his smug, appropriated superiority is focussed. Sims sits with his chin resting on the ball of his cane, a pose which echoes the one in which we first encountered him. On this occasion, however, he is not impatient and agitated, but reflective and still, poised for the duel which he knows is imminent, and for which he is now ready. When summoned by the footman, he rises and adjusts his wig before entering. It is his customary and almost unconscious preparation for entering the courtly world in which appearance, pose and the witty turn of phrase are the feints and stabs of social sparring. His wig is akin to a helmet, and his reflexive adjustment of it, his need to check that his fashion armoury has not slipped, indicates his lack of ease at this strata of society. Its all important manners and gestures are not those with which he has been brought up and educated, and he has been obliged to study and adapt them himself in order to further his aspirations to social advancement through patronage.

Surrealist toilette - Lord Mortimer at powder
Within the bedchamber, Lord Mortimer is having his wig powdered, his face covered and protected by a paper cone. He looks like a figure from a surrealist collage, his head transformed into a grotesquely outsized beak. It is another form of helmet, donned to make ready for the to and fro of social interplay. This powder protector is no doubt the kind of idiosyncratic historical detail which Lewton delighted in discovering, and is one of the minor background elements which combine to give the film, for all its low budget, a richly textured period feel. Lord Mortimer’s morning powdering and care for his appearance are another instance of the feminisation of men in Bedlam. Nell sits towards the rear of the room, a spectator at his toilet, having evidently finished herself with far less laborious ceremony. He is the foreground object of her disinterested gaze as he undergoes his beautification, an inversion of the usual pattern. Sims gives a deep bow to ‘Mistress Bowen’ as he enters the room, an acknowledgement of her status and current ascendancy, and an formality akin to fencers bowing to each other before the commencement of their duel. Such tactical deference is in contrast to their first meeting in Lord Mortimer’s bedchamber, during which Sims initially ignored Nell, directing his supplicatory gestures to Lord Mortimer. ‘I trust you enjoyed the fete’, he enquires of her now, knowing full well the strident outrage at the deathly nature of his masque which she exhibited. ‘You will hear presently how much I enjoyed it’, Nell replies with a terse air of self-satisfied triumph. Lord Mortimer eagerly divulges ‘what we’ve decided’, explaining how Nell (‘a practical lass’) ‘wants to turn Bedlam upside down and make all the loonies happy as linnets’.

The notion of the world turned upside down relates to a custom popular in households at Christmas in which the servants became the masters for a day. In a wider sense, it suggests a revolutionary state of affairs in which commonly held assumptions and values are upended. It’s a phrase which was used in the King James version of the Bible, first published in 1611, 500 years ago, where it can be found in Acts 17 verse 6: ‘and when they found them not they drew Jason and certain brethren unto the rulers of the city, crying these that have turned the world upside down are come hither also’. The sermon on the mount is effectively announcing that heaven is the world turned upside down (‘blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth etc.), offering a series of inversions of the accepted order of things. The phrase was commonly used to describe the revolutionary aspirations of the radical movements of the 17th century, its scriptural provenance pointing to the religious origins of their non-conformism. A pamphlet entitled The World Turned Upside Down was published in 1647, with the explicatory sub-heading ‘a briefe description of the ridiculous fashions of these distracted times’. In the context of the film, Bedlam and its inhabitants both form a microcosm of society at large and represent the downtrodden elements of that society, so the metaphor applies both to the world within its walls and to the way in which it relates to the world beyond. Nell’s proposals resonate well beyond their specific aim of improving conditions for the mentally ill.

Balance of power - Nell and Sims
During Lord Mortimer’s deposition, both Nell and Sims are seated in their chairs facing him, a position from which they can best vie for his limited and easily distracted attention. Sims responds to his latest assumption of another’s words and ideas in a voice thick with bitterly underlined irony, the kind of response which Nell would have been expecting. ‘You can’t imagine the gratitude I bear you, Mistress Bowen’, he hisses. She is threatening to dislodge him from the comfortable niche of unaccountable power into which he has settled and to which he has grown accustomed. He is not about to relinquish it lightly. Addressing himself to Lord Mortimer, he plays on his vanity, as he had done in the first bedchamber encounter, emphasising his ownership of the idea and suggesting the reflected glory which he will enjoy as a result. ‘These reforms you propose will make my name stand out in the history of Bedlam’, he declares. ‘We knew you’d agree’, his lordship replies with satisfaction, having entirely failed to detect the undercurrents of meaning contained within the tone of delivery. As far as he is concerned, the matter has been swiftly and decisively settled.

Shift in power - Nell worried
But Sims now interjects a new element into the proceedings, one which indicates his insight into the shallows of Lord Mortimer’s character. ‘One small point’, he adds, with calculated Columbo-style afterthought. ‘The trifling matter of money’. He thanks him for his generosity, which immediately causes Nell to sit up alertly, rousing her from her complacent certainty in her own success at manipulating Milord’s favours. Lord Mortimer is pleased to proffer generosity which costs him nothing, but Sims points out that, since he has taxable property in the Moorfields area, ‘this reform will cost you not less than 500 guineas in additional taxes’. He has clearly prepared his figures beforehand. Human dignity and the cost of compassion have been carefully weighed and valued and given financial expression. There is a close upon Nell’s face, from which all the glow of self-satisfied triumph has blanched. Sims then shifts the focus of expense directly on to her person, pitching the cost of reforms as ‘some little gift you’d gladly give to Mistress Bowen’. Suddenly, the idea has become hers once more, given back to her once it has become tainted with financial consequence, and the notion of human currency is once more introduced. Sims has manoeuvred Lord Mortimer into considering how much Nell is really worth, and he has sufficient insight into his nature to know that he will hold her cheaply. Nell realises that the foundation of her plans is crumbling, and quickly relinquishes any such gift (‘a gift she’s not going to have’, Sims immediately ripostes). Knowing that he is gaining the upper hand, Sims introduces the decisive element of politics, bringing up the question of what Wilkes and the Whigs would say to the notion of reform. Wilkes is a name guaranteed to trigger a pre-conditioned response from Lord Mortimer, and he immediately comes back with ‘he would say loonies don’t vote’. Putting the debate on a political level, everything is once more reduced to its cynical and self-serving essence.

Allowing your enemies to destroy themselves - Sims amused
Lord Mortimer is now left to balance the relative merits of Nell’s ‘good deed’ with the 500 guineas which is the price which Sims has put upon it. There’s never really any doubt as to which will rise uppermost in his considerations. ‘There would be so much I’d have to do without’, he muses to himself. Nell and Sims are both now standing as the duel for his Lordship’s favour reaches its concluding moments. Sims further prompts him, suggesting that ‘Milord has to keep up appearances at court’. Lord Mortimer adopts a wheedling tone to justify himself to Nell, his decision evidently now made. ‘You have no idea, Nell, what a great responsibility it is to be rich’, he tell her by way of explanation. Recognising defeat, she bitterly sums up his stingy attitude: ‘I’ve asked you to do a good deed and find the very thought of it too expensive’. By implication, she is also realising the paltry limits of her own value, just how cheaply she is held. She now lets her pride spill over into anger, expressing her authentic feelings and dispensing entirely with the ritualised and carefully controlled employment of irony and arch sardonicism. There is undisguised contempt in her voice as she lets him know how she has put up with him, ‘trying to make you laugh and then listening to that fat laugh of yours as it comes tumbling out of your fat throat’. It’s a vicious image which expresses in words the kind of savage caricature Hogarth might produce of his Lordship. Sims is shown suppressing a smile. He knew that her temper was liable to erupt in such a manner and has led her deliberately towards such an ill-considered outburst. He now simply has to leave her to dismantle the framework upon which her own standing has been built.

Origins - Hogarth's Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn
Lord Mortimer responds in the classic ‘I made you what you are’ manner, telling her ‘you’d be camping in the rain on Strathmore Common with the other strolling players if you hadn’t caught my eye’. This lets us know a little more about Nell’s background. She had evidently been an actress before becoming Lord Mortimer’s pet and kept wit. The reference to strolling players refers back to the Hogarth print which we saw in the opening credits, ‘Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn’. Hogarth’s print memorialised the demise of travelling theatre troupes who put on performances on makeshift stages. Their days were effectively ended by the passing of the Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737. This was swiftly drafted in response to a series of increasingly savage satirical plays, whose mockery was often pointedly directed at the prime minister Robert Walpole, particularly in the plays of Hogarth’s good friend Henry Fielding, whose Tom Thumb, Covent Garden Tragedy and Pasquin did as much as any to rouse the ire of parliament. Theatrical performances now had to be licensed, which effectively restricted them to theatre buildings, and were open to censorship by the Lord Chamberlain. This was censorship of a political rather than moral nature, specifically designed to silence attacks on establishment figures. The Lord Chamberlain held the powers granted by the act right up until 1968, causing problems in the latter half of the last century for radical theatre groups such as Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop. The action of the film takes place in 1761, but with allowances made for a little dramatic license, it’s easy to suppose that Nell has fallen victim to the consequences of the act, her career as an actress suddenly and unceremoniously cut short. She brings the satire which the act was supposed to defuse into the home, presenting it directly to its intended target. In the small, insular world of the political and landed classes she finds its effect blunted by the general disconnection between words and meaning, the abandonment of direct expression in favour of devious circumlocution. Unvarnished insult in this context becomes a quaintly primitive amusement. Nell has much in common with Sims in coming to this world from a humble background, and she must adopt some of his strategic nous in order to really make herself heard.

Prideful anger - Nell lets fly
Meanwhile, she sticks with an escalation of insults. She portrays Lord Mortimer as a hollow man, a large empty vessel whose position is maintained through expenditure and toadying rather than innate merit of any kind. Her attack swiftly expands from the personal to encompass wider social disaffection, making clear the connection between the two. Her invective takes the form of a rejection, distancing herself from that for which she expresses moral repugnance, and refuting the values which she sees Lord Mortimer as standing for: ‘I would not want to be a dull man forever in need of amusement. I would not want to bribe and be bribed, to fawn upon the king and kick the commoner. In short, milord, I would not want to be Lord Mortimer’. Hannay’s egalitarian ideals have evidently awoken a dormant part of her conscience, and she has descended from the lofty and aloof equestrian pedestal from which she first parted company with him. Having effectively resigned her position, definitively burning any bridges which might have allowed her to return, she storms out. ‘Such angry words’, Sims sighs with an air of sardonic reproval. In the corridor, we see Pompey playing conkers with himself, the clash of the horse chestnuts replicating the pendulum swings of the duel which has just reached its conclusion. When Sims comes out, he ushers him to the exit with a sweeping, grandiloquent bow. Once more, he is a reliable barometer of status. Nell is history and it is Sims who is now in the ascendant.

Left with nothing but the parrot
We cut to the staircase of a house whose furniture and paintings are in the process of being moved out, leaving it looking bare and Spartan. This is one of a number of scenes whose action is directly consequent upon what has been said immediately before. Words have significant power to affect events in this world. The empty shell of the house clearly demonstrates the ease with which the elements of Nell’s life can be dismantled, and the extent to which its objects and appurtenances were subject to Lord Mortimer’s continued benefaction. They were always contingent upon her continued compliance, and the hire has now been revoked. Varney gets upset at the prospect of the parrot being taken and manages to keep hold of it. He points out that Poll has ‘been with Mistress Bowen since Mistress Bowen played Aurora in The Rivals. We were very good in that’. He’s presumably not referring to Sheridan’s comic romance, since there’s no character of that name in the play, and it wasn’t performed until 1775, 14 years after the action of the film, anyway. Varney’s wistful theatrical reminiscence of times now gone indicate that his relationship with Nell extends back to a shared life on the stage. Nell has brought Varney with her from these theatrical days and has been supporting him ever since. Her loyalty to old friends once more belies her assertion of self-interest and claim that her ‘heart is like a flint’. As the removal men depart, she puts aside her combative persona and sighs to Varney that ‘a kind heart butters no parsnips’, but it is said without any real sense of regret at what she has done. Now she is left with nothing but her parrot, which is the external emblem and reminder of her former status as amusing pet. The analogous link between human beings and animals is once more made clear, with lower levels of society regarded as little more than mindless beasts and ignored accordingly. But this very lack of regard can be turned to advantage, as Nell begins to realise. Poor Poll is all they’ve got, but ‘Poll’s enough’.

Social embarassment - Kitty and Sims
We return to Lord Mortimer’s waiting room, where Sims has brought along his niece Kitty. She is described in uncomplimentary terms in Lewton’s screenplay as being ‘dressed in the mode, with perhaps a little more elegance than an honest woman would display. On her face are several decorative patches, their placement, as was the manner of the time, dictated by such skin blemishes or marks of disease as they were intended to hide’. The description of her appearance sounds very much like that of the protagonist of Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress, somewhere midway on her descending path to degradation. Kitty’s experience is implied in the truncated comment ‘I have known some gentlemen’, which is accompanied by the flutter of a fan. In the event, all but one of the beauty spots used to cover syphilitic scars are dispensed with. Kitty is played by Elizabeth Russell, who gives a restrained performance as a comic but perceptive soak, a role which might have encouraged a lesser actress to go over the top in a scene-stealing fashion. Kitty is in complete contrast to the haunted or haunting characters which Russell had previously portrayed for Lewton in Cat People, The Seventh Victim and Curse of the Cat People. Once more her appearance is brief but memorable. Sims is bringing Kitty along partly as a replacement for Nell, and partly primed to claim that she’d offered to by Poll on behalf of Lord Mortimer. She immediately voices her contempt for him by sneering ‘a fine lord indeed – mocked by a parrot’. Poll has evidently been set loose on the streets to spread Nell’s insults to a wider audience. Sims is embarrassed by his niece’s lack of fine manners and is nervous that she will show him up, perhaps exposing his true social background, which his carefully contrived politesse serves to disguise. Kitty’s common nature is revealed through her declared fondness for gin. Gin, cheaply and readily available at the time, was one of the major social problems of the age, a fact highlighted in Hogarth’s famous print Gin Lane. Sims instructs her that she’d ‘best leave the wit to me. I’ll make you seem witty’. Although she may be able to ‘crack a joke well enough’, this is not really what her uncle has in mind for ‘good company’, although his familiarity with her cheerful vulgarity suggests that he’s well enough acquainted with the other kind. As they are ushered in to the bedchamber once more, Sims makes his usual adjustments to his wig to assure himself of its correct positioning.

When they enter, the wind is rather taken out of Sims’ sails by the fact that Lord Mortimer has already received the news that Nell has put her parrot up for sale in the market place, where it incessantly squawks its idiot couplet ‘Lord Mortimer is like a pig, his brain is small and his belly big’. What’s more, he seems to find the whole thing ‘a great bit of japery’, as he had when we first heard Poll parrot the lines as their carriage pulled up outside Bedlam at the start of the film. However, when Pompey returns to inform him that Nell has refused the generous 500 guineas proffered for the bird, his amusement recedes. The game is no longer being played by his rules. The insults are now being broadcast beyond the enclosed environments of the carriage or the bedchamber, taken out onto the streets. ‘The girl digs her spurs too deep’, he muses, reminding us of the purposeful riding attire which Nell has sported on several occasions. A jest is, after all, something inconsequential which can be instantly tossed to one side once it has been enjoyed. This joke threatens to linger, exposing him to prolonged public ridicule which might come to define him in the popular mind. It aspires to the condition of a Hogarth print, to satirical caricature.

Conspiratorial asides in the tea room - balancing fates
Sims draws his lordship to one side for a conspiratorial conferral, suggesting ‘we can always make her my guest’. The unofficial channels of power and coercion are discretely available for the convenient removal of the powerless who have somehow become awkward, and who can be ‘disappeared’, leaving no trace. Confinement in mental hospitals was a favourite solution for silencing dissidents in Soviet era Russia and its satellites. After all, isn’t it madness to oppose the natural order of things? Lord Mortimer is reluctant to take this course, recalling the good times he’s had with Nell. ‘We’ve been good comrades, Nell and I’, he says, a declaration of continued loyalty which suggests that he still has a vestigial trace of decency and conscience left in him. His use of the word comrade indicates the true nature of their relationship. His momentary display of nobility is soon redirected towards his more customary self-interest, however. When he insists that ‘she’s as sane as you and I’, Sims responds with the rhetorical question ‘was Colby mad? He was my guest’. It’s both confession and offer of collusion. Colby was an obstacle to Sims’ ambitions, and Nell is now an inconvenience and embarrassment for Lord Mortimer. That Sims is now willing to admit to Colby’s unjust incarceration and by implication his culpability for his subsequent death is an indication of how confident he has become of his own standing in his lordship’s estimation. He has begun to manoeuvre him into acting against Nell. He turns back to the issue at hand, and reflects ‘it’s a shrewd trick – you can’t restrain a parrot from slander’. The parrot’s repetitive refrain, designed to lodge in people’s memory, represents the voice of the street, the unwritten and unpublished opinion of the commonality. Treated as animals to be herded and controlled en masse, as individuals they fall beneath the legal sanctions operating within higher social circles. Nell has chosen a symbolically pointed way of getting back at her former keeper. If she was nothing more than a pet, than it is through her pet that she will spread poisonous ridicule. Sims suggests issuing a writ of seizure for the bird, prompting Kitty to chime in with ‘arrest a parrot? I’ll drink to that’. In her own blunt and unfanciful way, she has seen through to the absurd heart of the matter.

Cowardly display of bravery - threatening a Quaker
In the next, consequent scene, we come across Varney being dragged into the bedchamber by a footman, keeping a hold of Poll all the while. Nell and Hannay follow on close behind, and all is a noisy contrast to the deferential formality usually observed by Lord Mortimer’s guests. Hannay reprimands Nell for having mocked his lordship via her parrot, but she is unrepentant, threatening ‘he’ll wish I’d only mocked him when I’m finished’. Her prideful anger is still raw and close to the surface. She lays claim to possession of the parrot and Hannay backs her up. Lord Mortimer, once more reacting with childish indignation at not immediately getting his way, puffs himself up at such a reasoned assertion of rights. Amidst the chaotic melee which has disrupted the order of his inner sanctum, he fetches his sword and insists that Hannay fights him. This is the height of his bravery, threatening a Quaker with violence (a reversal of the Woody Allen line from Sleeper: ‘I’m a really timid person – I was beaten up by Quakers’). Hannay refuses this ridiculous challenge, and as he advances to reason with him, Lord Mortimer steps back and trips over, falling in an undignified heap onto his big soft bed, from which he struggles comically to rise. Nell laughs with harsh heartiness and the parrot lends mocking harmony as they all retreat and make their exit. We are left with a close up of Lord Mortimer’s red face, puffed up and pouting, filled with outrage at his humiliation.

The prospect of manual labour - Hannay, Varney and Nell
We fade in on the stonemason’s yard, a complete contrast to the pampered luxury of Lord Mortimer’s bedchamber. Hannay is standing in his shirtsleeves, hammer in hand, whilst Varney and Nell sit idle beside him. For the first time, we see him hatless. Wearing a hat for such labour would obviously be impractical, but its removal also suggests that honest work is considered godly. The issue of how Nell and Varney are to find work is raised. Nell might sew, as she did to repair garments in the theatre. The paltry rewards are summed up in stark economic terms: ‘two shillings a week and all found for a seamstress’. As for Varney, he is sized up and declared unfit for any but the lightest labour. Hannay offers him a broom with which to sweep the yard. The looks on both their faces make it clear that neither are enamoured with the idea of manual labour, and Varney confesses ‘I like a merry life, Mistress Bowen’. Nell, awakening from a momentary contemplation of the livelihood Hannay has suggested, regains her spark and declares ‘and so by blazes do I! Everyone makes his living with his own tricks’. Both have become accustomed to an existence predicated on wit, appearance and performance, with actual work carried out by others. Deciding to make use of the network of friends and allies she has made during her time in Lord Mortimer’s company, she settles on the most infamous, the one man guaranteed to inflame his lordship’s anger – ‘that Devil Wilkes’.

First edition - Hogarth's That Devil Wilkes fresh off the press
We dissolve to a printer’s workshop such as the one depicted in plate 5 of Hogarth’s Idle and Industrious Prentice series, which we saw in the opening credits sequence. A print is being produced from the manually operated machinery, and when it is pulled from the frame we see that it is Hogarth’s caricature ‘That Devil Wilkes’. This effectively acts as another intertitle, but here we are privy to the means of manufacture. It makes us aware of the labour which goes into the creation of a work of popular art. In terms of the making of a film, it is an acknowledgement of the collaborative nature of the endeavour. Hogarth’s print was the culmination of a dispute between the two men, formerly friends and allies. Wilkes had been incensed by an anti-war print that Hogarth had produced in 1762 called The Times, in which he visually implied that William Pitt had been fanning the flames of war for his own profiteering ends. Wilkes had warned Hogarth that he would retaliate if he went ahead with the publication of the print, and he was as good as his word, launching an attack on the artist in his magazine The North Briton. In 1763, Wilkes was arrested after an attack on the king in The North Briton. Hogarth, who at this late stage in his life had begun to nurture any slights, and who, for all his willingness to ridicule authority remained a loyal royalist, made a portrait of him at his trial. It was an unkind caricature which exaggerated his slight squint and made him appear a leering and thoroughly untrustworthy sort. Wilkes filtered through the bitter and grudgeful lens of Hogarth’s personal and subjective perspective, in other words. The date of the print’s production postdates the setting of the film by two years, so a little dramatic license is once more required. The freshly inked caricature is handed to its intended recipients, Sims and his companion, whom the script describes as ‘a stout gentleman who looks not unlike Dr. Samuel Johnson’. They both laugh to see it.

Wilkes in person
There is something of a self-reflective recession of spectatorship here. We watch the image of Sims and his co-viewer looking at another image, which is in the same lineage as the images which we have become used to as intertitles. The dislocating effect is furthered as the camera pans from their examination of the print to find Nell and Wilkes himself sequestered in a private nook of the workshop. The relationship between image and actuality and the influence that the one can have on our interpretation of the other is reflected in the fact that we have seen Wilkes’ caricature directly before we are introduced to him in this scene. We become more aware of the slight forward thrust of his head and narrow-eyed squint of his regard, and are immediately disinclined to trust him. He and Nell are in the midst of some sort of bargaining dialogue, sizing up what each has to offer the other. Nell is not above using her own person as a bargaining tool, asking Wilkes if he’s ‘not interested in Bedlam nor in me’. The personal and political are inextricably intertwined, and there is an element of flirtation to their exchange, as Wilkes declares himself to be different from Lord Mortimer in that he is ‘not easily pleased’. There is a pause to allow whatever layers of meaning Nell might want to construe from such a statement, before he adds ‘I offer more’. In this case, a political alliance to fight the corruption of Bedlam and the system which allows it to flourish. The arts of politics are akin to the arts of seduction. Wilkes suggest that ‘one gives a girl a kiss to seal a certain sort of bargain’, quickly going on to add ‘but one shakes hands with a comrade and a friend’, to make it clear that this is not a bargain of that sort (whilst perhaps holding out the hope that it might develop into such). The reference to Nell as a comrade echoes Lord Mortimer’s use of the word, and similarly implies a platonic relationship with mutual goals and shared values. The camera pulls back across the workshop to rejoin Sims and the Samuel Johnson lookalike. The latter opines that the print is ‘a real blow to Wilkes’. Satire, even when relatively crude, is seen to have real impact on a person’s reputation, which underlines the seriousness with which Nell’s employment of her parrot is viewed. Sims’ mirth has been curtailed by his observation of the handshake with which Wilkes and Nell seal their bargain. He tells his companion that ‘it’s a blow I’ll leave you to administer. I have one of his to ward away’. His duel with Nell has entered the realm of politics, and Sims has a natural politician’s instincts.

Banknote sandwich - Nell removes herself from the human currency exchange
We fade from the printers’ workshop to Lord Mortimer’s sitting room, where he, Sims and Nell are taking tea with dainty and hypocritical politeness. Once more, the contrast between workplace and extravagantly luxurious leisure is made in the juxtaposition of scene settings. Lord Mortimer is regaled in silken finery whilst Nell is in practical velvet with tricorne hat, attired for action. The masculine and feminine norms are inverted again. Sims, as ever, is in neutral, funereal black. He acts here as if he is a disinterested arbiter trying to clear up an unfortunate misunderstanding. ‘Milord thought it would be best to make amends again’, he tells Nell, and ‘Milord would like to be kind to you’. She remains unmoved, noting ‘I’m duly warned’. Sims offers her a monetary note by means of which she can take a rest in the ‘waters of Bath’. Bath was a fashionable spa town at the time where the wealthy retired to enjoy the supposedly curative properties of the mineral springs. The implication is made that Nell’s recent behaviour is the result of her having succumbed to some sort of nervous disorder. She is also discretely being asked to make herself scarce, to stop causing an embarrassment for Lord Mortimer. She is not to be so easily bought off, however. As she calmly reminds them both, ‘you know I have a contempt for certain kinds of money’. To demonstrate this in the customary form of a jest, she folds the note, sandwiches it between two pieces of bread and takes a bite. It’s a substantive jest, making the comparison between the abstract value represented by the promissory bank note and the material sustenance of daily bread. With this calculated gesture of contempt, she removes herself from the system of human currency exchange. Like her parrot familiar, she is not for sale. Sims soberly informs her ‘the Bank of England thanks you for 300 pounds’. Money is no laughing matter. She slaps him, a second blow, and sweeps out, her point made and the architect of the bribe revealed.

Inventor of the banknote sandwich - Kitty Fisher with the Artist's Parrot by Joshua Reynolds
Nell’s expensive snack is based on a real incident from the era. The renowned courtesan Kitty Fisher, immortalised in several portraits by Joshua Reynolds, had worked her way up to the highest levels of society. She was offended by the amount offered to her by one Sir Richard Atkins, his insultingly low estimation of what a night with her was worth, and ate the banknote he had sent her between buttered slices of bread. This gesture acquired legendary stature, with the variances in the telling which that entailed, the value of the note tending to fluctuate significantly. Dan Cruickshank, in his highly entertaining and informative book The Secret History of Georgian London, quotes the journal entry of one Johann Wilhelm von Achenholz, who wrote of Fisher ‘this lady knew her own merit; she demanded a hundred guineas a night, for the use of her charms, and she was never without votaries, to whom the offering did not seem too exorbitant. Among these was the Duke of York, brother to the King; who one morning left fifty pounds on her toilet. This present so much offended Miss Fisher, that she declared that her doors should ever be shut against him in the future; and to show, by the most convincing proofs, how much she despised his present, she clapt the bank-note between two slices of bread and butter, and ate it for breakfast’. It seems highly likely that Kitty, who was at the height of her powers in the 1760s, the period in which the film is set, provided Lewton with some inspiration for the character of Nell, particularly when you also note Reynold’s portrait of her with pet parrot on her finger.

Sneer of triumph - Sims gets his way
Lord Mortimer laughs at her chutzpah, but Sims is stony-face. He purposefully picks up quill and parchment, the fact that they are on his person indicating that he always had an alternative plan should Nell have continued with her truculent non-compliance. ‘Tomorrow, after the Commission for Lunacy examines her, she’ll strike no more blows, not at you nor at me’. It’s a statement which reveals Sims’s true motivations for trying to incarcerate Nell. He wishes to do so not to protect Lord Mortimer’s reputation and political standing, nor even wholly because she’s his rival for the Lord’s favours, but because she has treated him with contempt and reviled him for his ugliness and lack of the natural graces. His motivation is hatred. Lord Mortimer is still reluctant to sign the document, protesting that ‘she’s not a danger to herself and others’ as is required for admission to Bedlam. He is weak, vain, selfish and easily manipulated, but not necessarily wicked. Sims has exerted his influence over him now, though, and knows exactly how to appeal to his self-interest. ‘She’s a danger to my position and your properties’, he scowls, reducing the matter to its essential details. He provides the decisive political addendum again, letting Lord Mortimer know that ‘with Wilkes behind her she’s more dangerous to us than any madwoman’. The personal and political are intertwined, and this act is sold to Lord Mortimer as a political one. A grim sneer of triumph cracks Sims’ face as we hear the scurrying scratch of quill across paper.

Nell presents herself before the Committee
The next scene is another consequent one, following on directly as a result of Lord Mortimer appending his signature to the form presented to him by Sims. We see the intertitle card of Hogarth’s The Committee, which depicts a group of men sat around a table, their wide-brimmed hats hung on pegs behind them, forming a row of black circles. This is plate IX from his series of illustrations for Samuel Butler’s Hudibras, made in 1725, quite early in his artistic career. Hudibras was a Cromwellian satire, and in this scene a group of puritans are engaged in heated debate over religious and political matters. Hogarth’s print fades to be reproduced in a more static form, the seated figures at rest and clearly waiting for someone to arrive before proceedings can get underway. Their hatlessness echoes that of the Quakers when gathering before the Lord. This is a less holy assembly, however. God is not present in this house. Nell duly enters draped in a cloak, which she keeps on, as if she doesn’t expect to be detained long. ‘Well, gentlemen, here is your lunatic’, she announces brightly. She answers the questions put to her by the dour spokesman of the Committee with a swift wit which reflects them back at him. When questioned about her knowledge of right and wrong, she observes that ‘what is right for me is wrong for you, that much I know. And vice versa’. It is a wry recognition of the partisan nature of power and its associated values and customs, which are afforded the status of absolute verities. But to these sour-faced gentlemen, who nod knowingly at each other, it is a sign of a confused mind. Noting their reaction, she explains ‘oh, don’t fool yourselves. A merry answer does not make me a fool, gentlemen. Ask me a sensible question and you shall have a sensible answer’. She is careless in her language and manner, not realising that charm and gaiety have no power here. She doesn’t have Sims awareness of the differing modes of address and behaviour demanded of particular environments. Wit may have been the commonly acceptable mode of discourse in the aristocratic and political circles from which she has just taken her leave, but here its play with meaning and pleasure in absurd reversals are taken to denote an antic disposition.

Nell despairs - fear creating madness
Sims makes his late entry at this point, making no effort at apologising and going directly to the head of the table to sit next to the questioner. His manner betokens someone who is confident in his authority within this setting. He has a whispered conference with the interrogator which results in a sly smile appearing on his face. These are evidently people with whom he is well acquainted, and for whom his word counts. The question of money is raised, presumably upon his advice. Firstly, the refusal to sell her parrot is brought up. ‘Why did you refuse 100 guineas for a parrot worth 5 shillings?’, they ask. Sanity is equated with fiscal prudence and a general concern for monetary value. Alternative values of honour and principle are not taken into account. Nor is the notion that a jest might be a way of presenting an important moral or political point, or drawing attention to an underlying issue. Nell’s extraction of herself from the human exchange currency is tantamount to a mental breakdown in the eyes of these men for whom money is the central fact of life. They continue with this line of questioning, asking ‘knowing the value of money, Mistress Bowen, can you explain why it was you ate a banknote?’ Sims smiles, his chin at rest on his hand, waiting for the anticipated reply with which Nell will further condemn herself. She has failed to grasp the gravity of her situation, or to adjust her manner to the requirements of the surroundings, which are wholly different from those to which she has grown accustomed. Once again, she insists it was ‘for a jest’, adding that ‘Master Sims knows why I ate the money. To show my contempt for it’. Sims coughs out a hollow, contemptuous laugh of his own.

Certificate of ownership
Nell now knows she is in trouble and requests that she be allowed to communicate with Wilkes. She is refused a witness, since, as she is informed, ‘this is not a court’, although the questioner goes on to say that they shall judge the worth of her sanity. After a whispered conference, the quill is brought out to record the judgement. It is coming to resemble an instrument of fate. The decision is a foregone conclusion, and is already evident from the look of smug satisfaction creasing Sims’ face, the look of power. The head of the Committee reads out the fateful words: ‘you have asked for voluntary commitment to enter St Mary of Bethlehem’s asylum. The charges for your care and keep to be borne by Milord Mortimer’. So she is to be kept by him here just as she was in his bedchamber. Another enclosed environment within which her sharp wit and questioning intelligence can be safely contained. The certificate is forged, but it is of no matter. It is signed and she has been declared mad, so any objections on her part will carry no weight whatsoever. She is safely in the system now. She is thrown into a panic which, in its uncontrolled terror, really does begin to resemble madness. ‘You’re not going to put me in Bedlam’, she pleads, incredulously. ‘Not for a little joke. Not for playing a trick’. The committee files out, taking up their hats now that their business is concluded. None of them look at her as they hurriedly take their leave. Only Sims looks back as he leaves, a look of triumph on his face. He grasps the scroll of parchment in his hand, effectively a deed of ownership. Nell is left on her own in the empty hall in which she has just been judged and is now not allowed to leave. The shadows of bars cast upon the wall presage her incarceration. She collapses into a heap on the floor.

Debased coinage
We fade in on a close up of Nell in the next scene. She is sitting with her back against the wall, her face a fixed mask of wild-eyed, fearful alertness. The camera pulls back to reveal the wider hall of Bedlam in which she now resides, its floor covered with straw and its space filled with nighttime murmurings and mutterings. The script describes ‘a little of the space around her. On the walls, crouching, rounded shadows can be seen moving; almost as if animals were crawling, indistinct and horrible through terrible darkness’. Lewton evidently wanted to convey the feel of a human zoo. Sims enters with a couple of attendants holding lanterns. He has no wig. The duel is over and in this environment the observance of manners and etiquette is unnecessary. This is the lowest level of society, and it is a domain over which he has total, unassailable command. He walks directly over to Nell and bends down over her crouching form. ‘Here in Bedlam, my dear, we can’t feed you banknotes’ he says with a viciously sarcastic pretence of unctuous concern. ‘Try chewing on this’, he adds, thrusting a coin into her mouth. He is reintroducing her to the human currency exchange, but here the coinage is debased, and her worth has been considerably deflated. It is now measured in terms of the few pennies visitors are required to pay to see her and the other animal inmates. The hard currency at this level of society is much less digestible than the more notional paper note she had previously been offered. Here, it as at less of a remove from the daily material needs, the meeting of which its meagre value represents. Sims' 'payment' is also a violating gesture which lets Nell know that she is now physically at his mercy. She is in his power, body and soul, and she is utterly and terrifyingly alone.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones, who has succumbed to the cancer which has plagued her over the past year or so, was one of Britain’s finest writers of the fantastic, an assertion which doesn’t need the appended qualification ‘for children’, even though this was the category under which her books were shelved. Being published as a children’s author doesn’t exclude an author’s work being considered and judged by the same standards of good writing which general fiction is afforded, and Jones’ novels are conspicuously enjoyed by readers of all ages. It takes a particular talent to be able to write books which can genuinely engage such a wide range of people. Her Chrestomanci series has inevitably drawn comparisons with another female writer of fantasy novels about a school for wizards which have met with some degree of success. Jones’ novels also feature the education of young people blessed with magic powers, but they are wider ranging and more imaginatively diffuse than JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books. The universe of Chrestomanci, with its array of interconnected worlds, allows for a diverse mix of theatrical backdrops and fictional forms to be used, giving each novel a unique flavour whilst maintaining a sense of continuity between them. So we can move from the school based drama of Witch Week to the Italian comic opera feuding of The Magicians of Caprona. The fact that all is bound together by the notion of a bureaucracy of magic which attempts to keep everything under control is indicative of the way in which Jones’ work as a whole grounds a delight in wild fancy within a wry awareness of the absurdity of the everyday. I’m not one for decrying the phemomenal popularity of the Potter books, but perhaps it’s the absence of their comforting uniformity and repetition to be found within the Chrestomanci books, which instead spiral out in a chaotic pattern out of complex invention, which militates against them attaining a similar degree of success. Having said which, the exceptional, once in a lifeteime benchmark set by JK Rowling is rather an unfair one to use, and Jones’ series has proved immensely popular in its own right. Popular enough to lead to screen adaptations, certainly. Firstly with a BBC series of Archer’s Goon, and secondly with the Studio Ghibli animated version of Howl’s Moving Castle, in which Hayao Miyazaki managed to marry his visual style to her storytelling to a largely successful degree.

I have come to Jones’ work rather late, and have only sampled a small fraction of her writing to date. I’ve read Charmed Life, the first of the Chrestomanci novels, and was struck by the way in which she managed to balance a light and witty air with the weight of moral consequence. This was a world in which amusing comic misadventures were able to coexist with a sense that what happened mattered. Her ability to combine lightness of tone with an underlying gravity was the mark of a serious children’s writer (although she never made the mistake of becoming preachy in the manner of a CS Lewis), in other words one who takes children and young teenagers seriously. It’s another reason why she is also enjoyed by an adult readership (perhaps one which has first encountered her at a young age and continued to follow her work). The three other novels of hers which I have read all diffract the Matter of Britain through the prism of her imagination, casting them in novel forms which indicate her disregard for genre boundaries. Hexwood overlays SF and fantasy versions of the plot to provide a modern day masque of chivalric Arthurian archetypes in whose dramas the young protagonists are caught up. The fact that the courtly figures of medieval romance are personae adopted by visitors from another world allows Jones to comment on the conventions of heroic fantasy, as she would do in wickedly satirical vein in her ‘guidebook’ The Tough Guide To Fantasyland. The transformation of an unspectacular scrubby stretch of suburban woodland, in which most of the action of the novel unfolds, is an example of Jones’ enchantment of the everyday. It tangentially connects the novel with the central idea behind Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood and its subsequent variants, that of the wood which contains worlds and reflects and extends from the ancestral roots and branches of personal and collective memory flowing through the transforming nexus of the subconscious. The spirit of place, no matter how unpromising the locale may appear, is there to be unearthed. The baroque complexity of the plot, which folds in story elements from occult, space opera and heroic fantasy fictions into its intertwined layers, could easily be filed under the catch-all term post-modern. But such a definition, with its implication of clumsy stylistic and thematic juxtaposition, would fail to acknowledge the skill with which she manages to blend her disparate ingredients into a coherent and tasty whole. The fact that the space operatic overmasters are overturned by one of their maltreated servants also goes to show that Jones’ sympathies are with the underdogs, and that she loves nothing more than to turn the world topsy turvy.

This gnarly complexity is characteristic of her work as a whole, and is also exemplified by The Merlin Conspiracy. Here, two plot strands, easily distinguishable through the use of differing typographies, run parallel to each other, gradually sharing elements one from the other until eventually they collide. The novel is again set in a world parallel but different from our own. Jones’ frequent use of parallel worlds serves once again to undemonstratively underline the moral seriousness hiding beneath even her lightest work. Variants on the world as we know it show that small changes can have great effects. The position of Merlin in the world in which magic is once more a powerful force is another of Jones’ bureaucratic roles, introducing the civil service as a bathetically incongruous element in heroic fantasyland. The narrative carries us and one of its dual protagonists through several alternate worlds. For Jones, one world is often insufficient to contain the overspilling profligacy of her imagination. Here, genres once more shift and shade into each other as we step from our mundane world to a dystopian multi-layered vertical city lodged within a deep crevasse and on to the magical version of Britain known as the Isles of the Blest. There are some wonderful ideas in the book. I particularly like the weather working wizards, who pore over their three dimensional models studying approaching fronts and cloud masses. Unlike TV weather presenters, who wave their electronic wands to alter predictive digital charts, these meteorologists are able to directly affect the weather through their interventions, swirling a storm cloud here and nudging a warm front there. The personification of cities towards the end, and their occasionally tendency to uproot and wander off, is also delightful. Her description of London’s voice is a wonderfully poetic evocation of the composite sound signature of the capital: ‘Part of it was like the groan and clatter of thick traffic, and the rest was a chorus of different voices, high, low and tenor voices, voices with very upper class accents, bass voices speaking purest Cockney, overseas voices, and every grade of voice in between. It was almost like hearing a huge concert’.

Fire and Hemlock has a more straightforward narrative, but it is more sombre and psychologically complex in its modern day recasting of the Tam Lin legend. It offers a beautifully modulated portrait of a young woman’s growing awareness of herself and her effect on the world. The magical elements, never outlandish and just at a small remove from the everyday, are a perfect symbolic representation of the sense of new possibilities attendant upon this dawning self-awareness, and the fears and anxieties which accompany them. The fact that it is so different in tone from the books mentioned above is and indication of the range which Jones was capable of. She studied at Oxford in the fifties and attended the lectures of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien whilst she was there. Now that she has gone, we can look on the large body of her work which she has thankfully left behind (a large pile of which, stacked beside me as I write, I eagerly look forward to exploring more thoroughly) and rest assured that she will take her place alongside them and the noble lineage of British writers of fantasy for children and adults alike to which they belong: from George MacDonald and Edith Nesbit to Joan Aiken, Alan Garner and David Almond. Distinguished company indeed, a firmament in the midst of which she is sure to attain literary immortality.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Unthanks and Trembling Bells

The pairing of Trembling Bells and The Unthanks made for an exciting prospect. Both are inflected with traditional folk elements in their own different ways but have also absorbed a wide variety of other musical influences which they combine and refashion to create their own individual sound. I was clearly not the only one who had been eagerly anticipating this evening at the Phoenix Arts Centre in Exeter, as the main hall was packed to an uncomfortable degree, seemingly pushing at the very limits of its capacity. The close proximity of one’s fellow audience members made the usual irritations of the small contingent of beer bozos, ceaseless chatterers and folks who push through to take up a position two inches in front of your face all the more inescapable. The all-standing nature of the event was rather unfair on small people, too. The late running of the performances also meant that there was a mass exodus in the latter part of The Unthanks’ set. Nothing to do with the quality of the music (far from it), more with that of the local public transport, which has to be a consideration for concerts in rural areas. There are no such things as last tubes, night buses or early morning trains around here.

Trembling Bells
I put such quibbles out of my mind to enjoy Trembling Bells’ set (supportively introduced by Rachel Unthank), which ran at a disappointingly brief 30 minutes. Alex Neilson was unable to be present (the reason for his absence left to our imaginations), which left a major gap given his central role in the band as writer, singer and percussive driving force. His place was taken by his brother Alistair, so at least it was someone who bore some resemblance to him and was roughly the same size. Whilst maybe not having quite the same flair and inventiveness as his brother (and I’m sure there’s a bit of sibling rivalry there) he proved an adequate stand-in (or sit-in, in this case) on the drum stool. Alex’s absence shifted the focus to Lavinia Blackwall, and the awkwardness of her rather diffident between song manner aside, she proved more than adequate at fronting the band. Her pure, soaring vocal style was highlighted on songs old and new, with Carbeth, Adieu, England and When I Was Young particular highlights. Cold Heart of Mine and Goathland showed the two sides of their new LP The Constant Pageant, which veers between classic 70s and folk rock. Goathland referenced Robin’s Hood Bay, continuing Alex’s proud acknowledgement of his North Yorkshire roots and fitting in well with the North Eastern cast of the evening. Mike Hastings’ guitar comes further to the fore on the new LP, and his playing was superb throughout. He’s got something of a West Coast sound, with a touch of the shimmering vibrato of Quicksilver Messenger Service’s John Cippollina and some of the tremulous quaver of Neil Young in electric mode. On Love Made An Outlaw of my Heart, he unleashed a squall of cascading noise with the aid of a bottle neck slide. It’s perhaps an indication of the kind of music he plays in the context of his looser, improvisational band with Lavinia, The Pendulums. It’s a brief, thrilling explosion of noise reminiscent of the style of free jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock, or of the formless noise maelstroms of Sonic Youth or Yo La Tengo. For a moment, I thought Lavinia might ram a drumstick behind her strings and join in with a bit of savage detuning. But it was neither the time nor the place for that sort of thing.

The Unthanks are sisters Rachel and Becky, but they are also an accomplished and versatile chamber group comprising a string quartet, trumpet, piano, guitar, bass and drums, with various additional small instruments to add colour. The two chaps on the right of the stage quietly and unfussily impressed with their frequent exchange of instrumental duties, taking turns behind the drums (with Alistair Neilson sitting in as a guest on a couple of songs) and on bass and guitar (and ukulele). The sisters’ subtly contrasting voices are at the heart of the music. Becky’s is shaded with a slight burr of huskiness, Rachel’s even-toned and smooth. Both are steeped in the vowel sounds and accents of Northumberland in the far North East of England. When they combine in close harmony, occasionally parting or coming together with surprising intervals, they can instantly pierce the heart or make the spirit soar. They perform one song learned from a local family friend a cappella, and the effect is absolutely spellbinding. The tenor of the songs tends towards the melancholic and minor-key, with a hushed and slow-moving character. ‘Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more depressing’, they self-consciously quipped after a particularly dark song. The apogee of this tendency came with Close the Coalhouse Door, the inevitable mining disaster song, which gained power by evoking a generalised, mythic atmosphere of death and mourning rather than focussing on a specific event. Give Away Your Heart, written by singer-songwriter Jon Redfern in the aftermath of the Iraq war, is also symptomatic, with its chorus of ‘disappointment is everywhere’ repeated in incantatory style. There’s a general sense of sadness at and unease with the modern world, and given the generally introverted nature of the new material, it’s a testament to the power of both Unthank voices and of the beautiful and musically diverse arrangements that they are able to captivate and mesmerise the large audience, inducing a stilled collective holding of the breath. Despite the downbeat lyrical content (and this is essentially folk music, after all) the sisters’ presence is comforting, and you feel entirely at ease in their company. The Unthanks used to bear the rather less egalitarian name Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, and there is indeed something wintry about their repertoire. It’s music for singing around a blazing hearth, with a warming pint of ale close at hand. It recognises the dark and cold beyond the flickering circle of domestic light, but holds it at bay through that mutual recognition and the feeling of closeness and companionship which it creates. The sisters mention their residential singing weekends, which sound very welcoming and a fine chance for those interested in traditional song to partake of this atmosphere.

Becky and Rachel occasionally move off-mike for a brief, huddled consultation, evincing an easeful sisterly rapport. They sometimes sway gently in unison to the rhythmic swell of the music, and Rachel can be seen to lay a cradling hand on the rise of her 7 month-pregnant belly from time to time. Becky lets us know that her sister has been banned from doing any clog-dancing, and so she takes a solo spot for these traditional interludes, to instant audience applause. Again, the packed standing crowd meant that this was an auditory rather than visual experience for most. But the heavy percussive clack and clop of the heels added a stirring and forceful drive to the propulsive swing of the music.

From their new LP Last, Queen of Hearts sounded like a haunted music-box waltz, with a chiming melody plucked out what could have been a celeste or a thumb piano. Last had a lilting, lulling piano figure which suggested the steady unchanging progress of the hours in a song evocative of loneliness and drift. Gan to the Kye was a dreamlike song shrouded in North Eastern dialect, which the sisters refrained from clarifying, suggesting we were probably familiar with it by now, leaving me completely in the dark as a result. They said that they had a few kye in residence outside their window, which hinted that they might be referring to a local variant of the fairy folk. Familiar songs from Here’s The Tender Coming included Sad February and Lucky Gilchrist, whose arrangements bore the imprint of minimalist composers John Adams (his piano pieces China and Phrygian Gates) and Steve Reich (with small group chamber and vocal pieces such as Octet and Tehillim). Lucky Gilchrist was also reminiscent at times of the arrangements on some Sufjan Stevens songs. There was an intriguing selection of covers, which served to triangulate the broad span of their interests and influences. Tom Waits’ No One Knows I’m Gone is one of his beat laments, weary romanticism from the perspective of the gutter. Robert Wyatt’s Cuckoo Madame was his resonant song of resignation from the Cuckooland LP, written with his partner Alfie Benge, allusively addressing the displacement caused by war and surrogate motherhood. The sisters traced the contours of its delicate, idiosyncratic melody, separately singing verses in turn, with space for some instrumental passages in between. It was interesting to see how they adapted these songs, whose authors have such distinctive voices, to their own style. Most surprisingly, King Crimson’s Starless, from their 1974 LP Red (probably their finest) fitted perfectly into the mood of their ballad-based repertoire, providing a fitting successor to Robert Wyatt’s Sea Song, which worked so beautifully on the second Winterset album The Bairns. Lizzie Jones’ trumpet (superb throughout the evening) plangently recreated Robert Fripp’s mournfully singing, reverberant guitar motif which gives the song its heart in the original version, with the string section here replacing the fairground pipe-organ wheeze of the mellotron. The strings even provide a quartet arrangement of the central instrumental passage from the King Crimson LP, based around one of Fripp’s looping angular and dissonant riffs. The group fail to break out into a Crimson-style freeform noise improv freak out, however. This was neither the time nor the place for that sort of thing.

Starless was offered as a final surprise to end the show (and this is the advantage of being present at the first concert in a tour). They returned without delay for an encore, and bade farewell in appropriate fashion with a couple of old favourites from the Winterset days, Fareweel Regality and Blackbird, which sent us out with a warm smile which found itself reflected in the hints of imminent spring wafting through the balmy night air.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Michael Gough

Investigating the crypt - as Arthur Holmwood in Dracula

Michael Gough (who died recently at the age of 94) had a film career full of odd contradictions. He had the patrician bearing and beautifully modulated received pronunciation tones of the trained stage actor, but spent much of his time slumming it in the grimier margins of the British horror movie industry. He had strong and distinctively handsome features, but was generally to be found playing the most untrustworthy and solitary of villain. A good point of comparison would be Denholm Elliott, who regularly played well-bred characters gone to seed, his authentically clammy backstreet abortionist in Alfie and twitching, fearful victim agoraphobically awaiting his diabolical fate in Hammer’s last horror film To The Devil A Daughter being typical. Gough never exuded such an air of sweaty desperation, always maintaining a disdainful superiority to the grubby surroundings (and company) in which he found himself, a bearing which perhaps reflected Gough’s own attitude to the material he was appearing in. The graduation from the idealistic characters which he played in the immediate post war years to the sinister and manipulative villains which he tended to portray in the 60s and 70s can be seen partly as a result of a cultural and generational shift. The authoritative patrician elocution and gestures of the classical stage actor became less of an indicator of noble heroism, and more of the envious and repressive character of an older generation, who a younger generation of writers and film-makers saw as bent on control and exploitation. The conservative romanticism of Powell and Pressburger was out of fashion as the vogue for kitchen sink realism took hold in the late 50s, followed by the hyperkinetic pop styles of the 60s (as epitomised by the films of Richard Lester) and the end of the road exploitation of the 70s. In many ways, the vivid Technicolor gothic of Hammer was the inheritor of this strand of British romanticism, and Gough appeared as a would-be hero in the studio’s second breakthrough film Dracula. He also appeared in the films of Ken Russell and Derek Jarman, later purveyors of idiosyncratic romanticism, in which he once more escaped from the roguish roles of blue-blooded villainy into which he was typecast.

Captain Stuart in The Small Back Room - uncomplicated goodness
In the early years of his film career (which was always ran parallel with a distinguished stage career) he appeared in the 1949 Powell and Pressburger film The Small Back Room, based on the novel by Nigel Balchin. The story is set during the dying days of the war, and Gough plays Captain Stuart, an explosives expert who has to deal with new and complex species of bomb which are being dropped by the Germans, each of which presents a deadly puzzle which has to be solved. Gough is young and fresh-faced here, his character sensitive, empathetic and fearless, one of Emeric Pressburger’s uncomplicatedly good souls. His off-screen death on the shingles of Chesil Beach shocks David Farrar’s enervated anti-hero Sammy Rice into emerging from his alcoholic shell of self-pity to defuse the booby-trapped bomb which has made its unstable nest on the shifting pebbles of the Dorset coast. Gough was once more heroic in one of Powell and Pressburger’s dull war films, Ill Met By Moonlight (1957), from the tail end of their career together as The Archers. The imaginative brio of their wartime films, which transcended their time and propagandistic purpose, towered above the prosaic nature of these workmanlike (if occasionally enjoyable) later efforts. Gough plays Andoni Zoidakis, a Cretan resistance fighter, who looks the part in rounded cap and with the sweeping upward flourish of a thick black moustache, all until he opens his mouth and is instantly an Englishman making a half-hearted stab at an exotic accent.

Cretan in a landscape - Ill Met By Moonlight
A year later and Gough was playing the role of Arthur Holmwood in Terence Fisher’s second full colour gothic horror for Hammer, Dracula. Arthur is a rather ineffectual, powerless character, and plays a distinctly subsidiary second fiddle to Peter Cushing’s decisive and athletic savant Van Helsing. Something of a convenient idiot to whom things must be explained, it’s a thankless role, and critics and commentators have not been kind. Sinclair McKay, in his history of Hammer A Thing Of Unspeakable Horro, refers to ‘the toe-curlingly awful performance of Michael Gough as Arthur Holmwood’, and Howard Maxford, in Hammer House of Horror: Behind the Screams, notes that ‘Michael Gough, it must be said, makes a rather dreary Arthur Holmwood, though the rest of the supporting cast helps to disguise his apparent lack of interest in the role’. Dracula was to prove something of a pivotal moment for Gough. His mere presence in such a hugely successful film, and its initiation of an opportunistic horror boom, meant that he could find plentiful work within the genre. And from hereon in, he would shrug off such bland portrayals of dull normality and begin to enjoy the pleasures of unabashed villainy.

This retreat from heroism was fully evident by the time of his second film for Hammer, Phantom of the Opera (1962), in which he plays composer Lord Ambrose D’Arcy, whose inspiration has long since dried up, and who steals the music of his admirer and soon to be vengeful phantom Professor Petrie and unapologetically publishes it as his own. Gough had by this time begun to appear in numerous horror films which rode in the slipstream of Hammer’s success, but relied on sensationalism rather than good production values, direction and acting. Notorious amongst these was Horrors of the Black Museum, which tested the limits of current censorship. It was the first of three films released by Anglo-Amalgamated, which culminated in Michael Powell’s reviled Peeping Tom. Interestingly, all three had their voyeuristic exploitation elements embedded within the storylines. Horrors of the Black Museum is about a hack writer who sends out an assistant to commit baroque and bloody murders which he then turns into best-selling novels. Circus of Horrors features a circus whose demented owner despatches any performers who threaten to reveal his dark secrets through conveniently arranged ‘accidents’ within the ring (knife throwing acts, lion tamers confronted with suddenly untamed lions etc). And Peeping Tom offers a complex reflection on the voyeuristic basis of cinema with its story of a cameraman who films murders committed with his adapted equipment, recording the terror of his victims’ death throes for his later private enjoyment in his personal dark room. David Pirie writes extensively about this period in Heritage of Horror:The English Gothic Horror. This was the time in which John Trevelyan was just beginning his tenure as secretary of the BBFC (the British Board of Film Censors), and was attempting to usher in a more liberal approach to censorship (often in the face of strident opposition from his fellows on the board), perhaps in view of the huge success of Hammer’s horror films at a time in which business in the film industry was generally declining. The leeway which Trevelyan gave to the makers of Horrors of the Black Museum and Anglo-Amalgamated’s follow-up Circus of Horrors backfired on him when several councils refused to grant Circus of Horrors a certificate. This arbitrary imposition of authority from local government was precisely the kind of thing which the BBFC was set up in the early years of the century to avoid. As a result, Trevelyan’s initial attempts at compromise proved something of a disaster, and the moral outrage directed at Peeping Tom resulted in its swift withdrawal from its limited cinema release. Matthew Sweet, in his book Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema, points out that such outrage could have been transformed into good, sensationalist publicity, and suggests that Anglo-Amalgamated chairman Nat Cohen pulled the film from the cinemas in order to protect his potential, much desired knighthood.

Lee and Gough face off - Dr Terror's House of Horrors
Horrors of the Black Museum, with its horrific opening scene featuring a pair of binoculars with spiked eyepieces, marked a new beginning for Gough, who became a low rent version of horror stars like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and seemed happy to earn a crust with some pretty tawdry fare. He appeared in numerous low-budget horror films from this point on. He made two ape movies at either end of the sixties, one giant sized (Konga) and the other of normal stature but with anthropoid tendencies (Trog), both of which rival the works of Ed Wood for ineptitude and sheer enjoyability (at least from the clips I’ve seen). He made two above average films for Hammer’s rival company Amicus (although truth to tell they never posed any serious threat) – The Skull and Dr Terror’s House of Horrors. The latter was the company’s first foray into the portmanteau format, a series of brief stories arising from a central and usually rather contrived narrative device (in this case fortunes read to the travellers in a railway carriage by the mysterious Dr Schreck). Gough appears in the story featuring Christopher Lee as the pompous and self-important art critic Franklyn Marsh. He portrays Eric Landor, an impoverished artist who reacts to a devastatingly high-handed demolition of his latest traditionally inclined work by Marsh by setting him up for a humiliating fall. He invites him to an exhibition by an exciting new abstract painter. Lee is effusive in his praise, leading Landor to reveal that the artist is present in person. He goes back to fetch him and leads a chimpanzee out by the hand (shades of the artwork reproduced in James Lever’s mock star autobiography Me Cheetah). Landor continues to hold Marsh up to mockery, reminding him of his moment of critical idiocy at every turn and corner. Eventually, Marsh comes across his tormentor drunkenly staggering through the night streets and impulsively runs him down. Landor survives, but loses his hands, and unable to bear the thought of life without his art, commits suicide. But Marsh is not to be allowed to rest easy. Soon, and particularly during storm-racked nights, it seems, he is pestered the artist’s creeping hand, which evades any attempt at disposal and haunts him like some persistent, fleshy scuttling vermin.

Besieging the Tardis - The Celestial Toymaker
The story played well on the contrast between Lee and Gough’s personae. Lee always tended to be stiff and pompous, playing aristocratic or establishment characters (or Carpathian Counts, of course). Gough, on the other hand, had that rebel sneer, the insolent curl of the lip which would always place him on the other side of the divide (probably another reason why Michael Powell liked him). His characters were never actively evil, but they had a louche decadance which took aesthetic pleasure in their contrived maleficence. There was something a little sharp-edged, contemptuous and calculating about his onscreen persona. He had angular, vulpine features and a scouring regard which meant that he was never likely to mature into loveably vague or amusingly snooty aristo roles accorded to acting royalty such as John Gielgud or Ralph Richardson (or Maggie Smith, for that matter). If Richardson was eventually to ascend to the level of godhood in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, Gough would have been more suited to playing his mephistophelean counterpart. At around the same time that he was making Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Gough appeared in the William Hartnell Doctor Who The Celestial Toymaker, bedecked in the oriental finery of mandarin chinoiserie. His imperious manner is manifested to the full as he plays the Gnostic demi-god of his own subcreation, guiding the Doctor and his companions (Stephen and Dodo in this instance) through the moves of a deadly godgame (cf John Clute in The Encycopedia of Fantasy). Gough secured his connections with Doctor Who by marrying Anneke Wills, the actress who played Polly, the companion who replaced Dodo in The War Machines. He would return many years later during the Peter Davison tenure for the 1983 story Arc of Infinity, in which he played another regal character of corrupt and self-serving mores, the traitorous Time Lord Councillor Hedin. The celestial toymaker was always a favourite of longterm (or simply obsessive) Who fans, and there were plans to bring the character back for a story with Sylvester’s McCoy’s Doctor, but the axe fell before they could come to fruition.

Gough tended to appear in less salubrious fare during the later 60s and 70s, however. Kim Newman, in Nightmare Movies, his guide to contemporary horror films (a new edition of which is due imminently - with a bfi interview with Mark Kermode to mark its publication), points to ‘a limbo of fly-by-night productions and colourful entrepreneurs who had their own, supremely disreputable, flourishing horror comic tradition, and awards Gough the dubious honour of being ‘the nearest thing to a star in this area’. These films probably do more than any more reputable and more generously budgeted pictures (not that there were many by the 70s) to capture the seedy and dissolute spirit of the age. In The Corpse (1970), which Matthew Sweet describes as ‘a minor but intoxicatingly poetic horror film’, Gough plays a horrible, tyrannical father whose wife and daughter finally decide that they can’t go on and collaborate in his murder. In the manner of an absurdist play, he simply continues the blandly abusive family routines as if nothing had happened. I’ve not seen that film, but I have seen Horror Hospital (1973), in which Gough plays a demented medic who runs a rest home in the country promising ‘hairy holidays – fun in the sun for the under 30s’. For no very good reason, he turns the guests who answer such an enticing advertisement into lobotomised zombies or violent psychopaths who do his bidding. Our hero is that epitome of seventies simian libidinousness Robin Askwith (who also regularly cropped up in Lindsay Anderson movies and bared his all in Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales). It was directed by Antony Balch, who had made three (deliberately) bewildering short films with William Burroughs in the early to mid 60s, Towers Open Fire (which incorporated routines from Burroughs’ Nova Express), Bill and Tony (ie Burroughs and Balch) and The Cut-Ups. The latter applied Burroughs’ and Brion Gysin’s textual cut-up techniques, designed to jolt the mind out of its customary associations with random collisions and juxtapositions, to celluloid. It certainly shook the viewers at the Cinephone in Oxford Street out of their usual mindset, although they tended to head for the exit as a result. Horror Hospital exhibits a similarly relaxed attitude to logic, sense and meaning and is, in its own undoubtedly exploitational way, just as bizarre.

Grizzled genre veteran - Sleepy Hollow
Gough found work in the 70s and on into the 80s with British romantics Ken Russell (in Women In Love and the Gaudier-Brzeska biopic Savage Messiah) and Derek Jarman. He donned papal red for the juicy role of Cardinal del Monte (sorry) in Carravagio and proved an authoritative Bertrand Russell in Wittgenstein, also giving sensitively articulating Jarman’s poetry in The Garden. Finally, his aloof and disdainful screen portrayals were recognised by Hollywood in the traditional manner, and he was offered the part of a butler. This was the start of a fruitful working relationship with Tim Burton, who says nice things about him on the commentary track of Sleepy Hollow. Gough played Bruce Wayne’s unflappable gentleman’s gentleman Alfred in the two Tim Burton Batmans, and stuck it out for the following two efforts (he’d been in much worse, after all. Mind you…) In Burton’s Sleepy Hollow he played Hardenbrook the notary, surrounded by his dry, curling official parchments. He was wolfish and grizzled, with one staring milk-white eye, and took his place alongside many other veteran British actors who were given free reign to be odd. It effectively marked his entrance into the Tim Burton retirement home for distinguished horror film veterans (Christopher Lee had already appeared in the opening scenes of the film as the burgomaster and Vincent Price was given a dignified late role as the creator of Edward Scissorhands). Gough had already appeared alongside Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee and Barbara Steele in The Curse of the Crimson Altar in 1968, but the film had pretty definitively wasted its fabulous cast, cobbling together an incoherent collection of clichés to tiresome effect. Trish Keenan and James Cargill of Broadcast expressed affection for it, however, imagining themselves as the house band for the rather desperate attempt at a with it party scene which starts the film. Burton remained loyal and constant to his veteran actors, and Gough went on to provide voices for Corpse Bride and Alice In Wonderland (he brought the dodo to life, whilst Christopher Lee intoned the jabberwocky). These films act as a tribute to Gough’s work in the genre.