Saturday, 26 February 2011

Last Post For The Brigadier


Nicholas Courtney, who died earlier this week, spanned three decades of Doctor Who, and acted with all but two of the Doctor’s incarnations during the ‘classic’ series. He first appeared in the Dalek’s Master Plan in 1965, during the William Hartnell era, as the gruff and harshly militaristic space security service officer Bret Vyon. In a Terry Nation story with a characteristically anti-authoritarian slant and high casualty rate, Courtney was gunned down in cold blood after a few episodes. But he returned three years later in The Web of Fear as the character for whom he will be remembered, Brigadier Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart – although at this point, he was only a humble Colonel. Sadly, this initial appearance, in which he tackled the incursions of an army of robot Yeti into the London Underground system alongside Patrick Troughton’s Doctor, has fallen victim to the BBC policy of re-using video tape, wiping whatever happened to be on it. We first get a glimpse of him in a later Troughton story, The Invasion, now promoted to his familiar rank and seeing off cadres of Cybermen who emerge from the sewers to march through the streets of London. The Brigadier became a regular character as the head of the UNIT team during the Jon Pertwee years. The Doctor was inveigled into reluctantly becoming UNIT’s scientific advisor whilst he was exiled on Earth. The Brigadier explained UNIT’s role to new recruit Liz Shaw (Caroline John) in Pertwee’s first story, Spearhead From Space: ‘We deal with the odd, the unexplained. Anything on Earth…or beyond’.

Inferno - the 'evil' Brigadier
One of the many pleasures of the Pertwee era (which, if pushed, I would cite as my favourite) is the way in which the relationship between the Doctor and the Brigadier develops from initial hostility and mutual distrust to one of warmth and friendship. By the time of Pertwee’s final story, Planet of the Spiders, it has progressed far enough for the Doctor to cease addressing the Brigadier by his military rank and call him Alastair. The Brigadier, of course, is unable to reciprocate such first name intimacies. The Doctor remains The Doctor. In the early stories, the Brigadier, with his rigid adherence to military discipline and the application of force as a first resort, almost becomes a secondary adversary for the Doctor, who never hesitates to voice the full force of his contempt. He is particularly furious at the Brigadier’s apparent destruction of the Silurians with explosives at the end of Doctor Who and the Silurians. Given the fact that the subterraenean race of reptiles have just made a pretty decent stab at wiping out the human race with an engineered virus, it doesn’t seem like a wholly disproportionate response, however. Courtney has fun playing his evil, parallel world double in Inferno, complete with scar and eyepatch. This variant on his character highlights the ambiguity inherent in the Brigadier’s role in the early episodes. The ‘other’ Brigadier (or Brigade Leader) is a ruthless fascist and, in the face of an apocalyptic eruption of the earth’s core, a coward bent on self-preservation at any cost. There is a hint that such ignoble characteristics might lurk beneath the surface of the Brigadier’s stiff military bearing and, in line with the series’ ever-present streak of anarchy, that this might be inherent in the military mentality itself.

Enjoying some 'manoeuvres'
But it’s not a line which is pursued, and the Brigadier becomes more likeable and human as time goes by, in no small part due to Courtney’s performance. When Jo Grant (Katy Manning) and The Master (Roger Delgado) joined the regular cast in Terror of the Autons (yet to make it to dvd re-issue), a perfect balancing of characters was achieved, and there was a real sense of a group of actors who enjoyed working with each other. The Brigadier was very much the straight man, his brusque manner and conventional views embodied in the swagger stick he would grasp firmly in his brown leather glove, its end tucked purposefully under his arm, waiting to be pointed at the target of attack or at some neatly outlined plan drawn on a chalk board. He was the perfect foil for the Doctor, rolling his eyes or sighing in exasperation at his latest impossible plan which rode roughshod over authorised procedure. He became noticeably more relaxed as the Pertwee era progressed, and the once the Doctor was released from his exile and revisited Earth on a voluntary basis, an odd couple friendship began to emerge. By the time of The Green Death, the Brig was no longer ordering the Doctor about, but appealing to his sense of curiosity. Attempting to interrupt his tinkering, he draws his attention to an inexplicable sickness in South Wales and says ‘but Doctor, it’s exactly your cup of tea; this fellow’s bright green, apparently – and dead’. We get to see the Brig in his civvies in this story, as he travels up to the Welsh valleys in an unofficial capacity, giving Jo a lift in his rather racy little white sports car. He sports a check jacket and flat cap with a sheepskin coat whilst out and about, and dresses down in a blazer and club tie for an evening’s relaxation. He gets on surprisingly well with the commune dwelling eco-hippies in this story, enjoying a glass or two of elderberry wine whilst puffing on a post dinner cigar, and even sampling some of Dr Jones’ experimental fungal meat substitute. By the time of Planet of the Spiders, Pertwee’s final story, he and the Doctor were enjoying a night out at a variety show together, the Brig particularly perking up at the manoeuvres of an exotic dancer, which he suggests could be adapted for his men. However relaxed the Brig might become in the company of Jo and the Doctor, though, poor old Sergeant Benton would soon receive an ear bashing if he ever attempted to partake in such camaraderie or dared to smirk at one of the Doctor’s lightly mocking comments. He would swiftly be despatched to perform some onerous task with a curtly barked ‘and that’s an order, Sergeant Benton!’ as a verbal boot up the jacksie.

The Brigadier bridged the transition between the Pertwee and Tom Baker eras, witnessing the regeneration and leading UNIT once more for Baker’s first story Robot (and, it has to be said, making a fairly disastrous tactical blunder which leads to the mechanical monster growing to huge, Manga-style proportions). That was largely it for UNIT, but the Brigadier returned in Mawdryn Undead in 1983, during the Peter Davison era. Here, Lethbridge-Stewart has retired to teach maths at a public school, and we meet him both in 1983 and 1977. Courtney gets the chance to bring out the Brigadier’s more sensitive side, portraying his confusion and fear as the Doctor re-ignites suppressed memories. The centrality of the Brigadier to Doctor Who was confirmed both by the popularity of this story and by his return, later in the year, in the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors. At the conclusion of this story, he was able to warmly inform the gathered incarnations, that they were ‘splendid fellows…all of you’. He almost met his end, having been summoned from his comfortable retirement, in the 1989 story Battlefield, in an act of noble sacrifice as he was caught in the crossfire between warring factions of reawakened Arthurian archetypes. But he lived to return to a quiet life in his country house with his wife Doris (perhaps the same Doris alluded to in the scene outlined below). He made an enjoyable return a couple of years ago in a two part story in the Sarah Jane Adventures. By now he was an outsider helping the Doctor’s former assistant to infiltrate the military establishment he once represented from the outside. So in effect, his appearances span almost the entire history of Doctor Who, from 1965 to 2008. It’s a shame he never got to appear opposite any of the recent post-revival Doctors. He would have been a great foil for Matt Smith, sighing with an ‘I’ve seen it all before’ air at his antic behaviour. He’d roll his eyes at the assertion that ‘bow ties are cool’. The club tie – now that’s the thing. By the way of a small tribute, here are some favourite moments:

Inside the Tardis with Jo, the second Doctor and his 'damn fool flute'
In The Three Doctors, the Brigadier, along with Patrick Troughton’s Doctor, summarily plucked from his own time stream, and the confused Sergeant Benton, dashes for safety into the TARDIS and witnesses its counterintuitive interior for the first time. After an initial moment of shock and startlement, a knowing look settles onto his face and he says, as if clearing up a troubling anomaly in the accounts, ‘so this is what you’ve been doing with UNIT funds and equipment all this time’. Later, driven to distraction by the second Doctor’s seemingly absent-minded rambling and ill-timed concern for the whereabouts of his recorder whilst mobile cairns of fake electric-fire coals are rampaging outside, he says, rising to a final pitch of hysterical disbelief, ‘for the last time, will you let me out of this madhouse. My place is with the men out there, trying to do something about that…whatever it is out there…not standing about here messing around looking for SOME DAMN FOOL FLUTE!’

Memories of Doris
In The Planet of the Spiders, the Doctor asks the Brigadier for a personal item which a stage psychic he is conducting an experiment upon in his lab can handle, retrieving (with the aid of a bit of technological wizardry the Doctor has knocked together) residual memories associated with it. He proffers his watch. The psychic begins to receive some vague impressions. ‘This watch was given to you 11 years ago’, he suggests. ‘You received it in a hotel…a hotel by the sea. Brighton, was it? From a young lady called Doris. She said it was to mark her gratitude…’ The Brigadier loudly interrupts, declaring ‘yes, all true, absolutely spot on’ and bringing the experiment to a premature conclusion. ‘Well, surely you’ve got enough, Doctor’, he adds. ‘A little too much, Alastair’, the Doctor replies, with a wry smile. In The Daemons, a gargoyle springs into the path of the UNIT troops in the graveyard of a country church, animate and crouched ready to spring. Unruffled, the Brigadier shouts out his orders: ‘Jenkins…chap with wings there. Five rounds rapid’. In Robot, Tom Baker’s first story, and the last of that era of UNIT tales, the he laments the recurrent failure of all known weaponry at his command to put the slightest dent into the forces he has faced over the years as the bullets ricochet off the tin leviathan towering above his men. ‘You know, just once’, he ponders, ‘I’d like to meet an alien menace that wasn’t immune to bullets’.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Sparrows Can't Sing, Portrait of Queenie and The Theatre Workshop

PART TWO


Another celebrated East End destination of the time incorporated into the film was Queenie Watts’ pub. It was a place which seemed constantly abuzz with jazz and blues, often performed by Queenie herself, and other musical entertainments. It’s here that all the characters from Sparrows Can’t Sing gather in the evening and the film reaches its brawling conclusion. In fact, it’s a studio interior rather than the actual location used here, but the set replicates the feel of Watts’ pub well enough, with Queenie and her partner Slim serving behind the arc of the bar opposite the music stage, on which she also sings the blues. There’s a documentary on the Shadows of Progress box set called Portrait of Queenie, made in 1964, which captures the spirit of the pub at this time. It’s only a partly accurate title, since it’s as much about the area in which she and Slim live, work and grew up as it is about her. We also get to see the people who drink and play music in the pub, and get an insight into the working lives of some of the musicians (the trumpeter is a gardener and the pianist supervises apprentices in a metal workshop underneath the railway arches). The pub, which is the central focus of the film, is the Iron Bridge Tavern on East India Dock Road in Poplar. The film begins with two fashionably dressed young women approaching along the roadside pavement, clearly outsiders who are drawn by the buzz around Queenie’s venue. They form convenient audience identification figures as they nervously enter the pub and approach the bar. Their evening is measured out in a slow but steady accumulation of sweet martinis and gin and bitter lemons. A night down the pub forms the basic structural framework of the film, but there are numerous interludes in which Queenie and her husband Slim, always working alongside her behind the bar, wander around Poplar and the Isle of Dogs, the camera eye observing telling details of their surroundings. Slim returns to Poplar High Street and ruminates on the poverty of his childhood, observing with no trace of self-pity that his Italian neighbours were considered well-off because they could afford shoes. Wandering into Sophia Street, where he grew up, he notes that it was known locally as Chopper Street, because a policeman’s head was cut off and disposed of down a drain. ‘Funny, but not many coppers came around after that’, he adds with a chuckle.

Queenie on the Isle of Dogs
The Isle of Dogs was still a busy working dockland environment at this time, a landscape crossed and harboured with cranes and cargo ships, tugboats and barges, canals and swing bridges, and ringed around with high wharfside walls as high as those around a prison. The names of the streets through which Queenie wends her way mark out the distant places with which the docked ships and their cargo form a connection: Tobago Street, Cuba Street, Manilla Street. The multi-racial make up of the area seems a natural consequence of such global confluence, and is observed with unaffected equanimity in the film. Queenie watches as some Indian children play in the street, and Caribbean, Jewish and Italian musicians play in her club. A similarly optimistic and relaxed view is taken in Sparrows Can’t Sing. Charlie initially searches for Maggie in a subdivided building to which he has been misdirected. He finds Sikhs on the ground floor (the boy translates his queries for the father), Africans on the first, with whom he enjoys a friendly bit of joshing and a brief attempt at dancing, and a group of gypsies on the top floor whose music (they seem to be holding some sort of lesson) brings out his watermelon grin to its fullest extent. Such disparate elements feeding into the area make Queenie’s love jazz and blues seem completely in keeping with the spirit of the place. Her pub is a shrine to such music, with photos of Ella and Louis pinned to the wall behind the stage like tutelary icons. She sings a local blues titled ‘It’s Raining on the Isle of Dogs (as indeed it is) as she wanders around the area, as if to point out the universality of the music. She is accompanied by the familiar stabbing chords and off-kilter, Monkish rhythms of Stan Tracey and a band including bassist Malcolm Cecil, who later made a complete musical about turn and formed the pioneering synthesiser duo TONTO’s Expanding Head Band with Robert Margouleff, both of whom worked with Stevie Wonder on his seminal early 70s albums.

Queenie sings the blues
The small collection of books on her bedroom table (and it’s difficult to see when she’d get the time to read) also suggest an eclectic worldview; a mix of the spiritual, cultural and practical which encompasses the Holy Bible, the Encyclopaedia of Sea Practice, James Baldwin’s Another Country and one of Henry Miller’s Tropic novels (both of which could loosely be defined as ‘jazz’ literature), and the Kama Sutra. The music in her pub also covers the aural spectrum of contemporary popular sounds with, in addition to the jazz and blues (and trad jazz was huge at the time, of course), a bit of skiffle, rock and roll and pop, and a spontaneous outburst of barside Caruso crooning prompted by Queenie from an old acquaintance. There’s something of a sound clash towards the latter stages of the evening (although it could all be in the edit), with a Cockney knees up breaking out around the old Joanna in the far corner as someone bashes out a rough and ready Knees Up Mother Brown. The older generation (for this is a pub in which all ages mix) get to sing the good old songs, and Queenie herself provides her rendition of My Old Man, just to show that she can do Marie Lloyd as well as Ella and Billie.

We are building a new world
As with Charlie in Sparrows Can’t Sing, Queenie is shown picking her way through the rubble of the old streets which are being redeveloped, gazing up uncertainly at the high rises which are beginning to loom above the ragged remnants of the terraced rows. There’s one perfectly framed shot which has obviously been carefully set up in which Queenie walks towards the camera and then pauses in the middle distance, forming one element in a composition which includes a row of half-demolished houses, a scraggy, blasted tree and a newly erected block of flats. Queenie went on to be a regular presence on TV and in films, becoming something of a default choice for tough-minded East End character parts. She played the worldly Aunt Emm in Poor Cow, taking in Carol White’s down at heel Joy, and was also in Up The Junction, the other 60s adaptation of a Nell Dunn novel. She made token appearances in Alfie and Half A Sixpence, as if to add a touch of authenticity. But it was on TV that she really became a familiar face, turning up in Sykes, Steptoe and Son, The Goodies, Up Pompeii, Dad’s Army, Doomwatch, Dixon of Dock Green, Yus My Dear (with Arthur Mullard) and, to further connect back to Sparrows Can’t Sing, George and Mildred, alongside Yootha Joyce and Brian Murphy. Queenie eventually had her own moment in the This Is Your Life spotlight, a sure sign that you’ve been enshrined in the public’s affections.

Roy Kinnear - comic ladder antics
Sparrows Can’t Sing is very much an actor’s film, and much of the cast were drawn from the Theatre Workshop’s then current repertory company. Joan Littlewood had wanted to use a Nagra camera, small, portable and adaptable enough to follow the small variances, sudden impulses and spontaneous gestures of the actors’ performances. It sounds like she was aiming for something similar to what John Cassavetes was doing over in America in films such as Shadows and Faces. Cassavetes also used to put on off-Broadway theatrical performances of plays which he’d written in addition to his self-financed films. Littlewood makes no bones in her autobiography about her frustrations with the producer Donald Taylor and the professional camera team that he imposed on her. The ‘well-respected’ cinematographer Max Greene was utterly disdainful of the actors and the story, reading his copy of Sporting Life throughout the dramatised read through Littlewood organised for the benefit of him and his crew, in order to familiarise them with the story and characters. Eventually, both producer and cameraman left, and the picture was swiftly concluded with more sympathetic collaborators, although Taylor still receives primary credit on the titles. Any technical deficiencies are outweighed by the variety of acting styles. This echoed the ethos of the Theatre Workshop, which aimed to incorporate a divergent mix of popular and classical performance traditions into their productions.

Murray Melvin rockin and rollin
The marvellous Murray Melvin was a lynchpin of the Theatre Workshop repertory company at this time (and has since gone on to be its archivist), having appeared in the original production of A Taste of Honey in the role he would go on to play in the film. Here, he gets to show off his singing and dancing talents (as well as a rather natty suit), twisting his way through a rock and roll number in Queenie’s pub with some gusto. Roy Kinnear and Brian Murphy make for a great clownish double act, a couple of mumbling and stumbling featherheads vying with each other to demonstrate who is the more hopeless. Kinnear displays his familiar physical characteristics which were to become so much a part of his comic make up. His nervous shrug, rolling waddle of a walk and the apologetic ‘what’s he done now’ twitch of a half smile that turns the corner of that flatline mouth. His whole being seems to exude worry and hesitant uncertainty. Both he and Brian Murphy have their cumbersome comic props, which render them ripe for slapstick misadventure. Roy Kinnear has his ladder and bucket, the former of which impedes his clumsy drunken return from the pub, and which he unwisely decides to employ whilst still in a dizzy state. Brian Murphy has his expansive birdcage (everything seemed to be bigger and more solid back then). Rather touchingly, he takes this down to the local park, parking it on the bench beside him and introducing its occupants to their sparrow brethren. Murphy narrowly misses crossing paths with Yootha Joyce in the film, and you can’t help but think that this could almost be a glimpse into the youth of George and Mildred Roper, the characters they played in the 70s sitcom, withering in the doldrums of each other’s company. Here, Joyce is full of vitality and cheer, issuing a steady stream of cheeky banter alongside her girl friends.

Brian Murphy - taking the bird for a walk
Avis Bunnage plays Bridgie Gooding as the family matriarch, organising the dithering menfolk and rounding up her errant daughter with a yell from the canal bridge to act as the messenger between Charlie and Maggie. Her loquacious, bustling character gives us a glimpse of what her portrayal of the mother in Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey might have been like in its opening 1958 run at the Theatre Royal. Dora Bryan is fine in the film, but you can’t help wondering if Avis might have made this maternal monster a little more human. Barbara Ferris, who plays Bridgie and Fred’s daughter Nellie, was one of several young women whom Joan Littlewood found performing in the nearby Winston’s Nightclub. Littlewood liked the fact that they hadn’t been through the conventional theatrical training, and points out in her autobiography that ‘they could sing, dance, ad lib, change clothes in a matter of seconds and, despite the most uncomfortable conditions, light up the scene’. All the sort of things they might be expected to do during the course of a typical Theatre Workshop production, in fact. Ferris never really found a fulfilling long term career as an actress. She was busy in 1963, however, also playing Susan Eliot, the lead female character in Children of the Damned, the sequel to Village of the Damned, which had successfully adapted John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos for the screen. Ferris also replaced Marianne Faithfull as the girl having larks amongst the lads of the Dave Clark Five in John Boorman’s enjoyable slice of swinging sixties satire Catch Me If You Can. It was clearly aimed to cash in on the success of A Hard Days Night, and two actors in Sparrows Can’t Sing provide an anticipatory link with that film, which was released the following year (1964). Victor Spinetti and John Junkin essentially play the same sort of characters as they would do with The Beatles: Spinetti neurotic (although without the mohair jumper here) and Junkin laconically officious.

Gerry Raffles - dropping Maggie off
There were actors from beyond the Theatre Workshop circles. Arthur Mullard appears, pulling up outside the pub with barrels of beer delivered by dray horse-drawn cart. As ever, he basically plays Arthur Mullard, which is all he’s required to do. George Sewell, who plays Bert, had also appeared in Lindsay Anderson’s debut feature This Sporting Life in 1963. This was released at the tail end of the kitchen sink era, when people where beginning to weary of its downbeat realism, and it received lukewarm reviews as a result. Its star, Richard Harris, had also passed through the ranks of the Theatre Workshop. He was involved in the court case brought against the company in 1959, which revolved around the play You Won’t Always Be On Top. This written by a building worker, Henry Chapman, and was set on a building site, complete with cement mixer and a wall which was gradually constructed on stage as the everyday action unfolded. The actors improvised around the written script, building up their characters in the build up to the opening and during the actual run. The Lord Chamberlain, who had taken against the play, or perhaps just the Workshop’s stance in general, used this deviation from the source material to prosecute Harris, Littlewood, Raffles, Chapman and John Bury, the theatre’s licensee, for presenting material unauthorised by the censor. There was a great deal of publicity surrounding the case, and the resultant fines were largely tokenistic. The whole affair played a significant role in bringing this officious and arbitrary form of establishment censorship to an end. Harry H Corbett had been a core member of the Theatre Workshop in the post war years, having joined in 1952 when it was still touring the North. He left in 1955, tired of the constant penury, a couple of years after the company had settled in Stratford. He did maintain his links with Littlewood, however, and returned from time to time, appearing in the 1959 production of James Clancy’s Ned Kelly, and playing Sherlock Holmes (or rather, someone who thinks he’s Holmes) in James Goldman’s They Might Be Giants in 1961. He makes a cameo appearance in Sparrows Can’t Sing (for old time’s sake, maybe) as the fruit and veg seller with his roadside market stall. Look closely and you can spot Joan Littlewood herself, inspecting the wares behind him. Gerry Raffles also appears briefly as the driver of the double-decker car transport lorry who drops Maggie off in the park before heading for Sheffield.

Joan's Book - her autobiography
The Theatre Workshop wanted to bring theatre to the local people, to those ordinary men and women who were outside the usual theatre-going audience, and who would not consider it to be for them. They aimed to do this by producing plays which reflected their experience, or which presented material in a way which directly engaged with them, drawing them in rather than presenting them with a passive spectacle. This was what they attempted with plays such as Sparrers Can’t Sing, A Taste of Honey, Frank Norman’s Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be and A Kayf Up West, You Won’t Always Be On Top and Oh What A Lovely War. The degree to which they succeeded in reaching such an audience is debatable. Harry H Corbett certainly felt that they’d failed to fulfil any such aims. ‘We never appealed to the working class’, he says in Howard Goorney’s The Theatre Workshop Story. ‘All I could ever see were beards and duffle coats every time I peered into the audience. It was the day of the angry young whatever. No way was there a local following, only in the sense of a few eccentrics – Johnny Speight was one – and they were leaving their working-class environment. Never a solid working-class audience in any way’. Still, local eccentrics need a focal point to inspire them, and the theatre provided a training ground for those who might otherwise never have contemplated acting on the stage. The Theatre Workshop actors really reached the desired audience to a massively greater extent with the characters they went on to play in TV sitcoms or soaps: James Booth as Vic Fielding and Avis Bunnage as first Alice Burgess, and then Edie Blundell in Coronation Street; Roy Kinnear in The Dick Emery Show; Brian Murphy and Yootha Joyce in Man About the House and its spin-off George and Mildred; and, of course, Harry H Corbett in Steptoe and Son. Joan Littlewood is very sniffy about the latter’s defining role in her autobiography, an attitude she perhaps extended to all of these defections to the idiot box. ‘Harry C’s face filled the screen’, she remembers. ‘He was talking in some stylised accent and there was a hideous old man with him…Harry, who had given us that incomparable Richard II, and so many glorious moments of theatre; what had driven him to this?’ Perhaps she might have approved of two further Theatre Workshop graduates to the small screen who went on to play central roles at the beginning and (as it then seemed) the end of Doctor Who. Carole Ann Ford played William Hartnell’s Doctor’s ‘granddaughter’ Susan from the very first episode, The Unearthly Child (broadcast in 1963, the same year that Sparrows Can’t Sing was released), through to the final episode of The Dalek Invasion of Earth a year later. Sylvester McCoy took the title role and eventually steered it to a dignified end in Survival, towards the end of 1989. On reflection, she almost certainly wouldn’t.

The Theatre Workshop had its origins in Salford, where a young man called Jimmie Miller, fiercely committed to Communist ideals, set up a street theatre group called the Red Megaphones in 1931. They would perform short and unambiguous political skits for the queues of the unemployed waiting outside the labour exchanges, and later for those taking part in the strikes then widespread in the textile industries. They gradually began to graduate from the streets and develop a more professional approach, a move which was greatly helped by the arrival of Joan Littlewood amongst their ranks in 1934. She’d grown up in Stockwell in South London, and had managed to gain a place at RADA, but disliked the conventional nature of its training and the kind of plays which it favoured. Legend has it (or her autobiography, at any rate) that she walked up to Manchester to find a new direction, her possessions tied up in a bundle like a figure from a fairy tale. This dreamlike impression was furthered when she was awakened one night by the roaring of wild beasts. The following morning, she realised that she’d bedded down just outside Whipsnade Zoo. The Red Megaphones evolved into the Theatre of Action in 1934, and then again into the Theatre of Action in 1936. Miller and Littlewood began to develop a hybrid style which adopted elements of different popular traditions of dance, music hall, agit prop and street entertainments, juxtaposing them to form a new, kaleidoscopic whole. They impulsively got married, but it never seemed a serious commitment. Littlewood comments in her autobiography that, after Miller’s sudden and offhand proposal and an ensuing row, ‘for better or for worse, I gave in’). They remained friends and collaborators after it all fell apart, however, and Littlewood was later to become godmother to Miller’s children, Kirsty and Hamish MacColl. Miller had deserted from the army soon after being called up in 1940, and changed his name to Ewan MacColl in an attempt to deflect any unwanted attention. It worked for a while, but he was finally arrested after the war, although he was soon released and returned to the fold. Littlewood met Gerry Raffles when he joined the company in 1940, and they soon fell for each other. She describes the blossoming of their relationship in a touchingly self-deprecating way in her autobiography: ‘Gerry was nineteen, sexy, a very desirable young man. I was just twenty-eight, plain, hardly what you’d call attractive, moody often, amusing sometimes, but Gerry didn’t see me as I was. He called me beautiful. Perhaps, when he looked at me, I was….Gerry was the most wonderful that ever happened to me – and still is’. They remained devoted to each other until his death in 1975.

The Theatre Union had to pack up and cease activities in 1942 for the duration of the war. When it was all over, the core members re-united to found the Theatre Workshop. MacColl wrote for the company, Littlewood directed and acted, and Raffles became the de facto manager. They toured the theatres, halls and schools and colleges of the North, bringing a mixture of the classics and new, didactic works to whomsoever might turn up (and it was sometimes a pretty meagre audience). Notable amongst the new plays was Uranium 253, which used the hybrid styles developed in the Theatre Union days to tell the story of atomic power and its development and eventual use as a weapon with terrifying destructive potential. The performance involved a variety of performance styles, with dance, comedy, movie parodies, an expressionistic figure of death, and direct addresses to the audience. The play was a big success, communicating what might have been a rather abstract subject in an engaging, entertaining and informative manner. It toured widely, even playing for a week to enthusiastic audiences at Butlins in Filey.

After several years, the strain of constant touring and their permanently penurious condition led the members of the Theatre Workshop to seek a permanent base. Manchester and Glasgow failed to offer any suitable or affordable locations, so in 1953 they moved down South and set up in the dilapidated Victorian semi-wreck of the Theatre Royal in Stratford, a place which had indubitably seen better days. MacColl opposed the move away from the North, where he believed they had begun to build up a good audience, and didn’t join them. Besides, he was now becoming more involved with folk music, hosting, curating and singing in the radio show Ballads and Blues for the BBC, and later opening a club of the same name in London in 1957 (so he did move south after all!). This would turn into the famous Singers Club in 1961 and become the epicentre of the folk revival, with MacColl and his partner Peggy Seeger as its presiding king and queen (although such royal assignations are somewhat contradictory for a movement whose constituents largely espoused left-wing views). MacColl’s series of Radio Ballads, broadcast from the late 50s through to the mid 60s, drew on the Theatre Workshop’s use of a variety of juxtaposed styles and techniques to present portraits of particular groups of people (fishermen, travellers, miners and motorway construction workers) through recorded speech, sound effects, field recordings, narration, and songs old and new.

Murray Melvin in Oh What A Lovely War
The Theatre Workshop struggled for a while, effectively squatting in the theatre building (and swiftly hiding the evidence of their inhabitation whenever any inspectors turned up), but an invitation to play at the International Theatre Festival in Paris in 1955 attracted a good deal of positive critical attention (alongside a certain amount of ‘why are these nobodies being chosen as our representatives’ comments) and heralded the many successes that were to follow. Several of these led to West End transfers, which helped a great deal with the finances, although some suggested that they marked a sell out to the conventional theatre to which the Workshop had sought to provide an alternative. Brendan Behan found something of an artistic home at the Theatre Royal (and a literal home for a while with Littlewood and Raffles), with his plays The Quare Fellow and The Hostage being staged there. There was also the 1958 premiere of A Taste of Honey by the young first time playwright Shelagh Delaney, Sparrers Can’t Sing, of course, William Saroyan’s 1960 piece of whimsy Sam, The Highest Jumper Of Them All, a quirky vehicle for Murray Melvin, and the thinly veiled satire on the Ronan Point disaster The Projector in 1970. Perhaps the culmination of the Workshop’s performance style and philosophy was Oh What A Lovely War from 1963, which juxtaposed songs from the First World War with a pierrot show, comic routines, realistic scenes of life in the trenches and music hall numbers with a constantly changing backdrop of slides showing photographs from the war, with ‘rolling’ news statistics flashed alongside.

Cedric Price's plans for the Fun Palace
Joan Littlewood’s involvement in the theatre diminished in the late 60s and early 70s as she became involved in a new project, a vision for a future in which leisure time would expand as the world became increasingly technologised (what happened to that!). She envisaged what came to be known as the Fun Palace, a flexible structure which was to be a site for serious leisure, or work-play, ‘a university of the streets…a foretaste of the pleasures of the future’. It was a mini model utopia, a proposal for the manner in which society at large might refashion itself and its priorities. She developed the idea with architect Cedric Price, and they came up with an open plan area which encouraged an informal atmosphere. There would be no doors or fixed entry points, and the different areas would not be segregated. Boundaries would be permeable, with ‘charged static-vapour zones, optical barriers, warm-air curtains and fog-dispersal plant’ to be used, according to Price’s May 1964 New Scientist article. There would be acting areas (for participation or viewing), music areas with instruments and listening posts, a construction area in which various crafts could be learnt and practised, a science playground, a fun arcade, remote-viewing screens linked to various locations in the city (or beyond). If it all got a bit too much, there was a quiet zone, which sounds not unlike Brian Eno’s idea of a Civic Recovery Centre demonstrated at the 2000 Sonic Boom sound art exhibition in the Hayward Gallery on London’s South Bank. The whole thing would be, by its nature (and philosophy) impermanent and subject to periodic rearrangements. It would be overarched with an all-encompassing gantry framework, with attendant cranes for shifting the various modules and components, and the encompassed space would be filled and crossed by inflatable enclosures, ramps, moving walkways, catwalks and radial escalators. Despite support and patronage from the likes of Yehudi Menuhin and Buckminster Fuller (who maybe saw the potential to get a dome in their somewhere) and vague encouraging noises from some local councils, it was destined to remain nothing more than a plan on paper. Echoes of some of its ideas can be felt in places like the Container City (an artistic and educational enclave which uses recycled shipping containers as living and working ‘units’) on Trinity Buoy Wharf by the Thames (and symbolically opposite the Millenium Dome or O2 Arena as it has now become); and in the modular inflatable maze of the Colourscape structure which sprouts up on Clapham Common and other sites from time to time, and which hosts musicians in its central chamber (the sound distributed around the surrounding colour saturated corridors).

Joan amongst the rubble
In the 1970s, the local council began to ‘redevelop’ the area around Angel Lane in which the Theatre Royal stood. Zones of waste ground filled with mounds of weed-covered rubble began to proliferate, the wreckage of half-carried out demolition. Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles began to organise clearance parties, reclaiming the land like modern ‘leisure time’ Diggers. The spaces thus cleared were asphalted over with the help of sympathetic local firms and patterned with coloured squares, becoming playgrounds and open air theatres of a sort. Activities were arranged which embodied the idea of serious leisure which had been at the heart of the Fun Palace project, and the Theatre Royal was incorporated into this new self-governed local zone, with teenagers invited to organise their own Friday night dances. Jimmie Winston, the keyboard player in the early incarnation of the Small Faces, became an enthusiastic supporter and, according to Joan Littlewood’s autobiography, ‘involved himself in everything, a frontiersman in the bad lands’. It all climaxed in an extravagant Easter Fair organised by the local children in 1974, which boasted a wide variety of stalls and booths, with a maypole at the centre and even a small zoo. Littlewood remembers that the latter included ‘pigeons, and chickens, two donkeys, three monkeys, a goat, a mynah bird and a tortoise; and Jimmie Winston brought a lion!’ The Who came along and played and donated some money, and the whole site became known as the ‘Invisible Fun Palace’, the ideal without the physical structure. Joan and Gerry had brought theatre and pageantry to the local people at last. It was the culmination their involvement with the people of Stratford. When Gerry Raffles died suddenly and unexpectedly a year later, Joan Littlewood was left utterly desolate, and left England to go and live in France shortly thereafter. Raffles is memorialised by a Square which is named after him, just south of Angel Lane and adjacent to a new arts centre, a testament to his efforts to fight for the spirit of the place and the people who inhabited it.

Across the road from Gerry Raffles Square is Stratford Station, situated on the borderlands of the massive new Olympic development site. This is currently the site for Matt Stokes’ film installation The Stratford Gaff: A Serio-Comick-Bombastick-Operatick Interlude. This series of recorded performances seeks to conjure up the spirit of ‘penny gaffs’, ad hoc entertainments common in the Victorian era that used whatever spaces might be temporarily available. Stokes met up with Murray Melvin, who now voluntarily devotes a good deal of his time to acting as the Theatre Workshop’s archivist. The variety of performers and the range of artistic styles represented in Stokes’ film is an appropriate remembrance of the Workshop’s collision of forms. A Grime MC raps alongside some acrobatic cheerleaders, a Punjabi pop singer, a female impersonator, a magician, a beatboxer and a group of Romany musicians. And then there’s Melvin himself, singing When This Lousy War Is Over from Oh What A Lovely War. In his white silk pierrot costume, he stands out against the backdrop darkness like a ghost, a spectral echo of the Workshop’s illustrious past which has drifted across from the theatre opposite.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Mervyn Peake on The Beauty of Books


The BBC4 series The Beauty of Books, which centers around precious treasures brought to light from the modern crypts and undercrofts of the British Library, featured a look at the manuscripts and notebooks of Mervyn Peake last night. Peake’s son Sebastian was on hand to comment, marvelling at these handwritten pages with accompanying sketches which he hadn’t set eyes on for so many years. The ink had browned, giving the manuscripts a patina of aniquity greater than their actual age, and matching the manilla folders (and there’s a tantalisingly generous number of them) in which they are kept. It’s clear that Peake sketched and wrote at the same time, as if the one activity was indivisible from the other. The drawing of the characters and their setting is given linguistic form in the detailed and intensely visualised quality of the Gormenghast novels. The enclosed world of the novel and its strange, sad and grotesque inhabitants are made to feel solid and vividly, sometimes oppressively present, in contrast with the rather evanescent atmosphere of many fantasy novels. Here, you really feel the weight of the stones and the traditions which they embody. We see an ink sketch, more fully formed than some of the other quick impressions Peake transferred directly from his imagination onto the page, of the Prunesquallors in all their bird-like, long-beaked glory. It’s Peake’s genius as a writer that he can make us care about these grotesques, and hope for the ultimate success of Irma’s unlikely courtship with Professor Bellgrove. The exciting news is that a fully illustrated edition of the Gormenghast books will be published later in the year, supervised by Sebastian Peake, with ten times as many sketches from the notebooks as have previously been used. The old Penguin Classics editions all contained a small selection of Peake’s sketches, which also adorned the covers: Fuschia for Titus Groan; Steerpike and Barquentine for Gormenghast; and Irma Prunesquallor for Titus Alone. But this sounds like it’s of an entirely different order. According to Sebastian Peake’s blog on the Mervyn Peake website, this new edition should be published in July.

The link was made between the Gormenghast books and Peake’s wartime experiences, travelling through the ruined cities of Europe and witnessing the horrors of Belsen. His sketch of Peter Back, the first Nazi executed for war crimes, was likened to the portrayal of Steerpike. Back was a very small fish, a ‘crippled tailor’ as Malcolm Yorke puts it in his Peake biography My Eyes Mint Gold, condemned for having killed, along with four others, an American airman who had bailed out after machine gunning their village. The incident casts a light on the complex morality of the Gormenghast books. The participants in the programme condemn Steerpike to the role of malevolent villain, but he is a more ambiguous and therefore more interesting figure than such reductive descriptions allow. A quick-witted opportunist who rises from the lowest level, he manipulates the castle-earldom’s rules and the eccentric dreams and desires of its upper classes to his own ends. His cruelty is accentuated because it is actively used to aid his literal and social climbing. But it is no greater than the unthinking cruelty of the Groans and their minions, whose casual acts of cold-blooded destruction are given the validation of dusty years of ritual and tradition. The invoking of contemporary historical events to qualify what works of fantasy are ‘about’ is not uncommon. The forces of Mordor are frequently associated with the Nazis. It seems a way for literary critics to give a realistic context in which to look at a kind of fiction which they would otherwise have difficulty approaching. Undoubtedly, the experiences of a writer or artist informs the work they produce, but such works of the imagination deal as much with archetypes and the externalisation of inner landscapes as they do with the immediacy of the world outside. This is what gives them their universal and timeless appeal. If any one part of Peake’s life informed the creation of Gormenghast more than any other, it would be his childhood in China, as Sebastian Peake illustrated in the talk I saw him give at the Dartington Ways With Words festival a few years ago. He showed some incredible photographs of huge statues of warriors and beasts lining the rocky road of The Spirit Way to the Eastern Imperial Tombs, receding in shrinking perspective towards the horizon. Gather these in to one great, vaulted room and you would have the Hall of Bright Carvings from Titus Groan. These photos can be found in the chapter Chinese Childhood, written by Sebastian Peake, which is included in the recent and profusely illustrated volume Mervyn Peake: The Man and His Art, edited by G. Peter Winnington (whose biography of Peake is the one recommended by Sebastian and Michael Moorcock). Peake’s talk at Dartington was wonderful, and is something he delivers from time to time. It partly draws from his moving and self-revealing book A Child of Bliss, which is full of anecdotes of his life with his father and mother, Maeve Gilmore, and haunted by the sense of a magic time fading into a past forever out of reach.

Detail of Snow White from the Pallant House exhibtion page
This year is the centenary of Peake’s birth, and there are several events planned to celebrate it (again, these are listed on Sebastian Peake’s blog). Most excitingly, there is an exhibition of his art in Chichester, split between the Pallant House Gallery and the Otter Gallery at the University of Chichester, which will be on between 26th May and 17th July. Here’s what the programme for the Otter Gallery has to say: ‘This year celebrates the centenary of the birth of Mervyn Peake, best known for his illustrations of fairytale and fantasy works. Peake has strong local connections, having lived at Burpham, near Arundel, where he is also buried. To mark his centenary, the Otter Gallery will host an exhibition of Peake’s nonsense and poetry illustrations, including The Hunting of the Snark and Rhymes Without Reason. The exhibition also shares some of the famous Gormenghast and Captain Slaughterboard series with the Pallant House Gallery’s concurrent show. Originated by the Maison d’Ailleurs, Switzerland, this exhibition coincides with the international conference on 15th and 16th July on Mervyn Peake and the Fantasy Tradition hosted by the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairytales and Fantasy at the University of Chichester’. The conference speakers include Sebastian Peake, Michael Moorcock, Joanne Harris and two major academics specialising in the area of fantastic literature, Colin Manlove and Farah Mendlesohn. All of which sounds worthy of making a special trip for. Hopefully they’ll include the illustration of a pear soaring in blissful flight, leaves as wings, which accompanies the poem ‘O Here It Is and There It Is’. As Peake’s poem declaims, ‘It has no right – no right at all/To soar above the orchard wall’, but there it is, ecstatically riding the late summer breezes. You’ll believe a pear can fly!
(The Mervyn Peake section of the programme begins about 20 minutes in, but there are also some interesting insights into the William Tenniel illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, with a brief glimpse of Peake's later versions).

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Sparrows Can't Sing, Portrait of Queenie and the Theatre Workshop

PART ONE


Sparrows Can’t Sing (1963) was a filmed version of Stephen Lewis’ play, de-cockneyfied from its original title Sparrers Can’t Sing, which was put on by the Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal, Stratford in 1960. The Theatre Workshop was an idealistic outfit run by Joan Littlewood and her lifelong partner Gerry Raffles which sought to produce an alternative to mainstream theatre, and to connect more with the local community, producing work which would mean more to ordinary men and women. The film was recently included in the London Collection dvd boxset alongside Norman Cohen’s documentary of Geoffrey Fletcher’s explorations into The London Nobody Knows and other fascinating period pieces from the post-war capital. It’s hugely enjoyable on a number of levels. It captures the East End area of Stratford when it was on the cusp of a complete transformation, which would sweep away many of the old streets and the atmosphere and grime which they had accumulated over the years. The scenes set in and around the docks now have a documentary value, their life as a working area having long since ceased and any remnants of machineries or functional objects incorporated as decorative features in the exclusive redeveloped residential landscape. The film features a gallery of faces familiar from TV and film supporting roles, giving voice to a regular chorus of ‘ooh look, it’s so and so, wasn’t she in such and such’. It’s a testament to the rich repertory cast nurtured by Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Workshop. There’s a definite sense that the actors are given the space to display their particular talents, and there are plenty of diversions from the main narrative. The loose and rambling structure of the film, much of which is taken up with wandering and waiting, allows for all to have their moment and there are many performances to treasure here.

Balcony lament - Barbara sings the title song
The story is a fairly flimsy framework within which we observe the various characters hovering around the orbit of the Gooding family. The wayward son, Charlie, is returning from a couple of seemingly impulsively impromptu years at sea, and word soon gets around that he is coming home. Everybody is stirred into a scurrying bustle of activity, some excited at the prospect of his return, others filled with trepidation. It’s clear from these polarised reactions that Charlie is both a rogue and a charmer. Having shared a taxi from the docks to his old stamping grounds with a shipmate played by Glynn Edwards, best known as Dave, the long-suffering barman of the Winchester Club in Minder. He was married to fellow Theatre Workshop actor Yootha Joyce, who also appears in the film, at the time. Here, he attempts a Scottish accent with little success. Charlie sets about looking for his wife, Maggie, receiving misleading directions which send him on a tour of the area. Everyone anticipates a combustible encounter, since Maggie is now living with Bert, a bus driver, and has a baby daughter. A meeting is engineered at a local pub, and when Maggie eventually arrives, Charlie turns on the charm. There is a bit of verbal sparring, with Maggie reminding him of the old days when he used to have different birds every night and come back from the pub ‘bashin’ the door down, let alone bashin’ me ‘ed in’. But there is an undertow of attraction and playful affection beneath the to and fro, and she leaves him with a verbal ‘might do’ shrug at his proposed rendezvous later that day. Back with Bert, she contemplates the two alternatives offered by her men: the stability of life he offers, with his steady job and their clean new flat; or the cheerful chaos and unpredictability of Charlie and his clan. Bert nearly throws a spanner in the works by staying home sick from work, but Maggie goes out anyway, and she and Charlie reminisce over the old times in the park. She goes out with him to the pub that evening, with Charlie acting like the cock of the walk, greeted by all his old mates and behaving as if all is back to normal. Everything comes to a head when Bert comes in, and both he and Charlie face up to one another. Maggie is forced to make a choice then and there. All ends in brawling chaos, with Maggie and Charlie leaving by the back door and having their own private scrap. Each gives as good as they get. They walk off still having a go at each other, and the final frame freezes with the words ….and so on, which suggests that this pretty much sets the pattern for the rest of their lives.

Barbara lands a good one - Maggie and Charlie work things out
Charlie and Maggie are played with enormous vitality and charisma by James Booth and Barbara Windsor. Booth manages to convey both Charlie’s energetic charm and his wayward fecklessness, along with his potential for sudden weather changes in mood and tendency towards violent reaction. He behaves like an over-exuberant child who expects to get his way and grows sullen and truculent if he doesn’t. From what Joan Littlewood says in her anecdotal autobiography Joan’s Book, these were characteristics shared by Booth himself. She relates an incident which occurred whilst shooting the pub scene. Booth suddenly turned around and hurled a glass at a group standing at the bar. This wasn’t in the script and was clearly highly dangerous, and she told him he shouldn’t have done it, and that anyway it wasn’t something his character would do. He wouldn’t need to get their attention in such a violent manner. She writes that ‘he promptly walked off, threatening to turn in the part. It took another outburst and a lot of soothing syrup before he would consent even to try the take without the glass smashing, but when he did, it was good’. This kind of behaviour may go some way towards explaining why Booth, who was at the time tipped for great things, never made it to the same degree that fellow Londoners Michael Caine and Terence Stamp, also emerging at this time, did. It should be pointed out that Booth, whilst he tended to be cast in chirpy Cockney roles, was actually born in Croydon, way beyond the reach of even the faintest reverberations of Bow Bells. The shadows of what might have been are evident in the fact that he appeared in Zulu alongside Michael Caine and was subsequently offered the part of Alfie, which he turned down. Caine also did his time in the Theatre Workshop, although his was an extremely brief tenure, and he never made his mark there as Booth did.

Charlie comes home - James Booth on the docks
If this were a different film, with a different tone and a different actor in the lead role, then Charlie could be a threatening and violently domineering character. He does reassert his position and expect life to continue much as it did before he left, and causes a great deal of disruption in the lives of those around him, who seem slightly cowed by his presence. Ultimately, perhaps because of Booth’s portrayal, he comes across more as likeable rogue than seductive bastard. Charlie may cause Arnold, played with typically febrile neuroticism by Victor Spinetti, to crush several of his strudels in fearful overreaction to his presence in the Jewish bakery where Maggie is supposed to be working. But the extent of his menace is displayed in his chilling parting threat that he’ll shop at Kominsky’s, a rival cake shop. James Booth’s wide, Satchmo grin splits his face with natural ease, lighting it up like a benevolent jack o’lantern (albeit one which retains a certain wicked glint). Even when not there, it seems latent, waiting for the slightest excuse to spread again. Once it has, it looks like it would require a muscular effort to collapse it once more.

Pub games - Charlie takes the direct approach
Barbara Windsor portrays Maggie as both self-assertive and tough, and at the same time sentimental and tender-hearted, with a tendency to forgive if not necessarily to forget. Her performance in the pub scene, in which she finally meets up with Charlie, is particularly fine. She manages to express Maggie’s reactive shifts from resistance and feigned indifference through accusation and hostility to veiled pleasure and half-hidden smiles, all culminating in a tender backward look as she goes out of the door. In the pub scene, she makes it clear that Maggie has the full measure of Charlie. She sees through his transparent charms, but enjoys them anyway, and has fun both encouraging and mildly rebuffing his larky advances. Her breathless run down the streets towards the pub, face filled with happy anticipation, is Windsor’s enactment of her own localised version of Marilyn’s run to meet Tony Curtis at the end of Some Like It Hot, or of Shirley MacLaine racing back to Jack Lemmon in the final scenes of The Apartment. In her domestic scenes with Bert, which are by their nature quiet and fairly static, she conveys the attractions of a steady and stable home life for Maggie, but also her yearning for something more exciting. After her meeting with Charlie, her wistful and reflective manner reveal her inner state, her weighing up of the choices offered to her; the divergent lifestyles associated with the two men laying claim to her affections between which she must now choose. Windsor fully deserved her nomination for the best actress BAFTA. Although she’d appeared as a supporting actress in films for some years, going back to an uncredited appearance in the Belles of St Trinians in 1954, and had made her mark on TV in The Rag Trade, Sparrows Can’t Sing was her first big screen break. The next year would see her appearing in Carry On Spying, and, for better or worse, she would become a fixture of the team which came to define her screen character from then on. Her performance in Sparrows Can’t Sing gives a glimpse of her abilities before the broader, nudging and winking style of her Carry On persona took over with a giggled ‘ooh, saucy!’

Charlie amongst the ruins
Maggie’s choices partly reflect the changing character of the Stratford area, and the East End in general, at the time. She lives with Bert in a tidy, ordered flat near the top of a newly erected tower block. The play’s author and the co-writer with Joan Littlewood of the screenplay, Stephen Smith, portrays a comical busybody of a caretaker, a bureaucratic Napoleon leaning on his rake and surveying his small empire. He comes out with a steady stream of ‘you can’t do thats’, a speaking book of endless by-laws. Bicycles seem to particularly get his goat, and he sends Chunky in confused and wobbling circles as he tells him ‘don’t lean that hieroglyphics, mate – and don’t park it on the portico neither’. The caretaker is the mouthpiece of an architecture planned for social engineering, moulding behaviour and attempting to order every aspect of people’s lives. ‘We’re trying to civilise people like you’, he yells as Nellie and Chunky escape into the lifts, ‘don’t you understand that’. When they finally get up to see ‘Auntie’ Maggie to tell her that Charlie’s back, she initially hesitates to answer the door. She imagines all the unwelcome visits from officialdom which the knock might herald. It’s an environment in which such fearful reactions are fostered, and the idea of people just dropping by has become more remote. Whilst Nellie and Chunky (so-named by his friend Georgie because he thinks his head looks like a pineapple) wait outside, the old lady who lives opposite unloads her meagre gossip about Maggie and Bert. She lingers for an age fumbling about for her key, seeming reluctant to go into her flat. Before she moved her, she would have stood on her doorstep or leaned out of the window and nattered away without the need for an excuse. The plight of old people suddenly isolated in these newly-built tower blocks is sparely and movingly depicted in John Krish’s contemporaneous 1964 documentary portrait I Think They Called Him John, included in the recent bfi Shadows of Progress box set. When Charlie arrives back in town from his sea voyage he is perplexed and disorientated by these new edifices which have thrust up through the rubble of the old streets he knew. Yootha Joyce and her two girlfriends who bump into Charlie as he wonders around in confusion mordantly observe that they stick the pensioners up on the top floor as a form of euthanasia. They also cheerily observe that the lifts are out of order half the time. With Maggie’s Sherman tank of a pram, negotiating the stairwells would be no laughing matter.

The new flats, with their hermetically sealed living spaces shutting their occupants off from the outside world, are contrasted with the street in which the Gooding family live, and to which Charlie eventually returns after his search for Maggie proves fruitless. This is bracketed by a church at one end and a railway bridge at the other, the spiritual and temporal worlds combined. People are constantly leaning from upper floor balconies to shout down at those below, and there is a plentiful supply of local urchinry running to and fro to give a kinetic feel to the area. Planks in the garden fence are either missing or movable, providing alternative apertures for more secretive gossip. If it all gets too much, as it often seems to for Roy Kinnear’s Fred, you can always retreat to the backyard bog, or ‘music room’ as he refers to it, with its handy newspaper hanging from an outside hook. Read ‘em and wipe. The street is full of the communal chaos and noisy bustle of extrovert life, as opposed to the quiet order and discrete separation of the new flats. In the end, Maggie’s decision as to whether to stay with Bert or start afresh with Charlie is as much a choice between these different locales, old and new, and the associated ways of life.

Charlie in the brave new world
The rambling nature of the film, with its regular excursions down tributaries and side roads winding away from the main course of the story, allows for a thorough exploration of local surroundings. Maggie’s perambulations with her pram take her along Angel Lane and its surrounding streets. This was the area in which the Theatre Workshop was based (the Theatre Royal being situated on Angel Lane), as was the Café L’Ange, which gave sustenance to its starving and penniless players over many a year. She also wanders across the Regent’s Canal, and gets stuck on a swing bridge which opens whilst she’s on it. Further canal scenes, possibly set along the Limehouse Cut, form the backdrop of Avis Bunnage’s Bridgie’s search for Nellie. The new buildings with which Charlie is confronted upon his return were part of the Stifford Estate. He is hemmed in by Ewhurst House on one side and Wickham House on the other. Both have already been consigned to the rubble of history, having been demolished in 1999. The street in which the Goodings live was Cowley Gardens, with the gothic arched windows of St Mary and St Michael’s Church rising prominently at its end. The park in which Maggie and Charlie meet and reminisce over the good times they used to have is, I think, Victoria Park, although the walls and road when they leave look more like the outside of Greenwich Park. The website Reel Streets has gathered much valuable information about these locations, and more, and has some interesting accompanying then and now photos.

Larks in the park
Other locations draw on Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles’ close connections with the surrounding community and offer the chance for local people, some of whom had been extremely generous in the help they had extended to the Theatre Workshop in the depths of their penury, to have their moment of onscreen glory. Littlewood mentions May from the Angel Café in her autobiography, although she doesn’t seem to have made it to the final cut. Rosie from Goide’s Bakery has, however, and puts in a natural and very characterful performance which amounts, you suspect, to just being herself. For those drawn to the dubious allure of the Kray Twins, the use of their Kentucky Club as a location will be of interest. Charlie retreats into its rather dingy interior during the daytime whilst he waits for his rendezvous with Maggie. And there are Ron and Reg, staring at him with sullen and somnolent inexpressiveness, not exactly providing the sunniest of greetings to their pleasure den. Their vanity and desire for self-publicity wouldn’t allow them to let such an opportunity for a big screen appearance go wanting. According to Littlewood, they made their presence felt from the outset, presumably attaching themselves to the production through the connection with Barbara Windsor and Ronnie Knight (although they didn’t seem in the slightest bit interested in Littlewood’s theatrical productions in which Windsor played a part). They turned up at the launch party which she held to mark the start of filming, along with a minder who rejoiced in the Cockney Cagney monicker of Limehouse Willie. He is apparently the fellow seen polishing an antique tray in Angel Lane as Maggie pushes her pram along, Charlie skipping along beside and impeding her progress all the way.

Dodgy geezer
Gerry Raffles strongly disapproved of their presence, which, as a principled socialist, was a natural standpoint, the Krays representing the blunt and brutal end of individualistic capitalism. Littlewood evidently took the route of appeasement, a more pragmatic and perhaps even realistic approach. The Kentucky Club scene is largely redundant in the film, its only real interest now being as a cultural curio of a particular time and place. Perhaps it can be seen as a minor concession to the twins. The presence of their underworld environment also points to another direction the film might have taken, with Charlie as a crafty chancer involved on the edges of the criminal world. This would have anticipated the recent regurgitated slew of almost entirely woeful gangster geezer pictures, films in which sadistic thuggery is played for laughs. Thankfully, a few drinks and some moody looks rehearsed endlessly in the mirror and it’s all over. When the film received its premiere at the ABC Cinema in Mile End Road, the Krays strung up a banner loudly announcing ‘the Kentucky Club welcomes Princess Margaret to the East End’. As soon as he saw it, Gerry Raffles turned his car around and drove himself and Joan Littlewood straight back to the theatre to carry on with their preparations for their new production there. It’s an emblematic moment, in a way. The select circle which comprised swinging London brought certain sections of the criminal, aristocratic, political and pop cultural worlds together, linked by bonds of mutual fascination and symbiotic narcissism. But Littlewood and Raffles, filled with righteous radicalism and egalitarian notions turned their back on such a tempting milieu and rejected (by and large) the connections which it offered. As a result, their work carried a certain aura of integrity, even if they were stony broke most of the time.

Tativille
Much more exciting than her brief encounters with opportunist bullies was Littllewood’s chance encounter with the great Jacques Tati. He had been brought along by someone in the film world to an earlier screening at the ABC put on for the benefit of the censors. She heard him comment ‘I like the way she mixes naturals with her actors…my own technique exactly’. Littlewood got on well with him, and he invited her to use his studios at Charenton, although she doesn't mention whether she took him up on his offer. This would have been around the time when he was gearing up to make Playtime, his extravagant comedy satirising the dehumanising effects of modern architecture and planning, and celebrating the way in which the inherent anarchy of human nature tends to derail such efforts at control. Tati’s film was meticulously planned, and involved the construction of the mini-metropolis of ‘Tativille’ on the outskirts of Paris. As such, it is the polar opposite in style and directorial approcach (and in its resolute Frenchness) to the fast and loose approach of Littlewood, but it shares some of the spirit of Sparrows Can’t Sing.

continued in part two

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Isca Obscura

Isca Obscura by Tundra*

The group of artists who go by the name (and asterisk) of Tundra* have created a son et lumiere fantasia for this year’s Animated Exeter festival. It recasts aspects of Exeter’s history as dark myth, a recurrent tale of death, destruction and resurrection written in light upon the stones of the cathedral. These stones themselves are a blend of geological and human time, quarried from the bedrock of Beer, near to the sea, and fashioned into a monumental ark, a temple to both god and nature (there are many green men and foliate carvings insided), by medieval masons. The first projected images bathe them in the scintillant glitterball drift of stars and the girdling orbits of planets. A pyramid shape containing a geometric patchwork of colours hovers below – a prismatic power source refracting light into creation and editing the stories which subsequently unfold. Let there be light, sound and colour! This sets what follows against a backdrop of cosmic scale, lending the violent sweep of human history a fated aspect, shadow play acted out under the influence of higher powers or mechanisms. The music which accompanies the animations is composed by Beth Gibbons, Portishead’s singer, although its restrained, folkish feel has more in common with the album she made with ex-Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb as Rustin Man. It’s loping, minor key piano loop evokes the slow and effortful passage of time, whilst Gibbons’ melancholic croon creates an atmosphere of remote ethereality, as if other eyes are watching the affairs of man from afar.

Woodcut waves (which resemble those designed by Stanley Donwood for the cover of Thom Yorke’s Eraser LP) billow and swell, carrying a monkish figure across the sea (possibly St Boniface sailing off to convert the heathens of Germania at the hard end of his crook). The seas then bear the Danes across to England, the bright red of their sails’ stripes portending bloodshed. Red and green are the two colours which are used in what is otherwise a monochrome projection. At times the arched windows are stained with red or green light which glows from within. It’s as if the cathedral itself pulses with animal or vegetable life, flushed with blood or chlorophyll. Battles rage against the grey walls, black figures outlined against fields of red. Slashing swords transmute into piercing pikestaffs as the Danish invasions morph into the internal conflicts of the Civil War. Above the de-individuated mass of humanity fighting below, two godlike figures loom: a beaked and taloned griffin and a stag-antlered beast of more ancient provenance (the god of the pre-Roman inhabitants, perhaps). They are locked in an endless, archetypal struggle, a Harryhausen clash of the titans which is an emanation of all the human conflicts over which these giants tower. They are reminiscent of the bullish demon rising above the plains across which panicked people flee from the approach of war in Goya’s painting The Colossus. The silhouettes of planes and bombs flock across the face of the cathedral in symmetrical formation, intercut at first with the earlier conflicts, which become one re-emergent eternal conflict. The bombs fall and the cathedral is once more bathed in red, this time the flickering, burnished colour of fire. The planes extend talons from their undercarriage, the griffin taking on a modern, technologised carrion carapace. There are brief flashing interludes between the wars and battles, dazzling bursts of synaptic overload whose content can only be subliminally intuited on a subconscious level. Kaleidoscope time is being seismically shaken by the watchers (and projectors) into new historical configurations. Occasionally, an oblate area of darkness, seemingly possessed of a shadowy, low-level intelligence, spreads its oleaginous, negative form to envelop the projections. An entropic non-entity which threatens the death of light, the end of everything.

From the faceless masses of clashing armies, our focus is narrowed down to a more individual, small scale local legend: that of the subsequently sanctified Sidwella, the good daughter of a Saxon estate owner. Her evil stepmother took violently against her, and promised a group of field labourers a handsome sum if they quietly got rid of her. Sidwella was inveigled into going out into the fields to bring the labourers food, and they murdered her with their scythes, cutting off her head. They tried to bury it amongst the stacked grasses, but it poured forth a stream of pure radiant light, and was soon discovered. In a similar fashion to the denouement of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, a clear spring emerged from the place where her severed head had lain for those few nights. A giant Sidwella floats across the exterior of the cathedral’s nave, feet hovering above the ground and head almost reaching the buttressed roof, her hair flowing behind her in Boticcelli waves. The stepmother is a figure who could have emerged from one of the gargoyles gurning from the guttering. Her tongue winds out from her mouth like a long worm, introducing bright red hues once more, this time the colour of hatred, envy and murderous greed. It curls its way into the ears of the squat faced labourers, who grin idiotically at the prospect of the riches to come. Sidwella is posed against the Norman tower whilst the labourers scythe the corn. As the ripe heads are cut, so her head comes off.

It’s a pagan recasting of the Christianised legend, Sidwella becoming the Persephone figure, the queen of the corn who must die in order for the crops to be reborn. The Espers song Dead Queen now comes into my head to soundtrack my memory of this scene. Sidwella’s blood runs down the walls in thick rivulets which echo the waving strands of her hair, and soaks into the soil around the cathedral stones (we can imagine), seeping into the earth which bears its own planting of old bones. A skull now stares blankly out from the base of the Norman tower, its grin fixed and mirthless. Green shoots sprout from its bony pate, and oak leaves spread their spatulate fingers. The last remaining tree on the cathedral has been bathed in spotlit green throughout, providing a spectral counterpoint to the bloody red of human history and legend. Now the green extends across the stones, winding its viny way up the tower until it bursts forth in an efflorescence of life, forming a foliate head. Not a smiling, benevolent green man of jolly mien, but a personification of nature as pure life force, impersonal, irrevocacable and relentless. Sidwella’s sacrifice, her blood shed, brings forth new life, which is the old, old life, never disappearing but cyclically returning in new forms, and with new vigour. The Tundra* show ends, and returns to the beginning to go through the whole cycle again – eternally returning.

It really is an evocative and atmospheric experience, an overlaid collage of history and myth which can affect you on quite a deep level. The music is eerie and hypnotic and is the perfect accompaniment to the visual projections, and the whole thing is well worth 10 minutes of your time if you happen to be in Exeter over the weekend. It plays from 6.30 til 10 on the 19th and 20th of February.
(and you can now see a clip here)

Friday, 11 February 2011

The Gorgon


The Gorgon, released in 1964, is something of a hidden gem amongst Hammer’s gothic oeuvre. When it is mentioned it is usually in dismissive terms, deriding the appearance of the titular monster as being a bathetic let down, and criticising the ponderous pace of the film. This seems an unduly harsh appraisal. It’s a fine mood piece, with Terence Fisher’s expressionistic use of vivid colour reaching new, Douglas Sirk-like heights. It also gives a central role to Barbara Shelley, possibly the finest of Hammer’s female actors, who delivers an excellent performance, full of subtle restraint. It’s a film rich in implication and metaphor, with as much suggested as directly revealed, which is perhaps one reason why its reception has always been a little muted. The poster can’t have helped, either, with its garish promise of a new and terrifying monster which is only ever peripherally present. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are both on top form, the latter relishing the opportunity to play the bluff, scholarly hero turned man of action, who strides in towards the end of the film to sort the whole sorry mess out. John Gilling’s collaboratively produced script is also a brave attempt to introduce a new element to the Hammer formula, drawing from sources beyond the usual 19th and 20th century literary perennials. The disparity between the creature from classical mythology and the gothic trappings into which it is set is in itself striking, and implies a connection with ancient civilisations whose gods have yet wholly to have passed out of the world.

Romantic landscapes - cottage in the valley
The action takes place in the customary Hammer mittel-European setting, this time a woodland village which goes by the name of Vandorf. It’s an insular, unfriendly village, its inhabitants paralysed by fear and quick to fall into an aggressive defensiveness. Outsiders are left in no doubt as to how unwelcome they are, in the official capacity of Patrick Troughton’s steely Inspector Kanof if need be. One such outsider is Bruno Heitz, a bohemian artist living in a small cottage beyond the village boundary in cheerful, carefree poverty (although he does appear to have a Renoir painting hanging on the wall which might later serve to alleviate and lingering impecuniousness). Upon learning that Sascha, his coy model and casual mistress, is bearing his child, his playfully teasing manner instantly evaporates, leaving only an admonitory sternness which places the blame firmly upon her person – even though it was he who we have just witnessed attempting to persuade her to disrobe for ‘artistic purposes’. They both go their separate, unhappy ways. He to do the right thing and request permission to marry from her father, the splendidly named Janus Kass, she to hurry back to the village through the moonlit woodlands, the Berkshire beeches of Black Park familiar from so many Hammer films. Neither reaches their destination. Sascha meets with something that causes her to rend the night with a terminal scream of terror. Bruno is found hanging from a tree, his bruised and beaten features making it all too clear that his death was not self-administered, but meted out via the summary justice of the lynch mob.

Accusing finger
Sascha’s body is brought to the Vandorf Medical Institute, which is presided over by Doctor Namaroff (Peter Cushing), with the aid of his assistant Carla Hoffmann (Barbara Shelley). Carla has a quiet air of self-containment about her, infused with a hint of resigned and downcast disappointment. When the sheet is removed from the body, its petrified state is revealed. It has been transmuted into grey stone, a grim funerary sculpture. Carla looks on with an expression of fear and pity, but doesn’t utter a sound. She will later display a similar air of unruffled calm during a classic Peter Cushing brain removal. The scream, horror film’s emphatic punctuation mark and amplifier of the moment of terror, is provided by Martha, the wild-haired madwoman who has just broken out of Namarof’s lunatic ward. She is restrained by the hospital guard Ratoff, played by the ever-reliable Jack Watson, whose granite features (speaking figuratively in this case) are here set into their brutish thug mode, although Watson was equally capable of conveying stoic nobility and other qualities. The stony finger of Sascha’s corpse is snapped off and drops to the floor, where it points in disembodied accusation.

One of the grey men
Bruno’s father, Professor Heitz (Michael Goodliffe), travels to Vandorf to attend the hearing which will determine the cause of his son’s death. Namaroff withholds the truth about Sascha, and the verdict of suicide is clearly arrived at with the aim of concluding matters as swiftly as possible, obviating the need to delve further into the affairs of the village. The professor is volubly dissatisfied, and pursues his own investigations. His continued presence disrupts the villagers’ customary low-level disgruntlement, and they are soon forming a torch-wielding, stone-lobbing mob which descends on the professor (who is staying in Bruno’s cottage) to make it clear to him just how strongly they don’t like his sort around here. As tends to be the case with Hammer’s European peasantry, this angry, muttering rabble sounds more like a bunch of cockneys bruising for a scrap, with no trace of Prussian or Slavic accents to match the costumes and set dressing. All of which matters not a jot, of course. The professor is undeterred by the intimidation of the mob – indeed, it spurs him on all the more, intimating as it does that the entire village has a shameful secret it wishes to conceal. His area of expertise is literature, and it is in knowledge gleaned form the crackling, antique pages of age-old books that he begins to understand the nature of the curse which casts its shadow over the locals. One night he is drawn out into the moonlit woods and on towards the ruins of Castle Borski beyond by an eerie siren song. Climbing up and entering the castle through the open gate, he glimpses the terrible visage of the gorgon, scored with the lines of age and hatred, its hair a writhing corona of serpents’ heads. He manages to stagger back to the cottage and write out his last testament, his account of what he has discovered in his studies, and what he has just witnessed. He sits at his desk until all motion becomes impossible and he settles into his final statuesque pose.

Reflections from autumn leaves
His son, Paul Heitz (Richard Pasco), a student in a local city, is sent by his teacher Professor Meister to find out what has happened to both his father and his brother. He too receives a cool if not openly hostile reception and an evasive fog of stubborn ignorance surrounds his every inquiry. Only Carla treats him with any consideration, and he begins to fall for her enigmatic, sad-eyed charms. He intuits that there is something very wrong with the village, an aura of suppression which seeps into every exchange. But before he is able to uncover its source, he is glanced with a reflective glimpse of the gorgon’s stare in a pool of water and plunged into a deathly fever. From hereon, his vitality and mastery of events is greatly diminished. He becomes a weak and enfeebled man, old before his time.

Savant in tweed
The story is punctuated by the appearance of authoritative male figures, each with varying degrees of whiskery facial hair, who attempt to take control of the narrative and penetrate its secrets. These men have professional titles rather than first names, honorifics which also serve to mark out their elevated social standing. Doctor Namaroff, whom we meet first, possesses the secret knowledge of the gorgon’s nature and is intent on keeping it his alone, suppressing the monster’s terrible power as much as he is able, but failing to use what he knows to end the horror which is recurrently visited upon the village. Professor Heitz and Christopher Lee’s Karl Meister, who travels to Vandorf after learning of Paul’s sickness, are typical of the paternalistic elder characters in Hammer films whom Kim Newman identifies in his book Nightmare Movies as savants: those who possess or have access to the esoteric learning which gives them insight into the nature of the monsters they confront. The knowledge of these savants, often professors or scholars of one kind or another, gives them a natural air of authority, and is the key to determining how to destroy the unnatural creatures with which they and those who fall under their protection are confronted. Newman sketches the savant (in the chapter on ‘The Indian Summer of the British Horror Film’) as ‘an elderly mystic, steeped in arcane knowledge, apparently rational, but with an Old Testament streak of ‘vengeance is mine’ fundamentalism’. Professor Heitz, who is an intermediary John the Baptist of a savant, paving the way for Christopher Lee’s bluff, betweeded saviour, Professor Meister (or Master), falls foul of the gorgon’s fatal gaze, but has time to impart a considerable number of last words. These are not a series of emotive and breathless gasps with which he expresses feelings unarticulated in life. He departs with the written word, a swiftly penned resume of his research, findings and conclusions, before dying at his desk. He leaves life with one final scholarly paper.

Carla amongst the monochrome men
Carla takes her place amongst these men and seems meekly subservient to their authority. In court, she sits between two men in black, her pale yellow outfit contrasting markedly with their monochromatic conservatism. It’s never really any mystery as to the provenance of the gorgon’s periodic apparitions. It turns out that the spirit of the last of these three cursed sisters from classical antiquity has taken possession of Carla’s soul at some time in the past, probably before she arrived at the village and was left in the care of Doctor Namaroff at the Institute. Some degree of mental distress is hinted at, with blackouts and a general sense of unease. Whilst Carla remains consciously unaware of the monster which inhabits her, her troubled mind and bearing indicate that she intuits its malign presence at a deeper level. The gorgon emerges under certain circumstances which are only vaguely alluded to. It is certainly sporadic and irregular in its manifestations. The full moon acts as a catalyst for any such transformations. This variant of the werewolf mythos suggests that the creature has made certain accommodations to the legends of the north lands. The migration of the last of these terrible monsters of Greek antiquity from the mediterraenean to the European heartlands suggests the intriguing notion of mythological evolution; gods and monsters moving on from lands in which the currency of belief becomes devalued to places where they can adapt to new and still unfolding cultural patterns. Here they can give form to the hopes and fears (particularly the fears) of those who do not yet feel in control of the world, and who need stories to make sense of it. It’s an idea which has been used by many writers, notably Neil Gaiman, whose American Gods is an exemplary example of relocating a pantheon in a new environment and having them find there a renewal of their identities.

Romantic landscapes - the castle at night
The gorgon has moved on from the architecture of Doric columns and classical entablature and takes up residence in the gothic surrounds of Castle Borski. The castle is the locus of evil in the area, creating a negatively charged spirit of place which discourages visitors. It’s no wonder that this is where the gorgon is drawn to make its new home. The castle’s abandoned and ruined state, filled with the windblown debris of autumn, perhaps also denotes an admission on Hammer’s part that its gothic locales are now ready to be inhabited by a new breed. John Gilling’s Plague of Zombies and The Reptile would follow such an impetus, even moving from the mittel-Europe of Karlsbad and other such Teutonic-sounding place names to the wilds of Cornwall (whilst never straying from Bray studios, of course). The gorgon, we discover, is called Megaira. Greek scholars will immediately point out that this was the name of one of the three Erinyes, or Furies rather than that of one of the gorgons. Megaira is the Fury which embodies envious anger. The nature of the Erinyes, or ‘angry ones’, was inverted by Neil Gaiman in the last of his Sandman series, ‘The Kindly Ones’, in which they deliver a merciful ending for the dream lord, who is unable to bring it about himself. Classical mythology is mixed up and misquoted in the film, Megaira becoming partnered with Medusa and Tisiphone in the gorgon’s triad. She was in fact one of the three Furies, alongside Tisiphone and Alecto. The gorgons were three sisters, Medusa, Euryale and Stheno, of whom only Medusa was mortal. She was slain by Perseus, as Ray Harryhausen fans familiar with Greek mythology through Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans (certainly my primary sources when I was younger) will be aware. Euryale makes an appearance as the last of the gorgons in Harry Kumel’s film of Jean Ray’s novel Malpertuis, in which she is brought, along with other remnants of the much diminished gods and creatures of Greek myth (including the Fates), to a rambling mansion on the outskirts of a Belgian port city.

Perhaps such confusion was intentional, since the idea of one of the Furies emerging to unleash its pitiless power upon all who cross its path or stir it into life is wholly in keeping with the submerged themes of the film. The Fury is like an archetypal projection of Carla’s unstoppered rage and fury, all the more terrible for having been so long suppressed. Her life with Doctor Namaroff is essentially that of an unacknowledged wife, as well as implicitly still a potential patient – both mate and inmate. Namaroff’s feelings are kept firmly in check, but Peter Cushing’s beautifully nuanced performance makes it evident that he does love Carla in his own way. It’s a possessive love, however, and his secret knowledge of the nature of her affliction enables him further to extend his control over her. When Carla hesitantly recites the tale of the three gorgons which she has memorised from Professor Heitz’s final letter, it as if Namaroff is forcing her to confront the presence of her inner demon, and so to concede her dependence upon him, her need for his protection. When she is finished, he embraces and declares his love for her, the only open display of affection and desire he offers in the film.

Munch pose
Carla is a character who is both vulnerable and strong. Convinced by Namaroff that some inherent mental weakness means that she must remain in his care, she nevertheless feels the frustration at the limitations imposed upon her life. Her cool strength is demonstrated in her unflinching observation of a Peter Cushing brain removal, and her impulse towards independence in the way that she goes to meet the outsiders (Heitz, father and son) who come to the village. It is Paul who makes her begin to believe that she might indeed still have a chance of beginning life again beyond the limits of the village, although the tragic element evident in her character (as indeed it is in most of the characters Barbara Shelley played in Hammer films, from Dracula: Prince of Darkness to Rasputin: The Mad Monk, and even Quatermass and the Pit, in which she is once more possessed by an evil force) makes us aware that this will never happen. In the latter stage of the film, with Megaira having manifested herself several times, we find Carla in Namaroff’s laboratory. With her hair pinned up, shirt buttoned to the neck and hands held anxiously before her she looks like one of the sorrowful women in Munch’s Frieze of Life paintings. Behind her, on the wall, is a large diagram of the cross-section of a brain. It’s a visual representation of the manner in which Dr Namaroff has dissected and clinically analysed her psyche and attempted thereby to dominate her will. Like Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, she pushes against her domestic confinement and finally, encouraged by the increased sense of self-worth engendered by her meetings with Paul, confronts Namaroff. She tells him ‘I’m sick of your jealousy, sick of you’.

Classic Cushing brain removal technique
His reaction is restrained and placatory, a response which refuses to take her anger seriously. Her outburst takes place in his laboratory, amongst the powders and tinctures, and below the dissection table where he has just removed a brain (for no immediately apparent reason) and plopped it indelicately into a specimen jar. Incidentally, Cushing is, as ever, superb in conveying the sheer effort required to saw through cranial bone matter (particularly when you're only using a scalpel) in what is effectively a mimed performance, since the operation thankfully takes place below the edge of the frame. Carla is as much a fixture of this laboratory as she is a part of the doctor’s home, an object of his study as much as his affection. Every reaction and behavioural anomaly is to be noted and added to the case history. Finding a cure is not necessaritly Namaroff’s priority. While she is under the spell of the gorgon, or prey to her own self-negating neuroses (the one being a metaphorical mirror of the other) she is also under his spell. He is prepared to go as far as sending Ratoff after Paul with a knife in order to prevent him from meeting his rendezvous with her and possibly taking her away from the village. Anything to maintain Carla’s state of passive acceptance and self-denial. The villagers also militantly attempt to sustain a state of stasis throughout their surroundings. There is a sense of aggressive secrecy rooted in a fear of change. The petrification suffered by the gorgon’s victims is a highly symbolic fate and a deathly metaphor for such stultifying intransigence.

Brown and grey - the aged hero
The mood of the film is autumnal. It is in part a meditation on encroaching age, and of the disappointments associated with a life reflected upon and led less fully than once hoped for. Carla and Namaroff have settled into a listless, drifting partnership in which they barely acknowledge one another’s presence. Carla’s wistful melancholia and Namaroff’s permanent air of vagueness and distraction are signs that they have become disconnected, from one another and from the world, and have turned broodingly inward, in harmony with the spirit of the season. The sense of changelessness, of a permanent stasis which it no longer feels possible to disrupt further encourages the contemplation of aging; of involuntary change and declining fall. The gorgon is partly a harbinger of old age, taking the form of an aged woman. It lurks in a castle whose windows are broken and whose doors are permanently lodged open to cold and comfortless winds. Perhaps Megaira, as the Fury of envious anger, turns her terminal gaze on Sascha at the start of the film in impotent rage at the youth and vitality which she no longer possesses. Paul’s peripheral glimpse of the gorgon leaves him prematurely aged, his hair turned grey and lines of weariness scored around his eyes. This appearance can also be seen as a foretaste of the long-term effects of the village’s enervating atmosphere, of the dessication of spirit resulting from its wilfully narrow horizons. Paul attempts to persuade Carla to leave with him whilst they stand in the graveyard, a cold wind moaning in the background to complement the cold promise of the tombstones around them. Carla is framed by an ornamental row of classical columns, a hint of the world from which her demon has travelled. Autumnal colours are prevalent throughout the film. In this scene and others, Carla wears a long, sweeping cloak of brown, the shade of the fallen leaves. The beeches of Black Park have all turned a burnished copper, which also happens to echo the colour of Carla’s hair beneath the cloak’s hood. It all makes her seem of a part with this turning season – beyond summer’s end, awaiting the first icy touch of winter.

Technicolor test tubes
Terence Fisher makes wonderful and subtle use of bright colour in The Gorgon, as in his other Hammer films. Here, this is often displayed in small but significant details, which stand out against the otherwise restrained palette. As we’ve noted, the male characters in the film are generally notable for their lack of colour. The grey faces of those who are turned to stone are an extreme extension of this monochromatic appearance. Barbara Shelley’s Carla stands out all the more clearly as a result, with her yellow, peach and sky-blue blouses, muted though their tones are in accordance with her own subdued bearing. Christopher Lee’s Professor Meister proves a slight exception to the general trend of conservative male attire, arriving in caramel brown tweeds enlivened by the bright red splash of a protruding handkerchief. His lively and no-nonsense personality matches his mildly non-conformist outfit. Doctor Namaroff’s laboratory has plentiful elements of carefully contained colour in the contents of test tubes and the powders and tinctures stored in jars and on the shelves. We also see him with a bright red pen later on. These colours suggest that his passion lies chiefly in his work. He does also have a bright yellow cigarette holder (perhaps one of Cushing’s own), which visually rhymes with the yellow of the outfit Carla wears at the court hearing, and hints at pleasures quietly enjoyed beyond the lab.

Gorgon in green
When we see the gorgon, it rises from a throne upholstered in red and wears a bright green dress. Its eyes are rimmed with red. These are the colours of anger and jealousy, those qualities ascribed to Megaira the Fury. Touches of red and purple tinting the castle’s shadows add a further expressive element, and are very much akin to similar effects used by Mario Bava in films such as Black Sabbath and Kill Baby Kill. The glowing red of the fire behind the grate at the back of the cottage draws the eye and acts as a visual expression of the containment of passion and repression of feeling and hope which is such a major theme of the film. There are also a couple of impressive matte backdrops used at sparing intervals. One depicts the castle, looming above the treeline; the other Bruno’s cottage nestled in a valley with a river winding through it, as viewed from the rough, muddy bend of a road which passes precipitously above. Both serve to set the scene and create an atmospheric sense of place.

Castle interior - open to nature
Nature also plays an important part in the film, often abutting and intruding upon the man-made edifices of civilisation. The gorgon could be seen as nature’s agent in addition to being an emanation of Carla’s suppressed hopes and desires. The castle in which she manifests herself has been invaded by branch and vine, which crawl through the shattered windows. The floor is carpeted by leaves which have blown in the autumn winds through the doorway which is now permanently open to the elements which it once served to shut out. The castle is archetypally romantic, still largely intact but increasingly moulded by nature. As characters approach, it is framed by bare branches, with fallen trees to be negotiated in order to gain entrance. It’s location in the middle of the woods inevitably brings Caspar David Friedrich to mind (well, to my mind at any rate), particularly when a small, lopsided shrine is passed along the way. Megaira is dressed in bright green, like a woodland nymph fading and wrinkling in sympathy with the trees and bracken beyond the walls. Her final decapitation is accompanied by a further influx of dead leaves blown by the storm outside and skittering across the frame. It’s all very pagan – the death of the summer queen carried in on the warm breezes from the Mediterranean.

Courtyard oasis
The scene in which Paul encounters the gorgon is a marvellously evocative sequence, reminiscent of the composed scenes Michael Powell included in Black Narcissus and Gone to Earth. These attempted a marriage of sound, movement and editing, a kind of cinematic dance, and were full of nature mysticism. The courtyard outside Bruno’s cottage is filled with the resonant sounds of birdsong and trickling water, giving it the feel of a pocket Eden. The green of the trees and plants contrasts with the grey of the stone. A shadow passes over the pool of water, with its obscuring skein of coppery leaves. It’s Carla, dressed in peach (the promise of spring’s returning blossom?) and her autumn brown cloak. Paul, dressed in black, is terse and unfriendly. Shortly thereafter (and subsequent to Carla’s reiteration of the story of the three gorgons), when darkness has fallen, Paul returns to this oasis. The sounds of water and of rain falling on the pool, and the susurration of windblown leaves create a mysterious and premonitory atmosphere of suspended anticipation. The siren song music is introduced over the top. The gorgon’s visage appears momentarily in the reflected waters of the pool before it is dispersed by the splash of Paul’s hand, which bats the image away with reflexive terror. It seems almost to have emerged from and then faded back into the natural environment. In its own small way, the scene is very much like the Powell and Pressburger sequences in Black Narcissus and Gone To Earth in which Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) glides with terrible purpose through the empty corridors of the nunnery in Black Narcissus, and in which country girl Hazel (Jennifer Jones) hurries over the moorland on a stormy night in Gone to Earth, filled with ancient superstitions and primal fears. Both were ‘composed’ scenes, accompanied by the urgent cries and whispers of Brian Easdale’s romantic scores. The film as a whole has something of a Powell and Pressburger feel, in fact.

Mention should also be made of James Bernard’s music, which does much to enhance the mood of the above scene and many others. Bernard was Hammer’s in-house composer, and produced many memorable themes for the Dracula and Frankenstein films. He eschews his usual thunderously exclamatory register to create a dreamlike and impressionistic sound. It’s as if he has shifted from the violent, strident music of Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin or the first piano concerto to one of his passages of mysterious ‘night music’. Bernard also introduces a tender romantic theme, shot through with intimations of tragedy, which has echoes of Bernard Herrmann. Such romanticism is given further flowering in Frankenstein Created Woman, another of Terence Fisher’s tragic fairy tales.

Barbara imperious - Carla assumes her throne
Towards the end, Carla becomes increasingly aware of the dark spirit which possesses her, and when Paul comes to the castle to meet a rendezvous with her, she sits imperiously on the throne from which we have first seen the gorgon arise. The hood of her cloak is up, covering her hair and partially obscuring her face, as it had when she made her silent, shadowy descent past the classical columns into the graveyard where Paul was conducting his night-time disinterment. The juxtaposition in that scene of earth and stone, with Carla set against them in brown, is very elemental. Her covering serves to represent the burial of Carla’s true nature, her essential self. It also suggests that Paul has fallen in love with her superficial surface appearance, the Carla of meek manners moulded by Namaroff, and has no conception of what lies beneath. Her voice as she rises from the throne has lost all of its former tentative uncertainty and she now speaks in commanding, reverberant tones, seemingly pitched to resonate with the stones. As she descends the stairs to Paul, the hood falls down to reveal her face, and her voice becomes pleading, begging him to take her away immediately. There is a sense that if she leaves the village and the castle, escaping the malevolent spirit of place, the curse will be lifted from her. Unfortunately, Paul is a rather stolid individual, lacking the requisite romantic impulsiveness, and prevaricates to fatal effect.

Paul and Namaroff engage in their deathly duel at the climax of the film, allowing Peter Cushing to show off his athletic side, and fail to notice the gorgon’s emergence and slow approach to the head of the stairs above them. So what of the make-up effects which have drawn such derision? Well, they’re perhaps not Roy Ashton’s finest hour. Barbara Shelley, who wanted to play the part of her gorgon emanation herself, was apparently up for wearing a headpiece comprising live grass snakes, which shows considerable pluck. But perhaps wisely, her idea wasn’t taken up. In truth, the make-up serves functionally enough, with a little adjustment in focus from the inner eye of the imagination. The gorgon is really only designed to be glimpsed in mirrors and pools, and in the periphery of vision. Even if such subliminal appearances resulted from an awareness of the shortcomings of the make-up, they ultimately fit in perfectly with the tenor of the picture. The severed head which we are left contemplating as the credits roll is less satisfactory, and ends the film on a slightly discordant note. But these are really minor matters.

Veiled apparition - Carla amongst classical columns
What is more important is the atmospheric direction of Terence Fisher, who always preferred to think of his films as adult fairy tales rather than horror movies, and who here produces the perfect example to match that description. And then there are the great performances by Barbara Shelley and Peter Cushing, who bring the complexities of their characters to life in an undemonstrative yet quietly intense manner. It’s a difficult task to convey feeling which remain largely hidden, but they succeed in doing so through small looks and gestures. Christopher Lee also puts in a performance of great brio, creating a savant figure who breaks the mould somewhat. He seems like he might have a zest for fun as well as learning – a man who might share a few biers in the keller with his students. Bernard Robinson’s sets are also marvellous, particularly his transformation of the customary castle interior into a temple reclaimed by nature, complete with statue and plinth in the centre of the hall. It was a film which was always going to be a one-off. There was never any likelihood of the gorgon returning time and again in the manner of an indestructible Dracula or Frankenstein. Perhaps other mythical monsters, such as the Cyclops or minotaur, could have beaten a trail to the northern lands. But in her one appearance, the gorgon allowed for the creation of a melancholic, minor-key classic.