At the Southbank Centre today for a live with orchestra screening of Abel Gance’s Napoleon – the Photoplay restoration with music by Carl Davis (who conducts the Philharmonic Orchestra today).
Full review here tomorrow.
At the Southbank Centre today for a live with orchestra screening of Abel Gance’s Napoleon – the Photoplay restoration with music by Carl Davis (who conducts the Philharmonic Orchestra today).
Full review here tomorrow.
The amazing Ella Fitzgerald duets with the sublime Sammy Davis Jr on the Ed Sullivan Show. What’s striking about this clip is how delighted Davis seems in having the chance to sing with Ella. Truly ‘S’Wonderful’.
Enjoy your weekend!
One of the odd things about trying to evaluate the professional work of a writer, director, or performer, is gaining access to and having the ability to evaluate, ‘single-shot’ plays made for television alongside the ‘TV movie’ or the film made for the cinema.
I find it odd that plays as diverse and exciting as ‘Penda’s Fen’, ‘Abigail’s Party’, ‘Son of Man’, ‘King’s Cross – Lunch Hour’ in the UK, or ‘Marty’, ‘Bang the Drum Slowly’ or ‘Twelve Angry Men’ in the US, are dismissed by many film sites as simply ‘television episodes’. The IMDb is largely to blame for this, classing a single play which went out under the ‘Play for Today’ banner in the same breath as an episode of ‘Friends’ or ‘Crossroads’.
I joined Letterboxd as it seemed to present a way of evaluating the output from every media together – however the single-shot plays, now they are linked to The Movie Database, seem to be lost in a black hole which depends on what IMDb says as gospel. No matter than we might these days know ‘The Merchant of Venice’ from its inclusion in the ‘Maggie Smith at the BBC’ set rather than as a title transmitted on TV as a ‘Play of the Month’, or that titles as important as Potter’s ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road’ cannot be presented in a unified way alongside his scripts for the cinema like ‘Midnight Movie’ or ‘Track 29’ (although we can consider his miniseries alongside the titles for cinema).
This injustice (so it seems) had led me to work on review and evaluation of individual plays in series such as ‘Armchair Theatre’, ‘The Wednesday Play’, ‘Performance’, ‘Thirty Minute Theatre’, ‘Screen One’, or ‘ITV Playhouse’ (in the UK) or ‘Four Star Playhouse’ or ‘Westinghouse Studio One’ (in the UK). A few examples spring to mind where a comparative evaluation on a platform such as Letterboxd would be advantageous – the ‘Play for Today’ entry for ’84 Charing Cross Road’ might be looked at alongside the cinema version; the live TV versions of ‘Requiem for a Heavyweight’ or ‘1984’ might be compared with later versions of the same story; examples of the direction of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, Ken Russell and Ted Kotcheff, might be presented as a whole canon along with their more mature work.
What of directors, writers, and performers, who come back to television after cinema success? Excluding the single play from consideration does not allow a proper trajectory through their careers, simply because those plays were originally collated under one banner. The growth of DVD releases and/or TV repeats have detached many of these titles from their series titles – who thinks of ‘The Flipside of Dominick Hide’ or ‘Z for Zachariah’ as simply episodes of a TV series today? Some titles are the only time a play or book has been filmed, or the solo representation of a particular performer’s work, and they deserve to be given the same consideration as any low-budget TV movie for the Hallmark channel!
I think that the enforced distinction on the IMDb and other services between television plays on the one hand, and TV miniseries, TV films, and pure cinematic releases on the other, is both ridiculous, and rather sad. It keeps these productions hidden, and many are exceptional and do not deserve that fate. It stops the proper critical evaluation of work on video or film, by removing key aspects of many careers from wide consideration. And finally, it keeps these titles hidden and largely unknown, with the exception of a handful of titles.
The BFI have digitised the only remaining archival print of this film (faded, damaged, with splices and skips) as part of their major Vivien Leigh retrospective, which gives us a rare chance to see it as originally intended, in Cinemascope on a big screen.
Rattigan wrote the screenplay for this adaptation of his play, which was certified back in the 50s as very much for ‘adults only’, with its subject matter of adultery, attempted suicide, and dark secrets.
Vivien Leigh, faded with the years but still with the beauty she had as a younger actress, plays Hester Collier, a judge’s wife who teeters on the brink of genteel depression brought on by boredom and a marriage devoid of passion.
She leaves her perfectly decent and rich husband, Sir William (Emlyn Williams, in a lovely understated performance) for the RAF daredevil Freddie Page (Kenneth More, inhabiting the part he played on stage), who can give her little in the way of money or prestige but who presumably can give her what was lacking on the physical side in her marriage.
However, Hester remains caught between ‘the devil and the deep blue sea’, brought to desperation by – as she explains to her husband – ‘anger, hatred, and shame’. Her society name is ruined, she lives in a seedy apartment block alongside a resting actress who spends her evenings in Soho bars (Moira Lister, very good), and a struck-off doctor who now works as a bookmaker (Eric Portman, reminiscent of his Canterbury Tale role, and looking forward to his role in Deadfall).
This doctor is her conscience in many ways, her ‘white angel’ (a term which refers both to Freddie’s lodgings of choice towards the end of the film, and Miller the former doctor’s impact on both Hester and Freddie’s state of mind). Hester may be struggling with the black dog and periods of hysteria (not unlike Leigh herself at this time in her life) but she has the strength to get through this right up to the touching finale.
Anatole Litvak directed this picture with few exteriors and a sense of the seedy side of life in the flat inhabited by Hester and Freddie, in the succession of bars and nightclubs we see in the final third of the film, and in Hester’s bedraggled and desperate beauty.
Interestingly on stage this role was played by Peggy Ashcroft, and in the film was originally offered to Marlene Dietrich. Either actress would have been fascinating to watch, but Leigh is an excellent choice, a lady of quality who, as her actress neighbour says ‘belongs here (the apartments) as much as I belong in Park Lane’. She has paid a huge price for what she calls ‘love’.
There is a joyous section in a flashback part way through this film, where Hester and Freddie develop an attraction to each other on the ski slopes. It is the only time this film does not feel confined and overbearing in its surroundings.
Incidentally comedy watchers will spot Dandy Nichols and Sid James in straight parts here – both very effective.
I am now in the mood to rewatch the other two versions of this play which have been filmed (1994, for television, and 2011)!
To commemorate the Masters of Cinema Region 2 release, and accompanying cinema release in March 2014, of this seminal Australian classic (1971, directed by Ted Kotcheff, starring Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, and Chips Rafferty), I reproduce an essay I wrote on the Region 4 release two years ago, first published at a tribute site to Bond.
Canadian director Ted Kotcheff’s film ‘Wake in Fright’ (1971), based on Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel, was many years in the planning, originally intended to star Dirk Bogarde as the bonded teacher John Grant, and to be directed by Joseph Losey. However by the time it was finally green-lighted in 1969, the lead part had been won by Gary Bond, who had only appeared in two films before in supporting roles (Zulu and Anne of the Thousand Days). He was not the obvious choice for such a role, particularly being a posh Briton, but made a fair stab at the role and manages to make the character of Grant more than two-dimensional; he’s helped, of course, by a good script and supporting cast (Donald Pleasence, who was actually billed first, being a ‘name’ actor; Jack Thompson in his first big screen role; Chips Rafferty in his last screen role; and Sylvia Kay).
Time Out London, however, does not like the film, dismissing it thus: “A sadly confused film, shot with something like a social realist’s eye for accurate documentation – clothes, faces, sex habits, furniture, buildings, language. Into this very precise context, however, is dropped the melodramatic tale of a schoolteacher from the city (Bond) who goes to pieces in a remote desert township (a favourite piece of Australian mythology) under the impact of the hard-drinking, gambling, nihilistic pressures of life there, and is finally raped by Pleasence’s renegade doctor. The end result is crudely exploitative.”
Is Wake in Fright exploitative?
Wake in Fright has often been called an Ozploitation film, which according to Wikipedia means “a type of low budget horror, comedy and action film made in Australia after the introduction of the R rating in 1971.” By this definition, Kotcheff’s film must have been the original Ozploitation film, defining the genre. It was made on a budget of 800,000 Australian dollars, but despite receiving positive reviews throughout the world on its initial release, and a nomination for a Golden Palm Award at the Cannes Festival, it was a box-office success only in France and the United Kingdom. It seemed that to Australians it was too close to home in subject matter to be viewed by a large audience.
Wake in Fright could be dismissed as exploitative of women, who, apart from Sylvia Kay’s Janette, who has slept with most of the men in the ‘Yabba and who initiates a sexual encounter with Grant shortly after meeting him (which ultimately fails as he is too drunk to perform and instead vomits and passes out), are all but invisible. The tension between the men who fight, drink and curse could be seen as a reaction to the lack of female companionship, or the film could just be seen as unrealistic when it comes to the way women are perceived in Broken Hill.
Wakeinfright.com describes the film as “brutal, uncomprising, and stunning”, and I tend to agree with this assessment rather than dismissing it as a cheap piece of exploitative cinema. Yes, there are scenes which are uncomfortable to watch – real kangaroo hunts are incorporated into the footage; and the scenes of violence and sexual tension could be read as mere fantasy to depict a vision of the Australian outback which never existed. However, I feel the Time Out review above misses the point – where their reviewer sees melodrama, I see a multi-layered and beautifully constructed tale of desolation. If it was done on a relatively small budget the film looks sumptuous, as the recent 2009 restoration proves, with the oranges and reds of the colour palette bringing the story of John Grant and his long nightmarish weekend firmly into the realms of ‘realism’ and away from ‘melodramatic’.
If Wake in Fright is exploiting anyone, it is the central figure of Grant, and he brings all his problems on himself. No one forces him to do anything – he doesn’t have to gamble, drink, or go out on his own with Janette, or participate in the kangaroo shoot. The question of whether the ‘rape’ is really that, or a mutually agreed encounter between Grant and Doc (Pleasence), is much more complex than some reviewers think. For what it is worth, I think there is an element of consensuality, albeit of a kind through a fog of alcohol.
Is Wake in Fright ‘a great lost film’?
The international release of the film, under the title ‘Outback’ had been shown on television, so the film was not totally forgotten – however, this version had washed-out prints and had been subject to a certain amount of censorship (no nude scene for Bond, the opening and closing credits were different, and the scene after the Grant/Doc encounter was reshot to make it less obvious what had occurred the night before). Outback is a good film – but the state of the prints does not do it justice (it can be viewed on YouTube though, for those curious to see what the censored cut was like).
The restored Wake in Fright, in my opinion, is a great film. After a gap of forty years it can finally be seen in its original glory as Kotcheff intended, and the performances of those involved can be appreciated by new audiences. Fright.com describes Wake in Fright as “at once a uniquely insightful, intelligent character study and probably the darkest, grittiest, and, I’m told, most realistic depiction of rural Australia ever committed to celluloid.” It is as a character study, and a psychological horror (and a very good one) that Wake in Fright should be approached and viewed.
Yes, it is a great lost film, and yes, it is Gary Bond’s greatest work for the screen. For that reason alone, I have to highly recommend it – at the moment it can only be imported on Region 4 DVD or on Blu-Ray, but it is well-worth doing so. And although it was included in the documentary on Ozploitation films, ‘Not Quite Hollywood‘ in 2008, I don’t really think it belongs to that group of films at all.
Yesterday I watched ‘Gone With The Wind’ for the second time on the big screen, this time at the BFI Southbank in a new 4k restoration, as part of the celebration to mark 100 years since the birth of Vivien Leigh. I’m not going to use this post to review the film, or even to say how much I love it (I do), nor am I going to talk much about Vivien Leigh’s performance as Scarlett. It was by far her best role, and the one which won her the first of two Oscars during her nineteen-film, one television play, career.
In this post I want to talk in detail about Miss Leigh’s leading men in the film, notably Clark Gable (1901-1960) as Rhett Butler, and Leslie Howard (1892-1943) as Ashley Wilkes. Both were major film stars at the time of the casting of the film version of Margaret Mitchell’s popular novel. Gable had been moulded into a sexy leading man who had shared screen time with Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer and, most memorable of all, Joan Crawford. He was practically the only choice for the Charleston adventurer whose only cause is himself and whose only great passion in life is Scarlett, the Southern belle who treats him with disdain. Howard had come into films via the stage, playing a mixture of artistic dreamers and sensitive souls in both Britain and America (with Mary Pickford, Norma Shearer, and Heather Angel), as well as making the occasional successful foray into comedy (‘Stand-In’, with Joan Blondell; ‘It’s Love I’m After’, with Bette Davis). His biggest successes prior to being offered the role of Major Wilkes were as Henry Higgins in ‘Pygmalion’, and as Romeo opposite a cast all scaled up in age for MGM’s adaptation of ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
If Gable was the eye candy and the stuff of women’s dreams, then Howard was the intellectual with integrity. Critics throughout the intervening years between the release of ‘Gone With The Wind’ and now have been much more complimentary about Rhett than Ashley, questioning why a free spirit like Scarlett would be drawn to such a low-key, unadventurous man as ‘the wooden headed Mr Wilkes’. However I value both men’s performances – and the characters may be polar opposites but despite Rhett’s dismissal of ‘stupid Ashley, who can’t be mentally faithful to his wife, but won’t be unfaithful to her technically’, Ashley is a true Southern gentleman, a man of honour who can see that the world he lives in is changing. He claims that he would have freed his father’s slaves at Twelve Oaks, but he also laments the loss of everything he held dear. He’s also proved himself brave in battle when the Civil War comes. Rhett, in contrast, has no honour, is sardonic and brazen (until the birth of his daughter, Bonnie Blue, softens his heart). His scenes with his ‘old friend’, the whore Belle Watling (beautifully played by Ona Munson), hint at something more akin to values you would attribute to Ashley and his Southern friends, and you sense that he has supported their son despite the impracticality of him living a respectable life in Charleston.
Howard’s range was wider than Gable’s, and in my opinion, his screen presence has improved over the years. He also discovered Humphrey Bogart and gave him his first real chance in films, in ‘The Petrified Forest’. Gable, according to David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film was ‘sexy for his time (the only time for that trick)’ and we agree with Scarlett when, at Captain Butler’s first appearance at the bottom of those stairs at Twelve Oaks, he ‘looks as if he knows what I look like without my shimmy’. He’s a predator, a chaser and discarder of women, and ‘not the marrying kind’. Of course a well-brought up Southern lady would give him short shrift while looking for someone like her (i.e. Ashley, for all his hesitations and faults). Scarlett’s only attraction to Rhett initially is as a provider of the money she needs, and only after that is she drawn to him from pure sexual frustration (no wonder, after her first two marriages, although it is interesting that the film presents these as barren when in Mitchell’s novel both Charles Hamilton and Frank Kennedy gave Scarlett children, even if she didn’t love them).
Gable as an actor (or as a star) has become the stuff of legend. The King of Hollywood. No matter than his early films are often dreadfully dated and his style of acting is only a short step away from the silent swashbucklers like Fairbanks. You may see ‘The Misfits’, his final film, bloated and overrated and only valued for the final hurrah of Monroe and Monty Clift, or ‘Mogambo’ (a colour remake of his 1932 hit ‘Red Dust’). He tried comedy in later years, with Doris Day in ‘Teacher’s Pet’, and it worked, but he was never as alluring or as romantic again as he was as Rhett Butler. Howard’s films, if revived at all, present his patriotic side in the last couple of years of his life (‘Pimpernel Smith’ a Nazi nose-tweak version of his 1935 ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’; ‘The First of the Few’ as the inventor of the Spitfire) and his early films are hardly ever seen, although they are worth seeking out. Howard was a 19th century gentleman (born Hungarian but somehow quintessentially English) and his acting style has something of that era. His Ashley is beautifully drawn, but somehow lost with all the Gable bluster and charm.
As Scarlett’s hapless first and second husbands, a couple of names forgotten in time – Rand Brooks (1918-2003, who seemed to be a fixture in Westerns from Hopalong Cassidy to the Cisco Kid through the 1950s and 1960s) is the twittering Charles Hamilton, and Carroll Nye (1901-1974, an actor the same age as Gable but playing much older, who had done next to nothing before this film, and only a handful of titles after) is the ‘old maid-in britches’ Frank Kennedy. They’re both good in cypher roles and are both mincemeat for the manipulative Scarlett!
Just over a hundred films which I can watch over and over and never get bored with!
Excluded: TV films and mini-series; shorts.
…plus 115 more. View the full list on Letterboxd.
Since the start of 2013, BBC2 have been showing double bills of old RKO movies on Saturday and Sunday mornings, starting at around 6am. They’re hidden in the schedules, but have included some gems, some turkeys and even some TV premieres.
I can only assume the BBC has finally decided to exploit this rich archive of early films! So far we have had westerns, musicals (two with Frank Sinatra), dramas (several with Ginger Rogers), a Hildegard Withers mystery with Edna May Oliver, and comedies (including a brace with theatre agents Alan Mowbray and Donald MacBride. We’ve had Bette Davis, Anna Neagle, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck and Rosalind Russell films too.
A great way to start the weekend, or to record and keep to enjoy whenever you have a spare hour or so.
Here’s more about it from the Digital Spy forum earlier in the year: http://forums.digitalspy.co.uk/showthread.php?t=1777326
Thank you BBC – I hope this continues into 2014.
Spotted on Classic Movie Digest’s Facebook page:
Ladies and gentlemen, you have Elvis Presley (the King of Rock ‘n Roll), Frank Sinatra (the Chairman of the Board), and Fred Astaire (Gershwin’s favourite singer and the screen’s most graceful dancer) in one shot.
I wonder what the conversation was about? And I wonder what Joe Esposito was thinking (one of Elvis’ Memphis Mafia, in the background between Elvis and Frank).
Presley and Sinatra appeared together on a TV special:
And on also on YouTube, someone has had fun putting a clip of Fred dancing with Rita Hayworth to one of Elvis’ hits:
Three fabulous guys from the golden age of film and music.
I decided to join in the madness that is daily blog posting for NaBloPoMo and have gained over 100 followers on my blog because of it (hello there) but not a great deal of interaction. And I do like interaction, so …
In December I will go back to blogging fairly regularly, probably once a week. I don’t want to use up all my topics at once. I have enjoyed the discipline of getting something out there day after day and will probably participate again next year – very likely with my professional blog, more work-related, which you can look through, should you wish to, at http://eresourceful.wordpress.com.
I’ve dropped out of my film forums over the past few months and haven’t really missed the Doctor Who-related banter which seems to have taken them over. I don’t mind Dr Who but I am not a ‘fan’ and even on archive TV forums, all people ever seem to talk about is this one series and it gets B O R I N G.
So along with blogging daily here, playing Criminal Case and Candy Crush on Facebook, and adding stuff to Letterboxd, I’ve cut my internet time-wasting right down, although November has also marked the time when I have become a regular
Are you enjoying NaBloPoMo? New subscribers to loureviews, what brought you here, and will you stay beyond NaBloPoMo?
While ‘Sherlock’ is heading towards its third series in its home country of the UK, we are a few episodes into the USA’s attempt at bringing Sherlock Holmes into the modern day. Their version is called ‘Elementary’ and is set in New York. One twist with this new series is that Holmes’ companion Dr Watson is now a woman, Joan, a struck-off surgeon who teams up with the detective when she becomes his counsellor to get him clean of drugs.
By the end of series one, we had met Moriarty, but that great foe of Sherlock’s did not turn out to be who we thought they were. It’s got complicated. In series two we have now met Lestrade (first name ‘Gareth’) and Mycroft. More twists and turns are likely. In Jonny Lee Miller we have a complicated man who has frustrations and eccentricities, but also had a sexual past, very different to previous incarnations of Conan Doyle’s character, and unlike Benedict Cumberbatch’s asexual sociopath on the British version.
Lucy Liu is a much better Watson that would appear from her initial casting. I was worried she would simply be a action heroine as she has been in films like ‘Charlie’s Angels’, but her doctor is an intelligent and grounded woman who grows to like and understand her charge, as well as becoming more formally involved in the complex cases he has to crack.
Over in ‘Sherlock’ we have Martin Freeman as a straightforward Dr John Watson, invalidated out from Afghanistan. We have met Lestrade (first name here is ‘Greg’), and Mycroft, a government agent. And we have met Moriarty – we think – and seen his death – we think. It’s complicated.
One thing I have noticed though is the similarity of opening sequences, which seems just a little bit cheeky. Note the New York skyline in Elementary, and the London skyline in Sherlock, with much the same font for the title.
Despite this, ‘Elementary’ seems to be similar to a routine police programmer based in New York, with an eccentric genius helping (and sometimes hindering) the authorities. ‘Sherlock’ has more nods to the Canon, with even the episode titles being based on Doyle’s stories (‘A Study in Pink’, ‘The Hounds of Baskerville’).
There’s room for both. Who is watching either or both of these? What do you think of them?
Play for Today: 84 Charing Cross Road. Directed by Mark Cullingham. Dramatised by Hugh Whitemore from the novel by Helene Hanff. Starring Frank Finlay and Anne Jackson. First on television 4th November 1975.
This version of Helene Hanff’s memoir just pips the starring feature film version to the post because it doesn’t wallow as much in sentimentality, and Jackson/Finlay fit their roles better than Bancroft/Hopkins (who probably have too much baggage from their other recognisable roles).
Jackson is an American who is a bibliophile devoted to the classics; and finds her constant supply of literature from a small bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London. In those days the road was top to tail full of these second-hand emporiums, who could locate any title and provide a high level of customer service.
Finlay is the bookstore manager who, in starting up a correspondence with Jackson, manages to develop a funny, original and ultimately touching cross-cultural discussion about books and eventually life in general.
Beautifully written and kept to a compact running time, this play is very good indeed and rewards repeat screenings.
Ever since the birth of ‘the talkies’ at the premiere of ‘The Jazz Singer’ in 1927, the genre of film referred to as ‘the musical’ has been strongly represented in the type of material brought to the screen.
But what IS a musical?
Films developed from Broadway and West End hits are easy to classify (‘Guys and Dolls’, ‘How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying’, ‘Hello, Dolly’, ‘Sweeney Todd’). Alongside these there may also have been concert versions of the same material (‘South Pacific’, ‘Camelot’, ‘Follies’, ‘Les Miserables’), or versions made expressly for television or video (‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’, ‘Wonderful Town’, ‘Peter Pan’, ‘Cats’, ‘Into The Woods’).
Alongside these are the concert films featuring rock bands (‘The Last Waltz’, ‘Woodstock’, ‘Festival!’, ‘Message to Love’, ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’), and musical versions of popular plays or films (‘Silk Stockings’ – Ninotchka, ‘High Society’ – The Philadelphia Story, ‘My Fair Lady’ – Pygmalion, ‘Legally Blonde’, ‘My Sister Eileen’).
There’s a third group which are more problematic, films which have songs included in them, but which are not generally thought of as musicals – but they could be (the 1940 ‘Thief of Bagdad’, ‘The Wicker Man’, even ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ or ‘Pillow Talk’).
Then we have the operettas (‘The Mikado’, ‘Rose Marie’, ‘The Student Prince’) and the full-blown operas (‘Tosca’, ‘La Boheme’, ‘Das Rhinegold’). These are musicals, too, if having characters breaking into song counts – and if the argument against an opera being a musical is ‘no dialogue’ then where does that leave ‘Les Miserables’, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, or ‘Phantom of the Opera’)?
Some musicals have simply been written for the screen, although in some cases, they have made it onto the stage later – ‘State Fair’, ’42nd Street’ – some have been comedies with music attached (‘The Cuckoos’, ‘Buck Privates’, ‘Way Out West’). And if Rochester and Blanche share a duet in one of the many versions of ‘Jane Eyre’, is that a musical too? What about Westerns with a bit of music, like ‘Rachel and the Stranger’? (Singing Westerns of course are a genre all on their own, with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and even John Wayne and Vaughn Monroe contributing to titles often dismissed as ‘horse operas’).
For me all the above fit the definition. You could also stretch the definition to fit the dance or ballet film, although music without words becomes something else. But some ballet versions of ‘A Christmas Carol’ brought to film give Tiny Tim his song.
If it sings, is it then, that thing – the musical?
This is a semi-autobiographical piece, shared as part of my daily blogging project.
The first time I saw a ghost I was six years old. Whether it was sparked off by my great uncle dying after a year of oxygen tanks (when I had a verruca), or my mum always playing Elvis on a Sunday (and all I knew about Elvis is that he was newly dead), I couldn’t say.
My ghost came at night, around 9 o’clock, when I was supposed to be in bed but instead spent time sitting on the bedroom windowsill looking out at the garages. My ghost rode a motorbike with a windshield, and goggles, and didn’t speak or anything, just used to ride around the walls of the bedroom, which were covered with rabbit wallpaper and pin ups of the Man From Atlantis and the Six Million Dollar Man.
I first found out I could speak to my ghost (in mute) during a night of an electric storm when my parents stayed up beyond News at Ten and the garage outside our back gate burned down. He seemed friendly and I thought he must be a nice ghost to have around in a crisis. He didn’t take his goggles off but he was a good looking biker, rather like the ones we saw around going past the Manor House to church on Sunday evenings.
There’s a story in this, somewhere, the bikers and the church and my ghost, but first I want to tell you about the church. It’s knocked down now, but when it was standing and we used to go there, it was a big old place, a small Methodist chapel with a choir gallery thought to be unsafe, but which we used to climb up to using the blue jumping mats from the gym class. Up there was lots of clutter, Nativity stuff, costumes, dried flowers, broken chairs, and you could look down to the pulpit where Mr Dew used to captivate us in Sunday School.
Behind was the old church schoolrooms, with their thick wood benches and tilted desks with yawning inkwells stained with years of black writing. The windows looked out onto the quarry and the Roman road which is now recognised and protected – then it was overgrown and a dumping ground for old burnt-out cars, washing-up bottles from the landfill site for the new comprehensive, and free newspapers the boys didn’t want to deliver. Sunday School was mainly for boys, so we did war heroes and tales of combat.
Into this quiet existence came my ghost. He first appeared outside the house the second time I had to catch the Blackpool coach with my parents, outside the Welcome Pub. Near here was the Clough, where a girl had been strangled once and people were warned against. The Moors Murders were still in people’s minds as fairly fresh and little children had to be safe from strangers. My ghost wasn’t a stranger. I found he had died in a war in his twenties and was doomed to ride his bike from coast to coast for the rest of the natural life of the world. That seemed unthinkable to a six year old who couldn’t imagine being ten, never mind life eternal.
I thought my ghost would come on the coach, but he just rode alongside, now and then swerving gracefully over the middle lines of the motorway lane, dipping like a star into the drying puddles of rain. When we got to the coach station at Central, he disappeared, but I saw him again after we’d seen Russ Abbot’s show on the North Pier, just watching from the steps leading to the flooded beach, his arms folded.
The connection with the other world came when we got our first cat, when I was nine. Twinkle was an exceptionally stupid cat – when you put him in the yard he’d stay in the same spot, rain or shine; he fell out of our attic, and off the windowsill, and he liked salmon sandwiches and bacon and egg at weekends. I had a bond with Twinkle and with my ghost, because I think he saw him too, and they could talk to each other. Then Twinkle spread the word to other cats that a higher being was around, and they came to watch and listen. I always thought that was why our kitchen was a popular meeting place for strange cats.
An electric storm lost me my cat and my ghost. Neither ever came back.
Approaching puberty I started to be aware of events before they happened. My other great uncle’s death, the night before the phone rang to tell us. My best friend’s suicide, ten years before it happened. A good friend from next door dying from his only illness two months after I dreamed it. And getting the gift to write from within and without, from special spiritual friends about.
My great-aunt’s ability to contact everyone from my grandad and his faithful dog, Blackie, to a lost great-grandfather dead by drowning in the Mill Lodge at sixty, to a mad aunt who gave birth under the bed like a cat hides away to bring her kittens forth, to the cousin blown up in the Second World War due to government incompetence hiding a minefield (and his wife who had a broken heart). Telling me I had a gift for seeing past and future, and the burden of losing the gift of being surprised.
Is this a story? I wanted to tell you about the bikers and the church but all there is to say is that they rode through and got lost in the hills. Three of them froze and the rest fell. I watched all this from the Hawthorn window, where our class went sketching the countryside once, chalk paintings and charcoal sketches. I couldn’t tell anyone because it never happened in our time – I was seeing shadows of the past, and my ghost riding full pelt to join his comrades once again.
Three months later I changed from child to woman, that first painful stage. So there is a metaphor there, the riders and the visions, the growth and the storm. In Blackpool again I watched the illuminations snap and crash through thunder and lightning and the biggest storm I ever saw. And I never saw anyone riding round my bedroom walls again.
(c) Louise Penn
I came across this version on DVD not having been previously aware of its existence; before this I favoured the Timothy Dalton/Zelah Clarke version made ten years later as definitive.
But this version is surprisingly good and quite charming. It keeps closely to the book both in characterisation and in text, and has a likable pair of leads in Sorcha Cusack and Michael Jayston.
Cusack at first did not make me think of Jane Eyre, as I found her a little too quizzical, too mocking. However, as the drama progressed I found myself becoming absorbed in her performance and in her interactions with Jayston’s sardonic Rochester.
You can believe that these two have an attraction that, at first, perhaps neither of them can define or understand. It is a connection of souls, not based on looks or on any standard form of affection.
The French pupil, Adele, is also full of energy and very much like the little girl in the book. No pretence here that she is anything other than the master of the house’s illegitimate daughter, as Jane is made aware of this very early on.
Even though in its production values its age is showing, this version of Jane Eyre is impressive and well deserving of a new generation of viewers in its new format. It sits well alongside the many other versions and, I think, is the equal of the 1983 version if not, in some respects, slightly better.
At London’s Transport Museum, Covent Garden, you can see the exhibition of posters brought together under the umbrella title ‘Poster Art 150’. It’s on until January 5th – more details at http://www.ltmuseum.co.uk/whats-on/exhibitions.
The Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, has acquired Vivien Leigh’s archive and will display a selection of items from it in their Theatre & Performance galleries. More details here – http://www.vam.ac.uk/b/blog/network/va-acquires-vivien-leigh-archive.
In its last week at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank is the World Press Photo Exhibition – http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson/world-press-photo-2013-1000455.
The Royal Festival Hall’s Spirit Level gallery is also the venue for the Koestler Trust’s 2013 exhibition of art by prisoners, offenders on community sentences, secure psychiatric patients and immigration detainees. As in previous years this is touching, surprising, and well worth a look. It runs until the 1st December. http://www.koestlertrust.org.uk/pages/uk2013/exhibuk2013.html
Staying on the South Bank, the National Theatre is celebrating its 50th birthday and has a small exhibition of images in the Lyttelton Gallery of Oliver’s first company amongst other celebrations – http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/discover-more/welcome-to-the-national-theatre/50th-anniversary/50-at-the-national.
At the BFI Southbank, we are halfway through the Gothic season of films (https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::permalink=gothic), and there is currently a Vivien Leigh retrospective which runs to the end of the year *https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::permalink=vivien-leigh), including a new restoration of ‘Gone With The Wind’.
From tiny musical boxes to the Mighty Wurlitzer, pay a visit to the Musical Museum in Brentford (http://10551.easywebsiteinabox.org/contents/14), while at the Watermans just up the road the annual showcase of digital art, enter13, is running until 5th January (http://www.watermans.org.uk/exhibitions/exhibitions/enter13.aspx).
At Pimlico, the Tate Britain has had a revamp and has an exhibition on until February of ‘Five Contemporary Artists’. For more details, see http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/painting-now-five-contemporary-artists.
The Design Museum (at Butler’s Wharf) recreates Paul Smith’s chaotic office with its collection of miscellaneous objects until the 9th March – http://designmuseum.org/exhibitions/2013/paul-smith.
Finally, over at the Barbican in the City of London, the Pop Art Movement is being celebrated at the Gallery – http://www.barbican.org.uk/artgallery/event-detail.asp?ID=14797.
Part 3 of a chronological greatest list. The second half of the list represents the start of a second group of fifty, in chronological order.
…plus 10 more. View the full list on Letterboxd.
I have one book out there which was published by a commercial publisher, back in 2000. I won’t name the book or the publisher although those of you who are able to make the connections, you may do so.
I’d like to share my story of how this book, a collection of poetry, was first started, developed, and ended up in bookshops and on the likes of Amazon.
I was interviewed for and accepted on a writers’ project run by Yorkshire Arts Circus (RIP), which was called ‘The Opening Line’. As part of this project we attended regular workshops and were mentored, in groups, by a professional writer who would guide us towards putting together a full-length manuscript ready for publication. And so it was with my book, which I worked hard on, and developed with care over a two year period, through many workshops, shared conversations, one to ones with my mentor. There was a linear storyline to which the poems would cling as you progressed through the book. The finished manuscript would have been a volume of over 100 pages, and over many drafts I came to care about my book and to feel it was very much ‘the finished article’, as did my mentor.
Things started to decline when we were allocated publishers. My publisher was Yorkshire-based and yet was not interested in the aims of the YAC project, or in the views of my mentor and the manuscript we had worked on together. The editor – I pause here rather than calling him ‘my’ editor – jettisoned half of my book and butchered some of the other poems in the volume (now a third of the size) to such a degree that now, with a distance of thirteen years, I would not accept them as my creations or allow them to be reproduced in any other volume. I was told in no uncertain terms that unless I accepted all his changes there would be no book.
So my mutiliated opus made its way into the world, with a fairly small print run. It has turned up in places as far flung as Hawaii, Greece, and Sydney. It was remaindered in Borders Books and Video when they were still active in the UK (I bought one of the remainder copies). It has reached the dizzy heights of ten times its price on ABE Books. We launched it with a reading and book signing at the end of 2000 – the only time I have been bothered by any level of attention for my creative writing; and eighteen months later I was invited to the Poetry Cafe to promote it and my second book-in-planning, by doing a reading. After this, and positive reviews in Poetry London, Orbis, and Stride Magazine, it all went quiet. I think one reviewer suggested I was a name to watch in the future and that readers should ‘write my name on a bus ticket’ in case they come across it in future years. Come to think of it, he’s the one who made the invitation to the Poetry Cafe, and then offered to mentor me through the next book. Strangely, he didn’t deliver on that after we met, perhaps because I was not a willowy fragile blonde who could be manipulated!
My second book was taken up by a publisher who later went bankrupt – I eventually published it myself via Amazon Kindle, where it hasn’t exactly set the world on fire. But – this second book is all my work, and all my editing. I’m not saying you should never take suggestions or criticism, but the heavy-handed and mean-spirited attitude of my first book’s publisher has rankled so much in the intervening decade that – one or two pieces apart – I am actually ashamed of the way the book turned out, of the dismissive attitude of the editor, and the lack of discussion of the meaning of the book in the first place.
One major theme which was completely removed on the grounds that it was ‘rubbish’ was the theme of angels watching over us. This had a special resonance because the book of poems was written for a friend who had died ten years before, someone who I had promised a book to many years prior to writing it. I even dedicated it to her – to ‘Corky’ – but even that dedication was not allowed by my publisher, perhaps because he thought I was addressing my words to a cat or a dog?
So my words of advice at the end of this. By all means, as a writer, murder your own darlings. But DO NOT allow anyone else to do so. If it means you miss out on an opportunity, so be it. I never made money from my book, and I would rather have kept my artistic integrity.
Oh, and my mentor disappeared as soon as all this happened. It seemed that his interest only lasted as long as YAC’s pay cheques. I have never bought a volume of his poems since.
Last night we said goodbye to an old friend on television, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Over the past 25 years David Suchet has played the fussy little Belgian, the genius with the little grey cells and the wax moustache, and ‘Curtain’, the 70th film in the series, was his final farewell.
At first the episode took a while to get going. Although still mentally alert, our hero was confined to a wheelchair and suffering from a heart condition which left him gasping for breath at moments – we knew the end was near, just as mysterious deaths surrounded him and his faithful friend Hastings, and shadows visited from his past.
The second half of the episode though was considerably stronger, with loose ends (and a few surprises) being tied up in the form of a letter from Poirot delivered some months after his death to Hastings. Here we got the measure of the man, and he got the farewell he deserved.
And, of course, we can always see the episodes right from the start again, either in the sumptuous new 35-disc DVD set, or in the form of repeats on the smaller satellite channels.
Suchet’s portrayal of Christie’s favourite character (she also created Miss Marple, of course) has been spot on. The mincing walk, the look of disdain, the vanity, the sniff, the eyes of sadness at what might have been. It might have even overtaken the uneven performance of Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes which was previously the longest commitment between actor and role on television.
Farewell old friend, and we will miss you.
A story I wrote a very long time ago (before Microsoft Word was thought of!). I forget what inspired it, but am sharing it here as part of my daily blogging project.
MAKING MY MOVES
Mama, tell me that story again, the one where you first started to walk.
Did you put one foot in front of the other, or did you stand on one spot, willing yourself to move forward?
I always loved your hair, the way you pulled it back from your face, inky black, with a scent of chives and garlic. The lipstick which bled in the dimpled smile you kept for best.
Does anyone remember how they learned to walk?
“Shirley, stop daydreaming!”
A voice snaps me back again and away from the contemplation of whether you walked like the rest of us, or waited to glide to your destination.
Daydreaming is my major job, when my copywriting for the ad agency is over. I spend lots of time meetings doodling on a notepad, playing scenes in my head, surprising myself with what I could be.
“OK, I’m there in a sec!”
My dad, a bulldog of a man, likes the women in his life to wear furs and put on lipstick (that bleeds in the dimpled smiles they keep for best). Wears glasses but would rather squint out at the world in confused vanity.
Something I wanted to hear about, that story about Mama starting to walk.
I daydream about gliding and dancing.
There are flowers at every other pace, in front of my feet, there is jasmine in the air as I spin with my dress covered in sequins.
I walk into my dad’s room, fix the coffee, break open the shades. Light floods.
“What’re you doin’, Shirley?”
“Opening up the world, dad.”
Did Mama skate? I remember the ice rink where the white hours blinded us as we kept things moving, the music pulsating in its quick beat, we had such fun.
When my brother and I sped round the ice, was Mama watching?
She brought me into these crazy times, my Mama.
Left me here, kept me counting days until something happened. There were some days when I really didn’t want to be there. I stepped outside of my life and into daydreams.
My dad is a realist.
“Shirley, close the god damn window shades.”
I leave him in the dark, sipping the coffee. Black, three sugars, cinnamon stick.
Where are the nutcrackers we used to swap at childhood parties?
My brother is fun, a mad backgammon player who takes bikes to pieces and then abandons them for something else.
The three years before he came along were incomplete.
Take another daydream, in confused vanity thinking something could be made of me. I started to fill book after book with words, just words, none making sense, but at last it turned around when I got the ad agency job.
I could sell …
Eggs (because eggs is eggs)
Cars (with or without reference to sex, chocolate or disco whores)
Cereal bars for the ultra healthy (scanties and panties)
Toy boats for children (and little plastic ducks)
Shower gel (with or without water and oil)
I could not sell …
Charity cases or requests for donations (vomit-inducing)
Badly knitted garments (the ‘bobbled’ look)
Celebrity perfume ranges (unspeakable)
Middle-class morality (undefined)
Paint (the possibilities …)
Our garden, Mama. Look how it thrives in cornflower blue, crushed berry red, oregano green.
Tell me the story of how you started to walk.
One foot first, Shirley, one foot first. You feel the ground under you, close to you. The weight shifts from one leg to another. Something makes you keep moving, at a steady speed, keeping a steady stride.
Then, you realise that you are beginning to run, you are racing with the moon, you are letting the stars trace each movement.
I’m talking to you, and I’m telling you why it was different for me.
I had the most superb legs in those days, fabulous pins.
My shoe heels a cool three inches and knitting needle thin.
My daughter, I was a walker, a strider, a dancer.
I was something else, a span of life, an incredible piece of lightning.
You won’t remember but I was a wonder on two feet, a web of sadness, silence, suspense.
Shirley, there were notices about my movement that would make you wild with jealousy. You and your dreams of fame, and your office job giving the words that make people buy.
I was more than you could ever imagine.
In the office, I look at the account manager’s notes. She wants me to work with our art director on a poster campaign.
Flowers. That’s the first thing I think about. When women go to shop, they want fruit and flowers to be visible, to put colour in, so even if they’re buying a tin of soup or a bunch of bananas, they’ve had that brightness. So we need bright words, words of joy, hope, colour.
There is nothing in this office that I would take off home.
Home is my dad in his dark room with the shades pulled tight. Home is my brother visiting with oil on his hands. Home is pictures of Mama, the garden flower. Home is the smell of my old cat, as she purrs into a seventh hour of daytime sleep.
The woman in my daydreams doing wonderful things is Mama, young, alive, vital again. Someone dead who once existed. Someone doing everything I could never do.
Daydreams come to me on the bus, when the muted clicks of personal stereos mingle with weekend gossip. Daydreams come to me in making love when I want to be someone else. Daydreams come to me in the morning tea and toast. Daydreams irk me and torment me.
I am an icicle.
She has told me the story of how she started to walk.
I thrive in my inferiority.
I never need to open or close the shades in my dad’s room again.
My last jingle has faded from the radio.
Is this something that is news to you?
Can you guess what I have to tell you, yet?
Seven days, Shirley, seven days to count.
I dress in white satin and brush my hair back, the way she did, inky black, with a tortoiseshell comb in electric blue. My clothes fit well and flatter me. I wear lipstick, bleeding into the smile I keep for rainy days.
It starts to rain.
I know all the traffic, every bend and bump in the road.
I’ve decided how to walk.
This will be the best day of all the best days of my life.
(c) Louise Penn
Film and Theatre Lover!
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