Posh Spice

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On Friday night I had a conundrum — Jane Gardner, possibly my favourite silent accompanist, was doing a live score for STEAMBOAT BILL JNR, starring Buster Keaton and Edinburgh man Ernest Torrence (pictured) at a lecture hall by the Botanical Gardens. Meanwhile, my friend and collaborator Alex Livingstone had written Dune: The Musical, which was playing for one night only at the exact same time. Ultimately, my decision was based on repeatability — I hopefully will get another chance at the Keaton-Gardner collaboration (though I still haven’t caught her rendition of THE GENERAL). Dune seemed like it might be a one-off opportunity — but, given it’s literally roaring success, now it might come back in the Edinburgh Fringe…

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The event, hosted at a church hall not far from where Fiona and I live (OK, that was another factor — the trip to the botanics is always a hassle and the weather was freezing), started late, and started with support acts — the horror! But they were good — we learned that Jonnie Common has “folded space all the way from Stirling to be here tonight,” and Prehistoric Friends played a very nice set, but of course they were not Dune: The Musical — although it was then fun spotting them turn up IN Dune: The Musical.

This, I had heard, was to be a proper panto, a peculiarly British Christmastime phenomenon,  in which pop songs are repurposed with their lyrics changed to fit some story which traditionally has nothing to do with Christmas, men dress as women and vice versa, and audience participation is violently encouraged. If you’re not British but you’ve seen THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW with an audience you may have some notion, only the panto is nominally for kids. ROCKY HORROR isn’t and neither was this — I counted one kid. Then I counted him again to make sure. Yep, definitely one kid.

Also, in pantos, not only can the audience talk to the cast, the cast all have the power to address the audience, which is a bit like all those internal monologues everybody has in DUNE the movie to explain the tangled plot, if you think about it. (I think those little VOs are entirely responsible for the otherwise unfounded perception that DUNE is a bad movie. They make it bad. Paul’s mother, who has been fearing for his life, walks into a room and finds him alive. She looks relieved. “My son… lives!” she thinks at us. Awful.)

Another thing about pantos is that they usually feature a combination of proper actors doing improper acting, and people who aren’t actors at all — clapped-out pop stars, reality TV nobodies, and sports “personalities”. So it may be that the casting of Sting in the Lynch film was the inspiration for this whole event. Impressively, Sting was the only actor from the movie to reprise his role at St Paul’s Church, Pilrig…

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Curiously, David Lynch touched base with the panto right before making his DUNE (the musical is mainly based on the film, with a little of the book and maybe a little of the abortive Jodorowski dream, but nothing from the Sci-Fi Channel show, which is a shame because I’ve actually met the director and both stars of that, all very nice) — THE ELEPHANT MAN ends with one. But that’s more like a proper Christmas Play than a trashy panto. It’s also mainly the work of editor Anne V. Coates, since Lynch actually shot an entire mini-play (which I’d love to see — maybe something like his later RABBITS shorts?) and then knew that wasn’t right and got her to turn it into a miraculous montage. As she said, in a voice a bit like the Queen, “It can be quite hard to get inside David’s head. And then, once you’re there, it’s quite a strange place.”

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“A beginning is a very delicate time,” says Princess Irulan in both the David Lynch and Christmas panto versions, and so it was with real joy that we greeted the sight of Bartholomew J. Owl in the Virginia Madsen role, poking his head through the curtains and into a spotlight to do the floating head narration from the start of the film. In a Northern English accent. A genius touch that told us all that this was going to be every bit as good as the concept.

Then the curtain opened and Princess Irulan shuffled off, never to be seen again (although Owl would return), and we met Liam Chapman as the Emperor, and the Guild Navigator, made out of cardboard and played by two people (more Lynchian tactics? No — two people AT THE SAME TIME, the show’s answer to a pantomime horse).

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And then a recurring gag, which, for me, never got old — during the long, clunky scene changes, a hand at the front would hold up a sign saying TIME PASSES. I think this would have been a useful device for Lynch to have used in his film.

Then — this may be out of sequence, but I think we met Baron Harkonnen (Rose McConnachie in flaking tinfoil codpiece). Played with floor-shaking gusto and a lot of angry, angry laughing — one of the show’s highlights. Obviously, in the tradition of both pantos (Peter Pan) and Lynch, it would have been good if he/she were flying about on visible wires, but you can’t have everything. But, in terms of enthusiastic playing, you had more than everything, and you also had the return of Mr. Owl as the Baron’s son, Sting, wearing the identical tinfoil crotch-eagle he sported so memorably in the film.

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(Sting has said — for real — that he was quite prepared to go nude and was horrified when presented with the metallic penis bird, but that after huge discussions he finally agreed to glue the thing to his privates only if he could play the role like somebody who would take a shower while wearing a bird of prey on his old fellow. “So from that point on, I was as camp as knickers.” Sadly, Sting can’t really act so nobody realised that’s what he was trying to do.)

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Oh, and Michael Craig (not the one from MODESTY BLAISE) appeared as the cleaner who gets his heart unplugged by the Baron. I’d forgotten that character was a cleaner — he does push a broom, doesn’t he, or a space squeegee or something. Mentally, I had him down as some kind of stray boy band member, a death-twink for the Baron to get his rocks off on, killing. In the musical it’s a bit more PG-certificate, the Baron just likes unplugging hearts to let off steam. The Baron’s theme song was to the tune of Mr. Boombastic.

Anyway, by now we’d been laughing so hard and so constantly that Fiona was complaining of new wrinkles developing on her face, and we were grateful for the intermission-long scene changes, which provided some relief, although they were pretty funny too.

(I sussed early as a kid that the best time to see a panto was opening night, as things had a better chance of going wrong. You hoped, at best, for a scenery jam which would lead to dialogue being helplessly improvised in front of the stuck backdrop, or else a new scene being played in entirely the wrong setting. Dune: The Musical, being a one-nighter and ambitious to boot [I never saw a panto with so many monsters and planets] was obviously tempting fate, “It went a bit wrong — I don’t know if you noticed,” said the author afterwards. We noticed, and loved it.)

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Then – or maybe it was previously — we finally met the shows hero, principal boy Paul Atreides (Hannah Shepherd), a proper grinning, thigh-slapping naif, and her dad, Duke Leto (Neil Pennycook) and Jonnie Common again as the traitorous Dr Yueh. I had spoken to Alex previously about my enthusiasm for this concept — “Nothing spells Christmas like ornithopters and mentats!” “We have cut the ornothopters and mentats, In fact we have cut most of it.” So there was no Freddie Jones or Brad Dourif equivalent, but their unique acting styles seemed to have gotten into most of the cast via osmosis, so there was a lot of good eccentric playing going on. The swingeing cuts to the text also showed clearly how much further Lynch could have gone to get his narrative down to a manageable length (we love Linda Hunt, but her character makes no difference to anything). Alex also cut Yueh’s entire motivation and made a great joke out of it, and added a song, Poison Tooth, to the tune of Stay by Shakespear’s Sister, which totally works. And a running gag about Mint Imperials which had seemed purely formal, turns out to have Major Plot Significance.

Oh, but there’s also the fight using shields, which in the movie looks like this —

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Very impressive visual effects AND sound effects, I thought at the time. But the theatrical extravaganza goes one better —

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And then there’s a really sweet performance by Clarissa Cheong as Lady Jessica, and a zesty one by the sandworm.

Then Alex himself appeared as Stilgar, in a bravura performance based entirely around Everett McGill’s cough in the film. With earphones up his nose. The scenario here improved on the book, where Paul’s new name, Muad’Dib, based on a lunar shadow, means “the little mouse,” which is obviously a crap name for a principal boy. So here it means “the cock and balls.” The dialogue around this part went quite strange, with forgotten lines and missed cues and hastily inserted prompts, giving it  a surreal, circular quality that was distinctly pleasing.

Then it was time to “Worm Up” to the tune of Word Up, and everything was rounded off in a more than satisfactory manner with a singalong rendition of Arrakis, to the tune of Africa by Toto, which of course has a strong thematic connection to the Lynch film, for which the band failed to produce a workable score.

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“It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you/There’s nothing that a hundred Fremen or more could ever do/I bless the rains down in Arrakis/Gonna take some time to do the things we never had.” This slight alteration carefully preserves, you will note, the semi-literate garbage quality of the original lyrics.

The only slight disappointment of the evening was provided by fate. At various points during the support acts, small pieces of curled paper, like those pigs’ tails you made out of paper strips at nursery school, would be dislodged from the rafters by the sonic blasts of synth-pop. I strongly suspected that these were residue from some  aeons-gone shindig, rather than perhaps foretastes of a special effects deluge that would climax the evening’s production. But I was kind of hoping that one of them might drop down, unscheduled yet with awesome aptness, during the final number, symbolising the Arrakis climate change and Paul’s ascendancy to the role of kwisatz haderach, although Alicia Witt’s role had been entirely cut from this production so there would have been no one to point that out.

However, at the critical moment, no paper fell. I think the only sensible way to tackle this omission is to keep performing Dune: The Musical, at venues up and down the country or around the world, until a bit of paper falls from the ceiling at the right moment. The crowd would go WILD.

Admittedly, we did go fairly wild anyway.

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The author and his wife.

Nearly all the other pictures here are stolen from Paula Cucurullo, with her kind consent, because my pictures were crap. I got the sandworm though.

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9 Responses to “Posh Spice”

  1. The Steamboat Bill Jr music was great, but the print was truly appalling.

  2. Thanks for coming and for being so nice about it! I am still a bit tired.

  3. Did you say “Sandworms”?

  4. Not the bore worms!

  5. Judy, that’s the trouble with these informal venues, the people organising the show often aren’t experienced and don’t know how to source the best materials. A friend once headed off a venue who were planning a live accompaniment to Nosferatu, projected via YouTube!

    Alex, I bet!

  6. There’s actually a print of Steamboat Bill Jr available on YouTube that’s better than the Network DVD the folk at the Botanics used! It makes me sad that those unfamiliar with silent cinema would have gone home thinking it always looks like that. I discussed this issue with a fellow Keaton fan who was there and he told me how his partner recently got a gag in The General for the first time when shown a restored print.

  7. Oh, it can make SUCH a difference. I generally think seeing stuff, in whatever quality, is better than not seeing stuff, but for a beginner it could be off-putting and that’s disheartening indeed.

    Did he say which gag it was?

  8. Yes, he did. It’s the one where Buster is getting geared up to steal The General back. He momentarily puts on a top hat, but it gets caught in the branches of a tree as he sets off.

  9. I can see how that could easily be lost in a fuzzy copy. Not the best gag in the film (there’s a slightly awkward cut just before the hat lands back on his head — probably the only dodgy cut in the whole film) but worth catching.

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