Film Club: The Knack

Film Club: the concept. We all see a film and talk about it. Pretty simple. This time we have SPECIAL GUESTS.

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Plot synopsis for the unwary. In a narrow London domicile, schoolteacher Colin (Michael Crawford) laments his lack of knack with the ladies, whereas Tolen (Ray Brooks) apparently has them lining up. The arrival of the Bohemian Tom (Donal Donnelly) and the innocent Nancy (Rita Tushingham) sparks off a whirling comic psychodrama, commented on by a “Greek chorus of disapproval,” the middle-aged Londoners who “don’t subscribe to that sort of programme.”

I’ve got so much interview material that it seems to me I should just let the principles talk, and I’ll weigh in in the comments section if you say anything I like! THE KNACK is an odd thing. Farran Smith Nehme, the Self-Styled Siren, told me she reacted with a “what WAS that?” And she’s super-clever. The thing is, I don’t think that reaction is inappropriate or misses the mark — it may be more a question of whether you enjoy that sensation…

Ann Jellicoe’s quotes are taken from the intro to her play Shelley, or The Idealist.

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SUSPICIOUS READING TO MY WAY OF THINKING

I wrote The Knack partly for the same reason as Shaw wrote You Never Can Tell and Ibsen Love’s Comedy: to make sure of getting a play produced after an early one had failed. So The Knack is a comedy with four characters and one set, but I wrote it mainly because I wanted to explore comedy, to write a play that should be full of joy, innocence and zest.

The Knack, like my first play, was written from the inside, character determining situation, situation defining character. The principle that action is not narrated was developed further. In The Sport of My Mad Mother, the characters were incapable of understanding their own motives; in The Knack, Tom sees clearly what motivates him and the others. Colin needs help but Tom sees danger in giving him ready-made answers; instead he tries to put Colin into situations where Colin will be able to recognize the nature of his problems and perhaps find his own answers; this is in contrast to Tolen who is always giving Colin good advice which weakens Colin and makes Tolen feel powerful. The man who understands seldom makes a direct statement; the others reveal themselves through what they say and do. The play is about how you should treat other people, and its form reinforces what it has to say. Speech rhythms are more subtly used than in The Sport of My Mad Mother, but there are interlocking rhythms which, with the youth of the characters and their zest, give the play its bounce. I was, however, beginning to be bored with verbal rhythms used in an obvious, musical way as they were in the first play, and to feel they were a mannerism.

[…] The success of The Knack in New York and as a film has freed me to follow what path I choose, at least for the time being. But I begin to feel alienated (temporarily I hope) from a society which has adopted The Knack and, it seems to me, subtly degraded it: A New York reviewer was able to write of the film that it was all the better for the elimination of the moral values of the play. The Knack is about the people who seemed to me most fresh and interesting at the time I wrote it.

Ann Jellicoe.

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SKIMMING RICOCHET OFF A DESKTOP

Through the kind auspices of Kate Wood, I was able to divert Charles Wood, celebrated playwright and screenwriter of THE KNACK… AND HOW TO GET IT, away from the cricket long enough to obtain answers to Ten Questions ~

Dear David, use what you like of my thoughts on “The Knack” below. It was all so long ago. I was lucky to get the chance to do it, for which for which I thank Richard and Oscar and Woodfall. Did a few more for them, enjoyed them all. All the best with it, let me us know how it goes, Charles.

1) When and how did the offer to adapt Ann Jellicoe’s play come about? Do you recall how you first met Richard Lester?

It was all arranged by Oscar Lewenstein of Woodfall Films. My agent, Peggy Ramsay who was also Ann Jellicoe’s agent suggested me. I didn’t see the play but I read it and loved it. Oscar talked to Lindsay Anderson about it and I came up with a treatment for him which was a straight up and down realistic adaptation of the play. He didn’t like it.. Oscar obviously then talked to Richard of whom I knew nothing and asked me to go and see “Hard Day’s Night”. I went off to write some pages for him. Anyway, lots more drafts and it was done.

2) Lester has said that the screenplay went through a great many drafts, including one without the character of Tom. Was this a vexing process or do you like exploring multiple approaches?

Richard remembers better than me. It wasn’t at all vexing. Richard and Deirdre made me very welcome in their house. It was my first film and I knew nothing so I enjoyed it. Learned a lot very quickly, I thought. It was very enjoyable.

3) Lester also says that you both wanted to avoid the play’s explicit connection of Tolen with fascism. Did you then have a discussion about what the film would be about, or do you prefer not to be too explicit about that? Does the film have what the screenwriting books call “an underlying theme”?

I hadn’t the faintest idea what the film was all about. There was no theme except youth and discovery, and being alive, same old things. It was Ann Jellicoe’s play we were adapting and putting onto film, when all the pieces came together we hoped she would approve. Richard thinks film and gags, I think words and dialogue and things to get the actors to do. Tolen is fascist of course in lots of ways, mostly power, in fact altogether power.

4) I’m fascinated by the way you exploded the play and put little fragments together in a new pattern. A lot of the dialogue is exactly faithful to the original but the shape is different and what it’s saying is different. Similarly with How I Won the War — I was surprised when I tracked down the book how much of it you’d used, but how opposite the effect was. I suppose I want to ask how you feel about the authors you adapt — do you feel any responsibility to them?

Yes, I feel totally responsible to them, but I don’t bring it up should I meet them afterwards. None of them complained or even let me know they’d noticed that I had anything to do with it. It’s the director gets the blame. Quite right. Good man.

Wanda Ventham — Benedict Cumberbatch’s mum — plays the gym mistress. A Mumberbatch! Crawford’s vision of himself as a dirty old man spying on schoolgirls is a joke that’s a bit disturbing, but, as Steven Soderbergh says, “The expression on his face: hilarious!” Wood invented the staff room scene, which has some dazzling bits of verbal weirdness — what John Gielgud called “woodery-pokery.” 

5) You’re IN The Knack. How did that come about?

I fancied getting back into uniform for a minute and being a Horse Guard rather than a Lancer this time and Richard didn’t think the line meant anything so he punished me by making me say it – I got my own back by doing it badly. Serves him right. Shouldn’t meddle in military matters.

6) Nancy’s journey through London is wholly invented for the film. How much was scripted, how much did it develop on location? Did Lester work closely with you on visual gags? Everybody makes the mistake of assuming he improvises everything, but I’m sure huge amounts were planned and written (I would love to see the script!).
 
I can’t remember. I know we wrote a lot more when it was being edited to fill in gaps or whatever, voice over. I enjoyed that process, just the two of us and an editor peering at a Moviola – felt I was making a film, never happened again. I can’t let you see anything because I don’t have a script in any of its forms.

7) When you fragmented the play, how easy was it to find a new structure?

It structured itself, with a lot of help from Richard. I rarely had the faintest idea. If I got too lost I followed the play. Always go back to the source.

8) Did you consciously adapt your style to match Jellicoe’s dialogue? It’s striking how well it all blends together. (Bits in HOW I WON THE WAR that I assumed were yours turned out to be from the book. Lots in THE BED SITTING ROOM that sounds like Milligan/Antrobus turns out to be you.)

Yes. That’s what they pay me for.

9) The controversy about the use of the word “rape” — which nobody seemed to be shocked by at the time. And people don’t seem quite so shocked today as they were ten years ago. Since your theatre work often crams together comedy with upsetting material, I’m assuming you were aware this was an edgy thing to do. I wonder if the film had followed the play’s more stridently feminist line, if this whole thing would have been accepted as part of its polemic. I guess I don’t have a specific question… maybe, “How does one justify joking about rape?” But that’s almost too easy: jokes are always about serious things.

I’m astonished that there’s any controversy at all now. And as you rightly say, jokes are serious things. (My latest play was turned down and criticised by one theatre for having long serious speeches turned off with a comic quip. But that’s the way I write (together with lots of others I should have told them. Couldn’t be bothered). Anyway, it’s my last.

10) What did you think of the finished film when you saw it? Have you seen it lately?

No, I haven’t seen it for a long time. I thought it was wonderful, magic in black and white. David Watkin – it was his first feature film as well – shot it beautifully. He became a firm friend, cemented by “The Charge”. You ought to read his memoirs for his take on the film, opened my eyes. CW. 2015.

Knack, The / The Knack...And How To Get It (1965) | Pers: Rita Tushingham | Dir: Richard Lester | Ref: KNA001AB | Photo Credit: [ Woodfall/Lopert / The Kobal Collection ] | Editorial use only related to cinema, television and personalities. Not for cover use, advertising or fictional works without specific prior agreement

THE Y.W.C.A.

I spoke on the phone to Rita Tushingham, while Tasha the Siamese cat yowled in my ear and somebody in the street played bagpipes, of all things — I know I’m in Scotland, but you can take local colour too far. I stress that both cat and bagpipes were at my end of the line. Rita only had to contend with a grandchild attired as the Red Skull from CAPTAIN AMERICA.

You originated the role of Nancy in The Knack?

Yeah, we took it on tour first and then to the Royal Court Theatre in London.

Ann Jellicoe wrote that, depending on the audience, it would seem to be a completely different  play.

Some people walked out because they were so shocked, if you can believe it. We played it in Cambridge and they just loved it, and in Bath they absolutely couldn’t get it at all, they had no idea what we were on.

THIS IS ALL A FANTASY

It seems like that was a sort of microcosm of the way the film has gone, because it went from being incredibly fashionable and acclaimed to being ignored or considered embarrassing, or shameful, and now I think it’s being appreciated more again.
 
I just thought that it was all in her mind anyway, where she goes around saying “Rape!” and I think it was that they found offensive, wasn’t it. And the fact that Tolen was saying “They’re all queuing up to go into the Albert Hall: it was a fantasy. All the characters are on their different sort of trips. And Nancy was the innocent one, but looking for love, really.

In Germany I did a Q&A about THE KNACK and one young woman got quite irate at the word “rape” — “There’s nothing funny about that!” It wasn’t meant to be funny. It was just a word that was used. Nowadays, everyone’s far more aware about that, but in the days we shot it, it was a very different thing. It was the same meaning, because it’s a violent act, but you have to look at what it was in the film. She was offended that we should have used that word, and I did say to her, excuse my language, “What would you rather say, ‘I’ve been fucked?'” How to explain it? You can’t change it, can you? It’s THERE.

It just became, for some reason, harder for people to read. It’s a shocking word, and it’s used a lot in the film…
 

Oh, absolutely, and I would never ever make light of that, and indeed we didn’t. It’s an appalling act. But it wasn’t meant to be saying “this is alright and it’s funny.” That was not the intention at all.

You can write a joke about something without implying that the thing itself isn’t serious.
 

Exactly. And also, you can raise people’s knowledge and bring things to their attention. When you think about what is happening now and all these cases that are coming up about historical sexual abuse… it’s a very different way of looking at things, and a good way of looking at things, now, but in those days it was just never meant to be offensive.

One thing the film does seem to show is that you’ve got a country where people are ignoring things. When you run through the streets shouting “Rape!” and the world goes on as if nothing has happened.
 
But I’m afraid to say, David, that’s what’s happening now. Look what they were doing in the sixties, and seventies, these cases that are now coming to the fore. People did turn a blind eye, didn’t they?

But THE KNACK was not about that scene where my character’s running about shouting “Rape!” That was not what it’s about. It was, in a sense, a sexual awakening, and in fact Tolen, the womanizer, he [inaudible], Tom went on to be happy, and Colin and Nancy found each other and love. It wasn’t meant to be anything other than that. I think if you played that and didn’t have the word “rape” in it, I think people wouldn’t be looking for something in it offensive. There’s nothing sexually explicit in THE KNACK, it’s very innocent.

It throws people, because the film is so visually innocent — you see at most a knee, and then this comes along and they don’t know how to react. But it’s the scene where Nancy finds her voice and becomes powerful.
 

And has them all running around after her, especially the Tolen character. Of course, when you look at any film that was shot years ago, there are things in it that wouldn’t be shot now. But no one — or at least, no one that I know — makes a film to be offensive. Why would you?

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(Lester makes a Hitchcockian cameo as one of the befuddled onlookers.)

I’M FROM HAMPTON WICK, MYSELF

Can you remember meeting Richard Lester for the first time?

Yeah, I met him… [laughs] it’s funny because I remember I met him at Woodfall Films, and I’d just finished shooting GIRL WITH GREEN EYES. And I remember saying “I’ve just finished shooting GIRL WITH GREEN EYES and Desmond Davis is my favourite director.” Which IS quite obnoxious. But we laugh about that. It was just done, thinking of something to say and it wasn’t meant to be rude.

But I remember walking along Curzon Street chatting to Richard. Immediately we got on. What was interesting was the way he works, he’s almost editing it as he goes along, he covers things so well. Because of his understanding of comedy and things. He doesn’t labour it, he goes onto the next — and this is what was so innovative about him when he came to the fore, and a lot of people have been inspired and copied his style — the comedy sort of rolls on. You hope the audience are going to be with you, but you don’t layer it on like… a thick layer of lard.
 
His style of working, with multiple cameras, and the pace he works at, there are actors who love that and a few who are thrown by it…

I love that. He doesn’t like doing lots of takes. So you cover it. You know if a take’s gone — I don’t mean to say you’ve been good, but if a take seems to have gone quite well and sometimes if it hasn’t. And sometimes, when you’re doing things and it’s the end of the day and they turn the camera round on you, and you’ve got to reproduce what you’ve been doing all day, sometimes you feel a bit [?] but if you have the multiple cameras, especially in comedy — because so many things happen in comedy that you can’t recreate, it’s of the moment, it happened, in fact, on screen, and the audience experiences that. You can’t always plan, obviously you have to be very structured, but if something just happens and it’s funny and you’ve got it covered, it’s great that you have that.

Also, you’re kind of up and ready for it. I know that some people don’t like it, they find it quite off-putting, I like it, because you just feel that at least they’re gonna have something they can use.

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KIP, MILK AND BISCUITS, IS IT ANY WONDER THEY’RE SCREAMING OUT FOR ROUGHAGE?

Filming on the streets of London, having come from the stage, was that distracting?

No, because mostly everything I’ve done has been on location anyway. I did the theatre after I’d done A TASTE OF HONEY. I didn’t mind that at all. It wasn’t distracting. We were just going along and doing the scene. The crew is kind of hidden. The camera is hand-held. ..And my grand-child’s just walked in. Dressed as some kind of Captain America villain.

Keeping the movie theme going.

It didn’t worry me. It was just that dancing along Kensington High Street and singing. But people don’t want to get involved. Even now they don’t. They just think “Oh, there’s a nutter,” and just carry on. And The Mall, now, you wouldn’t be able to shoot like that. And Buckingham Palace. And Hyde Park. But people just sort of got on… […] It was so easy to work on, and being such a small cast.

How did you all get on?

We all got on fine. And all different. They were all very different personalities, the three of them. And that’s why I think it works so well, because you can see that on screen. […] And also Donal Donnelly was such a lovely performer. He’s sort of lyrical, isn’t he? He has that magical sort of feel. And not afraid to go with it. And Michael Crawford was just a bumbling sort of teacher but he was perfect for the role.

In the Soderbergh book, Lester says they worried that Tom was an underwritten part, but that Donnelly solved it purely by being a lovable, relaxed Irish actor.

He was almost magical, wasn’t he? Almost spiritual in a way. 

He’s just happy and self-contained.

With life, and himself.

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A difference of opinion on interior design with the future Mrs. Ethel Shroake (Dandy Nichols).

LOOK AT ME, LAUGH

In the scene in the park, you have to act to the camera. Was that difficult to do?

No, no… Well, nothing’s easy, is it? But we just went and did it. In, I think we did one take, we might have done two… You work on it beforehand, in your mind, you study it, and then you just go with it.

I’ve heard some actors say they play to their own reflection in the lens.

No, I could never do that, I can’t bear to see myself. I didn’t even think about that. It was just te camera and me. I would imagine now, if you do something like that, it really IS just you and the camera, because everyone can watch on the monitor, so all you really need is the operator. And that is much more intimate. 

It wasn’t theatrical at all, the character was playing it out to Tolen, so she was playing to someone, she wasn’t just saying it, mumbling or anything.

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[Here, Fiona starts mouthing something to me, but I can’t lipread, so I get her to write it down. Then I can’t read her handwriting. So eventually I give her permission to speak (such power!) It boils down to: The monitor on a set can be distracting…

Oh gosh. I hate them. But then they’re always off-set, you don’t see them. But often I’ve found some young actors able to go and watch the monitor and see things. I hate that, I just can’t do it, because suddenly you’re seeing yourself, performing. And I think you lose that intimate thing within the scene. But it doesn’t bother some people. I don’t even like to hear playback. I just like to do it and trust. This is where the director comes in — you have to trust that he’s got what he wants. And sometimes they’ll say “Can we go again?” but I don’t want to see how I twitched my left eyebrow or throw my hand up in the air. It could take something away. I think you would be more restrained, you would lose some freedom as an actor. 

Well self-consciousness is the enemy…

Oh God, yeah. And you mustn’t have that, because when you’re doing it and they say “Action,” you are performing, you are that character, in that scene, and the situation is such… As you know, it’s never in continuity, and you just have to go for that and be aware of what’s come before and what comes after. Some people say, “Oh, I didn’t like the way I looked there.” You can’t think of that. It starts to chip away at what you’re trying to do, I think.

That might sound very odd, but that’s how it works for me. 

No, that makes perfect sense. I know Lester hated the idea of monitors and wouldn’t have them.

He knew what he wanted, and he knew that he would get it. And that’s why he used — in THE BED SITTING ROOM, he had quite a few cameras. I think that’s such a good film.

[For reasons of space, I’ve broken off our discussion of THE BED SITTING ROOM for a separate post later in the week. Don’t miss it!]

I’d like to say hello to your wife, HELLO. 

Fiona: Hello Rita, it’s an absolute pleasure to have you in our living room, as a disembodied voice.

Nice to talk to you too. I don’t want you to feel I’m ignoring you. […] And funnily enough, in about half an hour, Richard and Deirdre are coming here to have tea. […] We’ve been friends for so long.

I was struck by Tolen’s line “You’ve got Chinese eyebrows,” and wondered if Ann Jellicoe had you in mind when she wrote that.

[Laughs] I don’t know. I did work with Ann, but I don’t know, I shouldn’t think she’d have had me in mind. I think the only person who can answer that is Ann Jellicoe.

Richard-Lester

GOT THE WHOLE IDEA FROM TELEVISION

Richard Lester was kind enough to let me interview him for a whole day for Criterion’s disc of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT — and provided lunch, too. This is more or less the complete transcript of our discussion of THE KNACK.

THE KNACK must have happened fairly quickly after A HARD DAY’S NIGHT?

Very quickly. The offer came, I’d finished, we had the opening, and we went to France, as a family, and I think a courier came and brought a request to look at the play, and a request for a meeting. And they knew that there would be a second Beatles film which would start in February or March, so it had to happen quickly. The story of my life is, “You’ve only got two weeks.” I mean, JUGGERNAUT was rewritten in two and a half weeks, completely.

With THE KNACK, we had the time, because Charles Wood and I started, and I think we did close to four or five screenplays before we started. We tried getting rid of one of the characters [poor Tom!] we threw everything out and started from scratch, taking the essence of the piece and trying to make it into cinema, and not be what it was. And out of it, a lot of the quality of the characters changed. Tolen, who was quite a Nazi figure, a fascist figure, became the most pitiful of them.

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Did you think it would be too obvious, to have him be fascist, or did you just not believe it?

I just believed that ultimately that would lead to foolishness. Tom says, about Tolen, “He must be a sexual failure.” “He’s having it five times a day.” “Well exactly.” [laughs].

And eventually he joins the Greek chorus.

Yes, the roles reverse.

I suppose because you changed it so much, you don’t have the benefit of being able to say “This is a serious feminist comedy” and the use of the word “rape” has become problematic.

Yes it has. I found, suddenly, it became an issue. Mostly in Eastern European countries, which was odd: that’s where it first started. What I don’t remember is whether than sequence, or anything like it, happened in the play.

[It did: and the play’s use of the word is just as whimsical as the film’s, part of an ongoing strategy whereby words lose their meanings, or acquire new ones — “What about the cases?” being a good example. I showed the film to students once and it was, indeed, a Polish girl who found the R word shocking and perplexing. And one would never accuse the Poles of being slow at seeing the uses of metaphor, or being compelled to take things literally. Look at the movies they make.]

With that word, Nancy suddenly becomes the most powerful character in the film.

Yeah.

Were you surprised it got an “X” certificate at the time?

[Laughs] Everything got an “X” certificate the time! Almost everything I did.

Lester was interested in packing a scene with so much detail — action, music, voice-over and subtitles — that any given group of people in the audience might be taking in entirely different elements.

And THE KNACK was your first film collaboration with David Watkin.

Yes. We were working together in commercials. I brought David on. [He had] worked in British Transport Films, doing railway films. I got David his first commercials, which he did with me, and then his first feature, and then his first colour feature [HELP!]. And then we just stayed working together, it was a wonderful experience. He was a man, like myself, of foolhardy courage. he would try anything. He would experiment with leaving the silver nitrate in the negative to see what the colours came out like… without much cover!

It’s a shame he didn’t make more black and white films…

I think the most beautiful black and white film I ever saw was David’s film of MADEMOISELLE, Tony Richardson’s film, which was booed out of the cinema when it showed at Cannes. They just ridiculed it. But it was absolutely stunning.

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The white room was a huge innovation…

We did it first in a white kitchen of an Irish actress who was doing a commercial. And when the rushes came back, that had happened, and she looked slightly negroid, which didn’t attract the clients enormously. But where it came into its own, I think, was MARAT/SADE, where he was putting so much backlight into people that they began to distort, in the way that those Henri Lartigue photographs did. And THE DEVILS, again. 

And THE KNACK introduces the Greek chorus…

I don’t know how we started to do it, but very early on I put a small Arriflex with a baby 4-1 zoom, which was quite easy to use, and we would put a GPO hide — they used to have a little tent, if they were working down a manhole, they would put it on — we would just stick that on the pavement where we were shooting a sequence, as most of the film was shot outdoors, and photograph the people who had stopped to look. And then, when we cut the most interesting bits in, Charles and I wrote a few gags, and then we got a group of voice artists, like [John] Bluthal, like Adrian Edmondson whom I used to use a lot [later, I assume], like Miriam Margolyes, who could be relied upon to ad-lib. Say, You be the woman there, you be the man, and you play around until you get some bits, and then lay them over. Which I liked, as a technique, very much. So you got the sense that this group of young people were playing against a Greek chorus of disapproval.

It worked very well, for me, in setting that tone for THE MUSKETEERS. The “us and them” part of it, the fact that you have people, the servant class, who are always there. We put in that line ~

“This [pass] is for one person.”

“I am one person. That is a servant.”

I also asked, though I can’t find the bit on the tape so this next bit is a paraphrase, whether Lester ever fell in love with the temp track during his edits, so that it became a wrench to replace it with the newly commissioned score.

ALWAYS! I score the end of THE KNACK with THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG. Though John Barry did… quite a good job, on that occasion, so it was alright.

To end with, I want to link to my first ever post on Shadowplay, which is about THE KNACK, so for one day the blog can become an unending moebius strip. There.

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13 Responses to “Film Club: The Knack”

  1. Truly an awesome post. A lively discussion by intelligent people all ’round. I have to say, it reinforced my views on the film, ones I developed right on first viewing. Rita is a fave from way back in my school days, so it was fun reading and hearing her voice in my head, more than any other actor interview I can remember. Jellicoe and Wood seemed to have meshed, I haven’t read the play, but the film is the better for it evidently. Lester has always been a favorite, A HARD DAY’S NIGHT being one of the first music films (as opposed to musicals) to really interest me, being caught up in the British Invasion as it happened. I’ll be re-reading this pot for a while, it’s so much fun.

  2. Thanks!

    Neil Sinyard’s study of Lester suggests that Tolen’s fascism (made explicit in the play by Tom) has been replaced with a sort of consumerism — this is mostly supported by various little gags added by Lester, and connects up with the widening of the story world to reveal a London that’s beginning to think about swinging.

  3. Fabulous stuff. Regarding “Rape!” Here’s a number from The Fantasticks (one of the longest-running musicals of all-time) that was sadly “revised” over the years and not used in Michael Ritchie’s curious film version at all. It’s rarely ever performed.

  4. I saw it for the first time this past Friday. I had been under the impression that I had seen it before, on television, decades back. But whatever the hell I remembered—color, harpsichords on the soundtrack, kind of fun but nothing special, Oliver Reed as Michael Crawford’s brother—is not this. THIS was exhilarating. Aside from finding out that my brain has turned to macaroni salad, that is.

    Now having read this spectacular post, I have to rethink a bunch of the notes I made because (for one thing) much that I assumed had been imported from the play turns out to have been invented or inverted. Moving “small, vigorous, balanced, sensitive in his movements” from the character description into the dialogue is so inspired I can only shake my head in awe.

    More anon.

  5. Jeff, you may be thinking of The Jokers, in which Crawford and Reed play brothers trying to steal the crown jewels in Swinging London.

  6. Well, at least I didn’t mix it up with Curse of the Werewolf

  7. Had the pleasure of seeing The Jokers projected at EIFF and it was better than I remembered — but it’s no Knack!

    Glad you enjoyed it, Jeff. Mr. Wood’s “always return to the source” may account for his inspiration to cannibalize the character description as dialogue. It’s delightful.

    Also, the John Bluthal role is great because he brings the Greek Chorus into the foreground, preparing the way for Tolen getting absorbed into the hive-mind.

  8. Where’s the rest of the club?? Anyway—

    I think this is the only film I’ve seen where the sight gags are used to supply texture. I first wrote ‘tone’ but I think that’s not it. We’re in a world where people walk into open basement access doors, and you can turn the corner in the middle of a chase and pass under the man you’re chasing because he’s wedged himself into a comfortable reclining position between the alley walls and having a smoke. What’s really interesting to me: despite that, it’s not a fun world. Colin’s fantasies are pretty depressing and occasionally indistinguishable from his reality. It makes perfect sense that Tom wants to paint everything bright white. Who wouldn’t?

    Some of the more elaborate set pieces, notably the water skiing bit, don’t work for me at all and I truly don’t know if they’re intended to ‘work.’ They seem desperate in the same way that Colin seems desperate, which is perhaps the point. But it doesn’t really matter. For a movie so crammed with stuff, it’s got a lot of air, and room for blown jokes, puzzling non-sequiturs, and accents so thick I had to turn on the subtitles. (“Cherry filled, par muff wrench” turned out to be “Jerry-rigged, par’ my French.”).

    There was an endless freeze frame during the photo booth scene which I thought a bit much but it turned out to be a function of whatever sandwich the previous viewer of the NetFlix disc had made just before putting the disc back into the envelope.

    Brooks, Crawford, and Donnelly would have been so perfectly cast as the leads in Up Against It that I find myself wondering if Orton was thinking exactly that, at least once the Beatles passed on it and he was cutting the four main parts to three ((George + Ringo) ÷ 2 = Donal Donnelly?).

  9. Up Against it was mooted to star Ian McKellan and Mick Jagger, if you can imagine that.

    Hopefully the rest of the club will turn up soon…

    Yes to the glumness — Britain hasn’t blossomed into colour yet and we’re mainly looking at it through the eyes of a baffled newcomer, a frustrated schoolteacher, and all those disapproving onlookers. Once London started swinging, it lost that miserable side which adds grit to the texture of this one. By the time you get to Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush it’s become intolerably jaunty.

  10. Just looking at my pristine DVD again.

    It should be noted that when Jane Birkin makes her very first cinematic entrance (an event of overwhelming import for the History of Heterosexuality) to borrow a chair from Michael Crawford, the credit for the film’s score appears. It’s by John Barry ,who not long after the completion of The Knack became Jane’s first husband.

  11. Some of the Talking Points Questions

    Is Michael Crawford annoying? Or brilliant? Or both?

    I remember liking him in How I Won the War and Forum, assuming that I’m not conflating them with Terror of the Tongs and Ice Station Zebra. I was not prepared for how very annoying he is here, initially. He’s brilliant at it, but desperation is unappealing, especially if it’s this well played. I wanted to throw a bottle at him. I was not rooting for him, let’s say. However, in the white room scene Robert Thomson mentions back in comment # 2 of the Talking Points post, he was riveting (as well as riveted). This is what you want to become. How do you like it? From that moment on, I thought he was terrific. (During a second viewing on YouTube, Crawford seemed terrific from the get-go).

    Prior to that scene I kept thinking about who I’d rather have seen in the part (usually I only do that with Gregory Peck movies)—Tom Courtney? Michael York?—and when I got to Dudley Moore as Colin, I naturally thought of Peter Cook as Tolen, and zoop! we were more than half way to Bedazzled. It’s almost as if they’d said, “Let’s do that. Only, let’s not go there. We’ll wander over this way, instead.” (I think that although Dudley could be annoying when he wanted, he still would have been lovable and it would have softened everything too much. Whatever you want to say about The Knack, it isn’t soft).

    Have you read or seen the play? What do you think of the changes? I think structurally, it’s one of the best adaptations ever — as Lester said, not so much “opening out” as EXPLODING the play. Also, they come up with an ending for Tolen, which the play lacks — I guess the point being that he’s an unchanging character. But I love what the film does with him. “We’re all of us more or less sexual failures.”

    Haven’t seen it or read it, and I couldn’t find even a decent synopsis. It doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page, although a guy who played bass in a bar band with me does. (Of course, a play can’t write its own Wikipedia page, cough cough). But if I’m reading Mr. Wood correctly, Nancy’s entire journey around London is original to the movie. There’s so much great stuff there. The scene in the clothing shop where she’s virtually mesmerized by the clerk into trying on the dress, and then snaps out of it when she hears him using the same spiel verbatim on another customer. Then she turns it back on him. It’s our first glimpse of her hidden depths (or her Secret Powers) and it’s important. It also very nicely prefigures the scene where Tolen virtually mesmerizes her into going upstairs with him, and all that follows.

    The Greek chorus. Why aren’t there more Greek choruses in movies?

    There should be. I tried to shoehorn a Greek chorus into The We & the I and it survived for a couple of drafts. No one loved it but me, tho, so the only vestiges are a handful of lines in mouths of characters who have no idea they’re speaking Greek. Paul Proch and I talked about having a Greek chorus of beatniks in Wallace Berry Wrestling Movie but ultimately did not, I forget why. FUN FACT: If you try to employ that 2500 year-old trope in your movie, you will be accused of indulging in “post-modern bullshit.”

    Do you find Ray Brooks attractive? I find Rita Tushingham attractive.

    Ray Brooks was completely new to me. I went to his Wikipedia page expecting to learn he’d been hit by a truck or something a week after The Knack opened. I am amazed he is not only alive but alive and still at work. How was this not a star-making part? (He looks eerily like the actor who plays Mickey Milkovich on the American version of Shameless, btw).

    Rita Tushingham is beyond wonderful. She has silent movie star eyes. You kind of want someone in the movie to say, “Quick! Throw away that horrible goddamn coat and put on these go-go boots! You’ll own the world!” There’s a moment where she seems to will herself to be irresistible, and then she is. One of her many super powers. She’s like a one-woman Avengers: Age of Ultron, except my daughter isn’t telling me to stop looking at my watch.

  12. Fiona likens Ray Brooks to “a handsome Andy Serkis” — and then compared Tolen to fascistic serial killer Ian Brady (in his look), a role Serkis played in an excellent TV movie.

    He was the voice of all our childhoods in a minimally-animated kids’ show called Mr Benn, which you can find on YouTube, i think. It’s charming, so long as you don’t think of Tolen. (I think he plays the disintegration at the end of The Knack WONDERFULLY.)

    Rita got to be outright glamorous soon after The Knack — and still is.

    Yes, Nancy’s journey, the bed’s journey (much imitated/ripped-off) and the chase near the end were all added.

    Lester’s placement of credits is often revealing — I asked him about his name and the producer’s name appearing over colliding sedan chairs in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and he denied meaning anything by it. But that collision with Melvin Frank was very real!

  13. […] David Cairns celebrates The Knack at his website, with fresh interviews with screenwriter Charles Wood (“I fancied getting back into uniform for a minute and being a Horse Guard rather than a Lancer this time and Richard didn’t think the line meant anything so he punished me by making me say it—I got my own back by doing it badly. Serves him right. Shouldn’t meddle in military matters.”) and Rita Tushingham (“[Lester] doesn’t labour it, he goes onto the next—and this is what was so innovative about him when he came to the fore, and a lot of people have been inspired and copied his style—the comedy sort of rolls on. You hope the audience are going to be with you, but you don’t layer it on like… a thick layer of lard.”); and older interviews with Richard Lester (“The story of my life is, “You’ve only got two weeks.” I mean, Juggernaut was rewritten in two and a half weeks, completely.”) and the late cinematographer David Watkin, the latter conducted by Allen Thomson (“The first film, I can remember this, that when The Knack won a Golden Palm I think at Cannes and I was talking to Richard on the phone about that and he said, ‘Now you can go steadily downhill from now on.’ No, I would always be very grateful and I owe him a tremendous amount.”). […]

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