Woodery-Pokery in York

This is the “paper” I “presented” in York the other week. Slightly worried I’ll become stuffy and dull in academic mode, but fortunately I have extracts of Charles Wood to contrast with that if I do. I quote from his work, from an old interview I did by email, and from a new one.

John Gielgud with John Mills in Charles Wood’s play Veterans (“A great night at the theatre” — R. Lester)

The term “woodery-pokery” was invented by John Gielgud to describe writer Charles Wood’s antic use of the English language, a blend of slang, wordplay, archaisms and uniquely contorted syntax which uses the hesitations and repetitions of real speech to dismantle more high-flown poetic language, and frequently ends a dramatic speech with a comical crashing to earth.

knack1 from David Cairns on Vimeo.

“Her lot was doing the behaving. All that leaping up and down in those– That’s what I behaviour! That’s provocative behaviour! We’ve all got to make allowances, find our equilibrium — at every turn! How?”

I was instantly, and have remained, fascinated by the line “That’s what I behaviour.” Clearly, a word is missing, the word which would make sense of it, the word “call.” “That’s what I call behaviour.”

Wood has dropped this word, rendering the sentence maddeningly incomplete. As we all know, most people don’t talk in proper sentences most of the time. Look at Donald Trump. But I don’t think Wood is merely trying to replicate the word soup we spout when stressed or confused. If he wanted to, he could do it more accurately than that. This doesn’t strike me as a realist technique, it isn’t the sort of mistake a person would make in speech. If they had word processors back then… it’s like a computer virus has infected the speaker’s brain and is causing random bits of data to drop out.

So entranced, so puzzled was I, I scanned the film for signs of a splice, thinking the word might have been omitted accidentally. It might even have originated as a mistyping by Wood, I thought. But director Richard Lester had gone on to shoot it, and Michael Crawford dutifully delivered the gibberish as written.

There’s no jump-cut in the scene, but maybe I was on to something. Was Wood using language the way the French nouvelle vague and the British new wave used the shot? As the speech goes on, the lacunae become bigger. “We’ve all got to make allowances, find our equilibrium — at every turn! How?” Whole sentences seem to be missing from this paragraph, as if we were listening to one end of a phone conversation the character was having with himself. It may not be accurate to realistic speech but it’s accurate to something: to the chaos that erupts in our brains, our fragmented internal conversations, which we don’t require to make total sense because we know what we mean.The speech is from The Knack, and How to Get It, the first collaboration between Royal Court playwright Charles Wood and American expat director Richard Lester, who would work together on numerous projects including Help!, How I Won the War and Cuba. Many of the most celebrated British directors of the sixties had these creative partnerships with writers: Joseph Losey’s work with Harold Pinter is a rare case where the writer’s name was picked up by critics and audiences. When writer David Sherwin spoke at Lindsay Anderson’s memorial, he felt a wave of shock from the room at the realisation that this name from the credits of If…. was actually attached to a real human being.

British writers in this period, brought a sense of surrealism and absurdity that contrasts with the more famous kitchen sink school, whether it be George Melly naming characters after words from Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky in his script for Smashing Time, or David Mercer’s mingling of fantasy and reality in Morgan: A Suitable case for Treatment.

Most of Wood’s work with Lester was on adaptations. (None of his own extraordinary plays have been filmed, and it’s hard to see how they could be, so epically do they own the stage.)

Of The Knack, Wood reports, “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 A Hard Day’s Night. I went off to write some pages for him.”

Wood makes a cameo.

Wood and Lester were never slavishly faithful to their sources — Lester described the approach to The Knack as being one of “exploding” the play rather than opening it out. Fragments of the debris of Ann Jellicoe’s feminist farce are reproduced exactly, but out of order and with the meaning sometimes softened, flipped or undercut. The depiction of the male philanderer, Tolen, as a proto-fascist is mostly jettisoned (Lester thought it silly) and he’s equated instead more with capitalism and advertising, a consumer devouring fashionable product then moving on to the next fresh thing, as insatiable and pointless as a shark.

Wood says: “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.”

Wood is applying something akin to William Burroughs’ fold-in technique to the text, chopping it and recombining the pieces. He even steals an entry from Jellicoe’s dramatis personae, and puts it in Michael Crawford’s mouth as a description of another character, which is hilarious because the profile is supposed to sum up the essence of the role rather than provide a useful physical description. “Small, vigorous, balanced, sensitive in his movements.”One of The Knack‘s innovations is the “Greek chorus of disapproval,” a layer of voices on the sound track commenting on the youthful main characters’ activities from a disgruntled, middle-aged perspective. Lester covertly filmed passers-by observing the shooting, and had Wood write a sort of commentary track of vox pop interviews, which we associate with the onscreen pedestrians, as if they had been asked to give their thoughts on what had just happened. This meant that Wood was involved in the film all through the edit, writing non-sequiturs and absurdist bluenose grumbling, an unusual workflow which probably helped cement the collaboration with Lester. “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 feel for her chest, that’s my feeling. I’m bound. Of course, it harbours rats. Jerry-built, pardon my French. I don’t subscribe to that sort of programme. Well I’m from Hampton-Wick myself so I’m used to innuendo.”

These disconnected fragments could either be written in long chains of nonsense, or tossed off as one-liners and dropped into the flow of the film as needed. Both methods were probably used. Dialogue became a freeform element of film, capable of being spliced up and rearranged without regard for strict sense or relevance. Language becomes more like tiles in a mosaic.

But the Greek chorus of disapproval, originating as just another layer which could run through the film as ironic commentary, turns out to have a narrative purpose also, when one character, falling from grace as a star of the young, smart crowd, ends up joining a group of bleak onlookers, undercutting the happy ending with their embittered asides. There are always places open for us in this chorus.

The second Beatles film, Help! (1965) was a challenging project for all concerned, as A Hard Day’s Night had been such a success the previous year but nobody wanted to simply remake it. Since the first film had a moderately realist surface, the follow-up was conceived as fantasy and farrago. Lester planned to keep it entertaining with visual fireworks, and wanted a script that did the same with language.

French-based American pulp writer Marc Behm pitched the plot of Jules Verne’s The Chinese Man from China without saying where he’d swiped it from, but this promising idea was nixed when a rival adaptation went into production. Charles Wood took over, though he later reflected, “It was just an assignment. I don’t think I did a particularly good job.”

It seems as if Marc Behm got a credit just for providing an unused idea, as Wood recalls coming up with the story. “I was fascinated by The Deceivers at the time by John Masters, so I made it about Thugee and Kali.” Master’s novel tells the story of an East India Company official who infiltrates a Hindu death cult. Wood reverses the pattern by having the cult pursue Ringo to get the sacrificial ring stuck on his finger.

Help! is deliberately a very silly film. The stereotyping of Indians can arguably be excused as part of the satire of Imperial fiction potboiler and their movie adaptations, even down to the casting of white actors in brownface, which was still standard practice even in serious treatments of the same kind of material, such as Hammer films’ various colonialist melodramas.

The loose plot keeps the action moving between songs, though the result is inevitably somewhat episodic: the repetitive threat/rescue alternation seems to owe a lot to The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu. Episodes in Switzerland and the Bahamas seem to have been included for tax purposes, but they give rise to some memorable sequences.

Wood’s skills come out best in dialogue when it’s not trying to deliver jokes, quips or smart remarks, but non-sequiturs, slang and garbled clichés and malapropisms. Comparing the dialogue to Wood’s stage work, the film seems amazing: the biggest pop band in the world made a film by a Royal Court dramatist whose surreal speeches seem like a mash-up/fold-in of Harold Pinter, Alan Bennett and William S. Burroughs. To find this stuff funny you have to accept that it doesn’t make sense. It isn’t a Marx Bros crosstalk routine because the jokes are nearly all abstract, they’re about painting word-pictures you can’t quite visualise, or jamming together bits of language that refuse to fit, or importing melodramatic attitudes into everyday life or vice versa. The line “I thought she was a sandwich, till she went spare on me hand,” is actually one of the saner utterances, in context.

The Beatles had just discovered marijuana and lost much of their interest in acting, and their skills in this area had never been highly developed, so their throwaway delivery and unconcerned manner allows them to float passively through the Bondian action, tossing off casual analyses of the ridiculous situations. As when Paul is shrunk to the size of an ant and narrowly avoids being stepped on. “We thought that was you,” says George, pointing at a red spot on the carpet, once Paul regains his full stature. “No, that’s not me,” replies Paul, calmly.

When Ringo can’t remove the deadly sacrificial ring, he remarks that the fire brigade once got his head out of some railings. “Did you want them to?” asks John. “No, I used to leave it there when I wasn’t using it for school,” Ringo explains serenely. “You can see a lot of the world from railings.”

For Lester’s next film, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, he was forbidden the services of a screenwriter to rework the existing script, so ended up cloistered with cinematographer Nicolas Roeg to cobble together a new draft in secret. He reunited with Wood, however, for his following work, How I Won the War in 1967.

How I Won the War is based on a lightly satirical novel by Patrick Ryan disliked by Lester: the task was not to be faithful but to cannibalize the book for anything useful while subverting it at every turn. Wood, however, recalls “I loved the book.” This seems to set a pattern begun with The Knack and continued through most of Lester and Wood’s work, with Lester taking a somewhat oppositional approach to the material and Wood seeing himself more as a sympathetic collaborator with the original author.

Wood says: “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.”

The novel is a comic romp, a parody of war memoirs. In it, the filmmakers saw the raw material for a Brechtian attack on war cinema, which typically pretends to view the tragedy of war with “respect”, but basically transforms it into heroic entertainment.

Having read the book, it’s a surprise to find swathes of dialogue reproduced verbatim in the movie, including speeches that feel like pure Charles Wood. “My advice to you is always to keep your rifles strapped to a suitable portion of your body, a leg is good, otherwise you’ll find the wily Pathan will strip himself, mother-naked, grease himself all over, slippery as an eel, make off with your rifle, which is a crime.” Again, a vital part of the narrative is omitted by the befuddled speaker, in this case, the reason the hypothetical Pathan should strip naked before his act of theft. That’s slipped into a later fragment: “The British army has always fought the wily Pathan, mother-naked, under the tent brailing like a snake he is.”

How I Won the War takes the explosion technique about as far as it could be expected to go and then some, beginning with the hero’s capture near the end of the war, then proceeding into flashback as he recounts his adventures up to this point, making a feint at the guys-on-a-mission conceit established in thickear stuff like The Dirty Dozen, then bypassing that and proceeding past the point the story is purportedly being narrated from, before finishing up in a contemporary setting with the hero staging a bleak reunion with the sole survivor of his unit.

But even within this non-linear timeline, disruptions are rife. We cut forward to another survivor from another unit, telling his story to his “child,” played by an adult in a school uniform. And his lips don’t move as he tells it. The effect is funny but terrifying, like much of the film, which quite consciously subverts and frustrates every emotional response the audience might be considering having.

We also cut to an audience watching the film itself, as Sergeant Transom yells for the camera to be taken away while a soldier breaks down from heat stroke and nervous strain. “Haven’t you insulted us enough without films?”

Wood incorporates fragments of his own stage works, notably Dingo, which established his sympathy with the common soldier and his uncommon ear for the unique slang and jargon of military speech, and a satirical ear for the cant and fake profundity of romantic writers on war. “The thing about fighting in the desert is that it is a clean war–without brutality,” muses Dingo. “And clean-limbed–without dishonorable action on either side.” Michael Crawford repeats these lines almost exactly in Lester’s film.

Wood recalls, “[I] had just had the Lord Chamberlain on my back over my play Dingo which had prevented it being produced at the National Theatre. So I shoved a lot of Dingo into it. Did twelve rewrites with Richard (I think.) Seemed like more. The dialogue is seamless of course because both Ryan and I had served in the same army, he up the sharp end, me ice cold – which brings to mind that both Dingo and War were a send up of all those war films. I always wanted to put The Cruel Sea through the Lester/Wood mincer much as I admired it… (But best of all for the mincer, In Which We Serve).”

David Lean’s films are also referenced by stolen snatches of music from Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia. I don’t know if Lean knew about this merciless ridicule when he befriended Lester later, based on his admiration for the editing in Petulia. (“It’s one of those pictures that make me proud of being a director.”)

How I Won the War elaborates on Dingo‘s approach, dropping bits of concert party / music hall comedy into realistically staged combat, and the cinematic scope allowed for even greater discordance between real landscapes and ordnance, and bizarre ruptures of time and space, as when a soldier with his legs blown off is “comforted” by his wife, who comes running in from nowhere in her apron and advises him to “run it under the cold tap, love.”

Lester noted ruefully, “One learns with time that Brechtian alienation is a synonym for audience’s backs disappearing down a street.” Nobody, it seems, at the time, was open to a film doing what Wood routinely did on the stage, jamming reality and surrealism, tragedy and comedy, up against one another so hard bits chipped off and flew in the customers’ faces. How I Won the War is a spiky, abrasive, uncomfortable film, uningratiating and free of sentimentality. Any time we are tempted to assume an agreeable closeness to the characters, the film tears them from our grasp.

Wood contributed, without credit, to Lester’s next film, Petulia. There was already a source novel and a screenplay, but Lester felt they were dishonest about the American middle class he came from. He returned to the US for the first time in fifteen years, bringing Wood with him, and they compiled notes based on things they saw and overheard. The film’s fragmentary style derives partly from this patchwork document, partly from Lester’s conviction that achronological editing was “a way to reflect that frazzled and disjointed response to a society that was in chaos,” and partly to “a lack of confidence that the story would hold up,” if told in a conventional linear way.

Six weeks before filming, Lester decided the script needed Americanizing, and handed Wood’s work to Lawrence Marcus, who was able to bring his own experience of divorce to the story (both Wood and Lester remain happily wed to their first wives).

Having shot the film in San Francisco during the Summer of Love, and terrified Warner Bros by shooting real people on the streets, Lester fled back to England to post-produce it away from studio interference, layering into the soundtrack many of the overheard lines from the initial research trip, though usually mixed so low they can only be partially heard. This blend of drama, quasi-documentary and satire, aggressively diced up together, helps create the film’s curious intensity.

While Wood was in Turkey for the filming of The Charge of the Light Brigade for Woodfall films, who had produced The Knack, the script credits for Petulia went to arbitration and as the middle writer he got left out.

The same year, 1968, saw the release of The Long Day’s Dying, directed by Peter Collinson from Wood’s first draft screenplay. Based on a novel from a former SAS commando, the WWII drama again showcases Wood’s military dialogue, but demonstrates what could happen when a less deft cinematic hand took charge. Collinson’s film-making is simple and effective, but his one grand cinematic gesture, an explosive climax shot in slow-motion and scored with Land of Hope and Glory, feels heavy-handed, compared to the more subtle ways Wood expresses his deep ambiguity about war and the military.

The Charge of the Light Brigade was another non-Lester film, this time for Tony Richardson, who also borrowed Lester’s usual cinematographer, David Watkin. Wood quickly produced an extremely wild first draft, nominally based on Cecil Woodham-Smith’s history, The Reason Why. This seems to have been intended to establish a claim on the title, which had been previously used by Warner Bros. Richardson encouraged a less cartoonish approach for the rewrite, but parts of the original were carried over. Animator Richard Williams rendered a series of sequences in the style of Victorian cartoons, which served as bridging material, and to broaden the story’s social sweep.

“The animation came from the earlier, wilder draft,” recalls Wood. “I did the words for the heroic song or anthem that John Addison asked me for. Should have a credit for that.”

“I do not propose to recount my life in any detail what is what. No damn business of anyone what is what, I am Lord Cardigan, that is what. Them cherrybums, you see ’em tight, my cherrybums, I keep ’em tight. Ten thousand a year out me own pocket I spend to clothe ’em. A master cutler sharps their swords and I keep ’em tight-stitched, cut to a shadow. Good.”

Wood brought to the dialogue an incredible feeling for the strangeness of Victorian speech, drawing on Thackeray, and also “memoirs of the time, the best way of making a stab at the spoken word is to get the rhythm – it’s there in the written word. Henty is […] great, though later. He lifted descriptions and dialogue direct from written source, great chunks of it.”

The writing of G.A. Henty, prolific English adventure novelist and war correspondent, was considered xenophobic even in the Victorian era, but his direct recording of military dialogue is an essential resource. Wood’s soldiers have their own peculiar syntax: though their behaviour often shows us how like us they are, their speech is filtered through Wood’s strange-maker. The resulting film feels uncommonly like time-travel, with the audience simply plunged into an alien period with no help from anyone. The playful optical effects Richardson had lavished on Tom Jones, mainly out of an attack of nerves in the edit room, are absent. It’s not a sexy romp: we end on a dead horse.

 Animator Richard Williams developed his technique of mixing from live-action to  animation on Lester’s Forum. “David Lean’s dedicated maniac” Eddie Fowlie supplied the dead horse, walking it into position and executing it himself.)

Wood’s last sixties work for Lester, apart from the unfilmed adaptation of George MacDonald Fraser’s first Flashman novel, was on The Bed Sitting Room. Lester had been preparing Joe Orton’s Up Against It, intended to star Mick Jagger and Ian McKellen, but one morning his chauffeur discovered Orton murdered. Lester switched from a musical satire to a surreal post-nuclear comedy without quite getting around to notifying United Artists, who were bankrolling it.

Here the original play is credited to Spike Milligan & John Antrobus, the screenplay to Antrobus, and an ambiguous credit of “adaptation” is given to Wood.

“I haven’t the faintest idea how the credit was arrived at,” says Wood. “I was astonished to find I had it though I had done some work on it I seem to remember. It was a terrific screenplay by Spike and John Antrobus so I didn’t do much.”

After the fragmentation of Lester’s previous films, The Bed-Sitting Room‘s simpler style and construction offers an early clue to the new direction. The proposed Flashman film collapsed, and Lester spent close to five years shooting commercials. His return in 1973 with The Three Musketeers, on which Wood did an uncredited polish, confirmed a style which, superficially at least, was more classical, less obtrusive.

Wood’s later films, though artistically ambitious, are genre films; his sixties scripts, even if they weren’t recognized as such, are art films.

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7 Responses to “Woodery-Pokery in York”

  1. What Wood does in “The Knack” is isolate the word “behavior” — as this is what the film is about.

  2. Verne’s “Chinese Adventures in China” was adapted by DeBroca as a Belmondo vehicle — also known as “Up to His Ears”

  3. Yes, it was announcement of the Belmondo film which changed Help!’s plotline.

    Agree that “behaviour” is important, but right before that line is another one: “I try to be a sympathetic because it’s wrong, I mean, isn’t it wrong?” which is harder to explain.

    I think Wood has occasionally struggled against those who don’t get what he’s up to, because it’s genuinely hard to explain. If it feels right to you, it is right, but there’s no simple way to decode the tricks he plays with language.

  4. chris schneider Says:

    I remember opening a copy of ME AND THE ARCH KOOK PETULIA, the novel, and recognizing dialogue that I thought was particularly Lester-ish. That bit about “Don’t think about it, it’ll only excite you …” I believe.

    The novel had a happy ending, btw. Something about Archie and Petulia at the breakfast table. For once it was the movie that added the unhappy ending.

  5. Lester didn’t like the books of How I Won the War OR Petulia, but the movies do use some bits fairly closely. It’s the context and meaning that changes.

    Hoping to have a rummage in the Wood archives in York and get more insight into the adaptation process…

  6. Please explain “… and executed it himself”??? Literally? As in murdered the creature?

  7. This is the story that’s been passed down to me by usually reliable sources. However, I’ve just read the late Mr. Fowlie’s memoir, in which he describes standing up to at least two directors who wanted to murder horses onscreen. On the other hand, he cheerfully admits to strangling a cockerell and discretely despatching four hamsters, for the sake of movies, so I’m not sure I trust him.

    The horse corpses on Charge came from the nearest knacker’s yard, so it’s possible he obtained a live one that was due to be offed. (Movies are often cruel but try to avoid waste…)

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