Archive for the Television Category

A softly falling silent shroud of snow

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , on October 31, 2015 by dcairns

This is really wonderful. I didn’t know the classic story it’s based on, by Conrad Aiken, but it’s beautiful and very very strange. This semi-professional filming (the IMDb doesn’t know of its existence) manages a kind of expressive naivety in its effects which works well. The same filmmaker, Gene Kearney, later filmed the story again for Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, with Orson Welles as narrator. I must see that, though I sort of doubt it will be as good in colour, with an NBC TV look to it. The narrator on this version does great. But I must admit I’m psyched to hear Welles do it. Where did I put my set of Night Gallery season 2?



Found it! Wonderful to hear Welles at work on this text, and the episode justifies the whole existence of Night Gallery (which, let’s face it, was frequently crummy) — it’s the kind of material one simply can’t imagine seeing on television. Having said that, feeding it through the NBC de-flavouring machine does result in a loss of visual atmosphere. In the b&w version you COULD close your eyes and still enjoy it, but you really WANT to watch.



I’m reminded of the fact that the great Wendy Toye remade her own masterpiece, THE STRANGER LEFT NO CARD, as an episode of Tales of the Unexpected. I’m very curious to see it, but despite a TOTU box set and constant TV replaying, that one never seems to turn up…


Note: the ending of Youtube’s SSSS seems abrupt, and comes before the last couple of lines of the short story. Truncation was suspected — but Night Gallery trims the show at exactly the same line, so I guess that’s Keirney’s decision, and all that can be missing is some kind of end title.

No Bodices Were Ripped During the Making of This Film

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 14, 2015 by dcairns


Managed to almost completely avoid the series Sharpe when it was on in the nineties. The little I saw impressed me mildly with its attempts at scale (reconstructing the Napoleonic Wars, done better with the aid of modern tech in the recent Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which more people should have watched) and I noted that Charles Wood had written some episodes, and saw enough to recognize that his patented period style, as heard in the 1968 CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, was present and correct.

Now, having becomes something of a Wood obsessive (I’ve seen all the Richard Lester films — but there remains a lot of Wood writing to catch up on), I decided to check out Sharpe’s Company, but first there was Sharpe’s Gold, written by Nigel Kneale, whose work we have been re-devouring.


The Kneale script is probably the episode which differs most markedly from its Bernard Cornwell source novel — Kneale “had an idea which was more fun” and turned the adventure into, effectively, a 1930s serial, with a sinister Aztec cult hiding in the Portuguese hills, damsels in distress, last-minute rescues and hidden treasure. It may actually be the silliest of the Sharpes, except for those which commit the far sillier mistake of being dull.

Michael Palin’s refrain in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL — “And no singing!” would be a very useful one here, as Sharpe is accompanied by a mournful balladeer, who ought by rights to have been fragged before the opening exposition scroll had finished trundling upscreen. I know that folk music, like rape, was very much a part of warfare at the time, but I don’t see any reason to dwell on such atrocities.


The Kneale Sharpe is fun, and we were able to spot points of connection with his other Napoleonic scenario, H.M.S. DEFIANT (aka DAMN THE DEFIANT!), but the first Wood Sharpe is altogether superior. Gifted with a character widely held to be the nastiest villain in the Sharpe canon, Wood creates for Pete Postlethwaite a truly lunatic caricature — twitching, blinking, staring glassily, talking to himself, talking to a photograph portrait he stole which he insists on believing is his mother, boasting a rope-marked neck from a botched hanging, and convinced that he cannot die, Obadiah Hakeswill is grotesque, horrible, almost supernatural, pure evil, and yet wholly believable. You simply can’t convince yourself that anyone could make such a character up.

Most of this maniac’s character seems to have been forged in the source novel, but I’m sure Wood and Postlethwaite allowed him to accrete more layers of creepy weirdness.

The dialogue is amazing — people don’t really notice a lot of what they see and hear on TV, but it’s incredible to me that reviewers at the time didn’t remark on the spectacular oddities Wood was firing out of his cast’s throats. Here’s an officer who has lost many good men ~

“Jack Collett dead. I loved him. Rhymer gone. My pockets full of bits of dust and stone.”

He’s mourning friends and comrades but he stops to observe the lamentable state of his pockets. He may be talking metaphorically. I don’t think he, or the actor playing him, quite knows. And it’s wonderful. I can’t explain it because I don’t understand it, but I think it’s because (1) it’s astonishing, and astonishment confirms we’re alive and (2) everybody involved has decided to believe it.


One of Wood’s talents which adds conviction to any scene is a willingness to let the tone be determined by whatever might happen, rather than setting a tone and trying to make everything match it. In a tense briefing scene, the drama derails into comedy when it starts raining outside. And it keeps derailing, despite everything that’s at stake for Sean Bean’s Sharpe. Of course, this is true to life, and you can observe it in the work of other writers who seem superficially very stylised — Preston Sturges, William Shakespeare. The refusal to obey the colour swatches set down in the big book of drama results in something lifelike in its waywardness, and the lifelike quality more than compensates for the wayward quality.

sharpe’s company from David Cairns on Vimeo.

In the following episode, there’s Postlethwaite again, but he has almost nothing to do. Sharpe and some officers gather in the exact same medium shots in the exact same tent, and the scene falls flat — everyone just stands around waiting to say his line. Sean Bean reverts to lumpen mode. The solution to this mystery is that Charles Wood didn’t write this one. And you realize that not only is his dialogue a firework display, it’s allied to pin-sharp dramatic focus, even as it seems inclined to rocket off into random byways of comedy or oddness. In the hands of a lesser writer, the same material seems translucently thin and flat as a Liz Hurley line reading. Oh, and Liz Hurley’s in it too. Postlethwaite manages to probe a bit of a performance out of her by brushing stray bits of dirt off her tits (see top), which distracts her from her usual “I-am-reading-my-lines” approach, but it’s still heavy weather. The idea of Liz Hurley in the hands of television’s most demented psychopath seemed briefly alluring (Fiona: “I cannot WAIT to see Liz Hurley brutalized by Pete Postlethwaite”) which isn’t quite what you SHOULD be feeling, but like I say, PP/Obadiah gets nothing much to do.

Still, the episode establishes that all Liz Hurley ever needed to give a good performance was to have a madman dusting her knockers in every scene.

Extraordinary Mass Delusions

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , on September 8, 2015 by dcairns


Our viewing of QUATERMASS AND THE PIT tied in nicely with my reading of Jon Ronson’s new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The author’s interest in the phenomenon of public shaming, which seems to have migrated from the medieval stocks to Twitter, leads him to explore ideas about deinviduation, and the behaviour of crowds. He traces many of our assumptions about mobs and riots to The Crowd, a book by Gustave Le Bon, who wrote at the time of Napoleon III and first propagated the idea that mobs have a kind of group madness, are in fact possessed by a force which does not dwell in any one of them but infects them all.

Unfortunately, Ronson discovers that Le Bon was a racist, a misogynist and a colossal snob, even by the standards of the times, and his beliefs did not really result from scientific research, so much as prejudice and a desire to ingratiate himself with the powerful. If the mob is motivated by a kind of mental illness, then any grievances they are protesting can be ignored as irrelevant.

Ronson never gets as far as a complete theory of what is happening in mob actions — he suspects that the London rioters never reached his house because he lives up a steep hill, and each riot participant made a sane and reasonable decision not to riot uphill. This is an interesting way to consider it, with interesting implications, but it’s too far off-topic in Ronson’s book for him to pursue much further.

It seems to me that a riot or a vicious public shaming creates a kind of anomie, where participants see others misbehaving and being popular for it, and their worst instincts are given a license to run riot. It seems that we mostly don’t live by a moral code, but by a sense of what we’re told is OK from moment to moment, and what we think we’ll get away with. In this sense, perhaps the Stanford Prison Experiment, which Ronson explores in detail (and complicates nicely), is less relevant here than Milgram’s obedience experiments.


QUATERMASS AND THE PIT climaxes with mob violence on the streets of London — author Nigel Kneale received some criticism for this at the time of the TV version, since the Notting Hill Race riots were of recent memory. Kneale’s vision of an ethnic purge was inspired by the attacks on black Londoners by racist gangs. His intentions were misunderstood, rather wilfully I think. But he has been seduced by Le Bon’s popular notion of riots as a manifestation of primitive impulse, a plague of savagery that sweeps through a population. Since the Martian madness of the series and film is tied to race memories buried in the human unconscious, it could easily be connected with the xenophobe’s view of the Notting Hill riots as an eruption of primitive instincts, a reversion to type.


I think the scene where a vaguely Jewish-looking man is stoned by the possessed mob shows clearly the kind of savagery Kneale is concerned with.

By the time of the final Quatermass TV series of 1979, Kneale is perhaps a little more conservative. As with his channelling of Le Bon’s ideas in Quatermass and the Pit, here he ties real sociological happenings to a science fiction explanation, connecting youth protest and his own, violent extrapolation of the hippy movement, to an alien force manipulating our minds. On the other hand, the young person’s perennial argument, that the old have got it wrong and made a mess of the world, is shown to be entirely justified. Kneale, like Quatermass, positions himself between the rebels and the authorities, a lone voice crying in the wilderness.


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