Archive for the Theatre Category

We Don’t Even Know Who Won the War

Posted in FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2015 by dcairns



THE BED SITTING ROOM was shot in either ’68 or ’69 but didn’t open until 1970 so it seems the perfect transitional film to bring us into Seventies Sci-Fi Week here on Shadowplay. A wise man once said, “The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over and […] we have failed to paint it black.” My Forgotten essay on the film is here and it’s called The End of History. Below you can hear from three of the principle talents involved.

Star Rita Tushingham (who comes at the top of the cast list, since it is in ascending order of height), cinematographer the late David Watkin (courtesy of Allan Thomson) and director Richard Lester. So it’s a kind of Stealth Film Club I’m springing on you here.

An apocalyptic comedy, adapted by Charles Wood from the play by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus, filmed on location in the ruins of Britain. A score of bedraggled survivors of “the Third — or was it the Fourth? — World War” try to carry on their lives as if nothing had happened, but institutions have now contracted into individuals and random mutations are transforming citizens into architecture and furniture and one parrot. Rita Tushingham plays the sixteen-month pregnant Penelope who lives on a train on the Circle Line (as in JUGGERNAUT, we’re all stuck going round in circles).



My friend David Ehrenstein said “Please ask about THE BED SITTING ROOM and Richard Warwick.”

Oh, darling Richard, yes. Richard was just… he looked at me and… I’d known Richard before, he was a friend of mine, and he said, “Oh! I, I – I don’t quite know — I don’t know what he wants! Oh! How are we supposed to do this?” And I said “Just do it! Trust him, trust him.” Because for some people, if you didn’t know Richard [Lester], he was so easy and knew exactly what he wanted, you had to trust him. Because he knows comedy — the visual is so important, and that’s what it is, we’re making a film.

But Richard [Warwick] was lovely, lovely to work with. He was slightly bumbly [Rita makes untranscribable but very funny bumbly sound], but he just got on with it and got into the swing of things.



I loved doing it because it was with a great group of actors. And it was an extraordinary film. Way ahead of its time.

I think, still.

Yes, me too. And when you look at it, it’s really touching. And there again, the characters had to be slightly crazy — to survive. Arthur Lowe was so touching, and Mona Washbourne, they were such lovely performances.

Michael Hordern was very funny because, my character and he get married, and I would always make fun with Michael and laugh because he was very conservative. I used to joke about, Oh, the Conservatives,” and stuff like that. He was quite stiff-upper-lip at times. Fantastic man and actor. And we had to do this scene where we’d just got married and we’re going to get into bed and there’s a meter at the side of the bed and he has to put money in it. And he had to put a board down his back, and he said to me, “Mwoh! Why am I doing this? What does this mean?” and I said, “Oh come on, Michael, surely you know?” and I always remember that because I was just sending him up, but, boy! He was very worried that he didn’t know why he should put a board down his back. Some kind of sexual enjoyment or something? He was hilarious. And lovely.



And Spike Milligan, of course.

That must have been strange for him to be suddenly in this world that he’d written for the stage…

It didn’t seem to bother him at all because he was always in his own world. He just got on with it. He had all th costume and everything. And Ralph Richardson! Ralph doing, and was so touching when he turns into the bed-sitting room. And Mona Washbourne. And Harry Secombe!

There were so many lovely performances from people and their world has been shattered.

When I interviewed Richard I mentioned that it had just struck me that the film was about the human tendency to carry on, and that’s both inspiring and despairing, because they’ll carry on making the same mistakes.

Talking about it now…because obviously you don’t sit around and think that much about films you’ve been in, that would be a sad state of affaris, but talking to you about it, when you think of all the people who were in it, they were all so touching in their way. It came out at a time when they were expecting other things, and Richard had to do a certain kind of film, and suddenly he did this film, which was very thoughtful and thought-provoking. Probably they didn’t know how to take it. But they SHOULD, because it was all there on the screen.



Allan Thomson’s interview with David Watkin also contains quite a bit on this film. With his permission, I quote ~

How I Won the War, The Bed Sitting Roam. Those two are very important films, very important and very good films, both of them. You see nobody has heard of The Bed Sitting Room. It’s just as important as Help! […] Just look at the cast list. And the Beatles are only a sort pop-group, for God’s sake. Let’s not get it out of proportion. A very useful pop group.


How I Won the War and The Bed-Sitting Room got a lot of static and were criticised and all the rest of it. Maybe didn’t as well as they could have done if they were more boring but the fact is that’s the reason why people will still be looking at them …50..60..100 years from now. It depends on how long your perspective is. I have no more money than I need but I have what I need, Which is quite good in a way because it keeps me working. It’s very exasperating doing the best criteria for anything* and I quite respect the fact that films are supposed to make money, it’s nice when they do but if that is the only thing that you have in your mind you will, make bad, boring and silly films,

And that and that is the sickening fact about our case – Richard – is that he won’t do it and fucking good for him.

I mean after The Bed-Sitting Room he didn’t do anything for ages, nobody would give him a film.

The thing is it wasn’t originally going to be The Bed Sitting Room, it was going to be Up Against It. You know all that story. Well they got all this money and were ready and of course Joe Orton was murdered and they couldn’t carry on with that and they did a quick switch to The Bed Sitting Room.

They will spend money making the film and then will spoil the picture because they always say if they don’t like it, so they won’t bother to publicize or to distribute it. I mean this is one of their inanities. They’ll spend a whole lot of money turning some dreary script into a blockbuster and yet when that something that really is worth putting out they think it is no good and pull it. It happened all the time.



I don’t look at the script, [only] in order to find out how many nights shooting. And find out roughly what the thing is about. I will only read the script once you see. Because if I get over familiar with it then I get bored with it. And then I won’t have an idea that’s worth having, I mean this is only me, I am not talking about anyone else, I am much better to be faced with something which is fresh and the thing about reading 3 script is when to do it. If someone sends me a script and they say they are going to make the film in six weeks time. I need to know what the thing is about, so I skim through it, or very often I give it to my boyfriend and he reads it. And then I have enough idea, but if I read it now it will be a different thing by the time I am going to shoot, because it will be constantly changing by the day, pink pages, yellow pages and brown pages and all the rest of it and you get this polychrome thing that is handed to you. And I would usually read a script just a couple of days before we are going to start shooting, or better still, probably about two weeks after we have started shooting because then I know who all the characters are and it comes alive for me.

There is a lovely story about Richard which I will tell you about Richard which is in my book so you mustn’t use it. Well, I don’t know, you can use it because it’s very funny. Because I know you know in the The Bed Sitting Room people are mutating into various things, Arthur Lowe turns into a parrot and “Moaning” Washbourne as she was called turns into a wardrobe. And we had one scene in the bed-sitting room and I lit it and thought “Nothing can go wrong here,” and I just sort of settled down for a quiet snooze. And they were just about film and Dick said “It’s important that we can see Mother in this,” which is Mona. So I was not sure, there’s no sign of her. And he did it quite deliberately because Mother in fact is the wardrobe so that was Richard’s idea of a little joke, which for a moment put me out.

No, it sounds silly and outrageous but it actually makes a lot of sense because 1 find that the ideas that are the most use are the ones that come uninvited, The ones come while you are poring over a script, oh Christ, I must have an idea about that, all 1 have is a crummy idea,

It’s much better when you just come, I don’t how to light a set until I have seen it. As soon as I see it the set will tell you what to do.


A lot of people think films are all set before shooting.

He and I are absolutely identical about this way, absolutely, I may have an idea beforehand; it may occasionally be a good one and I may occasionally try and do something about it, but for the most part, for me, I would say that it is more than 50% I would say that it is 70% in front of the set. I would rather have a really alive idea almost too late, so that there is a bit of a scurry to do it than have some dead, dead old thing that everybody has been preparing for three weeks, who wants that.

Is it the spontaneity of a new idea?

It isn’t that it is a new idea. It’s an idea that has actually sprung out of something instead of being tortured and come alive on its own. That’s why he and I probably have quite a good understanding of each other. Probably got a lot to do with it without my realizing at the time.



I found Spike a little strange because you know I did a couple of pictures with Spike and Richard, And Spike would turn up, arrive on the musketeers and I had done the whole of The Bed-Sitting Room with him, which was a long films and Spike would turn up and I don’t expect people to sort of flock around me in a way, it is if you have worked with someone for something like three months, you know a couple of years later and they haven’t the slightest idea, they know who you are Spike hadn’t the vaguest idea not the vaguest or he wasn’t interested. When you are working for someone for three months and then you come back a few years later for another five months and all you get is ‘How do you do.’

He is the one person who never took the slightest notice of “Richard” and called him “Dick” forever. I’m all for him. It’s not a criticism or complaint it’s an account of what I remember of Spike is he never remembered me.



From my interview with Richard Lester conducted for The Criterion Collection blu-ray of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT.

It got tied up ecologically […], with the fact that we were able to find such places of physical degradation, so easily, in mid-summer of 1969. Those were bad times. Everyone was feeling uncomfortable,. It wasn’t good. It worried Spike that some of the images, when put on a big screen — as opposed to a pile of boots in the Aldwych Theatre or wherever it was, you could sort of get away with it, but when you get piles of teeth or boots in the wide screen of desolation — it seemed to skew the film over into something heavier than Spike had expected. And I think it worried him. And it worried me that it worried him.

The play is, in a way, even darker, but because nothing is real…

That’s right. And you’re carried along by the fact that everybody looks at Spike and laughs.

In the play they not only eat the parrot that was Arthur Lowe, they eat the mutant baby as well.

Yes, we didn’t quite go that far.

It only just occurred to me that the true subject is not the bomb but our tendency to carry on mindlessly in spite of everything,

ABSOLUTELY. My way of describing it was that if you have a beautiful Doric column and put a bomb under it and explode it, it will fall in pieces to the ground, but each piece will be a perfect little Doric column in itself. It will find a way — like the sponges that you put into a Waring blender, when you let it settle it will return to being a perfect sponge. We will find a way to carry on. And the most strident of us — Peter Cook — will come to the top. “So watch it!”


It is the bleakest film you ever made, in a sense, because it has the complete paralysis of everything. Did that trouble you because of Milligan’s attitude or was it something you felt was a problem in the film?

I don’t think so. The troubling thing was that sense that it’s so easy for a society to do grave damage to itself. Feelings about annihilation due to nuclear accident, which was all in the air. I remember reading The Silent Spring by Rachel Carson… That sense that we have it in our power to have a great extinction and not even notice it, which is still with us all the time, is something that got muddled up with it, for me. I mean there was a place where we had Harry Secombe, and it was in the back of Port Talbot, in the back of the steelworks and the refinery and all that. And we had to have him in the water. And they said, “You can have him in the water but then you have to get him stripped down and washed within thirty seconds otherwise we won’t take any responsibility for it. This was a whole landscape filled with this dangerous water that was just there, and anybody could have walked into it.

So all this got muddled up… and it was wildly optimistic to think that anybody could make a film of the subject.

And you had Ralph Richardson.

An absolute delight. He was the one… summing him up: the film played the Berlin Film Festival, and he was sitting at a table with the mayor of Berlin and a lot of dignitaries, including the heads of United Artists. And he turned to the mayor and he said, “Oh, Mr. Mayor, I do so love your city.  It has the most wonderful [pause for breath] escalators.” And then turned and started to talk to someone next to him, and the poor mayor, first I think was mentally going through the English-German Dictionary, thinking that he’d made a terrible error, and then was just totally at a loss [laughs]. But Ralph was like that throughout life.


Do you think it’s lunchtime?

Yes, I think it probably is.


Lester spent the next five years, when he was at the peak of his powers and could easily have been making two films a year, shooting commercials in Italy. At one point he was making so much money he asked to be paid in wine. So that it’s possible the wine we had at lunch that day was earned as an indirect consequence of THE BED SITTING ROOM.

I do urge you to see the film, which is now easier to obtain than ever before. It languished in such obscurity that the makers of WHEN THE WIND BLOWS were able to claim, in the eighties, in my presence, that nobody had ever made a black comedy about life after the bomb before. Now, their film is the one that’s barely remembered and THE BED SITTING ROOM is starting to get some love.




Film Club: The Knack

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2015 by dcairns

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


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.



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.



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


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.


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?


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


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.



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.


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


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.


[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 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.


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.


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.


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.



Talking Points

Posted in FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on August 7, 2015 by dcairns


Richard Lester once said that the difference between A HARD DAY’S NIGHT and THE KNACK was the four protagonists of the former enjoy perfect communication without having to talk, while the four protagonists of the latter talk all the time without ever communicating. When this was quote back to him by Joseph Gelmis he described it as “Very glib, and very true.”

What do we talk about when we talk about THE KNACK?


The anxiety of influence — it could be argued that the film had a negative effect, because the dumb copies proliferated to such a degree that the original came to seem less fresh — part of the reason it was neglected/despised in the eighties — and because those copies became THE style of the sixties, and the British sixties in particular. It could be argued that the movie demonstrates the danger of injecting a concentrated dose of originality into a formally staid and sclerotic industry.

How does a film go from winning the Palme D’Or and defining the style of a generation of cinema (far more so than A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, actually) to being considered old hat and sexist and embarrassing? It’s the same film, after all.

Is Michael Crawford annoying? Or brilliant? Or both?

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.”

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

When is a rape joke not a rape joke? Is the film unconscious of the offence it might give, is it deliberately courting offence, does it offend you? Or, radically, can I suggest that the discomfort it produces entirely intentional and part of its meaning? The play is feminist. Is the film? A bit?

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

Donal Donnelly is in WATERLOO, THE GODFATHER III, THE DEAD, and worked for John Ford three times. Why is he not an axiom of cinema?

Pauline Kael said “It’s a great technique, but what can you do with it?” How should we answer her, bearing in mind that she can’t talk back?


Don’t rush to answer me now — think it over between now and Monday is when we will DO THIS THING. And of course don’t feel limited. I’m just interested in anybody’s responses, what bits strike them as interesting, what we can learn about film storytelling.

For now, here’s one question you CAN answer — can you think of KNACK-influenced films where the influence was positive? There are definitely some.

BTW, the whole film’s on YouTube (shouldn’t be, but is) so there are no excuses for not seeing it (except honesty).


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 631 other followers