Archive for Alan Bennett

The Dream of Wonderland of Long Ago

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2015 by dcairns

Delighted to have a contribution from Tim Hayes, the first entry to this blogathon to celebrate a composer, if I’m not mistaken. The composer in question being Basil Poledouris — if you know him, you love him, if you don’t know him, read the piece, you may find you have known him all along.


Coral Browne, stunning in DREAMCHILD (1985). It was to be her last role, and it is suitably valedictory. “The grim reaper wears a smile for me.” Written by Dennis Potter, whose work always had a quality of aching nostalgia, even when he was young, and whose masterpiece may be not a TV play, series or film, but his beautiful final interview.

DREAMCHILD is about facing death, which means facing your life and reflecting on it. As a vehicle for this, Potter chose Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the model for Alice in Wonderland, who made a trip to America aged 80 to be honoured by Columbia University. Potter equips her with a young companion Nicola Cowper, and a pushy American newspaperman (a ludicrously young Peter Gallagher). And, brilliantly, he mixes scenes from Lewis Carroll with memories of Charles Dodgson, the stuttering don who loved Alice and immortalized her, movingly played by Ian Holm (about twenty years too old for the part, but who cares when the performance is this good?).

I was lucky enough to see this on its (minimal, transitory) first release, with a Q&A with director Gavin Millar, a scholarly fellow who had made many BBC documentaries. One particularly good one on Fellini explains the presence of a rippling fabric sea in Wonderland, for the grotesque, menacing Gryphon and soggy Mock Turtle to exchange unpleasantries in front of.




The wonderland creatures, even the Hatter, are all played by animatronic creations from Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop. With its comparatively miniscule budget, DREAMCHILD could never have afforded these lavish practical effects, but Henson & Co decided to treat the film as r&d for the forthcoming LABYRINTH, so Millar got himself a bargain. The idea is to make the familiar fairytale figures threatening and disturbing, as the aged Alice has a bad conscience and is menaced by memories she doesn’t want to face. The Gryphon is voiced with Scots aggression by Fulton Mackay, who had plenty of experiences sitting on beaches in LOCAL HERO, the Turtle by Alan Bennett, and the March Hare by my idol Ken Campbell (who also appears as a radio sound effects man).

These sequences, and the transitions between them, are enhanced greatly by Stanley Myers’ sonorous score, which throbs and scrapes and elevates everything it touches with a high seriousness.


There are a few problems. The budget seems strained in places. Millar admitted that it was very hard to find stock footage of 30s New York in colour. I say that if stock footage is your answer, you may be asking the wrong question. Since the stock shots cannot be integrated with the actors, it can only serve as establishing shots, and “establishing shots are a waste of time,” as Brian DePalma once sagely grumbled. I can see why the movie might have looked too small and too internal without wide shots in the pretend New York (British locations and sets, reasonably effective). Getting a cameraman to the real New York and filming UP might have helped. Stylisation might have solved everything, but I can see why Millar wanted a contrast between the “real” and “fantasy” elements of the story.

Millar also confessed that the love story in the film struck him as its weakest element, and I agree. Part of this has to do with Gallagher, who seems quite capable of playing a fast-talking newspaperman of the period (Millar cited HIS GIRL FRIDAY as the model for this stuff), but who hasn’t been driven on or given his head, and who is surrounded by actors who need time to think, so the pace never reaches a third of what it should be.


Quibbles over — when the movie is in the past, it seems rich and lavish, and likewise the Wonderland scenes. Whenever it focuses on Coral Browne, it is a majestic success. And it has a secret weapon in Amelia Shankley as Little Alice, an incredible Personality Kid who can seemingly do anything, and is a match for Ian Holm in their scenes together. Millar remarked that the kids were amazingly good at looping dialogue, but really they’re amazing at everything. Shankley is immediately my favourite screen Alice, helped by the fact that she’s doing a different job than the others, playing the real girl rather than the fictional version (Potter’s character has more dimensions than Carroll’s) and by the fact that she’s close to the right age, unlike everyone else, ever. And since she has shorter, darker hair than the Tenniel illustration, she looks like the real girl and she’s free from comparisons with any other movie Alice anyway.

Millar’s excellent work with his cast is augmented by the disconcerting way he shuffles material — no doubt suggested at least by Potter, who delighted in flashbacks, dreams, daydreams — he brought the Fellini 8 1/2 approach to British television. It’s one big Kuleshov effect — elderly Alice looks, and the Charles Dodgson of seventy years ago looks back. Time shatters and the mirror fragments reflect a cluster of disconnected moments.

Browne was right to bow out here. There are distressingly few good roles for older actresses, and the chances of another part this rich coming along would be slim. With her big, wide, wide-apart eyes, she resembles at times an animatronic effect herself, but the life she projects is real, the lines on her face sculpted by time, not a modeller’s tools. I would wish for her a death as gracious as the one seemingly awaiting Alice, but it was not to be. Her death from cancer was protracted and undignified.

As a small recompense, she was granted immortality.

It’s a Long Shot but it Just Might Work

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2010 by dcairns

Neville Smith, Anne Zelda and Charles Gormley.

Very interesting seeing LONG SHOT, an obscure — indeed, near-vanished — semi-improvized drama-doc in which a producer (real-life prod Charlie Gormley) and a writer (real-life writer Neville Smith) try to find Sam Fuller at the 1977 Edinburgh Film Festival (Fuller was meant to turn up with Wim Wenders and THE AMERICAN FRIEND) in order to enlist his services. Fuller doesn’t show.

Director Maurice Hatton was a self-educated and slightly mysterious figure who had apparently acquired £19,000 and some soon-to-expire East German film stock, and so made the film on the hoof to get something on celluloid before his stock became unusable. The film actually got a TV airing in the early days of Channel 4, before dropping off the cinematic map altogether. I remember watching a bit of it before the static, long take, long-shot style bored me. I was only a kid.

Seeing it as an old, old man, I was depressed by the fact that nothing in Scotland seems to have changed, except that the Film Festival has a wider range of venues to draw upon (the marquee of the ABC Cinema — now the Odeon — can be seen in the film, with Wenders’ film on in Screen 2 but the movie version of ARE YOU BEING SERVED in Screen 1…). But it was nice to see then-festival-director Lynda Myles (co-author of The Movie Brats) in her Maria Schneider perm, and future festival director Jim Hickey, and Gormley’s little son Tommy, who is now one of Britain’s top assistant directors. Other cameos are contributed by Wenders, Stephen Frears (playing a man in the biscuit trade), Alan Bennett (in a totally different, non-naturalistic register from everybody else), John Boorman (“This is a script that’s desperate. Desperate to be a film.”) Susannah York, agent Dennis Selinger, likably satanic exec Sandy Lieberson, and Suzanne (CARRY ON EMMANNUELLE) Danielle.

Hatton’s grainy, static look is reminiscent of early Jarmusch, and his use of intertitles to set up each scene in a quirky way reinforces the resemblance. I also suspect Wenders is more of an inspiration than the movie admits. Somehow the sight of the nervous  Gormley and the defensive Smith struggling to get anything off the ground seemed like the last word in film biz floundering, illustrating the sisyphean, kafkaesque and quietly soul-destroying nature of hustling for movies, even though the film before our eyes was proof that miracles do sometimes happen. It’s a minor work, but the very fact that it exists is should give me hope.

Gormley and Smith’s movie, about the Scottish oil boom, never happened. Gormley, who was a pretty good actor, appeared in another film for Georges Sluizer, and worked with Bill Forsyth. Then he convinced himself he was a director and made a few films that way. I met him in the 90s and he was very nice, but I wasn’t convinced he’d chosen the right job. He probably thought the same about me, mind you. Neville Smith wrote another film playing in the fest this year, 1971’s GUMSHOE, which is a SUPERB script — funny and cunning and rhythmic, and all about our love affair with Hollywood movies. Almost uniquely for a British film, it leapfrogs off that love and manages to land on interesting territory of its own. Despite doing a lot of TV work, Smith hasn’t had another film made.

Frears turned up and introduced LONG SHOT, before bolting off to catch a plane so he wouldn’t have to look at it. At a panel session to discuss these vanished films, he expressed polite horror at the idea of UK 70s movies being rediscovered, and seemed content to rest on his better-known achievements from the Thatcher era. For me, the non-canonical work being celebrated in this season is a lot more interesting and enjoyable. Ken Russell’s SAVAGE MESSIAH next!

My copy of the 1978 Film Festival programme — proof that LONG SHOT does exist!

“My best film…”

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on June 19, 2010 by dcairns

BLACK RAINBOW, written and directed by Mike Hodges.

Fiona knows Mike, so now I do too. His paranormal-political thriller was one of the subjects of last night’s conversation, and how his reading of quantum mechanics informed the screenplay… Mike is on the jury for the Michael Powell Award this year, and thus sworn to secrecy. Despite the flowing wine, he was the soul of discretion on that point. It’s all the other stuff he told us I can’t talk about… ranging from Anthony Asquith’s role in the Profumo Affair, Alan Bennett’s reaction to WITCHFINDER GENERAL and a surprise revelation regarding the great Robert Fuest… all sealed, until fifty years after all our deaths. Yours too.

Then we dropped Mike at his hotel and got the bus home. It had just managed to get more or less dark, but the sky was still in the deeper stages of cobalt blue and giant seagulls were gliding down the tall streets like X-Wing fighters, scooping up the abandoned fish suppers, and they looked like the giant roc of mythology, large enough to snatch a baby elephant, and you think is nobody else noticing this?