Archive for Burke and Hare

Albert Whitlock’s Edinburgh

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 27, 2010 by dcairns

Looking down on an artificial Greyfriars Kirk, with an artificial Castle behind it.

To entertain Fiona’s brother, Roddy, we screened Disney’s GREYFRIARS BOBBY: THE TRUE STORY OF A DOG, and wound up being hugely entertained ourselves. A surprisingly sophisticated, authentic and somewhat dark tale, it takes liberties with the historical record but serves up a rather neat tale. Don Chaffey directed, and the cast included Lawrence Naismith, one of Chaffey’s original Argonauts, as well as Donald Crisp, the bloke who bludgeoned Lillian Gish to death in BROKEN BLOSSOMS, and the face at the window that terrified Buster Keaton in THE NAVIGATOR. Both gents were superb.

The titular dog (given the Val Lewton treatment here) runs away from Gordon Jackson’s farm to follow his master, an aging crofter (Alex MacKenzie, THE MAGGIE, wonderfully moving) to Edinburgh. A city of torrential rain and loud drunks, then as now. The whole first act is watching this simple old man die, refusing a doctor. Impressively dour stuff for a family show. When MacKenzie’s buried, the dog refuses to leave his grave at night, and gradually the two old men who have tried to make Bobby behave like a normal domestic animal give in and help him to achieve his own lifestyle choice. For the dog is just as stubborn and difficult (in Scots we say “thrawn”) as his master was.

Kids appear, of course, played by the future editor of Paris Vogue, Joan Juliet Buck, and the talented Vincent Winter, who won a special Oscar for his role in THE KIDNAPPERS. Special Oscars were for children, cripples, and black people, you see. Winter’s co-star and co-winner, Jon Whiteley, went on to star in Fritz Lang’s MOONFLEET and Roy Ward Baker’s THE SPANISH GARDNER. THE KIDNAPPERS is a fantastically charming affair, with one of the worst soundtracks I’ve ever heard, an insistent barrage of inappropriate noise (hang your head, Bruce Montgomery), whereas GB:TTSOAD has a lovely score by Francis Chagrin, possibly his career high point.

The artificial Grassmarket viewed from the artificial Cowgate.

And I love imaginary landscapes, so I was delighted to see my home city turned into a series of them, courtesy of Albert Whitlock’s matte paintings. Very much an authentic portrayal of the 19th-century capital: it was even disappointing when they used an occasional location shot. The matte paintings are augmented by Michael Stringer’s stylised sets, which use forced perspective and big backdrops and are thoroughly charming. He even builds a convincing replica of Greyfriars Kirkyard, the original of which can be seen here. I immediately looked him up to see what else he’d done, and found A SHOT IN THE DARK. I have fond memories of Herbert Lom’s office in that one, with a view out the window of a miniature Paris. This is one of the benefits of being a Parisian police chief: they give you a miniature city, so you can step out the window and rampage like Kong, or just tower over it all like Fantomas. It’s a wonder Lom’s so frustrated when his job comes with a perk like that.

This angle delights me because, even though there’s no reason for it to be a painting, it is.

There was a recent version of the tale, not an official remake but another riff off the historical account, and my costume designer friend from CRY FOR BOBO, Ali Mitchell, worked on it. When she saw John Landis’s BURKE AND HARE recently she was able to spot much of the same costumery hired for BOBBY, and a few things she’d had made herself. I like spotting props and stuff reappearing in different films, but I’m not expert enough to identify costumes, normally — except all the FORBIDDEN PLANET gear that gets reused in QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE and a dozen other B-flicks.

Buy the original for your kids (better quality than my frame-grabs) ~

UK: Greyfriars Bobby [DVD] [1960]

USA: Greyfriars Bobby

My City 4: The Brodie-Snatcher

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2010 by dcairns

THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE.

Miss Jean Brodie and her girls are spied upon by Robert Stephens from his artist’s garrett as they walk through Greyfriars Churchyard. This is a key location in all versions of GREYFRIARS BOBBY (where the wee dug sits by his master’s grave) and also in Val Lewton and Robert Wise’s film THE BODY SNATCHER, which conflates the Burke and Hare story (as filtered through Robert Louis Stevenson’s fictionalization) with that of Bobby, who is disguised under the stage name Robbie. The low-budget Lewton makes do with an establishing shot of some other church and then plunges into the studio.

The real churchyard (or kirkyard, if you want to be sectarian about it) is quite a place, although difficult to capture on film — the real frissons come from extreme details of the weathered stonework, angels and deathsheads with their features eaten away by wind and rain. But it’s also a useful place because you can look in all directions without much chance of seeing anything too modern.

Fiona and I used to live on Forrest Road, overlooking the cemetery just like Robert Stephens, although I starved one flight up, rather than in a garrett. Trilby, Fiona’s then cat, and my current avatar, once escaped out the window, over another rooftop, and into the hallowed grounds. She returned unharmed the next day, which was a relief, since she was a housecat unused to the ways of the exterior. I don’t know what she’d have done if she’d met Greyfriars Bobby’s ghost — and remember, according to the ancient Egyptians (generally reliable) cats can see the spirits of the departed. You know when you catch your cat staring fixedly at nothing…?

A strange feature of the place, just about visible above, is the way some of the grave markers are actually built into the walls of residences surrounding the graveyard. Also, many of the graves are enclosed in little stone buildings with gates that lock, which is largely a protection against body-snatchers. St John’s Churchyard, a short distance away on the corner of Princes Street and Lothian Road, even has a watch-tower to allow a guard to keep an eye out for nocturnal speculators armed with shovels.

The cemetery was used again in BURKE AND HARE: THE MUSICAL, a film I wrote sometime in the last century. Had Burke and Hare ever actually engaged in graverobbing (which is unknown — they were arrested for mass murder, having followed the simpler practice of generating fresh corpses rather than harvesting them from the earth), Greyfriars would probably have been their local place of work.

We were allowed to plant little wooden crosses so we could pretend to dig up a fresh grave. The cemetery is apparently full of unmarked graves, including that of William McGonagall, the world’s worst poet (an influence on both WC Fields and Spike Milligan). It seems likely the grounds may have once been peppered with pauper’s markers. To fake the grave-robbery, a fake mound of earth was erected — no hole was actually dug. The corpse here is played by Simon Vickery, a talented cameraman.

A prostitute who winds up on a slab is played by genius director Morag McKinnon, whose feature debut may be getting released this year (I hope so!). And the director of B&H, Stephen Murphy, now earns a living in special makeup effects, notably on the HARRY POTTER films. Meanwhile, I have a screenplay to write, so –

[sound of echoing footsteps diminishing in the distance]

Just Wrong

Posted in FILM with tags , , on September 5, 2009 by dcairns

DSCF1782

Yep. I shit you not.

DSCF1781

Burke Strip Hare Club.

I kid you not, this is a real establishment in my home town. As regular readers know, I’m not skilled enough with PhotoShop to fake this.

On a related note, what is everybody’s favourite Burke and Hare movie? And should I buy BURKE AND HARE, the Vernon Sewell 1970s version, on DVD? I’ve heard conflicting reports on how good it is, or whether it’s any good at all.

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