Archive for John Cleese

Blue nose, blue pencil

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on August 25, 2017 by dcairns


Here’s part 2 of BBFC secretary/gentle maniac A.T.L. Watkins’ 1949 article on the British Board of Film Censors. Part 1 is here. Now read on ~

The board is an unofficial organisation which was set up in 1912 by the cinema trade to ensure an acceptable standard in the films it produces. From the fact that the trade set up its own censorship critics have hastily deduced a sinister liaison between the Board and the trade. Nothing could be further from the truth. The trade, through a representative committee, appoints the President of the Board, but there its association with censorship ends. The President, once appointed, is completely independent, and has a free hand to appoint his examiners and staff. There is a clear understanding that no one who has any connection whatever with the trade may serve on the Board. The idea that, in practice, the Board is influenced in its decisions by its obligation to the trade would cause some surprise in Wardour Street, where its impartial decisions have given too many painful headaches.

“Sinister liaison” is good. The Wardour Street reference is nostalgic. The entire British film industry was once clustered around Wardour Street — when I first went to Soho to mix the sound for my first film, this was still somewhat true. It’s more advertising now, I think. PEEPING TOM was really the only film which addressed the proximity of the film and sex trades in London.

The Censor is not an arbiter of taste. It is not his function to improve the quality of films or the public taste in films. The public will in the long run get the films it desires or deserves, and nothing the Censor can do will alter this. How much pleasanter indeed would be his task if his work were conducted on aesthetic principles — if he could reject what he did not like and allow what pleased his artistic taste. But such an approach would be far from his proper function. Dismal trash must be passed, if it does not offend; and conversely, even a film of artistic merit may require the blue pencil where the handling of its theme would be objectionable for a mixed cinema audience. The Censor’s function, then, is strictly limited, to take out of films what is likely to offend or likely to do harm. The quality of what remains the public must judge, and on their ultimate verdict must depend the artistic development of the cinema.

“Nobody has the right not to be offended.” ~ John Cleese. Being offended doesn’t actually do you any harm. It may actually be good for you, I’m not sure. I don’t mind having a system of classification, even though it’ll get things wrong a lot of the time. Some guidance for parents is useful. But seeing a film which presents a point of view you find obnoxious won’t harm you: it may broaden your mind.

The Board has no written Code, no neatly docketed list of things which are allowed and things which are not. It has been suggested that such a Code would help producers. The Board thinks it would have the reverse effect. The absence of a Code enables it to treat each picture, each incident, each line of dialogue on its merits. No two pictures are alike, everything depends on the treatment and the context. If the Board worked to a Code, it would have to stick to the Code. Films would be dealt with on the basis of hard-and-fast rules, no discretion would be exercised — and producers and public alike would be the losers. 

Interesting that this non-existent Code still merits a capital C. I’m going to have to get my hands on Tom Dewey’s Censored: The Story of Film Censorship in Britain to see if A.T.L. is really telling the truth here…

In part three, A.T.L. will describe the three main questions to be considered when censoring a film — tune in next time!

Egg and his face

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on February 5, 2011 by dcairns

Jon Whiteley in HUNTED prepares to suck eggs.

John Cleese, while working with Charles Crichton (either on A FISH CALLED WANDA or on one of the corporate training films they made together) once asked his director, “Were you the best director at Ealing?”

“No,” said Charlie. “Sandy [Mackendrick] was the best. I was the second best.”

HUNTED, starring young Whiteley and Dirk Bogarde, ably demonstrates Crichton’s skills — it’s beautifully shot and cut. Unfortunately, the script seems, well, unfinished — the tale of a criminal who takes a runaway boy with him as he tries to flee justice, it never produces a satisfactory explanation for why Dirk drags Jon along for the journey in the first place, and leaves us with a frustrating uncertainty as to the final outcome. Along the way, there’s terrific acting from the principles, and some terrific scenes.

Poor Dirk must have had a tough time — filming with a kid, and in Scotland, to boot. (Dirk was raised in Glasgow, and detested it.)

The highlight is Whiteley, in his debut role. He won the Oscar the next year for the second of his five films, THE KIDNAPPERS. He’s fantastically natural, with a serious, mournful air — the solemnity that makes him so funny in THE KIDNAPPERS and so moving in Fritz Lang’s MOONFLEET. But his best moments are obviously not acting at all, they’re just kid behaviour captured by a patient and prepared filmmaker.

Piercing his egg with a twig, little Jon almost loses it completely. Like most wee boys, he’s thrilled by mess, so the sudden sensation of exposed yolk/yuck places him in a helpless state of hilarity, mingled with a frisson of horror. “WHAT NOW?” his face signals, contorting itself in a fast-moving flickbook of emotion.

The other great bit is laughing and eating — again, impossible for this to be acted. Strangely exhilarating to watch.

A fish called supper.

In real life, kids’ faces move about all the time, as if attempting break loose from their skulls and run amok. And in real life, people’s faces sometimes move in more extreme ways than movie actors allow. Actors learn restraint, and to stop waggling their eyebrows, and generally they also lose the wonderful unselfconscious writhing, puffing and grimacing of the untutored countenance.

The Near Future

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2010 by dcairns

My friend Niall Greig Fulton’s retrospective season at Edinburgh Film Festival has already produced some fascinating and little-seen works from Britain in and around the seventies. While Peter Watkins’ PRIVILEGE is often dismissed as a misfire, it’s a very interesting one, and I haven’t ever read anything which really pins down its virtues and vices in a way I recognise.

Paul Jones and Jean Shrimpton get a lot of stick for their flat, depressive delivery, but the non-actors actually work quite well with Watkins’ faux-documentary approach. It’s the more experienced cast members, playing in a slightly comedic manner, who clash with the verité trappings. And indeed, those stylistic choices seem a little unhelpful. This is meant to be a near future world where a pop star is used as a means of controlling and subduing dissent. But no BBC documentarist would ever be allowed to document such a process in a real totalitarian state, so the film might have been more convincing as fiction. Or, if Watkins was determined to employ the style he’d successfully used on CULLODEN and THE WAR GAME, he ought to have had the grotesque establishment figures played in a more subdued manner — inventing the low-key comedy of something like The Office, perhaps.

Watkins seems a reclusive sort, but Kevin Billington was on hand to introduce his 1970 film THE RISE AND RISE OF MICHAEL RIMMER, which he co-scripted with Peter Cook, John Cleese and Graham Chapman (who all appear). While PRIVILEGE is set in a sixties vision of the near future, the Billington is resolutely contemporary, yet seems far more prophetic. It was nice to learn that the drones of Watkins’ dystopia are watched over by a coalition government, “since there is no longer any difference in policy between Labour and Conservative,” but RIMMER’s idea that party politics are rendered redundant by the overwhelming power of the PR department is more sinister yet.

In PRIVILEGE, the church harnesses the power of a youth icon to make the masses conform — “By 1990 the only people going to church will be the clergy,” and to boost attendance (but the film is oddly tone deaf about pop culture, and we’re never convinced a move this bald-faced would work), but the bishop played by the great Graham Crowden in RIMMER has progressed beyond this. “We’ve tried everything, you know:  pop groups, bingo, hallucinogenic drugs in the wafers, son et lumiere in the graveyards…” Rimmer, played by Peter Cook with sinister smiling emptiness, a thin void in smart duds, tells him the problem is God, and they had best get rid of Him.

Like all the films so far, the movies are both thronging with familiar acting talent — the lovely James Cossins is in both. And Harold Pinter appears as a current affairs show host — I laughed at the name of his show, Steven Hench is Talking To You. Here’s Billington on meeting Pinter ~

Billington: “It all seemed to be I was in, as I discovered later, this Pinter world, when you were with him. […] Whenever you were alone with him, wherever you were, the world became the way he wrote. It’s the most extraordinary thing. With just one or two marvelous writers, in a funny way, this is how the world is with them.”

Billington very sweetly apologized to the ladies in the audience for the film’s prevalent sexism — a near-pornographic advert for sweeties produced by Rimmer is acceptable as satire (and anybody who’s seen a ’70s Cadbury’s Flake ad know how close to reality it is) but starlet Vanessa Howard is served up in a gratuitous nude scene which cheapens the movie. She doesn’t have much of a role, and it’s sad when you see how amazing she is in Freddie Francis’s nearly-lost weirdfest GIRLY.

Meanwhile, we have creeping dictatorship, covert invasion of a non-threatening country, bogus weapons of mass destruction, and the evidence of a generous budget from Warners, making this an unusually lavish and ambitious British comedy for any era (produced by David Frost of FROST/NIXON fame).

Me: “There must have been times in the last several years when you’d be watching the news and experience deja vu. Was there a particular moment when you thought, ‘This might not be satire anymore?'”

Billington: “Absolutely. I do have to say that the whole New Labour thing smacked so much… of how you ask the people… this whole thing is the people, they’re going to decide. Which has obviously strong links back to socialism in the early days. That’s not the way it’s used here. […] I could see the way politicians wanted to use television, and what they were actually thinking was ‘How do we come across?’ […] So when Blair suddenly was there, and his youth, ‘a New Tomorrow’ etc etc… I shouldn’t go on about Blair because at the moment we have a chap called Cameron who has a certain amount of PR about him. So I’m not being party political at all now, it just happened that that’s the way it came.”

It certainly did.