Archive for Ken Campbell

Lionel’s Share

Posted in FILM with tags , , on December 31, 2015 by dcairns

atwill

Lionel Atwill, that Janus-faced smirker of pre-code legend, previously got the Shadowplay treatment in an early post celebrating his two-faced versatility. In a frank spirit of self-plagiarism I have returned to these themes for an alternative outlet: reader, I chiseled him.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Still More Things That Aren’t Films

Posted in literature, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2012 by dcairns

Seeker! Ken Campbell His Five Amazing Lives is the second biography of my hero Ken Campbell to appear. Merrifield was a friend and collaborator of Campbell’s, so his book has a more intimate rapport with its subject than Michael Coveney’s The Great Caper did. Merrifield GETS Campbell better.

Unfortunately, he’s in bad need of an editor, so that although his book is more in-depth, a good part of its bulk is made up of repetition and meandering. But it was great to get the inside track on Schlatzer’s Bouquet, a production I saw, written by JM, and which doesn’t rate a mention in the Coveney. Still nothing about Memories of Amnesia, though. Did anyone else see that one?

The productions I wish I’d seen are obviously Illuminatus! and The Warp (which played Edinburgh — I can remember the posters — but I was too little then), but his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with Chris Langham as Arthur Dent, the audience pushed around the theatre on a hovercraft, and a flat set painted red and green so that when you put on your tinted glasses it pops out into 3D — that must have been quite something.

Both books are essential for the True Seeker, although artistically Nina Conti’s moving, hilarious documentary Her Master’s Voice is the finest of the Campbell tributes. What’s great is that there’s so little overlap: I think maybe the only story used in both bios is the one about Campbell and friends descending in an elevator.

“Quick, on the floor!” orders Campbell, and they all lie down with their legs up in the air.

Ground floor: the doors slide open before startled onlookers.

“Well, that came down at a hell of a lick!” says Campbell.

***

I thought I’d gotten hold of all Richard Hughes books, and read two of the four, but then I’m in a Stockbridge charity shop and I find The Spider’s Palace. Remarkable that the author of A High Wind in Jamaica (strikingly filmed by Alexander Mackendrick), which has a rather leery view of childhood, should have written children’s fiction — a book of fairy tales from 1931 that seems to anticipate the iconoclastic absurdity of The Goon Show.

In Living in W’ales, the first story, a little girl and a labrador move into a whale, like Jonah and Pinocchio before them, but find the lack of food and bedding a problem…

Meanwhile the whale began to get rather worried about them. He had swallowed them without thinking much about it; but he soon began to wonder what was happening to them, and whether they were comfortable. He knew nothing at all about little girls. He thought she would probably want something to eat by now, but he didn’t know at all what. So he tried to talk down into his own inside, to ask her. But that is very difficult: at any rate he couldn’t do it. The words all came out instead of going in.

A friendly parrot creates a speaking tube out of a snake with the ends snipped off, and the whale interviews his intestinal tenant. The tube also allows him to feed her rice pudding. But then the little girl asks for a bed.

‘She wants a bed,’ the whale said to the parrot.

‘You go to Harrods for that,” said the parrot, “which is the biggest shop in London,’ and flew away.

When the whale got to Harrods, he went inside. One of the shopwalkers came up to him and said, ‘What can I do for you, please?’ which sounded very silly.

‘I want a bed,’ said the whale.

Mr Binks The Bed Man came up and looked rather worried.

‘I don’t know if have got a bed that will exactly fit you, sir,’ he said.

‘Why not, silly?’ said the whale. ‘I only want an ordinary one.’

‘Yes sir,’ said the Bed Man, ‘but it will have to be rather a large ordinary one, won’t it?’

‘Of course not, silly,’ said the whale. ‘On the contrary, it will have to be rather a small one.’

I like this because of the stilted formality, childishness, and the fact that it really makes you picture a whale in Harrods. It’s like the Goons in that it creates word-concepts that recoil from visual imagining.

From As They Were Driving:

‘Now,’ they said, ‘we are not afraid of the Stones, even if they do attack us: the Curious Brothers, and the Spotted Mother and Child, and the Fossil Brothers, and the Plain Brothers, and Mrs Mogany, and the Fierce Man Moffadyke, and all.’

Maybe not, but I’m terrified of them, just by their names. “I can picture all of them,” said Fiona. The book might be too scary for our flimsy modern children. Children in the 30s were made entirely out of snot and knee-scabs, so they could handle anything. Even WWII. In The Gardener and the White Elephants the aged gardener has to fight a vicious rabbit to the death — he throttles it with his bare hands. And in The Man With A Green Face, we get this ~

Nightmare fuel. But, on a lighter note, from Nothing ~

‘Good gracious!’ she said, ‘what a mess these children do leave on the table, to be sure!’

‘What have they left on the table?’ called the cook from the kitchen.

‘Well, there’s a drop of milk,’ said the maid.

That’s not so much to make a fuss about,’ said the cook.

‘There’s also a dead Chinaman,’ said the maid.

‘Never mind,’ said the cook, ‘it might be worse. Has he just died, or was he always dead?’

‘I think,’ said the maid, ‘he was born dead, and was dead when he was a little boy, and finally grew up dead.’

‘What else is there?’ asked the cook.

‘There’s a tooth, and I think it has dropped out of some passing shark.’

‘Dear, dear,’ said the cook, ‘children are that rampageous!’

‘There is also,’ said the maid, pulling up the blind and looking at the table more carefully, ‘unless I am much mistaken, a live Chinaman.’

‘Tut-tut!’ said the cook; ‘what a fuss you do make. And was he always alive?’

‘I don’t know.’

***

Next to this, Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey, a parody of the Gothic school written by an actual friend of Shelley’s, seems positively staid, but it does have a couple of good laughs, and the blend of philosophy and bedroom farce is unusual.

Ironical fact: Thomas Love Peacock did not actually love peacocks.