Archive for Kenneth Williams

Blue Sky Alice

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 8, 2020 by dcairns

“Blue sky casting” is a screenwriter’s trick — you imagine anyone you like, living or dead, in a role, and that hekps you find the character’s voice. If you’re writing for Jeff Goldblum or Michael Redgrave, different things happen. What you probably shouldn’t ever do is cast the person you were thinking of — there’s an exciting tension that happens if you cast, say, Joan Cusack, in a role written with, say, Myrna Loy in mind.

It’s also a fun exercise: here’s a fantasy cast list for Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. I found as i was coming up with it that it was tending to a mid-1950s feel, and naturally British. But it began when Fiona proposed Peter Lorre as the Dormouse.

It turns out I’ve been carrying in my mind various casting ideas for Alice, and they cam tumbling out and were joined by others…

It just seems crazy that Kenneth Williams never played the Mad Hatter. Put it down to typecasting — the Carry On films, though hugely popular, rendered all the actors uncastable in anything other than sitcom or sex farce. The two main productions KW would have been eligible for, Jonathan Miller’s rather wonderful TV Alice in Wonderland, and the execrable musical ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND, have excellent Hatters in Peter Cook and Robert Helpmann respectively, but Williams would have knocked it out the park.

It’s kind of obvious that Jimmy Edwards, extravagantly-tached comic actor, should be the Walrus, but I think Norman Wisdom is very close to Tenniel’s drawing of the Carpenter. It’s starting to look like this production belongs in the mid-fifties to sixties.

Not for any physical resemblance, but the wide-eyed dithering innocence John le Mesurier brought to his work in Dad’s Army seems to suit the King of Hearts nicely. And he practically plays the role in Gilliam’s JABBERWOCKY.

I feel that Irene Handl deserves a crack at the Queen of Hearts — though associated with working class roles (she argued with Billy Wilder about how to play cockney dialogue), she was actually quite posh, seemingly, and derived her characterisations from her observation of her family’s maids when she was young. And she’s the most versatile and surprising and funny of actors, seriously underused. (If you were doing it later, Prunella Scales would be immense, and she’s a lot like Dodgson’s own drawings.)

I’ve always seen Lionel Jeffries as the White Knight. He has such an air of melancholy. I can never read the Knight’s verse without tears springing unbidden to my eyes. Same with Lear’s The Jumblies: “Far and few, far and few…” an incantatory lament.

Okay, granted, Roger Livesey has to be a contender too.

Charles Gray as Humpty Dumpty, because.

When I look at Tenniel’s White Rabbit, I see Edward Everett Horton, which makes it odd that Paramount cast him as the Mad Hatter in the 30s version. They should have borrowed George Arliss for the Hatter and given Horton the rabbit. Fuck Skeets Gallagher. But if we’re going for anxious British players of the 1950s, maybe Alastair Sim? Or Alec Guinness, but there you’d be opening up a can of worms. Who could he NOT play? We know he’d make a magnificent Duchess:

And that’s a role which should really be done in drag, for compassionate reasons. Peter Bull was pretty perfect in the seventies abomination. Leo McKern would be good too.

Peter Sellers is maybe the only man to have played motion picture versions of the March Hare AND the King of Hearts, and he’s another can of worms if we let him in. But in the Miller piece he does the unimaginable, improvising Lewis dialogue in character, so he should be essential. Since this would be early, chubby Sellers, maybe we should be thinking in terms of the caterpillar, a somewhat shadowy figure in the illo.

If we’re having Sellers, then Spike Milligan would be a fine Frog Footman (see YELLOWBEARD for some exemplary footmanning from SM).

Based on Tenniel, there can be no question that the White King and Queen are Thorley Walters and Joan Sims. though Handl is another possibility for the latter. The Red Queen could be Flora Robson or Patricia Hayes, but I’m going for Yootha Joyce (energy) whereas the Red King, apparently dreaming the whole thing like in INCEPTION, doesn’t ever wake up and so it seems like wasted effort to cast a celebrated thesp. Might as well be John Wayne.

Miller cast Finlay Currie as the Dodo, an impressive feat — the only human actor to LOOK like a dodo. But he’s too old, since Dodgson based this didactic fowl on himself, incorporating his stutter — Do-do-Dodgson. Trying to find an actor not aged in the 1950s, with Dodgson’s sad eyes and an impressive beak, I stop at Richard Wattis.

Cecil Parker, arch-ovine, must be the Sheep, a rarely-filmed character but one with great material. I suppose the sheep should really be female, but drag is allowed. We’re through the looking glass, here.

The Gnat also has some really good jokes, and is never presented onscreen — perhaps because Tenniel didn’t deign to draw him. Another tutelary figure — you can really tell the author is a lecturer — he could really be played by anybody from Terry-Thomas to Robert Morley. The latter is more pompous, so he’d do, but then for heaven’s sake why not Noel Coward? Or Dennis Price, who quotes Lewis with relish in Mike Hodges’ PULP?

Of course, given the period, we can have perhaps Britain’s greatest child actor in the title role, Mandy Miller (MANDY, THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT), and by happy coincidence it appears she’s a fan of the author:

Randy Cook suggests Benny Hill for the Cheshire Cat. What are your thoughts? I presume that, like me, you have been carrying casting ideas for Alice around in your heads for decades.

“I was walking in the woods near my home and… I found an ear.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2018 by dcairns

When Jim Dale shows up at the local police station with a stray finger, we felt that maybe CARRY ON SCREAMING! had influenced BLUE VELVET. When Harry H. Corbett discovers an ear in the woods, we were MORALLY CERTAIN. (Lynch always portrays himself as someone not particularly influenced by other moviemakers, but LOOK!)We watched SCREAMING! and CLEO as a double feature with our friend Marvelous Mary to see if we could decide which is best. I don’t think there are any other realistic candidates in the series. CARRY ON UP THE KHYBER is disqualified not so much for racism as for having Roy Castle in it. The early, more solid films (SERGEANT and NURSE) aren’t typical enough to count — they’re still trying to be proper films. But SCREAMING and CLEO are very enjoyable IMproper films.

SCREAMING! might just have the edge. All the main actors are favourites, and they’re all well cast and very good. But maybe a comparison of casts would be productive –Harry H. Corbett VS Sid James. Corbett plays police sergeant Sidney Bung in SCREAMING!, a role clearly intended for series regular Sid James, who plays Marc Antony in CLEO. Both are real actors, more than capable of strong dramatic work, but who got typecast in low comedy. This is Corbett’s only Carry On and he’s magnificent. I couldn’t grab frames of him without cracking up all over again. Maybe it’s the residual tragi-comic aura of Steptoe and Son, but I feel he’s more sympathetic than James would have been. James was no underdog. Corbett is trapped in a hellish marriage with shrew Joan Sims, and though they’re fairly evenly matched at making one another miserable, Corbett has more of a hangdog, loser air, which helps with a character who’s pretty obnoxious in many ways.Double-bill this with DEATH LINE, because both Corbett and Donald Pleasence nail an aspect of the British copper in a really bang-to-rights way: the sarcasm, the one-upmanship, the desire to infuriate and humiliate the suspect/witness/have-a-go-hero. I’m not saying this is what all Brit cops do. But doing a job in which you have to deal with criminal idiots much of the time clearly takes a toll.James in CLEO plays one of his rare out-and-out villains, though the movie regards him warmly and gives him an ahistorical happy ending, splashing into a milk bath with Cleo. It’s also a relatively rare case of him not playing a character called Sid, perhaps a legacy of his Hancock TV fame, where the leads used their own names and cemented their comic personae. So that Sid is always a loveable cockney (from South Africa) even when he’s playing a scheming, murderous traitor. (The funniest thing about that is the way Williams, whenever he hears Marc Antony is coming, cries, “Oh, my friend!”) Plus, Sid in Roman attire is just an amusing sight. I don’t think the real Marc A. would have been much like Sid, but there must have been plenty of Roman soldiers who were.

Joan Sims in CLEO plays a nagging wife to Caesar exactly like the one she plays in SCREAMING!, and for good measure the film has Sheila Hancock playing an identical henpecker to Kenneth Connor.I really like this rodental snarl Joan fleetingly produces, almost like she’s going to make a SILENCE OF THE LAMBS sucking noise. The extremely small, cheap set — we see two walls with oppressive wallpaper, no window, and a corner of stair through the door — adds to the sense of an inescapable domestic hell. Nearly all Joan’s scenes prior to the ending show her in bed, so the claustrophobia becomes part of her characterisation.Jim Dale plays a well-meaning berk in SCREAMING! with some good physical comedy, but is something of a swashbuckling hero in CLEO. At one point he slays four or five Roman assassins in true Errol Flynn manner and manages to make us forget he’s dressed a a vestal virgin. So SCREAMING! is a more rewarding part for his skills, but CLEO shows some more range. He’s the only actor who appears in both films and is still alive, though as he says, “At my age, don’t buy any green bananas.”

In SCREAMING!, both Corbett and Dale get slipped a Mr. Hyde potion mickey, causing them to mutate and rampage. Their performances under the influence are amusingly similar: both go through many weird reactions, as if rendered hyper-alert: they cycle between horny, winsome, confused, ashamed, and they overreact to every stimulus. They basically, in fact, delivered amped-up versions of the typical Carry On performance. My friend Colin describes the essence of the series as being mostly very poor material being performed with wildly inappropriate enthusiasm. These guys can’t cross a room without at least trying to get a laugh.The late Fenella Fielding as Valeria Watt in SCREAMING! is pretty evenly matched with Amanda Barrie as Cleo in CLEO. Each made only one other CARRY ON. Fiona covets Fenella’s red velvet dress, which she had to be sewn into. Barrie is funnier, perhaps, playing Cleo with the manner of a suburban hairdresser, and acting dumb to disguise a brain as functional as any are ever allowed to be in one of these movies. There’s a great bit where she’s reciting dialogue we’ve already heard in a prophetic vision, and she does it kind of by rote, as if she knows she’s already said it. That’s an AMAZING choice.Barrie is also much, much sexier than Liz Taylor.

But Fielding is like a kind of special effect, which is what a true Carry On star needs to be. Vampira figure, sexy skull face, big hair, and THAT VOICE, honeyed smoke.Kenneth Williams is one of the genuinely uncanny elements in SCREAMING! Chalk-white face and nostrils dilated like nacelles, vowels equally dilated. He was never required to exercise his natural ghoulishness elsewhere, except maybe the unpleasant surgical stuff in DOCTOR. In CLEO he’s just his usual twerp, maybe more benign than usual. He does get the greatest line (there aren’t many GOOD ones…) in a CARRY ON, the endlessly quoted “Infamy, infamy! They’ve all got in fa me!” I tell you what’s less funny: his last words in the film are, “Oh what’s the use?” which were also the last words in his diary before he committed suicide.

(There’s been a whole TV subgenre, mainly on BBC4, of plays about beloved British comics who led troubled or miserable lives. The Carry Ons are largely to blame, because almost everyone in them had what seems like an unusually bleak life. But Williams is the sun from which all that misery radiates.)Peter Butterworth as Slobottom, the Watson to Bung’s Holmes, is magnificent. He nearly always played background types, and stole what moments he could (Richard Lester used him similarly: check out his textbook faffing as he struggles to removed an arrow from Richard Harris in ROBIN AND MARIAN). The only similar subordinate in CLEO is Victor Maddern, a believable and useful type, but not someone I ever feel like laughing in the presence of.Kenneth Connor in CLEO gets one of his better roles. Writer Talbot Rothwell appears to have appropriated his story arc not from any telling of the Cleopatra story, but from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, with Connor acquiring a heroic reputation based on another man’s accomplishment. I’m wondering if somebody had the idea that Connor could be a second Dudley Moore. But that job was taken. Connor is never less cute than when he thinks he’s cute, but he is certainly an enthusiastic farceur.Bernard Bresslaw makes a great zombie butler in SCREAMING! but is unaccountably absent from CLEO. Worth mentioning again that he was up for the role of the Creature in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Would that have led to him playing Dracula, then Fu Manchu, then Scaramanga, then Saruman?

The burly henchman Sosages in that film, Tom Clegg, is great value as Australopithecine abductor Oddbod in SCREAMING! When I was a kid, the movie was not only hilarious, but also gave me everything I could want from a monster movie.Jon Pertwee gets two showy roles in these films, as a daffy Scottish police scientist and an Egyptian soothsayer. I’ll leave you to decide which film each character turns up in. He does a lot of face-pulling, tongue-protruding and random whistling and is very enjoyable, but somehow never seems quite in the same genre as the other actors.The only actor in the regrettable CARRY ON COLUMBUS who seemed to get it was Rick Mayall, who said that director Gerald Thomas told him to be the most exaggerated version of who he was as a comedian. And that’s exactly what you want from a Carry On performer. Pertwee was a man of many voices from the radio, and he’s in that mode here, but when he had to play a role that was his own persona, it turned out to be in Doctor Who as a Victorian space fop.

Still, the above image is one of many from this film that crack me up even as I edit it into this post.Charles Hawtrey, like Kenneth Williams, is a total special effect, a freak of cinema. He attempts to make Dan Dann, the lavatory man quite a dashing figure. It’s a one-scene cameo with no real jokes except TOILETS. Which is a good half the humour of Carry On. His more substantial part as Caesar’s smutty father-in–law Senecca (!) in CLEO lets him do more and be more strange (the classic Carry On panto of gay men playing dirty-minded straight men while still furiously signalling their queerness).

The stuff with Slobottom trying to, ahem, make contact with Dann in the gents is relatively near-the-knuckle for a Carry On. Because usually the panto fantasia they present is one in which gayness doesn’t really exist, but heterosexuality is lampooned by flamboyantly queer actors. (But this movie also has two dress shop managers who seem like they’re meant to be a couple.)

I keep forgetting how many Carry Ons Angela Douglas was in. She plays Doris Mann in SCREAMING! but spends most of the movie as a mannequin. But she’s able to make more of an impression than Julie Stevens in her underwritten role in CLEO.

Both films include bits for Michael Ward (camp), Norman Mitchell (fat) and Sally Douglas (girl).

Between them they also feature Captain Peacock, Alf Garnett, Vivian Darkbloom and Woodrow Wilson.

And some weird, choppy editing. They’re cut by different hands, but share a pacey style where scenes are chopped off the instant the last line is finished, and in the case of fades and dissolves, these often happen while someone’s still trying to get their last line out. They’re really “stepping on the laugh,” in some cases, as Jerry Lewis would say. My theory is that Gerald Thomas was a bit quick to say “cut.” Or else that he knew the films would collapse if we ever got a moment’s time to reflect on whether any given joke was worth laughing at.

Beyond that which is known to man…

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2017 by dcairns

The Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is one I felt I knew really well, except I don’t know that I’d ever watched it all — I’d seen clips and I’d seen George Miller’s reworking of it in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, but had I actually watched the whole thing?

Putting the two versions side by side is instructive — for once, two versions of the same story make radically different choices and both are successful. Or maybe that’s NOT instructive, maybe that sets up a false idea that you can do whatever you like in TV/movies, it’s all good. It clearly ISN’T all good, but these two episodes are.

Leaving aside the contrast in directorial technique between the hyperkinetic Miller and the more sober Richard Donner (plus whoever replaced him after he was fired for falling behind schedule), it’s fascinating how different the main character is in each story, even though Richard Matheson scripted both.

In both versions, a passenger on a plane sees a demonic figure on the wing of a plane, tampering with the engine, and can’t get anyone else to believe him.

In the original, the hero is fresh from a six-month stay in a sanatorium after a nervous breakdown that struck during a plane flight. Now his wife is taking him home.

In the Miller film version, the lead character an apparently stable and sober professor, but he’s travelling alone.

The first version benefits from the suspicion that our man may be losing his marbles all over again — how else to explain the fact that nobody else ever sees the “gremlin” (styled by make-up maestro William Tuttle very much along the lines of his DR LAO yeti)? I don’t know how many 1963 audiences thought that way, though — after all, WE see the creature. The hero’s past instability is probably more a device to make us sympathetic, and to account for his wife not believing him.

(One thing where the remake is measurably superior is the creature, created, if I read the credits aright, by Craig Reardon and Michael McCracken. By not being in a kind of furry romper suit, it’s allowed to look properly WET, which adds lustre and ick to its rubbery visage. Maybe the artist’s personality always comes through in monsters: Tuttle beasts always have a tragic look, whereas Reardon’s look… naughty?)

In the remake, the hero starts stable but rapidly and amusingly unravels, and the fact that he’s alone means he can only turn to strangers for support.

Man 1 is William Shatner, man 2 is John Lithgow. One thing that works is that both are sort of cast against type — Shatner being less associated with neurotic parts, Lithgow never being cast as ordinary Joes. A more obvious and less interesting approach would be to time-travel Lithgow back to ’63 and rejuvenate Shatner in ’83.

Shatner’s leading man attributes really work in his favour, since he LOOKS manly and self-reliant. Shatner really conveys his humiliation at having shown weakness. Of course, he gets his manhood back by firing a gun in the end, which seems quite 1963. The remake takes a more ironic view of everything, and though the gun is instrumental in stopping the gremlin, it takes the time to grab our hero’s face and wag a finger at him (while Jerry Goldsmith’s score riffs on Danse Macabre).

But though the Donner-Shatner episode may be less progressive, what bowled me over is its sheer effectiveness — right from the start I felt strong tension, the combination of my own slight fear of flying, the excitement of the building storm, Shatner’s nervy, sweaty perf. The casual sauntering gait of the ludicrous shaggy beast on the left wing of the jet is amusing but just right, somehow — the important quality is not a convincing mime of clinging on in spite of the impossible air currents, but a sense that the nameless thingy feels it has a perfect right to be there.

(The wing man is played by Burt Lancaster’s former wingman, in THE CRIMSON PIRATE and THE FLAME AND THE ARROW, diminutive acrobat Nick Cravat, who didn’t really need a full mask…)

Having creeped us out with the slow approach, the gremlin is then well-placed — after a prolonged, hammy but genuinely tense build-up by Shatner, steeling himself endlessly — to make a shock appearance in close-up, nose pressed against the glass. And he has the kind of nose that always looks as if it’s pressed against glass anyway.

The wrap-up is more satisfying (and benign) in the TV version, and really, after being put through the ringer like that, we deserve a happy ending, don’t we?

On a related note ~