Archive for PG Wodehouse

Norman Invasion

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on April 10, 2018 by dcairns

I was thrilled to find THE GIRL ON THE BOAT in a charity shop, since it looked like being an all-time low for PG Wodehouse adaptations, and I snapped it up even at the excessive price of two quid. Well, it’s charity, isn’t it?

The casting of Norman Wisdom in a Wodehouse story is just so diabolically WRONG — I mean, maybe he could make a passable Ukridge or something, but he’s hopelessly unsuitable to playing a Young Man in Spats type. While he shows a measure of versatility by dispensing with his familiar “gump” mannerisms (readers unfamiliar with this hugely successful British entertainer — he did vaguely Jerry Lewis-like knockabout comedies where he played a childlike idiot in the fifties and early sixties), what’s left is a startlingly aggressive quality that’s totally unsuitable. Discovering that his pal, Richard Briers (very right for Wodehouse) has mal de mer, Wisdom says “Try to eat something!” as a malicious joke, and laughs for about a minute when Briers looks ill. Absolutely nobody ever written by Wodehouse would behave like that, not even a villain like Roderick Spode.

Not that there’s no comic cruelty in Wodehouse: it’s very hard to be funny without somebody being a victim. But it’s generally very mild and never gratuitous: Jeeves can inflict suffering on Bertie in order to keep him in line (for his own good). Bertie’s domineering aunts will force him to perform tasks he’d sooner avoid, but they simply don’t understand his reluctance. Bertie himself, like most Wodehouse heroes, is so sweet he could never break an engagement for fear of causing distress, no matter what a pill the girl in question has proven to be.

I think it was critic Penelope Gilliat who complained of the sadism in Wisdom’s supposedly kiddie-friendly comedies, and though that’s probably too strong a word for the above instance of nastiness, it does point out a harshness that can’t exist in the Wodehouse universe without blighting its surroundings.

The movie also undercuts itself in an extraordinary way by making the titular girl an awful drip. She’s skillfully played by Millicent Martin (and Sheila Hancock also has a good time — women seem to seize their chance to be funny in Wodehouse adaptations, no matter how misguided) but it’s impossible to root for any of the men to end up with her, as she’s what Bertie Wooster would call a Gawd-help-us, obsessed with poetry and her nasty little dog.

Norman still has his fans, and not just in Albania, where his stardom lasted decades longer than anywhere else as he was the one western filmmaker whose work wasn’t banned. Nick Park of Aardman has spoken of the influence of Wisdom’s absurd, involved slapstick sequences on his work. But I find that I love Park’s claymation in a way I could never love Wisdom’s flesh and blood performances.

The DVD also comes with a commentary by Sir Norman with interviewer Robert Ross. I assumed this must have been recorded before Wisdom’s Altzheimer’s set in, but I fear not — he needs reminded what he’s here for. It’s not as awkward as Mickey Rooney’s strange, surly and disoriented interview on the Twilight Zone episode Last Night of a Jockey, which I recommend to all students of discomfort — Sir Norm is always affability itself. But it’s not brilliantly recorded and the sound of the film fights it, so I’m afraid I gave up.

A curious thing, though. Despite the allegations of sadism in Wisdom’s comedy, and the unsuitably aggressive tone here, when the comedian became ill, the result, portrayed in a moving BBC documentary, was that the octogenarian star turned into the innocent, child-like character he’d played so often. A sweet gump. At the end of that documentary, he waves goodbye to the camera crew: “Thanks ever so much for looking at me.”

You’re welcome.

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Spats

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 29, 2017 by dcairns

We had an inadvertent Sam Rockwell double feature the other week. First I stumbled upon a copy of the 2005 adaptation of PG Wodehouse’s PICCADILLY JIM, in which he plays the title character, sort of, and which I’d been curious about for some time. But you can’t buy the thing anywhere — this was a charity shop discovery. So I immediately satisfied my curiosity, and then we embarked to the Edinburgh International Film Festival’s festive mystery show, which turned out to be THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, with Mr. Rockwell again.

Verdict: Sam Rockwell is a powerful force, if used responsibly. This piece is about the earlier film.

PICCADILLY JIM would make a fine film to test budding critics on. Make them read the book, then watch the 1936 film and the 2005, and attempt to say what’s wrong in each case. The novel isn’t actually prime Wodehouse, but it’s an early example of him starting to hit his stride. The budding critic might dispose of the MGM version swiftly: despite employing a lot of the right sort of people, it’s not funny and every change that’s been made to the original story, and there are many, makes it worse. Why didn’t they just film the book?

In the thirties, one feels, it might be possible to just film Wodehouse. Certainly the best Wodehouse movie by far, DAMSEL IN DISTRESS, was made then, and is fairly faithful. It’s biggest departure is the addition of Fred Astaire song-and-dance numbers, a wholly forgivable infidelity since Astaire hoofing is about the one thing as lighter-than-air as Wodehouse.

Post thirties, it’s become necessary to treat Wodehouse as a period piece, and this seems to add a heaviness that’s ruinous to all adaptations. A lot of people like the Fry & Laurie Jeeves & Wooster series, which was honestly faithful to the plots and characters, but I find its plodding pace, sludgy 16mm look, and respectful tracking across drawing rooms or bottles of bath essence, as if in awe of its own production design, so antithetical to the correct frolicsome spirit that I find myself doubting whether anyone who professes admiration for it actually appreciates Wodehouse at all. Which I realise is a bit extreme, harsh, judgemental.

Turgid though J&W is, it’s still miles closer to making a decent attempt at the job than most of the atrocities perpetrated, including the inane, cartoonish Blandings series shoveled out by the BBC. Again, I could defend that one in principle, because it may well have been made by parties who had noticed the problem of adaptation. But their solution — going BOING! a lot — was a dismayingly stupid one.

OK, this is quite a funny image.

Sticking a camera in front of unadorned Wodehouse seems to result in the flat champagne of the Fry-Laurie show. Some level of stylisation seems necessary. But so many attempts at this result in shrill, arch overacting, and distracting visuals. PICCADILLY JIM is almost entirely composed of these things. It’s the first Wodehouse made for the big screen since THE GIRL IN THE BOAT in 1962, which improbably starred Norman Wisdom. It’s written by arch-Tory posh boy Julian Fellowes, between his first big success with GOSFORD PARK and his second, Gosford Park Lite Downton Abbey. He ought to be a reasonable choice, being familiar with and not overawed by the ritzy milieu. And one assumes his enthusiasm for the original author is genuine. (I’d even say that a Wodehouse adaptation that played like GF without the darker notes would be about right — look at how a former Jeeves, Stephen Fry, playing the only broadly comic figure, fits right in and actually “works” better than he does in any other film.)

The director, John McKay, ladles on the stylisation (archness, shouting, cartooniness, distracting visuals). but he has an interesting concept. Wodehouse started in the early 1900s, hit his stride in the 20s, peaked in the 30s and 40s, and kept merrily going until the 70s. The world of his stories changed very little. So what we casually visualise as some sort of vaguely thirties setting is a lot less concrete and specific than that. The PICCADILLY JIM film uses this as an excuse to go all MOULIN ROUGE! on Wodehouse’s ass. Mix up the fashions, turn everything up to eleven, and have someone perform a jazzy version of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.”

Baz Luhrmann’s MOULIN ROUGE! is, in my view, a very terrible thing, a cinematic Srebenica. But this approach, used consistently and moderately, need not have been fatal. Setting the film, like Gilliam’s BRAZIL, “Somewhere in the twentieth century,” makes it interesting to look at. McKay and his designers have the visual chops to produce imagery that’s amusing and pleasing, if you press mute on the sound. But let’s be clear: this is just a decorative layer laid over the story. Decoration doesn’t make things function better, and it can weigh them down.

McKay is less ADHD-chaotic than Luhrmann, but he’s aiming for frenetic from the off, and in search of the chimera of “intensity” he films things too close up and cuts too much. He and his team have noticed that Sam Rockwell moves beautifully, but they try to feature this virtue by cutting to wide shots but then jumping back in immediately. In-out, in-out, for little or sometimes no reason.

There’s some good actors in this. Tom Wilkinson, Hugh Bonneville, Tom Hollander especially (the only really funny one) and Nitin Ganatra seem able to do lightness. They’re not belabouring it. The women all go for Queen of Hearts type acting. Wodehouse does, admittedly, enjoy writing termagants, and the fear of powerful women motivates a lot of his plots. Brenda Blethyn and Alison Janney are just too much.

Frances O’Connor is a more interesting case. Most Wodehouse heroines could be seen as a little boring to play: the interesting girls are more likely to be secondary characters like Corky Pirbright, who can apply their eccentric determination to get the hero in trouble using charm and appeal rather than sheer domination. Ann Chester is a character of this variety, at least as portrayed here. O’Connor is very skilled and gets to do some surprising stuff, and she’s sexier than anyone in a Wodehouse piece has ever been, which isn’t very Wodehousian but is fine with me. But she’s playing it American, which is another level of archness and artifice, so that’s less welcome. Although a real American wouldn’t necessarily be better: Americans working in Britain sometimes manage to act like they’re American impersonators.

The exaggerated costumes by Ralph Holes are fun, but would be all wrong for a Wodehouse film that was actually working. As it is, they can certainly be enjoyed in their own right.

Which brings us at last to Rockwell, who applies tremendous energy to the part, and moves well, as noted. The fact that the film doesn’t work has something to do with him, but it’s not immediately obvious how, because he’s so GOOD, or at any rate fascinating to watch. Dynamic, inventive and kind of aggressive, but not frighteningly so. But Jim starts out as a philanderer (discovered unconscious with three girls at the outset, which isn’t very Wodehouse) and has to be converted by true love. Wodehouse always treats love with heartfelt sincerity: the storm clouds in his sunny stories are all to do with the threat of thwarted romance, and at the end romance is never actually thwarted. And we’re supposed to care.

This film never gives us a reason for Jim to fall in love with this girl after being around so many. Even though O’Connor is glamorous and dashing — the Wodehouse love at first sight never gets a moment to establish itself, and the entire edifice is meant to be built on it. Without that simple, hackneyed thing, all the clever touches and all the stupid touches (plenty of those) are meaningless, have nothing to cling to, and there’s no underlying anxiety to make the farce run — no negative outcome that matters to us is ever imminent. Fellowes even threatens to blow everyone up with a doomsday device, a rather outré development, and I wasn’t remotely worried. He’s found a whole new way to fail at adapting Wodehouse — by being TOO flip and throwaway. And of course, he combines this innovation with all the more typical ones.

Why is Wodehouse so hard to get right? True, his deathless prose can’t be transferred to the screen, but his plots are sound and hilariously complicated, his characters sweet and funny, his dialogue wonderful. But it seems the tone and style of the movie, which must substitute for Wodehouse’s writing, are maddeningly elusive. It’s not a tone anyone does naturally anymore, and the more you strain after it, the more it recedes, like a caffeinated vanishing point.

Nobody’s made a Wodehouse for the cinema since 2005, and it looks like the gap that yawned between Norman Wisdom’s attempt and the Fellowes-McKay stumble may well be repeated.

This would make an instructive double feature with another Rockwell — THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY… in which again, transatlantic casting surprisingly isn’t a problem, but a shaky grasp of tone and story and uneven jokes certainly ARE.

 

Three Three Mens

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 26, 2017 by dcairns

To say nothing of the dog.

So, the first of my book fair purchases to be consumed was Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, which proved extremely rewarding. I love the film of JKJ’s THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK, and this has some of the same peculiarity. As with a lot of literary works one hasn’t read, perhaps especially comic novels, one forms a false impression of what to expect. Here, the slapstick, bickering, stupidity, falling-in-the-water stuff and the good-old-days Victorian atmosphere do make up aspects of the book, but there’s a lot of surprising material alongside it, and anyway the expected content isn’t quite how you expect it: the novel was a contemporary work, so the period detail, in a sense, isn’t; and the slapstick, being delivered by words, gains subtlety. None of the boating mishaps seem like they’d be particularly amusing to actually watch, it’s all in the telling.

And the film adaptations bear this out, dreadfully. I haven’t been able to see 1915’s HANGING A PICTURE, produced by and starring one Eric Williams, which adapts one episode of the book, nor the 1920 full adaptation, which seem interesting chiefly because they’re so close in period to the novel. As with Wodehouse, making a lot of effort to create a period look seems antithetical to the easy charm of the source. (I’m not certain if either of these films survive.)

So the 1933 film, directed by Graham Cutts, Hitchcock’s old bête noir, has a certain advantage. As the opening images unspooled — a phantom ride floating down a sun-dappled Thames — I thought, “Well, this is the right mood.” That lasted as long as the credits. In the spirit of the misbegotten JEEVES films starring Arthur Treacher, which turned Wodehouse’s super-brain into a bumbling duffer, Cutts’ film proceeds to get everything perfectly wrong.

The actors are sort of capable, but the decision has been made to make one of them the straight man hero type, always having the horse-laugh on his pals. Which isn’t like the book, but also isn’t an appealing dynamic. Jerome, democratically includes himself in most of the acts of silliness in the novel, and though he regards himself as less fatheaded than his pals, a lot of his humour is about reading between the lines, so that he can show that he’s capable of being just as foolish as his travelling companions, and also that they each have the same false sense of superiority. This is so much more wittily ironic than the movie’s approach.

The novel has no plot save its journey. The film tries so hard to have a plot, it forgets to have a journey. The hapless holidaymakers basically park their boat, get out, and have misadventures with a pretty girl, her bad-tempered uncle, the local constabulary, and the truculent locals. This all makes a liar out of the title. In fact, there isn’t much to recognise from the novel — a man sits in butter and has to have it scraped from the seat of his trousers, and there’s the bit where three fishermen claim credit for a big trout hung on a pub wall. And there’s a dog, but it’s the wrong breed, belongs to the wrong man, and is used for cuteness. The disreputable Montmorency of the book, a memorable literary dog, is nowhere to be found.

The language is interesting: George (Edmund Breon — never heard of him) says “You arse” and “stop arsing about.” When he and Harris (William Austin — nope) get on their faces, the charming leading lady (Iris March — I know, there shouldn’t BE a leading lady) says they look “like nigger minstrels.” The N word does appear in the book once, also, in one of those moments that makes you pause a bit.

Purely because it’s 1933, which nobody involved really deserves credit for, this terrible film feels a bit more “right” that Romulus Films’ 1956 version, directed by Ken Annikin. The choice of composer, John Addison, is the smartest thing about it. Let’s state the obvious: to film Three Men in a Boat, first choose your three men. With care.

So here we have Jimmy Edwards as Harris, which is the wrong man — George is the fattish one. But that doesn’t really matter, except — WHY CHANGE IT? But Edwards had his own handlebar moustache, and a sort of music-hall tang, and looks good in a blazer and straw boater. He’ll do.

David Tomlinson is cast as Jay, which again is the wrong person for him to play. He can play the silly ass just as well as Edwards, and might have made a good Harris. But he can’t suggest Jay’s soulfulness, he can’t suggest that this man might write this book. The film “solves” this by removing the book’s strangeness (the bits that mark it out as by the same author as The Passing of the Third Floor Back), its historical asides, its poetry. Everything that leavens the dicking around in boats, in fact.

And then, because it’s a Romulus production, and producer James Woolf was hopelessly in love with him, we have Laurence Harvey. Maybe the worst piece of casting in history. I can actually imagine Harvey as Jay, underplaying the soulful bit. But here he’s George, no longer fat, now an unreformable babe-hound (and the film supplies a roster of babes — Jill Ireland, Lisa Gastoni, Shirley Eaton and Adrienne Corri), and he overplays horribly, as he was wont to do when the material was unsuitable.

Chasing girls is very much not a theme of the book. Both these movies regard that as a problem to be solved. And so here’s Shirley Eaton stepping from a bath, offering a peekaboo glimpse of her sodden fleshings. You couldn’t go anywhere in Britain in the late 50s/early 60s without tripping over Shirley’s damp body stockings or her gilt breast-cones from GOLDFINGER. All of which gives hammy Laurence even more to get excited about.

So there’s a lot of shouting with these three (the book has a restful feel of “perspiring bluster recollected in tranquillity”), and a repeated tic of having them DESCRIBE whatever supposedly funny thing has just happened (“You’ve DROPPED it in the WATER!”) that certainly doesn’t help anything. And although this one reproduces several of the events of the novel, it misses the tone completely, and although unlike the 1933 film it DOES centre on a journey into the Heart of Lightness, Annikin pretty well forgets to drift downstream — that opening shot of the b&w movie is never evoked by his stodgy, static, Cinemascope shots.

(In fairness — the 1933 MEN survives only in a very jumpy, spliced print, while the 1956 one can be seen on Youtube but in a wretched pan-and-scan, which certainly can’t help.)

The best English-language adaptation (there’s a 1961 German transposition which sounds pretty bad) is certainly the 1975 BBC version, scripted by Tom Stoppard, directed by Stephen Frears, and starring Tim Curry (Jay), Michael Palin (Harris) and Stephen Moore (George). They should have chased up Vyvyan Stanshell, I feel, but this is a fine trio. Best of all, they’re all deadpan — Curry plays it like Brideshead Revisited, Palin plays it like Ripping Yarns — and he’s a marvellous actor for using the frame in comic ways, as scene in the Hampton Court Maze scene, staged properly as a flashback here. He’s also the best at falling over, and he makes sure to do this a lot.

One of the few laughs in the Annikin film is the pineapple tin bit, reproduced from the novel, but this limply rendered, based solely on the idea of three idiots without a tin opener trying to get at the sugary fruit with blunt instruments. JKJ gets FAR more comic value out of it than that ~

We beat it out flat; we beat it back square; we battered it into every form known to geometry — but we could not make a hole in it. Then George went at it, and knocked it into a shape, so strange, so weird, so unearthly in its wild hideousness, that he got frightened and threw away the mast.

There’s this odd pre-Lovecraftian sense of the uncanny in English comic writing — think of Bertie Wooster’s reaction to the cow-creamer.

And Stoppard goes still further, setting up the slapstick with a set of wonderfully precise tributes to the desirable qualities of tinned fruit ~

“Nothing quite like tinned pineapple.”

“Puts fresh pineapple in the shade.”

“It’s the juice.”

“It’s more of a syrup, really. It’s not exactly sweet. It’s not exactly bitter.”

“It’s the way it’s not exactly crunchy, and yet it’s firm, and clean-tasting.”

“Where’s the opener?”

Poignant!

The TV version isn’t perfect. It truncates a few things that would only have really worked if done whole, includes a few things it could have done without, and of course has to leave out lots. But it’s sensibly short, at just an hour — plotless things being trick to sustain for longer. And Stoppard is the only one of the various writers to have tackled the book who can not only adapt ready-made bits, but make up new material that feels JKJ-ish (while also being pure Stoppard, as when the careless heroes collide with an anachronistic Percy Bysshe Shelley). And of course he includes some of the strange bits of poetry and tonal shifts.

It’s pretty well worth watching, but not so much as the book is worth reading.

It was a glorious night. The moon had sunk and left the quiet earth alone with the stars. It seemed as if, in the silence and the hush, while we her children slept, they were talking with her, their sister — conversing of mighty mysteries too vast and deep for childish human ears to catch the sound.

They awe us, these strange stars, so cold, so clear. We are as children whose small feet have strayed into some dim-lit temple of the god the have been taught to worship but know not; and, standing where the echoing dome spans the long vista of the shadowy light, glance up, half hoping, half afraid to see some awful vision hovering there.

And yet it seems so full of comfort and of strength, the night. In its great presence, our small sorrows creep away, ashamed. The day has been so full of fret and care, and our hearts have been so full of evil and of bitter thoughts, and the world has seemed so hard and wrong to us. Then Night, like some great loving mother, gently lays her hand upon our fevered head, and turns our little tear-stained faces up to hers, and smiles; and, though she does not speak, we know what she would say, and lay our hot flushed cheek against her bosom, and the pain is gone.