Archive for Richard Wattis

The V.U.P.s

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 14, 2020 by dcairns

Anthony “Puffin” Asquith’s transmutation from the spectacular UFA-esque pure cinema of A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR to the “well-made play” school of swank British tedium is likely to remain a headscratcher. Maybe he got all his excitement from the rumoured wild parties, leaving only a rather turgid display of craftsmanship for the movies.

Don’t give him Cinemascope, for God’s sake! Worst thing you could do.

So here’s THE V.I.P.S, with a Rattigan script, Burton & Taylor (and Louis Jourdan makes three), Orson Welles and Rod Taylor and Maggie Smith (probably the main draw, nowadays — well, she’s about the only survivor).

It did turn out to be an adequate afternoon timewaster — Orson, playing a caricature of Korda and looking like a boiled owl, is funny, as is Margaret Rutherford. The Burtons’ stuff is a drag. David Frost does a fun self-parody, though Peter Cook could have done it with more relish. He and Richard Wattis seem like the only ones really trying to be entertaining. Oh, and Elsa Martinelli is fun, and actually IS glamorous.

The conceit, that airports are glamorous and exciting, and tax problems and cash-flow problems and marital problems are glamorous and exciting when they afflict movie-star types, is hilariously dated.

It’s a PLAY. The compositions, admittedly, are pleasing. The camera pushes in occasionally. Otherwise, the cinema does not intrude — until the last reel, where Liz staggers across the concourse, searching, searching, searching for her Dick, and Puffin throws in some reasonably frantic POV shots scanning the throng.

Miklos Rosza insists it’s all very emotionally significant but he’s lied to us too often in the past.

Very good costumes — not for the glamour, for the CHARACTER. And we did get an emotional charge from the Rod Taylor/Maggie Smith romance, maybe because we like RT so much and Smith is so good at projecting silent adoration and concern (and anything else you ask her to project, of course). It tapped into our affection for the actors.

The V.I.P.s stars Gloria Wandrous; Thomas Becket; Stefan Brand; Anna Maria ‘Dallas’ D’Allesandro / Mama Tembo; Madame Arcati; Minerva McGonagall; Pongo (voice); Unicron (voice); Princess Panthea; Louis D’Ascoyne; Albert Prosser; Jock McTaggart; Bob Trubshaw; Miss Tonks; Frith (voice); Old Fred (voice); Wallace (voice); Mr. Stringer; Blackaver (voice); Mme. Dubonnet; Mr. Meek; Louis XIII (voice, uncredited); Violet Bradman; and Ives ‘the mole’.

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.

Ballads Ancient and Modern; Tam Lin (1971)

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2019 by dcairns

Our first guest writer at Project Fear is film afficianado Mark Fuller, who (or whom? is this a whom?) I met in Bologna, and then introduced Fiona to the following year. It’s hard to describe how excellent he is if you haven’t had the experience. Mark is a proud Remoaner and music is another passion of his and so in a way this piece combines all three passions — though in fact his terrific essay focusses on an Anglo-US production. Well, Britain is still in Europe, and seems set to continue to be so until at least January…

“There is a story in verse, that belongs to this country, the border of England and Scotland. It is hundreds of years old. It tells the adventures of a young man held in thrall by The Queen of The Faeries, who, in the centuries before Pantomime, was reckoned a dangerous lady. It is called The Ballad Of Tam Lin.”

So intones an uncredited Scottish voice seven minutes into this film; he is not wrong.

The first known reference to the Scots Ballad dates from 1549, but it may well be centuries older; in the way of folklore things, the tale within has many close parallels to other ancient European folk tales, and a few elements common to the better-known Beauty and The Beast, and back to Cupid and Psyche. A tale as old as time, indeed…

Tam Lin came down the centuries in various forms via oral tradition before being picked up and straightened out or adapted by folklorists and writers, the most prominent being Robert Burns; he published his own take in the 1780s.

With the late 60s counterculture, interest in things pagan and folk revived; the first version thence to achieve prominence was Fairport Convention’s take, released in 1969 on their album Liege and Lief, a concept album of horror folk, as opposed to folk horror, albeit played by a rock band with folk leanings. This is the version I’ll mostly be quoting… because I love it, so there… whether it had any influence on the making of the film I have no idea, but it is not an impossibility. Many, many versions by various artists followed. In the film there are snippets by the more jazz-folk combo Pentangle, but it was recorded for the film, and they didn’t record a version for their own purposes until many years later.

          Anyway, the film. We have already had an introductory prologue; through an etched-glass window showing scenes from the tale in an Arthur Rackham style, we meet the main protagonists in their luxurious bed. Or rather, her bed. It’s the bed of Mrs Cazaret, with her latest lover Tom Lynn (see what they did there??) in the luminous soft-focused forms of Ava Gardner and Ian McShane. He professes his love; she bemoans the ageing process; he demurs…she whispers….”I love you, I love you, I’ll love you and leave you for dead” Spoilers !!!

We meet a cool sax-playing dude who helps the exposition along by being zonked out by Ava’s yellow-tinted glasses – magical ??- and having the set-up explained to him; this is Ava’s harem-cum-gang of beautiful people, and she is rich, people stay for as long as they want, or she wants. He stays. But it’s road-trip time, and the Beautiful People decamp into a fleet of exotic expensive cars, from Swinging London, North up the A1.

As this happens, we get introduced to the Beautiful People through a cine-camera viewfinder, Peeping Tom style… and they are indeed Beautiful People…including Joanna Lumley, Madeleine Smith, Sinead Cusack, Jenny Hanley, and a needy wheedling young Bruce Robinson. The rest seem like and are as disposable as knitting pattern models. A credit sequence plays over the convoy heading North until we hit the Scottish border, night falls (properly, not day-for-night, thanks for that, Roddy) and our narrator makes his only sonic appearance.

           I forbid you maidens all, who wear gold in your hair; to travel to Carterhaugh, for young Tam Lin is there

     Enter the third corner of the love triangle, cycling down a country lane; it is Janet, an auburn Stephanie Beacham sunlit from behind to give her, indeed, gold in her hair. She stops at the ancient manor house, Carterhaugh, to be entranced by the spectacle of…Beautiful People playing frisbee rather badly. She is delivering a puppy and wends her way through the Beautiful People doing what was done in the 60s…al fresco Tarot readings and vibrophone recitals, apparently. She alights on Madeleine Smith; playing a lass either drug-addled, or really simple, perhaps both; and Ava Gardner takes control, smiles kindly, and hands her over to her factotum Elroy; a delightfully sinster and reptilian Richard Wattis, in possibly the performance of his career. All through this, McShane snaps away in true David Bailey fashion. Janet, it transpires is the local vicar’s daughter; said vicar is Cyril Cusack, as if the cast could get any better.
           

Bruce Robinson’s character is no longer wanted; despite his protestations, he is to be driven away, literally, from this slightly sinister commune; exteriors filmed on location at Traquaire House, the oldest inhabited house in Scotland says its website; it does BnB bookings; I think I’ll give it a miss…. the days of Beautiful People, Ava admiring Ian McShane’s arse amid impeccably laundered satin are probably long gone. I don’t think I could keep pace with the drinking going on, either.


         None that go by Carterhaugh but they leave him a pledge,
         Either their mantles of green or else their maidenheads.
         Janet tied her kirtle green a bit above her knee,
         And she’s gone to Carterhaugh as fast as go can she.

In fairness to our Janet, she hasn’t been warned or forbidden from doing so, but true to form she dons an all-green ensemble and walks cross-country to Carterhaugh, to the first appearance of Pentangle’s rather limp version of the song. En route she meets Tom Lynn, wearing those glasses, at a bridge over a stream, one of many bridges we see throughout the film; those liminal places…..and we go into a strange sequence of still shots that gives the effect of fast-forwarding a DVD, which seems to portray a meet-cute, nothing much more. A minute later, closer to the house, they walk to another bridge, and Tom stops her from going further. “Why did you let me do IT ??” he asks… it’s an odd choice, a moment of coyness both for the time, and within the film. We’ve already seen him in the buff, Miss Beacham doesn’t undo a blouse button. This latter moment is witnessed by the shadowy Richard Wattis. No good will come of this…

           Later, Tom caddishly proclaims his undying love to Mrs Cazaret once more, to the sounds of soft sax in soft grass… and back to parlour games in the old manor. Tarot cards, divination through objects… the usual stuff. There turns out to be something very wrong about the glasses… moodily shot, the first hint of eerie music, and the emergence of Oliver, one of the Beautiful People as more sinister than first suspected.

Tom pays a return visit to Janet during her father’s sermon, which is on the topic “We must love one another or die, or rather love one another AND die” and thus on point. The bad omens are racking up. If there was a Cyril Cusack in every pulpit there would be a greater Sunday attendance, I would say. Tom gets invited to a Vicarage lunch… word gets shipped back to the Manor. Ava has a rival.

In all the film, this is the only sequence where the commune, in the shape of Tom, and Oliver to an extent, interacts with the local community in the shape of the congregation and its vicar. Throughout, they are seemingly self-sufficient, isolated, Other. Which of course works perfectly with the theme of the Ballad; there, the Faeries are about as Other as you can get. Here, the commune are the interlopers, the second-homers, the invaders; a lot less tonally deaf than in, say, The Wicker Man, where English rural traditions have been imported to a Scottish Isle by its laird, the locals inculcated, the Scottish traditions repressed and we all know what happens to the representative of Scotland’s society when he turns up…….. this may not be the reading intended by Robin Hardy, but it is there. The ‘Tradition’ he falls foul of is a cuckoo in the nest. Here, the interlopers are acting out a genuinely local piece of folklore.

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The Torpid Collection, as the Beautiful People have become to Ava, are dragged into a party game where Tom and Oliver end up in a fight. Elroy – Elroy “doesn’t play with the children” we are told – takes Tom aside to warn him what might happen; with an exchange of pleasantries – “Rancid old Queen,” “Don’t you dare touch me”- poor Richard – Elroy recounts two fatal car accidents, in 1955 and 1962, and insinuates…. and the song restarts;

        And at the end of seven years, she pays a tithe to hell………..

Whether through love of Janet or through Elroy putting the wind up him, Tom tells Mrs Cazaret he wants to go; she pretty much begs him not to. Then back to Janet. He really has got the wind up. Fabia Drake turns up as the least likely procurer of abortions/provider of advice I can imagine; the final conclusion being

           I think you go with child…
           Well if that be so, Janet said,

           Myself shall bear the blame

 but she will also bear the address of an abortionist. A bit too radical four hundred years earlier, one assumes. Tom and Mrs. Cazaret strike a deal, she will let him go… after a date. Boy, is this the date from Hell. The cabaret singer sings about death, the couple don’t exchange a word… until she lets him know he has a week. Until she hunts him down and kills him, said to a jazz funk backing. Well, we’ve all had bad nights…Tom flees. Janet arrives and questions Mrs C, who can’t help her find Tom, so she heads to the abortionist as Ava turns monochrome.

She stops at a flowerseller outside, where she

       pulled a double rose, a rose but only two

and she is spotted by Tom. There’s magic in those double roses… ask Belle.

Tom is hiding out in a caravan parked on the riverbank between the old and new Firth Of Forth bridges…. a bit of a comedown frankly, but if they are on the South bank, safe… because Scottish witches can’t cross rivers. Elroy, however can. And Tom has blown that week…Tom is kidnapped, back to Carterhaugh, and the horror finally, finally begins; Tom will die; Mrs. Cazaret, it seems cannot. Tom is drugged before being given a Hobson’s Choice opportunity to escape pursued by the new Less-Beautiful-More-Sinister People recruited by Elroy.

Much of this seen in a pretty effective POV sequence, as seen through the drugged haze, hallucinatory versions of what is apparently there; Ava Gardner is at last The Queen of The Faeries, her minions the Faery Folk of myth, not pantomime. These are “Creatures; they’ll tear you to pieces” He takes the white Aston Martin to find Janet waiting. Unfortunately, Tom is driving….

         But tonight [ ] the fairy folk ride, those that would their true love win

         At Mile’s cross they must hide. [ ]

         Quickly run to the white steed 

   And pull the rider down

         For I’ll ride on the white steed, the nearest to the town,

          For I was an earthly knight, they give me that renown.

So the car gets wrapped around the border scenery, and hallucinating Tom runs off… again, we see both his hallucinations as he becomes a bear, fights a snake, catches fire, and the reality, as the creatures hunt… and Janet stays with him to keep him alive in the marsh; him semi-naked, Janet hugs him as Mrs C., Elroy, Oliver and the creatures arrive; Tom has sobered up; Janet and he have beaten the Faeries.

       Oh they will turn me in your arms, to a newt, or a snake

         But hold me tight and fear not, I am your baby’s father

         And they will turn me in your arms into a naked knight,

         But cloak me in your mantle and keep me out of sight

        [ ] She heeded what he did say and young Tam Lin did win

We are spared the parting curse of the ballad;

     Had I known, Tam Lin, she said,

     This night I did see,

     I ‘d have looked him in the eyes

     And turned him to a tree

Other versions have the threat of his eyes being removed and being hung from said tree. Here, we see Mrs C., Elroy and Oliver heading stateside in Business Class. “I have money everywhere” she says, handing Oliver those glasses.

It really is both an interesting film and a bit of a misfire; I can find no online-published memoirs or accounts of the making of it, the thought processes, the inspirations. We just seem to have the film to go on.

So many questions; it has to have been a personal project for debutant director Roddy McDowall; but why so ambitious (and it had to have been expensive) and it isn’t so bad that it deserved to end his directorial career.

The script; it is a pretty clever adaptation of an ancient tale, one set in a mediaeval age of witchcraft and Faerie Folk, and brought roaring into a contemporary Britain in a surprisingly faithful-to-the-original manner; so had McDowall commissioned it from William Spier, had it been on a Hollywood shelf for a decade, or had it taken a decade to get the finance together ??  Because William Spier had received no writing credits for a decade prior to this, and only TV credits at that. It’s odd.

And then the piecemeal release; what happened ?? It didn’t get out in the US for a couple of years, and then under the nonsensical title The Devil’s Widow. It sank pretty much without trace, and despite Martin Scorsese restoring it and giving it a Bluray release a decade ago, (US only, annoyingly) still very few people have heard of it. At least a very good copy is on YouTube.

The film has style and intelligence; the symbolism of the bridges, a staple of European folklore for millennia; the use of lemon tints for the POV shots of the glasses-wearers; the fade to monochrome of Ava Gardner chills the screen at the right point; the still-frame sequence is a little odd, and coy, but it isn’t ordinary.

The cinematography is sumptuous throughout, interiors carefully lit and matching the mood as the film darkens; Ava Gardner is shot lovingly, and moves through the gears from vulnerable to spiteful to evil while remaining as glamorous as only she could, even nudging fifty. Opposite her McShane acquits himself well, going from cocksure to terrified; Stephanie Beacham too, in an underwritten role. Apart from Cyril Cusack and Fabia Drake, given delicate cameo parts, the rest are pretty much cyphers, as intended; a torpid collection of Beautiful People.

Final mention must go to Richard Wattis; as Private Secretary/Chief Eunuch/Familiar Elroy to Ava’s Queen, he hovers at the corners of frames, in the shadows, coolly mysterious, frightened almost as much as frightening, and camply malevolent. It’s a great part, and he comes close to stealing a film he actually has very little screen time in. If he gave a finer film performance, I haven’t seen it. Had the film got a proper, timely release would we have been celebrating Richard Wattis as the actor who had a late blossoming in Giallo rather than walk-on parts in Sykes???

But it doesn’t entirely work. Is it TOO faithful to the source ?? That could be argued. Does the slightly underwhelming version of the song used, help, especially compared to the dramatics of, for instance, the Fairport Convention version?? Possibly not.

Is it merely enough to be sinister when you’re over half-way through a film?? Is there enough genuine horror at the climax?? Probably not. The original ballad is more horrific, and McShane (or his stunt double) in a bear suit is pretty risible, as is the fake snake. The fiery special effect is pretty good… but the climax of the chase does end weakly and inexplicably (If you don’t know the ballad).

The film does end in a way that suggests the further adventures of Mrs. Cazaret and Elroy in the United States. Sadly, there was to be no sequel to this fascinating, flawed, forgotten entry into the folk horror genre.

Thanks are due to Amy Harris for prompting me to look into the film, and Melanie Selfe for the discussions thereafter, and David Cairns for his patient editing.