Archive for Robert Helpmann

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.

Not Of This Earth

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2008 by dcairns


So, my late friend Lawrie Knight was an A.D. on Powell and Pressburger’s THE RED SHOES. He had an odd set of duties, sometimes assisting Reggie Mills in the cutting room, (“I was the worst editing assistant –all my splices fell apart!”) sometimes helping co-ordinate crowd scenes. When the studio had a Royal Visitor, Lawrie was landed with the job of escorting the Princess around. “Why me?” he protested. “Because you’re the only GENTLEMAN in the unit,” he was told.

 An empty stage had been set aside for the dancers to practice on. As Lawrie showed the Princess in, a tiny figure started to pirouette towards them from the extreme distance. Robert Helpmann.

They watched as, like Omar Sharif in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, which had not yet been made, the minute figure slowly grew, until Helpmann spun to a halt right before them.

“What’s your date of  birth?” demanded the dancer.

“Umm, September 22nd,” stammered Lawrie.

“Oh, another lovely virgin for me!” exclaimed R.H., dancing off.

Lawrie also set up the camera for the official cast and crew photo, setting the timer and running to the back of the group to appear in it himself.

But my favourite story concerns Anton Walbrook. The day after filming the big argument scene where he smashes the mirror, Walbrook asked if he could be shown the rushes. Lawrie took him to the screening room and asked for the relevant takes to be shown.

The film came on, but there was no sound. Lawrie made to go and find out what the problem was, but Walbrook indicated that it didn’t matter. So they sat and watched the footage with only a faint whirrr from the projector.

And, in the dark, Lawrie could gradually hear a whisper. “Marvellous. Wonderful. Oh, I’m fantastic.”


Which he was.

This fits nicely with Moira Shearer’s recollections of Walbrook as an elegant, slightly distant figure, wafting about in sunglasses. Once, as she sat dining in the hotel restaurant in the South of France location, Walbrook strolled by. “Ah, it’s beautiful, but it’s not our world, is it?” he sighed, and wafted on.

Well, Walbrook was a refugee, after all. Even after his death, in Germany in 1967, he had no last resting place: for thirty years his ashes were kept in a jar, before finally being interred in the graveyard of St. Johns Church, Hampstead, as he had requested in his will.


In his not-always-factual autobiographies, A Life in Pictures and Million Dollar Movie, Powell claims credit for casting Walbrook in a series of films. His colleague, Emeric Pressburger “didn’t like homosexuals,” — and yet Pressburger wrote some vividly autobiographical material for Walbrook: Pressburger’s experiences as an exile surely informed Walbrook’s unbearably moving speech in the immigration office in THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP. Powell obviously responded to Walbrook’s intensity and flexibility: who else could achieve the bitter melancholy of that monologue, the sly wit of his characterisation in OH…ROSALINDA!  and the strangulated angst of his last speech in THE RED SHOES?

nor any other night...

“Actors are a third sex,” ~ Orson Welles. Certainly some of the most amazing actors have an ALIEN quality. The Shock of Recognition is a powerful thing, that kind of dramatic deja vu, but jamais vu is pretty amazing too — the Shock of Seeing Something You Never Saw In Your LIFE. Walbrook combines the two.


Cracked Actor

Maybe Walbrook’s most apt role isn’t in a P&P film at all — his otherworldly grace is perfectly suited to the “Ringmaster” character in Ophuls’ LA RONDE.