Archive for Spike Milligan

The Sunday Intertitle: Interzone

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2015 by dcairns

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I was almost despairing of finding an intertitle in a seventies sci-fi film — because that’s the kind of thing I spend my time worrying about (as opposed to, say nuclear war, overpopulation or the collapse of social order) but then I found Elio Petri’s TODO MODO, a vaguely science-fictional doomsday wallow from 1976. Petri’s THE TENTH VICTIM is a hip and zippy pop-art spree of a film, but this one, despite being set in a reinforced concrete bunker designed by the great Dante Ferreti, or perhaps partly because of that, is a bit turgid and airless. Even exciting actors (Mastroianni, Volonte, Melato) and Petri’s snaky camera moves can’t quite bring it to life. But it earns its place in a mini-entry about the various films I’ve looked at but am not devoting big pieces to.

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Dante Ferretti and Mariangela Melato remind us of the Mike Hodges FLASH GORDON, of course, a film which, like THE BED SITTING ROOM, could be said to sum up everything about the preceding decade while also anticipating everything about the decade to come.

In TODO MODO, officials from church and state are gathered underground as an epidemic begins to spread across the country — we could situate this in our future history books between THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN and TWELVE MONKEYS. Funny how these films can link up.

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This setting in Tarkovsky’s STALKER suggests some connection with PHASE VI — Lynn Frederick must be lurking just under that powdery sand, wearing an enticingly thin top. The heroines in both STALKER and SOLARIS freak out on the floor while wearing similarly revealing garb.

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Bra-less-ness, of course, was a big seventies phenomenon, and it’s understandable that science fiction filmmakers assumed that things would carry on in that general direction. John Boorman, in ZARDOZ, went as far as to imagine Future Man clad in only bandoliers, thigh boots and nappies, a natural extrapolation of seventies fashion.

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Here’s Nigel Davenport, more sensibly dressed. Why is he concealing his hand? It must surely be crawling with ants, as in PHASE IV, but this is THE MIND OF MR SOAMES, made four years earlier. Terence Stamp plays a man whose been in a coma since birth but is brought to consciousness by Robert Vaughan and then educated by the unsympathetic Davenport. Quite an interesting piece, despite its basic impossibility. Stamp’s child-like performance is affecting, and it’s a very unusual piece to have come out of Amicus Productions. A predatory TV camera crew hang around filming the unfolding tragedy (and contributing to it) — reminiscent of Peter Watkins’ glum futuristic mockumentaries THE WAR GAME, PRIVILEGE, THE GLADIATORS and PUNISHMENT PARK, but TV director Alan Cooke doesn’t use them as a narrative device in that way.

One of the TV crew is played by Christopher Timothy, famed for seventies vet show All Creatures Great and Small. His co-star in that, Carol Drinkwater, plays a nurse in CLOCKWORK ORANGE, another film about Bad Education.

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Note also the b&w production design, even in the nursery set — Mike Hodges must have liked this, as he appropriated the look for the haunting THE TERMINAL MAN, a ruthlessly colour-coordinated vision of Los Angeles. Even the operating room looks similar, with its hexagonal viewing gallery. I’d always assumed that, like Boorman, he was under the influence of inveterate park-painter Antonioni. While SOAMES is an intriguing curate’s egg, TERMINAL MAN is a despairing masterwork, and a far more interesting take on Michael Crichton than the JURASSIC PARK series we’re all assailed with today.

(Remember when JP first came out — weren’t we all struck by the fact that the author of WESTWORLD had done it all again only with dinosaurs? Had he lived longer, surely he’d have gotten around to writing a botanical garden where the monkey puzzle trees go on a rampage.)

We watched Red Shift, a TV play written by novelist Alan Garner and directed by Edinburgh man John MacKenzie. A very odd piece of work, shifting about over a thousand years of history in one small geographical spot in Cheshire, and hinting at psychic links across the centuries. And there’s James Hazeldine, star of BBC Scotland’s The Omega Factor, which dealt with psychic phenomena and freaked me out as a kid — saw it again years back, and it’s very disappointing — and there’s Hazeldine again in THE MEDUSA TOUCH, being defended in court by Richard Burton.

Red Shift’s best bit is the first shift, when an oddly-written but basically social-realist family drama is abruptly interrupted by a savage battle between Romans and Britons, the most startling transition I’ve ever seen in a TV play. We were also pleased to see Leslie Dunlop (that nice nurse in THE ELEPHANT MAN) and Stella Tanner, who also turned up in sci-fi kids’ series The Changes, and in Spike Milligan’s unique take on the Daleks ~

The Changes manages a more nuanced take on multicultural Britain, featuring an extended family of Sikhs as major characters. The concept freely adapted from novels by Peter Dickinson, is unique and wondrous — one day, the whole population of Britain starts smashing their machinery, driven by a sudden conviction that the stuff is evil. As if a Luddite meme had been downloaded into every brain. The series then follows the adventures of a teenage girl in an England that’s been sent back to medieval standards.

I watched this show religiously as a seven-year-old, though it strikes me that the rioting, madness and so on must have been a little disturbing. But somehow I missed the final episode. So I had to ask a friend at school what happened, and this is what he said: “There was a big stone that had been asleep for hundreds of years and then it woke up and there hadn’t been any machines when it went to sleep so it didn’t like them so it told everybody to smash them.”

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I liked the Big Stone Explanation of Everything but was never sure it was true — I also kind of liked the idea that he had just made it up. But it turns out to be EXACTLY TRUE (the BFI have kindly re-released the series). And here I am, forty years later, having entirely forgotten the kid who told me the story, but remembering the story he told. Says something about my priorities.

If women burned their bras in the seventies (which they didn’t — but in the mostly magnificent SLEEPER Woody Allen makes the worst joke of his career on this subject: “As you can see, it’s a very small fire,” a kind of perfect own-goal of a joke, proving that anti-feminist attitudes make you smug, stupid and obnoxious) the men really let it all hang out. Rip Torn allows little Rip to be fondled and addressed in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (more on that tomorrow), Terence Stamp is seen full-frontal in his coma in MR. SOAMES, and in SHOCK TREATMENT, a sort of Twilight Zone narrative about a predatory health farm, unsustainably extended to feature length, Alain Delon enjoys a nude romp in the sea. A cheerful note to end on.

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We Don’t Even Know Who Won the War

Posted in FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2015 by dcairns

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I AM THE BBC

THE BED SITTING ROOM was shot in either ’68 or ’69 but didn’t open until 1970 so it seems the perfect transitional film to bring us into Seventies Sci-Fi Week here on Shadowplay. A wise man once said, “The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over and […] we have failed to paint it black.” My Forgotten essay on the film is here and it’s called The End of History. Below you can hear from three of the principle talents involved.

Star Rita Tushingham (who comes at the top of the cast list, since it is in ascending order of height), cinematographer the late David Watkin (courtesy of Allan Thomson) and director Richard Lester. So it’s a kind of Stealth Film Club I’m springing on you here.

An apocalyptic comedy, adapted by Charles Wood from the play by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus, filmed on location in the ruins of Britain. A score of bedraggled survivors of “the Third — or was it the Fourth? — World War” try to carry on their lives as if nothing had happened, but institutions have now contracted into individuals and random mutations are transforming citizens into architecture and furniture and one parrot. Rita Tushingham plays the sixteen-month pregnant Penelope who lives on a train on the Circle Line (as in JUGGERNAUT, we’re all stuck going round in circles).

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I WILL SAY THIS FOR HIM

My friend David Ehrenstein said “Please ask about THE BED SITTING ROOM and Richard Warwick.”

Oh, darling Richard, yes. Richard was just… he looked at me and… I’d known Richard before, he was a friend of mine, and he said, “Oh! I, I – I don’t quite know — I don’t know what he wants! Oh! How are we supposed to do this?” And I said “Just do it! Trust him, trust him.” Because for some people, if you didn’t know Richard [Lester], he was so easy and knew exactly what he wanted, you had to trust him. Because he knows comedy — the visual is so important, and that’s what it is, we’re making a film.

But Richard [Warwick] was lovely, lovely to work with. He was slightly bumbly [Rita makes untranscribable but very funny bumbly sound], but he just got on with it and got into the swing of things.

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HAVE YOU CONSIDERED THE NEW ECONOMIC COMBINED MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE CEREMONY?

I loved doing it because it was with a great group of actors. And it was an extraordinary film. Way ahead of its time.

I think, still.

Yes, me too. And when you look at it, it’s really touching. And there again, the characters had to be slightly crazy — to survive. Arthur Lowe was so touching, and Mona Washbourne, they were such lovely performances.

Michael Hordern was very funny because, my character and he get married, and I would always make fun with Michael and laugh because he was very conservative. I used to joke about, Oh, the Conservatives,” and stuff like that. He was quite stiff-upper-lip at times. Fantastic man and actor. And we had to do this scene where we’d just got married and we’re going to get into bed and there’s a meter at the side of the bed and he has to put money in it. And he had to put a board down his back, and he said to me, “Mwoh! Why am I doing this? What does this mean?” and I said, “Oh come on, Michael, surely you know?” and I always remember that because I was just sending him up, but, boy! He was very worried that he didn’t know why he should put a board down his back. Some kind of sexual enjoyment or something? He was hilarious. And lovely.

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GOOD OLD GODDY

And Spike Milligan, of course.

That must have been strange for him to be suddenly in this world that he’d written for the stage…

It didn’t seem to bother him at all because he was always in his own world. He just got on with it. He had all th costume and everything. And Ralph Richardson! Ralph doing, and was so touching when he turns into the bed-sitting room. And Mona Washbourne. And Harry Secombe!

There were so many lovely performances from people and their world has been shattered.

When I interviewed Richard I mentioned that it had just struck me that the film was about the human tendency to carry on, and that’s both inspiring and despairing, because they’ll carry on making the same mistakes.

Talking about it now…because obviously you don’t sit around and think that much about films you’ve been in, that would be a sad state of affaris, but talking to you about it, when you think of all the people who were in it, they were all so touching in their way. It came out at a time when they were expecting other things, and Richard had to do a certain kind of film, and suddenly he did this film, which was very thoughtful and thought-provoking. Probably they didn’t know how to take it. But they SHOULD, because it was all there on the screen.

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I HAVE THE PROOF

Allan Thomson’s interview with David Watkin also contains quite a bit on this film. With his permission, I quote ~

How I Won the War, The Bed Sitting Roam. Those two are very important films, very important and very good films, both of them. You see nobody has heard of The Bed Sitting Room. It’s just as important as Help! […] Just look at the cast list. And the Beatles are only a sort pop-group, for God’s sake. Let’s not get it out of proportion. A very useful pop group.

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How I Won the War and The Bed-Sitting Room got a lot of static and were criticised and all the rest of it. Maybe didn’t as well as they could have done if they were more boring but the fact is that’s the reason why people will still be looking at them …50..60..100 years from now. It depends on how long your perspective is. I have no more money than I need but I have what I need, Which is quite good in a way because it keeps me working. It’s very exasperating doing the best criteria for anything* and I quite respect the fact that films are supposed to make money, it’s nice when they do but if that is the only thing that you have in your mind you will, make bad, boring and silly films,

And that and that is the sickening fact about our case – Richard – is that he won’t do it and fucking good for him.

I mean after The Bed-Sitting Room he didn’t do anything for ages, nobody would give him a film.

The thing is it wasn’t originally going to be The Bed Sitting Room, it was going to be Up Against It. You know all that story. Well they got all this money and were ready and of course Joe Orton was murdered and they couldn’t carry on with that and they did a quick switch to The Bed Sitting Room.

They will spend money making the film and then will spoil the picture because they always say if they don’t like it, so they won’t bother to publicize or to distribute it. I mean this is one of their inanities. They’ll spend a whole lot of money turning some dreary script into a blockbuster and yet when that something that really is worth putting out they think it is no good and pull it. It happened all the time.

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MAKES ME FEEL ALL FUNNY TO READ IT

I don’t look at the script, [only] in order to find out how many nights shooting. And find out roughly what the thing is about. I will only read the script once you see. Because if I get over familiar with it then I get bored with it. And then I won’t have an idea that’s worth having, I mean this is only me, I am not talking about anyone else, I am much better to be faced with something which is fresh and the thing about reading 3 script is when to do it. If someone sends me a script and they say they are going to make the film in six weeks time. I need to know what the thing is about, so I skim through it, or very often I give it to my boyfriend and he reads it. And then I have enough idea, but if I read it now it will be a different thing by the time I am going to shoot, because it will be constantly changing by the day, pink pages, yellow pages and brown pages and all the rest of it and you get this polychrome thing that is handed to you. And I would usually read a script just a couple of days before we are going to start shooting, or better still, probably about two weeks after we have started shooting because then I know who all the characters are and it comes alive for me.

There is a lovely story about Richard which I will tell you about Richard which is in my book so you mustn’t use it. Well, I don’t know, you can use it because it’s very funny. Because I know you know in the The Bed Sitting Room people are mutating into various things, Arthur Lowe turns into a parrot and “Moaning” Washbourne as she was called turns into a wardrobe. And we had one scene in the bed-sitting room and I lit it and thought “Nothing can go wrong here,” and I just sort of settled down for a quiet snooze. And they were just about film and Dick said “It’s important that we can see Mother in this,” which is Mona. So I was not sure, there’s no sign of her. And he did it quite deliberately because Mother in fact is the wardrobe so that was Richard’s idea of a little joke, which for a moment put me out.

No, it sounds silly and outrageous but it actually makes a lot of sense because 1 find that the ideas that are the most use are the ones that come uninvited, The ones come while you are poring over a script, oh Christ, I must have an idea about that, all 1 have is a crummy idea,

It’s much better when you just come, I don’t how to light a set until I have seen it. As soon as I see it the set will tell you what to do.

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A lot of people think films are all set before shooting.

He and I are absolutely identical about this way, absolutely, I may have an idea beforehand; it may occasionally be a good one and I may occasionally try and do something about it, but for the most part, for me, I would say that it is more than 50% I would say that it is 70% in front of the set. I would rather have a really alive idea almost too late, so that there is a bit of a scurry to do it than have some dead, dead old thing that everybody has been preparing for three weeks, who wants that.

Is it the spontaneity of a new idea?

It isn’t that it is a new idea. It’s an idea that has actually sprung out of something instead of being tortured and come alive on its own. That’s why he and I probably have quite a good understanding of each other. Probably got a lot to do with it without my realizing at the time.

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AND THE ELBOWS AND THE KNEES AND THE TEETH OF GOD

I found Spike a little strange because you know I did a couple of pictures with Spike and Richard, And Spike would turn up, arrive on the musketeers and I had done the whole of The Bed-Sitting Room with him, which was a long films and Spike would turn up and I don’t expect people to sort of flock around me in a way, it is if you have worked with someone for something like three months, you know a couple of years later and they haven’t the slightest idea, they know who you are Spike hadn’t the vaguest idea not the vaguest or he wasn’t interested. When you are working for someone for three months and then you come back a few years later for another five months and all you get is ‘How do you do.’

He is the one person who never took the slightest notice of “Richard” and called him “Dick” forever. I’m all for him. It’s not a criticism or complaint it’s an account of what I remember of Spike is he never remembered me.

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A NEW LEADER TENDS TO EMERGE

From my interview with Richard Lester conducted for The Criterion Collection blu-ray of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT.

It got tied up ecologically […], with the fact that we were able to find such places of physical degradation, so easily, in mid-summer of 1969. Those were bad times. Everyone was feeling uncomfortable,. It wasn’t good. It worried Spike that some of the images, when put on a big screen — as opposed to a pile of boots in the Aldwych Theatre or wherever it was, you could sort of get away with it, but when you get piles of teeth or boots in the wide screen of desolation — it seemed to skew the film over into something heavier than Spike had expected. And I think it worried him. And it worried me that it worried him.

The play is, in a way, even darker, but because nothing is real…

That’s right. And you’re carried along by the fact that everybody looks at Spike and laughs.

In the play they not only eat the parrot that was Arthur Lowe, they eat the mutant baby as well.

Yes, we didn’t quite go that far.

It only just occurred to me that the true subject is not the bomb but our tendency to carry on mindlessly in spite of everything,

ABSOLUTELY. My way of describing it was that if you have a beautiful Doric column and put a bomb under it and explode it, it will fall in pieces to the ground, but each piece will be a perfect little Doric column in itself. It will find a way — like the sponges that you put into a Waring blender, when you let it settle it will return to being a perfect sponge. We will find a way to carry on. And the most strident of us — Peter Cook — will come to the top. “So watch it!”

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It is the bleakest film you ever made, in a sense, because it has the complete paralysis of everything. Did that trouble you because of Milligan’s attitude or was it something you felt was a problem in the film?

I don’t think so. The troubling thing was that sense that it’s so easy for a society to do grave damage to itself. Feelings about annihilation due to nuclear accident, which was all in the air. I remember reading The Silent Spring by Rachel Carson… That sense that we have it in our power to have a great extinction and not even notice it, which is still with us all the time, is something that got muddled up with it, for me. I mean there was a place where we had Harry Secombe, and it was in the back of Port Talbot, in the back of the steelworks and the refinery and all that. And we had to have him in the water. And they said, “You can have him in the water but then you have to get him stripped down and washed within thirty seconds otherwise we won’t take any responsibility for it. This was a whole landscape filled with this dangerous water that was just there, and anybody could have walked into it.

So all this got muddled up… and it was wildly optimistic to think that anybody could make a film of the subject.

And you had Ralph Richardson.

An absolute delight. He was the one… summing him up: the film played the Berlin Film Festival, and he was sitting at a table with the mayor of Berlin and a lot of dignitaries, including the heads of United Artists. And he turned to the mayor and he said, “Oh, Mr. Mayor, I do so love your city.  It has the most wonderful [pause for breath] escalators.” And then turned and started to talk to someone next to him, and the poor mayor, first I think was mentally going through the English-German Dictionary, thinking that he’d made a terrible error, and then was just totally at a loss [laughs]. But Ralph was like that throughout life.

AH, LUNCHEON

Do you think it’s lunchtime?

Yes, I think it probably is.

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Lester spent the next five years, when he was at the peak of his powers and could easily have been making two films a year, shooting commercials in Italy. At one point he was making so much money he asked to be paid in wine. So that it’s possible the wine we had at lunch that day was earned as an indirect consequence of THE BED SITTING ROOM.

I do urge you to see the film, which is now easier to obtain than ever before. It languished in such obscurity that the makers of WHEN THE WIND BLOWS were able to claim, in the eighties, in my presence, that nobody had ever made a black comedy about life after the bomb before. Now, their film is the one that’s barely remembered and THE BED SITTING ROOM is starting to get some love.

 

 

 

The Monday Intertitle: Spike

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on March 10, 2014 by dcairns

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Been thinking about Spike Milligan a lot, for various reasons — I met a director of his, and a co-star. Then Anne Billson and I met for the first time in Camden Market and found a neat DVD shop, selling out-of-print obscurities on a semi-legal (well, illegal, really) basis, and they had a four-part series entitled Milligan In… which aired in 72-73, just before he appeared in THE THREE MUSKETEERS as Raquel Welch’s husband (“But it was only acting,” he reflected sadly).

What a disturbing thing — Milligan was a complicated individual, shellshocked from WWII, bipolar, a philanderer, and a genius. His genius was comedic, but he was also a poet — talented, but not superlatively so. Also a self-confessed racist — a mixture of the generational thing, his being a child of Empire brought up initially in India, a stubborn inability to grasp the niceties of political progress. Milligan’s race jokes are usually fairly inoffensive — punning on phrases that use the words “black” or “white” — but they’re not usually very funny. And there are too many of them. And then there are awkward bits that don’t seem like jokes at all.

One episode features a silent-movie sketch based around the idea of an unemployment crisis for comedians. The intertitles are hilarious, including one that has no words, just a spinning bow tie, and a speechless reply that’s just black space in a decorative frame. And there’s a beautiful joke involving a bicycle that gets eaten, leaving only its skeleton. The skeleton of a bicycle.

But there’s also a sequence of closeups when Spike enters the job centre and sees lots of people of different races waiting ahead of him. The implication is clear — these non-white people are taking our jobs. And there’s no joke to it, it’s just a slice of unpleasant Daily Mail racism. But then Milligan pans to the floor and redeems himself with a shot of the skeletal remains of a jobseeker, subtitled “Harry Secombe” (portly Welsh comic and sometime sidekick to Spike). Pan onto a second set of remains, labeled “Tommy Cooper” (another beloved British comic, very popular with Anthony Hopkins).

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There were a lot of racist comics on telly in the seventies. But the others weren’t mad geniuses. The most liberal or even radical comedy people in Britain today still idolise Spike — we’ve all decided to sort of look the other way concerning his racial politics. This sketch from the later “Q6” series, which is one of the funniest things I ever saw, is introduced as being about “Why mixed marriages don’t work” — another cringeworthy moment. But the sketch is funny because it’s about the domestic life of a dalek, the dalek is married to a lady, there’s a child dalek, the daleks can’t steer and keep bumping into the furniture, contrary to the advice of Mr Lunt, and also the lead dalek has Spike Milligan’s voice issuing electronically from its steel carapace. And they keep blowing things up. That’s a lot of funny elements, any one of which would have had me in a breathless, full-on asthmatic agony of mirth when I first saw it. The combination nearly made my ribcage explode.

The fact that the Dalek is wearing a sort of sloppy attempt a a turban is vaguely wrong, slightly funny, and ultimately easy to ignore amid the rest of the stuff going on. A Dalek bumping into a table is already, to me, funnier than anything, ever.

Later in Spike Milligan In… there’s a parody of the very respectable BBC kids’ show Blue Peter. Everybody grins terrifyingly. Milligan, in fright wig, is the most disturbing, but the guy parodying BP presenter John Noakes is really good too. The girl is Madeline Smith, of Hammer glamour fame, which cues us to expect knockers on display at some point. Sure enough, the show leaves the studio as the presenters narrate a film clip of their “skiing holiday in Islington.” They go into a shack and get rat-arsed on whisky. They play strip poker and Miss Smith is shortly down to her very skimpy undies. Violence breaks out. The Noakes figure is beaten unconscious, Madeline is bound and helpless and Milligan advances with ferocious lust —

Oh yeah, sexism. They had that in the seventies too. Milligan again was guilty, and again mainly because he refused to understand it. Here, he clearly felt this was something the audience would enjoy seeing. Which argues for a dim view of us — but at the same time, the assumption must be based on Milligan himself regarding it as something HE would like to see. Porn is always fantasy autobiography.

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But this sequence, highly reminiscent of Nigel Kneale’s legendary sci-fi TV play The Year of the Sex Olympics, is so disturbing it’s kind of good. Society collapses into horrific barbarism while a studio audience laughs and applauds. And the stock footage of clapping schoolkids is augmented by the laugh track played on top. Everyone is implicated.

The whole show is such a tonal stramash — poetry written for Milligan’s children, silent movie parody with racist propaganda, absurdity, songs (also written by Milligan), and now rape and bondage in a reversion to savagery — it’s impossible to watch without a queasy feeling. We also laughed, sometimes very hard. “It makes you feel stoned,” Fiona observed.

The Milligan mind was not disciplined, though it was amazingly fertile. It’s uncertain if he ever did anything that approached perfection, except backwards. But this series, very far from perfect and not his most likable, does present arguably the most complete picture of his virtues and vices.

Madeline Smith’s further crimes against womankind ~

This is an actual thing. The 1970s were different, and not really in good ways.

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