Archive for Stephen Fry


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.



Whoopee Cushing

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2013 by dcairns


Fun Fact: in 1940, during the brief stint as an up-and-coming Hollywood star, Peter Cushing (far left) made a skimpy appearance in the Laurel & Hardy feature A CHUMP AT OXFORD.

Less Fun Fact: Fiona is quite ill with depression at the moment. We’ve been concentrating our viewing on lighter fair, and Laurel & Hardy seemed a good fit. You often hear it said that such-and-such a comedian could cure depression, but usually this is not so. During her last major illness, eight years ago, Stephen Fry’s quiz show QI could sometimes make Fiona smile, or even reluctantly laugh, but it did not effect a cure. However, a good Laurel & Hardy film is about the most reliable comedy there is, if your funny bone happens to incline in that direction (some poor souls are not amused at the boys’ antics: we make no judgement on these unfortunates, but pass on in silence). Though not as big an L&H fan as I (Fiona really digs the Marx Brothers), Fiona was up for trying an experiment: Stan and Ollie Versus Clinical Depression.

Unfortunately, for our first try, choosing A CHUMP AT OXFORD was probably a mistake. The duo was usually better in shorts than features, and ACAO was originally a short feature which was then padded with a twenty-minute prologue having nothing to do with the rest of the picture. However, this sequence does feature “knobby Scot” James Finlayson, who provoked an involuntarily, slightly painful laugh, from my poor partner. Finlayson has only to appear and a smile can be sensed around the edges of the face.


After the disjointed opening, the film repairs to the dreaming spires of Oxford, and Cushing appears as one of a gang of nasty students, ragging Stan & Ollie with prolonged practical jokes. More interestingly than amusingly, several of these have an element of the macabre. Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy are made to get lost in a maze that’s straight out of THE SHINING (and nothing much to do with Oxford), and then Cushing helps one of his chums dress up as a wraith and chivvy the boys about at midnight. It’s a sort of dress rehearsal for CAPTAIN CLEGG.

Fiona becomes fixated on the film’s title. “But there’s two of them,” she protests, in a low-affect deadpan that would be funny if deliberate. A depressed person taking issue with a Hal Roach film title sounds like a normal person delivering tragic news: “It’s metastasized,” “War is declared,” “Winterbottom’s done it again.”

All this stuff seems based on a poor understanding of the kind of situation Laurel & Hardy are funny in. They’re so dumb that practical jokes played against them strike the audience as unfair — too easy! It’s more amusing to see the boys creating their own problems, and also fun to see them creating problems for officious enemies or perfectly innocent bystanders, who can be relied upon to react angrily and thus bring more misfortune on themselves. All without any real malice from the boys, who are generally just screwing things up through sheer incompetence. Cushing and his gang with their studied malevolence don’t fit into this scenario at all.


When Cushing next appears, he’s disguised in a voluminous false moustache. Oddly, when this is removed, he has a smaller, real moustache underneath, although his upper lip was quite nude when last we saw it. In the course of the night he’s somehow acquired this decoration. I wonder if the ‘tache might have been grown for THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (by horror legend James Whale), released the previous year? In that film, Cushing has a small role, but originally had a much larger one. In the split-screen scenes where Louis Hayward, playing royal twins (one good, one evil!) acts with himself, Cushing played stand-in, appearing in the cast-off halves of the screen, while Hayward’s halves were retained. Alas, the Cushing offcuts have not survived so far as we know.

Towards the climax of ACAO, which involves some pretty funny knockabout stuff, Stan gets caught in a window, and THE SHINING is recalled once more. A blow on the head cures him of lifelong amnesia and he reverts to his true self, an English lord. This leads nowhere in particular, but we get to see Stan play an English lord, which is worth seeing. It made Fiona smile a bit.


A trifle dissatisfied with ACAO, we looked at DO DETECTIVES THINK? a silent which isn’t that great either but has Finlayson again and some more examples of the Laurel & Hardy Uncanny —




Incidentally, Cushing enjoyed quite a long collaboration with another much-loved comedy duo, Morecambe and Wise — beloved in the UK (and the favourite TV show of Cary Grant) but largely unknown elsewhere. Enjoy —

An entry for the Peter Cushing Centenary Blogathon.