Archive for Steptoe and Son

Things Roddy said during Dracula Has Risen From the Grave.

Posted in FILM, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 26, 2012 by dcairns

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A specific example of the limits of conceptual knowledge in WMS is from a reported instance of a 21-year-old woman with WMS (Verbal IQ of 69) who was literate and read several books on her favorite topic: Vampires. When this subject was asked what a vampire is, she responded reasonably and clearly that a vampire is ‘‘a man who climbs into ladies’ bedrooms at night and sinks his teeth into their necks.’’ When asked why vampires do that, she thought for a bit, and then said, ‘‘Vampires must have an inordinate fondness for necks’’ (Johnson & Carey, 1998).

Fiona’s brother Roddy is Christmassing with us again, which means we’re watching lots of his favourite horror movies. Roddy has Williams Syndrome, like the woman quoted above, and oddly enough he likes vampires too. (Williams people are often musical, and often seem to have passionate interests, bordering on obsession: Roddy’s love of cranes and digging machinery is very typical of the condition.)

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“I wouldn’t like to meet him on a dark night. Wonder what would happen if I did?”

Roddy says this once during every screening of a Christopher Lee DRACULA film. Lee is his favourite vampire, and we’re pretty sure the attraction is the sexual fascination Lee’s Count is able to exert over every blonde he encounters. Roddy does not exert this fascination, but would probably like to. Wouldn’t we all?

“What’s that he’s doing? Is that a coffin or something? Another victim? Oh my God.”

Roddy himself watches quite hypnotized, becoming antsy and talkative only when the suspense builds. But the boring scenes with Barry Andrews keep him hooked too, since it’s always possible that something more vampiric may happen at any moment.

This movie has a fair bit of tedium, but director Freddie Francis contrives some lurid and Bavaesque colour effects, which seep in whenever Lee is around. Unfortunately, nothing but verbiage seeps in when Barry Andrews and Rupert Davies are around.

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“Is it her he’s looking for? Look! He’s rubbing his face on her face. Oh! He’s a vampire and he bit her.”

“Uh-oh, there he is. What’s happening? Uh oh. Here you go.”

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People with Williams consistently interpret faces as being friendlier than the rest of us.

“He’s smiling, look.”

“Ah-oh, here we go. He got caught – run!”

Here, Roddy seems to be unsure who he’s rooting for, shouting helpful advice to Dracula as well as to the heroes. But he knows pretty well who the goodies and baddies are. The character of the unnamed priest (Ewan Hooper) who gets enslaved by Drac is a puzzle, though. Characters who behave inconsistently are troubling.

“Uh-oh. This is the best bit.” Hooper smashes Rupert Davies on the head. “Hit the wrong man!”

I try to explain to Roddy that no, he hit the man he was aiming at, but he doesn’t understand Hooper’s two-faced Renfield persona. People with Williams Syndrome are extremely sociable and tend to think the world is their friend, until proven otherwise.

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Also, since the spread of cognitive abilities in people with this condition is quite varied, I suspect Roddy has a rather uncertain “theory of mind.” I can explain the concept of theory of mind with a test ~

If you say to a child under three, “A little boy has some sweeties, and he hides them under a bowl, but when he’s away his mummy moves them and puts them under a cup. When the boy comes back, where will he look for his sweeties.” Younger children always say “Under the cup,” because that’s where the sweeties ARE, and they can’t grasp the fact that the boy has different knowledge from them. That’s theory of mind.

When we watched ABBOT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, Roddy became frustrated by the character of the policeman, who didn’t know that Lon Chaney was the Wolfman. I tried to explain that the policeman didn’t know that fact, but no matter how I tried to express it, Roddy thought I was claiming that Lon Chaney wasn’t the Wolfman. “I’m sure Lon Chaney is the Wolfman,” he muttered, repeatedly.

“What’s going to happen now? Uh-oh, here comes guess who. Uh oh, he’s got a hold of him now.”

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“He’s not very pleased, is he?”

Tests have shown that Williams people are very attentive to faces, when watching TV or otherwise. This close concentration seems to be connected to a difficulty in interpreting the meaning behind facial expressions. Because the condition involves high levels of sociability, Williams people concentrate very hard on the faces, trying their best to make out what the expressions mean. Concordantly, Williams people aren’t much interested in cartoons. Roddy loves slapstick stuff where people without learning difficulties fall down or bump their heads, thus losing their supposed sense of superiority, but cartoons aren’t interesting, presumably because the faces don’t have enough detail of expression.

Roddy’s generally very good at recognizing people’s faces — that seems to involve a different part of the brain. He did think the CGI Jim Carrey in A CHRISTMAS CAROL was “that man from that programme with the horse” — Wilfred Brambell in Steptoe and Son (but what other real human being ever looked like that?), and he did think Veronica Carlson in this films was a presenter from 70s children’s show How, but that’s not so unreasonable: Jenny Hanley’s appearances in SCARS OF DRACULA did not prevent her co-presenting Magpie on Children’s telly in the seventies.

“For example, adolescents and adults with WMS have difficulty differentiating not alive into the conceptual categories of dead, inanimate, unreal, or nonexistent.” The Neurocognitive Profile of Williams Syndrome: A Complex Pattern of Strengths and Weaknesses, Ursula Bellugi, Liz Lichtenberger, Wendy Jones, and Zona Lai, Marie St. George

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“I ken what he’s going to do — I ken what happens!”

Roddy sort of believes in Dracula, and sort of believes in Santa Claus. It’s quite hard to work out how much he believes, though. I think it might be similar to the belief in God a lot of people must have — they would be astonished at any example of divine intervention (of course there are no doubt many people who would accept a miracle as wholly appropriate to their understanding of the world — I suppose…) Roddy doesn’t expect to meet Dracula on a dark night, and he knows that Christopher Lee is an actor. Or at least he accepts that these things are widely acknowledged to be the case. He believes Castle Dracula is a real place and won’t take in any information about special effects that contradicts the evidence of his own eyes. (To be fair, Yvette Mimieux believed the iron sphinx in THE TIME MACHINE was a real structure, and hoped to visit it one day, and she’s in the film.)

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“Watch out! There he goes! Eyes start watering.”

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There Will Be Flood

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , on March 26, 2010 by dcairns

FLOODS OF FEAR, rather nicely directed by Charles Crichton (THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES, A FISH CALLED WANDA), is a B-thriller with an A budget, and an intriguing mix of good and bad qualities, both of which are equally entertaining at times.

Good qualities — escaped convicts taking charge of a flooded house during a destructive deluge in Canada: it’s a great dramatic situation. The cast is strong and the budget surprisingly fulsome, offering convincing special effects, both life-sized and miniature (and you generally can’t see the join).

Even though the central set-up in the film’s first third — convicts menace cute girl — is a little Victorian in its implications, there’s room for suspense and the film isn’t afraid of being exploitative and vulgar, which is somehow refreshing in a British movie of the 50s. And for a former Ealing director like Crichton to go as racy and pulpy as this is quite surprising.

Bad qualities — restlessly, the movie shifts out of the half-submerged house, dissipating suspense and pursuing a more complicated but less interesting narrative, rooted in a convoluted backstory we never see. But all his forgiven during the violent climax, set in a flooded shipping office.

Also — crummy title.

The most amusing bad quality, however, is the filming of a Canadian adventure story in England with English and Irish actors. In the lead, Howard Keel, in his first non-musical lead, is able to show the way with authentic North American vocalisations. Opposite him, the lovely Anne Heywood just plays it English, which is acceptable in the circumstances. Now the trouble starts. Cyril Cusack, as the psychopathic con, essays a dialect melding his own Irish tones with a rich blend of wildly different American sounds and mannerisms. These were the days before dialect coaching, when accents were largely expected to partake of the same generous suspension of disbelief that applied to rear-projected car journeys, bloodless stabbings, balsa barroom bannisters and people falling from high places who transformed into flailing, disarticulated dummies for the descent.

“Disarticulated” is actually a pretty good word for Cusack’s speech patterns — his voice belongs to a Frankenstein’s monster of American accents, with Tennessee legs supporting a Texas torso from which depend Brooklyn arms, the whole surmounted by an Irish-South African head, the bits strung together with fraying thread, flapping loosely as his performance plummets towards the murky waters below.

As hilarious as Cusack’s performance is, bundling together tics and tropes from a generation of sleazeball gangster characters, it pales next to that of Harry H Corbett, who is much funnier because his character, a stuffy prison guard, is more dignified, and because his accent, if we can even justify the use of the singular, is even worse than Cusack’s. In his very first sentence he manages to segue from Humphrey Bogart to Cary Grant. Grant, of course, had an accent unknown to Henry Higgins (“Nbody tawks like that!” as Jack Lemmon protests in SOME LIKE IT HOT), making it an unsuitable case for impersonation outside of a comedy. I think even if you were playing Cary Grant you might want to tone it down a bit.

“You dirty old man!”

Corbett was a serious stage actor at this point, remarked upon for his proletarian grit and manliness. How he wound up spending twelve years in a single sitcom is mysterious, but his ambition to be a great thespian informed his playing of Harold in Steptoe and Son, a study in frustration, disappointment, pretension, great dreams and lowly surroundings — perfect for a once-hot classical actor.

There’s nothing perfect about most of Corbett’s movie work, although he features in Gilliam’s JABBERWOCKY, Eric Sykes’ much-loved silent comedy THE PLANK, Mackendrick’s SAMMY GOING SOUTH, Joan Littlewood’s SPARROWS CAN’T SING, and of course CARRY ON SCREAMING. The rest tend to be dowdy British sex comedies of the kind clearly intended to put the British working man off sex for life, although COVER GIRL KILLER, made the same year as FLOODS, features an inventive and grotesque turn from Corbett, possibly patterned on Cusack’s pebble-glasses maniac in this movie.

Howard Keel is mainly staunch and shirtless as the stoic con with a tragic past — he has the kind of musculature, coated in soft flesh, that you just don’t see on leading men anymore. He’s holding his gut in all the time, like Mitchum or Shatner. But he cam move! That musical training pays off whenever he has to clamber or jump, suggesting that a deluge-based thriller is not actually the best vehicle for him. He could have played Burt Lancaster type swashbucklers, because he’s beautiful in motion.

Worth a look for the sheer spectacle and the hilarity of the Canadian accent drag acts. A good candidate for remake status, except that HARD RAIN kind of went there.

Carry On Noir

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2010 by dcairns

Had a great time showing NIGHT AND THE CITY to my class a couple weeks ago, a movie I always enjoy, for all kinds of things, from the London noir atmosphere, Francis Sullivan’s eloquently tortured fat man bad guy, and Richard Widmark’s sweaty desperation (ALL the characters in the film are studies in desperation of one kind or another). Despite the seedy atmosphere, the film seems to have had an oddly healthy effect on its participants, with Widmark and director Jules Dassin surviving well into their nineties, and co-star Googie Withers still being with us today. But this time I was taken with a minor player who was not so lucky.


The thug in the car is an actor names Peter Butterworth. Not somebody one associates with thug parts, actually: Butterworth is chiefly known for his roles in the CARRY ON series, often as an incompetent underling to stars like Harry H Corbett (CARRY ON SCREAMING) or Kenneth Williams (DON’T LOSE YOUR HEAD). He’s also in three Richard Lester films, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, THE RITZ and ROBIN AND MARIAN, where he plays a barber-surgeon failing to extract an arrow from Richard Harris’s neck.

Melancholy and an end-of-the-pier seediness seem to coalesce around the private lives of the CARRY ON team, few of who reached particularly ripe ages (so it’s pleasing to have Barbara Windsor as an uncharacteristically perky Dormouse in Tim Burton’s mess of an ALICE IN WONDERLAND). Butterworth’s death, aged sixty, from a heart attack while waiting in the wings to go onstage at a pantomime show (I’d previously read “while entertaining at a children’s party” but I’ll go with the IMDb), has a sad sound to it, although you can configure a Hollywood Version easily enough: the sound of laughter/applause ringing in his ears. And it probably beats being bashed with a brick, which is what happens to his co-thug in NIGHT AND THE CITY.

Butterworth was a splendid comic, who could quietly hold his own amid the chaos of a CARRY ON farce — it was actually good from to upstage your fellow players in these things, since the only way to make the experience lively for the audience, with the inert staging, corny gags and clunking editing, was to have a few faces emoting at once, each trying to outdo the other in enthusiasm. Situate Butterworth in the background and he’d add a whole mini-drama just by being endearingly daft. He spends the whole climactic exposition of FORUM struggling to get his sword from its sheath, and faffs around behind Richard Harris in R&M, taking the curse off the script’s poetic musings with a welcome infusion of bumbling.

Here’s a bit of SCREAMING which illustrates a number of the painful pleasures of that series. Fenella Fielding is a great underused resource of British cinema, best known internationally for revoicing Anita Pallenberg in BARBARELLA. Kenneth Williams, always alarming, is especially so as the reanimated Dr. Watt, his voice a-quiver with vibrato suggestiveness. Then, about three minutes or so in, we get Butterworth, who hardly says a word but stands behind the other players and mugs genially. Jim Dale tries to match him twitch for twitch, and you get a sort of doubling of affect as they do a kind of facial dance-off behind Harry H Corbett (once praised as British theatre’s answer to Brando, now a magnificently resourceful farceur with TV’s Steptoe and Son as, essentially, his entire career) and Williams.

You can also appreciate Gerald Thomas’s bad filmmaking. He serves up passable angles in which we can enjoy the mugging, but they don’t cut together at all well — there’s no reason for the angle changes except to serve up a spurious variety to the coverage, and break the scene into manageable-sized segments. Kevin Smith must have been taking notes.

Oh, and the big guy at the start is Bernard Bresslaw, who nearly got the role of the Creature in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, just losing out to Christopher Lee. Imagine what a fun alternative universe that would be!