Archive for The Charge of the Light Brigade

Symposium

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2017 by dcairns

Up at 6.am. Edinburgh to York train at 6.55.

As a lecturer, I’m encouraged to do what is called “research” — but as I teach on a practical filmmaking course, nothing that would constitute research for me — stuff I could use in my practice — qualifies as academic research. But when Neil Sinyard notified me that there was a symposium on British cinema in the sixties, and that Richard Lester was taking part, I naturally wanted to go, so I offered a paper, and to my surprise it got accepted.

Richard Lester is appearing at the London bit of the programme next week, my paper was in the York section. So, two trips. Then I found out that, as a “teaching fellow,” I’m not actually required to do any research at all. Nobody had told me. This is possibly good news, except it leaves me in the dark as to whether I can claim expenses back. Too late now.

Sunny day. York is lovely. I haven’t been since I was a kid, and all I remember is the Cathedral, which stays out of sight this time. Taxi to campus because I don’t want to worry about getting lost. All the way there I see nothing later than the Victorian era, except the cars. And then the campus is completely brand new, and of course deserted (summer holidays).

I’m giving a paper on screenwriter Charles Wood (CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, top image), which I’ll doubtless post here later. Right away I meet someone I know, my editor from Electric Sheep magazine, who’s presenting a paper on Michael Reeves using her secret identity. I’m slightly worried because I don’t really know what a symposium looks like. Will we be in a theatre with a podium or some kind of boardroom? Apparently it’s both — I can choose which bit to attend, as there are parallel talks going on at once, Reluctantly I pass up Michael Reeves to hear about Joseph Losey.

We get coffee and lunch and beer/wine, which makes it a pretty nice gathering, even though I don’t know what a symposium is. I get to talking to two men both called Martin Hall. “You’ve lost your identity,” says a Martin Hall, and I agree, but he points at the floor, where my name card has fallen out of my badge. I’m now wearing a translucent panel on my chest, the kind of ID the invisible man might wear.

The second strange coincidence, following on from meeting someone I know under a different name, is learning that the continuity girl on Losey’s FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE was called Connie Willis. On the train down, I’d started reading To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis. A different Connie Willis. Time-travel comedy inspired by Jerome K. Jerome. Very hard to make anything of this synchronicity, except that time travel books are always about continuity, aren’t they?

I had been concerned that my presentation — I’d written as essay, probably too long, and was going to read it out — might not fit with what was expected, but it seemed to be roughly along the right lines. Some people had been poking about in archives — fascinatingly, all the correspondence from Film Finances, Britain’s biggest completion bond guarantor, is now available for research, but others had been talking to survivors of the era. One fascinating talk dealt with Peter Whitehead’s muses, one of whom was into trepanning, that ancient Egyptian practice whereby you bore a hole in yourself and let the sap run out. Some bloody images were shown. Whitehead had attempted to film his partner aerating her skull, but fainted, according to one account.

I shared the stage with a paper on widescreen style in THE IPCRESS FILE, which amounted to a strong defense of flamboyant style in British filmmaking.

My paper seemed to be well received! It was seen as odd that I was delivering this paper at the home of the Charles Wood Archive, but had not been to see it. I think that’s odd too — just didn’t have time. Hopefully I’ll find out I can claim expenses on it and can come back soon. At any rate, gratification was expressed that someone was paying attention to this important, criminally neglected artist.

The sun set all the way home ~

 

On the bus from the railway station to the chip shop, I sat behind a man with a livid X-shaped cut right on the apex of his cranium, in the centre of his bald spot, stitches visible. Had he been trepanned? It looked exactly like the bloody images I’d just seen. Strange coincidence No. 3.

Next week — London, Lester, Tushingham, Sandy Lieberson, PETULIA at the BFI Southbank!

The Common Man

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on September 16, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2015-09-14-19h22m32s131

Working my way through Sharpe, or at least the episodes written by Charles Wood. This leaves certain lacunae in the hero’s military career, but I’m fine with that.

Sharpe’s Regiment sees Sean Bean’s up-from-the-ranks officer going undercover as a raw recruit to find out what’s happened to a regiment gone mysteriously missing in England. It’s a slightly implausible plot — not the government corruption part, which is all too plausible, but the idea of the character being able to basically desert, disguise himself and then turn up again with his own identity and not get hanged, but we’ll allow such narrative shenanigans if the yarn is fun.

The best things here again include the villain, Mark Lambert as Colonel Girdwood, who we know is a baddie because he hates dogs and Irishmen with equal passion. He was traumatized by a mastiff when young, and then “ambushed” by “black Irish” as a young officer. The word “ambushed” is repeated so often and with such swivel-eyed vehemence that it seems to suggest some special meaning. “Irish? Indeed. Irish rogue. Irish dog. Irish scum. Irish filth. Irishman! They were ever so, they Irish. Would ruin me. Would. Did! Ambush. Would have broke a lesser man. SEIZE PADDY SECURE!”

vlcsnap-2015-09-14-19h16m55s86

The other amazing thing is Norman “Hairy Norm” Rossington as a recruiting sergeant, the exact same role he played in CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (1968), also written by Wood. The way Rossington (best known otherwise as Norm in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT) follows the troops into the Crimea makes him seem a little like the Common Man in the play of A Man for All Seasons. Having him continue his military career on TV is just delightful.

vlcsnap-2015-09-15-22h20m48s67

Hairy Norm in CHARGE.

Mr. Wood has written about how he found Rossington positioned, on CHARGE, at the front with the officers, and he asked him why he was there and not at the back where he belonged. “Because *I* am a highly paid feature player,” was Hairy Norm’s reply.

Norm somehow fought on both sides in the Napoleonic wars, turning up as a Frenchman in THE ADVENTURES OF GERARD, and can be glimpsed in uniform in everything from CARRY ON SERGEANT to LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, as well as officiating at the burning of Joan of Arc in Otto Preminger’s SAINT JOAN.

 

No Bodices Were Ripped During the Making of This Film

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 14, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2015-09-10-14h26m30s72

Managed to almost completely avoid the series Sharpe when it was on in the nineties. The little I saw impressed me mildly with its attempts at scale (reconstructing the Napoleonic Wars, done better with the aid of modern tech in the recent Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which more people should have watched) and I noted that Charles Wood had written some episodes, and saw enough to recognize that his patented period style, as heard in the 1968 CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, was present and correct.

Now, having becomes something of a Wood obsessive (I’ve seen all the Richard Lester films — but there remains a lot of Wood writing to catch up on), I decided to check out Sharpe’s Company, but first there was Sharpe’s Gold, written by Nigel Kneale, whose work we have been re-devouring.

Sharpe-s-Gold-sean-bean-22363446-1023-647

The Kneale script is probably the episode which differs most markedly from its Bernard Cornwell source novel — Kneale “had an idea which was more fun” and turned the adventure into, effectively, a 1930s serial, with a sinister Aztec cult hiding in the Portuguese hills, damsels in distress, last-minute rescues and hidden treasure. It may actually be the silliest of the Sharpes, except for those which commit the far sillier mistake of being dull.

Michael Palin’s refrain in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL — “And no singing!” would be a very useful one here, as Sharpe is accompanied by a mournful balladeer, who ought by rights to have been fragged before the opening exposition scroll had finished trundling upscreen. I know that folk music, like rape, was very much a part of warfare at the time, but I don’t see any reason to dwell on such atrocities.

vlcsnap-2015-09-14-08h41m46s193

The Kneale Sharpe is fun, and we were able to spot points of connection with his other Napoleonic scenario, H.M.S. DEFIANT (aka DAMN THE DEFIANT!), but the first Wood Sharpe is altogether superior. Gifted with a character widely held to be the nastiest villain in the Sharpe canon, Wood creates for Pete Postlethwaite a truly lunatic caricature — twitching, blinking, staring glassily, talking to himself, talking to a photograph portrait he stole which he insists on believing is his mother, boasting a rope-marked neck from a botched hanging, and convinced that he cannot die, Obadiah Hakeswill is grotesque, horrible, almost supernatural, pure evil, and yet wholly believable. You simply can’t convince yourself that anyone could make such a character up.

Most of this maniac’s character seems to have been forged in the source novel, but I’m sure Wood and Postlethwaite allowed him to accrete more layers of creepy weirdness.

The dialogue is amazing — people don’t really notice a lot of what they see and hear on TV, but it’s incredible to me that reviewers at the time didn’t remark on the spectacular oddities Wood was firing out of his cast’s throats. Here’s an officer who has lost many good men ~

“Jack Collett dead. I loved him. Rhymer gone. My pockets full of bits of dust and stone.”

He’s mourning friends and comrades but he stops to observe the lamentable state of his pockets. He may be talking metaphorically. I don’t think he, or the actor playing him, quite knows. And it’s wonderful. I can’t explain it because I don’t understand it, but I think it’s because (1) it’s astonishing, and astonishment confirms we’re alive and (2) everybody involved has decided to believe it.

vlcsnap-2015-09-14-08h44m07s72

One of Wood’s talents which adds conviction to any scene is a willingness to let the tone be determined by whatever might happen, rather than setting a tone and trying to make everything match it. In a tense briefing scene, the drama derails into comedy when it starts raining outside. And it keeps derailing, despite everything that’s at stake for Sean Bean’s Sharpe. Of course, this is true to life, and you can observe it in the work of other writers who seem superficially very stylised — Preston Sturges, William Shakespeare. The refusal to obey the colour swatches set down in the big book of drama results in something lifelike in its waywardness, and the lifelike quality more than compensates for the wayward quality.

sharpe’s company from David Cairns on Vimeo.

In the following episode, there’s Postlethwaite again, but he has almost nothing to do. Sharpe and some officers gather in the exact same medium shots in the exact same tent, and the scene falls flat — everyone just stands around waiting to say his line. Sean Bean reverts to lumpen mode. The solution to this mystery is that Charles Wood didn’t write this one. And you realize that not only is his dialogue a firework display, it’s allied to pin-sharp dramatic focus, even as it seems inclined to rocket off into random byways of comedy or oddness. In the hands of a lesser writer, the same material seems translucently thin and flat as a Liz Hurley line reading. Oh, and Liz Hurley’s in it too. Postlethwaite manages to probe a bit of a performance out of her by brushing stray bits of dirt off her tits (see top), which distracts her from her usual “I-am-reading-my-lines” approach, but it’s still heavy weather. The idea of Liz Hurley in the hands of television’s most demented psychopath seemed briefly alluring (Fiona: “I cannot WAIT to see Liz Hurley brutalized by Pete Postlethwaite”) which isn’t quite what you SHOULD be feeling, but like I say, PP/Obadiah gets nothing much to do.

Still, the episode establishes that all Liz Hurley ever needed to give a good performance was to have a madman dusting her knockers in every scene.