That’s what Dundee is REALLY LIKE, even today. Yes, that’s right, we’re talking about —
Joseph McGrath’s THE GREAT MCGONAGALL, starring and co-written with Spike Milligan, is out on DVD, complete with its original censor’s certificate, signed by Lord Harlech and the ill-fated Stephen Murphy, whose stint as secretary did not long survive his passing of STRAW DOGS, LAST TANGO IN PARIS, THE DEVILS, CLOCKWORK ORANGE…
That’s what I call a DVD extra! Which is good, since it’s all you get on this disc.
I remember discussing this movie online with David Ehrenstein, a fan of the film, and complaining that the revolutionary multi-camera system used by McGrath, MultiVista*, rendered the image muddy and unreadable. He said it didn’t.
He’s right! The DVD clears up the old VHS’ image problems somewhat, giving us a pin-sharp picture of what proves to be the real problem: a very underlit film.
The guy on the right is in black-face (a favourite, rather queasy, comic device of Milligan’s) but it really just looks like he’s in heavy shadow, because he IS in heavy shadow. During one musical number, it takes ages to realise that the singer is blacked up, and then we assume his chorus girls (including, I think, ROCKY HORROR’s Little Nell) are likewise daubed, since they’re the same hue. Only when they crowd into the spotlight do we realise they aren’t. Sometimes entire scenes look like minstrel shows. A genuine black actor (Clifton Jones, a militant leader in Godard’s ONE PLUS ONE) strains to make any impression on the emulsion, except when whited up as an Edinburgh Gentleman. Despite the low budget and numerous deliberate anachronisms, the film has a curiously strong Victorian feel, and maybe the engulfing shadows help slightly…
Quite a lot of Milligan’s performance is lost to the world due to strange lighting decisions that cause his eyes and lower face to disappear into the gloom. Being a product of Britain in the ’70s, TGM is shot not only in MultiVista but also in Brownoscope, the miracle of colour processing that aimed to fully exploit the varied properties of the colour brown. Indeed, Brownoscopy sought to elevate brown from a mere colour to being a full-fledged artistic medium in its own right. Had the pioneers involved succeeded in taking their invention to its highest level, celluloid itself would have been displaced as a recording device, and films as we know them today would have been rendered wholly from brownness itself. This film is perhaps the closest Brownoscope’s creators came to realising their awful, beautiful dream.
The presence of white on the set just confuses the cinematographer — he stops way down to avoid any risk of glare. Never mind if most of the leading man’s head disappears into the wall. When a film is devoid of colour, the lighting must separate out the planes of action to allow us to read the image. John Mackey’s work… doesn’t really do that. In a short career, he also shot micro-budget domestic horror film THE CORPSE with Michael Gough, which shares with this film a muddy texture and a creeping low-affect tone of despair. Which is WHAT I LIKE TO SEE, especially in a comedy.
This shot’s just RIDICULOUS — the visible source light behind the characters isn’t giving off even a strong backlight and the faces are lit by damn-all. What light there is hits the backs of their heads.
What’s not apparent from the frame-grabs here is the dubious quality of the sound recording. Shot in an old Music Hall in Whitechapel, the flick must have presented challenges to the recordist — so we get muffled and reverberant dialogue that kills comedy precision at birth and strangles any impression of lightness. At times it feels exactly like a YouTube home video of a school play.
Nevertheless, I think Mr. Ehrenstein is right, this is in fact a LOST COMEDY MASTERPIECE. The editing is very strange but often rather fine and sensitive to performance, and often gives things an added element of surrealism. So many shots and eyelines are mismatched in the opening sequence that the editor works up a sweat with constant cross-cutting in a vain attempt to convince us that all these closeups belong to the same film. He doesn’t quite succeed, but he creates a giddy, concussed mosaic of blinks and stutters.
I put the disc on to confirm my earlier prejudices, and the first 36 minutes slipped by before I could think to pause it — no small feat considering the lack of structured plotting, characterisation, scenic variety, and the often impenetrable sound and picture. The technical shabbiness sometimes helps — many of the jokes misfire, only to ricochet around and hit you from an unexpected angle. There are a lot more laughs of surprise than the cheap jokes comprising the script would lead you to expect. Maybe a bad joke can be funnier if you don’t quite hear it at first, then figure it out after everybody’s moved on and is in the middle of some fresh inanity. This is pretty near the opposite of how good comedy is supposed to work, but it works here (unless I’ve just lost my mind, always a possibility).
The movie fits squarely into a weird and despised tradition of British cinema, where ambitious projects are shoehorned into a theatrical format at a tiny budget — Tony Richardson’s HAMLET, filmed entirely in the London Roundhouse, nearly fits the pattern, but isn’t quite open enough at being set in a theatre. Ken Russell’s SALOME’S LAST DANCE and Jim Sharman and Richard O’Brien’s SHOCK TREATMENT embody the tradition. In a fit of madness, Richard Attenborough’s OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR inflates the concept to Mr. Creosote proportions.
This… thing constantly delivers memorable hallucinatory frames like these. Peter Sellers plays Queen Victoria, kneeling down. Milligan composes a bovine poem, with accompanying imagery. (Whenever Milligan recites, an ineffably beautiful and mournful theme — Tigon films always had gorgeous scores — plays as if automatically, smothering any comedy beneath a plush cushion of melancholia.)
“The chicken is a noble beast
But the cow is much forlorner
Standing in the pouring rain
With a leg at every corner.”
We’re told that all the poetry is genuine stuff, composed by the real William McG, poet and tragedian, who is buried here in the fair city of Edinburgh. Since W.C. Fields passed through this town, pausing to take his first drink of whiskey, it is likely that he heard of McGonagall’s fame and borrowed the name, which phonetically translated becomes The Great McGonigle, protagonist of THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY.
*Briefly, the MultiVista system allowed McGrath to shoot with several cameras at once and edit scenes live, as he filmed them, like a live TV director/vision mixer. The system is also used on that glorious nadir of British “cinema”, NOT NOW DARLING. Watching that one is like swimming in cement with a migraine. And Ray Cooney**.
**After I made him watch a Cooney film, my chum andy Gonzalez said, “I am now physically angry that this man has had a career.”