Film Club: the concept. We all see a film and talk about it. Pretty simple. This time we have SPECIAL GUESTS.
Plot synopsis for the unwary. In a narrow London domicile, schoolteacher Colin (Michael Crawford) laments his lack of knack with the ladies, whereas Tolen (Ray Brooks) apparently has them lining up. The arrival of the Bohemian Tom (Donal Donnelly) and the innocent Nancy (Rita Tushingham) sparks off a whirling comic psychodrama, commented on by a “Greek chorus of disapproval,” the middle-aged Londoners who “don’t subscribe to that sort of programme.”
I’ve got so much interview material that it seems to me I should just let the principles talk, and I’ll weigh in in the comments section if you say anything I like! THE KNACK is an odd thing. Farran Smith Nehme, the Self-Styled Siren, told me she reacted with a “what WAS that?” And she’s super-clever. The thing is, I don’t think that reaction is inappropriate or misses the mark — it may be more a question of whether you enjoy that sensation…
Ann Jellicoe’s quotes are taken from the intro to her play Shelley, or The Idealist.
SUSPICIOUS READING TO MY WAY OF THINKING
I wrote The Knack partly for the same reason as Shaw wrote You Never Can Tell and Ibsen Love’s Comedy: to make sure of getting a play produced after an early one had failed. So The Knack is a comedy with four characters and one set, but I wrote it mainly because I wanted to explore comedy, to write a play that should be full of joy, innocence and zest.
The Knack, like my first play, was written from the inside, character determining situation, situation defining character. The principle that action is not narrated was developed further. In The Sport of My Mad Mother, the characters were incapable of understanding their own motives; in The Knack, Tom sees clearly what motivates him and the others. Colin needs help but Tom sees danger in giving him ready-made answers; instead he tries to put Colin into situations where Colin will be able to recognize the nature of his problems and perhaps find his own answers; this is in contrast to Tolen who is always giving Colin good advice which weakens Colin and makes Tolen feel powerful. The man who understands seldom makes a direct statement; the others reveal themselves through what they say and do. The play is about how you should treat other people, and its form reinforces what it has to say. Speech rhythms are more subtly used than in The Sport of My Mad Mother, but there are interlocking rhythms which, with the youth of the characters and their zest, give the play its bounce. I was, however, beginning to be bored with verbal rhythms used in an obvious, musical way as they were in the first play, and to feel they were a mannerism.
[…] The success of The Knack in New York and as a film has freed me to follow what path I choose, at least for the time being. But I begin to feel alienated (temporarily I hope) from a society which has adopted The Knack and, it seems to me, subtly degraded it: A New York reviewer was able to write of the film that it was all the better for the elimination of the moral values of the play. The Knack is about the people who seemed to me most fresh and interesting at the time I wrote it.
SKIMMING RICOCHET OFF A DESKTOP
Through the kind auspices of Kate Wood, I was able to divert Charles Wood, celebrated playwright and screenwriter of THE KNACK… AND HOW TO GET IT, away from the cricket long enough to obtain answers to Ten Questions ~
Dear David, use what you like of my thoughts on “The Knack” below. It was all so long ago. I was lucky to get the chance to do it, for which for which I thank Richard and Oscar and Woodfall. Did a few more for them, enjoyed them all. All the best with it, let me us know how it goes, Charles.
It was all arranged by Oscar Lewenstein of Woodfall Films. My agent, Peggy Ramsay who was also Ann Jellicoe’s agent suggested me. I didn’t see the play but I read it and loved it. Oscar talked to Lindsay Anderson about it and I came up with a treatment for him which was a straight up and down realistic adaptation of the play. He didn’t like it.. Oscar obviously then talked to Richard of whom I knew nothing and asked me to go and see “Hard Day’s Night”. I went off to write some pages for him. Anyway, lots more drafts and it was done.
Richard remembers better than me. It wasn’t at all vexing. Richard and Deirdre made me very welcome in their house. It was my first film and I knew nothing so I enjoyed it. Learned a lot very quickly, I thought. It was very enjoyable.
I hadn’t the faintest idea what the film was all about. There was no theme except youth and discovery, and being alive, same old things. It was Ann Jellicoe’s play we were adapting and putting onto film, when all the pieces came together we hoped she would approve. Richard thinks film and gags, I think words and dialogue and things to get the actors to do. Tolen is fascist of course in lots of ways, mostly power, in fact altogether power.
Yes, I feel totally responsible to them, but I don’t bring it up should I meet them afterwards. None of them complained or even let me know they’d noticed that I had anything to do with it. It’s the director gets the blame. Quite right. Good man.
Wanda Ventham — Benedict Cumberbatch’s mum — plays the gym mistress. A Mumberbatch! Crawford’s vision of himself as a dirty old man spying on schoolgirls is a joke that’s a bit disturbing, but, as Steven Soderbergh says, “The expression on his face: hilarious!” Wood invented the staff room scene, which has some dazzling bits of verbal weirdness — what John Gielgud called “woodery-pokery.”
5) You’re IN The Knack. How did that come about?
I fancied getting back into uniform for a minute and being a Horse Guard rather than a Lancer this time and Richard didn’t think the line meant anything so he punished me by making me say it – I got my own back by doing it badly. Serves him right. Shouldn’t meddle in military matters.
7) When you fragmented the play, how easy was it to find a new structure?
It structured itself, with a lot of help from Richard. I rarely had the faintest idea. If I got too lost I followed the play. Always go back to the source.
8) Did you consciously adapt your style to match Jellicoe’s dialogue? It’s striking how well it all blends together. (Bits in HOW I WON THE WAR that I assumed were yours turned out to be from the book. Lots in THE BED SITTING ROOM that sounds like Milligan/Antrobus turns out to be you.)
Yes. That’s what they pay me for.
9) The controversy about the use of the word “rape” — which nobody seemed to be shocked by at the time. And people don’t seem quite so shocked today as they were ten years ago. Since your theatre work often crams together comedy with upsetting material, I’m assuming you were aware this was an edgy thing to do. I wonder if the film had followed the play’s more stridently feminist line, if this whole thing would have been accepted as part of its polemic. I guess I don’t have a specific question… maybe, “How does one justify joking about rape?” But that’s almost too easy: jokes are always about serious things.
10) What did you think of the finished film when you saw it? Have you seen it lately?
No, I haven’t seen it for a long time. I thought it was wonderful, magic in black and white. David Watkin – it was his first feature film as well – shot it beautifully. He became a firm friend, cemented by “The Charge”. You ought to read his memoirs for his take on the film, opened my eyes. CW. 2015.
I spoke on the phone to Rita Tushingham, while Tasha the Siamese cat yowled in my ear and somebody in the street played bagpipes, of all things — I know I’m in Scotland, but you can take local colour too far. I stress that both cat and bagpipes were at my end of the line. Rita only had to contend with a grandchild attired as the Red Skull from CAPTAIN AMERICA.
Yeah, we took it on tour first and then to the Royal Court Theatre in London.
Some people walked out because they were so shocked, if you can believe it. We played it in Cambridge and they just loved it, and in Bath they absolutely couldn’t get it at all, they had no idea what we were on.
THIS IS ALL A FANTASY
In Germany I did a Q&A about THE KNACK and one young woman got quite irate at the word “rape” — “There’s nothing funny about that!” It wasn’t meant to be funny. It was just a word that was used. Nowadays, everyone’s far more aware about that, but in the days we shot it, it was a very different thing. It was the same meaning, because it’s a violent act, but you have to look at what it was in the film. She was offended that we should have used that word, and I did say to her, excuse my language, “What would you rather say, ‘I’ve been fucked?'” How to explain it? You can’t change it, can you? It’s THERE.
Oh, absolutely, and I would never ever make light of that, and indeed we didn’t. It’s an appalling act. But it wasn’t meant to be saying “this is alright and it’s funny.” That was not the intention at all.
Exactly. And also, you can raise people’s knowledge and bring things to their attention. When you think about what is happening now and all these cases that are coming up about historical sexual abuse… it’s a very different way of looking at things, and a good way of looking at things, now, but in those days it was just never meant to be offensive.
But THE KNACK was not about that scene where my character’s running about shouting “Rape!” That was not what it’s about. It was, in a sense, a sexual awakening, and in fact Tolen, the womanizer, he [inaudible], Tom went on to be happy, and Colin and Nancy found each other and love. It wasn’t meant to be anything other than that. I think if you played that and didn’t have the word “rape” in it, I think people wouldn’t be looking for something in it offensive. There’s nothing sexually explicit in THE KNACK, it’s very innocent.
And has them all running around after her, especially the Tolen character. Of course, when you look at any film that was shot years ago, there are things in it that wouldn’t be shot now. But no one — or at least, no one that I know — makes a film to be offensive. Why would you?
(Lester makes a Hitchcockian cameo as one of the befuddled onlookers.)
I’M FROM HAMPTON WICK, MYSELF
Yeah, I met him… [laughs] it’s funny because I remember I met him at Woodfall Films, and I’d just finished shooting GIRL WITH GREEN EYES. And I remember saying “I’ve just finished shooting GIRL WITH GREEN EYES and Desmond Davis is my favourite director.” Which IS quite obnoxious. But we laugh about that. It was just done, thinking of something to say and it wasn’t meant to be rude.
I love that. He doesn’t like doing lots of takes. So you cover it. You know if a take’s gone — I don’t mean to say you’ve been good, but if a take seems to have gone quite well and sometimes if it hasn’t. And sometimes, when you’re doing things and it’s the end of the day and they turn the camera round on you, and you’ve got to reproduce what you’ve been doing all day, sometimes you feel a bit [?] but if you have the multiple cameras, especially in comedy — because so many things happen in comedy that you can’t recreate, it’s of the moment, it happened, in fact, on screen, and the audience experiences that. You can’t always plan, obviously you have to be very structured, but if something just happens and it’s funny and you’ve got it covered, it’s great that you have that.
Also, you’re kind of up and ready for it. I know that some people don’t like it, they find it quite off-putting, I like it, because you just feel that at least they’re gonna have something they can use.
KIP, MILK AND BISCUITS, IS IT ANY WONDER THEY’RE SCREAMING OUT FOR ROUGHAGE?
No, because mostly everything I’ve done has been on location anyway. I did the theatre after I’d done A TASTE OF HONEY. I didn’t mind that at all. It wasn’t distracting. We were just going along and doing the scene. The crew is kind of hidden. The camera is hand-held. ..And my grand-child’s just walked in. Dressed as some kind of Captain America villain.
It didn’t worry me. It was just that dancing along Kensington High Street and singing. But people don’t want to get involved. Even now they don’t. They just think “Oh, there’s a nutter,” and just carry on. And The Mall, now, you wouldn’t be able to shoot like that. And Buckingham Palace. And Hyde Park. But people just sort of got on… […] It was so easy to work on, and being such a small cast.
How did you all get on?
We all got on fine. And all different. They were all very different personalities, the three of them. And that’s why I think it works so well, because you can see that on screen. […] And also Donal Donnelly was such a lovely performer. He’s sort of lyrical, isn’t he? He has that magical sort of feel. And not afraid to go with it. And Michael Crawford was just a bumbling sort of teacher but he was perfect for the role.
He was almost magical, wasn’t he? Almost spiritual in a way.
With life, and himself.
A difference of opinion on interior design with the future Mrs. Ethel Shroake (Dandy Nichols).
LOOK AT ME, LAUGH
No, no… Well, nothing’s easy, is it? But we just went and did it. In, I think we did one take, we might have done two… You work on it beforehand, in your mind, you study it, and then you just go with it.
No, I could never do that, I can’t bear to see myself. I didn’t even think about that. It was just te camera and me. I would imagine now, if you do something like that, it really IS just you and the camera, because everyone can watch on the monitor, so all you really need is the operator. And that is much more intimate.
It wasn’t theatrical at all, the character was playing it out to Tolen, so she was playing to someone, she wasn’t just saying it, mumbling or anything.
Oh gosh. I hate them. But then they’re always off-set, you don’t see them. But often I’ve found some young actors able to go and watch the monitor and see things. I hate that, I just can’t do it, because suddenly you’re seeing yourself, performing. And I think you lose that intimate thing within the scene. But it doesn’t bother some people. I don’t even like to hear playback. I just like to do it and trust. This is where the director comes in — you have to trust that he’s got what he wants. And sometimes they’ll say “Can we go again?” but I don’t want to see how I twitched my left eyebrow or throw my hand up in the air. It could take something away. I think you would be more restrained, you would lose some freedom as an actor.
Oh God, yeah. And you mustn’t have that, because when you’re doing it and they say “Action,” you are performing, you are that character, in that scene, and the situation is such… As you know, it’s never in continuity, and you just have to go for that and be aware of what’s come before and what comes after. Some people say, “Oh, I didn’t like the way I looked there.” You can’t think of that. It starts to chip away at what you’re trying to do, I think.
That might sound very odd, but that’s how it works for me.
He knew what he wanted, and he knew that he would get it. And that’s why he used — in THE BED SITTING ROOM, he had quite a few cameras. I think that’s such a good film.
I’d like to say hello to your wife, HELLO.
Nice to talk to you too. I don’t want you to feel I’m ignoring you. […] And funnily enough, in about half an hour, Richard and Deirdre are coming here to have tea. […] We’ve been friends for so long.
[Laughs] I don’t know. I did work with Ann, but I don’t know, I shouldn’t think she’d have had me in mind. I think the only person who can answer that is Ann Jellicoe.
GOT THE WHOLE IDEA FROM TELEVISION
Richard Lester was kind enough to let me interview him for a whole day for Criterion’s disc of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT — and provided lunch, too. This is more or less the complete transcript of our discussion of THE KNACK.
THE KNACK must have happened fairly quickly after A HARD DAY’S NIGHT?
Very quickly. The offer came, I’d finished, we had the opening, and we went to France, as a family, and I think a courier came and brought a request to look at the play, and a request for a meeting. And they knew that there would be a second Beatles film which would start in February or March, so it had to happen quickly. The story of my life is, “You’ve only got two weeks.” I mean, JUGGERNAUT was rewritten in two and a half weeks, completely.
With THE KNACK, we had the time, because Charles Wood and I started, and I think we did close to four or five screenplays before we started. We tried getting rid of one of the characters [poor Tom!] we threw everything out and started from scratch, taking the essence of the piece and trying to make it into cinema, and not be what it was. And out of it, a lot of the quality of the characters changed. Tolen, who was quite a Nazi figure, a fascist figure, became the most pitiful of them.
Did you think it would be too obvious, to have him be fascist, or did you just not believe it?
I just believed that ultimately that would lead to foolishness. Tom says, about Tolen, “He must be a sexual failure.” “He’s having it five times a day.” “Well exactly.” [laughs].
And eventually he joins the Greek chorus.
Yes, the roles reverse.
I suppose because you changed it so much, you don’t have the benefit of being able to say “This is a serious feminist comedy” and the use of the word “rape” has become problematic.
Yes it has. I found, suddenly, it became an issue. Mostly in Eastern European countries, which was odd: that’s where it first started. What I don’t remember is whether than sequence, or anything like it, happened in the play.
[It did: and the play’s use of the word is just as whimsical as the film’s, part of an ongoing strategy whereby words lose their meanings, or acquire new ones — “What about the cases?” being a good example. I showed the film to students once and it was, indeed, a Polish girl who found the R word shocking and perplexing. And one would never accuse the Poles of being slow at seeing the uses of metaphor, or being compelled to take things literally. Look at the movies they make.]
With that word, Nancy suddenly becomes the most powerful character in the film.
Were you surprised it got an “X” certificate at the time?
[Laughs] Everything got an “X” certificate the time! Almost everything I did.
Lester was interested in packing a scene with so much detail — action, music, voice-over and subtitles — that any given group of people in the audience might be taking in entirely different elements.
And THE KNACK was your first film collaboration with David Watkin.
Yes. We were working together in commercials. I brought David on. [He had] worked in British Transport Films, doing railway films. I got David his first commercials, which he did with me, and then his first feature, and then his first colour feature [HELP!]. And then we just stayed working together, it was a wonderful experience. He was a man, like myself, of foolhardy courage. he would try anything. He would experiment with leaving the silver nitrate in the negative to see what the colours came out like… without much cover!
It’s a shame he didn’t make more black and white films…
I think the most beautiful black and white film I ever saw was David’s film of MADEMOISELLE, Tony Richardson’s film, which was booed out of the cinema when it showed at Cannes. They just ridiculed it. But it was absolutely stunning.
The white room was a huge innovation…
We did it first in a white kitchen of an Irish actress who was doing a commercial. And when the rushes came back, that had happened, and she looked slightly negroid, which didn’t attract the clients enormously. But where it came into its own, I think, was MARAT/SADE, where he was putting so much backlight into people that they began to distort, in the way that those Henri Lartigue photographs did. And THE DEVILS, again.
And THE KNACK introduces the Greek chorus…
I don’t know how we started to do it, but very early on I put a small Arriflex with a baby 4-1 zoom, which was quite easy to use, and we would put a GPO hide — they used to have a little tent, if they were working down a manhole, they would put it on — we would just stick that on the pavement where we were shooting a sequence, as most of the film was shot outdoors, and photograph the people who had stopped to look. And then, when we cut the most interesting bits in, Charles and I wrote a few gags, and then we got a group of voice artists, like [John] Bluthal, like Adrian Edmondson whom I used to use a lot [later, I assume], like Miriam Margolyes, who could be relied upon to ad-lib. Say, You be the woman there, you be the man, and you play around until you get some bits, and then lay them over. Which I liked, as a technique, very much. So you got the sense that this group of young people were playing against a Greek chorus of disapproval.
It worked very well, for me, in setting that tone for THE MUSKETEERS. The “us and them” part of it, the fact that you have people, the servant class, who are always there. We put in that line ~
“This [pass] is for one person.”
“I am one person. That is a servant.”
I also asked, though I can’t find the bit on the tape so this next bit is a paraphrase, whether Lester ever fell in love with the temp track during his edits, so that it became a wrench to replace it with the newly commissioned score.
ALWAYS! I score the end of THE KNACK with THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG. Though John Barry did… quite a good job, on that occasion, so it was alright.
To end with, I want to link to my first ever post on Shadowplay, which is about THE KNACK, so for one day the blog can become an unending moebius strip. There.