Archive for The Three Musketeers

Woodery-Pokery in York

Posted in FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2017 by dcairns

This is the “paper” I “presented” in York the other week. Slightly worried I’ll become stuffy and dull in academic mode, but fortunately I have extracts of Charles Wood to contrast with that if I do. I quote from his work, from an old interview I did by email, and from a new one.

John Gielgud with John Mills in Charles Wood’s play Veterans (“A great night at the theatre” — R. Lester)

The term “woodery-pokery” was invented by John Gielgud to describe writer Charles Wood’s antic use of the English language, a blend of slang, wordplay, archaisms and uniquely contorted syntax which uses the hesitations and repetitions of real speech to dismantle more high-flown poetic language, and frequently ends a dramatic speech with a comical crashing to earth.

knack1 from David Cairns on Vimeo.

“Her lot was doing the behaving. All that leaping up and down in those– That’s what I behaviour! That’s provocative behaviour! We’ve all got to make allowances, find our equilibrium — at every turn! How?”

I was instantly, and have remained, fascinated by the line “That’s what I behaviour.” Clearly, a word is missing, the word which would make sense of it, the word “call.” “That’s what I call behaviour.”

Wood has dropped this word, rendering the sentence maddeningly incomplete. As we all know, most people don’t talk in proper sentences most of the time. Look at Donald Trump. But I don’t think Wood is merely trying to replicate the word soup we spout when stressed or confused. If he wanted to, he could do it more accurately than that. This doesn’t strike me as a realist technique, it isn’t the sort of mistake a person would make in speech. If they had word processors back then… it’s like a computer virus has infected the speaker’s brain and is causing random bits of data to drop out.

So entranced, so puzzled was I, I scanned the film for signs of a splice, thinking the word might have been omitted accidentally. It might even have originated as a mistyping by Wood, I thought. But director Richard Lester had gone on to shoot it, and Michael Crawford dutifully delivered the gibberish as written.

There’s no jump-cut in the scene, but maybe I was on to something. Was Wood using language the way the French nouvelle vague and the British new wave used the shot? As the speech goes on, the lacunae become bigger. “We’ve all got to make allowances, find our equilibrium — at every turn! How?” Whole sentences seem to be missing from this paragraph, as if we were listening to one end of a phone conversation the character was having with himself. It may not be accurate to realistic speech but it’s accurate to something: to the chaos that erupts in our brains, our fragmented internal conversations, which we don’t require to make total sense because we know what we mean.The speech is from The Knack, and How to Get It, the first collaboration between Royal Court playwright Charles Wood and American expat director Richard Lester, who would work together on numerous projects including Help!, How I Won the War and Cuba. Many of the most celebrated British directors of the sixties had these creative partnerships with writers: Joseph Losey’s work with Harold Pinter is a rare case where the writer’s name was picked up by critics and audiences. When writer David Sherwin spoke at Lindsay Anderson’s memorial, he felt a wave of shock from the room at the realisation that this name from the credits of If…. was actually attached to a real human being.

British writers in this period, brought a sense of surrealism and absurdity that contrasts with the more famous kitchen sink school, whether it be George Melly naming characters after words from Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky in his script for Smashing Time, or David Mercer’s mingling of fantasy and reality in Morgan: A Suitable case for Treatment.

Most of Wood’s work with Lester was on adaptations. (None of his own extraordinary plays have been filmed, and it’s hard to see how they could be, so epically do they own the stage.)

Of The Knack, Wood reports, “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 A Hard Day’s Night. I went off to write some pages for him.”

Wood makes a cameo.

Wood and Lester were never slavishly faithful to their sources — Lester described the approach to The Knack as being one of “exploding” the play rather than opening it out. Fragments of the debris of Ann Jellicoe’s feminist farce are reproduced exactly, but out of order and with the meaning sometimes softened, flipped or undercut. The depiction of the male philanderer, Tolen, as a proto-fascist is mostly jettisoned (Lester thought it silly) and he’s equated instead more with capitalism and advertising, a consumer devouring fashionable product then moving on to the next fresh thing, as insatiable and pointless as a shark.

Wood says: “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.”

Wood is applying something akin to William Burroughs’ fold-in technique to the text, chopping it and recombining the pieces. He even steals an entry from Jellicoe’s dramatis personae, and puts it in Michael Crawford’s mouth as a description of another character, which is hilarious because the profile is supposed to sum up the essence of the role rather than provide a useful physical description. “Small, vigorous, balanced, sensitive in his movements.”One of The Knack‘s innovations is the “Greek chorus of disapproval,” a layer of voices on the sound track commenting on the youthful main characters’ activities from a disgruntled, middle-aged perspective. Lester covertly filmed passers-by observing the shooting, and had Wood write a sort of commentary track of vox pop interviews, which we associate with the onscreen pedestrians, as if they had been asked to give their thoughts on what had just happened. This meant that Wood was involved in the film all through the edit, writing non-sequiturs and absurdist bluenose grumbling, an unusual workflow which probably helped cement the collaboration with Lester. “I know we wrote a lot more when it was being edited to fill in gaps or whatever, voice over. I enjoyed that process, just the two of us and an editor peering at a Moviola – felt I was making a film, never happened again.”

“I feel for her chest, that’s my feeling. I’m bound. Of course, it harbours rats. Jerry-built, pardon my French. I don’t subscribe to that sort of programme. Well I’m from Hampton-Wick myself so I’m used to innuendo.”

These disconnected fragments could either be written in long chains of nonsense, or tossed off as one-liners and dropped into the flow of the film as needed. Both methods were probably used. Dialogue became a freeform element of film, capable of being spliced up and rearranged without regard for strict sense or relevance. Language becomes more like tiles in a mosaic.

But the Greek chorus of disapproval, originating as just another layer which could run through the film as ironic commentary, turns out to have a narrative purpose also, when one character, falling from grace as a star of the young, smart crowd, ends up joining a group of bleak onlookers, undercutting the happy ending with their embittered asides. There are always places open for us in this chorus.

The second Beatles film, Help! (1965) was a challenging project for all concerned, as A Hard Day’s Night had been such a success the previous year but nobody wanted to simply remake it. Since the first film had a moderately realist surface, the follow-up was conceived as fantasy and farrago. Lester planned to keep it entertaining with visual fireworks, and wanted a script that did the same with language.

French-based American pulp writer Marc Behm pitched the plot of Jules Verne’s The Chinese Man from China without saying where he’d swiped it from, but this promising idea was nixed when a rival adaptation went into production. Charles Wood took over, though he later reflected, “It was just an assignment. I don’t think I did a particularly good job.”

It seems as if Marc Behm got a credit just for providing an unused idea, as Wood recalls coming up with the story. “I was fascinated by The Deceivers at the time by John Masters, so I made it about Thugee and Kali.” Master’s novel tells the story of an East India Company official who infiltrates a Hindu death cult. Wood reverses the pattern by having the cult pursue Ringo to get the sacrificial ring stuck on his finger.

Help! is deliberately a very silly film. The stereotyping of Indians can arguably be excused as part of the satire of Imperial fiction potboiler and their movie adaptations, even down to the casting of white actors in brownface, which was still standard practice even in serious treatments of the same kind of material, such as Hammer films’ various colonialist melodramas.

The loose plot keeps the action moving between songs, though the result is inevitably somewhat episodic: the repetitive threat/rescue alternation seems to owe a lot to The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu. Episodes in Switzerland and the Bahamas seem to have been included for tax purposes, but they give rise to some memorable sequences.

Wood’s skills come out best in dialogue when it’s not trying to deliver jokes, quips or smart remarks, but non-sequiturs, slang and garbled clichés and malapropisms. Comparing the dialogue to Wood’s stage work, the film seems amazing: the biggest pop band in the world made a film by a Royal Court dramatist whose surreal speeches seem like a mash-up/fold-in of Harold Pinter, Alan Bennett and William S. Burroughs. To find this stuff funny you have to accept that it doesn’t make sense. It isn’t a Marx Bros crosstalk routine because the jokes are nearly all abstract, they’re about painting word-pictures you can’t quite visualise, or jamming together bits of language that refuse to fit, or importing melodramatic attitudes into everyday life or vice versa. The line “I thought she was a sandwich, till she went spare on me hand,” is actually one of the saner utterances, in context.

The Beatles had just discovered marijuana and lost much of their interest in acting, and their skills in this area had never been highly developed, so their throwaway delivery and unconcerned manner allows them to float passively through the Bondian action, tossing off casual analyses of the ridiculous situations. As when Paul is shrunk to the size of an ant and narrowly avoids being stepped on. “We thought that was you,” says George, pointing at a red spot on the carpet, once Paul regains his full stature. “No, that’s not me,” replies Paul, calmly.

When Ringo can’t remove the deadly sacrificial ring, he remarks that the fire brigade once got his head out of some railings. “Did you want them to?” asks John. “No, I used to leave it there when I wasn’t using it for school,” Ringo explains serenely. “You can see a lot of the world from railings.”

For Lester’s next film, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, he was forbidden the services of a screenwriter to rework the existing script, so ended up cloistered with cinematographer Nicolas Roeg to cobble together a new draft in secret. He reunited with Wood, however, for his following work, How I Won the War in 1967.

How I Won the War is based on a lightly satirical novel by Patrick Ryan disliked by Lester: the task was not to be faithful but to cannibalize the book for anything useful while subverting it at every turn. Wood, however, recalls “I loved the book.” This seems to set a pattern begun with The Knack and continued through most of Lester and Wood’s work, with Lester taking a somewhat oppositional approach to the material and Wood seeing himself more as a sympathetic collaborator with the original author.

Wood says: “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.”

The novel is a comic romp, a parody of war memoirs. In it, the filmmakers saw the raw material for a Brechtian attack on war cinema, which typically pretends to view the tragedy of war with “respect”, but basically transforms it into heroic entertainment.

Having read the book, it’s a surprise to find swathes of dialogue reproduced verbatim in the movie, including speeches that feel like pure Charles Wood. “My advice to you is always to keep your rifles strapped to a suitable portion of your body, a leg is good, otherwise you’ll find the wily Pathan will strip himself, mother-naked, grease himself all over, slippery as an eel, make off with your rifle, which is a crime.” Again, a vital part of the narrative is omitted by the befuddled speaker, in this case, the reason the hypothetical Pathan should strip naked before his act of theft. That’s slipped into a later fragment: “The British army has always fought the wily Pathan, mother-naked, under the tent brailing like a snake he is.”

How I Won the War takes the explosion technique about as far as it could be expected to go and then some, beginning with the hero’s capture near the end of the war, then proceeding into flashback as he recounts his adventures up to this point, making a feint at the guys-on-a-mission conceit established in thickear stuff like The Dirty Dozen, then bypassing that and proceeding past the point the story is purportedly being narrated from, before finishing up in a contemporary setting with the hero staging a bleak reunion with the sole survivor of his unit.

But even within this non-linear timeline, disruptions are rife. We cut forward to another survivor from another unit, telling his story to his “child,” played by an adult in a school uniform. And his lips don’t move as he tells it. The effect is funny but terrifying, like much of the film, which quite consciously subverts and frustrates every emotional response the audience might be considering having.

We also cut to an audience watching the film itself, as Sergeant Transom yells for the camera to be taken away while a soldier breaks down from heat stroke and nervous strain. “Haven’t you insulted us enough without films?”

Wood incorporates fragments of his own stage works, notably Dingo, which established his sympathy with the common soldier and his uncommon ear for the unique slang and jargon of military speech, and a satirical ear for the cant and fake profundity of romantic writers on war. “The thing about fighting in the desert is that it is a clean war–without brutality,” muses Dingo. “And clean-limbed–without dishonorable action on either side.” Michael Crawford repeats these lines almost exactly in Lester’s film.

Wood recalls, “[I] had just had the Lord Chamberlain on my back over my play Dingo which had prevented it being produced at the National Theatre. So I shoved a lot of Dingo into it. Did twelve rewrites with Richard (I think.) Seemed like more. The dialogue is seamless of course because both Ryan and I had served in the same army, he up the sharp end, me ice cold – which brings to mind that both Dingo and War were a send up of all those war films. I always wanted to put The Cruel Sea through the Lester/Wood mincer much as I admired it… (But best of all for the mincer, In Which We Serve).”

David Lean’s films are also referenced by stolen snatches of music from Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia. I don’t know if Lean knew about this merciless ridicule when he befriended Lester later, based on his admiration for the editing in Petulia. (“It’s one of those pictures that make me proud of being a director.”)

How I Won the War elaborates on Dingo‘s approach, dropping bits of concert party / music hall comedy into realistically staged combat, and the cinematic scope allowed for even greater discordance between real landscapes and ordnance, and bizarre ruptures of time and space, as when a soldier with his legs blown off is “comforted” by his wife, who comes running in from nowhere in her apron and advises him to “run it under the cold tap, love.”

Lester noted ruefully, “One learns with time that Brechtian alienation is a synonym for audience’s backs disappearing down a street.” Nobody, it seems, at the time, was open to a film doing what Wood routinely did on the stage, jamming reality and surrealism, tragedy and comedy, up against one another so hard bits chipped off and flew in the customers’ faces. How I Won the War is a spiky, abrasive, uncomfortable film, uningratiating and free of sentimentality. Any time we are tempted to assume an agreeable closeness to the characters, the film tears them from our grasp.

Wood contributed, without credit, to Lester’s next film, Petulia. There was already a source novel and a screenplay, but Lester felt they were dishonest about the American middle class he came from. He returned to the US for the first time in fifteen years, bringing Wood with him, and they compiled notes based on things they saw and overheard. The film’s fragmentary style derives partly from this patchwork document, partly from Lester’s conviction that achronological editing was “a way to reflect that frazzled and disjointed response to a society that was in chaos,” and partly to “a lack of confidence that the story would hold up,” if told in a conventional linear way.

Six weeks before filming, Lester decided the script needed Americanizing, and handed Wood’s work to Lawrence Marcus, who was able to bring his own experience of divorce to the story (both Wood and Lester remain happily wed to their first wives).

Having shot the film in San Francisco during the Summer of Love, and terrified Warner Bros by shooting real people on the streets, Lester fled back to England to post-produce it away from studio interference, layering into the soundtrack many of the overheard lines from the initial research trip, though usually mixed so low they can only be partially heard. This blend of drama, quasi-documentary and satire, aggressively diced up together, helps create the film’s curious intensity.

While Wood was in Turkey for the filming of The Charge of the Light Brigade for Woodfall films, who had produced The Knack, the script credits for Petulia went to arbitration and as the middle writer he got left out.

The same year, 1968, saw the release of The Long Day’s Dying, directed by Peter Collinson from Wood’s first draft screenplay. Based on a novel from a former SAS commando, the WWII drama again showcases Wood’s military dialogue, but demonstrates what could happen when a less deft cinematic hand took charge. Collinson’s film-making is simple and effective, but his one grand cinematic gesture, an explosive climax shot in slow-motion and scored with Land of Hope and Glory, feels heavy-handed, compared to the more subtle ways Wood expresses his deep ambiguity about war and the military.

The Charge of the Light Brigade was another non-Lester film, this time for Tony Richardson, who also borrowed Lester’s usual cinematographer, David Watkin. Wood quickly produced an extremely wild first draft, nominally based on Cecil Woodham-Smith’s history, The Reason Why. This seems to have been intended to establish a claim on the title, which had been previously used by Warner Bros. Richardson encouraged a less cartoonish approach for the rewrite, but parts of the original were carried over. Animator Richard Williams rendered a series of sequences in the style of Victorian cartoons, which served as bridging material, and to broaden the story’s social sweep.

“The animation came from the earlier, wilder draft,” recalls Wood. “I did the words for the heroic song or anthem that John Addison asked me for. Should have a credit for that.”

“I do not propose to recount my life in any detail what is what. No damn business of anyone what is what, I am Lord Cardigan, that is what. Them cherrybums, you see ’em tight, my cherrybums, I keep ’em tight. Ten thousand a year out me own pocket I spend to clothe ’em. A master cutler sharps their swords and I keep ’em tight-stitched, cut to a shadow. Good.”

Wood brought to the dialogue an incredible feeling for the strangeness of Victorian speech, drawing on Thackeray, and also “memoirs of the time, the best way of making a stab at the spoken word is to get the rhythm – it’s there in the written word. Henty is […] great, though later. He lifted descriptions and dialogue direct from written source, great chunks of it.”

The writing of G.A. Henty, prolific English adventure novelist and war correspondent, was considered xenophobic even in the Victorian era, but his direct recording of military dialogue is an essential resource. Wood’s soldiers have their own peculiar syntax: though their behaviour often shows us how like us they are, their speech is filtered through Wood’s strange-maker. The resulting film feels uncommonly like time-travel, with the audience simply plunged into an alien period with no help from anyone. The playful optical effects Richardson had lavished on Tom Jones, mainly out of an attack of nerves in the edit room, are absent. It’s not a sexy romp: we end on a dead horse.

 Animator Richard Williams developed his technique of mixing from live-action to  animation on Lester’s Forum. “David Lean’s dedicated maniac” Eddie Fowlie supplied the dead horse, walking it into position and executing it himself.)

Wood’s last sixties work for Lester, apart from the unfilmed adaptation of George MacDonald Fraser’s first Flashman novel, was on The Bed Sitting Room. Lester had been preparing Joe Orton’s Up Against It, intended to star Mick Jagger and Ian McKellen, but one morning his chauffeur discovered Orton murdered. Lester switched from a musical satire to a surreal post-nuclear comedy without quite getting around to notifying United Artists, who were bankrolling it.

Here the original play is credited to Spike Milligan & John Antrobus, the screenplay to Antrobus, and an ambiguous credit of “adaptation” is given to Wood.

“I haven’t the faintest idea how the credit was arrived at,” says Wood. “I was astonished to find I had it though I had done some work on it I seem to remember. It was a terrific screenplay by Spike and John Antrobus so I didn’t do much.”

After the fragmentation of Lester’s previous films, The Bed-Sitting Room‘s simpler style and construction offers an early clue to the new direction. The proposed Flashman film collapsed, and Lester spent close to five years shooting commercials. His return in 1973 with The Three Musketeers, on which Wood did an uncredited polish, confirmed a style which, superficially at least, was more classical, less obtrusive.

Wood’s later films, though artistically ambitious, are genre films; his sixties scripts, even if they weren’t recognized as such, are art films.

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Last Ciggie at Marienbad

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , on September 1, 2017 by dcairns

So, yesterday I posted what I take to be Richard Lester’s MARIENBAD-inspired Grant’s Whiskey commercials, and WITHIN THE HOUR I get word on Facebook from Steven Otero — he has the L&M cigarettes ad Lester mentioned in his Sight & Sound interview with Joseph McBride, which is also a Resnais pastiche. Very much so, in fact!

Lester: “I made a rather odd L&M commercial. John Schlesinger, Karel Reisz and I each made one of a series.”

McBride: “What was yours like?”

Lester: “It was like Marienbad. Why they came to me I don’t know. They said they wanted something which was absolutely me and suggested something that was absolutely Resnais. But, eclectic to the end, I sort of pitched in.”

I guess that architectural plan way of looking at buildings DOES connect Resnais and Lester — the palace scenes in THREE MUSKETEERS, for instance.

I’m not sure Mr. Lester really wants all this stuff dug up. It was meant to be ephemeral.

Film Club: The Knack

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2015 by dcairns

Film Club: the concept. We all see a film and talk about it. Pretty simple. This time we have SPECIAL GUESTS.

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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.

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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.

Ann Jellicoe.

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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.

1) When and how did the offer to adapt Ann Jellicoe’s play come about? Do you recall how you first met Richard Lester?

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.

2) Lester has said that the screenplay went through a great many drafts, including one without the character of Tom. Was this a vexing process or do you like exploring multiple approaches?

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.

3) Lester also says that you both wanted to avoid the play’s explicit connection of Tolen with fascism. Did you then have a discussion about what the film would be about, or do you prefer not to be too explicit about that? Does the film have what the screenwriting books call “an underlying theme”?

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.

4) I’m fascinated by the way you exploded the play and put little fragments together in a new pattern. A lot of the dialogue is exactly faithful to the original but the shape is different and what it’s saying is different. Similarly with How I Won the War — I was surprised when I tracked down the book how much of it you’d used, but how opposite the effect was. I suppose I want to ask how you feel about the authors you adapt — do you feel any responsibility to them?

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.

6) Nancy’s journey through London is wholly invented for the film. How much was scripted, how much did it develop on location? Did Lester work closely with you on visual gags? Everybody makes the mistake of assuming he improvises everything, but I’m sure huge amounts were planned and written (I would love to see the script!).
 
I can’t remember. I know we wrote a lot more when it was being edited to fill in gaps or whatever, voice over. I enjoyed that process, just the two of us and an editor peering at a Moviola – felt I was making a film, never happened again. I can’t let you see anything because I don’t have a script in any of its forms.

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.

I’m astonished that there’s any controversy at all now. And as you rightly say, jokes are serious things. (My latest play was turned down and criticised by one theatre for having long serious speeches turned off with a comic quip. But that’s the way I write (together with lots of others I should have told them. Couldn’t be bothered). Anyway, it’s my last.

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.

Knack, The / The Knack...And How To Get It (1965) | Pers: Rita Tushingham | Dir: Richard Lester | Ref: KNA001AB | Photo Credit: [ Woodfall/Lopert / The Kobal Collection ] | Editorial use only related to cinema, television and personalities. Not for cover use, advertising or fictional works without specific prior agreement

THE Y.W.C.A.

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.

You originated the role of Nancy in The Knack?

Yeah, we took it on tour first and then to the Royal Court Theatre in London.

Ann Jellicoe wrote that, depending on the audience, it would seem to be a completely different  play.

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

It seems like that was a sort of microcosm of the way the film has gone, because it went from being incredibly fashionable and acclaimed to being ignored or considered embarrassing, or shameful, and now I think it’s being appreciated more again.
 
I just thought that it was all in her mind anyway, where she goes around saying “Rape!” and I think it was that they found offensive, wasn’t it. And the fact that Tolen was saying “They’re all queuing up to go into the Albert Hall: it was a fantasy. All the characters are on their different sort of trips. And Nancy was the innocent one, but looking for love, really.

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.

It just became, for some reason, harder for people to read. It’s a shocking word, and it’s used a lot in the film…
 

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.

You can write a joke about something without implying that the thing itself isn’t serious.
 

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.

One thing the film does seem to show is that you’ve got a country where people are ignoring things. When you run through the streets shouting “Rape!” and the world goes on as if nothing has happened.
 
But I’m afraid to say, David, that’s what’s happening now. Look what they were doing in the sixties, and seventies, these cases that are now coming to the fore. People did turn a blind eye, didn’t they?

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.

It throws people, because the film is so visually innocent — you see at most a knee, and then this comes along and they don’t know how to react. But it’s the scene where Nancy finds her voice and becomes powerful.
 

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?

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(Lester makes a Hitchcockian cameo as one of the befuddled onlookers.)

I’M FROM HAMPTON WICK, MYSELF

Can you remember meeting Richard Lester for the first time?

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.

But I remember walking along Curzon Street chatting to Richard. Immediately we got on. What was interesting was the way he works, he’s almost editing it as he goes along, he covers things so well. Because of his understanding of comedy and things. He doesn’t labour it, he goes onto the next — and this is what was so innovative about him when he came to the fore, and a lot of people have been inspired and copied his style — the comedy sort of rolls on. You hope the audience are going to be with you, but you don’t layer it on like… a thick layer of lard.
 
His style of working, with multiple cameras, and the pace he works at, there are actors who love that and a few who are thrown by it…

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.

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KIP, MILK AND BISCUITS, IS IT ANY WONDER THEY’RE SCREAMING OUT FOR ROUGHAGE?

Filming on the streets of London, having come from the stage, was that distracting?

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.

Keeping the movie theme going.

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.

In the Soderbergh book, Lester says they worried that Tom was an underwritten part, but that Donnelly solved it purely by being a lovable, relaxed Irish actor.

He was almost magical, wasn’t he? Almost spiritual in a way. 

He’s just happy and self-contained.

With life, and himself.

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A difference of opinion on interior design with the future Mrs. Ethel Shroake (Dandy Nichols).

LOOK AT ME, LAUGH

In the scene in the park, you have to act to the camera. Was that difficult to do?

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.

I’ve heard some actors say they play to their own reflection in the lens.

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.

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[Here, Fiona starts mouthing something to me, but I can’t lipread, so I get her to write it down. Then I can’t read her handwriting. So eventually I give her permission to speak (such power!) It boils down to: The monitor on a set can be distracting…

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. 

Well self-consciousness is the enemy…

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. 

No, that makes perfect sense. I know Lester hated the idea of monitors and wouldn’t have them.

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.

[For reasons of space, I’ve broken off our discussion of THE BED SITTING ROOM for a separate post later in the week. Don’t miss it!]

I’d like to say hello to your wife, HELLO. 

Fiona: Hello Rita, it’s an absolute pleasure to have you in our living room, as a disembodied voice.

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.

I was struck by Tolen’s line “You’ve got Chinese eyebrows,” and wondered if Ann Jellicoe had you in mind when she wrote that.

[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.

Richard-Lester

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.

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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.

Yeah.

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.

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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.

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