Archive for The Three Musketeers

The Monday Intertitle: Spike

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on March 10, 2014 by dcairns


Been thinking about Spike Milligan a lot, for various reasons — I met a director of his, and a co-star. Then Anne Billson and I met for the first time in Camden Market and found a neat DVD shop, selling out-of-print obscurities on a semi-legal (well, illegal, really) basis, and they had a four-part series entitled Milligan In… which aired in 72-73, just before he appeared in THE THREE MUSKETEERS as Raquel Welch’s husband (“But it was only acting,” he reflected sadly).

What a disturbing thing — Milligan was a complicated individual, shellshocked from WWII, bipolar, a philanderer, and a genius. His genius was comedic, but he was also a poet — talented, but not superlatively so. Also a self-confessed racist — a mixture of the generational thing, his being a child of Empire brought up initially in India, a stubborn inability to grasp the niceties of political progress. Milligan’s race jokes are usually fairly inoffensive — punning on phrases that use the words “black” or “white” — but they’re not usually very funny. And there are too many of them. And then there are awkward bits that don’t seem like jokes at all.

One episode features a silent-movie sketch based around the idea of an unemployment crisis for comedians. The intertitles are hilarious, including one that has no words, just a spinning bow tie, and a speechless reply that’s just black space in a decorative frame. And there’s a beautiful joke involving a bicycle that gets eaten, leaving only its skeleton. The skeleton of a bicycle.

But there’s also a sequence of closeups when Spike enters the job centre and sees lots of people of different races waiting ahead of him. The implication is clear — these non-white people are taking our jobs. And there’s no joke to it, it’s just a slice of unpleasant Daily Mail racism. But then Milligan pans to the floor and redeems himself with a shot of the skeletal remains of a jobseeker, subtitled “Harry Secombe” (portly Welsh comic and sometime sidekick to Spike). Pan onto a second set of remains, labeled “Tommy Cooper” (another beloved British comic, very popular with Anthony Hopkins).


There were a lot of racist comics on telly in the seventies. But the others weren’t mad geniuses. The most liberal or even radical comedy people in Britain today still idolise Spike — we’ve all decided to sort of look the other way concerning his racial politics. This sketch from the later “Q6″ series, which is one of the funniest things I ever saw, is introduced as being about “Why mixed marriages don’t work” — another cringeworthy moment. But the sketch is funny because it’s about the domestic life of a dalek, the dalek is married to a lady, there’s a child dalek, the daleks can’t steer and keep bumping into the furniture, contrary to the advice of Mr Lunt, and also the lead dalek has Spike Milligan’s voice issuing electronically from its steel carapace. And they keep blowing things up. That’s a lot of funny elements, any one of which would have had me in a breathless, full-on asthmatic agony of mirth when I first saw it. The combination nearly made my ribcage explode.

The fact that the Dalek is wearing a sort of sloppy attempt a a turban is vaguely wrong, slightly funny, and ultimately easy to ignore amid the rest of the stuff going on. A Dalek bumping into a table is already, to me, funnier than anything, ever.

Later in Spike Milligan In… there’s a parody of the very respectable BBC kids’ show Blue Peter. Everybody grins terrifyingly. Milligan, in fright wig, is the most disturbing, but the guy parodying BP presenter John Noakes is really good too. The girl is Madeline Smith, of Hammer glamour fame, which cues us to expect knockers on display at some point. Sure enough, the show leaves the studio as the presenters narrate a film clip of their “skiing holiday in Islington.” They go into a shack and get rat-arsed on whisky. They play strip poker and Miss Smith is shortly down to her very skimpy undies. Violence breaks out. The Noakes figure is beaten unconscious, Madeline is bound and helpless and Milligan advances with ferocious lust –

Oh yeah, sexism. They had that in the seventies too. Milligan again was guilty, and again mainly because he refused to understand it. Here, he clearly felt this was something the audience would enjoy seeing. Which argues for a dim view of us — but at the same time, the assumption must be based on Milligan himself regarding it as something HE would like to see. Porn is always fantasy autobiography.


But this sequence, highly reminiscent of Nigel Kneale’s legendary sci-fi TV play The Year of the Sex Olympics, is so disturbing it’s kind of good. Society collapses into horrific barbarism while a studio audience laughs and applauds. And the stock footage of clapping schoolkids is augmented by the laugh track played on top. Everyone is implicated.

The whole show is such a tonal stramash – poetry written for Milligan’s children, silent movie parody with racist propaganda, absurdity, songs (also written by Milligan), and now rape and bondage in a reversion to savagery — it’s impossible to watch without a queasy feeling. We also laughed, sometimes very hard. “It makes you feel stoned,” Fiona observed.

The Milligan mind was not disciplined, though it was amazingly fertile. It’s uncertain if he ever did anything that approached perfection, except backwards. But this series, very far from perfect and not his most likable, does present arguably the most complete picture of his virtues and vices.

Madeline Smith’s further crimes against womankind ~

This is an actual thing. The 1970s were different, and not really in good ways.

Flash Harry

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2013 by dcairns


I’ve been reading the Flashman books by George McDonald Fraser. I read the first on the train down to meet Richard Lester, who tried to film it around ’79/’70, only to have it collapse when the studio panicked at the sight of their recent box office takings and pulled the plug on FLASHMAN and Kubrick’s NAPOLEON.

For those not in the know: Fraser plucked the cowardly bully character from Tom Brown’s Schooldays and made him the anti-hero of a series of historical adventures in which the ruthless and unscrupulous braggart takes part in every major military campaign and a few other historical imbroglios from 1845 to 1900. These adventures were presented in the guise of true-life memoirs discovered in a tea-chest in a midlands auction house and edited for publication by Fraser — The New York Times was fooled.

To give you a clue to Flashman’s horrific bigotry (breaking you in gently), here he is on the Irish question, as he bumps into Gladstone, who’s about to retire, in the men’s room (from Flashman and the Tiger).

“Hollo, old ‘un,” says I, “Marching orders at last, hey? Ne’er mind, it happens to all of us. It’s this damned Irish business, I suppose -” for as you know, he was always fussing over Ireland; no one knew what to do about it, and while the Paddies seemed be in favour of leaving the place and going to America, Gladstone was trying to make ‘em keep it; something like that.
“Where you went wrong,” I told him, “was in not giving the place back to the Pope long ago, and apologising for the condition it’s in. Fact.”
He stood glaring at me with a face like a door-knocker.

It’s probably best to start with something like this rather than the dicier Flash for Freedom, which would take a whole blog post to unpick. The somewhat reactionary Fraser writes in the voice of the viciously bigoted Flashman with no apologies, trusting the reader to separate author from narrator. Here’s a bit from Flashman and the Dragon ~

…the coolies could be seen engaged in the only two occupations known to the Chinese peasant: to wit, standing stock-still up to the knees in paddy-water holding a bullock on a rope, or shifting mud very slowly from one point to another. Deny them these employments, and they would simply lie down and die, which a good many of them seemed to do anyway, I’m told that Napoleon once said that China was a sleeping giant, and when she awoke the world would be sorry, He didn’t say who was going to get the bastards out of bed.

Appalling stuff, of course, and only funny in a guilt-inducing, worrisome way. We know GMF disapproves of Flashman, but is it possible to disapprove enough and keep writing?


I’d read Royal Flash and Flashman at the Charge and Flashman in the Great Game long ago, but somehow never got around to the first in the series, possibly the best. Dealing as it does with Britain’s first, disastrous Afghanistan campaign, it would have been a rather timely film to have around if Lester had made it when he intended. Part of what leads the Brits into destruction in the book (as in history, Victorian and recent) is their failure to understand the people they are dealing with / killing / civilizing / oppressing.

Lester particularly wanted to show the army, on its flight from Kabul, camping in a valley for the night. In the morning, a snow-fall has covered everything. A hand holding a trumpet emerges from the snow and blows reveille, and a few frostbitten survivors stagger from the whiteness…

The abortive attempts at this film occurred after THE BED-SITTING ROOM, when Lester’s career was in the doldrums (“Film-making has become a kind of hysterical pregnancy”) and before THE THREE MUSKETEERS, scripted by Fraser, put him back on the map. This led to ROYAL FLASH, which posits Flashman in the midst of a Ruritanian romance based on The Prisoner of Zenda (but cheekily claiming that Flashman’s exploits inspired Anthony Hope’s popular novel). Lester had aimed to cast John Alderton in the first film, but ended up with Malcolm McDowell in this one. Oddly enough, near the end of Flashman, our villanous hero is laid up in a hospital bed being praised by politicians in a scene which is uncannily close to CLOCKWORK ORANGE if you imagine McDowell in the role.

Some have suggested that Harry Paget Flashman is uncastable. Others proposed that Lester should have slide McDowell into the role of mercenary Rudi Von Starnberg and extracted Alan Bates from that part to cast as Flashman, but Lester disagrees. I think that idea came about because Bates is ideal in his role and McDowell not quite perfectly suited to his (though very funny). To me, the difficulty would seem to be that Flashman is only attractive to readers because he’s so honest with us about his manifold failings and vices, as well as the lunacy or idiocy of others. He has the appearance of a hero — think Errol Flynn, and it’s not so much that he’s particularly cowardly as that where fear makes other men fight for what they believe, Flashman is motivated only by self-interest, so terror pushes him into fleeing, fighting dirty or blubbing and begging — whatever he thinks will work.

What makes this funny is the contrast between the heroic expectations engendered by Flashman’s appearance, rank, and the situations he’s in, and what’s going on in his mind (plotting survival, lusting after women) — deprived of access to the character’s thoughts, Lester has to create comedy by letting McDowell play Flashman’s weakness more on the surface. Since he’s not an imposing figure next to Bates and Oliver Reed, you don’t get the same shock effect from seeing McDowell crumble into craven hysterics that you might if Tyrone Power were in the part. McDowell instead brings a light comedy flare, and though he can evoke strutting arrogance well it’s peacock-like rather than leonine.

(Who would I cast? Jon Finch, the greatest if-only star in British film history. But Edward Fox is also a possibility, and Timothy Dalton would have been excellent, but wasn’t a big enough star yet.)

Fraser’s lively prose, punctuated with period slang, can be suggested in the dialogue, but otherwise Lester is forced to create comedy out of slapstick accidents, which disrupt the romantic spectacle as in his MUSKETEERS films, but are slightly less suited to the purposes of Fraser’s world. Reading Flashman it’s intriguing to imagine what Lester’s film would have been like, since the story is nastier and darker than anything in Royal Flash, and the horrific elements that surface in most of Fraser’s books with his protagonists encounters the dark side of history play a much smaller role in both film and book of ROYAL FLASH.


It’s still a better film than its reputation suggests, I think. The true miscasting is probably Florinda Bolkan and not McDowell — she lacks comic flare and despite being more authentically “dago” (Flashman is a master of every racial epithet) than the real Lola Montes, she can’t muster a wholly convincing fiery temperament.

What lets it down is the protracted ending. Fraser tends to let his books ramble on for the last several chapters, long after the climax is over, and this isn’t particularly problematic on the page since the deplorable Flashman is such infernal good company. In the movie, we get a very long and exhausting comic duel with Bates, which I enjoy a lot — Lester used very slight, undetectable undercranking for the swordplay, along with a device that allowed him to adjust the pitch of the soundtrack to prevent the leads from sounding like Chip ‘n’ Dale. With Ken Thorne’s mock-Wagnerian score going full blast, this rather batters into submission, but fails to actually conclude the film, with the chief villain escaping for a sequel that will never come. By now we’re ready for a long rest, but instead of closing credits we have a series of several fully-developed scenes rounding up the storylines of Bates, Reed, Bolkan and Britt Ekland. Most of these are necessary, but they’re cumulatively too long.


Still, overlook that and there’s much to cherish. Ben Aris performs one of my favourite ever pratfalls after he’s hit with a champagne bottle at the christening of a locomotive — a tall man in a tall hat wavering, stunned, like an undulating soundwave, before cascading to the ground. Flashman’s scarring at the hands of Otto Bismarck and his cronies is authentically nasty and shows an ability to handle the darker aspects of the story — as in CLOCKWORK ORANGE the repugnant hero is treated so appallingly at times that we become horrified by our own sympathy for him. The knockabout kitchen duel between McDowell, Tom Bell, Lionel Jeffries and Alan Bates is spectacular. Geoffrey Unsworth’s filming of Bavarian palaces is ravishing, as is Terence Marsh’s production design, full of Victorian splendid gadgetry like the foot-pedal-powered shower at Flashman’s club (where he meets Alastair Sim in one of his last roles).

Flashman ought to return, really, but I can’t see it happening in the present climate. Not because of “political correctness” — I just described him to a television executive, and immediately the thing that came up was “sympathy”. I should write a three-thousand word attack on the concept of “sympathy” and “relatability” in drama, but it wouldn’t do any good…

If all goes according to plan…

Posted in FILM with tags , , on July 25, 2013 by dcairns



I will be having lunch today with a man who has greatly influenced my cinematic outlook. He’s doing the cooking, so that part should be fine.


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