Archive for Veterans

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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Taking the Curse off It

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , on April 9, 2014 by dcairns

h

“Taking the curse of it” is a writing/filmmaking term meaning to prevent something getting too sententious or ponderous by undercutting the serious with the comic. When misapplied, you get that ghastly formality at the Oscars where the host will make some lame wisecrack as soon as somebody’s said something a bit political or potentially meaningful. But in general it’s a very good method for keeping the tone varied, which you probably need to do “to stop ’em falling asleep,” as Olivier might put it. Preston Sturges, whose tone was recklessly varied at all times, was the master of it: see the end of CHRISTMAS IN JULY.

Which brings us again to screenwriter and playwright Charles Wood. After blogging about his plays, I was thrilled to be put in touch with his daughter Kate, and through her the Great Man himself, and beyond thrilled to hear that he liked what I’d said.

Since then I’ve ordered a collection of his plays, because having read a copy of ‘H’, or Monologues in Front of Burning Cities, I felt the need to own it and have it handy for reference. Dealing with the Indian  Mutiny of 1857, it’s a sweeping epic full of grotesque humour, tragedy and spectacle (I’m intrigued as to how they staged the elephant at the National Theatre). Although Wood’s later play, Veterans, is somewhat inspired by characters and events from the filming of CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, which Wood scripted, it’s written as an imaginary account of the making of an imaginary film of ‘H’.

A highlight for me is this prayer by an army surgeon:

SURGEON SOOTER: On my knees, I sink to Thee my

Lord, that Thou shalt find a

way to Guide Me that I May

Not Kill,

that Thou shalt keep Thy high

bright sun from in the wounds

of those under my care,

that Thou shalt take from the

Poor Skill in my hands

all that which is Clumsy

and Poison,

that Thou shalt Protect

my bandages from rust and

rot, and Thou shalt Stop

my ears to sighing and cursing

under my knife, that Thou shalt

spare my coat tail from the

plucks of those that know they

are Dead, that Thou shalt bring

me to those made Strong in their

Faith, that I might tell them

they die and thus bring them

to Life, this pleasant deception

give me . . . for I have

never, angry in voice denounced

Thy Disease,

Thy Wounds,

Thy Sickness,

Thy Filth in which I Labour.

Thou hast set me to labour in

the realm of Ignorant Science,

give me some sparing,

as Thou hast spared me in other

times, other conflicts of man

and death; keep me Sane and keep

me Unaffected.

Use plenty of brown soap. (He adds as an afterthought of advice.)

The whole thing is quite brilliant, moving and strange and particular. As with THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, the use of language is an imaginative evocation of Victorian speech, inspired by writings of the time and answering the sensible question “Why should we make them talk like us?” The last line, which segues dazedly from one kind of formal speech (prayer) to another (doctor’s orders) strikes me as quite wonderful, and my inability to express why is part of what I like about it.

I have been unable to learn if brown soap was commonly used for any particular medical problem.

Walloping About

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 26, 2014 by dcairns

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Perusing the plays of Charles Wood, as part of my Richard Lester inquiries.

Wood was brought in to adapt Ann Jellicoe’s play The Knack, as one Royal Court playwright to another,  into Lester’s film THE KNACK… AND HOW TO GET IT, and formed a close connection with the director, collaborating on HELP!, HOW I WON THE WAR, PETULIA (uncredited), THE BED SITTING ROOM and CUBA. There’s also a whole host of unfilmed screenplays, stored at the BFI – an adaptation of Donald Barthelme’s The King (King Arthur in WWII), and a many-titled picture about communist Russia In which Robin Williams was to have played a bad actor with a passing resemblance to Stalin, who can do a passable Georgian accent when drunk,  who gets hired to play the great dictator in a biopic. The production treats him like shit and he gives a lousy performance, so they realize he needs the star treatment to build his ego up and make him feel like a world leader. He gets part-use of a limo (he has to share it with a performing bear) and various other perks, but now success goes to his head, he refuses the sequel, and is pursued by the authorities. Lester envisaged the film almost as a silent movie – in one gag, Williams would jump in a boat and launch it, but it’s a movie prop boat that’s only been built down one side, to give one good camera angle, like Cameron’s TITANIC. It sinks.

The movie didn’t even get a chance to sink. Williams’ career was stone-cold after POPEYE and they couldn’t get any interest from studios, who didn’t want another communist-themed movie so soon after REDS (as if there would be any resemblance).

The source for the screenplay was Red Monarch, a collection blackly comic tales by Yuri Krotkov, who had access to the real inside dope on Stalin’s Russia. For instance, Stalin’s screening room had a cement floor, like a bunker – no carpets – because film directors anxiously awaiting his verdict on their work would habitually soil themselves with terror. A smooth floor made it easier for the cleaning ladies.

Later, Wood adapted the Stalin stuff in the book into RED MONARCH, starring Colin Blakely as Uncle Joe himself, a quirky piece directed by Jack Gold. Blakely plays Stalin as Northern Irish. A bold choice, some would say.

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Wood’s best-known non-Lester film is probably THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, filmed in Turkey by Tony Richardson with a substantial budget and a mighty cast – David Hemmings and the entire British acting establishment, it feels like. Richard Williams provides animated inserts inspired by Punch cartoons…

Gielgud was terrified of his horse but managed to give a great perf in the saddle and out. “I’m an old man, Airey, and I’ve only got one arm. To fight the war with, it won’t be enough, eh?” Later, having disastrously appointed warring brothers-in-law Lucan and Cardigan to command his cavalry, he muses, “We must try to keep those two apart. Don’t let them sit together at dinner. Things are serious and they’re silly in ways.”

Wood’s syntax can resemble Burroughsian fold-ins at times. In THE KNACK he creates sentences that sound like typos spoken allowed: “Behaving? her lot was doing the behaving! All that leaping about in those… that’s what I behaviour! That’s provocative behaviour!” And no, it’s no mistake: Michael Crawford really does say “That’s what I behaviour.”

Exquisitely photographed by David Watkin, with much softening of the edges of the extreme widescreen frame, and boldly and beautifully cut by Kevin Brownlow, the movie is resolutely unheroic, gloomy, absurd and peculiar, with Wood’s dialogue crafted under the influence of Thackeray and giving a real sense of the strangeness of historic speech (years later, Wood scripted an episode of Napoleonic thick-ear saga Sharpe, and the sudden influx of weird syntax and authentic military slang was startling – and totally unremarked by TV reviewers).

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What interested me about Wood’s theatre work is not just his dazzling language, so conspicuous in the films, but the filmic elements. Veterans is clearly inspired by the characters encountered on CHARGE – on stage, John Gielgud played a perfect caricature of himself (Sir Geoffrey Kendle), while John Mills embodied a character clearly, and wickedly, modelled at least a bit on Trevor Howard (Mr Laurence “Dotty” D’Orsay – probably bits of Olivier thrown in).

You can just hear Gielgud-as-Kendle’s quizzical singsong delivery in this exchange, early on, when the audience may not know if they’re dealing with actors or real Victorian soldiers ~

MR LAURENCE D’ORSAY. Are you called upon to do much? I’m sorry, I never know what anyone does until years afterwards… do you do much?

SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. Fighting? No, no, not any more. Quite a lot at the beginning of things… day after miserable day I walloped about on a carthorse sticking a sword into astonished people, I can’t honestly say I enjoyed it.

Even Wood’s punctuation is astoundingly right. He could have made do with a full stop after “people,” and maybe have gotten two distinct laughs on each sentence, but the comma suggests that Kendle is rushing on to the next thought, with just the right daffy air of Gielgudian distractedness. It’s exactly 45% funnier.

Later, in a classic bit of Gielgud foot-in-mouth, Sir Geoffrey accidentally insults his friend, who has just been called to battle (filming). Attempting to back-pedal out of it, he digs himself deeper ~

SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. You must be wanted on the field of battle; I’m not the least surprised, it’s complete chaos, they’re dragging in everybody wears a uniform, oh, oh dear me… ah, Dotty, is that your horse there? What a nice quiet horse it is, not like my nag, a fiend on four legs, has to have a leg tied up every time I am called on to say a few words; still, you don’t have much to say, oh, you know what I mean, ah yes, he seems very gentle and considerate, I do like the look of him…

MR LAURENCE D’ORSAY. I may not be quite so important as you Geoffrey, Sir Geoffrey, in regard to the length of the sword knot I am given, or the words I am expected to speak… but I am an excellent horseman.

SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. Oh you are, you are!

MR LAURENCE D’ORSAY. If my mount impresses you withg his manners it is perhaps because I have schooled him.

SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. It is, it is, a very nice old thing.

MR LAURENCE D’ORSAY. …and not because he is too old or lacks spirit to be troublesome.

SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. No, no, a most perfect animal—full of mettle, I can see it, I can see he is a first-rate ride, gives an impression of gentleness. I know you’re a fine horseman, I’ve seen you riding about awfully well and never look like falling off.

The play is dedicated to Richard Lester, and by way of wriggling out of the charge that he has written some kind of drame a clef (is that even a thing?), Wood says in his intro ~

“All the films I have worked on have contributed to Veterans and more interestingly than gossip I hope the play is concerned with deceit, exploitation and treachery within an empire/industry run by gangsters, funny in their pretensions, vicious in their actions, showing a pathetic regard for skills and talent, and how these gangsters can be used by talented people who have acquired other talents like deceit, treachery, and the ability to be totally selfish yet remain on the best of terms with everyone, but for what?”

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During the shooting of CHARGE, Wood discovered Norman Rossington, reduced to the ranks, sitting up front with the officers, and asked him why he was positioned so inappropriately. “Because I am a highly-paid feature player,” replied Rossington, and the line duly found its way into Veterans.

Has ‘Washington’ Legs? Is a quasi-sequel, an occasional play presented for America’s bicentennial. It has one character in common, the crewmember Bernie the Volt. Bob Hoskins essayed the part in the first play, but here he’s been promoted to the role of a producer (and we can already hear the patented Hoskins “Amurrican” accent) while Albert Finney played legendary director John Bean (a Huston/Ford amalgam). The best stuff belongs to the character of English writer Sir Flute Parsons (Robert Stephens), who gets many dithering speeches such as this hilariously incorrect attempt to ingratiate himself with an American ~

SIR FLUTE: I’m ridiculously grateful to you and your Revolution, taught us a lesson you see . . . of course we went on and did even better for a while without you, but what about that marvelous music you’ve given us, would we have had that? I doubt it, we threw our black people off our conscience such a long time ago and all we got was steel bands and calypso, which was a little sad, because we had treated them quite badly, obviously not badly enough, needed more than that to produce a really solid contribution, and now you all do it don’t you, white and black, possibly white a bit more than black, jitterbugging . . . I used to be able to, I do have a natural grace in the same way that many of you don’t, but it isn’t an English characteristic on the whole, wish it was, so there you are . . . you’ve done awfully well and we wouldn’t have you different, and we’re awfully glad we lost, isn’t it time we started to enjoy some of the fruits of defeat . . . perhaps we did at the time, we got India and look what that’s done for Bradford, transformed it . . . very exciting.

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Dingo was first performed in 1967 and has fascinating connections with Wood & Lester’s HOW I WON THE WAR, released the same year. It shares a WWII military setting (Wood served for five years in the 17/21st Lancers Regiment) and even contains some of the same lines (“The thing about fighting a desert war is that it is a clean war. Clean-limbed, without dishonourable action on either side.”) More, it features a Comic who intersperses inane music-hall patter with the speeches of Churchill and Montgomery. It’s an extremely disturbing piece of work, even more brutal and obscene than the Lester film, and a proper bit of Brechtian epic theatre.

Wood’s script for HOW I WON THE WAR has the same density — I was surprised when I got hold of the source novel, which Lester said he hated, to find that quite big chunks are reproduced exactly, such as Michael Hordern’s disjointed ramblings about “the wily Pathan” — I would have sworn that stuff was vintage Wood. I can now see that what Lester and Wood did was superimpose the attitude of Dingo onto Patrick Ryan’s novel, which is a jolly romp. Contrasting the savagery of war with the breezy chin-up attitude traditionally applied by the Brits produces the obscenity that the film is about.

Wood’s more recent films haven’t appealed to me much, not I think because his powers had waned but because the industry was demanding less interesting stuff. AN AWFULLY BIG ADVENTURE offered up one shellshocked character with echolalia, whose verbal reprises offered a glimpse of the more surreal Wood of yore. On IRIS and THE OTHER MAN he shared credit with director Richard Eyre, which I always kind of resented. Only rarely should directors take a co-writing credit. IRIS began with the idea that we’d see the characters played by Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent at all stages of their lives, which would have made everything excitingly strange — the youthful scenes would have been obviously memories, and perhaps distorted ones, recalled from old age. Miramax nixed that idea, which led to Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville stepping in and in my view made the film not worth making. Movies about writers tend to succeed based on how they manage to evoke the writing, and IRIS doesn’t give the slightest clue to what its central character got up to with a typewriter. The only bit I really liked was the reaction of Iris, now afflicted with dementia, to a Tony Blair speech: “Education, education, education!” “Why does he keep saying that?”

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Wood has a cameo in THE KNACK — he and Lester also voiced a lot of the “Greek chorus of disapproval” muttering away on the soundtrack, a disapproving middle-aged commentary running in counterpoint to the action and consisting of peculiar non sequiturs — “I feel for her chest, that’s my feeling.” “I don’t subscribe to that sort of programme.” “Well I come from Hampton Wick myself so I’m used to innuendo.”

The screenplay of HELP! was published recently as a bonus with the deluxe DVD of the film. It’s a great read — even Wood’s stage directions are magnificent. He’s incapable of ordinary sentences.