Archive for Winston Churchill

Extract from novel

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 16, 2020 by dcairns

I won’t do this too often, I promise. Mostly I’ll just sneak in quiet plugs here and there. But this is a full-on extract from my novel, We Used Dark Forces, which is available from Amazon UK and from Amazon US and from all the other Amazons.

Anne Billson, critic and novelist (Suckers, The Half Man, Cats on Film) said “Like the bastard offspring of Agatha Christie and HP Lovecraft squished through an Ealing comedy mangler and running amok in a Scottish castle at the height of the Blitz. Slapstick surrealism at its most compelling and hilarious. Whitsuntide is an anti-hero for the ages.”

David Quantick, screenwriter (The Thick of It, Veep, TV Burp) said: “We Used Dark Forces is a twisted mixture of dark wit, wry horror and splendidly-applied imagination.”

Wry horror is going to be my speciality, I think. Now for the extract. I think I was inspired here, if I may use that word, by seeing a TV doc years ago about Len Deighton’s nameless spy (later to become Harry Palmer, the blandest name they could think of), where one of the talking heads on offer exaggerated the facelessness of the character somewhat. A seed was planted, and I began to consider blandness as a superpower.

Inspector Graham There has been summoned to Scotland Yard Underground to receive a strange commission from Sir Sheckley Frestle-Mottram. Now read on…

It’s hard to describe Sir Sheckley Frestle-Mottram, let alone sum him up. He’d occupied a senior position at Scotland Yard for some fifty years, yet still had the vigour of a man ten years younger: perhaps ninety or so. He eyed me with, well, an eye, an eye which had seen things I’d never dreamed of, and probably vice versa. You hear of people having a faraway look. Sir Sheckley had the opposite of that. In his presence, I had never felt more in someone’s presence. But the feeling wasn’t mutual.

“Then?” he asked. This rather threw me. Then I surmised it was, perhaps, a stab at my name.

“There, sir,” I corrected him, as respectfully as possible.

“Here?” he asked, which didn’t seem to get us much further.

“Here to see you,” I agreed, then added, a bit uncertainly, “There.”

“Sit down there,” he ordered, or it might have been “Sit down, There.” He nodded at a spot on the rug, but I chose to interpret his nod loosely, and opted for the nearest chair.

“I have a case that’s perfect for you,” he said, flipping open a folder. Then he seemed to forget I was present. Which I’m used to.

“Very gratifying, sir,” I said, hoping to bring things into focus again.

“You needn’t feel flattered,” he snapped. “It isn’t any particular great quality that suits you to this job. Rather, it’s your singular lack of qualities.”

“Sir?”

“Your superiors tell me you’re apt, those of them that remember you exist. Good. I need an apt man who makes as little impression as possible, and you seem to satisfy the latter requirement to a staggering degree. You have no distinguishing traits. No personality. People not only forget you after they meet you, they seem to forget you while they’re meeting you. I’m looking right at you and I can barely see you.”

“Sir?”

“You have a rare talent, Where, you’re a human chameleon. A man of a thousand faces, all of them identical. You’ve heard the expression ‘The best place to hide a leaf is in a forest’? You, sir, are our forest.”

“Sir?”

“We’ve had our eye on you for some time, or at least I think we have. Not my eye, of course, my eye was taken out by a Mahdi spear in ’85. This one’s onyx. No, I mean the great, all-seeing eye of the Yard, which does all our head-hunting. And not like the head-hunters who got mine and shrunk it in ’92, I mean in a benign, caring way. This one’s brass, mostly. Works like a charm. Amazing what the boffins can do nowadays.”

“Sir?” – there didn’t seem to be anything else I could say, you know, and this repeated monosyllable did seem to have the effect of spurring him on. All I could hope for at this stage was to keep the conversation in some kind of motion, in the vague expectation of ending up somewhere comprehensible again.

“My point is that you, sir, are a find. A miracle, a prodigy, no, better than that, a freak of nature. A vacuum in human form, without a shred of charisma or charm or even basic human dignity. When you walk into a room it’s like somebody left. As you approach, you seem to get further away. The more I look at your blank, lifeless features, the more fascinated I become by my blotter.”

“Sir…” I tried to repurpose my word as a sort of remonstrance.

“Have much trouble getting served in bars?”

“Doesn’t everyone?”

“No. Just you.”

I must admit, he was starting to get on my nerves, partly because there was a nagging ring of truth to his words, as if he were writing my spiritual biography, summing up the way I’d seemed to spend my thirty-two years passing through the world without leaving a ripple.

“You exemplify all the negative qualities, Then,” he was saying. “You name it, you haven’t got it.”

“There,” I corrected. “There!”

“No need to console me, you’re the one with the terrible problem.”

“But there must be millions like me.”

“Yes,” he said, pounding the desk with his hook, “But not exactly like you. Whereas you are exactly like you, to a quite startling degree. You’re like an empty suit of clothes walking around, talking, eating watercress sandwiches — though obviously not as interesting as that would be. But this gives you an advantage over the common man, or should I say, the slightly less common man. You can vanish into a crowd because you are the crowd. Everyone assumes they already know you because you’re like everybody else, more like them than they are. A resemblance without an original. An exact lookalike of nobody special. Where other people have presence, you have absence. If you stood in front of another man, I’d still be able to see him better than you. You’re not a person, you’re not even an outline. You’re the echo of an unspoken thought. The sound of one hand failing to clap.”

The Big Dead One

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2015 by dcairns

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I’d seen bits of THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS (1956) on Film4 and it looked like a snooze, but the Anne Billson said she liked it so I investigated.

Ronald Neame was never what you’d call an exciting director, but he was always an affable one. Having made his Significant Contribution to cinema in his collaborations with David Lean, he settled into Lightly Likable for most of his career, apart from a few bloated floaters at the end.

And talk of floaters brings us to this movie, in which British intelligence plants a corpse at sea carrying faked documents to fool the Nazis into expecting an attack from the wrong direction. It’s unlikely stuff, and largely true — I’m now reading Ben MacIntyre’s enjoyable Operation Mincemeat, which details exploits of the various eccentrics who put this plan together, a plan for which the word “cockamamie” might have been invented, assuming that word ever was invented.

Here’s MacIntyre’s character study of coroner and co-conspirator Bentley Purchase ~

“He found death not only fascinating but extremely funny. No form of violent mortality surprised or upset him. ‘A depressing job?’ he once said. ‘Far from it. I can’t imagine it getting me down.’ He would offer slightly damp chocolates to guests in his private chambers, and joke: ‘They were found in Auntie’s bag when she was fished out of the Round Pond at Hampstead last night.’ A farmer by birth, Purchase was ‘rugged in appearance and character’ with ‘an impish sense of humour’ and a finely calibrated sense of the ridiculous: he loved Gilbert and Sullivan operas, toy trains, boiled eggs, and the model piggery he ran near Ipswich.”

Tragically, Purchase doesn’t appear in Neame’s film (scripted by ace novelist Nigel Balchin of THE SMALL BACK ROOM fame), but my old friend Sir Bernard Spilsbury does, embodied by the ever-impressive Andre Morell. Who better than a former BBC Quatermass to play this august pathologist?

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The first half of the film IS a little dull — it’s a procedural in which none of the details are surprising once we get over the macabre plot, with only some nifty comic timing from Laurence Naismith to liven it up. The scenario allows the inclusion of a couple of American actors — a very shiny Gloria Grahame is allowed since, after all, there must have been some Americans in London in 1943, and Clifton Webb can play an English officer because, after all, he’s snooty and gay which is almost as good as being English. The man he’s playing, Ewen Montagu, was brother of Hitchcock producer and Soviet spy Ivor Montagu.

Churchill goes unseen, like Celeste Holm in A LETTER TO THREE WIVES or Jesus in BEN-HUR, but Peter Sellers does the voice, with perhaps a little too much comic glee.

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Then Stephen Boyd enters as an Irish Nazi spy, sent to ascertain if the fictitious character invented for the corpse was ever real. Now some actual jeopardy is injected, since Boyd might upset the whole plan and also, HE’S in danger of being caught and hanged. And even if he is a Nazi spy, he’s a Personable Movie Star and we’re spending time with him so naturally we become implicated in his mission. Boyd is really good here, avoiding any show of overt villainy and just playing a rather exciting fellow doing a job. His charisma is at its peak. Fiona was impressed by the amount of detail in his bumpy forehead. “There’s a lot going on there. He’s like a Klingon!”

The only trouble is, he’s entirely fictitious. We had broken the Nazi codes by this point and had captured, executed or turned every single spy they had in Britain. I must say, though, he’s an admirable invention — he keeps the whole thing afloat, if you’ll pardon the expression. Boyd, and cameos like Naismith and Miles Malleson (“He won’t be doing the crossword tonight”) make the sedate Cinemascope entertainment just watchable enough. And then there’s the haunting bit of poetry at the graveside and it all goes very eerie and moving — out of left field, emotion enters the film, like a phantom, and sweeps through it, swinging the door shut as it goes.

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“Last night I dreamed a deadly dream, beyond the Isle of Sky, I saw a dead man win a fight, and I think that man was I.”

Alfred his cock presents

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on April 29, 2009 by dcairns

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There’s a story, which I have trouble believing, that to get a shocked reaction from Madeleine Carroll for one particular close-up in THE 39 STEPS, Hitchcock unbuttoned his fly and startled her with the sight of his partial namesake. (The shot above looks to me like the only reasonable contender. The expression on Carroll’s face is hard to read: concern? Pity?)

When asked, by a subsequent interviewer, if this tale were true, Hitch is supposed to have confirmed it (I can believe that much), and said that he had used this technique on a number of actresses.

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For the record, Madeleine Carroll is awesome in THE 39 STEPS, and I don’t believe such a technique would be either necessary or productive, to say nothing of the legal implications. Hitch did claim to have pranked her mercilessly, partly for fun and partly to get her to, er, unstiffen. That’s almost certainly true. But the story of the nob, which Matthew Sweet seizes upon so eagerly in his book Shepperton Babylon, strikes me as a stretch.

Also, it reminds me of Churchill’s comment when told his fly was undone: “Dead birds don’t fall out of nests.”