Whimsy Is The New Reality
There are certain literary traits I don’t much care for; over-earnestness, sentiment, nostalgia and manufactured ‘edge’ being among the worst – TV crime dramas seem to believe that everything should be grim and shouty – Tony Hancock once said ‘You can get away with anything if you keep a straight face’ – but I’ve never minded the British (and American) fondness for the properly whimsical. This places me far outside the critics’ temple of excellence, which admires the impenetrable, the emotionally frozen, the distanced and blankly forensic over anything fun and filled with life.
I believe in subversion and the genuine shock of the original – the late JG Ballard was incapable of saying anything non-controversial for the simple reason that he possessed a unique worldview as an outsider with innovative thought patterns. As a writer he’s been called many things – ‘visionary’ crops up a lot, but he could also be extremely whimsical. ‘The Unlimited Dream Company’ is a very funny, charming novel about a man who teaches a town to fly, and the least likely book you’d ever expect to read from such a writer, a total joy that makes a smart point.
The whimsical is generally misunderstood. It’s about taking the measure of life’s overlooked trivia. I suppose the most whimsical novel of all was Sterne’s ‘Tristram Shandy’ but I’d also opt for the works of Ronald Firbank, whose eccentric narrative style was an extension of his personality. For a man who wrote so much about society he was never comfortable in it, being too alcoholic, inarticulate and strange. Joe Orton absorbed his peculiar speech rhythms, recognising a truth in Firbank’s dialogue; conversation need not sound real to have veracity.
Whimsicality can be muscular, tough, smart. Its opposite is the anaesthetised aesthetic of so-called ‘important’ work. A ghastly example is the new film version of ‘Testament of Youth’. The powerful, unsentimental WW1 memoir by Vera Brittain was reimagined in a film version that turned it into a tasteful, whispy, whiney weepie. By comparison, check out ”71′, the superb, nightmarish story of a soldier trapped after dark on the Falls Road in Belfast in 1971. That’s how you do war.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet combined war and whimsy beautifully in ‘A Very Long Engagement’ by employing the techniques from ‘Amelie’ to a heart-wrenching combat story. Michael McDowell, venerated in a post here just last week, collected death memorabilia and eventually co-wrote ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ in which Christmas is infused with the spirit of death and decay. Whimsy can get away with that.
We need to venerate originals and outsiders, but equally there’s no reason why we shouldn’t embrace those who operate in the warmth of the ‘normal’ world. Over Christmas this year we had a surfeit of the whimsical on television. ‘Marvellous’ was inspired by the true story of the former circus clown named Neil Baldwin (Toby Jones), a gentle soul with learning difficulties who loved football. It took a fantastical approach to what could have been a very worthy, dull tale. Baldwin was acknowledged to be irritating and frustrating in equal measure, and there was a lovely throwaway moment when his mother snipped off her hospital wrist-tag before meeting up with her son again.
‘That Day We Sang’ was dismissed as another whimsical TV play about middle-aged love, but proved equally oddball, with its song-and-dance ode to Berni Inns, a split-timeframe narrative, and non-naturalistic dialogue that felt like Benjamin poetry. If life is made up of small details strung together, this was a perfect example of why such whimsies are important.
Rather less successful was a sumptuous new version of ‘Mapp and Lucia’ by Steve Pemberton, seemingly one of only four writers employed by the BBC. These impenetrably whimsical books have quite a lot to reveal about the petty-minded power-plays of the rural English, but were perfectly realised in the 1980s with Geraldine McEwan and Prunella Scales, and have been remade as sumptuous but pointless carbons of the originals. Only Miranda Richardson got the measure of the thing with an eerie pantomime performance that was half-Prunella Scales, half EF Benson and entirely her own. As Lucia, poor Anna Chancellor seemed stifled and lost.
Most whimsical of all was the candy-coloured ‘Esio Trot’ by Roald Dahl, starring Judi Dench and Dustin Hoffman, 100 tortoises and Heath Robinson contraptions. It might just have passed muster as a musical.
It’s a hard genre to pull off, because any attempt at hard analysis merely invites reality to enter and blow away the smoke. I would like to see ‘The Ascent of Rum Doodle’ and ‘Miss Hargreaves’ made as TV plays, both charming and strange and perfect for Christmas TV. Any other ideas?