Night At The Cinema Museum 1
I started to write this piece some time ago but never finished it – so I’ve concluded it now, and am running it over two days.
‘British film’ has always been a bit of a tautology, the punchline to a national joke on a par with ‘British car industry’. When I was in my early twenties I was desperate to get into the film industry, but there was virtually no media training for someone who had not gone to university.
Film lovers rarely turn their obsessions into successful careers because they have no objectivity and will work for nothing. Even whores don’t do that. Even though I was at school, 1968 had been my favourite film year. In that summer alone we had ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, ‘2001’, ‘Bullitt’, ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’, ‘The Lion In Winter’, ‘Witchfinder General’, ‘Oliver’, ‘Night of the Living Dead’, ‘The Devil Rides Out’, ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’, ‘Funny Girl’, ‘If’, ‘Twisted Nerve’, ‘Performance’, ‘Carry On Up The Khyber’, ‘Dracula Has Risen From The Grave’, ‘Yellow Submarine’ and around sixty other British films.
London’s delightful Cinema Museum asked me to choose ten influential films for one of their evenings. Although there are many modern films I love (‘Penumbra’, ‘Kontroll’, ‘White God’, ‘The Hidden Face’, ‘In The Tunnel’, ‘American Pop’, ‘Allegro Non Tropo’ to name a few), there’s something about the slow, careful pacing of old films that makes them resonate more deeply – even the bad ones. I also wanted to make the evening peculiar and fun, so here’s what I chose;
Blue Murder At St Trinian’s/’Pure Hell of St Trinian’s
Artist Ronald Searle enlisted a surprisingly highbrow group of people to help him bring his anarchic schoolgirls to the screen, including the author D B Wyndham-Lewis, the composer Sir Malcolm Arnold, Johnny Dankworth, the Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, Bertolt Brecht, Flanders & Swann, Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder.
Then result is…weird. Ostensibly schooldays comedies for family audiences, they’re sharply satirical. The school in question is financed on stolen money and immoral earnings, but is seen as a more decent institution than the inert, corrupt government because at least it’s honest about how it earns its money. ‘The school goes back to 1630,’ Headmistress Alistair Sim explained, ‘but according to the bank it goes back to them.’ An Arab Sheik looks through a catalogue of sixth-form girls in bikinis, deciding which one to buy. ‘What’s this girl’s background?’ he asks Flash Harry, who replies ‘I think that’s Brighton Pier.’ Corrupt councillors take their liftman along on a European fact-finding mission. The English attitude to Europe is summed up by the liftman in Naples, who taps the barometer and complains ‘If it gets any hotter, I shall have to take my pullover off.’ There’s hardly a character who is not duplicitous, from Terry-Thomas’s conman company owner to Cecil Parker’s creepy lothario.
Dracula, Prince of Darkness
Seven years had passed since the first definitive Hammer Dracula had appeared onscreen. With no video and no MTV, youthful minds were less saturated with violence. Images retained the power to shock. Fast cutting had not been invented. All horror films appeared in double bills. The thinking seemed to be that two horror films equalled one normal film, so I knew I would already be tensed up by the B-feature before we even got as far as Dracula.
At the start of the main movie I was teased with the end of the first Hammer Dracula film, which I’d been too young to see. Dracula had shrivelled in sunlight, so I knew that the count was dead. With tension creeping up my arms and legs, I waited for him to reappear. And waited. The next 45 minutes represented, for me, one of the purest sequences in horror history, as the camera silently prowled the gloomy corridors and I wondered; he’s been bloody cremated, so how the hell can they bring him back?
It’s a film only works in the cinema. Those silent-movie reactions to crucifixes – the ridiculous throwing up of hands – now appear laughable, but it played like a stripped-down version of the traditional legend. The coach-driver refused to look up at the impossibly baroque castle, prim, pent-up Barbara Shelley was transformed into a sensual (and somewhat middle-aged) hellcat, Dracula was invited in by a feeble-minded lunatic, crucifixes seared, fangs were bared with a hiss, James Bernard’s lush score was backed by the ever-present moaning wind, and a dimwitted man of the cloth made a nuisance of himself. The only real romance on display was an unhealthy love of all things dead, and even the happy ending reeked of melancholia. Tonally, it’s the most Stokerish of them all.
If you grow up in London you’re constantly aware of theatres, and when I was younger nearly everyone I knew had worked in one, the equivalent of everyone working in the media now. ‘The Producers’ never really stops feeling like a play. My business partner and I tried to set up a company called Bialystock & Bloom’ (back when no-one had heard of the original film) but the name had already gone. I still love the first half best. Nervous accountant Gene Wilder attempts to do the books of sleazy theatrical agent Zero Mostel, who terrifies him into the creation of a scam; under the right circumstances a flop could make more money than a hit. The first 20 minutes is conducted in a gruesomely claustrophobic office and ends with Zero Mostel inducing a hysteria fit in Gene Wilder. ‘You’re going to jump on me!’ Wilder screams, ‘just like Nero jumped on Poppea!’
It’s weird that it went full circle and ended up back in the theatre as a play, where Lee Evans was a perfect foil for Nathan Lane in the London production, and then became another film.
It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
Shot in 70mm Cinerama, it had sweeping cyanic skies, men in hats, primary-coloured boxy saloon cars, cleavages, shouting and the kind of deafening wanton destruction that propelled me through a feverish adolescent crush on all things loud, bright and American. (I would probably have worshipped the Marvel movies of today, but not the Star Wars ones.) I fell in love with its sheer bellowing energy. The film ends with one of cinema’s strangest climaxes, featuring half the cast stuck at the top of a fireman’s ladder.
What I did not know was that this extremely shrill, rowdy and fairly unfunny ‘comedy-to-end-all-comedies’, where even Buster Keaton and Jack Benny were reduced to walk-on roles, had been massively cut by director Stanley Kramer after its release. Much later, Tania Rose, the film’s co-author, put me in touch with a politician who had dedicated his entire life to finding the missing pieces of the film. He was deranged, of course, but in the same way as I had been – and one obsession validated the other; if more than one person was affected, it meant I wasn’t mad.
Later, the film’s missing plotlines were finally located and restored, with the result that a darker, more cynical film emerged – I was glad they had cut it, at least for the sake of my childhood sanity.
On The Beat
I’ve long given up explaining my Norman Wisdom fetish. Strip away the sentiment and you arrive at the surreal, whether Norman is imagining his landlady with a horse’s head, singing an eye-chart off-key, turning a police pursuit into a back-garden steeplechase, playing golf upside-down in the top of a tree, being induced with pneumonia or seduced in weirdly convincing drag.
It took me years to work out why I enjoyed these films. As a child I knew that admitting I liked Norman Wisdom would make me a leper. But the shrill, inarticulate little comic had his roots in the class war. In ‘One Good Turn’ he makes straight for the First Class train carriage for no other reason than to disturb its occupants, and this was a trend that continued throughout his films until it became open anarchy. He destroyed corporate buildings, wrecked institutions, smashed up expensive cars and gleefully encouraged others to be drawn into fights; this was a schoolboy’s anarchist manifesto, a reaction against the restrictions of Post-war England that consistently attacked authority figures including mayors, executives, officials, police sergeants and politicians, and only caused destruction to status symbols – Rolls Royces, country mansions, gala dinners and state visits. What’s not to love?
This piece concludes tomorrow