When The Window Doesn’t Open

The Arts

Bear with me; I’m going to push this analogy. If stories are a window to a different world, the reader or viewer has to be allowed to open the window and step through it for a while, returning just before it closes again. This isn’t a Joseph Campbell theory, it’s common sense. Frightening stories work because you are secure knowing you can get out. Fantasies work because you’re sad knowing you have to leave.

Of course there’s always ‘Cats’, a window through which you’d have to be dragged kicking and screaming, of which more later. ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ does a very odd thing, though. Frank L Baum shows you a desirable world and allows the visitor to choose to go back. It was this paradox that made me write ‘Calabash’, a book about a boy who is seduced by a place that will harm him. I wish I could revisit that novel and expand upon it.

Some stories can’t stand the weight of the visit. In ‘Cats’, a book of nonsense rhymes because a nonsense play in which the novelty is family-friendly songs in fancy dress, which in turn becomes a hugely budgeted film* that collapses under the conceit, in the same way that you can’t make a film out of Edward Lear’s nonsense rhymes – although you could probably get something out of Belloc’s ‘Cautionary Tales’ because there are genuinely interesting characters residing within them.

The Star Wars universe gets away with its dreadful cod-Shakespearian intonations because the set-up is sub-Shakespeare. Similarly, Marvel films are tonally correct because the comics had Stan Lee’s bizarre mock-grandeur in their dialogue exchanges. The DC Comics empire has struggled with this problem because it never had a Stan Lee. Its patrician, moralising stories have always been told without an internal voice.

When you write a story you have to make a lot of early decisions that don’t include plot or characters. What kind of language will you use? What do you want your reader to feel? Can the story take the weight you’re demanding of it? And later, when you’ve been doing it a while, how much can you play with the reader’s expectations?

You also have to create rules for your world. One hilarious review of ‘Cats’ complained that it did not follow its world’s internal logic. In one scene a cat unzips her fur seductively – is she skinning a cat? And Dame Judi Dench is wearing a fur coat, so has she donned a dead cat skin to go over her own fur?

If you’re writing a frippery, a gossamer-light confection, you’d better be sure your language delights enough to keep the reader on board because the plot won’t. Remember the film ‘What’s Up, Doc?’, which was loosely based on ‘Bringing Up Baby’? Its tightly wound clockwork plot was so perfect that suddenly there was room for the characters to be very funny from one moment to the next. ‘Jojo Rabbit’ appears to be as daft as ‘The Producers’ but both make the same point even though they’re 50 years apart. (Oddly, ‘What’s Up, Doc?’ also has a rabbit motif; Barbra Streisand is playing Bugs Bunny in all but name). Critics have complained that ‘Jojo Rabbit’ cannot take the weight of its subject, but in my book making mock of evil never gets old.

Sometimes the window miraculously opens – ‘The Railway Children’, ‘Winnie the Pooh’, ‘The Secret Garden’ and similar tales are the most obvious examples. In E Nesbitt’s book the window opens into the countryside. In ‘Mary Poppins’ the magical world represents childhood and comes to you before taking its leave all too soon.

What an author presents through the window must be more wonderful than life on this side of it, but it must also be believable.

*Just as Jesus died for our sins I’ve seen ‘Cats’ so that you don’t have to.

25 comments on “When The Window Doesn’t Open”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    It is surprising that amongst all the (bad) publicity and reviews, there has been no mention or comparison with the 1998 film which was shot on the stage at the Adelphi theatre in the West End, which starred Elaine Paige and John Mills.

  2. Rachel Green says:

    I’ve just seen ‘Jojo Rabbit’ and thought it brilliant. Horrifying, but brilliant.

  3. Jo W says:

    Thank you for making that sacrifice for me,Chris. (Never wanted to see the stage show either.) 😉

  4. Ian Luck says:

    ‘Cats’ is the thing that tells you that there is no place for musical theatre in one’s life, and for that, I am truly thankful. (And I think the source material is a load of old shite, too).

  5. admin says:

    Ian, there IS a place for musical theatre in your life. It’s called ‘Sweeney Todd’.

  6. chazza says:

    I would go and see a musical of “Dogs” where the protagonists go around sniffing each others arseholes or licking their own testicles…John Waters, anyone? No need to change the actors or actresses…

  7. Eliz Amber says:

    I will have to confess to not only being a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber (at least, the earlier stuff), but also liking TS Eliot’s ‘Book of Practical Cats’. (I’m a cat person – maybe that’s a necessity.) I saw it – twice – in its original run with Elaine Paige.

    That said, I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing the film, simply because I think the play works because we’re used to suspending realism at the theatre. In the play, Grisabella wears a bedraggled fur coat as both a symbol of an older stray cat and an aging human actress. Obviously, this doesn’t work as well in film.

  8. Bronwen says:

    Yes to “Sweeney Todd.” Yes!

  9. Liz Thompson says:

    I saw the stage Cats years ago, courtesy of my brother who worked in the theatre and could get free tickets (Don’t contact me, he’s long retired from the theatre). The mercifully brief trailers for the film were quite sufficient to turn my stomach, so thank you for your noble sacrifice Mr Fowler.
    I’m not really a musicals person. Maybe West Side Story, or a funny musical review. Tom Lehrer’s songs went well when staged eons ago. I do like opera, in moderate doses, but of course Leeds has Opera North and cheap tickets when I was a student, which certainly helped.
    I do agree that fantasy, if well done, whether for children or adults or both, opens windows safely. Science fiction can do the same thing, though often with a harder edge. Le Guin springs to mind. And comic fantasy is blissful (Discworld anyone?). But can I put in (another) word for folktale? Whether updated, retold, or original collections, and I don’t mean as told to the kiddiwinks, it can enlighten and transform. Whether it’s Cinderella Liberator, safe for children, even a definite good idea, or Gaiman’s slightly darker Snow, Glass, Apples, which isn’t child friendly until, oh, around 10 years old I’d say, they do open doors, windows, and even minds!

  10. Brooke says:

    To dress and act as Judith Dench does in Cats suggests the dame is desperate for money. How humiliating.

  11. Ian Luck says:

    People don’t burst into song, even when cutting someone’s throat. It’s not realistic, and to be honest, it always struck me as daft. The only thing of this nature I can tolerate, as it’s so far out there anyway, and singing makes a weird kind of sense, is ‘The Rocky Horror Show’. Moreover, the movie, with the peerless Tim Curry. Otherwise, no. Sorry.

  12. Peter Dixon says:

    I used to love the old ‘Fred and Ginger’ musicals because they lived in a fantastic black and white world and the lyrics and music were clever and stood alone. The 40s and 50s gave another set of equally strong songwriting with strangely unlikely plots (how did anyone think that a series of wartime short stories by James A Mitchiner would translate into South Pacific?). With great lyricists and composers, together with great singers (Howard Keel, Doris Day,Sinatra et al) we got great musicals.
    Now we seem to have a certain “musical’ style or presentation that started with Rice and Webber – it involves a ‘voice’ that was created with the likes of Elaine Paige and seems to have stultified stage musicals ever since. Its a very mannered style that ran through Evita and the like and seems to have flattened the pitch of the musical as a creative force. Nowadays all stage vocalists sound the same – they’re trained to sing ‘stage’, even Hugh Jackman falls into the safety pit of mediocrity.
    The last great musical stuff I really tuned into was ‘The Singing Detective’ and ‘Pennies from Heaven’ which used original songs and vocals rather than trained stage vocalists.

    I enjoy a good musical because its escapism done well.

    But what do I know – I’m a Geordie.

  13. Jan says:

    Well there was this woman this morning at Slimming World who had been to see this picture and she reckoned it was proper good. ” I don’t know if the critics watched the same thing as I did but I really liked it” were her words. But then again that WAS @ SW she might have been hallucinating because of her low fat diet.

    That very first few sentences of the James Michener “South Pacific” stories are the business. Amoungst the best getting a book getting started sentences I’ve ever read. Someone told me how good the opening was and they were that right. I almost stopped reading them stories cos I didn’t think they could get much better than the way they kicked off.

    I like musicals. Wouldn’t it be nice if life was more like a musical?

    There was this place I worked once back in the 1980s and it WAS a bit like a musical. The place was that bloody mad and lopsided. Like Fred Carno’ s circus or a real palace of varieties so it was.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    I’m a musicals person. No, we don’t sing or dance in real life but people would know how we really feel if we did. Haven’t you ever felt so happy you could fling up your arms, whirl around and trill into the the sky? If you haven’t then I am sorry for you, but think of the saddest you’ve been and wouldn’t a song in a minor key accompanied by sobbing violins have expressed your mood?
    Admit that I don’t much care for the trilling girl in the boat under the chandelier; there is a limit to everything.

  15. Brian Evans says:

    It’s surprising that no-one on here has suggested : “Bryant and May-the Musical”

    Or even better: “Bryant and May-the Musical -on Ice.”

    To those on here who think musicals are bad-you don’t know you’re born. I live with an opera queen and the noise around the house is often excruciating. It goes right through me.

  16. Liz Thompson says:

    Sorry about the opera, Brian. I’ve been told before that someone would pay good money NOT to listen to opera. I did try not to inflict it on non enthusiasts!

  17. Ian Luck says:

    Liz – Brian knows, and shares my opinion on opera. I’d pay not to hear it, quite happily. I see it as beautiful music ruined by fat people shrieking over the top of it, and then steadfastly refusing to die when killed (in the opera, of course.) The irony of Opera originally being ‘low theatre’ for poor illiterate folks is not lost on me, either.

  18. Jan says:

    I know if I was clever / cultured staying with folk who actually got up of a morning I probably wouldn’t be asking this ? BUT wots the difference really between a musical and an opera then?

    Is it price about £120 maybe??Mind you musicals are dear they are aren’t cheap. Is it that in operas
    There’s no talking between the songs..it’s all singing even when not song singing its instead of talking singing? Evita was like that though I seem to remember Antonio Bandarus (Tone the Bandaid to his buddies) warbling along in some bar about wanting a light ale and a packet of pork scratchings. I couldn’t be doing with that myself.

    There’s a few nice tunes in the opera’s though. Pearl Fishers has at least one show stopper. Carmens good. Mind you the BBC and ITV have both nabbed some of the best songs for the World Cup and Europe cup tournaments. Even the rugbys got in on the act now. I’ve never really got this matter sorted out if what Ian’s saying above is right then there can’t be that much of a difference can there? Not really.

  19. Jan says:

    And film musicals are in a way different from both stage musicals and opera’s. Although they have always turned stage shows in to musicals and now they do the same thing back to front films to shows and even nab ordinary films like “Whistle Down the Wind” and musicalarise them into stage musical shows. Which is taking the Mick.

    Has anyone ever written an opera directly to become a film? Do they write opera’s any more or not bother? Has anybody ever made a music video of an opera song?
    I really do like musicals at least their cheerful. Chris instead of watching them rubbish films whilst your ill @Christmas why not watch some thing more cheerful like a musical? If you’ve got a headache you can always turn sound off. (Some musicals are really improved by the sound being turned low. It’ll be staying a step in front even whilst being incapacitated. Will lift your mood )
    Musicals I like
    A/ Brigadoon can’t really recall any of the songs but its a nice idea and lovely colours in the film. Colours are lovely in films aren’t they? I dunno how it is that colours can be better at the pictures but they often are.
    B/ Absolute Beginners. No one seemed to like it much bar me. Can only really remember the title song where it sort of rises in it the tune its really inside my head now. Lovely colours again and lots of rain splashing about. It was good.
    C/ my very best favourite musical and stage show combined.
    “Little Shop of Horrors.” It’s so good and funny and unique – a horror musical. That dentists songs are the business. And that song that human Audrey sings “Somewhere that’s Green” that’s genuinely moving song makes me cry that does. I love the “Little Shop of Horrors” the backing singers being like a Greek chorus its brilliant. Never really come to grips with that Tim Curry one that Horror musical but Little Shop is brilliant.

  20. Jan says:

    ‘ I watched “Paint your Wagon” last Sunday afternoon that’s a good musical.

    Mariah is a smashing song.
    Who would have thought Clint Eastwood could sing? Quite a nice voice he’s got really.

    Do you know for years I thought the title song was “Paint your Wagon green” I dunno how this colour crept into the title but it did. I had a right row with two working girls in Mayfair cos they said there was no colour green in the title. Pre internet days so we had to ask one of their regular punters in the end just to settle the matter. Perhaps I caught the hint of something in the zeitgist….. a whiff of the ecological movement to come. Old Greta Tumbleweed would have been proper proud of me. Yes. Paint your Wagon green could become Extinction Rebellions theme song.

    Camelots a right fantastic musical as well. That’s a lovely love song”Never could I leave you” and they show all the seasons like in a music vid whilst Frank Black sings the song. Beautiful really romantic such a lovely song. Old Vanessa was knocking Frank off for years. You couldn’t blame her he was an incredible looking man. Beautiful really. She has told all I’m not just gossiping.

    “Camelot” is based on T.H. Whites “Once and Future King” that bit about the sunshine sparkling on the sea is from there. The Disney Cartoon about King Arthur where Merlin makes him into all the different creatures that’s from TH White as well but he pinched it from myth I think. Should be read widely again the “Once a Future King” Very good book. Exceptional. Not in fashion now I don’t suppose.

  21. Jan says:

    Sword in the Stone that’s the Disney movie.

    Now( – off at a slight tangent – )I reckon the Sword in the Stone legend started when some one in the early Bronze or Iron age witnesses a sword being removed from a cast. Makes sense doesn’t it? Someone with no prior knowledge of the art of the blacksmith seeing something they couldn’t really understand and therefore couldn’t explain. So they rationalise what they have witnessed in the only way it can make any sense to them ……they are watching a man remove a sword from a stone. Tales grow in the telling. The cast broken away by the Smith becomes a large boulder like object the Stone is removed from. The careful way the Smith treats the hot metal becomes interpreted as the effort of pulling a sword from a much larger object. The mythical boulder.

    I reckon a lot of what is interpreted as magic comes from the early metal workers. Must have been so weird to the farmers hearing about then seeing this fabulous skill. They can only interpret what they see and hear about as being magical.

    Of course the shamans, wise men and women then twig onto this idea that people are really overawed by the power of what they see. Overwhelmed really so they incorporate a bit of conjuring into their rituals. Keep on the right side of the punters. This conjuring might have already existed but I think probably grew after metal workers became more powerful and better known.

    At a much later stage Preists of both Judaic, early Christian and other religions copy the shamans incorporating this idea of “magic”into their masses. Their rituals take from and copy that of pre-existing faiths.

    Um we’ve drifted off a fair bit from musicals

  22. Helen Martin says:

    Yes, we did drift but that’s an interesting take on the sword in the stone. I’ll have to think about that. (It’s “The Once and Future King”) and I agree about Paint Your Wagon and Camelot. Never Could I Leave You is too long but otherwise perfect and makes me want to cry. The best bit, though, is Arthur sending the page boy back to “tell the tale” and you can feel it drifting down the centuries – it echoes Henry V – and who cares if Arthur really existed or not? Lucy Worsley says about American history – if it didn’t happen you have to make it up. Right, and every country does it, because you need those stories.

  23. Helen Martin says:

    My husband asks, “Clint Eastwood? Lee Marvin, perhaps?”

  24. Jan says:

    yeah Clint did some singing. Lee Marvin sung the big song “Wandering Star” but Clint warbled away quite efficiently. Jonjo told me that Lee Marvins voice was supposed to have been that bad they just let him talk his way through “Wandering Star” and his other songs. I can vaguely remember watching “Wandering Star” on Top of the Pops as a kiddiwink . Being from a film it was like a precursor of a music vid. I did like “Wandering Star” and pretty much agree that’s a sights always improved by looking back at it!

    Yeah Arthur does get about …….there’s myths up in Cumbria and the Lake District about him. Tied into the West Country at Tintagel. Arthur and his knights are allegedly kipping (sleeping) under Alderley Edge south of Manchester in case the country ever needs their services. Which is odd because other legends have them snoozing elsewhere. There’s a “Camlet” moat on the outer edges of North London. Near Trent Park where they eavesdropped for months recording the conversations of High ranking German officers who were P.O.Ws

    Arthur roughly translated means “bear” and “Merlin” rather than being a given name is in fact a job title or role title. Merlin is in fact the Kings Wiseman/soothsayer/ sorceror. Be more than one bloke. Serving more than one king probably.

    I really like Arthurian legend it’s wonderful stuff and Mallory wasn’t exactly the first kid on the block. The tales were much much older, they were transformed into an illustration of a later romantic ideal. Modified to include the code of chivalry and courtly love etc.

    My favourite idea about Arthur and his knights is that they were in fact initially woven around a returning comet or meteor shower. Like the Perseids or the Geminids – and that Arthur was a brighter comet in amongst the group. That ties neatly into the “return” aspect of Arthurian legend. The ancient folk of Britain creating a story from what they saw in the night sky. As people all over the world made stories from the stars. (No telly see? you’ve got to watch something of an evening!) The comet did not return annually as the meteor showers I referred to do it probably only rocked up every few years perhaps at even longer intervals. Interesting idea though

    Yes H the youngster who Arthur commands to live and to tell his story and recall the coming battle is the same section I obliquely(!)referred to – Arthur turns to Merlin i think and equates humanity to the sea waters saying that for some few folk they will become the sunshine sparkling on the waves. + that’s what he says the young lad will become (a shining example!) Except he says it much better that I could.

    The best bit in the book( and it is a smashing book )is for me early on when T.H.White describes Guinivere he sort of points to the flaw in her make up which ends up with her going OTS with Lancelot. Think she’s sewing or doing embroidery and he describes her not judging her just says what he reckons she’s about. Was well put.

  25. Helen Martin says:

    The Once and Future King is TH White for adults. I used to read it once a year but haven’t for a while now. Perhaps I should get my own copy. At some point there was a suggestion that Mallory “made it all up” but I refused to believe that. Jack Whyte did an extremely good Arthurian series which I’ve read twice and (blast, even crushing over my husband’s hats, pushing through a spider web and wrenching open a bookcase door I can’t see that series) earlier there was a set by a woman who wrote the Lippizaner story Disney used for its movie and a bunch of romances – Mary Stuart? Anyway, I rather liked that one, too. It started out with the Merlin story and the dragon in the old Roman ruins in north Wales.

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