The Past Isn't What It Was

Christopher Fowler
  Where do policemen live? 999, Letsby Avenue. Obviously. British humour doesn't travel very well, much like most of our films. And if the film 'See How They Run', proves one thing, it's that the British don't make very good mainstream films anymore. We can manage the odd bit of intriguing arthouse ('The Wonder', 'Men') but flail about when it comes to populism. Richard Curtis is apparently still making rom-coms (I guess they're not getting much traction) but a horrible wave of nostalgia has settled like a caul over much of the rest, from the horrendous 'Blithe Spirit' remake to sequels like 'The Railway Children Return', which lacks Nesbitt's witty, unsentimental voice, substituting memory-jogging moments and treacle. Next will come 'Matilda', minus its drag-villain Miss Trunchbull, now played by Emma Thompson, not the extraordinary Bertie Carvel. To be fair, Carvel dominated the theatre production in a way he could never have done on film, so let's wait and see. I wish Emma well, even though she once pinched me so hard on the nose that I couldn't breathe the next day. But even Matilda is over twenty years old now. We need fresh ideas. All of which brings us, tragically, back to 'See How They Run', a whodunnit hastily commissioned in the light of 'Knives Out'. On paper it must have seemed a sure-fire hit; after the 100th performance of 'The Mousetrap' there's a murder (Adrien Brody), a copper (Sam Rockwell) and a feisty constable (Saoirse Ronan), surrounded by various thesps and wastrels. Ruth Wilson doesn't seem to have been given any lines. A vocal approximation of Richard Attenborough is nostalgic in a good way. The West End  period setting (1953) is pristine and deserted. Presumably it didn't need much dressing, as this little corner of theatreland hasn't changed too much. There's a body, and that's the set-up. Then the actors open their mouths. Rockwell's accent comes to us via Don Cheadle and Dick Van Dyke, and lots of meta-jokes pop up that simply aren't funny. It's never a good idea to mention a better playwright, (in this case plenty of Tom Stoppard title references) unless you can produce something similar. Saoirse Ronan is the only one to acquit herself with any dignity, because 'See How They Run' can't run at all, on any level. This is the debut feature of director Tom George and I imagine it will be his last. His visual ideas are mostly cribbed from Wes Anderson, scattered through the film without thought or reason. If you're going to make a comedy-murder film, the murder part of it had better be serious, and seriously good. Like the rest of the film this murder is entirely nonsensical. Yet when we make a good whodunnit, audiences ignore it. One of the best is 'Agatha' (1979, Michael Apted) with Vanessa Redgrave and Dustin Hoffman, set around Christie's real-life disappearance near Harrogate. Its surprises are beautifully played out and played fair. How 'Agatha' flopped while 'See How They Run' was popular with critics is one of those puzzles that no-one will ever solve. These are desperate times and call for desperate measures, but retrenchment rarely produces something good. I remember my mother reading 'Mrs 'Arris Goes To Paris' by Paul Gallico when I was very young, and the fact that seventy years have passed would suggest it was never a safe bet for filming - yet that's exactly what it is right now, the heartwarming fifties' tale of a cleaning woman who dreams of owning a Dior gown. Leslie Manville could sleepwalk this role but chooses to add more grit. So, a journey is made to Paris, which is a sort of postwar 'Emily' where everyone speaks English and the Eiffel Tower shines golden in the afternoon light, and she charms everyone she meets because Zut Alors! They have never met a working class person before, they're so wonderful authentic and common. Gallico's books are awash with sentiment. He even managed to get the tears flowing in his novel 'The Poseidon Adventure'. The author loves coincidences; Mrs 'Arris loses some money - lo and behold, she finds a diamond ring. Her dress gets ruined - don't worry, by an incredible coincidence here's an even better one. So it goes, on and on. The past is either presented as sootily grim or filled with roses. Yet the film works because its silliness goes with the grain of the fantasy. Now that Bojo & Co have opened the class gap even wider, no cleaning lady will be buying a Dior gown anytime soon, so enjoy the fantasy. With Hollywood closed for the season - unless you count the ugly, dated-looking 'Avatar 2' - I guess there's a lot more nostalgia left to strip-mine.  


Jo W (not verified) Sun, 20/11/2022 - 22:27

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I have never read the book but I quite enjoyed the 1992 film of Mrs.’arris. Ada Harris was played by the splendid Angela Lansbury. Not sure that I want that happy memory upsetting.

PA Celich (not verified) Sun, 20/11/2022 - 22:44

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

In reference to Paul Gallico , I must say my favorite novel of his is, "Too Many Ghosts." Of which I have always thought would make a good film. Some might say it is a bit dated, and perhaps, in a stretch, corny. However that is their opinion and I still feel it would be a refreshing film in these times with the right cast and direction.

Stephen Dowell (not verified) Mon, 21/11/2022 - 11:15

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Finally! I thought I was a solitary voice in not getting the appeal of 'See How They Run'. Apart from Saoirse Ronan, the rest of the cast were underused and I felt the whole thing had a whiff of 'that'll do' about it.

Roger (not verified) Mon, 21/11/2022 - 12:25

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

What did the policeman say to the man with three heads, no arms and only one leg?
"'Allo. 'Allo. 'Allo. You look 'armless. 'Op along now."
Now build up to a climax.

Peter T (not verified) Mon, 21/11/2022 - 16:08

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

And Gallico prepared a series of sequels for Mrs Arris, should the film be a box office success.

'See how they run': the clips look more like 1963 than 1953, not that I'm old enough to remember 1953 very well.

Gary Locke (not verified) Mon, 21/11/2022 - 16:23

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Whenever I mention "Agatha" to anyone who'll listen (admittedly not many), they look at me in abject wonder. "How is it I've never heard of this film?" It puzzles me as well. Such a good film!

Joan (not verified) Mon, 21/11/2022 - 17:35

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I saw See How They Run, and didn’t think it was that bad. I was on holiday and there was a choice between Don’t worry Darling or that. Getting quite tired of Harry Styles being on the cover of every magazine so I chose the former. It sounded more interesting and probably was!

Debra Matheney (not verified) Mon, 21/11/2022 - 18:36

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I read Gallico as a child as well. At 70, I enjoyed Mrs Harris film because it was nostalgic, and I could park my brain at the door. I hope I will get back to intellectually challenging movies but for now, post COVID and political chaos, I enjoy fluff. Plus the clothes were gorgeous, and Isabell Hubert made an appearance.

Rich (not verified) Tue, 22/11/2022 - 09:14

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

'Agatha' is a great film which as Gary says nobody seems to have heard about.

Granny (not verified) Tue, 22/11/2022 - 14:24

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Whatever did you say to get a pinch on the nose?
I had forgotten about Paul Gallico, winsome is the word that comes to mind, thanks for the reminder.

Martin Tolley (not verified) Tue, 22/11/2022 - 16:05

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Emma T can pinch any part of my anatomy, as hard as she likes, for as often as she likes. I won't complain.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Tue, 22/11/2022 - 18:49

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I was introduced to Paul Gallico by a recording of The Snow Goose. You want tear inducing, that is it. I read the Mrs. 'Arris stories and then found The Silent Meow, which is mostly cat photos and is the advice of a mother cat to any kittens (kotebs) needing home securing advice. Mr Gallico knows cats. Gallico "found the manuscript on his doorstep" but had trouble reading it because a cat's paws aren't too accurate on the keys but the often repeated word 'koteb' enabled him to break the 'code'. Authors seem to have slightly twisted minds, don't you think?

Rich (not verified) Wed, 23/11/2022 - 10:38

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I think I have one of the Gallico cat novels on a shelf somewhere. Of the two decent books I found in my school library was Gallico's own sequel to 'The Poseidon Adventure' - 'Beyond The Poseidon Adventure'. Nothing like the Irwin Allen sequel. The other book was 'The Secret Woman' by Victoria Holt.

Neil Smith (not verified) Wed, 23/11/2022 - 12:50

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I love Bryant & May and imagine the characters as we all do. I think that the perfect actors to play Bryant and May would have to be Alastair Sim and Alec Guiness. No one else could do full justice to Bryant.
Modern day actors possibly Tom Courtney and James Bolan?
Who do you imagine could play them?

Andrea (not verified) Wed, 23/11/2022 - 19:04

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I am intrigued why did Emma pinch you on the nose so violently?

bill051 (not verified) Thu, 24/11/2022 - 18:48

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The mention of Paul Gallico reminded me of that old 1950s TV show "The adventures of Hiram Holliday" which was based on his novel. I think the BBC used to show them in the daytime during the summer holidays.

Wayne Mook (not verified) Mon, 28/11/2022 - 02:26

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Well The Mousetrap is to open on Broadway after 70 years over here, so I guess we are not the only ones at fault.

With Tom George I think you maybe right, the film didn't too good at the box office.

On another board favourite, Joanna Hogg's film was described on a Euro film bulletin I get (which usually delights in art house film) as 'on the dull side.' The Guardian gave it 4 stars in a review, the most exciting thing being the mother almost trips up and ends with the line 'The Eternal Daughter is a serious, gentle moment of self-revelation for Joanna Hogg'. A film about herself who'd have thought it.

By the way on comedy crime films, Neil Simon's Cheap Detective is on Talking Pictures soon, again with Peter Falk, Eileen Brennan and director Robert Moore who were all involved with Simon's Murder By Death. I've not seen this but quite enjoyed Murder By Death many moons ago.


Helen+Martin (not verified) Tue, 29/11/2022 - 22:53

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I have just heard that my favourite so called spy series - Slow Horses - has been done for some streaming service and the second season starts on Friday with Mr. Oldman in it. We aren't on any of those services so I guess I can't complain but perhaps PBS will pick it up. Or would it be too "deeply English" for even PBS Americans?