Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

Murders on the Orient Express

Firstly, a promise. I promise that nowhere in the following piece will I reveal, or even hint at, the solution to the mystery that is at the heart of Murder on the Orient Express. Should there be anyone unaware of what happens in this story, I can guarantee that the revelation is quite startling, and I certainly wouldn’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment.

Having said that, I will admit to not being much of an Agatha Christie fan. In my pre-teenage years, the very lurid illustrations that used then to appear on the covers of various paperback issues led me to believe she was a horror writer, but when I did finally come round to reading a few of them in my early teens, far from horror, I found an entirely unexpected cosiness. At the time – I was about thirteen or so – I quite enjoyed the few I read, but not enough, obviously, to want to read more. From what I remember, everything seems subordinate to the plot, and the plot in itself is something I have never found particularly interesting. However, these novels have most definitely passed the test of time quite triumphantly, so no doubt it is I who am missing something. And, after reading Sophie Hannah’s spirited appreciation, I am more than happy to accept that the problem is with me as a reader rather than with the novels themselves. After all, I’ve only read a few, and that many, many years ago, when I was not a very experienced reader: I may well have missed the point.

I can’t help feeling it a shame, though, that in order to praise Christie, Sophie Hannah denigrates Chandler; but I suppose it’s natural to take against someone who has been rude about your favourite writer; and, it must be admitted, Chandler has been quite unconscionably rude about Agatha Christie. In Chandler’s novels, unlike Christie’s, the plotting is very clearly not the point: it doesn’t really matter, for instance, who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep. And neither is Chandler interested in the elements of mystery and of puzzles: the appeal of his novels lies elsewhere. Indeed, that is one of the reasons I like Chandler so much: he developed the detective story in directions where plotting becomes increasingly less relevant, and the focus is allowed to fall more fully upon other and – to my mind – more interesting matters. I remain, I must admit, very much on Chandler’s side of this divide.

But this is of course unfair given how limited my exposure has been to Agatha Christie’s novels. If these books can hold generations of readers in thrall for nearly a century now, she must have been doing something right. And I have, after all, enjoyed a great many adaptations of Christie’s novels, both on television and on the big screen, where actors can fill the characters out with their own personalities. So, before I pass further judgement, I felt it only right to try reading some Agatha Christie for myself; and, in view of the recent cinema release, Murder on the Orient Express seemed a good place to start my re-evaluation.

And it’s not just the recent release. This is one of that small handful of Agatha Christie books I read all those years ago, and I remember enjoying it at the  time. I remember particularly how struck I was by that ending. And then, a few days before Christmas 1974, we had a seasonal family outing to the ABC cinema (as it was then) on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow to see the newly released film version directed by Sidney Lumet, and with Albert Finney as Poirot heading a star-studded cast. It was a tremendously enjoyable night out, and remains vivid in the memory forty years and more afterwards. And what’s more, that film is a particular favourite of my wife’s, and watching the DVD version has become something of a Christmas tradition for us.

And here’s a puzzle, worthy of Agatha Christie herself: if the plot were the whole point of it, why can we (and many others) enjoy watching this film repeatedly, when we already know the story? What enjoyment can we possibly find in a whodunit when we know from the start who dun it? One obvious answer is the sense of cosiness. This is an element virtually all adaptations accentuate, and with good reason. I used to look down on cosiness: a thriller, I felt, deals with evil acts, and should be dark and troubling, sinister and edgy. However, it is wrong to judge anything by one’s pre-conceived rules: a thriller should be what the author set it out to be, and if it sets out to be cosy, then so be it: Agatha Christie was hardly under any compulsion to abide by my rules, after all. And in any case, with advancing years, I find that I am less insistent on the edgy, and, indeed, tire of various formulaic thrillers formulaically focussing on physical violence to achieve that all-purpose formulaic edginess. And at the same time, I find myself more tolerant of cosiness. After all, as the world hurtles madly to heaven knows where, a sense of comfort, I increasingly feel, is not something to be sneered at.

Or it’s possible that I have just got older.

But are the novels really cosy? Are her characters merely cardboard cut-outs, enlivened in adaptations only by the actors’ personalities? And is her prose, as I have so often maintained, merely plodding and bland? Sophie Hannah certainly doesn’t seem to think so:

Each of her novels demonstrates a profound understanding of people – how they think, feel and behave – all delivered in her crisp, elegant, addictively readable style. While immersed in a Christie mystery, you might not notice the wisdom sprinkled throughout the pages because you’re having too much fun, growling with frustration because you’d love to be able to guess the solution but can’t.

To begin with, the story of Murder on  the Orient Express is superb. I don’t just mean the solution to the mystery – I mean the whole idea of the thing. (I have to be careful here to keep the promise I made at the start of this piece.) It has such resonance, that it has become a sort of modern myth. And it raises questions on all sorts of vitally important themes – themes that have been addressed in some of the most profound works of world literature. But Agatha Christie does not so much as touch upon any of them. In my younger days, when I was more prescriptive and censorious than I am now, I would have counted this as a serious flaw, but now I am inclined to think that she does not touch on these themes because she did not want to: she was writing an entertainment, after all, and not a serious Dostoyevskian novel. Indeed, so naturally do these serious issues arise from the plot, it required no small degree of skill and craftsmanship to lock these issues out.

In this respect, the 1974 film version, directed by Sidney Lumet, is faithful to the book. I heard on the radio once that the distinguished film composer Bernard Herrmann (most famous for his scores for many of Hitchcock’s finest films, including Psycho) objected to the delightful waltz composed by Richard Rodney Bennett for this film: this is the Train of Death, Herrmann insisted, and a delightful waltz is out of place. But I think Bennett understood what this film is about: it’s not about Death, and neither is it about psychological trauma, or about divine justice, or any of these things. It is a cosy, comfort film, just as Christie’s novel is a cosy, comfort novel.

Visually, it is superb. Sidney Lumet seemed to make a speciality of setting films within small, enclosed spaces: Twelve Angry Men is an obvious example. Lumet also made some very successful cinematic adaptations of plays set in enclosed locations – Long Day’s Journey Into Night, say, or The Seagull – and the visual variety he finds even in such restricted settings is often quite extraordinary. Lumet weaves his magic here also, conveying superbly a sense of cramped luxury. The setting here is no mere decoration: it helps create the drama.

The cast is superb, but it is when we come to Albert Finney, in the central role of Poirot, that we run into difficulties. I know there are those who simply cannot stand Finney’s singularly mannered performance, and I can understand why. But I can understand also why he chose to play it in this manner. He was surrounded by some of the finest of screen actors, some of the strongest of screen presences – Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, Wendy Hiller, etc. – and he had to stand out from this distinguished gathering; and he decided to stand out by putting on a highly – one may almost say “grotesquely” – eccentric performance. I must say I rather enjoy it; and the final sequence, where he has the long speech explaining who dun it, and how, seems to me pulled off with a fine theatrical panache. But yes, I can understand why some would hate it also. Nothing so mannered and idiosyncratic can be universally liked. (I still find it difficult to come to terms, for instance, with Jeremy Brett’s highly mannered performance as Holmes, even though the consensus of opinion seems to regard this performance as well nigh definitive.)

Fine entertainment, yes, but light entertainment: Lumet does not allow the serious themes implicit in the storyline to come to the surface, any more than Christie did.

Now, of course, we have the much heralded remake directed by Kennet Branagh. Some objected to remaking the film, but I don’t really see the objection: it is a very powerful story, after all, and why shouldn’t a contemporary director and a contemporary cast get a chance to reinterpret it?  I must admit, though, that I am rather old-fashioned in these matters, and there are some aspects of modern mainstream cinema that … how shall I put it? – that are not to my taste. For instance, when two characters are talking, I just want the camera in the same room as them, and pointing at them. Putting the camera outside so we can see them through the window, and then executing all kinds of intricate camera movements, does not enhance the drama. Worse, it distracts from what the characters are saying. I don’t really see why we should insist that everything must look like a video game.

And neither do I see why anyone should think that conversations lasting more than a minute or so at the most are dull and uncinematic. Some of the very finest and most iconic of films are full of long scenes of conversation. Much of Agatha Christie’s novel consists of conversations, as each of the suspects is interviewed in turn: fitting together all the various pieces of evidence is where the interest lies. But in this film, various of these interviews are intercut with each other, presumably in the belief that if any single conversation goes on for more than a few seconds the audience will lose interest. Sure, this kind of intercutting injects pace into the narrative, but does the narrative always need to be pacy? In effectively banishing from the narrative passages of repose or even of stillness, film-makers seem to me to be restricting their range, resulting all too often in an almost uni-paced, shapeless mass.

Yes, I know this is the modern way of film-making, and that things change, can’t keep still, new generation, and so on, and so forth. And when everyone seems happy with this, I have to accept that it is I who am out on a limb. But there it is, for what it’s worth: I find myself unsympathetic to modern styles. Living in the past, I am, and happy to be there.

There were a few other aspects in this latest film that, to my mind, didn’t work, including an obligatory action sequence, and another obligatory chase sequence, both of which seemed out of place in what is, after all, a cosy whodunit. It is also important for the audience in these whodunits to be always aware of the list of suspects, but the Hungarian couple were kept absent for so long that I had almost forgotten about them till they suddenly emerge some half way through. Sidney Lumet had been more successful, I think, in keeping all the characters constantly in the frame. Also, unlike the Lumet film, the cramped setting was not used here to any great effect: perhaps it was a mistake in taking some of the scenes outside the train.

However, having said all that, the film was entertaining enough on its own terms. The all-star cast is fine, and the story remains as startling as ever. And Kenneth Branagh, with facial hair so spectacular that I felt a mere amateur in this respect, made a strong impression as Poirot without having to go to the extremes of Albert Finney. (Although I must admit that I do still enjoy Finney’s theatrical gusto.) The scene where all is revealed was particularly well done, and the script here was quite happy to bring to the fore some of the more serious aspects of the story that both the novel and the earlier film had stayed away from: Branagh’s Poirot here speaks of “fractured souls”, and of the need for healing.

Between these two productions came two television adaptations – one in 2001 with Alfred Molina as Poirot (I have not seen this), and, in 2010, an adaptation of the novel as part of the long-running series, filmed and broadcast in Britain by ITV, starring David Suchet as Poirot. This particular episode (so imdb.com tells me), was scripted, quite superbly, by Stuart Harcourt, and directed, equally superbly, by Philip Martin. Here, we see Agatha Christie’s story turn into a modern myth: the story is here re-interpreted, and scriptwriter and director make of it something entirely new. Far from hiding away the serious aspects – ethical, psychological, even theological – they are given centre stage, and the effect is about as dark and as disturbing a drama as I think I have seen. Nothing could be further from the spirit of Christie, and while this may perhaps upset some fans of the original, the departure is entirely justified. Christie’s story, splendid though it is, is used here to but as a basis for something that is not even hinted at in  the novel. To say this is not to denigrate Christie’s work: indeed, it speaks for the strength of the original story that, despite the intense seriousness of the themes broached in this version, the plotline is strong enough to carry so heavy a burden.

And no, cosy it ain’t. Noticeably, the rather charming and whimsical theme tune used in the other episodes of this series is here absent. We are plunged, before the title sequence, straight into the midst of things: Poirot is wrapping up his previous case, and, in time-honoured fashion, is explaining (in this instance, to assembled military officers) the solution he has successfully arrived at. But in less than time-honoured fashion, he is here in a fit of passion. The details of the crime he had investigated are not given, but it appears from what he says that what had been thought to have been murder was, in fact, an accidental death; but Poirot’s wrathful indignation is directed at one of the officers present, who, through his lying, had impeded the investigation. And even as Poirot is denouncing him, a shot rings out, and Poirot’s face is splattered with blood. Only a few drops of blood – this is not gothic horror, after all – but enough to let us know that we are not here in the world of cosy whodunits. The officer Poirot was denouncing has shot himself.

As Poirot leaves afterwards, having completed the case successfully (in the sense that he has solved the mystery), one of the soldiers accompanying him breaks protocol to let him know that the man who had shot himself had not been a bad man: he had merely made an error of judgement. Poirot sticks to his guns: he had lied, and was morally culpable. But what precisely is going on in Poirot’s mind we cannot be sure.

In Istanbul, Poirot witnesses another horrible scene: he sees an adulterous woman stoned to death. Even this he seems to condone: it is horrible, yes, but the application of law is necessarily horrible, and the stoning is no more horrible than hangings in Britain. However horrible, the law must be applied, for, without the law, where are we? What are we? There is, of course, another question here, implied though not openly articulated: even when we do apply the law, what are we?

We are in very deep waters here, and those expecting the traditional cosy whodunit may well be tempted at this point to switch off. They would be well advised to do so, for this production does not let up: it is a dark and serious investigation into some of the most profound of themes – the nature of justice; the application of laws, both human and divine; how justice differs from mere retribution; the corrosive nature of evil, and how it spreads; our human need for justice, without which we cannot begin to heal; and our failure to heal even when justice is done, as each act of justice is a fresh crime in itself. Throughout, Poirot’s is a dark, brooding presence, exhibiting none of the quirkiness or whimsicality that had characterised him in previous episodes: he is here a tortured man, clinging dogmatically to what moral certainties he still possesses, because to lose these certainties would be to cast himself into moral chaos.

David Suchet’s performance is simply extraordinary. No theatrical grandstanding here: there is a time and a place for that kind of thing, but not here, where we find ourselves so deep in such turbulent moral waters. The other roles are not quite so demanding, perhaps, although I do find it quite astonishing just how great an intensity of emotion Eileen Atkins can communicate in just a few softly spoken lines. No sense here of dialogue being boring, or uncinematic; no scope here for intercutting with other dialogues to prevent the audience’s attention wandering.

This, like the two films, re-creates the murder in a flashback sequence towards the end. In the Sidney Lumet film, this sequence is very impressively staged, and is tense and sombre; in the more recent film, it is more frenzied; but neither can really compare with the murder scene in this television version, which really chills one’s blood. No hint here of formulaic edginess: the horror is moral at least as much as it is physical.

The whole thing, in short, is a triumph. It is as brilliant as it is audacious: never have I seen an episode of a well-established television drama that so relentlessly subverts audience expectations. And what we see here is the creation of mythology: although the plot keeps quite close to Christie’s novel, this is neither an “adaptation”, nor a “dramatization”: it takes the novel but as a starting point to create something entirely new. Yes, the profound and troubling themes it broaches are all latent in the original novel, but it takes something special not merely to bring them out, but also to explore them in such a way that the original material is left far, far behind.

For that original material is, in spirit if not in letter, very different indeed. When people speak of an adaptation being faithful, they usually mean “faithful” in terms of the plot: in that sense, this adaptation is indeed quite faithful. But it’s very unfaithful where it really matters. For when I read the novel over after watching the television version, I found myself in a completely different world. Had Agatha Christie envisaged that the story could take on such dark and serious hues? Possibly. But if she did, she used all her skill to keep these hues out. For the book is a romp. That is not to criticise it: a romp, light entertainment, cosy whodunit …these are not things to be looked down on. Well-crafted entertainment is admirable in itself. And Christie has, I’d contend, given us even more than well-crafted entertainment: she has given us one of the finest of all plots – a plot capable of bearing the burden of some of the most difficult and troubling of moral issues.

But does Christie, as Sophie Hannah contends, “demonstrate a profound understanding of people – how they think, feel and behave”? I must admit that, on the basis of this novel alone, I’ll have to answer “no”. The characterisation only goes so far as to differentiate the characters from each other, and to render the murderer’s motives (or the suspected murderers’ motives) credible. There are times when she is not above crude stereotypes:

A big, swarthy Italian was picking his teeth with gusto. Opposite him a spare, neat Englishman had the expressionless, disapproving face of a well-trained servant. Next  to the Englishman was a big American in a loud suit  – possibly a commercial traveller.

“You have to put it over big,” he was saying in a loud, nasal voice.

And is the prose style really “crisp and elegant”? It is not clunky, admittedly, but I can’t say I found much trace of elegance either. Perhaps the best way to describe it is “functional”. Everything is geared towards the plot, and plot alone. And, of course, when the plot is so good, that is nothing to apologise for.

But I shouldn’t pass judgement based on just one of her many novels – although, admittedly, it’s one of her most famous novels. And neither should I – as I used to – look down my nose at the “cosy”. Some friends of mine, who have read more of Christie than I have, tell me that many of her early works were considerably darker, and advise me to read And Then There Were None. (That is not, by the way, the original title: that original title is now considered, for entirely understandable reasons, unacceptable in polite society, although it should be said that the book itself is not racist.) Perhaps I’ll read that too some day, for the plot of that, too, has taken on something of a mythical quality. And these books are very easy to read, after all: I do not regard that as a recommendation in literary terms, but it does mean that one can race through them fairly quickly.

I said at the start of this post that I shall not reveal, nor even hint at, the solution to the mystery. I trust that I have kept that promise. It was a promise that was important to keep: for, whatever the resonances of her stories, whatever the serious and profound themes that lie implicit in them, as far as Agatha Christie was concerned, the plot’s the thing. And yes, she did think up some rather fine ones.

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… and one I’d missed

I missed this one in my previous post. Not because I had forgotten about it, but because that last post was long enough. And this one didn’t really fit in with the rest of the content. But if we are talking about quality dramatic writing and top-notch comic performances in sitcoms, it’s hard to ignore Till Death Us Do Part.

However, the BBC has been doing just that. DVDs were briefly available many years ago now of a couple of series, but they soon disappeared, and not a single episode has been available on DVD since. (Edit: this is wrong. See correction at foot of post.) Neither are there any repeats, either on any BBC channel, or on any satellite channel; and when the writer, the brilliant Johnny Speight, passed away, his passing was barely noticed.

The reason for this isn’t hard to discern: the series was regarded, and still is by many, as “racist”. This is because at its centre there’s the now legendary monster Alf Garnett, a bigoted and deeply racist blowhard, who didn’t hold back in expounding his views. These views, peppered throughout with grossly insulting racist language, are pretty vile. There have been some half-hearted attempts to defend this by claiming that his son-in-law, Mike, provides a counterbalance by articulating a more liberal perspective, but this is to miss the point quite spectacularly: for all his liberalism, Mike is as ignorant, as unintelligent, and as badly informed, as his father-in-law.

Like Steptoe and Son and Dad’s Army, this series was first aired in the 1960s, and continued into the 1970s, and it was easily the most controversial. Rather quaintly, the initial controversy was due to the frequent use of the word “bloody”, which, in those days, some fifty and more years after Shaw’s Pygmalion, was considered “bad language”. The racism on display was approved of by great sections of the audience. Warren Mitchell, the actor who played Alf Garnett, told a story where some people approached him in the street and congratulated him for poking fun at dark-skinned people (although, obviously, “dark-skinned people” was not the term they used). Warren Mitchell had replied that, actually, he had been poking fun at “idiots like you”.

This mistaking of the actor for the character he plays is surprisingly common. Even more common is to mistake what is being spoken by the character as the author’s voice. It somehow seems to escape notice that depiction of racism is not the same as endorsing it. But to claim, as some do, that the series is essentially a satire on racism, and, hence, a liberal plea for tolerance, seems to me also to be wide of the mark. For, like the best satires, this programme hits out savagely at everyone, in all directions. No-one is spared: nothing is sacred. We are presented with characters who are stupid, bigoted, ignorant, and yet utterly unaware of their stupidity, their bigotry, their ignorance; they are quite clearly unequal to the task of understanding the complex world in which they live, but are nonetheless aggressive and bullish in affirming their own beliefs, and contemptuously dismissive of those who believe otherwise. Allowing for the exaggeration without which satire cannot exist, we are invited to identify ourselves in all this: can we really claim that, at some level, we have no part in such folly? Watching this is not a comfortable experience, but then, neither is it meant to be. Satire that is comfortable is satire that has failed.

The characterisations aren’t perhaps as profound as those in Steptoe and Son, but Steptoe and Son was essentially drama, whereas this is satire. Alf Garnett is certainly a monster, but the sad fact is that even monsters are human – much like ourselves. Despite being a monster, he is also a rather pathetic human being, clinging on loyally to a conservatism that has let him down. His “liberal” son-in-law, played by Anthony Booth, is an unemployed layabout, who, despite his fraught arguments with his father-in-law, understands as little of what he is talking about as his father-in-law does. Alf’s wife, Elsie (brilliantly played by Dandy Nichols), has learnt over the years generally to ignore her husband, and to get on quietly with her own business while her husband is blowing his top again over something or other. The daughter, Rita, is played by Una Stubbs, who, I guess, will mainly be remembered in future as Mrs Hudson in the hit series Sherlock. Despite being attached to her father, she can see the absurd figure her father cuts, and is generally more sympathetic to her mother. Warren Mitchell’s Alf Garnett is certainly the “star of the show”, as it were, but it’s an ensemble piece: these four characters, living together in a small house in a deprived working class area of London’s East End, cannot avoid each other, either physically or emotionally: in the context of the drama, they are all important, and they balance each other to perfection.

til-death-us-do-part

Warren Mitchell, Dandy Nichols, Una Stubbs, and Anthony Booth in “Till Death Us Do Part”, courtesy BBC

In the spectrum of comedy, I suppose this is far closer to the darker end than to the lighter, but I can’t really discern any element of the tragic here: occasionally, we see through Alf Garnett’s hateful bluster and observe the human being underneath, but on the whole, the element of pathos is kept well hidden. In one episode, for instance, Alf Garnett is genuinely perturbed by the possibility that he may be partly Jewish: even as we observe the insecurity of this pitiable figure, we find ourselves repelled by his blind bigotry. We laugh, but the laughter is far from comfortable.

The rather uncomfortable question does arise: is the BBC correct in keeping hidden this series, one of the jewels of its comic crown? It could certainly be argued that a series that is so easily and so widely misunderstood, and which provides so much ammunition to racists (and I can personally testify it does), really is best kept under wraps. But I can’t help feeling very uncomfortable about this state of affairs. There’s absolutely no chance of the BBC releasing a boxed set of these episodes, but many are available on YouTube now if you’d like to sample them. The scripts and the performances are, on the whole, top quality (though it wasn’t, to be fair, as consistently assured as was, say, Steptoe and Son), but do be prepared for a deeply uncomfortable viewing experience. We like to think of ourselves as being more sophisticated than audiences of the past, and more capable of taking in material that is “edgy”, but I remain sceptical.

Till Death Us Do Part was remade as All in the Family for American television, but once again, I won’t comment on this since I haven’t seen it: I am told (although I cannot personally vouch for it) that the sheer unmitigated savagery of Johnny Speight’s scripts was considerably toned down: if this is true, it’s entirely understandable.

I have seen Warren Mitchell live on stage, playing Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. In the absence of boxed sets of Till Death Us Do Part, for anyone wanting to see this great actor at his finest, I’d warmly recommend his performance as Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – another controversial work in which racial differences play a major part, and which is also often regarded (wrongly, in my view) as racist.
CORRECTION: Since I posted this about an hour ago, it has been pointed out to me that a boxed set of this  is indeed now available: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Till-Death-Us-Part-DVD/dp/B01MSQSOP2.

It certainly wasn’t the last time I looked, but I really should have checked before writing this. My apologies.

The spectrum of comedy

There’s a strong case to be made for not analysing comedy. Laughter is a spontaneous thing, and as soon as one starts analysing, the very essence of what made us laugh in the first place is gone. All we know is that we have in us an impulse under certain circumstances to contort our faces into odd grimaces, and sometimes, in more extreme cases, to open our mouths and emit some peculiar noises. And that it feels good when we do. So let’s just leave it there.

But we can’t leave it there. At least, I can’t, especially when I think it gives me a good excuse for a blog post. So let me crave your indulgence for a bit while I try out a pet theory I have long held – that there are, essentially, two poles in comedy, and all that makes us laugh lies at one or other of these poles, or, more usually, at some point on the spectrum somewhere between.

At one end we have comedy that is dark, that is aware of the suffering and the misery of our common human lot. This kind of comedy can occupy the same space as tragedy: indeed, it can often be both comic and tragic at the same time. It acknowledges, as tragedy does, that life is indeed dark and comfortless, and profoundly sad; but where tragedy tries to salvage some sense of human dignity and nobility, comedy relishes the absurdity of it all – the absurdity even of trying to salvage anything. In this category I would place such works as Dead Souls, Waiting for Godot, Catch 22,

And then there’s the other extreme, where all thoughts of darkness are banished, where one is encouraged to smile at sunny cloudless skies, and to celebrate the fact, for fact it is, that even our brief existence can contain such warmth and happiness. In this category I’d place such works as The Importance of Being Earnest, The Inimitable Jeeves, Singin’ in the Rain.

Most comic works are somewhere on this spectrum, though leaning perhaps towards one end or the other. And, almost as if to illustrate my contention, two of the finest British television sitcoms – one may go as far as to sat the finest, without any objection from me – exemplify these two extremes. Both started in the 1960s, and the various series continued into the 1970s. One is Steptoe and Son, which a friend tells me that he finds so grim when he watches them these days on DVD that he cannot even bring himself to laugh; and the other is Dad’s Army, which, despite being set during the dark days of WW2, manages, without the slightest hint of self-importance, to celebrate all that was worth fighting for.

Steptoe and Son was successfully remade for American television as Sanford and Son, but since I haven’t seen this, I’ll comment on the British version only. It presents a father and a son, working class rag-and-bone traders – i.e. people who collect unwanted items people wish to get rid of, and salvage what they can out of it. Scavengers, if one wishes to be unkind. They live together in a dirty and impossibly cluttered old house, eccentrically furnished with various items that have been discarded by others. The decorations in the main living room include a medical skeleton and a huge stuffed bear. The old man is a pathetic creature, aware of his approaching end, and terrified that his son may leave him to fend for his own in his last days; he uses all the emotional blackmail and manipulation he can think of to keep hold of his son. The son himself has dreams of all the things that he may one day be, but he is no longer at an age where such dreams are viable: far from being an impressionable teenager, he is in his 40s. Possibly older: old age isn’t too far away from him either. He is deeply lonely and unfulfilled, and hates his father for having held him back; but he also loves his father, and can’t leave him, no matter how much he longs to. And so the two are stuck, loving and hating each other at the same time, seemingly for eternity.

This does not seem very promising material for comedy. And indeed, many would argue that it isn’t. Scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson skilfully weave a path balancing the various conflicting elements of this essentially tragic situation, and, aided by two peerless performances (Wilfrid Brambell as the father and Harry H. Corbett as the son), manage to get more laughs out of this than one might have thought possible. But the tragedy isn’t short-changed either. The whole thing is a masterpiece of dramatic writing. We may sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that the best dramatic writing is reserved for the stage, but we must beware of snobbery – even, or especially, unwitting snobbery: I do not think I have encountered anything in twentieth century theatre that surpasses in sheer quality, and very little that equals, these scripts by Galton and Simpson. They manage to invest these characters and the relationship between them with such depth and complexity, that there were entire episodes consisting of just these two talking to, and reacting to, each other: nothing further was needed – not even, quite frequently, a plotline.

The contrast with Dad’s Army could hardly be greater. This is set in the fictional town of Walmington-on-Sea, on the south coast of Britain, during WW2. And it focuses on the local branch of the “Home Guard”, an outfit consisting of volunteers who are either too old or too young to be called up for the forces, or who have been exempted for medical reasons, or on account of the importance of their jobs. Their task was to fight back as best they could against enemy parachutists, saboteurs, and the like; to help organise the local defence against air raids, or other enemy attacks.

Now, this premise seems no more conducive to comedy than did the premise of Steptoe and Son: the days depicted were indeed dark days; invasion by one of the most evil regimes in history seemed imminent (with the enemy themselves only a few miles away across the channel); and news of injuries and deaths from abroad, and shortages and hardships at home, were everyday things. And yet, out of this, somehow, emerged the sunniest of comedies.

It’s an ensemble piece. At the centre of it were George Mainwaring (pronounced “Mannering”), played by Arthur Lowe, the captain of the platoon, and the local bank manager; and Arthur Wilson, his underling both in the bank and in the platoon itself, where he is sergeant. Mainwaring is impossibly pompous and self-important: he is convinced that he is, by nature, a leader of men, and that his Home Guard platoon, consisting largely of doddery old men, he can mould into a mean and ruthless fighting machine. Wilson, played by John le Mesurier, is the more intelligent, and he wryly recognises the absurdity of it all. One would expect in such a situation that Mainwaring would be from an upper class family and Wilson from a lower, but the genius of the writing is that it is quite the opposite: it is Wilson who is from a privileged background, although, given his rather lackadaisical attitude to life, has risen no further in life than a senior bank clerk; and it is Mainwaring who is middle class, who has had to fight his way to get where he is, and who resents the privileges which Wilson has had, and has wasted. He resents also Wilson’s natural charm, and his popularity.

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The main players of “Dad’s Army”, picture courtesy BBC

The platoon is made up of a wonderful cast of comic grotesques, as beautifully eccentric and as vivid as if they had just stepped out fresh from the pages of Dickens. Each one is cast to perfection – Clive Dunn as the doddery old Mr Jones, the butcher, endlessly reminiscing of his younger days under Kitchener in the Sudan; John Laurie as Mr Frazer, the somewhat mad old Scottish undertaker; Arnold Ridley as Mr Godfrey, a pleasant old gentleman, as willing to please as he is physically incapable of … well, of doing much at all; Ian Lavender as Pike, the immature mummy’s boy; and James Beck as Walker, the spiv, well dodgy and – although we never get to the details – more than slightly crooked, who could get you anything you needed for a price, with no question asked. (James Beck died at a distressingly young age while they were shooting the sixth series in 1973, and although they continued for a few more series without him, the gap he left behind was never quite filled.)

These characters, especially Mainwaring and Wilson, have more complexity than may at first appear. Mainwaring may be insufferably pompous, but when the occasion demands, he could be genuinely heroic: when, in one episode, they had to form a line to clear the rubble created by an air raid, with those at the head of the line in imminent danger of being crushed by falling masonry, Mainwaring actually pretends to have drawn the short straw so that he could take the most dangerous position himself. This really is extraordinary courage, but such is the quality of the scripts (by Jimmy Perry and David Croft) and of the performances, it does not seem at all out of character. In another episode, he gives an absurd lecture to the platoon about the distinguishing physical characteristics of a typical Nazi, prompting the thought that had this man been born in Germany rather than in Britain, he would probably have been an enthusiastic Nazi himself.

Wilson, too, has depths that are not apparent: he may see the whole thing as a joke, but, as he concedes at one point, he is rather proud of being in the platoon, and even admires what Mainwaring has achieved. Underneath his general good humour there is more than a hint of sadness for an essentially failed life: we find out in one episode that his marriage had broken down, and that he only very rarely sees his now grown-up daughter, whom he never mentions, but of whom he is proud.

And there are the minor characters as well – Pike’s possessive mother Mavis (Janet Davies), with whom Wilson is obviously having an affair (Pike is the only one who seems unaware of this); the gloriously eccentric pairing of the effete vicar (Frank Williams) and his cantankerous, truculent verger (Edward Sinclair); and there’s the grocer, Mr Hodges (played by Bill Pertwee), who is also the Air Raid Warden. He is the sort of “villain” of the piece – brash, vulgar, unlikeable, and, Wilson says, “common” (“common” being just about the worst put-down in this class-ridden society). It is always a problem how to handle such characters in what is essentially a genial comedy, these Malvolios who refuse to be part of the general harmony: Wagner has been roundly criticised for his depiction of a similar character, Beckmesser, in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, who is presented without any sympathy at all, and whose ultimate humiliation Wagner appears rather to relish. There is nothing like that here: Hodges may be a bit of a fly in the ointment, but it is a fly one may live with, and he doesn’t unduly disrupt the sense of community and of gentleness that characterises the good-natured humour. At no point is the comedy allowed to turn sour.

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Harry H. Corbett and Wilfred Brambell in “Steptoe and Son”, picture courtesy BBC

Dad’s Army is always a pleasure to revisit. Steptoe and Son perhaps less so: one has to brace oneself for it. And, for me, they epitomise not merely the best that television has to offer (Steptoe and Son is great drama as well as great comedy), but also the two extremes between which, it seems to me, all comedy lies. They remind us also not to look down on the humble television sitcom: it is true that the heights these two series reached have rarely or never been followed up, but it is nonetheless good to remind oneself that such heights are indeed possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The moving window

I go to the Laurel and Hardy page on Facebook (I am a fan of Stan and Ollie), and, amidst all the clips and pictures and snippets of information that only diehard fans such as myself would be interested in, there’s that perennial complaint: “Why don’t they show Laurel and Hardy films on television any more?” I may point out that we fans have these films on DVD anyway; but I stay quiet, because I know what the answers would be. First of all, they’ll say, it’s much more fun watching these films when they are being broadcast, as the knowledge that there are others around the country watching the film at the same time engenders a sense of community; and second, DVDs are for those who are already aficionados, so how are new generations to know these films if they aren’t shown?

Both these points can be answered. On the first point, given that we can now record programmes, and have facilities built into our smart-television sets to watch various programmes that we had missed, it is unlikely, even if these films were to be broadcast, that we’d all be watching them at the same time. And on the second point, if the new generations see an old black and white film being shown on television, they’d switch over immediately to some other channel that is showing the latest action-adventure-superhero-sciencefiction-fantasy-specialeffects spectacular. We fans may not like it, but, except for those whose parents made a point of showing them Laurel and Hardy films as they were growing up (and not even there), we have lost the new generations. If Laurel and Hardy films do survive, they will do so only as a minority interest. A very small minority interest.

Then I go to the Marx Brothers page, and I see exactly the same thing. Clips and pictures and snippets of information, and “Why oh why don’t they show Marx Brothers films on television? How are new generations ….” And so on.

And then I go to the Hammer horror page. (Yes, I am a fan of these films also.) And yet again, it’s the same story. People reminisce fondly about how they discovered these films in their childhood when they were shown on television, and lament that new generations are not given that opportunity.

I am not member of the Jimmy Cagney fan group, or of Hollywood film noir, or of Fred and Ginger films, or screwball comedies, or classic Hollywood musicals, etc. I love all of these, but one can’t join everything. But I am sure that if I were to look at the fan pages of these, I’d find  the same complaint. It all essentially boils down to “Why aren’t things as they were when I was growing up?”

I don’t mean to say that the people making these complaints are wrong. Indeed, I am very much on their side. I do believe, most fervently, that the mainstream Hollywood films of the 30s and 40s, and even in the 50s (although the rot was even then beginning to set in), are of a quality that mainstream Hollywood has very rarely matched since, and that it is indeed a grievous loss that these films have now dropped out of public consciousness. I too look back in misty-eyed nostalgia on those days when films such as The Maltese Falcon, Now Voyager, Top Hat, The Roaring Twenties, Wagonmaster, The Heiress, etc. – as well as a whole lot of lesser films that still seem to me better by far than the various masterpieces we are asked nowadays to admire – could be seen regularly on television. Now, of course, I don’t expect everyone to agree with me on this: indeed, I’d expect most people to disagree with me, and to give me a whole list of modern films I should be seeing to change my blinkered opinion. But let’s not get hung up on that. Whatever our views on the respective merits of modern mainstream movies as opposed to classic Hollywood movies, we may agree, I hope, that there was much of great value in those classic movies, that they deserve to be remembered, and that their steady disappearance from public consciousness is indeed something to be regretted.

I find myself regretting this particularly around Christmas time. Back in those days before satellite television, before even the advent of VHS video, television broadcasts of films were events: if you missed them, you didn’t get a chance to see them again. And every Christmas, there would be special seasons – seasons of Marx Brothers films, or of Humphrey Bogart films, or of Fred and Ginger, or screwball comedies, or whatever. Publication of Christmas television schedules was something fervently looked forward to, as was the careful marking with a felt-tip pen of all the films I just had to watch. That this is no longer the case, that these films – with a very small handful of exceptions – are no longer shown, seems to me (and to other old farts like myself) a loss of something precious. Even when our reason tells us otherwise, it is difficult to avoid feeling this sense of loss. It is difficult to come to terms with the fact that entire generations have now grown up without knowing Laurel and Hardy; and further, that even if television channels were to start showing these films again, it would make not the slightest difference.

There is also the question of our perception of time. In 1975, say, when I was fifteen, A Night at the Opera and Bride of Frankenstein were forty years old; Spellbound and The Lost Weekend were thirty years old.  Now, in 2017, Star Wars and Saturday Night Fever are forty years old; Fatal Attraction and Lethal Weapon are thirty years old. People actually feel nostalgic now about films I still regard in my no doubt jaundiced mind as “modern rubbish”. So it’s not that old films aren’t shown any more: it’s more that what constitutes “old” has changed. The window of public interest, instead of expanding to take in more recent films without losing sight of what had gone before, has simply moved along with the years. And those films that precede the earlier end of this moving window effectively drop out of consideration.

But is that, one may ask, such a terrible thing? Well, yes, to me it is. And I emphasise – to me. I do not pretend to make any objective statement on this, as I am far too emotionally involved to be in any way objective. I can’t help but feel that tinge of sadness when I go through the Christmas television listings, and, apart from a predictable few titles (Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, Singin’ in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz), there is no classic Hollywood film at all. It is as if an entire culture – and, to my mind a very substantial culture – has dropped out of our consciousness.

And so, on the various fan pages, we will go on lamenting the absence from television schedules of Laurel and Hardy, of the Marx Brothers, of the Warner Brothers gangster movies, of the MGM musicals, and so on. Until such a time when we, too, will drop out of the moving window, taking our memories with us.

“Verdi’s Shakespeare” by Garry Wills

In this post, I shall be riding not just one of my hobbyhorses, but two.

Regular readers of this blog – and I flatter myself there are a few – will know that Shakespeare and Verdi are both great heroes of mine, and loom large within my cultural horizons. Indeed, these readers may well be wishing that I’d stop banging on about them for a while. But it can’t be helped. The very purpose of this blog, after all, is to bang on about things that are dear to me. So that means I will, I’m afraid, continue to bang on about both Shakespeare and Verdi, and, in particular, on the operas Verdi wrote based on Shakespeare’s plays.

Verdi’s three Shakespearean operas – the relatively early Macbeth, and Otello and Falstaff, the two masterpieces written in old age – aren’t adaptations, as such, of Shakespeare’s plays, or translations of those plays from one medium into another: they are, rather, entirely new works of art that take Shakespeare’s plays but as a starting point. Shakespeare himself, of course, did precisely the same thing: he took existing works and transformed them into something else. And the end-product is judged on its own terms: we do not, after all, judge Shakespeare’s Othello on how closely or otherwise it follows Giraldo Cinthio’s tale on which it was based; and, by the same token, neither should we judge Verdi’s Otello on how closely or otherwise it represents Shakespeare’s play: we must judge it on its own merits. However, for someone such as myself, a fan both of Shakespeare and of Verdi, it is fascinating to examine what Verdi and his librettist Arrigo Boito took from the original works, and how they transformed what they took to express their own artistic vision. So when, on a casual book-browsing session in the London bookshops, I came across a book on this very theme – Verdi’s Shakespeare by Garry Wills – I was frankly overjoyed. I couldn’t imagine why, given my interest in this subject, I had not known about this book before.

ShakespeareVerdi

The book is subtitled Men of the Theatre. Nowadays, most dramatists write their plays first, and only later, at the casting stage, are actors found suitable for the roles. But Shakespeare and Verdi both knew the actors or singers they were writing for, and would write with their strengths and weaknesses in mind. Verdi, when his opera was staged elsewhere or with a different cast, would be quite happy to make changes to suit the new singers. Of course, he was less inclined to do this as his artistic vision developed, but even for his late operas he would carefully consider the vocal strengths and weaknesses of the singers who were to sing in the premier. So, with this in mind, Wills considers the singers we know Verdi wrote for, and the actors Shakespeare is likely to have written for: what we can discern of their strengths and weaknesses can, after all, tell us much about how Shakespeare and Verdi conceived their creations.

Wills considers also doubling, and, quite often, tripling and quadrupling: given the size of Shakespeare’s troupe, and the number of characters in his plays, there would inevitably have been many cases of actors playing multiple roles; and, quite frequently, from the internal evidence of the plays, we can, at least, make intelligent guesses on some of this doubling. Quite apart from anything else, Shakespeare, as a Man of the Theatre, would have given his actors plenty of time to change costume before coming on stage as a different character, and the spacings between exits and entrances can give us important clues.

And sometimes, when the audience sees the same actor in different roles, the two roles become associated with each other in the audience’s mind. (Jane Howell made some very imaginative use of this in the superb productions of the three Henry VI plays and of Richard III she directed for BBC back in the early 80s.) On reading or watching Macbeth, we may think that Lady Macbeth’s mental breakdown comes upon us too suddenly, but Shakespeare’s own audiences would have seen the boy actor playing Lady Macbeth also playing Lady Macduff only a few scenes earlier; and in that earlier scene, they would have seen Lady Macduff witnessing the slaughter of her own child, before she herself is murdered. All this, Wills argues, would have prepared the audience psychologically for the sleepwalking scene: having seen Lady Macduff in a veritable hell, the audience is now prepared to see Lady Macbeth, played by the same actor, in her own hell – albeit, this time, a hell of her own making.

Similarly with Cordelia and the Fool: the Fool is not present in the opening scene in which Lear divides his kingdom, and disappears well before Cordelia re-appears: it seems a reasonable conjecture that the same boy actor is playing both parts. This conjecture is strengthened given their dramatic roles: while Cordelia is absent, the Fool is present to remind Lear (and us) of the absent Cordelia; the Fool is, in effect, standing in as a sort of proxy for the missing Cordelia. And when, at the end of the play, Lear howls over Cordelia’s body “And my poor fool is hanged!” we do not need to ask whether he is grieving for the Fool or for Cordelia: he is grieving for them both, because, in the audience’s mind, the two characters have, to a great extent, been fused into one.

The boy actor playing Lady Macbeth, and Cordelia, and the Fool, was, most likely, the boy actor John Rice, and, given the extraordinarily demanding roles Shakespeare wrote for him – as well as the parts mentioned, he would have played Cleopatra, and possibly Volumnia in Coriolanus – he must have been a remarkable talent. But if Rice indeed played these roles, what part would Robert Armin have played? Armin had replaced Will Kemp as the Clown in Shakespeare’s troupe, and was renowned as a more “intellectual” comic than his predecessor; he was also himself a writer of some distinction. Furthermore, he was a major player in the acting company, and it seems unlikely that he would have been fobbed off merely with minor roles. It seems inconceivable that his part in Othello, say, would have been restricted to the almost inconsequential scene featuring an almost inconsequential clown. Wills argues that Armin was well capable of taking on dramatic roles: if he did not play the Fool in King Lear, he may quite easily have taken on Edgar in King Lear – which, despite being a dramatic role, calls for a lot of clowning; and, intriguingly, he would have been likely to take on Iago in Othello. There seems to be no other role suitable for an actor of his stature.

Of course, there is much conjecture in all this: we can never know for certain who took which role. James Shapiro, in 1616 the Year of Lear, seems certain that Armin would have played the Fool in King Lear. That, too, is conjecture, of course. From my own understanding of the play, the same actor doubling Cordelia and the Fool makes a great deal of dramatic sense, and, for that reason alone, it is towards Wills’ conjecture rather than to Shapiro’s that I find myself leaning. But, fascinating though all this may be (to me, at least!) it may justifiably be argued that all of this is too insubstantial to base critical judgement on. With Verdi, we are on safer ground: here, we are not short of documentation. We know, for instance, precisely how Verdi had imagined his Macbeth and his Lady Macbeth:

He told both principal singers, “I want the performer to serve the poet better than they serve the composer” … He went so far as to say that his singers should not sing.

This, of course, has to be put into context of the times, when fine singing tended to take precedence over the demands of drama, but from the copious documentation we have, what emerges is Verdi trying to break free from the tradition where fine singing was an end in itself, and the drama no more than a convenient vehicle for beautiful singing. On the contrary, he insisted, the singing must serve the drama, and if the drama is best served by singing that actually sounds ugly – at least by the standards of the time – then so be it. The singers he settled on for the two main roles – Felice Varesi and Marianna Barbieri-Nini – were not, by Verdi’s own estimation, the best singers available. But, as Wills explains:

The reason Verdi did not want “fine singers” is that he doubted that he could prod such almost feral sounds from them, as he could from Varesi and Barbieri.

Although there are wonderful things in this opera that still, after multiple hearings, send shivers up my spine, it would be foolish to claim it’s among Verdi’s greatest masterpieces. What can be claimed, I think, is that Verdi was trying here to create a new kind of opera. However, when we come to Verdi’s other Shakespearean operas, Otello and Falstaff, we are in a different world. By this stage, Verdi had already created the kind of opera he had wanted in a string of masterpieces, and he was officially retired; but, for various reasons – most salient of which, one may guess, being that he never found a suitable libretto – he had not, after Macbeth, written an opera that takes his beloved Shakespeare as its source material. But now, in his 70s, the music publisher Ricordi introduced him to the accomplished young poet and composer, Arrigo Boito. It was an unlikely pairing: Verdi was the Grand Old man of Italian Arts, and, by that stage, the epitome of all that was conservative, while Boito came from a Bohemian background, and was openly rebellious, as young artists tend to be, against all that reeked of the establishment. Indeed, Boito had written some extremely indelicate verses condemning the established artistic monuments of his time, and Verdi, the most obvious establishment figure, had taken great personal exception to them. However, Boito, recognising genius even from, as it were, the enemy camp, jumped at the opportunity to work with Verdi, and Verdi himself, though cautious, must have seen something in the young Boito. First of all, Verdi asked Boito to tidy up the messy libretto of his earlier opera Simon Boccanegra. Boito did so brilliantly, prompting Verdi not merely to rewrite some of the music for that work, but to put something of his best into that re-writing. At last, Verdi had found a librettist of sufficient talent, and he knew what he wanted: he wanted to tackle Shakespeare again. This was, after all, a man who could not only read Shakespeare in the original English (as Verdi could not) – he knew Shakespeare well enough, and possessed sufficient poetic gifts himself, to have translated Antony and Cleopatra into Italian. Verdi had, at long last, found his ideal librettist.

The story of how these two very different men, from different generations, outlooks, and artistic backgrounds, overcame the various barriers between them to form what ended up as a close and affectionate friendship I find genuinely touching. The two ended up loving each other. Boito visited Verdi often, both before the passing of Verdi’s wife and after, and, shortly before his own death in 1919, wrote:

The voluntary servitude I consecrated to that just, most noble, and truly great man is the act of my life that gives me most satisfaction.

The transformation of Shakespeare’s play into the opera Otello is remarkable (I had previously written something about it here). Possibly the most striking difference is in Iago’s motivation: in Shakespeare’s play, this remains a matter of some contention (I have written my own thoughts on it here): to summarise, Iago gives us two possible motives – first, that he was passed over for promotion, and second, that he suspects his own wife with Othello; but the two motives seem to negate each other: it’s almost as if Iago can’t decide why he hates Othello so much. It’s not so much that his hatred has sprung from his motives, but, rather, that his hatred itself has been his starting point, and that he has to keep supplying himself with motives to justify that hatred. But in the opera, Boito gives Iago a monologue that has absolutely no equivalent at all in Shakespeare’s play. The opening lines of this monologue is a blasphemous parody of the Credo from the Latin mass:

Credo in un Dio crudel
che m’ha creato simile a sè
e che nell’ira io nomo.

I believe in a cruel God
who created me like himself
in anger of whom that I name.

(Translation by Aaron Green. See here for full text and translation of this monologue.)

Iago – or Jago, in Boito’s libretto – is not really a nihilist, as has often been claimed: he believes in a God all right. But the God he believes in is an evil God, a cruel God, as nothing else could explain why he, Jago, had been created in such a way. Jago, in pursuing evil, is but serving the God he believes in – the only God he can believe in.

It is a frightening picture, and Verdi clothes this monologue in the most terrifying music. For Verdi took Jago very seriously. He insisted repeatedly that Jago must not be a traditional mustachio-twirling villain. Sadly, in just about every performance I have heard, that is precisely what Jago ends up being. In every performance and recording I am acquainted with (bar only one) Jago ends his monologue with a villainous laugh. This laugh is not written in the score, and, as Wills rightly reminded us, Verdi had previously insisted that the tubercular heroine of La Traviata should not cough, and that the jovial Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera should not laugh, even at the point where he says he is laughing: these things are all communicated by the music. So how likely is it that Verdi would have approved of Jago laughing – especially when, with that laugh, he emerges as the pantomime villain that Verdi most certainly had not intended?

Towards the end of this monologue, Verdi inserts a few pauses in the music: this is not, as often appears to be the case in performance, because Jago is teasing the audience, delaying giving them answers that he already knows: quite the contrary – the pauses indicate that Jago is thinking. The conclusion he arrives at – that life is meaningless and heaven an old wives’ tale – is a difficult one, even for him, and it costs him a great effort of will to get there. When Verdi first saw this passage of Boito’s libretto, he was ecstatic, and described it as “Shakespearean”. It is a bit of a mystery why he did so: Verdi must surely have known that there was nothing like this in Shakespeare’s play. I’d hazard a guess that Verdi described this as Shakespearean because, as so often in Shakespeare’s plays, we see here a character in the process of thinking. He is not just expressing things that he has already thought out, and neither is he simply giving vent to his emotions: we see him actually in the process of formulating his thoughts. To diminish this to merely pantomime villainy seems to me frankly inexcusable.

Verdi’s conception of Otello is also remarkable. Looking around the net, I often find individual performances praised for communicating an animalist ferocity in Otello, or, conversely, criticized for not communicating an animalist ferocity, but from Verdi’s own recorded correspondence, animalistic ferocity was precisely what he didn’t want: not consistently, at least. He had grave doubts about engaging Francesco Tamagno for the role, worried that Tamagno always sang “with a full voice”, whereas the role, in Verdi’s opinion, required far greater subtlety and shading. This is not to rule out ferocity at certain points, but it does mean there is far more to this role than blasting off the roof beams with sheer volume and power. Victor Maurel, who sang Jago in the premier (and later also sang Falstaff) had similar reservations about the can belto approach to the role of Otello; he later wrote:

The ideal of vocal power necessary for Otello was provided with astonishing intensity by the creator of the role, Francesco Tamagno. But we think it dangerous to instil in the minds of Italian interpreters of Otello the idea that this kind of extraordinary vocal power is a condition sine qua non of a great interpretation.

Verdi, as usual, personally coached the singers himself very thoroughly, but sadly, the premier was too early for recordings, and what recordings we have of Tamagno singing passages from the opera were made many years afterwards, and, though spellbinding, they don’t necessarily reflect Verdi’s instructions. Those we can only conjecture from the documentary evidence we have.

Verdi had intended Otello to be his swan song: he had already officially retired once, was now well into his 70s, and had composed what was self-evidently a masterpiece. But presumably, working with Boito on another Shakespearean project proved too great a temptation. And this time, the opera was to be a comedy – his first comic opera since his very first work Un Giorno di Regno, which had flopped disastrously some fifty years earlier and had never since been revived. The source this time was The Merry Wives of Windsor, by common consent among Shakespeare’s lesser works, but which, if somewhat lacking in depth and in artistic vision, remains nonetheless, it seems to me, a charming and delightful work, full of laughs and good humour. Boito took this somewhat unwieldy comedy, thinned out the plot and the number of characters, enriched the concoction by adding some passages taken from the magnificent Henry IV plays, and created a witty and enchanting libretto that a composer of operas could only dream about.

If we leave out his first opera, Verdi had no experience of writing a comic work. But you wouldn’t think so from listening to this. The music conjured up by the aged Verdi, now approaching his 80s, is full of youthful zest, warm-heartedness, and a love of that life he knew he must leave sooner rather than later. It’s almost as if he had too many melodic ideas to fit into just one work, so he crammed in as many as he could: the result is that we hear not so much fully developed melodies, but, rather, scraps of melodies: almost before we have had the opportunity to take in any of the melodies fully, Verdi’s inexhaustible imagination has rushed off somewhere else, and is presenting us with some new scrap of tune. The orchestration, as witty as the libretto, is also constantly changing from moment to moment; the harmonies, too, are never allowed to settle. The headlong rush is irresistible. The counterpoint is extraordinarily intricate, and it is exhilarating – never more so than in the finale, a fugue which never seems fusty or academic, but is, instead, full of vigour and of the sheer joy of being alive. In Verdi’s long life, he had been no stranger to personal tragedy, but he left us at the end with the most joyous of love letters to life: there is no other work I can think of that is so full of the sheer unadulterated joy of just being alive. It is indeed a miracle. And once again, I don’t think there is anything quite like this in Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s joy was, all too often, soaked in the deepest melancholy. But here, although the note of autumnal melancholy does occasionally creep in, that is by no means the principal tonality. Once again, Boito and Verdi had taken Shakespeare as a starting point, and had transformed it into something entirely new.

Throughout the book, Gary Wills is a knowledgeable and reliable guide to these astonishing acts of artistic transformation. He is steeped in the worlds both of Shakespeare and of Verdi, and writes knowledgeably and with great insight on their respective creative imaginations. And he communicates, without gushing, his enthusiasm for these works. After reading this book, I found myself reaching once again for Shakespeare’s plays and – given that I can’t read the scores – recordings of the operas. And both the plays and the operas are self-renewing works: with each revisit, they appear as something new.

I don’t know how many readers have stayed with me to the end of what has turned out to be a very long post on matters that are, I know, only of minority interest, but in case one or two have, I would recommend this book without reservation. And then I would then recommend immersion in Shakespeare’s plays, and in those extraordinary operas Verdi and Boito fashioned from them. Even if you end up being an obsessive like me, there are, I’d contend, worse things to be obsessed with.

The BBC Shakespeare: King Lear (1982)

In any traversal of the Shakespeare canon, King Lear is a biggie. In terms of sheer titanic power – or, indeed, in terms of anything else one can think of – it is both unsurpassed and unsurpassable. So when it appeared in the much maligned (and, in my view, unfairly maligned) BBC Shakespeare series in early 80s, expectations, even for a series that had not till then been particularly well received, were high. In the end, the consensus of opinion was that it was yet another disappointment. I certainly thought so at the time. In particular, I wondered why Michael Hordern, better known as a comic actor, was cast in what many would consider the most powerful of all tragic roles: it seemed perverse given that thespian heavyweights such as Gielgud, Olivier, and Scofield were still around. Hordern seemed to me far too lightweight, and the whole thing an opportunity missed.

But having watched the production again recently, I find myself revising my opinion quite radically. It is by no means a perfect production: like so many others in the series, it seems under-rehearsed, with that otherwise fine cast not always knowing quite what is expected of them while they are in shot but not speaking. However, to my surprise, for all its shortcomings, this production does seem to me to get to the dark and despairing heart of this extraordinary drama which, even after almost a lifetime’s acquaintance, retains the power to shake us to the very core.

(In retrospect, it was a good job Olivier wasn’t cast for the role: barely a year after this production was first broadcast, another version of the play, this time with Olivier as Lear, was broadcast by Granada Television, and, despite the stellar cast, it all fell rather flat: Lear, it seems, was not amongst Olivier’s most distinguished Shakespearean roles.)

Possibly the first thing to say is that whatever the shortcomings of this production, the casting of Michael Hordern is not amongst them. It was clearly not the case that he had been cast because the likes of Gielgud or Olivier or Scofield weren’t available: this was the second time director Jonathan Miller had directed King Lear for the BBC, and he had cast Hordern in the earlier production also. He had also directed Michael Hordern as Lear on stage. Putting aside my own preconceptions regarding Lear, this is how Miller sees the character – not larger than life at all, not possessed of any grandeur or magnificence, but one who, once the robes and furred gowns no longer hide all, is revealed to be merely frail and human and smelling of mortality. The events that overtake him are apocalyptic, but it is in the inadequacy of frail humanity in the face of such apocalyptic events that the tragedy lies. Given this conception, Michael Hordern turns in what strikes me now as a superb performance. From his childish but nonetheless potent tantrums when he banishes Kent and Cordelia to the greater but utterly impotent rage in the superbly staged storm scenes (filmed in the studio, and all the better for it); from his growing awareness of how little his mortality signifies to his glimpses of that which may possibly transcend it; it is, once I had accustomed myself to a reading smaller in scale than I had been used to, utterly convincing at each step. Particularly good is the meeting with the blind Gloucester (the excellent Norman Rodway) on the heath – a scene which, like that of Cassandra before the House of Atreus in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, may be considered to be representative of the highest peak of the tragic imagination: this scene is played with a disconcerting directness, and utterly without sentimentality. No appeal to tears here, no attempt to evoke pathos: the drama is beyond tears by this stage.

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Another of Miller’s ideas is to present a Fool who is as old as Lear himself. And, as in his previous BBC production, he chose Frank Middlemass for the role. It works superbly well: here is a Fool who can address Lear with ease and familiarity not merely because he is “all-licensed”, but because he and Lear, though respectively servant and master, have spent their entire lives together. The Fool’s barbs come from a lifetime of understanding, and, out in the storm together, he, old and unaccommodated, is as frail and as tragic a figure as his master is.

The supporting cast is equally impressive. Penelope Wilton’s Regan, for instance: Regan of course is a very disturbing character (“Then let them anatomize Regan; see what breeds about her heart. Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?”), but I found something quite uniquely unnerving about the girlish smile with which she views even something so unthinkably horrific as an old man having his eyes plucked out. And Anton Lesser made far more of Edgar that I would have thought possible. I could have done without the heavy-handed Christ imagery that Jonathan Miller lumbers him with, but there are certain scenes here – most notably the one where Edgar, initially in a self-pitying mood, sees his father eyeless – where one is tempted to think that it is he who is at the play’s tragic heart. Edgar is, it must be conceded, an under-written character, whose motivations are frequently vague, and whom it is almost impossible to bring to life; but rarely have I seen an actor make so much out of such little material.

The only slight disappointment amongst the supporting cast was Michael Kitchen’s Edmund – disappointment because, given what a fine actor we all know he is, more might have been expected: Edmund is surely amongst the most unmitigated evil characters in literature, but we get little here beyond merely a likable rogue. More, I can’t help feeling, may have been attempted.

The entire thing is shot in the studio, employing minimum sets, and with much use made of close-ups. This seems to me an ideal way to put King Lear on screen.

Those wanting a more heavyweight assumption of the role of Lear is best directed, I think, to this extraordinary audio recording from the 60s featuring Paul Scofield, but, if one can accustom oneself to a very different though equally valid conception of the role, this version, though not perfect, is, to my mind, the best of all currently available DVD versions that I have seen. As any good production of this play should, it overwhelms.

Blandings at the BBC

So soon after writing about adaptations, and claiming that there was no requirement for any adaptation to be faithful to its original source, I found myself watching the first episode of BBC’s new adaptations of P. G. Wodehouse’s Blanding stories and find myself muttering the word “travesty” under my breath. Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. But then again, perhaps I don’t: if this first episode had been good television comedy in its own right, then it wouldn’t have mattered how far it strayed from the original. But since it isn’t, the gap between the adaptation and the original becomes too large to overlook.

Wodehouse is notoriously difficult to adapt, since so much of his effect relies on his prose. Simon Callow, who has recorded some audiobooks of Wodehouse’s work, speaks of a certain Mozartean quality. Now, this may appear to be the sort of pseudo-intellectual gibberish that regularly graces Private Eye’s Pseuds’ Corner, but I can actually see what he means: Wodehouse’s sentences are all so exquisitely crafted, so artfully phrased, that not the slightest detail can be altered without spoiling their delicate perfection. The effect is admittedly very different from the effect of Mozart’s music, but the delight in the sense of utter perfection that is beyond any possible improvement is evident in both.

And the humour of his writing comes, in the main, from his phrasing. And once you take away that prose – as one must in an adaptation – what are we left with? Merely childish and absurd stories.  Even when the plotting is ingenious, as it frequently is, the ingenuity seems but to serve mere childish and absurd ends.

Not that there haven’t been successful adaptations – by which I mean adaptations that have stood up well in their own right. I am not old enough to remember the adaptations of the Jeeves and Wooster stories with Ian Carmichael and Dennis Price, although I have heard fine things about them; but the more recent adaptations of these stories with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry were, I thought, pretty good. By no means perfect, of course: Stephen Fry was arguably a bit too young to make a fully convincing Jeeves; every time the scriptwriters substituted their own gags for Wodehouse’s, the sense of bathos was all too apparent; there was far too often a reliance on slapstick, a type of comedy that is most un-Wodehousian; the location for certain stories was changed for no good reason from the English country house to US – even for something such as Joy in the Morning, an archetypal English country house farce if ever there was one; not enough was made of Madeleine Bassett, one of Wodehouse’s most glorious comic creations; and so on. But generally, the production values were excellent, the supporting cast was good, and Hugh Laurie seemed the definitive Bertie Wooster. The misjudged slapstick episodes apart, the feel of the original stories was well caught. If the BBC Blandings Castle series could be as good, I thought, it would be worth watching. Sadly, it wasn’t. Not by a long chalk.

For the Blandings Castle stories depict an idyllic world. As Evelyn Waugh famously put it, “The gardens of Blandings Castle are that original garden from which we are all exiled.” In these stories especially, the skies are clear and cloudless, the amber summer sunlight dapples the lawn and the terraces, and there’s always a pint of the finest ale to be had at the cosy pub in Market Blandings. There may occasionally be a bit of summer lightning, but it passes quickly, and it’s nothing serious. Indeed, there’s nothing serious in mortality at all: all is but toys, and life is an endless delight. This may all sound unbearably twee and sentimental to the uninitiated, but so formidable is the charm of Wodehouse’s writing, it’s surprising how even the most embittered and cynical of souls can so easily fall under its spell. Evelyn Waugh for one – not known for being the cheeriest of souls. And even Kipling, who doesn’t really appear to have had most easy-going of natures to judge from his often disturbing later stories, described “Lord Emsworth and the Girl-Friend” as “the perfect short story”. Delight and contentment don’t normally  make for compulsive reading, but here we have a miraculous exception: Wodehouse is the only author I can think of who has managed to pull it off.

Of course, it’s all make believe. It is difficult to discern the time in which Wodehouse’ stories are set, but the 1920s or the 1930s seem most probable. Historically, this was the time of the Depression, the General Strike – a time of great poverty and of mass unemployment, of hardship and even of starvation. In this context, a bunch of frivolous people who have never done a day’s work, and who lead lives of ostentatious wealth and luxury without the slightest thought of their social responsibilities, cannot be seen as anything other than morally despicable. But all that’s in the real world: the world Wodehouse depicts is very, very far from all that. His world is, as Evelyn Waugh put it, Eden, a vision of that paradise itself from which we are all exiled.

So, how should these stories be filmed? At a leisurely pace, I’d imagine. With gentle, nostalgic lingering of the amber sun dappling the lawn in the mornings, and the lazy cotton-wool clouds drifting gently by. Or something like that. I don’t know – I am not a film-maker, and don’t really have much idea on how best to convey the feel of these, or indeed of any other, stories. But I would know better, I think, than to adopt a jaunty pace; or to focus on the plotline (which is more than a bit silly and not really of much interest to begin with); or to use fast editing techniques. Everything here was utterly misjudged: just about everything that could be done wrong was done wrong. Shame really. Let’s just hope it doesn’t put off those who have yet to enter Wodehouse’s endlessly delightful fictional world.