• 'Rollerball' - Excusive new insights into a classic

    On Monday 27 June 2016, the BFI Southbank are screening Norman Jewison's classic dystopian action drama 'Rollerball'. To mark the occasion, read my exclusive interview with editor Brian Smedley-Aston on how he assembled the film’s two stunning Multivision television sequences – Jonathan E's bittersweet home movies and his bone-crunching tribute broadcast. Brian explains how Rollerball game footage shot especially for these sequences was handed to him in Munich, and how he had to create the finished films-within-a-film before principal photography moved to Pinewood so that the Multivision footage could be included in the background of subsequent scenes. How did he do this, give each sequence involved not one but FOUR separate strands, one for each of the four Multivision screens? Find out…You can also read The Harmony of Havoc, my long-form piece examining the making and meaning of the film, kindly hosted on the Excuses and Half Truths blog. And finally, two reminders of previous pieces from me on aspects of the film; elsewhere on my own site, read more about how production designer John Box incorporated this futuristic broadcast system into the overall film, and over on The Big Picture, take in my imagined commentary from the last game seen in the film, as the World Championship is decided.



  • It was. Were you?

    The closure of the print edition of The Independent is significant news. Although launched on 7 October 1986 as Britain’s first new broadsheet newspaper for over 130 years and thus bearing the dubious distinction of being the shortest-lived, too, in its heyday under original editor and co-founder Andreas Whittam Smith it was by far and away the least biased, best-designed and most engaging read in the country, developing a genuine ‘personality’ long before that became common in publishing, let alone a tiresome cliché.

    With its proprietorial and editorial independence (it was owned by multiple shareholders rather than a ‘baron’ and pursued a centre-left line politically, hence the famous ‘The Independent. It is. Are you?’ advertising campaign), top contributors across the entire subject range including Robert Fisk and Miles Kington and subversive rule-breaking (it was the first paper to publish by-lined obituaries), it genuinely blazed a trail that helped change an industry. And though its journalistic credentials were impressive, its visual style proved even more influential.

    Under Brian Harris, the legendary imagery created by the paper’s staff photographers was powerful and also fully in line with the paper’s ethos of standing out from the crowd. The team – including John Voos, Herbie Knott and Harris himself – elevated stories into art but with no hint of pretention, thanks to a gritty, moody, original approach, helped immeasurably by their work being printed in a rich, deep monochrome on thick, good-quality (but still traditional) newsprint. The paper also originated the idea of the caption story, with a single photograph and a few lines of text beneath.

    Elsewhere a quirky wit was displayed, most notably in their famous take on the dull arena of the press conference; rather than a conventional close-up of the speaker, the Independent generally ran a picture that showed instead the crowd of press photographers shooting that principal. Not only was this sufficiently arresting to draw the casual reader’s attention, it also became a subtle commentary on the way media and PR were developing – McLuhan’s medium and message made real. That the paper immediately began to win awards for its photography and consistently scored highly thereafter proves the point.

    Stephen Glover, another of the co-founders, explains the paper’s inception with candour and humour, but it’s worth expanding on one crucial point of context – Today, that market-disrupting national tabloid produced by ballsy northern businessman Eddy Shah just six months earlier. In fighting entrenched and outdated working practices and the unions who supported them to make a success of his regional titles, Shah had already proved that emerging technologies were critical in overturning the hold both had on the industry. Computer typesetting, in particular, brought multiple benefits; it allowed composition to be separated from printing, freeing the former from the need to occupy large, expensive, inner-city sites where presses took up the basement levels, meant printing could in fact be contracted out to anyone with the right machinery and enabled workers on both sides to join other, more enlightened unions or indeed none at all. Both typesetting and printing were also freed to explore new design directions, though it was a wise choice not to follow Shah into the world of colour, where quality remained elusive for some time to come.

    The vision represented by the Independent certainly proved attractive to me; as I settled into commuting after leaving school, and after a couple of years’ flirtation with Today, I alighted on the Independent as my daily read into or at work. It was serious but not dull, smart, absorbing and really spoke to me as I set off into adult life, and I’m somewhat startled to be reminded that its first edition actually came out the day before I started in that first job (its last will be published on my birthday, which seems fitting). It was to the Independent, too, that I started writing letters, and which published them – the first, as I recall, on then controversial plans to turn a certain abandoned power station in central London into an art gallery... Even the paper’s cartoon, Peattie and Taylor’s Alex, was a winner; topical and innovative, its eponymous city trader barrelled through his Yuppie lifestyle with withering sarcasm and wordplay. Oh, and I still have Whittam Smith’s reply – in a letter, hand-signed – to a query I wrote in about.

    But it was the Independent’s arts coverage that was to really prove pivotal in my life. The depth and breadth of it struck an immediate chord, with reviews, listings and special offers, and together with Jonathan Glancey’s weekly architecture column – many of whose pages I still have as cuttings – opened my eyes to a whole new world of culture. I began visiting exhibitions and galleries, looking at buildings and going to talks, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I would not have the interest in visual arts and architecture or the little writing career that I have today without the Independent.

    Although, in the end, my loyalties did change, swayed by its move to the liberal left and a reliance on too many book serialisations, I would not have missed that fabulous black and white beast with its eagle masthead and seductive pages. So thank you, Andreas, Stephen and Matthew Symonds for taking the risks you did and soundtracking (in print) the formative part of my adult life.

    I was. I know you were.



  • 'The X Files'

    Tonight, more than a dozen years after the final season of the hugely successful original series was shown, The X Files are reopened for a limited run of new investigations. Fans and critics alike will be curious to see whether the same creative team can repeat the achievement. Much will depend on the nature of the anomalies that Mulder and Scully find themselves looking into, since it’s arguable that the programme’s true quality was found not in the alien conspiracy story arc around which it was conceived but in the quieter stand-alone episodes, which were frequently far more ground-breaking, powerful and memorable.

    Perhaps surprisingly given its eventual success, the pilot episode of Chris Carter’s series slipped onto British screens – on 19 September 1994, a full year after its transmission in the US – almost un-noticed. Long before the internet allowed attention to be drawn to the most niche of interests, and despite – or possibly because of – the explosion in listings magazines that followed the 1991 end to monopoly publishing rights for BBC and ITV, the series received minimal attention and it was up to diligent viewers to discover it.

    The general public, however, was aided by the fact that most quality newspapers’ television critics made the series their pick of the day that Monday, calling attention to the understated tone of the production and naturalistic performances of Duchovny and Anderson, whilst genre fans, in a viewing landscape devoid of Freeview channels, cable or DVDs, already knew BBC2 as the home of the Alex Cox-fronted film strand Moviedrome (which began in 1988) and screenings of cult classic 1970s series Kolchak – itself a stated inspiration for The X Files – as part of Richard O’Brien’s Mystery Train/ Dr. Terror's Vault of Horror strand (1991).

    For both, The X Files appeared at a significant moment. A small but important gap – stylistic as well as thematic – had opened in the seemingly endless procession of more conventional speculative fiction series that had begun over a decade ago with the revival of Buck Rogers and continued with the likes of multiple Star Trek: The Next Generation, Knight Rider, Airwolf, Automan, The Highwayman and Street Hawk.

    As this stream of high-tech action-adventure series – aimed at a more or less juvenile audience and broken by the odd thoughtful exception, such as Quantum Leap – exhausted itself, only the near-contemporaneous Babylon 5 from J. Michael Straczynski provided any real competition to Carter’s new series in scope and intelligence. Crucially, by observing the success of two popular new series in wholly different genres, namely Michael Crichton’s ER and Steve Bochco’s NYPD Blue, Carter was also able to establish a look and feel for The X Files which refreshed the genre, helped sell its fantastic content to a wider audience and, albeit unknowingly, set the direction for the gritty, ultra-realistic adult productions that were to come in the 2000s, including Dollhouse and Battlestar Galactica.

    All of this is visible in that pilot, which is indeed so reticent that it lacks the now-familiar theme tune and even a proper title sequence. Scully, it should be remembered, is the professional sceptic assigned to finally close Mulder’s pet project, his home for “the FBI’s least-wanted” in the bowels of the J. Edgar Hoover Building that has been tolerated as a sop to the Bureau’s mission to combat all threats to the homeland but which is finally proving too embarrassing to sustain. With this in mind the pair’s initial case is fully in line with the common image of the series, with mysterious disappearances in a rural community, strange lights in the woods, the discovery of tiny medical implants of unknown purpose or origin and the creeping onset of paranoia.

    What Paula Vitaris later called the “mordant, self-deprecating humour” of the series is already present, though, and the rest of the dialogue manages to simultaneously play down and highlight the uncanny amidst the everyday. The degree to which the technical and financial restrictions of the production (it was, for example, filmed in Vancouver, BC, for many years for cost reasons) are actually exploited to support this is also impressive; night filming, Mark Snow’s minimalist, John Carpenter-like score and effective locations and sets all contribute. That famous closing shot, an obvious but entirely appropriate nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark, provides a final punch and confirms the level of talent at work.

    The relationship between the boyishly enthusiastic Mulder and coolly analytical Scully is key, of course, but even this is not what it later became. Her literal rush into his arms when she fears the worst raises eyebrows today, whilst only after the series finished was it revealed that she was initially given a boyfriend, who was not only written into the script but filmed; Scully’s guarded manner when she takes Mulder’s phone call late at night is because he is actually in bed beside her, a presence cut in the final edit. So was laid the will they/won’t they that also kept people watching for many series to come

    Inevitably, this alien conspiracy unravelled as 200-plus further episodes unfolded, leaving the non-arc stories more worthy of examination. Though many stood out even on first exposure, it was in general the Kolchak-derived ‘monster of the week’ episodes that garnered the most praise, and viewing figures. It is those that fall beyond even this that appealed most to me, however, and which stand up even now.

    The first tier includes those with outstanding individual performances by guest cast members or smart plot points. Here, then, must be located Tom Noonan’s subtle but terrifying child-abductor in Paper Hearts, the twist ending in Voodoo thriller Fresh Bones and Kristen Cloke’s portrayal of a reincarnation experiencer in The Field Where I Died, itself a powerful essay in cult methodology inspired by the Waco disaster a few years previously.

    Next come the episodes which feature strikingly original overall plots or startling visual execution, or indeed both. Many – again seeking to turn around the show’s disadvantages – are ‘closed room’ thrillers, even if that ‘room’ is as large as a forest. Thus Sleepless features some beautifully cinematic moves when a soldier who has been kept awake for years as part of a military experiment finds he can conjure nightmares for others, and Darkness Falls sees Mulder and Scully trapped in a remote wilderness as an ancient swarm lifeform is released by logging activity. The Gothic horror of Home – pushing the boundaries of the time – recalls The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in its tale of an in-bred countryside family.

    In the stunning Triangle, an alternative timeline is paralleled with the present day via extraordinarily-realised takes that appear to be 11 minutes long each, whilst characters move instantly between the two settings seemingly in the same shot (shown well before widescreen television sets were in use, the BBC had to ‘letterbox’ the episode for the 16:9-framed chase sequences to work). The plot itself, which has ‘Scully’ as an agent of the OSS, precursor to the CIA, protecting a key scientist from the Nazis aboard an ocean liner just before the start of world war 2, is an admirably clever variation on the series’ theme. With X-Cops, Mulder and Scully find themselves being filmed for the Fox network’s real-life police documentary series Cops as a mysterious creature is pursued across night-time LA; shot on videotape rather than film and with onscreen captions and real officers involved, the episode wittily plays up the differing reactions of the agents to the cameras – Mulder delights in it but Scully, embarrassed, does everything she can to block their view.

    Runner-up for the title of most powerful and effective X File of all must be Drive. Mulder is kidnapped at a gas station and forced at gunpoint to keep driving west – always west – by his passenger, who is convinced he will die if the car ever stops. From the inventive and shocking pre-credits sequence, presented as if shot from a TV news helicopter, to the pathos of the ending, this story is truly absorbing. It combines closed-room drama with road movie, yet overlays both with a desperate urgency that arises entirely organically from the man’s dilemma. What makes it of even more interest is that the man is played by Bryan Cranston and it was written by Vince Gilligan, who worked on several episodes of the series before creating Breaking Bad for Cranston based on his showing in this episode.

    For me, though, the series’ finest hour is the exceptional Pusher, in which Mulder and Scully fight Robert Model, a man who has the power to force or ‘push’ people into acting against their will. Whether a petite intern being able to beat up an FBI agent twice her size or a SWAT officer unable to stop himself dropping a lighted match onto the petrol he is covered with, the stakes are raised with relentless tension as the pair seek to understand his power and stop him. The climax, in which Mulder finds himself in a game of Russian Roulette as an apparently helpless Scully looks on, is one of the most emotionally draining ever seen.

    Each scene is treated as a mini-motion picture in terms of its ambition and style, something seen even in the opening sequence in which Model is ambushed in a supermarket and arrested. From his relaxed attitude when he realises he is about to be detained to the worryingly large column of police vehicles needed to deal with him to his manipulation of the police driver, a shock ending caps this little masterpiece even before the episode proper gets under way.

    Whether truth at this particular level is still out there, only time – and six new episodes – will tell.

    The X Files, Channel 5, 9pm



  • ‘Quatermass’ (1979)

    Britain, the near future. Petrol, electricity and food are rationed. As governments squander precious resources on worthless space missions, rival gangs turn streets into warzones and force the authorities to permit unrestricted gladiatorial combat in public arenas in an attempt to keep control. Outside the cities groups of disenfranchised youngsters roam the countryside in a trance-like state seeking escape to a putative salvation planet. Everywhere, people scavenge and barter for what they need whilst the police, supplemented by private contractors, are routinely armed. When veteran scientist Professor Bernard Quatermass (John Mills) returns to London from self-imposed exile in Scotland to find his missing granddaughter, he is shocked to discover how far society has collapsed but when the desire of the ‘Planet People’ to be transported to another place is fulfilled by a horrific method lost to memory yet whose legacy is present in the very land itself, Quatermass finds himself working to prevent this mass harvest and make the ultimate sacrifice to save humanity.

    Nigel Kneale is one of Britain’s most important, original and effective writers of speculative fiction. Three of his standalone television plays alone – future-haunting-the-past ghost story The Road (1963), prescient reality TV satire The Year of The Sex Olympics (1968) and contemporary psychological horror The Stone Tape (1972) – confirm this, even before considering Quatermass, his best-known creation. The professor appeared in three serials written by Kneale during the dozen years after Britain the war, confronting a new and topical societal fear in each and in so doing demonstrating how the classic tropes of science fiction could be harnessed to the immediacy and democracy of the still-developing medium of television to refashion the genre for an adult audience.

    Less well known is Kneale’s fourth and final iteration of the Quatermass character, delayed by over a decade and reaching the nation’s screens only in 1979. Unfairly seen as outdated and irrelevant at the time, restoration for a new DVD release finally allows its inherent qualities to be appreciated.

    The series originated with a 1965 invitation to Kneale from a BBC producer to revisit Quatermass for the start-up of the new BBC2 channel. Kneale declined but responded more positively to a later offer from Hammer Films, who had encountered significant success with theatrical versions of all three Quatermass serials, their screenplays also by Kneale. This also faltered after Kneale’s other work for the small screen took up all his time. The BBC renewed its offer in 1972, however, emboldened by the chance of international co-production and sales, and this time Kneale accepted. Ironically a protracted development period and concerns over rising costs and the use of locations such as Stonehenge eventually led to the series being taken to ITV – though not, curiously, by Kneale – where production was assigned to London weekday franchise holder Thames Television’s innovative and well-regarded drama subsidiary Euston Films. This ultimately proved to be the enabler for a very different Quatermass.

    Known for gritty, realistic crime series like Van der Valk and The Sweeney, Euston’s programmes were shot on location, using 16mm film, rather than in the studio with videotape, whilst making features for cinema was also part of their remit. Both matched the wider canvas Kneale envisaged with his new serial, and in fact a decision was quickly made to shoot on 35mm with a budget of £1.25m (equivalent to around £10m today) to meet the writer’s expectations. Rather than by co-production, the high cost would be recouped by editing the four television episodes down into a feature-length release.

    The previous Quatermass stories all drew on the concerns of their time: the dangers of manned space exploration, the visceral terror evoked by germ warfare and the tensions emerging in a nation undergoing profound change. This new chapter was no different and then-current events in Britain and elsewhere provided obvious stimuli, from the effects of the October War in the Middle East through acts of Baader-Meinhof terrorism in Europe and NASA-USSR Skylab and Soyuz link ups to the ‘flower power’ movement in America. Each found its analogue in the finished serial, as Kneale crafted a warning of the dangers of social collapse seen through the lens of that other contemporary concern, the ‘generation gap’. Audiences would see events through the eyes of the aging professor (Mills was 70 when the series was made) and, latterly, his granddaughter Hettie, played by 15-year-old rising star Rebecca Saire. A group of elderly fellow scientists, Quatermass’s friend Joe Kapp (Simon MacCorkindale) and his young family and the sinister figure of impromptu Planet People leader Kickalong (Ralph Arliss) provide additional shading of this second theme, which Kneale later described as “the idea of the old trying to […] save the young, a nice paradoxical, ironic idea, a sort of inversion of […] contemporary Hollywood.”

    But there are other, arguably even more interesting, oppositions visible in Kneale’s screenplay.

    Most obviously there is the conflict between science and faith. A wide range of technologies – television, vehicles, radio, satellites, space flight, even the atomic bomb – is contrasted with the Kapps’ Judaism, the Planet People’s belief that the scything light tearing them from the Earth is divine and even the street gangs’ simple colour-coded loyalties. Importantly, however, few of these beliefs are entirely fixed. Kapp is an astrophysicist, playing lip service to his religion, but eventually abandons his trade and seeks desperately to reconnect to his heritage; members of both the Blue Brigades and the red-clad Badders join the Plant People; and in the final scene, Quatermass seeks and receives the love of his estranged granddaughter to succeed.

    There is then the tension caused by the past tugging on the present. Multiple references to the layers of history that surround us are encountered in the first episode, when the action moves from a battered London to the Kapps’ smallholding somewhere in the home counties. Here, the physicist uses twin radio telescopes, the latest technology for detecting that which cannot be found by the senses alone, but he controls them from a Neo-Classical observatory, itself a previous century’s attempt to do the same. His wife, an archaeologist, serves drink in a cup made by the pre-modern Beaker people and found on their land, in her speech connecting herself to the person who might have used it when it was first made. Outside sits a World War 2 pillbox – “A final refuge,” as Kapp describes it. Further away, geographically and chronologically, is a small stone circle, with its larger cousin, Ringstone Round, nearby. Also relevant is the fact that the Kapps face two directions – he is looking into the future, she is unearthing the past.

    All of this is synthesised in the person of Quatermass himself, a figure from the technocratic Britain that snatched freedom from a terrifying tyranny yet who remains finely attuned to a past that for most is buried. And this proves to be the key that unlocks both the plot and the mind of its creator.

    Mid-way through the series, Quatermass posits the theory that the harvest began thousands of years ago, facilitated via ‘markers’ or homing devices left deep in the earth. The memory of this terror was commemorated physically by the erection of stone circles above these invisible bullseyes and culturally by a number of folk traditions that have come down to us today, from the lure of ley lines and monoliths to a children’s nursery rhyme whose true meaning has been lost:

    Huffity, puffity, Ringstone Round

    If you lose your hat, it will never be found

    So pull up your britches right up to your chin

    And fasten your cloak with a bright new pin

    And when you are ready, then we can begin

    Huffity, puffity, puff

    As the purpose of those stone circles – as warning, and war memorial or sorts – has become blurred and confused over the centuries, they have instead begun to attract innocent attention in a new age, even as the devices below lie ready to function again. A weapon of mass destruction is thus concealed within a self-sustaining myth.

    Britain’s written and visual culture alike are rich with works linking its people to the history of their land, from the Arthurian legend to the art of Kit Williams, and in the 1970s both children’s and adult television drama reflected this, as seem in Peter Dickinson’s The Changes (1975) or David Rudkin’s Penda’s Fen (1974). Kneale himself is here returning to his own variation on this theme, one that appears throughout his work, namely how race memory is formed, mediated and experienced. The third of the early serials, Quatermass and the Pit, is the best example of this. In it the endless cycles of mass violence that so scar the human race, from the Crusades to the Inquisition to ethnically-motivated attacks, are linked to occasional reactivation of a long-suppressed trait of the human mind that is the legacy of genetic modification by alien beings millennia ago, whose own propensity for purges is thus reproduced in us, unknowingly but devastatingly. A long-buried Martian capsule is the catalyst, and in the new series, too, the markers are the trigger. With the gradual collapse of society, a kind of forced evolutionary regression, the entire piece can be read as a forewarning of the dangers of technology as well as of an ignorance of the past, even if the ultimate expression of technology, a nuclear bomb, becomes the means of society’s salvation.

    The making of this ambitious series was placed in the capable hands of Piers Haggard, who had over a decade of experience directing many individual episodes of various television series as well as two prestigious and hugely popular serials, the romantic drama Love for Lydia (1977), adapted from the H.E. Bates novel, and Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven (1978). Crucially he had shown the ability to handle complex technical challenges in his directing career, including the lip-synched musical numbers of the latter and the extensive use of early live video compositing in the experimental Play for Today staging of the Chester Mystery Plays (1976). He also had a feature under his belt in cult horror film The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970). Haggard was thus well placed to ensure the new Quatermass’s visuals matched its writer’s ambitions, and this is seen at both the macro and micro scales.

    Large set-pieces such as the gang shoot-outs in derelict London streets, the mass harvests at Ringstone Round and Wembley stadium and Kapp’s moveable radio telescopes benefit from a real sense of scope and place, with good use of sweeping crane shots – then a luxury – to convey both. Equally, Haggard shows sensitivity and ingenuity in the more intimate settings like the cosy hand-crafted Kapp house or the imaginatively-designed ‘warren’ of broken-down vehicles lived in by the frightened elderly. Haggard’s camera is also effective in pointing up the contrast between the abandoned factories and claustrophobic bunkers of the urban realm and the open landscape and stone circles of a more ancient Britain. One scene of genuine horror – the only truly shocking moment in the production, and all the more so as a result – draws on Haggard’s cinematic outing, but is wholly organic to the plot and not at all gratuitous. Aided by production designer Arnold Chapkis and director of photography Ian Wilson, even subtle background details play a part, such as Royal ciphers and graffiti suggesting a Britain ruled by King Charles III or the Kapp children’s book of illustrated nursery rhymes, in which Huffity, Puffity – written by Kneale though drawing on real sources – appears.

    The performances of the principals hold the story together, with the quiet, homely Mills – not, apparently, Kneale’s preferred choice – and more dynamic MacCorkindale. Those in supporting roles are on occasion a little broad in their playing, a common problem with genre productions of the time. That said, Arliss is effective as the charismatic Kickalong, especially in the Pied Piper-like scene where he charms a soldier to join the Planet People, Donald Eccles is a delight as the aging perfumier Mr Chisholm (who will play a crucial part in the finale) and Brian Croucher, best known as the second Travis in Blake’s 7, is convincingly jaded as a ‘Pay Cop’ lieutenant.

    Kneale was 70 as the project moved toward completion, the same age as Mills, perhaps his alter ego. Yet he was a positive man and the series itself has a positive though harrowing climax. Its build up is extremely powerful, the poetry of its gorgeously-shot evening setting at odds with the mayhem about to be unleashed. The mechanism of that mayhem is, in turn, an ironic end to what is a pre-apocalyptic thriller.

    The lyrical epilogue brings hope, but a hope cleverly undermined by uncertainty. And the professor won’t be here next time…

    'Quatermass' is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Network



  • 'The Revenant'

    Despite a preference for the contemporary crime thriller or science-fiction adventure, the natural world nevertheless retains a powerful pull. The western, the road movie and the period drama all adopt open space, wildlife and the weather as their default cinematic setting, often contrasting the scale, solidity and permanence of those elements with the transience and frailty of humanity. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, set in the mountains of the north American frontier in the 1820s, encompasses at least two of these categories and arguably also the third, as the titular character of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) embarks on a long journey home through the wilderness with only his own resources for company after losing his friends, his son and much blood and bone, mostly thanks to a treacherous companion.

    The set up for this story of endurance, pain and retribution is effective and absorbing, as a group of trappers camping at the water’s edge is attacked by a native American war party. Tough, startling and atmospheric, the sequence takes us fully inside this very different world in a way that is truly immersive and highly believable, though often inaudible dialogue is likely to be an oversight rather than any further attempt at realism. The freshness of the setting combined with the convincing, offhand brutality possible with modern film-making techniques catches the breath and the interest.

    With the survivors escaping by boat and taking a cautious path along a river to what they hope is safety, the first of several film pioneers is evoked, not least Deliverance and Apocalypse Now. It is here, too, that Tom Hardy really begins to impress as poisonous antagonist Fitzgerald, with a performance of depth and real bite.

    When the group is further split, Glass is left to face the horror of a near-lethal bear attack, a scene that grips with its viscerality even if one does find oneself distracted by working out quite how it was done (and settles, with a slight degree of disappointment, on CGI). The suspension of disbelief necessary to accept Glass’s survival miles from civilisation in a time before antibiotics, anaesthetic and fluid drips is significant but also compulsory, although it haunts the remainder of the film and is exorcised only by other objections.

    The incident leaves DiCaprio mute for much of what follows, which inhibits his performance in a way many critics appear not to have noticed. Hardy, though, only grows in stature after Glass’s colleagues, on discovering him, debate how to proceed; when Fitzgerald volunteers to be the one experienced man who stays behind with Glass, an appropriate frisson of fear is transmitted and received thanks to Hardy’s inhabiting the role utterly. The trappers thus split again as the rest of the group hike to the nearest fort. The native Americans remain a presence, albeit one – in contrast to that opening battle – now curiously remote and ethereal, seeming only to shadow the white men rather than aggressively pursue them. If the aim is to stress the land and each other as the real enemy for the trappers, this point needed to be made more forcefully. As it is, there is a frustration over how Iñárritu and co-writer Mark L. Smith balance the competing legs of their plot.

    The actions that follow drive a need for revenge in Glass, and although for me the emotion required to really believe in this was there in DiCaprio’s performance, his actual relationship with his son, as seen earlier in the film, didn’t quite convince. It thus fell to the survival strand to carry the day(s) that follow as Glass, now alone and with some characters forming yet another sub-group, attempts to return and exact it.

    With endless periods in the wild, Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is initially enticing, capturing great swathes of nature at its rawest and most incomprehensible, from glacial rivers and impenetrable forests to unclimbable hills. This is the stuff – and these are the men, of course – from which America’s founding myth is made, and it must again be accepted that The Revenant convinces absolutely in conveying the almost unfathomable effort required to make a stand, let alone build a nation in such circumstances.

    But it is a story, an entertainment, that must also be shaped, and it soon becomes clear that the limitations of the script and the methods chosen to bring it to life cannot satisfactorily achieve that.

    Thus the shots preferred by director and cinematographer – slowly-rotating 360 degree pans around a single character, and static contemplation of a clump of needle-straight trees by day, evening or night – soon becomes an irritation, whilst faced with the third hour of low-contrast footage regardless of subject the eye similarly tires, seeking a bright point to alight on. Ryuichi Sakaomoto’s score, again so pleasant at the outset, also falls into this trap of repetition.

    Crucially, after the second or third brush with certain death subsequent to the bear attack, followed by the second or third escape and second or third evening by a tiny fire conjured beside another lonely resting place, Glass’s continued survival and, indeed, recovery moves from improbable to impossible, especially in the absence of any onscreen indication of elapsed time, by which means this miracle might have be made less unacceptable. Ironically the concentration on Glass and his fate other plot points, such as depiction of the arrival at the fort of the original main party, are omitted.

    Fragmented, psychological fugue sequences that read equally as Glass’s dreams, visions and predictions are sensuously impressive but, decoupled from the native Americans, with whom a connection could otherwise profitably have been made, remain somewhat outside of the rest of the work.

    Taken together, then, for me the content simply fails to sustained the excessive running time. The climax arrives well after it feels due, and once more falls victim to the insubstantiality that affects much of the film (other than Glass’s wounds, diet and ordeals, which are all rendered in loving detail). Although DiCaprio clearly suffers for his art and acquits himself creditably, this was for me a far less affecting performance than that which he achieved in Inception, where his relationship with Mal had all the weight of feeling absent, here, in that with his son. Only Hardy carries the interest throughout.

    Too metaphysical for a period drama, not, perhaps, metaphysical enough for a road movie, ultimately this tale of one man against his nemesis functions effectively only as a western, and even here manages to lose the trail on the way.



  • I'm Stanley, fly me

    Before man had even seen the Moon close-to let alone walked on it, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke strived to create a believable setting for their new film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Whether drawing on research under way in government laboratories or partnering with consumer-oriented companies to create products that didn’t yet exist, the production crafted a world in which travel well beyond the bounds of Earth was not only possible but routine, a world in which every aspect of day-to-day life in the mid-1960s, from kitchens, toilets and washrooms to watches, telephones and pens, had been convincingly projected thirty five years into the future. Whilst much of this effort is visible and celebrated, there is plenty that awaits discovery in the background of the finished film.

    The ships and vehicles necessary to take Kubrick’s characters from the Earth to the Moon and then on to Jupiter were designed by Marshall Space Flight Center engineer Fred Ordway and NASA technical illustrator Harry Lange. The pair took the script and consulted what Lange described as industrial, governmental, and academic institutions in the US and Europe, including Britain’s Hawker Siddeley and America’s Grumman, to determine how each could be visualised. In doing so they sought advice far beyond the basic form and arrangement of a given craft, considering – and, where necessary, imagining a future history for – every one of the systems that would be aboard such a ship as well, from its main drive to the hibernation chambers. As a result, every control panel and every switch had a logical reason for its existence and even a label or full instructions to describe its function.

    The first stage of the journey, transporting Heywood Floyd to an orbiting space station, is accomplished via the graceful Orion space plane. Such a means of transport had been envisaged for some time in real life, not least by Eugen Sänger with his wartime hypersonic antipodal bomber. This took off from the surface of the Earth like an aircraft (albeit with the assistance of a jetisonable lower stage) but continued into sub-orbital flight like a rocket, reaching its destination – on another continent – by ‘skipping’ on or repeatedly touching the atmospheric boundary. Sänger’s design never left the proverbial drawing board but Orion, at least as described in Clarke’s novel of the film, employs a similar initial flight profile. The celluloid version is slightly differently conceived, with the rear-most portion of its fuselage and wing actually intended as a detachable booster, but – perhaps recognising that the delicate flower-like taper of this element adds much to the elegance of the ship – it remains firmly attached in the final film.

    To enhance the verisimilitude of Orion, it was finished in the livery of arguably the only company that could truly sell the illusion of this journey as being utterly normal – Pan Am. The self-styled ‘World’s most experienced airline’ had established itself at the leading edge of commercial aviation after decades of innovation, much of which would have seemed borderline science fiction at the time. In recent years alone it had embraced the jet age by building the striking Pan Am terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport outside New York, almost an earth-bound space station with its circular,

    cantilevered roof, and begun a helicopter transfer service from the airport to the roof of the skyscraper holding its headquarters in the Big Apple, which in turn stood above the railway tracks of Grand Central. The airline had also effectively commissioned the new 747 from Boeing to open up the next wave of passenger air travel – the first of the model to fly in passenger service did so for Pan Am two years after 2001: A Space Odyssey was released – and was advertising its proposed supersonic service. Indeed for many, Pan Am epitomised the glamour of air travel, and placing its logo on the Orion and her crew seemed a natural extension of this remarkable record of progress.

    Probably the most dramatic outcome of Ordway and Lange’s work was the gently rotating centrifuge at the heart of the Discovery that allowed Dave Bowman and Frank Poole to eat, sleep and exercise under normal gravitational conditions during their voyage to Jupiter. By no means a fantasy, it is in fact an almost exact reproduction of contemporary experiments by NASA which found that revolving a wheel about 40’ in diameter at a surprisingly low speed provided a useable level of artificial gravity for anyone walking on its interior. At this early stage of man’s exploration beyond Earth this was primarily intended to provide psychological reassurance, as well as some practical help. The physical toll that zero gravity would take on astronauts’ bodies during long-duration stays in space, including muscle atrophy and osteoporosis, would not be fully understood for some time. NASA mounted their wheel horizontally with the test subject suspended from a crane on his side, but since actual artificial gravity was not required on set, Kubrick’s version was erected vertically like a hamster wheel. By fixing the camera (or the actors) in relation to the rotating wheel or allowing it (them) to move with it, the centrifuge’s simultaneous linkage to and isolation from the rest of the ship was illustrated. Today, a centrifuge module is being considered for the International Space Station.

    For the more utilitarian items in the film – the ships’ fixtures and fittings, the personal possessions of and things and services used by scientists and bureaucrats – either concepts were commissioned directly from companies in the relevant field, such as IBM, RCA and Honeywell, or existing products were tailored to the world of AD 2001. Both would appear in the finished film under their originators’ own logos. This approach – unique at the time, and seldom emulated since – added a further layer of reality to the world Kubrick and his team were building.

    Thus Floyd’s pen, retrieved from its floating trajectory by Orion’s stewardess, was specially made by Parker. The cars seen on the seat-back screens – themselves a prescient notion – were concepts by General Motors. After the Orion docks at Space Station 5, Floyd calls his young daughter from a booth advertising a ‘Picturephone’ or video calling service, something much promised in science fiction and real life alike from at least the 1930s and here brought convincingly to life by the firm whose logo appears conspicuously during the scene – the Bell Telephone Company. Ma Bell, as it was known colloquially, enjoyed a near monopoly on telephone services in North America at the time the film was made, a situation that would last until its enforced break-up in 1984. A deleted scene showed a further call to Macy’s store as Floyd sought to fulfil his promise of a bush-baby birthday present. The dazzlingly white-walled corridor is near a clearly-signed Hilton hotel and a branch of restaurant and motel chain Howard Johnson, here advertising their ‘Earthlight Room’. These waystations’ appearance on this new type of highway appears a consistent outcome of thoughtful extrapolation rather than a simple brand placement exercise, even if there is no expansion of the idea beyond the latter’s genuine font and logo being used on the minimalist glass partitions. And, whether seen on the tables and desks or in the hands of those waiting to go “up or down”, date-specific issues of real magazines were produced for the film in liaison with their publishers. These included Paris Match and L'Europeo, an Italian news weekly. Perhaps surprisingly the voluptuous, bright red chairs that feature prominently in the sequence were a pre-existing design used entirely ‘off the shelf’ – ‘Djinn’, by Oliver Mourgue.

    Later, the pilot of the Aries Moon shuttle wears a stylish watch invented by Hamilton specifically for the film, whilst that ship’s neatly efficient culinary facilities were designed by RCA Whirlpool. Aspirational American audiences would have recognised this last as the spiritual descendant of any number of exercises in suburban dream selling from the previous decade or so, whether the same firm’s ‘Miracle Kitchen of the future’ from 1956 or competitor Fridgidaire’s slicker equivalent from around the same period. They all promised the housewife the kind of effortless, push-button, automatic preparation and cooking of food that was now at the fingertips of the shuttle’s stewardess.

    Computer giants Honeywell and IBM worked particularly hard on the film. The first provided a range of outputs and advice, as well as a briefcase – not seen in the film – containing the components of an electronic portable office including a video phone, computer and light pen. Concerned by the image problem presented by any association with the malignant HAL 9000 and promised, as a result, no connection to that character (whose name derives from ‘Heuristically-programmed ALgorithmic computer’ rather than any attempt at black humour aimed at that company), IBM instead designed almost all of the flight systems for the various craft, including the cockpit instrumentation of the Orion – their logo is visible atop its central monitor console. But the firm also originated the most startlingly prescient item in the film, albeit one that goes unnoticed by the vast majority of viewers.

    As they sit comfortably and eat, Bowman and Poole each watch a page-sized, flat-screen portable display terminal, initially scanning text but then video imagery as the pair watch an interview with the BBC they recorded earlier. This is, of course, a tablet computer. Even more astonishing is its name, actually visible in tiny print at the bottom of the casing: it’s called a ‘Newspad’. As Clarke’s novel explains, it allows the user to “conjure up the world's major electronic papers; he knew the codes of the more important ones by heart, and he had no need to consult the list on the back of his pad. Switching to the display unit's short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him. Each had its own two-digit reference; when he punched that, the postage-stamp-sized rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen, and he could read it with comfort. When he had finished he would flash back to the complete page and select a new subject for detailed examination […] The text was updated automatically on every hour; even if one read only the English versions one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorb the ever-changing flow of information”.

    Even the clothing seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey was by a noted designer in the field – Hardy Amies. Drawing on current fashion but also, as with every other facet of the film, a careful assessment of future needs, Amies gave a restrained look to the characters, with simple pieces that were practical as well as smart. His sketches demonstrate the same attention to detail that Ordway and Lange showed.

    The overall result is a painstaking fusion of technological development and artistic licence that, whilst inescapably recalling its era and inevitably flawed as prediction, goes further than any other in giving audiences a coherent vision of a possible future in space.



  • ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

    Thirty-eight years ago, almost to the week, my late father made a special journey into town to buy us both tickets to see the smash-hit space film that had stunned America since its release there in the summer. Now, six months on, as Britain settled into its Christmas holiday, Star Wars was coming here. I remember arriving at the Dominion Tottenham Court Road to watch the film shortly afterwards and seeing toys and other merchandise on sale in the foyer, and, when we were seated in the circle ready for the film to start, a disembodied voice on the public address system introducing it and finishing ‘May the force be with you’. Yesterday evening, as an expectant audience prepared for The Force Awakens at the Odeon Leicester Square, a lone staff member walked onto the stage and did something similar. The lights dimmed, the curtains opened, the fanfare blared…

    Ten years ago, after seeing Revenge of the Sith, I remember thinking how sad it was that, regardless of one’s views of the prequels as films, it would nevertheless be the last time I would ever have that famous Star Wars opening sequence experience. Last night’s screening, complete with its unintentional echoes of that first occasion as a nine year old, refuted that assumption, and one might have thought I’d have been pleased as a result. Strangely, though, it wasn’t quite the immersive welcome home I had expected. With the scenario painted by the opening crawl catching me out and some contrast or projection/lighting issues that made the night-time scenes hard to register, it took time to settle in, perhaps foreshadowing the disappointments that were to come.

    That said, having the silhouette of the First Order star destroyer blot out the planet was both a neat nod to and inversion of that original film’s stunning first shot, and Max Von Sydow was a pleasant surprise. The first indication that The Force Awakens would justify its 12A certificate came soon after, when Finn’s comrade’s bloody handprints appeared on the reluctant stormtrooper’s helmet, a genuinely shocking moment that also sets-up Finn’s motivations powerfully and economically, especially as he remains helmeted for some time. Kylo Ren’s punkish, Death Race 2000-style mask and his own darkness, as seen in his torture of Rey and Poe, continue this disturbing trend.

    The light, though, was provided by the return to Jakku and the most effective portion of the film by far.

    The dialogue-free introduction of Rey scavenging in the colossal, half-buried hulk of a ruined Imperial star destroyer nicely recalled those classic SF novel covers of the 1970s, whilst the clever revelation of her picnic spot in the shadow of a similarly- derelict AT-AT walker was subtly handled. Daisy Ridley turned in the best performance as Rey, credibly tough and credibly vulnerable at the same time, and her relationship with John Boyega as the eager but nervous Finn seemed to develop convincingly as events moved forward.

    The brilliantly offhand reveal of the Millennium Falcon and the TIE-fighter/Falcon battle over (just) the sands of Jakku and through the ruined ship that followed were incredibly enjoyable, the latter easily the most impressive sequence in the film; dynamic, thrilling and legible, it was perhaps the descendant of Irvin Kershner’s wonderfully fluid asteroid field chase from The Empire Strikes Back, still a high-water mark of that first trilogy.

    The weight of those films, though, is great, and this is a burden as well as a source of strength. Seeing the Falcon again began what – it soon became clear – was one of the other key themes of the piece, namely the reintroduction of the original trilogy cast. The difficulty is that this reintroduction – itself increasingly forced as the film gathers momentum – is not confined to people and things.

    From the very start, it is obvious that The Force Awakens is in fact a remake – reboot if you must – of Star Wars, and by that I mean all three initial films, not just A New Hope. The data entrusted to a droid, its relentless pursuit by the enemy, a desert planet, yet another planet-sized, planet-destroying weapon, the light sabre confrontations, even a climactic canyon run; all the main elements are there. This might have worked had they not also been essayed via scenes and visuals which go far beyond homage to become straight lifts from all of those films, whether it be a Death Star-like chasm, suspended catwalk or rag-tag Rebel base.

    Whereas Revenge of the Sith, as the final film of the prequels, could get away with a production design that teased out the architecture of oppression that became the Empire and in so doing set up the original trilogy, it’s far harder to see why every shot and every look in The Force Awakens needs to follow a world left behind three decades ago quite so slavishly. By the time General Hux (an actually rather good Domhnall Gleeson) delivers his ranting address to a crowd of tens of thousands on an icy fascist homeworld imported from the worst nightmares of the Thule-Gesellschaft, intercut with a weak, even cursory re-tread of the Rebel briefing sequences from at least two of the original films, lampoon was only just held at bay.

    Similarly, the initial transposition of characters and characteristics old and new – Han now as the Kenobi figure, idealistic Finn as Luke, ballsy Rey as Han – works well and adds to the impressive first half, but soon the (apparent) demands of the chronology and genealogy set up by George Lucas prove impossible to resist and those of us who remember Return of the Jedi’s fatal flaw as the introduction of one familial revelation too many find ourselves mumbling ‘Really?’ when Ren’s identity is uncovered. His literal de-masking is also surely a massive error, especially if – as this first film suggests – he is to survive. Two wayward sons are enough for any saga – it shouldn’t descend into parody, and repetitive parody at that.

    By the time Han Solo and Chewbacca, then Leia and the droids, are forcibly shoehorned into the narrative it becomes clear that the plot has collapsed under fan-worship. That C-3PO and R2-D2 contribute nothing and the former’s body appears dull, plasticky and unconvincing says much.

    Ultimately, the application of a 2015 A-movie sensibility – the ‘realism’, the violence, the contemporary dialogue and attitudes – to a 1977 B-movie (in the best sense) concept proves problematic at best, incompatible at worst. A rushed second half collapses much of what the first achieved, which is a real loss since less incident and more time to build character would have paid dividends, both in this film and the promised further episodes.

    But more than this, the single biggest failing of The Force Awakens is that, handed all of that valuable, ancient cargo, JJ Abrams – creator of Lost, Alias and Cloverfield – could not come up with a continuation of Return of the Jedi that would indeed play homage to the universe Lucas formed but also be truly original, something of his own making, instead of a well-made but over-conscientious remake.

    Yet there is hope. There is another.

    The final scenes of the film, shot at the magnificent 1,000 year-old monastery atop windswept Skellig Michael island off the coast of Ireland, carry a real mythic charge. They see Rey finally locating Luke Skywalker; as still played by Mark Hamill, his astonishingly lined and bearded face is as weathered as the blasted landscape around him, and contains a lifetime of pain and experience. He utters not a word, and has yet to accept his proffered light sabre.

    For Rian Johnson, director of 2017’s Episode VIII, that weapon should be seen as a baton. Seize it, run with it, but take your own path.



  • Sliding doors

    Passengers were finally able to use the Central Line at Tottenham Court Road tube station today for pretty much the first time this year. For eleven months, since very early January, that line’s platforms and much of the station’s lower-level circulating areas have been off limits to enable reconstruction and enlargement as part of the Crossrail project. Throughout this entire period, the vast majority of the station’s exuberant Eduardo Paolozzi mosaics have similarly been hidden from public view, something that caused considerable concern to heritage bodies when it became clear earlier in 2015 that some of those mosaics had been destroyed and other portions removed.

    As I wrote back in February, it bothered me, too, especially when coupled with the documented historic disregard for Paolozzi’s work demonstrated by TfL and the level of obfuscation arising from trade and press coverage of its current state. The final straw was using the new station entrance and finding that an entirely new circulation route had been created that omitted all of the Paolozzi tiling save that on the Northern Line platforms.

    Frustrated, I hand-delivered a letter to Mike Brown, Commissioner of Transport for London, in September requesting a definitive answer to the status each of the expanses of mosaic that are not currently visible at the station – that is, those on the Central line platforms, the low-level ‘rotunda’ (actually an old lift shaft) and the space at the foot of the main escalators, where could be found the ‘butterflies’. I also asked for a similar statement as to their intended future fate.

    The reply I received, from Managing Director Nick Brown, bristled with indignation at my accusation of disingenuousness, but did at least reassure as it confirmed that all those areas of mosaic remained in situ and would be on display again once the station reopened fully. I stand by my accusation, and the repeated failure – as late as last Thursday – to announce a date for the latter and indeed to close, with minimal and only very local warning, the station completely this weekend just gone hardly support Brown’s position.

    However, as a brief stop-over on my way home tonight showed, I’m pleased to report that Eduardo Paolozzi’s mosaics are indeed on show again. Many of them have been cleaned and appear to have been repaired, although it must be noted that the platform ceilings remain in as sorry a state as they were this time last year, whilst areas of tiling that were especially badly damaged have been stabilised and had their missing portions infilled with cement but not yet finished according to the original design, as these before and after shots show:

    Indeed the station as a whole is in a surprisingly unfinished state, with mismatched and temporary surfaces, exposed services and so on, which perhaps suggests something of a rush to get this critical interchange open before the Christmas period. It thus remains to be seen how good a job has in fact been made and whether – as I was told in 2011 when I last raised the issue – TfL really do “highly value” this important and original piece of London’s built environment.

    If the saga of Tottenham Court Road looks to have a happy (or at least not unhappy) ending in sight, the fate of booking halls across the wider network remains uncertain.

    At stations everywhere in the capital, from the centre to the suburbs, TfL is well advanced in its plan to close ticket offices and turn the space thus released into shops and other outlets such as ‘click and collect’ points. Although the other elements of TfL’s scheme, such as moving passengers overt to contactless payments and, most obviously, redeploying staff out into the booking halls, have received far more media attention, the impact on the tube’s architecture is surely the most profound, since at many of these offices ‘closure’ is being taken literally and the ticket window is actually being bricked up.

    There is an astonishing level of irony here. A generation ago, in the 1980s, London Underground Limited, TfL’s predecessor, spent millions on the Underground Ticketing System (UTS) programme. It had two parts; installing a new generation of electronic ticket machines and associated access gates, and moving staff out of standalone kiosks in booking halls, legacy of the old ‘passimeter’ system, where they were deemed vulnerable to assaults and into new, enclosed ticket offices. This gave staff protection from such attacks and also allowed secure access to the backs of the new ticket machines.

    Construction of the ticket offices often at best compromised and at worst mutilated the carefully-thought-through architecture of ticket halls across the system, many of which were never designed to be so large. Mimicking existing tiling and finishes in an attempt to disguise these bulky insertions was, naturally, only partly effective.

    Quite what effect the almost complete reversal of this hugely expensive scheme will have will not be seen until the new function for these spaces is clear. The removal of some of them would of course be very welcome, but sadly it seems far more probable that they will simply be reshaped.

    It seems that the simultaneous positive/negative realities of Peter Howitt’s tube-set fantasy drama film Sliding Doors might have a grain of truth in them after all.



  • 'Little Eyolf'

    Repressed desire, jealousy, loss and the love triangle are staples that have been explored with great intensity by writers since the turn of the last century but one, when new ways of living including the growth of travel, communications technology and women’s desire for wider roles in society provided both fresh material and allowed for more explicit dramatic treatments. Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s Little Eyolf, one of his last works, takes these themes and twists them into particularly intricate forms, yielding a complex web of relationships between four people – a man, his wife, his sister and her admirer – in a small lakeside town in the mountains, where tensions wound very tightly are finally broken by a family tragedy.

    Rita Allmers (Lydia Leonard) is desperate for a more physical relationship with her husband Alfred (Jolyon Coy), and hopes that his return from a walking trip – taken to clear his head whilst writing a book – will permit this. Already distanced from her crippled young son Eyolf (Billy Marlow in this performance) and feeling threatened and even suffocated by the closeness of Allmers to his sister Asta (Eve Ponsonby), she is stunned when Alfred ignores her seductive welcome home and, the following morning, announces he has abandoned the book in order to look after their son. The arrival of Asta once more proves the final straw for Rita.

    After a slightly broad beginning, centred around a visit by the travelling ‘Rat Woman’ whose Pied Piper-like message of temptation sets foundations for the future of at least two characters, it is here that the strength of the play begins to show. Rita’s bitterness, self-centred attitude and coldness toward her son are powerfully conveyed by Leonard, this last all the more startling when contrasted with the impromptu dropping of her robe in an effort to remind Allmers of what they could be doing. Coy seems conveniently well-named given Allmers’ rejection of her suggestion, and his reaction to this and Rita’s wondering if Eyolf might have been better unborn – “You’ve got the devil in you, Rita” – is the first of many cutting lines. Another, Rita’s appalling comment that “I bore him but never wanted to be his mother”, is also one of a number of subtle inversions of everyday phrases found throughout this adaptation, which is by its director, Richard Eyre.

    When Eyolf is drowned shortly afterward, seeming to give Rita at least part of her wish, her grief nevertheless seems authentic. But it is now that the nodes and lines made by this trio and a fourth participant, engineer Borgheim (Sam Hazeldine), start to clarify. This is in fact a love quadrilateral, since he is smitten by nervous Asta and she, too, reflects his affections but also bears half of a secret – the incestuous nature of her and Allmers’ love.

    The scene in which Asta – “Big Eyolf” to Allmers, a telling point and the derivation of the title – and her beloved “Freddy” remember their childhood is extraordinarily convincing in its relaxedness and detail of memories shared, a counterpoint to Rita and Allmers’ strained but equally intimate discussion earlier. Ponsonby is very affecting and conveys her split loyalty – split at least three ways, between Allmers, Borgheim and Little Eyolf, whom she looks after – brilliantly.

    It is through the mirroring of its characters’ passions and fates, reflected by those textual inversions of conventional phrases mentioned earlier, that the play finds its purpose.

    Thus we have Rita’s biting stab at Asta, wishing for “beauty to come to an end”; Allmers in his grief accused by Rita of managing “well enough without him when he was alive” and, conversely, a belief expressed that the couple can ensure by their future deeds that Eyolf “didn’t live for nothing”, and even – on a lighter note – Allmers’ unwittingly amusing comment that “the thinking is what’s important, what you write doesn’t matter”.

    The location of the action is also crucial, even if one discounts the flip notion that the northern exposure of Scandinavia equals sorrow. Eyre notes in the programme that he has replaced the three settings of the original by a single prospect from the Allmers’ verandah, and it is through this plain, pale wood portal that we see a dark valley, split at the play’s opening (only, revealingly) by the burning glow of a projected sunrise. This design, by Tim Hatley, works rather less well than the layered claustrophobia of his much more effective work for Eyre’s version of Ibsen’s Ghosts at the same theatre two years ago, and this was one of the principal disappointments for me.

    That said, it may be that the text is allowed to shine through more fully against such a simple background, and here once again the words are strong and effective in building their own picture of the Allmers’ valley. Water is a central element in this setting and the action, with the rats drowning, the ferry on the lake, the shore and of course Eyolf’s death, and this is seen in the lines. Allmers describes – in his only outburst of passion – being “capsized” by his wife’s beauty when they first met, waterlilies provide a final symbol of accord, and so on.

    Waterlilies are properly known as Nymphaea, after the Greek for a feminine spirit, and importantly for a play written in 1894, Ibsen places two strong women at its heart. Both Leonard and Ponsonby acquit themselves well here, rather better I felt than Coy or Hazeldine, and if overall Little Eyolf did not make as strong an impression on me as I’d have liked, particularly given its brief running time with no interval, the feeling in their delivery for the sharpness of Eyre’s lines was most welcome.

    A slower pace, more nuanced set design and male characters given deeper readings would have improved this production for me, but the pain of the characters and the tang of the text goes a long way toward satisfaction.


    Little Eyolf continues at the Almeida until 9 January



  • 'Orion: The Man Who Would Be King'

    When someone is passionate about what they can do, how far should – and could – they go to achieve recognition and success? What part can fate reasonably be expected to play? And what price is worth paying? All of these questions and many more came to mind when watching Jeanie Finlay’s gripping, amusing and ultimately shockingly poignant film Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, surely one of the most astonishing stories to emerge from the world of popular culture in the last fifty years.

    Jimmy Ellis had a dream – to sing. A working class boy from an industrial city in Mississippi, Ellis found that, in addition to his dark looks and powerful frame, he also had a remarkable voice: strong, rich and distinctive, and well able to carry a tune. Popular in school and in college, he would often delight friends by letting rip at parties, and himself by simply singing as he walked.

    Like many from the southern United States post-war, performing for a large audience and cutting a record for many thousands more to enjoy at home seemed the obvious next step, and it wasn’t long before Ellis landed a contract with a small label. At the same time, however, it became clear that Ellis just happened to sound uncannily like another American singer who also played to huge crowds and had his own record deal – one Elvis Aaron Presley.

    Initially this could only boost Ellis’s reputation although Finlay, through her contributors, is at pains to point out that there was never any intention on Ellis’s part to impersonate The King, to the extent that one of his mid-70s releases was actually entitled "I'm Not Trying To Be Elvis". No, what he really wanted above all else was to be appreciated for himself, and so in that respect only, Elvis’s premature death in August 1977 might have been seen as a blessing for Ellis; in fact, it turned out to be a curse.

    In the first of several twists in the story, Ellis now signed with the controversial Shelby Singleton, new owner of Sun Records. A classic music mogul in the Svengali tradition, Singleton saw his own stars align through such curious circumstance and rapidly reissued genuine recordings by the likes of Cark Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis with Ellis’s voice mixed in and ambiguously tweaked sleeves announcing those established artists as now singing with “friends”.

    In the second, author Gail Brewer-Giorgio – entirely unaware of Ellis – was hard at work on a movie deal for her novel Orion. Written before Presley’s demise, it concerned a fictitious pop singer unable to cope with fame who fakes his own death to escape the pressure. It was Brewer-Giorgio’s friend and collaborator Carol Halupke who alerted her to Ellis as a possible casting or recording choice when she happened to attend one of his gigs.

    At this point the opportunist Singleton elided all of the above by releasing new recordings of Ellis alone (with that voice) in albums whose artwork borrowed (without permission) material from Brewer-Giorgio’s novel and featured Singleton’s one original and crucial contribution to the increasingly bizarre saga – a stipulation that Ellis would only appear wearing a Lone Ranger-style facemask, and only under the name ‘Orion’.

    Thus was born the myth of ‘Elvis Lives’, a conspiracy theory that really was, it seems, a conspiracy, albeit a conspiracy of one.

    Perhaps surprisingly, Ellis-as-Orion released many albums that sold in their hundreds of thousands and also attracted considerable live audiences. Composed of those who simply enjoyed his work for what it was but also those who believed (wanted to believe) that he was Elvis, he finally appeared to be in sight of the success he craved. The only problem, of course, was that it came with the ironic handicap – maintained by the force of a canny contract written by Singleton – of anonymity.

    But this is not the end of the story of Jimmy Ellis.

    The constraints of his assumed (in both senses of the word) identity became increasingly unbearable, something rendered more understandable when, in twist number three, we find out that Ellis was in fact adopted, never knowing either birth parent and spending the first five years of his life in an endless cycle of care home placements. In a touching detail Ellis learned from this that it was best never to unpack a suitcase. And so a man who had – inadvertently – worn a figurative mask for the first five years of his life found himself trapped behind an actual one for even longer. That Ellis’s (adopted) surname was only one letter apart from that of the man he would later be conflated with goes unremarked in all of this, though it seems unlikely no-one had noticed.

    Ellis eventually saw audience dwindling, and ultimately decided – mid-concert – to reveal his true identity. The inevitable messy split from Singleton, success and even this heightened form of reality followed, though Ellis did – again surprisingly – still turn out from time to time, both without and with the mask.

    The very last and saddest twist is best saved for a viewing of the film.

    This was a superb portrait of a man – arguably two men, if Singleton is included – whose desperation for fame and fortune led to perhaps the most bizarre partnership in popular music history. With the genuinely affecting sadness of an aging Ellis forced to sublimate his identity yet again set against the late-1970s, K-Tel cheesiness of Orion’s album covers and associated ephemera, Finlay achieves a perfect balance of pathos and bathos. Stars have never been so dazzling.



Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture


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