Saturday, 25 April 2020

Plague Times Diary (20) - Back on deck Barrie Pattison reports on hospital viewing

Notes from a Captive Audience.

I found myself doing a week in St. Vincents  but that’s another story. 

A curious by-product is that I was faced with the hospital’s free to air TV round the clock. I’ve been making theatrical one-off screenings and DVDs my major sources of viewing material and I’d begun to wonder where all the romcoms, silly ass comedies and cop movies had gone. In this context Long Shot, which proved to be by Jonathan Levine who also directed the presentable Warm Bodies, had been an agreeable surprise. I’d all but lost touch with popular main stream films and suddenly they were all there was on the TV.

I could have just sopped up re-runs of Star Trek, Danger Man and The Simpsons (including the one with the Bill Plimpton opening) however I gravitated to the movies I’d dealt with over the last fifty years and which I wouldn’t normally have revisited.

I watched Michael Crichton’s 1979 The (First) Great Train Robbery, the pick of the movies the author of “Jurassic Park” directed. This is uncharacteristic being a jokey British (well Irish) costume caper comedy, smaller in scale than my recollection which was mixed up with The Seven Percent Solution.  The elaborate Boer War London setting intrigues - the doss house where the customers sleep on ropes, an obviously back cloth St. Pauls, Newgate and a public hanging with the crowd chanting derision at the woman victim. It’s fun to watch the leads compete engagingly as with soot covered Sean Connery entering into the rail baggage compartment to be greeted by Donald Sutherland ("the best screwsman in England") in his typhoid make up. “I look a mess?” The film never quite redeems the killing of Wayne Sleep but that Jerry Goldsmith main theme is still running round between my ears. This one made a welcome return to my memory bank.

More substantial was the surprise inclusion on NITV of Ken Burns’ 2004 Unforgivable Blackness - The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson of which I have a disc that I’d never gotten around to watching.  Interesting to find Victor McLaglen, Jack London and Rushcutters Bay Stadium figuring. This is one of Burns’ best offerings and pulls the same trick as Pride of the Yankees, making a sporting event seem to be shaping the character of the entire American nation. I don’t think you could find two films more different in their style and aspiration which makes the comparison intriguing.

I’ve never paid serious attention to NITV having seen some of their less than impressive local drama but having time to watch their talk shows made me aware of a welcome, less pushy presenter style and some of their imports like the animated Miyazaki-like City of Gold proved remarkable. I really should put in more time with them.

More confronting however was being faced with 9 Gem’s old British movies - possibly the last black and white films in regular supply on TV. They really are as bad as I thought in my now distant youth.

Roy Boulting and Jeffrey Dell’s Carlton-Browne of the F.O. is headed up by Terry-Thomas who could certainly deliver, along with Peter Sellers no less, who is dismally unfunny.

The plot has privileged class twerp Thomas shipped out by the British Foreign Office to the fictional Pacific Island nation Gaillardia when they suspect the place has valuable resources. We get the contrast of gouty dithering British Consul Miles Malleson and vigorous young heir to the throne Ian Bannen back from medical school in Britain, all informality and progressive ideas. He is pitted against his unscrupulous uncle John Le Mesurier in league with seedy prime minister Sellers and the Russian menace.

The solution is to partition the island (scene with a large tennis court marker crossing a river and entering a rail tunnel) but a couple of couple of British boffins have found cobalt which is the stuff they make bombs out of and the deposit is in the other lot’s half.

Most of it is laboured. The best gag is a military march past where the Medical Corps  stretcher-bearers carry patients who sit up and salute in their bandages. Back in Whitehall Raymond Huntley, doing proto Yes Minister, launches a military action only to find the Russians have sent a battle ship and he’s sent Terry-Thomas.

They stand on a few good lines like Nicolas Parsons learning that there’s enough Cobalt to destroy mankind and saying “That’s terrible” only to be told “You always look on the bad side.”

The film throws in a hoochie-coochie dancer who is handy for the poster but registers as a dim attempt to introduce a bit of smut. Best British studio production values of the day (Max Greene on camera) fail to disguise the fact that what is supposed to be funny is mainly tedious.

This one is a reminder of the decline of British movie comedy from its great music hall roots in the thirties - Jack Hulbert, Cicely Courtnedge, Will Hay and that squad of great second bananas : Robertson Hare, Albert Burdon, Bobby Howes, Alistair Sim, Moore Marriot and Graham Moffatt. The only thing comparable now is Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison crew - long may they reign. The pre-war zanies shade into the antics of The Crazy Gang and Margaret Rutherford who will be succeeded by Cecil Parker, the Boultings and the Carry Ons. How’s that for a precipitous decline.

The Carlton Browne copy looked as if it had been knocked off a poor sixteen millimetre print but Ealing’s Train of Events, though a bit on the dark side, was represented by a splendidly textured and sharp transfer.

There post WW2 Britain and the Great British ugly come demonstrated in four diverse but unappealing stories.

John Clements and Valerie Hobson, who must have spent their time off-camera trying to convince people they had been Korda stars, appear in what is meant to be a society comedy about an unfaithful orchestra conductor. It’s directed by Charles Crichton, the most talented of the directors they collected - not that it shows. Basil Dearden did two capital “D” Dramatic episodes "The Actor" and "The Prisoner-of-War." In the former a barely recognisable Peter Finch stuffs the body of mean wife Mary Morris into a theatrical trunk while rehearsing Shakespeare and in the second and least memorable Displaced Person Joan Dowling ponders abandoning Laurence Payne.

More striking is the Sid Cole episode "The Engine Driver" where paternal loco man Jack Warner (“I was in this engine when we came out for the General Strike”) tries to deflect trouble headed the way of daughter Susan Shaw’s fiancé Patric Doonan. This one gets attention from extensive filming in rail yards with Warner at the throttle of a range of imposing locomotives. Director Cole, a vocal union man, had clearly taken on the Grierson documentary tradition with a bit of La Bête Humaine thrown in. The people are much less interesting than the trains. It fields the Warner - Gladys Henson couple and Doonan who will all turn up in The Blue Lamp.

Blue Lamp, The Guinea Pig and maybe Seven Days to Noon were the films that shaped my idea of a contemporary Britain, bleak and divided by class in a way that was much less visible in the Australia where I watched them. This was there again in the René Clement Knave of Hearts/Monsieur Ripois in 1954 but the Frenchman had a less forgiving take on Britain, quite De Maupassant.

And that same environment was waiting for me when I made it to London in the sixties. However, the real thing had an element which was missing from the films - people’s determination to introduce the excitement absent from their lives through out of hours activities. A few movies tried to show it -  the “The Kite” segment of Quartet, the Huggets in a holiday camp or the musical society in High Treason.Maurice Elvey’s The Gay Dog is probably his worst film, making fun more oppressive than dull routine.

The film society movement was a prominent part of this hobby culture, though it was depressingly unadventurous. What should have been a process of exploration, as it was in Paris, in Britain became one of endorsing existing judgements not challenging them.

It is only as the sixties roll on that we get English passive resistance to their society's gloom breaking through in the films of Dick Lester and Michael Winner. The critics and possibly their audiences didn’t get this but I was living with it - and now I’ve been reminded that I can observe the whole process again on 9 Gem -  if I really want.

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