Thursday, 25 December 2008

Clive Swift and the Carpet Crawlers: a solitary Christmas

Most of the Christmas period was spent watching M.R. James dramatisations (and other related works) and trying to work out precisely what they say and what they mean - and what relevance they have today.  As usual, for a child of the visual age, the most powerful adaptations seem to be those which escape the confines of the literary, the narrow world of the scholar which is now so marginal that it's even been breached on Round Britain Quiz, and develop a sense of the medium they're working in which transcends all instant associations.

As with so many writers of his era (the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, roughly), a gulf has opened up between the Keepers of his Flame (who are largely an ageing and slowly-dying clique, and as a consequence almost invariably have little or no understanding of or feeling for visual media) and the newer, more psychoanalytical - and, on occasions, politicised - students of James's work (who often have blogs and share many of my interests - some of them may be reading this, if anyone is).  Even 40 years ago, that distinction was already forming.  Jonathan Miller's Whistle and I'll Come to You (tellingly a deconstruction even on the level of its title - Miller's telescoped title now seems to have supplanted James's original title, Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad, even in many descriptions of the original story itself) is, as pure television, astoundingly effective - yet this was achieved (as it could only ever have been) by doing to James what My Bloody Valentine did to rock music, tearing away the obvious associations and leaving only the bare bones.  Kim Newman doesn't raise this issue in his sleeve notes to the BFI's sadly deleted DVD, perhaps because he suffers from the common delusion that to suggest such things may ever be important at all is to endorse bigotry, but I remain convinced that Miller's Jewishness, however secular, was a key reason - if not the key reason - for his sense of distance even from a work he clearly had a deep feeling for (he had, after all, arrived at Cambridge and encountered attitudes he had never experienced in his own liberal intellectual circles, with Jews barred from golf clubs and some of those he encountered not knowing that Jews even still existed - and that so soon after they could so easily have ceased to exist, at least in Europe, and fell out with Private Eye because of Richard Ingrams' thinly-veiled public school antipathy to the "rootlessness" and "vulgarity" of Jews).  A Jew, even a secular one, approaching M.R. James must, I think, view his source with a certain amount of distance, just as a socialist approaching Antonia Forest or Malcolm Saville (i.e. me, and I suspect me alone) must view them in the same way.  Indeed, Miller on James is almost an antecedent of the unfulfilled dream of Return to Witchend.

Miller's Whistle and I'll Come to You is radically (for British TV in 1968) anti-theatrical, and although its black and white photography prevents full use of the inherently cinematic East Anglian landscape (of which more later), it is astonishingly chilling even today, as much for what is not said (almost everything) as for what is said (very little).  With James's protagonist changed from a tall, slim, young man to an academic in very late middle age (an astounding performance by Michael Hordern) who simply cannot understand or cope with life beyond the internalised world of absolute logic and certainty (a painful portrayal for anyone with Asperger's Syndrome), Kim Newman speculates that it may have been intended partially as a critique of James himself, with what Miller describes as his atmosphere of "cranky scholarship" (a phrase which implies a certain amount of ambiguity in Miller's view of it, at the very least).  But beyond all such academic speculation, it is the close-ups of Hordern in bed or roaming a beach that looks as though it could run to the ends of the earth, desperately trying to understand that which stands outside the closed world of learning, which stick in the mind.  To this day, there hasn't been that much on British TV like it (and there is unlikely to be, now).

Whistle and I'll Come to You should have set the tone for what followed, but unfortunately - like almost all the good bits of the British '60s - it didn't.  The supplanting of Hugh Greene (without whose influence it would have been quite unthinkable) by the far more cautious and conservative Charles Curran ran in parallel with a retrenchment in the wider society (against which backdrop, in the single most important development in British mass culture between the birth and death of Butskellism, Rupert Murdoch quietly acquired The Sun).  The climate which had encouraged Miller to play games of television art with the hallowed echoes of old England had been replaced by one which, sensing everything falling apart, looked to those same echoes in search of nothing more than pure reassurance, even if it was couched in terms of (crucially, always understated) horror.  This was the climate in which the BBC's Ghost Story for Christmas season began in 1971, and its first instalment - the Robert Hardy-led The Stalls of Barchester (directed, as all but the last of these stories would be, by Lawrence Gordon Clark) - is effective and enjoyable, but cannot translate easily to non-Jamesians (or, to be more precise, those who have had to grow into James, who were not born into his echoes, i.e. anyone my age), so heavily theatrical and declamatory is its acting, so hermetic is its story.

But in 1972 A Warning to the Curious showed that 1970s BBC TV film drama, for all its meagre budgets, could capture the power of a landscape which - perhaps precisely because it is so truly cinematic, rather than merely an apt backdrop for the literary and documentary traditions (it can be that as well, of course, but it's "off the beaten track" as far as the lazy and tradition-bound are concerned) - has been persistently underused by British film-makers.  In 1982, Chris Petit (who was, of course, responsible for Radio On, one of of Britain's most genuinely cinematic films, the best record we have of just how the winter of 30 years ago this year looked and felt, and a rare attempt at a new internal mythos that comes to terms with the impact of American power in post-war Britain without wholly submitting to it as the closest thing we've had to a new mythos in post-1980 mass culture has almost invariably done) lamented in the Monthly Film Bulletin that, due to budget restrictions, he'd been unable to make his adaptation of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman in the Cambridgeshire Fens, which he viewed as one of Britain's most inherently cinematic landscapes, and had had to film it in the Home Counties, which he saw as its least cinematic area (and it's hard to disagree with that last point).  I understand his point.  Unlike most British landscapes, East Anglia is characterised by the Big Sky, the cinema eye of pure landscape whose absence in almost all British films is, I think, part of the reason why Truffaut regarded British films as inherently uncinematic, the very phrase "British cinema" as a contradiction in terms.  A vital backdrop to the films of Ford on the one side and Antonioni on the other - films which the Cahiers set brought together in terms that not even Obama could possibly make believable again, in a world that not even he, the best we could possibly have got, will be able to revive - it was absent even from the most visual and texture-laden British films of the "classic" British studio era, if not ever, namely those of Powell and Pressburger (in Gone to Earth, they turned Shropshire into a Technicolor land of rich hysteria, but not even they went north from Liverpool Street).

Cambridge and the Fens, to me, seem an intensely Christmassy place (for all that I've only experienced them in an August heatwave) - I think it's one third the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, one third the fact that they're often colder in winter than the west of Scotland (because they get the wind straight from Siberia while the Western Isles get the Gulf Stream) and one third The Children of Green Knowe (which I also rewatched this Christmas, as will perhaps be a ritual for the rest of my life).  They also bring thoughts of Pink Floyd, who in their later years appeared (until the conscious finale of "High Hopes") to disavow all connection with the landscapes of England, but early on seemed rooted in the quiet, slow-dying madness of this place, the underbelly of what one of the region's MPs would infamously evoke (and, in doing so, effectively created a great deal of NuLab's justification).

A Warning to the Curious is shot further north-east, on the Norfolk coast, but it too (like so much else from British TV in the 1970s, perversely helped in this respect by the BBC's notoriously limited budgets) looks and feels cold, utterly devoid of distancing theatricality.  Most importantly, though, there is the sheer size of it - unlike almost all other British TV from this era, you feel it would look at least as good if elevated to the big screen (whereas so many British films, then and now, look as if they've migrated unwillingly and inappropriately from the small one).  At times, the actors (led this time by the excellent Peter Vaughan) almost appear merely as figures in a landscape, pawns in a game you know you can never escape unless you emigrate, however much you wish you could.  While not an actual deconstruction a la Whistle and I'll Come to You, it brilliantly translates an inherently pre-visual work to the visual age and, on top of that, is consistently spine-chilling.

1973's Lost Hearts is the most purely horrific of the cycle, the one that jumps out of the screen and bites you the most viciously - its Hallowe'en setting, absent from the original story, is of course horribly tainted now, but (as with almost all the aftereffects of pop/rock culture) that could not have been foreseen back then. Again, Clark and adapter Robin Chapman step out of any possible nostalgic comfort zone and takes the work into genuinely disturbing fields - it's hard to imagine current TV, cowed as it is by a fear-ridden society which has elevated a false and deluded image of the child so as to cover its own nerves over what it has done to break up economic and social certainties, going quite this far into the occult and a genuinely disturbed sexual undercurrent to Mr Abney (Joseph O'Conor)'s desire to take the hearts of children on their 13th birthday, a fixation which is ultimately his undoing.  Some have claimed that this version is almost cartoonish and that the (presumably more understated and more literary, and now lost) 1966 version was better, but I suspect those claims to come from people who see themselves - and their own mental image of James, which is largely an extension of how they want to see themselves - as "above" the "vulgarity" of Hammer Horror.  In truth, James (in common with all of us, however academic and/or moralistic we may promote ourselves as) was "above" nothing, however much he might have believed that he was - and that is this version's masterstroke.  The final shots of Mr Abney's funeral must have had a strange, crushing air to them over the power-cut Christmas of 1973, with its latent conspiracies and air of ancient, unkillable divisions lurching up again to destroy everything that had been worked for since the war (and, for some 1970s viewers, the portrayal of such a clearly evil man as Irish may have had unpleasant political connotations with the then-present).

After two years of great experimentation, perhaps it was inevitable that Christmas 1974 would see a retrenchment back to comparative literary fustiness and insularity in The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. Though still with some genuinely frightening moments (one scene in particular makes me think of "In the Cage" by Genesis - even when they leapt into a new world with The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, the sense of English Gothic in their best work was actually enhanced, because the attempted NYC atmospherics forced them to remove their more excessively frilly and mannered traits, and - sorry, Taylor - "In the Cage" is what a nightmare sounds like, wherever in the world it is, and that's part of the reason why this blog has the URL it has: the other reason will be explained above) it still seems more like a fan-pleasing effort, fine on its own terms, but of little relevance beyond. That was to change the following year, though.

Cinema's auteur theory was never really translated to television, and that is probably as it should have been.  There are definitely recurring themes in Lawrence Gordon Clark's work - the four episodes of Flambards he directed are among the most potent both visually and politically, and have many shots reminiscent of some of the Ghost Stories for Christmas (also, the grand-scale symbolism of William's planes explosively disrupting a point-to-point is his work - those scenes are to the early years of the century what Castlemorton was to its fin de siecle, right down to their both having essentially been created by mutant children of Tory England itself) while his 1991 work Chimera (chopped up beyond recognition for its video release) is perhaps the last truly great ITV series, its combination of technofear (crucially, not of the reactionary kind) and political despair capturing the feel of its year and, perhaps even more so, the one that followed (and the certain knowledge that such things simply wouldn't be allowed from now on, even as they became more and more necessary) with lacerating accuracy.  But the actual atmosphere and feel of the Ghost Stories varies wildly from year to year, while 1975's The Ash Tree - the BBC's last M.R. James adaptation of the decade - bears all the hallmarks of its adapter David Rudkin.  Less than two years earlier Rudkin's key work, Penda's Fen, had made a passionate, politically-charged statement in defence of renegade, pagan Englishness and against the subservient, Anglican version that had supplanted it, rewritten history so as to suppress those who had not played by its rules (and utterly distorted the actual views of figures such as Edward Elgar) and whose exponents were now so deeply riddled with paranoia that there would actually be a socialist revolution in Britain, that the unions would take their homes and estates as they had taken the Heath government.  Rudkin and James were clearly a natural combination, and so it proved.

The Ash Tree turned the supposed "witch" Ann Mothersole from deserving victim to a sexually alluring woman only branded a witch by those who lusted after her (perhaps - or am I stretching it too far here? - Rudkin commenting on the deep-rooted misogyny of the 70s' political right, but certainly a comment on the original author's probable misogynistic tendencies, or at least a built-in failure to relate to or understand women) and confirmed Rudkin as the British television dramatist with the deepest feeling for the history of ritual and superstition which, however outraged its exponents would have been by its mention, was the logical conclusion, the unspoken historical foundation, of GB75's imagined England.  The witch-burning scenes have a power that most TV explorations of that territory don't come near, the landscape looks as alien and mythic as it does in Penda's Fen itself, and the ending is precisely as spine-chilling as it should be.  Squaring several circles, The Ash Tree was a brilliant conclusion to the M.R. James cycle, getting the best possible performances out of actors like Edward Petherbridge and Preston Lockwood, and it must have been difficult to see how it could be improved on.

The conclusion (it may have been thought to be exhaustion, but I suspect it was a desire to move on to new territory before it began to pall) of the James cycle did not end the Ghost Story for Christmas strand.  In 1976, Clark directed a Dickens adaptation, The Signalman, not a great television work on its own terms, but a perfectly-constructed evocation of a particular atmosphere with a brilliant performance by Denholm Elliott in the title role.  But then in 1977 the strand went contemporary - quite unequivocally so, in fact, with Clive Exton's Stigma.  A writer with a particularly long career, Exton (1930-2007) had the unusual distinction of a near-half-century span of contributions to Sunday-night ITV, but as this night's drama declined very quickly from the series which was, for a while, the only one on British TV telling the truth about post-Suez, pre-Beatles Britain (back when TV was so new that associations of particular types of programme with particular dates, so strong by the 1970s, had yet to develop) to a string of mostly predictable series which tended to be period comfort viewing (with the more socially challenging dramas almost always being shown midweek by the '70s) this can only mean that he steadily slid from laceratingly accurate social commentary through metaphor to ridiculously predictable WI fare.  And so he did, from some of the best Armchair Theatres (one of which, "I'll Have You to Remember", seems - and I write this well aware that it may well no longer exist - to be a stunningly accurate dissection of post-imperial Britain) through the admittedly well-made and pleasureable Jeeves and Wooster and Agatha Christie's Poirot to the ignominy of Rosemary and Thyme (almost - but not quite, nothing could be - as pathetic an end to his career as Here Comes the Queen for David Croft).  But he also adapted James's Casting the Runes for Yorkshire TV in 1979 (more of that later, and soon) and three days after Christmas 1977 he reinvigorated what had been a strictly period-bound series with a brief, harsh story that is quite unequivocally of the 1970s.

Stigma begins with an archetypally (and, it has to be said, somewhat dislikeably spoilt) middle-class girl being asked whether she wants the radio on in the car, and moaning that "you can't get Capital down here" - hinting, if seen today, at the mass abandonment of traditional BBC values and tribal loyalties by that generation of the middle class when they reached adulthood in the following decade. But beyond that throwaway line there's no hint here of what the '80s will bring. Its portrayal of the English middle class in panic, deeply disturbed by forces they cannot control, with its obvious political relevance to the '70s, recalled an earlier production (actually set at Christmas, unlike all the official Ghost Stories for Christmas) - The Exorcism in the Dead of Night series from 1972, where (on icecold studio VT) a crowd of ostentatious social climbers find that their world has crumbled around them and eventually, in a powerful timeslip, starve to death. But with its use of film (in common with the rest of the cycle), Stigma makes the usually calm West Country seem almost disturbingly sleepy, its normality - like that of the middle-class couple and their daughter who have just arrived - so strong that it's abnormal (there is an especially powerful scene using the Rolling Stones' "Mother's Little Helper", itself one of their best moments, its bitter comment on the world they were adrift in for once overshadowing, even for me, any latterday thoughts of incipient neoliberalism).  Some have claimed that the use of a stone that cannot be moved is dramatically lazy, a scenario that's been done to death, but for me the context of 1977 - the past and its demons inexorably getting stronger and stronger, about to create a Black Mass of a future and finally banish all thoughts of state-created Utopia - overpowers everything.  And there are moments of genuine terror that, when you first see them, you know you'll remember.

The cycle concluded in 1978, amid a succession of events which I need not describe, with The Ice House (uniquely not directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark but by Derek Lister, and written by John Bowen, also responsible for some of the earlier adaptations).  A vignette of one man in late middle age visiting what is effectively a gated community long before they actually existed, slowly discovering that the eerie calm of this setting has only been achieved by the freezing of several people's bodies so that they never die, it has a morbidity balanced with a perverse, eerie calm which is entirely appropriate for the decade that was about to, effectively, end with the most brutal shootout ever achieved without any guns.

Although 1979 saw a Yorkshire Television adaptation of James's Casting the Runes directed by Clark (I will watch that and post here, soon, but I thought I had to write about them now, it was that strange kind of instant feeling you sometimes get), the BBC's cycle was not officially renewed that year.  Schalken the Painter, an effective and well-made Le Fanu adaptation, was shown as part of Omnibus that Christmas, but its literariness (much of it is narrated by Charles Gray as Le Fanu) would soon seem outmoded (however unfairly).  In retrospect, it was probably the right time to end the cycle.  The introspection and insularity of the '70s was dying amid a new outwardness, the retrenchment to "pre-libertarian class politics" (as Simon Frith described the decade in his Melody Maker retrospective at its end) was about to be replaced by an aggressive triumphalism of neoliberalism and its permanent present/future.  The next time James was revisited by the BBC, at Christmas 1986 (a month before Alasdair Milne's dismissal, undoubtedly one of the four or five most important days in British culture in my lifetime), it was in a series of fairly straight readings by Robert Powell, shown last thing at night (when that was still only just after midnight, but already a nostalgic comfort zone in TV terms) and produced by the Jackanory team.  Much the same could be said of the 2000 readings by Christopher Lee (a man who went back so far that he actually met James, shortly before his death, when he won a scholarship to an Eton at that stage dominated, surely, by Nazi appeasement).  But the remarkably effective BBC Four versions of some of James's un-adapted stories over recent Christmases, and the regular reruns of the earlier adaptations, shows that the more the modern Christmas has tried to push this sense of the unquiet and undead out of our minds, the more we are fascinated by it, precisely because it uncovers what our present society is built on hiding.

For most of these programmes' audience today (and to some, though not all, at the time) they are escapes from the turmoil of their times every bit as much as they are from the final struggle for the United Kingdom.  But to me, it's the context of the '70s that really makes those adaptations, gives them a life beyond their own hermetic world. It makes them something more than brilliant essays in technique and terror (which this year's Crooked House most certainly is - and I can certainly imagine myself returning to it in future years - it's just that it's inherently hard, now that we all know so much, for modern TV to be anything more) and gives me an idea for Christmas 2009 on BBC Four, with all the dread that will be in our minds by then.  A deconstruction of the genre, set very specifically in the 1970s, combining the authentic litany of English gothic with the political paranoia that riddled the Shires in those years we are only just beginning to understand.  Fear of both kinds connected as we have not yet known - in other words the basic idea of The Ash Tree (James crossed with Penda's Fen) taken one step beyond. If my worst fears are right that it will be the last Christmas England will ever spend under even an approximation of a Labour government (I am sure the economic situation will delay separation, but I don't think it will delay it forever), it might be epochal television.  All I have to do now is to, somehow, write it and get it commissioned.  Wish me luck as you wave me fuck off.


  1. 'but early on seemed rooted in the quiet, slow-dying madness of this place, the underbelly of what one of the region's MPs would infamously evoke (and, in doing so, effectively created a great deal of NuLab's justification).'

    Who was this...? Some footnotes needed at times. :)
    Fascinating post - need to see these productions.
    A BBC4 adaptation of JG Ballard's 'Theatre of War' (1977) could be quite something... or indeed your particular idea.

  2. "this" was John Major (MP for Huntingdon, lest we forget) and his 1993 remarks about "long shadows on county grounds" &c (quite apart from anything else, a cretinous misreading of what Orwell had actually been getting at, on a par with some people on the old Conservative Democratic Alliance forum's view of Powell & Pressburger). Those comments (which I think became more widely infamous a couple of years later when they could be more easily set against NuLab's institutionalisation of pop culture) were actually made in a speech defending his comparatively (by post-Thatcher Tory standards) pro-EU stance, stating that Britain would still be like that however integrated into the EU it became, forgetting (as usual) that it had already ceased to be like that largely because of the influence of another foreign power ... the video for "High Hopes" has a lot of Fenland shots which reminded me very much of Major's speech when I saw it in October 1994, but I obviously prefer to think of "Grantchester Meadows" &c.

    All the M.R. Jameses have been shown on BBC Four, as has 'The Signalman'. 'Whistle and I'll Come to You', 'A Warning to the Curious' and 'The Signalman' were released on DVD by the BFI but are now deleted and you'd probably have to pay quite a bit for copies. 'Stigma' and 'The Ice House' haven't been shown anywhere for decades and I only have them in very low-quality copies (which is also the case with 'The Ash Tree', which I didn't record in 2005 - the one year BBC Four have shown it - I think because I was indescribably depressed at the time). Haven't seen 'Casting the Runes' yet, but it's easily available on DVD from Network along with 'Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance' (which I think was an ITV Schools take on James, also directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark).

  3. Yes, 'High Hopes' does contain echoes of what they had been. You have rightfully mentioned the first two albums, but one must consider also "Atom Heart Mother" as a well-sustained suite of avant-Englishness and the likes of "Paintbox" and "A Pillow of Winds" (as well *of course* as the early Barrett singles).

    However considerable the most lauded achievements may be, too much of PF's output is simply ignored; "More", "Music from the Body" and "Obscured by Clouds" are listened to far less than "A Momentary Lapse of Reason" and "The Division Bell"; a farcical state of affairs, showing I suppose how dilluted their music became and how ripe they became for the Q Reader demographic.

    (I suppose it is a similar thing with the Beatles; the average 'punter' of their music in HMV will hardly identify, let alone love, Revolution #9, Uncle Albert, Ram On, Junk or the "Plastic Ono Band" album, for example...

  4. I can heartily - or, rather, shiveringly - substantiate your impression of the East Englian winter. A North-Eastern January is mild compared to a Cambridge one - particularly January 2003's, as I recall (as I speak with a cold that seems to have lasted as long!).

  5. January 2003 was indeed one of the very, very few occasions in the last 15 years that even Portland has had snow, and snow that stayed on the ground for a week.

    I've always thought Pink Floyd lost something after 1973 (which was also when they stopped playing most of their early stuff live). Their early, weirder, more satisfying work was deeply *un-American*: none of their albums before 'Dark Side of the Moon' reached the Top 40 of the Billboard album chart, and you feel that when they got the big money they became *heartless* (and not in the positive, Kanye West sense) to the extent that you can understand why they became such a symbolic whipping boy for punk (although, considering that he liked Can and VdDG, I can imagine Lydon liking some of their pre-'DSOTM' work). A shame they didn't do that 'Household Objects' album they were planning to follow 'DSOTM' - could have made 'Tusk' seem a positively radio-friendly follow-up by comparison.

    Ultimately, Waters in his later years with the band comes over as such a *cunt* - a politically heartfelt and hard-to-fault one, as 'The Final Cut' shows if you can sit through it, but a cunt on a personal level nonetheless, in terms of how he treated the others - that it's very, very hard to take something like 'The Wall', knowing what we do of what went on behind it. I may live behind one myself to a great extent, but there are other, better, less egotistical ways to get out.

    The thing with The Beatles, Inc. is that they became a justification and excuse in the mid-90s for a set of attitudes - English insularity, contempt and disdain for what was happening in black American music - that were the antithesis of everything they stood for in their own time. I've always listened over and over again to the tracks that most skip, "Revolution No. 9" most obviously, and am interested in them as a deeply paradoxical, and ultimately defeated for reasons far beyond their control, attempt to escape the post-war stasis, rather than as a front for simply refusing to deal with what *actually* happened post-Butskellism. As for "Uncle Albert", you can blame that on whoever made the decision to release the weak "Back Seat Of My Car" (which only got to number 39) as the UK single instead.

  6. I can't believe this excellent post has been waiting here for three years before I found it. M R James was one of the reasons I started blogging. Looking forward to reading more.

  7. There is other Jamesian stuff in the archives here, sort of. And I really should get round to writing about the contemporary 1979 YTV Exton/Gordon Clark 'Casting the Runes' and the Winter of Discontent sometime; it's full of snow-bound Leeds landscapes, news bulletins alluding to the Iranian revolution, the underlying sense of a world falling apart ...

    Some 'Dead of Night's that were new to me this Hallowe'en as well, not least 'A Woman Sobbing' which is quite superbly evocative of Heathite capitalism (a distinct era, but because it was so brief and so quickly overthrown, not usually written about on its own terms, although it was the direct - if codified - inspiration for one of the biggest-selling albums of all time, alluded to above).

    For those who can reach the BFI's Mediatheques, all the Ghost Stories for Christmas plus 'Whistle and I'll Come to You' (the 1968 version - though I was one of the few people who genuinely liked the 2010 version) will be available this year.