A Drunk at the Flicks

Margaret Rutherford and Stanley Holloway in ‘Passport To Pimlico’. (No, not really.)

The recent and untimely death of the director Roger Michell seems to mark the end of an era. In a career that straddled theatre, television and film, Michell specialised in mature, mainstream dramas about the problems of grown-up folk written by the likes of Hanif Kureishi, Joe Penhall, Ian McEwan, not to mention his grounding in Osborne, Beckett, Pinter, etc.. Such dramas look increasingly out of place both on screen and in the theatre: a bit lacking in adrenaline, perhaps, or not socially committed enough maybe; it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Michell generally catered to a thoughtful, greying audience that is quietly dying off. But one item on Roger Michell’s CV stands out, anomalously, from the rest: Notting Hill, his 1999 international smash-hit from Richard Curtis’s script. 

You don’t need me to tell you about the crushing success of Mr. Curtis’s brand of light comedy; nor do you need me to tell you that Notting Hill features an unlikely romance between Hugh Grant’s bookseller and Julia Roberts’s Hollywood star, played out in an atmosphere of self-deprecating privilege. My chief memory of this film is inextricably linked with a personal one. One evening, nearly twenty years ago, my sister and I returned from a visit to the pub to find my sister’s lodger watching Notting Hill on television. My sister’s lodger was a young woman in her twenties, a good fifteen or twenty years younger than myself or my sibling, and she was watching the film with touchingly rapt enthusiasm. Our interruption was ill-timed. We walked in at the end of the dinner party scene (the bit that aficionados refer to as the ‘brownie scene‘), just before the moment when Gina McKee’s wheelchair-bound character confesses that she and her partner will never be able to have a baby. At this point, I am afraid that my sister and myself erupted in booze-fuelled laughter, grotesque, immoderate, hysterical laughter, to the genuine distress of the poor girl who had been enjoying the film. She said that the pair of us were ‘evil‘ and went up to bed. I would not wish anyone reading this to think that I come from a family of ghouls: our reaction was a simple and honest (albeit slightly pissed) response to a shabbily manipulative bit of screenwriting. The only reason that character was disabled was so her physical impairment would act as a counterweight to the unexamined entitlement that constituted the entire project: un-earned gravitas tossed onto the prevailing frivolity like olives on a pizza. (Curtis also used a deaf character as a ‘heartwarming’ prop in Four Weddings And A Funeral, so one wonders what other long-term medical conditions he might employ in future projects. Psoriasis perhaps? Lots of jokes there. Tourette’s? Trigeminal Neuralgia? Piles?) But plenty of people loved it, so what do I know? I’m just an old soak who shouts at the TV. And who only writes film criticism when drunk. 

In 2008 Mike Leigh’s film Happy Go Lucky was released, to a decidedly mixed response. There was a lot of rapturous press about it but there were also murmurings of disquiet. Was the film really that good? There was a sense of critics having to get in line to support it: Peter Bradshaw’s Guardian review read as if it had been written at gunpoint. Prompted by the gnashingly furious reaction of a friend who had endured it, I decided to see it for myself. However, I made the mistake of taking my girlfriend and my daughter along with me to the Curzon Soho, so I was forty quid out of pocket before we’d bought any popcorn or hard liquor. That was obviously a bad move, so I was not in the best of moods before the film had even started. The film is a love letter to Sally Hawkins, who plays a London teacher of such artless goodness – to the extent of suggesting actual cognitive impairment – that one dearly wishes to strangle her and everyone else in it (except Eddie Marsan, who essays a terrific turn as a bitter driving instructor). We emerged slightly stupefied, rational thought dispelled as if we had been subjected to a Stasi-sponsored hymn to the state. A few days later I tried to express my thoughts on Happy-Go-Lucky in an email to Sight and Sound. I had been reading that venerable organ of record whilst sitting on the toilet, and its lavish and obsequious coverage of Leigh and his film unleashed a wellspring of rage. Fired up by more than just a few drinks, I sat at my laptop and wrote my magisterial take-down of the country’s most successful auteur in a state of gin-soaked certainty. Dilys Powell I was not. Drunk in charge of the Internet – what could possibly go wrong? Well, they printed the damn thing, with my name attached (my real name, that is), as Letter Of The Week in the following issue, prompting quite a flurry of replies. One correspondent – who turned out to be the then-chair of BAFTA – said, in response to my letter, ‘Let me leap to the defence of Mike Leigh – he is our Almodovar, he is our Bunuel.’ (Yes, he really said that.) Drunk or not, I had obviously hit a nerve: Sight and Sound itself reported that box office for Happy-Go-Lucky, initially buoyant, tailed off as word-of-mouth on the film spread. I just wish I had used another name when signing that email: ‘Stephen Poliakoff’ perhaps. Anyway, it followed me around for quite a while; I was even cited in university theses on British cinema. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

With sober hindsight, both films seem weirdly ominous in their complacency. The films of both Curtis and Leigh have exported well, purveying a set of British stereotypes to an international public. This is hardly new – look at the beloved output of Ealing Studios in the forties and fifties – but, post-Brexit, both Notting Hill and Happy-Go-Lucky seem loaded with hubris, in much the same way as Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics now seems painfully ill-judged. In their differing ways, both films evince blithe faith in the idea of British level-headedness, a notion that has since been demonstrated to be utterly false. The Ealing films were made at a time of national reckoning – post-war impoverishment, loss of empire, the struggle to adapt to the modern world, etc. – so films like The Titfield Thunderbolt or Passport to Pimlico may be seen as attempts to put on a brave face against the onslaught of disorienting change (whereas Dead Of Night, The Ladykillers, or Kind Hearts And Coronets have their own, more insidious, purposes). If films inform a nation’s sense of identity – and, drunk or not, I would say that they do – then it is not too much of a stretch to wonder how a persistent (and persistently successful) glibness of tone contributes to national exceptionalism. Richard Curtis’s confections of entitlement and Mike Leigh’s caricatures of working class life feed the same beast. We muddle through. Upper or lower class, we know we’re the best, really. After all, we’re so funny.  

So what now for Richard Curtis and Mike Leigh? I read somewhere that Curtis wants to do a post-Brexit, post-Trump sequel to Love, Actually. Good luck with that. That film, which Curtis directed himself, was the moment the wheels started to come off his project. Mike Leigh seems to have gone quiet after his 2018 film about the Peterloo massacre. But, diminished or not, they remain looming, windswept monuments on the cinematic landscape. To pursue another dodgy metaphor, are they still the twin popes of British cinema? (With Michael Winterbottom as The Archbishop of Canterbury?) Discuss.

One More Before Doomsday

This post originally appeared in April last year. I am running it again to mark this summer’s extreme weather. Pour yourself an apocalyptic one …

It should, by now, be apparent to everyone that we are living in a dystopian sci-fi scenario, but who wrote it? John Wyndham? Too cosy, perhaps. Or there’s J.G. Ballard … he wrote extensively about various kinds of societal collapse, either in ‘hard’ sci-fi novels like The Drowned World, or in his later sly and speculative manner, e.g. High Rise. But Ballard didn’t do comedy and the black absurdity of Donald Trump requires a satirical touch. Kurt Vonnegut’s brand of savage, slapstick sci-fi fits the bill, but I have been unable to locate my copies of Cat’s Cradle or Galapagos to refresh ecstatic youthful impressions. (It has also been suggested to me that Channel 4’s 1982 comedy show Whoops Apocalypse is relevant, chiefly with respect to its portrayal of the President of the United States as a total cretin.) 

But one work of science fiction that has been haunting me over the past few weeks is the 1961 film The Day the Earth Caught Fire, directed by Val Guest from a script written by himself and Wolf Mankowitz (the same team behind the Soho musical Expresso Bongo). The idea behind this inventive British movie is that nuclear testing has thrown the orbit of the earth out of whack and sent our planet spinning toward the sun. London becomes hotter than Cairo and the city’s residents wilt and go mad in the heat. It is a great time capsule of London locations, and the heroes of the film – as unlikely as this sounds now – are journalists working on the Daily Express, then still operating out of its beautiful Art Deco building on Fleet Street, right opposite St. Bride’s church. The nominal stars are Edward Judd (the producers wanted Richard Burton but couldn’t afford him), Leo McKern, and the delightful Janet Munro. The newspaper scenes have a sense of authenticity amidst the dodgy science, and the verisimilitude extended to the casting of the editor of the Daily Express, a character played by a former editor of the paper. (Arthur Christiansen, editor from 1933 to 1957. A nice conceit, but Christiansen couldn’t really act.)

Fleet Street’s finest … Leo McKern, Edward Judd and Janet Munro feeling the heat outside The Express Building.

There’s a lot wrong with the film: the banter-ish, ‘Front Page’ type dialogue is cringeworthy, Edward Judd is a charm-free zone, and the special effects are often risible – but for all that it remains unsettling and eerily prescient. The clever use of genuine news footage, indicating drought and out of control weather, now looks like an anticipation of recent wildfires in Australia and California. The evocation of oppressive, unnatural heat is very effective: everything dries up or burns up and water becomes the most precious of all commodities. Black market water is spreading typhoid, alcohol is in short supply and even a warm Coke will cost you. As society buckles under the strain, decadent young people express their nihilism by wantonly chucking buckets of priceless water about, drenching themselves to the implausible sound of trad jazz. (‘Beatnik music by Monty Norman’ is the byline in the credits. The crazed, trumpet-touting kids were perhaps inspired by riots at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival in 1960. Was Acker Bilk a baleful influence on British youth? Discuss. )

And, as you’d expect in a film that trades in Fleet Street clichés (‘They say you used to be a writer’), there are many episodes where the hacks go the pub. The pub in question is ‘Harry’s Bar’, a private members’ club just next to St. Bride’s (a fictional one, as far as I am aware). By the end, the trip to Harry’s Bar has acquired a devotional aspect: the film concludes with our heroes assembled in the club – one that by now looks more like a bar in the Australian Outback – and wait to hear whether an operation to save the planet has worked. (The great powers set off ‘corrective’ nukes in an attempt to blast the Earth back to its correct orbit.) Harry’s Bar has run dry, but the manageress gives the small band of regulars a drink on the house from a special, reserved bottle of scotch. This scene reminds me of the titular bar scene at the end of Ice Cold In Alex, where an ordinary glass of lager is a miraculous answer to a fervent but unspoken prayer. And this link between booze and prayer feels pertinent to where we are now. Many of us are offering prayers of one sort or another, even non-believers like me who are simply praying for the pubs to re-open. Of course drink is not always the answer; but whilst we might not be able to drink Covid19 away, we can at least toast its demise. As Leo McKern says as he raises his glass in Harry’s Bar: ‘To the luck of the human race’. 

In Harry’s Bar, listening to the countdown over the radio …

For the cineastes out there, The Day the Earth Caught Fire is also notable for Michael Caine’s film debut in a bit part as a policeman (‘Stay clear of Chelsea, they say it’s pretty rough down there’); and also a groundbreaking moment of nudity in British cinema, when Janet Munro’s nipple is briefly glimpsed in her bathroom mirror. Society would never be the same again …

Keep Watching The Bar

An ancient alien entity materialises over the East End at the climax of Nigel Kneale’s ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, directed for Hammer by Roy Ward Baker in 1968.

From The Barnet Eye blog, October 2008:

My big brother once spent a whole evening sitting in a field in Somerset waiting for a UFO to appear. Apparently UFOs had been seen there every night for a few weeks. Around 9.30pm my brother decided that the aliens weren’t coming and adjourned to the pub with his friends. By the time they re-emerged it transpired that they’d missed some rather spectacular sights. They were told ‘It was awesome, first one, then two, then three lights appeared. They hovered there for five minutes and then disappeared’. Laurie later confessed he wasn’t too disappointed to have missed it, having enjoyed thawing out in a nice warm pub.

The release of the Pentagon report into ‘Unidenitified Aerial Phenomena’ (the American military’s coy term for Unidentified Flying Objects) feels timely for 2021, which is as batshit crazy a year as one can imagine. The declassified accounts of US Navy pilots are, perhaps, more revealing than the accompanying videos but the official admission of bafflement is new and actually a little worrying. And one thing is certain: the US government’s formal acknowledgement of ‘Other‘ will unleash a fresh wave of bar stool anecdotes from people describing things they saw on the way home from the pub. I like hearing these. A good friend once mentioned something he saw when he was a passenger on a commercial flight: a floating slab-like thing which fell past his window, a sighting that inevitably recalls the strange monolith in Kubrick’s 2001. My father used to talk of something he and my mother saw in rural Spain, a revolving, net-like object that they watched for about ten minutes before it vanished (which sounds as if it might have been a helix cloud). Someone I knew told me that he and a few friends witnessed a strange craft of some description take flight from a hill outside Taunton. He said it appeared from within a group of trees and rose slowly, silently for a few hundred feet, before projecting itself, in a jerky, zig-zag fashion, into the stratosphere. (Somerset seems to be a bit of a UFO hotspot, as per that piece from The Barnet Eye. My acquaintance offered an impressive story but I subsequently discovered that he was a lunatic, which rather took the shine off his tale.)

Naturally, I am especially keen to hear of UAPs – or even just UFOs – sighted over London but they seem to be relatively rare; but where science fiction is concerned the south-east rules supreme. The grandfather of quotidian sci-fi horror is, of course, H.G. Wells, whose Martian invaders landed in Surrey and promptly laid Woking to waste (a task accomplished in fact by 20th century civic engineers). Hostile aliens turning up in small towns are something of a British speciality, for example The Earth Dies Screaming – filmed in picturesque Shere, in the Surrey Hills – and Village Of The Damned, the village in question being Letchmore Heath near Watford. (Like Somerset Watford seems alive with alien activity; see below.) The latter was derived from a novel by John Wyndham, who took full measure of post-war unease. Perhaps noting the success of Village of the Damned, the 1962 film of his Day Of The Triffids was made with a bigger budget but also showcased the familiar as a backdrop for the unthinkable. Meanwhile, in the real world, the ultra-futuristic visions of alien engagement purveyed by Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott were created in very earthbound studios at Shepperton and Elstree. (Shepperton looms large in the history of British sci-fi: apart from the films made at the studio, the town gets knocked about by Martians in The War Of the Worlds, and was, famously, home to one of the most prescient and radical of all futurist authors, J.G. Ballard.) If you were watching TV around 1970 you would likely have seen UFO, a live-action Gerry Anderson series wherein Earth was protected against extra-terrestrial invasion by Ed Bishop in a white wig and Peter Gordeno in a string vest. (Anderson should have stuck to puppets.) But Quatermass And the Pit, a Hammer Films production from the late 1960s, was a real event: a grimy, downbeat alternative to the visionary transcendence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, made around the same time. Adapted from his TV series by the great Nigel Kneale and directed by Roy Ward Baker, the elaborate plot concerns the discovery of an extremely ancient Martian spacecraft during construction of a new tube line. The film connects extra-terrestrial contact with home-grown demonology and London folk memory (psycho-geographical sci-fi, if you like). It’s far too ambitious and the science is a joke but its climactic scene, wherein a horned alien devil rises over the East End, remains an imposing spectacle. By contrast the bit where a traumatised witness describes his vision of swarming aliens remains hysterical. The first time I saw this film I was a schoolboy and the day after it was shown on TV the playground was full of giggling herberts shouting ‘Jumping! Leaping!‘, thus affording supporting player Duncan Lamont a fleeting moment of fame:

But since the British sci-fi boom of the sixties and seventies alien visits to these shores have been few and far between, writers and filmmakers being more preoccupied with environmental or psychological thought experiments. I will draw a veil over the second-hand horror stylings of Paul Anderson’s 1997 Event Horizon, or the blokey archness of Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, 2013, concerning a crowd of middle-aged farts who encounter aliens whilst on a pub crawl. (To be fair, Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin is supposed to be good but I’ve not seen it.) So allow me to lead you back to something like the real world, to a gym club on the Watford by-pass, where our correspondent from The Barnet Eye has a disquieting encounter:

I always start with a fifteen minute sauna. I settled down for my session and set the egg timer. After about ten minutes another guy came in (he seemed quite normal) and asked ‘Would you mind if I put some oil on the stove’. He did this. Immediately I noted the extremely strange smell of the oil. He laughed and said ‘It reminds me of home’. I asked ‘Where’s that then?’ The guy had a fairly standard, nondescript English accent. He replied ‘A very long way away’. Fair enough, I thought. He then said ‘Do you mind if I put some more water on the stove?’ The guy got the ladle and very deliberately put his hand above it when he poured the water on. As a result a big cloud of steam enveloped his hand. He looked at me and said ‘It doesn’t hurt, I come from a much warmer place’. I said ‘So where is that?’ He replied ‘A very long way away, I’m here as an observer’. Not being sure what was going on, I thought I’d try humour – so I said ‘Oh, you’re an alien then’. He replied ‘Something along those lines’. Now I’m a rather suspicious person but I’d just seen the guy put his hand in a cloud of steam that would have fried a normal person, so I thought I’d play ball. ‘Do you like it here then?’ I asked. ‘No, not really. You see the knowledge of your greatest mathematician would be less than that of an average five year old where I come from’. I asked ‘So is there anyone from here that you admire?’ He replied ‘We think quite highly of Mozart’. I asked ‘What about painters?’. He replied ‘Picasso and Matisse are quite interesting’. ‘What about the food?’ He replied ‘Well, the organic dark chocolate and organic oranges are tolerable’. Much as I would have loved to have carried on the conversation, I excused myself to take a dip in the pool.

‘Would you like soda with that?’ ‘Devil Girl From Mars’, 1954.

Thanks to Roger Tichborne of The Barnet Eye blog for letting me quote his account of his uncanny experience.