Saturday, 31 May 2014

Seymour… Steptoe and Son (1972)

The standard line is that sitcoms adapted into feature films are never as funny as the original series. Evidence for… Dad’s Army, The Likely Lads, On the Buses (OK never that funny…) etc – evidence against… Steptoe and Son?

This was the first Steptoe and Son film and was a commercial hit earning back five times its cost. The original TV series ran from 1962 to 1974 (including a break from 65-70) and always felt like it came out of the same existential theatre as Samuel Beckett and Alan Pinter. For a start the situation was bleak with a love-hate/hate-love relationship between a father and son trapped in their rag and bone business: fighting over trivialities in the confined space of their grimy Victorian house, smothered by the endless piles of purposeless junk. It was more than a little depressing and yet… watch it and you would always end up laughing at the persistence of pride and hopeless optimism amongst all the despair and ultimately the love between father and son.

The sitcom was also unusual in casting two actors rather than comedians with Wilfrid Brambell as Albert Steptoe and Harry H. Corbett as Harold Steptoe. Both had extensive stage experience and dramatic ability which led to the humour being more holistic than other series: the situation, the dialogue and the characters: not just the punchlines.

Written by long-time Tony Hancock collaborators, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Steptoe and Son was a cut above and helped pave the way to the character-driven classics such as The Likely Lads, Dad’s Army, Rising Damp and Porridge.

So: this film? Made during the second group of series, the story followed familiar themes but allowed for the situation to broaden a bit (normally where the formulas come a cropper…) as the lads not only went outside, they found new relationships and even went abroad. This is what normally does for close-focus TV adaptations: they get diluted in the “real world”.

But, for me, there’s still enough focus on the two central characters for the essence to hold up: this film isn’t so much of a bigger budget detour as a grander journey along the same lines to the same place. Albert and Harold are two rag and bone men, they’re divided by family ties with one given up and the other not stopped trying but they’re still surviving with a puncher’s chance. Albert has buckled false teeth and gladly handles horse dung before eating his sandwiches with Harold dreams of escape through love and parental responsibility but, when the chips are down he’ll still look after his impossible, grotesque, stubborn old man.

The story begins with the two leaving the divorce courts – an immediate signal of another failed attempt for Harold to move his life forward. Rolling back we see how he met his wife to be at a “variety” show in their local rugby club which features music, comic turns (Mike Reid as pretty much himself) and strippers.

Harry H. Corbett and Carolyn Seymour
Harold meets one of the performers, named Zita (played by the possibly too classy Carolyn Seymour) in the bar before the show and she is impressed enough to pass a note to him during her show to arrange a date afterwards. There are the inevitable reaction shots from the drunken mail audience not least Albert… but for Harold this is something different and he has already placed Zita on a pedestal.

Zita and Harold leave Albert – his glasses crushed – short-sightedly chatting up the drag act Arthur (Patrick Fyffe or Perri St. Claire as was: later to be the latter part of Hinge and Bracket, fact fans!) and one long night later Harold floats home in love and engaged.

Albert is naturally less than impressed, especially as he’s been locked out but really he doesn’t want any disturbance in their lives and uses all means at his disposal to put Harold off. The day of the wedding arrives and his long, frustrating delays become a little wearing especially when the ring ends up in a mountain of horse manure.

Eventually the unfortunately-aroma’d couple get to the church just I time and then it’s off to sunny Spain on a three-handed honeymoon… yes, Albert comes as well and you can see where this is heading.

Arriving at the hotel Albert quickly gets under Harold’s feet whilst an old flame of Zita’s, Terry (Barrie Ingham) is on hand as the hotel tourist guide. Albert eats far too much Spanish lobster and contracts food poisoning interrupting not just the wedding night but the whole holiday… Harold can only get a flight for two to take him home to recuperate and leaves Zita in Spain under the helpful guidance of Terry…

As always in Steptoe you can see the fine line between Albert’s neediness and his genuine terror at being alone. Harold is never cruel enough to leave him (even for Carolyn Seymour… not a tough choice at all in my book…).

Well, you can pretty much work out the rest but there’s a twist (or two) as Harold re-establishes connection with his estranged wife only to find she’s pregnant: is the child his. An attempt at reconciliation founders when Albert and Zita face off and she’s off again. A few months later and the boys find a new born nestled in the hay in their stables, closely followed by three not so wise men. They quickly rally themselves around this new addition and pretty soon Harold has grand plans…

Is history about to repeat itself or will there be a further turn?

Dusty verdict: Undoubtedly one of the better sitcom-to-film adaptations, what Steptoe and Son lacks in story-strength it makes up for with the performances of the leads.

Carolyn Seymour is excellent as always and it makes a change to see her with long blonde hair rather than the close-cropped look of Survivors. She’s a very intelligent performer and plays well against her highly-experienced leads – it would be very easy to be over-faced against such a well-established double-act but she pitches Zita just right: she isn’t the “scrubber” Albert anticipates (it was 1972… but there are some linguistically awkward moments …) and genuinely loves Harold just as she enjoys her job (the post-feminist “empowerment” defence…). That doesn’t excuse her running off with Terry but... as she said, Harold wasn’t there…

The Brambell and Corbett chemistry works very well on screen and you see more of their abilities as the narrative is allowed more time and depth. Brambell’s Albert is a frightened old man, still a boy at heart whilst his equally-immature offspring isn’t quite practical enough to survive on his own just yet. Harold ends up bloodied but genuinely unbowed whilst the two share an exchange of V signs with Prince Philip as he cruises past their horse and cart on the Mall.

Steptoe and Son is available from Amazon and is worth watching for the quality of the performances alone… not to mention Ms Seymour in a curly blonde wig, a boa and little else. There’s also a nice soundtrack from Roy (Get Carter) Budd as well!

Brambell and Bracket

Sunday, 18 May 2014

The happiest days of your life…? Unman, Wittering and Zigo (1971)

This is one of those films from my youth that has left an indelible, uncomfortable, mark even as a vague memory. Everything is wrong: a school laden down with so much repression disguised as discipline, “children” who behave like the worst kind of adults and yet whose self-justifications has the skewed logic of military dictatorship and a teacher undermined not just by his pupils but by the system he is there to perpetuate.

I can understand why David Hemmings was so keen to use this film to make a point but does its brutal depiction of public schooling gone very wrong stand up in these jaded, a-political times when decades of Thatcherite and centre-right politics have tended to undermine the left wing consensus. I hope so because, whilst public schools don’t necessarily make you into a bad person, strict, unbending ideologies can and the world is still full of them.

The boys of 5B: Kitchen and Cashman at the back
Taken as a lesson in how the individual can lose their moral identity in a collective, Unman, Wittering and Zigo still packs a powerful punch not unlike Lord of the Flies. Here the most ordered and disciplined of environments somehow turns into a murderous one and if you can’t trust the upper middle classes to be compassionate… who can you trust?

The story was based on a 1958 radio play by Giles Cooper who had attended Lancing school and who also sent his sons there: so he wasn’t necessarily anti private education… The film followed a TV adaptation and was well directed by John Mackenzie, he of The Long Good Friday, using locations around Llandudno including the Great Orme – an area I know very well.

St. Tudno Church on the Great Orme
The film starts on the Orme as a man tumbles helplessly to his doom down the rock face. He is a teacher at the local public school, Chantry, "founded in 1678..."

A short-term replacement arrives, John Ebony (David Hemmings) along with his wife Sylvia (Carolyn Seymour – who left such an impression on my teen self as Abbey in the original Survivors). Ebony has given up a career in advertising in order to fulfil his dream of being a teacher and both he and Sylvia already seem uncomfortably out of place: too urban and modern for such a traditional establishment.

John meets the Head's indifference...
John meets the Head (Douglas Wilmer) full of impenetrable certainty who hands him over to the mildly-rebellious art teacher Cary Farthingale (Tony Haygarth – another consistently excellent performer of the period) who hints that all may not be as it seems, at least educationally. He wants to escape but, like so many of the working populace, he’s still there.

Tony Haygarth and David Hemmings
It’s unusual for a master to be married but John is handed a run-down rustic cottage which he and Sylvia will have to re-decorate. He returns there for beans on toast after a not unexpectedly tough first day with his form – Class 5B.

David Hemmings, some beans on toast and Carolyn Seymour - a grand night in!
5B have a strange habit of completing each other’s sentences, and in this polite gestalt are also quite insistent on maintaining the routines of their deceased master right down to the jokes he would make during roll-call: they are creatures of disciplined in-discipline, rebels within the boundaries of their own cruelty.

Exasperated by their incessant challenges, John threatens to keep them behind on Saturday and is told that this is not a good idea… Why? “Because that’s why we killed him…” John refuses to take this seriously and even after confronting the boy who says it, fresh-faced Cloistermouth (Nicholas Hoye) lets him off – he’s just a 15-year old kid after all.

Cloistermouth reveals all
But the next day, 5B re-iterate their claims dispassionately explaining how the deed was done and why… John goes to the Head but he has no time for him and assumes he’s just struggling to control the class. It’s as if the school is against the outsider and he must prove his quality to them all: subservient yet disciplined: “obedience is the child of authority” as the school motto has it.

5B try to intimidate their teacher
The Ebony’s are invited to sherry with the head and Mr. Winstanley (Hamilton Dyce) a fearsome and drily-earnest senior master and his wife (Barbara Lott). They are part of the fabric of the school and Sylvia is all at sea in trying to make a connection with them and you’re right with her: you can understand John’s passion to teach but even Mr Chips would have said goodbye to this lot pretty quickly.

Carolyn Seymour
But John cares about his boys and ultimately wants to learn from them: what makes them the way they are? The class is made up of pupils with extreme upper middle class names – have you ever met a Clackworth a Blisterine or a Borby? The faces are mostly younger versions of well-known actors with Michael Kitchen as Bungabine and Michael Cashman as Terhew … all perform well and if anything viewing faces that you know better in maturity, adds to the strange feeling of boys acting as men acting as cold-blooded killers.

Once evidence has been provided of the murder, John has nowhere left to turn and he and the class arrange a modus vivendi to enable the smart ones to study as much as they need and for all to indulge in money-making schemes involving betting. John is trapped but still has a physical edge as he demonstrates against Terhew.

Meanwhile he neglects Sylvia as he increases his drinking time with Farthingale as they try to make sense of the situation… not just your usual after-work pub-grumbles.

The game is changed when the Head informs John that, as an old boy has now become available, they will not be offering him a full-time post…  It’s the way the school works and John clearly never had the badge of belonging in the first place not being an “Old Chantonian”.

Spoilers:  John now stops caring and spends lessons reading the paper. The brighter boys start to worry about their results whilst the more thuggish start to run wild. Without their teacher’s authority they are unable to self-govern and soon bullying is rife with Wittering the main butt.

The boys target Sylvia as a means of controlling John and, after an uncomfortable visit in which Terhew lacks the courage to physically threaten her; there is the film’s most alarming and uncomfortable moment when the boys lure her to the squash courts with the aim of raping her. This is not easy viewing but Sylvia stands her ground and turns the tables on her attackers – none of whom have the experience of courage to be the first.

 Sylvia escapes and tells John but the following morning the boys arrive in a panic as Wittering, totally humiliated by the previous night’s events, has gone missing. The game is up…

In the end, John finds out who but not quite why the boys resorted to murder. They had been made into calculating sociopaths by a school worshiping its own culture of extreme obedience and loyalty. All other moral considerations cast aside, the collective good was all that mattered and sacrifices had to be made.

Hemmings is terrific as the jaded ad man looking for a new truth whilst Caroline Seymour shows what a nuanced and intelligent performer she is as their marriage is pushed apart under the strain of meeting this strange challenge. John needs to help the boys but after her courageous response to her attackers she is less willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Dusty verdict: Glad I didn’t go to public school… but this is a violent disturbance that can affect us all in the wrong circumstances.  Unman, Wittering and Zigo’s strangeness lingers and reverberates – why do we go to war?

The film is available for download from Amazon Prime but the DVD is out of print. I think I might upgrade but this is one of those films, like Straw Dogs, that you steel yourself to watch: honest and unflinching.

MR Hemmings and future Eastender, Mr Cashman
Sylvia faces down the boys

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Art-house Hammer… The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)

”Boy, have you picked the wrong vampire!"

Made after Repulsion and before Rosemary’s Baby, a gothic vampire comedy might seem an unusual creative progression for Roman Polanski but there’s enough grim in this fairy tale to reveal the continuity of his thoughts.

The Fearless Vampire Killers is a twisted meditation on the perils of bungling scientific intervention with the film’s nominal heroes being responsible for upsetting the balance of its strange Transylvanian eco-system. It’s closer to Dr Strangelove than Carry on Screaming (one of the classiest of that series…) and is infused with Polanski’s Polish humour throughout.

Even watching this on my tiny black and white portable long ago, I picked up on the strangeness of the film’s atmosphere and Douglas Slocombe’s expert cinematography coupled with huge, expressive sets are used to create a claustrophobic, unsettling, quietly-hysterical world populated with a demographically-diverse set of vampires. The “horror” isn’t with the blood and gore but the sexual paranoia of a world where even taking a bath can be a risk…

The Moon rises over a perfect snow covered night-scape and a sleigh speeds into view. On board, gradually being frozen solid sit Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran – a Polanski regular) and his assistant Alfred (Roman Polanski). They arrive at a remote hostelry where the innkeeper Yoine Shagal (Alfie Bass) arranges a defrosting as well as a room for two.

Alfie Bass bothers Fiona Lewis
It’s a weird hotel, garlic hangs from the eves and the customers seem abnormally jumpy… almost animalistic… and young Alfred is not so different staring with virgin fascination at the chest of Magda, Shagal's maid (Fiona Lewis) as she warms his feet and then later reaching out to cop a feel only to have his hand slapped away. Are all vampire films ultimately about sex?

Sarah in the suds
Shagal shows the men to their room and opening the door to the bathroom all are surprised to see his lovely daughter Sarah (Sharon Tate) taking a bath. She’s addicted to washing but, for some reason, her father is determined to keep her away from the bathroom… there’s something about those suds… Alfred builds a snowman and looks up to see Sarah smiling down at him.

Over the snows comes a new entrant into the bar: the shambling, weirdly-disfigured Koukol (Terry Downes) servant to the local nobleman, Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne). Magda dives under the table to avoid him whilst the clientele stay rooted to their seats. On his way out he glances up to spot Sarah at her room window where she had been watching Alfred…

Alfred and the Magda hide from Koukol
That night Koukol returns with his master. Still looking for a bath Sarah enlists Alfred’s help in getting into the bathroom but, as she relaxes in the warmth a face appears at the skylight and, as snow drops onto her head, the Count opens the window and climbs down to begin her initiation into the cult of the undead.

Alfred and the Professor react too late and open the door to find her gone, just a small red spray on the suds revealing the vampiric attack. Shagal is distraught and heads off in pursuit followed by the not-so-fearless vampire hunters.

So far so Hammer and yet the atmosphere is very strange, the dialogue is whispered and sometimes garbled and the characters react almost like silent film actors, as if in a pantomime. Following the traditional story arc, the young girl is bitten by the ghoul but can still be saved from transformation if the heroes prevent too much blood being taken so, off they set.

At the castle matters get stranger still as the intrepid duo get locked up by Koukol before being called for their interview with a vampire, Count von Krolock (almost an anagram of Nosferatu’s Count von Orlock…) who toys with the new arrivals. Alfred finds Sarah alive and rather distant… sapped of her will by the Count who meanwhile introduces him to his son Herbert von Krolock (Iain Quarrier camping it up) thinking he will provide him with the prefect young companion…

Herbert takes a shine to Alfred
The Count intends to complete the vampirification of Sarah in front of the undead dancers in the film’s great set-piece: it feels like an MTV video twenty years early – no doubt because of its influence on subsequent videos.

Can the intrepid duo engineer an escape for themselves and the beauteous Sarah or will they be dragged down by the sheer weight of vampiric numbers as the undead strut their desiccated stuff?

It’s an odd and unsettling film that’s just a little too grotesque to qualify as easy-viewing and that’s the way it was intended. Polanski was aiming for the same dreamlike disturbance as Carl Dreyer achieved in Vampyr (1932) with the Professor’s look borrowed from one of that film’s protagonists. Which is why the language is conflicted and the well-trodden narrative trajectories head off in unpredictable ways.

Who are these men that want to interfere and over-analyse? IS scientific rationality the only way to truth and how do we, by observing alter the course of events?

Dusty verdict: There’s always the chance that The Fearless Vampire Killers could just be a daft story aimed at cashing in on the vampire vogue but I really doubt it… yes it’s funny but it’s also disturbing: who would have thought the sight of a small ring of blood in bathroom bubbles could be so creepy?

Favourite moment: Alfie Bass’ Jewish vampire laughing at being threatened with a cross… vampires are a broad church…

Jack MacGowran provides professorial, Sharon Tate brings beautiful and husband-to-be Polsanski does distinctive directorial along with his Alfred acting. Mention should also be given to the supernaturally-superb score from Krzysztof Komeda which perfectly matches the film’s comically-eerie mood: we laugh because it’s funny and because it’s strange…. uncanny.

Sharon Tate
The Fearless Vampire Killers is available on DVD from Amazon and others.

Mr and Mrs Polanski