Saturday 13 February 2016

Solo Archer (slight return)… Sebastian (1968)

After his shocking horror, Peeping Tom, which had the temerity to challenge the relentless gaze of the cinema, Michael Powell struggled to direct again in the UK. Unlike contemporary Alfred Hitchcock – whose work is sometimes far more distasteful to my eyes, Powell’s film was just too honest and perhaps lacking in the humorous detachment the former director used to lessen the impact of his gorier moments. Even that was long gone by the time of his later work.

But why was the director of The Red Shoes, Colonel Blimp and Black Narcissus - half of the mighty Archers along with Emeric Pressburger - so vilified after Tom: why was he edged out? It might just be that he was out of fashion in increasingly swinging sixties Britain as it gradually substituted psychedelic whimsy for magic realism.

Susannah York swings
This film was produced by Powell and directed by David Greene, but there is no doubt that he considered directing at some point and certainly seems to have had final say on the script which is witty enough especially in the hands of Dirk Bogarde, Susannah York and John Gielgud.

The films opens with Bogarde’s character, Sebastian, racing past St Peter’s College – the wrong direction – and then round past Teddy Hall and thence though New College towards The Sheldonian. One of his friends is getting an honorary degree – the Prime Minister as he tells new acquaintance Rebecca (Becky) Howard (Susannah York) who had just avoided knocking him down.

Becky meets Sebastian in Oxford
Never-the-less, she seems quite bright and, after asking her to pronounce her name backwards, feels she may have potential…

Back in London, Sebastian’s office is thrillingly in St Alphage House on the Highwalks – St Alphage Highwalk is now under reconstruction and only one tower remains of this quintessentially sixties development – Bastion House on London Wall – a fine building with stunning views over the city if you’re ever in the area!

London Wall as it was up until a couple of years ago
Becky turns up after contacting Sebastian’s office about his vague offer and joins the rest of the new recruits in the professor’s - all-female – decoding service. The team all work in one large hall, staring at numbers and letters on a screen and then working together or in groups to decode the meaning. This may have been a hangover from writer Leo Marks’s experience in the war but it’s a swinging sixties scenario.

The decoders at work
One of the workers, Elsa Shahn (Lilli Palmer) is a bit of a radical and is accused of leaking facts to left-wing groups. Sebastian protects her from their watchful head of security, General John Phillips (Nigel Davenport) who in turn reports into the Head of Intelligence played by the great John Gielgud.

They’re on odd mob but it clearly works.

Lilli Palmer and Dirk consider the issues
Sebastian surely doesn’t have a private life doe she? Well yes, he really does, being engaged in a strangely-detached (well he is….) relationship with a faded pop star Carol Fancy (the scrummy Janet Munro) who sadly watches herself on Juke Box Jury (complete with your actual Alan Freeman)  from the desolate luxury of her apartment in Eton Square.

Carol's fab Chelsea pad
But Sebastian looks at her with tired eyes and he won’t be able to resist the allure of his beautiful new recruit for long and so it proves as they head of clothes shopping and onto a discotheque before heading back to his stark flat – it’s grey with all the style of a Victorian palace of mourning. “You’re COATED in the old careless charm, like bloody icing sugar. I hate your bloody wallpaper!” declares Rebecca… Sebastian is in need of saving from himself and she’s just the woman to do it!

Dirk and Sue
A few things jar, not least Sebastian’s relationship with the pop star, but Bogarde is still a mystery attractive enough for Rebecca to want to solve. He’s not a man without compassion as his loyalty to Elsa shows. But he’s a socially awkward boffin who is more constrained by duty and professionalism than any aspergian traits.

Elsa lets him down by leaking decodings to left-wing interests whilst Rebecca throws her arms around him in his office with the microphone turned on. His secret out and his best decoder compromised, Sebastian decides to leave and head back to academia.

Gielgud interrupts
But, several months later he is followed into Oxford’s famous Blackstone’s bookshop by the Head of Security… there’s a new code that only he can crack. In spite of himself he can’t resist and agrees to a strictly-limited return.

He travels to Jodrell Bank where Ackerman, an American agent played by a goofy young Donald Sutherland. explains the new code: a seemingly irregular pulsing not unlike the less engaging work of the Aphex Twin. Sebastian takes this back to his all-girl decoders and they step back into the old routine, Elsa re-instated but, Rebecca sadly missing.

Janet Munro
Meanwhile old love Carol has fallen into a rather abusive relationship with a bully called Toby (Ronald Fraser on fine, nasty form…). She makes sure to bump into Sebastian and invite shim round for an afternoon back in the old groove. They are rudely interrupted by Toby just as Sebastian discovers his champagne has been spiked with LSD… as the faces of those around begin to melt, Toby leads his fragmented consciousness upstairs where he tries to persuade him he can fly… Queue last-minute rescue from General Phillips – who, it turns out, is very much on the same side after all.

Spoilers…. Work remains slow and Sebastian goes to – Richmond? – to find Rebecca. He makes his entrance to be greeted by shock then anger… a baby appears – it’s his although there’s work to be done. He grabs a rattle absent-mindedly and shakes it in time to the pulsing message – Rebecca looks concerned as his face assumes a familiar pattern of focused calculation… They’re back but he has one last job to finish.

Dusty verdict: Sebastian is uneven but filled with period whimsy mixed with a harder edge as you’d expect from a Powell film. It doesn’t compare with his best but has an excellent cast including the ill-fated Janet Munro and the incandescent Susannah York. Dirk was 46 at the time of filming but still carries off the mature leading man, confused by the people around him even as he cracks the most complex of codes.

Sebastian doesn't seem to be available on official DVD but DVD-Rs seem to be available on the grey market... there's a decent copy on YouTube – it’s worth it for the glimpses of Sixties and for Janet, Susannah and Dirk.

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