I’m not a huge fan of Graham Swift’s books, but I read his Waterland and Last Orders, and much prefer Last Orders as a novel but Waterland as a film, no matter how many trivial changes the screenwriter made. In Swift’s memoir there’s the amusing revelation that Steve got this assignment because although he was last on the list he was the only one available…yeah, that’s the Gyllenhaal Luck. Fortunately—really fortunately—Steve had with him a very good Director of Photography, Robert Elswit, and score composer Carter Burwell, whose music you can hear above.
I mentioned in another posting about his film work that “there’s a creepy, dreamy, nasty edge in almost all the sex scenes in Steve’s movies…” which certainly figures here. Not in the actual sex scenes between the teenage lovers, which are all lyrically rendered, but in that damn ABORTION SCENE in the woods, which never fails to get gasps from us females in the audience. Check it out. There’s a weird fairy-tale quality to this scene which is beautiful, but sooo the wrong tone.
As I once pledged, I will go almost anywhere my beloved conductor John Wilson leads me; and so it was a remark of his that led me to this movie, which in the mid-90s was an estimable hit in the UK, though not so much here in the States. When asked by The Telegraph about his early musical influences, said John, “Brass bands. Coming from a working-class background, the tradition of amateur music-making was important to me…”
There’ve been a couple of other, better known (in the US) British films, The Full Monty and Billy Elliot, which also address the economic/unemployment crisis in Britain that, back in the 80s, did its part to whittle away at arts education throughout the country, particularly in the north. Like I said, my beloved conductor’s remarks in recent interviews about his early influences started me thinking not only about his musical but general education growing up in Gateshead in the 80s. I’ll take this on in an upcoming post. The contrasts / similarities between his musical influences and school training—as a northern Brit through most of the 80s—and mine—as a midwestern American through the mid 60s-early 70s—I find worth examining, and not just because I’m hopelessly in love with the bloke.
For now, this is what I take away from anecdotal evidence like Brassed Off and John’s childhood memories: The British, in general, seem to be more used to the sound of brass ensembles than Americans. Now, we like to think we know all about brass ensemble music because, being Americans, military marches and Sousa seem to stalk us everywhere we go in this great land of ours. But really, it’s not the same kind of music. I’ll discuss this in my review.
But let me just say this here: I will try to cut John a little more slack when it comes to his choices in orchestration for The Great American Songbook. I mean, if that’s really the way he hears it in his head…
My father, who would be 115 years old in 3 days, went to the movies with me only a couple of times. The first was for Taras Bulba (United Artists, 1962). I remember him getting a particular kick out of the ride of the Cossacks scene, thrilling Franz Waxman music and all.
The second time was for Tora! Tora! Tora! (20th Century Fox, 1970). The movie house in Columbia Heights, just over the city line from Northeast Minneapolis, was within walking distance, I walked it all the time, and could still get in for 50 cents because at 15 I still looked 12. For some reason my father ended up not only driving me the few blocks, but after I’d found my seat and the lights went down I was astonished to notice him come in and sit down beside me.
“Dad, what are you doing here?” I whispered loudly. “You know, the Japs win in this.”
“Not for long,” he answered cheerfully, which is about as close as anyone in our family got to talking about the 7 December 1941 attacks and the general brutality my mother, then a teenager in Bangar in the province of La Union, had to face in an occupied country.
Bangar in those days was rather like Nouvion in ‘Allo ‘Allo—a little town situated a ways from the capital but near the sea, a hotbed of resistance. When you read about Bangar here, just remember: that kid who escaped, which resulted in occupying troops burning down the place, was one of my cousins. When the guards marched him to town to be executed, his family, through looks and gestures from a distance, pretty much gave him the word that they expected him to “take one for the team” i.e. let himself be shot; but at the last moment, as family legend goes, he grabbed the officer’s sword and in the confusion was able to get away into the forest. And so as feared came the reprisals.
A shadow still hangs over the de la Peña family.
Taken at a banquet of an old Filipino-American association my dad was part of (that’s him under the picture on the right; keep forgetting he still had hair before I was born), one of about a hundred around at the time. Note the date: only a couple of weeks before Pearl Harbor. Note also the Philippine flag on the wall. The Philippines wasn’t yet a sovereign nation but a Commonwealth and didn’t achieve independence till 1946.
Meanwhile in California my dad, who had come to the States a young man in 1927, was engaged to a woman from St Louis he eventually COULD NOT MARRY because—are you ahead of me on this?—HE WASN’T WHITE!!! Yes! The MISCENEGATION LAW of the State of California—which by the way was NOT REPEALED UNTIL 1962—prohibited them and God knows how many other California couples from legally joining, forcing them to travel to other states where they could. (Recently read this happened to that fine actor Dean Jagger and his Chinese-American fiancee in the early 50s and I’m curious to hear other people’s stories).
How my dad, residing at last in Minneapolis, eventually found and married my mother in Manila is another story, and it’s a doozy. I’ll tell it on their 70th wedding anniversary next year.
Now to my beloved John Wilson, who was born the day of my father’s final birthday, in 1972. John, I’m not saying we’re psychically linked, but about a month ago in the middle of defrosting the refrigerator I think I got a weird emotional flash from you where you were being right annoyed… I got the impression it might’ve been about The John Wilson Orchestra, you were waiting for some kind of answer re your orchestra and not getting it, and I actually felt your annoyance… As I say, it was weird, like listening in on a party line…
That’s all I could make of it. But it’s enough to make me want to give you something special for your birthday. So…I’ve tried this only once, with an old boyfriend, and I think because I was really, really into him it worked. On the actual day of your birthday, John, I’m going to try to send you an energy shot. [UPDATE: Just did it. Think I got through. 25 May 2020 2AM UK time.] Until then, Happy Birthday, light of my life, fire of my loins. And if you and I ever make that date at the Metropole in Gateshead, tell me if it worked.
She’s been eaten by cannibals, bitten by Dracula, and raped by Victor Frankenstein. I adore her.
I am talking of course about English model-turned-actress Veronica Carlson, the most delectable of all of Count Dracula’s victims. Her movie career wasn’t long (I understand she’s pretty much retired to South Carolina now, where she paints) but she made a lasting impression on countless adolescents in the 60s, many of whom, now grown, still look forward to watching Dracula Has Risen from the Grave for a really good stroke session.
Hammer, the film studio where Carlson did her best-known work, worked wonders when it came to dignifying luridness, which is what you’d expect from the Brits, wouldn’t you? The British were never sexier than in the 60s. I miss that.
As for Elisabeth Lutyens, she tells her own story in this short interview with the BBC. Her work for Amicus films is best exemplified by her theme for Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, above. But this short piece is much more to my liking and demonstrates her superior musical gift.
I was twelve when The Forsyte Saga (all 26 episodes available here) was first shown on American TV and I thought it was the coolest series ever.* It was about a large, rich and, though unconnected, influential family living in late-capitalistic England circa 1879, who keep getting into pretty heated conflicts with each other—which at the bottom are really about, more or less, the value of art and the inner life vs commerce—all the while being beautifully attired and beautifully well-spoken. Hearing this royal fanfare from “Halcyon Days” that opened the show was enough to get me all excited with anticipation on a Sunday night, but it wasn’t until last year around May when I finally discovered the composer of the piece, Eric Coates, plus the rest of this ravishing movement, when I fell in love with conductor John Wilson and developed a raging need to get close to the music he’s close to.
Soames played by Eric Porter—The Man of Property, Noted Art Collector, and about as Mr Wrong as you can get—mistook his wife for a soulless mannequin and, in novelist John Galsworthy’s sardonic words, “asserted his marital rights and acted like a man” in this scene, in which the BBC made shocking good use of Nyree Dawn Porter’s lovely embonpoint.
Sarah Millican first. I swear, I tried listening to this fast-talking comedienne from nearby South Shields the middle of last year but could not keep up with her pace or her accent. Later I started watching old episodes of Auf Wiedersehn, Pet and Our Friends In the North but they’re just so…masculine, you know? Which I suspect pretty much defines Geordie culture anyway… So I started alternating watching that show with When the Boat Comes In, which was more successful for me, as the estimable Northumbria-born actress Jean Heywood provided a good model of what a feminine northeast accent sounds like. After her it was a snap to follow Millican.
Second, The Orville, Seth MacFarlane’s Star Trek-like TV series. Like the 70s folksinger says, “I’m a stoner, I’m a trekker, I’m a young sky walker…” So yeh, I’d be interested in watching this show just to see if it measures up to the standards of my youth. Unfortunately, none of MacFarlane’s projects (except for pre-2013 Family Guy) ever sound interesting enough for me to overcome my intense personal dislike for him. So…maybe later. I did, however, listen to the show’s theme music, which was written by Andrew Cottee, the same young man who wrote some arrangements for The John Wilson Orchestra over in England. The theme does everything expected of it.
Third, Get Carter, 1971, starring Michael Caine and the City of Newcastle. Made this movie last on my list because it deserves two paragraphs, being the British noir classic that it is…
Sidebar: As we all now know from film school, existentialism is the engine of noir, which means that petty details like Michael Caine speaking in a thick Cockney accent* when his character’s supposed to be from Newcastle-upon-Tyne oughtn’t to matter to the sophisticated auditor. But I had a problem. I’m sorry. A year and a half ago I wouldn’t have cared, one Brit being the same as any other. Then I fell in love with John, a Low Fell lad, and individuality suddenly became a very important thing to me.
The Movie Overall: Not quite sure why the filmmakers transplanted novelist Ted Lewis’s story from his original setting in Lincolnshire (Lewis’s birthplace), to Tyneside, but since it’s the classic story of the Anti-Hero’s Revenge, which works anytime, anyplace, it does fine here. Michael Caine’s a little podgy but quick with his reflexes and still a treat for the ladies. Lots of sex and violence, lots of local atmosphere, local faces, and landmarks like Tyne Bridge, the Newcastle Racecourse and, of course, the carpark across the Tyne River.
The Carpark in Gateshead Scene: By a stroke of luck Get Carter was just streamed on Criterion so I watched the entire movie, then to make sure, watched the carpark scene twice more in order to understand why it so sticks in the mind. Because it does, you know, even though I’m not a fan of movies like this. I guess it’s because there’s rather a high elegance to this scene that contrasts with all the mundaneness and phony poshness around it… Very arty, but a genuine statement. Or maybe it’s just because I like watching Michael Caine get all riled up.
The now torn-down carpark at Trinity Square in Gateshead in this famous scene was a dreary piece of English Brutalist architecture that, according to its creator Rodney Gordon, was never meant to stand the test of time anyway. That’s the theme to The Orville above.
*I understand that a stage version of Get Carter was recently performed in Newcastle, with Carter’s accent spoken correctly.
Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren in The Millionairess (20th Century Fox, 1960). By the way, as an Asian-American, I have no problem with Peter Sellers playing a Muslim Indian doctor—or Anthony Quinn playing a Filipino war hero, for that matter. (If you’re looking for the BBC-TV show Goodness Gracious Me, here’s the pub sketch to start you off…)
Of course it’s not Bella Seaton (Jean Heywood) speaking that line, it’s her daughter, schoolteacher Jessie, pleading the case of an artistic young pupil doomed to work down the coal pit in Gallowshields, a post-WWI fictional town—a composite, I believe, of all the little towns along the River Tyne in the north near Newcastle (you know, that place in the phrase “Selling coals to Newcastle is like selling ice to Eskimos”) including the town where my beloved John Wilson was born and bred, Gateshead*. Bella is the strong-willed matriarch, as we Yanks would say, of the Seaton family, so she gets a lot of scenes, which is great because I pick up the Geordie accent from Northumberland-born Heywood more easily than from anyone else in the show.
As I might have mentioned a few postings ago I did three of my flicks speaking in a foreign accent: one in French, one in Cuban, and one in Malaysian, which I actually did in Filipino but no one could tell the difference. I like to practice the Geordie accent during off moments, you know, because it reminds me of John, and so it gives me pleasure.
Here’s a sweet little doddle while I work on a few involved postings (not all of them to do with my bonny John Wilson). Cabin Pressure is one of the funniest, most cleverly-written sitcoms on BBC Radio and it doesn’t hurt that two stage/screen veterans with the most gorgeous voices and perfect comedic delivery are top of the compact cast list. I’m sharing this episode because it starts off with a demanding conductor and a paranoid bassoonist on board the tiny chartered airplane—and as always, of course, Glinka’s overture to the opera Ruslan and Ludmila.
Stephanie Cole, creator John Finnemore, Roger Allam, and Benedict Cumberbatch perform Cabin Pressure for a live BBC studio audience.
There must be something in the English character that enables the better artists among them to depict situations of unassuming, steady bravery with superior deftness, which is probably why their World War II pictures are better than ours. One of them, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (20th Century Fox, 1958), doesn’t technically qualify either as a UK picture—Fox produced it; or as a WWII picture—it’s set during the Sino-Japanese War of 1938; but it does have unarmed peasantry scattering to the hills under Japanese gunfire, which is a theme that ran through my mother’s life starting with Pearl Harbor and ending in March, 1945 when American troops marched through the rubble-strewn streets of Manila, hunky victorious good guys. My mother’s first teenage romance was with a private in the 1st Cavalry Division named Kelly, come to think of it.
Now, when I refer to better artists of English character I don’t mean the film’s producer, director, writer (American, American, American), or stars (Swedish, Austrian). But it’s because of: one, the true-life heroine the story was based on; two, the location shooting; three, the non-lead casting; and four and most importantly, the music, that I think of Sixth Happiness as an English film. The true-life heroine of the story was English-born, not to mention the film has Snowdonia standing in for the daunting terrain around Yangcheng and pretty near the entire Chinese heritage population of Liverpool standing in for Chinese nationals, with supporting roles portrayed by stalwarts of UK stage and screen. This is the first thing I ever saw Burt Kwouk in.
But to the music. This is not Malcolm Arnold’s finest score—Bridge On the River Kwai (Columbia, 1957) really is a superior composition—but it rates higher with me becauuuse, you guessed it, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness has a gorgeous Love Theme, which you can hear below as the Royal Academy of Music performed the suite back in 2014. You’ll also hear the bright, high fanfare brass that Arnold used in a few other of his movies, River Kwai and the one below, for examples. Also, I’m starting to develop a theory to satisfy myself that certain intervals, played with conviction, are the real sinews of English music: they make for that sound of “rightness”, which you can take one way or another, depending on the mood—or your mood, for that matter. Sixth Happiness has plenty of those.
Besides the satisfying fanfare brass, Sixth Happiness shares with the satirical The Belles of St Trinian’s (British Lion, 1954) a bit in the score where there’s a song meant to be sung by children—in Sixth Happiness it’s “This Old Man”; in St Trinian’s it’s the school’s hilarious “Battle Cry”. I’m not posting the lyrics here, so click on the link in red to listen to those cheerfully bloodthirsty oaths. But can you imagine what a liberating tonic this ferocious roar from the depths of The Untamed Female Soul was to a little girl in the Catholic part of Minneapolis, watching this on Saturday matinee TV (a tonic, incidentally, I would not imbibe again till I heard Bernadine Dorhn mouth off a few years later)—?
Here’s the BBCCO doing the St Trinian’s suite at the Proms (Timothy West, narrator) bringing back almost all the familiar, funny-music leitmotifs to smile at, like George Cole’s character’s “Flash Harry”, a loping, rattling kind of tune (although lamentably there’s no sign of Joyce Grenfell’s scurrying “Ruby Gates”) before returning to that ghoulish school pageant march, lyrics I believe provided by Arnold himself.
In contrast, “This Old Man” is meant to be a “found” song, purportedly a children’s counting song, heard on the playground since the 19th century, and in a way that’s right, as the first time I heard “This Old Man” was on the playground—but only because it had become a hit on US radio first in 1959. It’s still impossible for me not to hear “This Old Man” and not think of the climactic scene in Sixth Happiness: the hundred children crossing the Yellow River into safe territory, ragged and exhausted but alive, marching into the unoccupied city to cheering crowds, loudly singing this song. Invariably it brings tears to my eyes, immigrant daughter that I am, and I remember the first time I watched—and heard—this film on TV with my mother, my mind nearly forming the question I never asked her, not then, not ever: “What happened to you in the war, mom?” Because the music was so ravishing, the love story was so satisfying, and my mother just wanted to enjoy an Ingrid Bergman film.