Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Delian Moods

Delia and Des

The BBC Archive Hour on Saturday provided an airing for Matthew Sweet’s documentary on Delia Derbyshire, Sculptress of Sound, presumably in anticipation of the new series of Doctor Who arriving on our screens this weekend (in Britain, at any rate). This was originally made to mark the donation of a collection of Delia’s personal tapes, correspondence and writings to Manchester University, and provided a first chance to hear some of these long lost sounds beyond the vaults of academe. The documentary centred on a roundtable discussion chaired by Matthew Sweet and featuring Delia’s fellow radiophonicists Dick Mills and Brian Hodgson, White Noise collaborator David Vorhaus, and official Radiophonic Workshop archivist and ‘custodian of the loops’ Mark Ayres. We also hear the voices of her ex-boss and Workshop co-founder Desmond Briscoe, and one of her successors, Elizabeth Parker.

Delia herself is heard throughout via archive recordings. She was possessed of a beguiling voice, which contained the requisite elements of BBC received English, but tempered with an individual quality which erased the overtones of assumed authority with which many such accents were imbued (and which was perhaps the reason for their cultivation in the first place). There is a certain hesitancy in her speech at times, but rather than marking an awkwardness arising from introversion, it comes across as the deliberation of someone searching for the most concise way in which to voice her ideas. A facet of what she herself describes as her ‘analytical mind’. Brian Hodgson, Dick Mills and David Vorhaus are all unequivocal in their affection for Delia and their admiration of her work, but they are all also open in admitting that she could be a spiky and emotionally unpredictable person at times. Dick Mills describes her (and not necessarily in a wholly negative sense) as ‘fiery and a bit crazy’. The impression is given of a woman whose mind was constantly firing off in all different directions, following its own thread through mental mazes (sparks in electrical jelly indeed!)

She certainly seems to have cut a dash through the 60s and early 70s. Elizabeth Parker recalls her first encounter with Delia, instantly recognisable in cloak and large hat, with her ‘distinctive voice – very elegant, very beautiful’. She was someone who could become utterly absorbed in her work when the spirit took her, to the extent that the external world (as opposed to the ideal world of mental process) was perceived only on the level at which instinctual reactions were required. Brian Hodgson recalls one incident in which she was cycling from the Maida Vail studios (home of the Workshop) to her adjacent flat whilst beginning to process some ideas for a new piece in her head. Before she knew it, she found herself in Vauxhall, way across town and on the south side of the Thames, with no recollection of how she’d made her way there through the busy streets of central London.

There is an extract played (from one of her tapes) of an early 60s viewers’ questions radio programme called Information Please in which Delia is given the opportunity to give a brief insight into her methods. David Vorhaus notes how irritated she would have been at the patronising tone of the interviewer, and by the simplistic nature of his questions, all of which would have been enough to ‘set her off’, in his words. There is an interesting comparison made between the conservative nature of the light music theme used to introduce the programme, a style which was fairly standard across the station, and which was redolent of pipe smoke and wooden wirelesses, and the electronic music which she and others were producing at the Radiophonic Workshop. This was radical both in its form, the context into which it was placed, and the means of its production. The work of the Radiophonic Workshop was often reduced to the status of sound effects, the collective name under which its anonymous contributors were gathered suggesting a place of artisan labour rather than artistic endeavour. Desmond Briscoe, at the start of the programme, describes them as ‘specialists in sound’, but goes on to make the very John Cage-ian observation that any organised sounds can be regarded as music. This philosophy pointed the way to a very different approach to that of the Worker’s Playtime style of light music, a new soundworld which marked a divide from the post-war continuities with the past and set its sights on the future. This was, in many ways, more of a soundtrack to Wilson’s era of the white heat of technology than the Beatles or the Stones, and the perspicacious Paul McCartney certainly took an interest, sharing a stage on the same bill as Delia at the Roundhouse as he took his own tentative steps into the worlds of electronic music.

Delia’s rather chaotic way of living in her later years, her feeling of being in a constant state of transience, resulted in many of the tapes which eventually found their way to Manchester University remaining unpacked from the various boxes in which they’d been stored when she left the Workshop. Some were even found filed away in corn flake packets. This is a detail which provides a neat metaphor for the way in which her music and the everyday modernism of the Workshop in general was surreptitiously fed into people’s lives, consumed with the radio programmes which served as the background ambience to the daily round. Given that the daytime audience would at this time still largely have been composed of women defined as housewives, the prominence of women composers within the Workshop was entirely fitting. From co-founder Daphne Oram, through Maddalena Fagandini (aka Ray Cathode), Jenyth Worsley, Delia and later Elizabeth Parker.

Electrosonic sounds
The contributions of the Radiophonic Workshop composers always remained anonymous in Delia’s time, something which probably rankled considerably. David Butler, the curator of the collection at Manchester University, reads out a part of a letter written by the head of BBC drama in which he singles out Delia’s contribution to a play called the Talon fro the highest praise, whilst recognising that the quality of her work will of necessity (or the dictates of Corporation policy) go uncredited elsewhere. Such anonymity may have suited Delia to some extent at the time. It meant, as a corollary, that she was by and large left to her own devices and had the run of the studio at night. David Vorhaus recalls how he sneaked in during these after hours sessions and worked with Delia on some of the songs which would go to up the White Noise LP (some of which would go on to soundtrack a black mass in the late Hammer farrago Dracula AD1972! – an implausibly entertaining movie, it has to be said). Delia managed to work her way around the Beeb’s proprietorial strictures in other ways, her naturally rebellious individualism leading her to seek other outlets for her creativity. Her thinly disguised pseudonym Li de la Russe (the last probably a reference to her auburn hair) was used for library recordings, such as the one recently reissued as Electrosonic.

Various pieces of music are analysed by the guest panel, both in terms of their content and the cultural and personal context in which they were made. The elements of what’s widely regarded as one of Delia’s best pieces, Blue Veils and Golden Sands, are revealed (not exactly for the first time, admittedly). There is the heavily filtered sound of her own voice providing the sense of the slow progress of a camel train through the desert sands, and shimmering sound gained from striking the green shade of a BBC lamp, with the attack of the initial impact removed leaving only the ringing resonance which followed. As Dick Mills points out, it’s the sound of a mirage. Radiophonic Workshop archivist and curator (and composer in his own right) Mark Ayres gives the same clear analysis of the component parts of the Dr Who theme as he did for the BBC4 documentary Alchemists of Sound. There are 5 basic elements which comprise its layered sound. Firstly, there are a series of upward bass swoops, which give a skidding rhythmic underpinning. These are overlaid by the main bass line, the train-like pulse which drives the music. On top of this dual layer lies another in the upper register. There is the melody, created with the help of the wobbulator, the knocked-together oscillator set-up which gives a tremulous quality to the pure tones which it, er, wobbulates. This is probably pretty much all that remains of Ron Grainer’s original composition. Above this are thrown the sparks of high harmonics which serve as an aural halo to the melody, giving the whole piece the feeling of possessing its own acoustic, as if it is sounding out a particular space, describing imaginary volumes. Finally, the whole is enveloped in the miasma of a twin track of white noise. This is the whooshing wind which creates the feel of motion for which the rushing tunnel of the opening credits is the perfect accompaniment. Dick Mills describes these sounds as an attempt to create an aural Doppler effect. With one track played forwards and the other backwards (a reversal of the polarity?) and the judicious application of various echo and reverberation effects, the disorientating feeling of being carried along on a wave of motion which proceeds in all directions simultaneously is created; The sound of travels in time and space. Delia’s pride in this, her most famous creation, is evinced by her evident frustration with the constant tinkering to which her piece was subjected. The infamous EMS Delaware version receives short shrift from everyone. Dick Mills makes the point that one of Delia’s skills was her ability to keep things simple, to not needlessly complicate a piece merely because she had the technological means to do so. It is with weary retrospective resignation that she professes to have been ‘shocked by what I had to do in the course of so-called duty’. As Brian Hodgson points out, the theme is so memorable because of its imperfections; it has the sound of performed music because of the nature of its construction, and because it hasn’t been sequenced or quantised into ‘perfect’ uniformity.

Malcolm Clarke wrestles with the Delaware
The final track which is discussed is the dance from Noah, a school’s ‘drama workshop’ production from 1971. This represents Delia’s imaginative use of early synthesisers, in this case the EMS VCS3, a rather more portable and responsive beast than the room-sized monster of the Delaware. The rhythm track is played in isolation and is strikingly modern in its sound. Orbital brother Paul Hartnoll observes that it could be a track off a current Warp release, say an Autechre record. It is placed as the final track on the recent 2CD Radiophonic Workshop Retrospective, a compilation which is otherwise strictly chronological in its approach, emphasising its contemporaneity some 37 years after its composition. It certainly sounds way ahead of its time, particularly in the company of some of the more time-locked sounds on that second disc, which reflect the Workshop’s (and to be fair, most musicians’) wholesale adoption of the programmed sounds of the latest synthesiser technology (such as the Fairlight). It was a direction which Delia eventually decided she had no real interest in following, and its clear from the portrait which has been painted that she was someone who was able to create only if she felt wholly engaged with the work at hand. Its hard to imagine how she could have built something which ‘sounds like a gothic altarpiece’, as she had done at the behest of Barry Bermange for their Inventions for Radio series, from such unmalleable material as synthesiser technology offered. It was all too conventionally musical in some ways, a retreat from the notion of sound itself as sculptural matter. As she is heard saying earlier, ‘any sound can made into a radiophonic sound…we have to shape and mould them’.

Now, with the archive safely stored and being carefully digitised for future study, it seems that her reputation and her place within the wider musical and cultural continuum is assured, and can only grow. Let’s hope that these treasures aren’t hoarded by the academics (good work though they are evidently doing) and find their way out into the wider world. Perhaps they should invite Johnny Trunk in to have a delve and produce something along the lines of his excellent two volume collections of The John Baker Tapes. Or a release of the quality and diversity of Paradigm Discs Daphne Oram collection would be wonderful. After the programme, I listened to the CD of music by Delia and Brian Hodgson (along with Dudley Simpson and David Vorhaus) originally released as the library LP ESL104, but here put out by Trunk Records under the title The Tomorrow People, that being the programme where most of it was released (and like Johnny, I didn’t see it at the time, because it was on ITV). Mr Trunk, in his entertaining liner notes, recommends listeners to go and read Brian Hodgson’s obituary of Delia online, so when I turned on the computer the next day I did just that. It’s an insightful, personal and heartfelt piece, and I echo his recommendation. You can find it here.

Friday, 19 March 2010

the Films of Val Lewton - Part Thirty

The Body Snatcher - Part Seven

Unexpected house guest
Gray arrives back at home in his dark room and greets his cat as he takes off his hat and scarf. Using a spill to catch a flame from his meagre fire to light a candle, he reveals, by its feeble glow, MacFarlane sitting in the corner waiting for him. Gray is now stripped of his coachman’s armour and is once more diminished in bulk, cutting an unimposing and rather humble figure. He appears tired and worn as he wearily says ‘this is unexpected, Toddy’. His voice is empty of any of its usual rhetorical guile, drained of the energy required for verbal sparring. MacFarlane gets straight to the point of his visit (which is tantamount to a break in). He elaborates on the analogy of Gray as disease, as a cancerous outgrowth of conscience which was given visual representation in the mirror at the inn, and which has been foreshadowed by Georgina’s memory tumour. Referring to him as ‘a malignant, evil cancer, rotting my mind’, MacFarlane makes an apparent admission of the inseparable double nature which he and Gray share as divided halves of the same persona. Gray looks genuinely hurt at being reduced to such an unpleasant metaphor, sighing ‘so you’ve made a disease of me, eh, Toddy’. It’s a sigh of disappointment, as much as anything, at a lesson which remains unlearned. MacFarlane continues to evade self-knowledge, the recognition of his true nature, of which Gray is a part. At the notion of being surgically excised, Gray feigns shock, asking ‘surely you’re not threatening an old friend’, to which MacFarlane snaps back ‘we’ve never been friends’. As if such implacable hostility and denial of the past is a sign, a trigger for a certain course of action, Gray offers him a drink. It is a gesture of hospitality which is the overture to a murderous routine which Gray has already successfully rehearsed with Joseph.

Sorrowful countenance - the human disease
MacFarlane offers Gray an unsparing reflective portrait (the equivalent of Gray’s confrontation of the doctor with his true self in the mirror at the inn) of his declining years and the increasingly hard labour and poverty which will be attendant upon them. It is a bleak outlook which he offers to leaven with the offer of a ‘neat little house’ at Leith. He makes allusion to the fact that ‘new laws may come’, which will eliminate his extra source of income. This is an anticipation of the Anatomy Act, and indicates Lewton’s awareness of its importance in the context of the story, giving further credence to the probability that the year in which the film is set was very consciously and deliberately chosen. In tune with the candid nature of this meeting, in which all barriers are being lowered, and which is already gathering the air of finality about it, Gray boils this offer down to a bald précis (‘would you bribe me to let you be’). MacFarlane brightly responds ‘I’d make you rich’, a materialist’s solution to a more metaphysical problem, one which involves tangled issues of moral responsibility and the nature and context of evil. Gray continues to fill MacFarlane’s glass all the while, an outpouring of hospitality apportioned with deadly generosity.

MacFarlane having made his play, Gray gives his response, his voice, in contrast with the doctor’s excitable tones, even and almost gentle. Gray rejects the material solution, saying ‘that wouldn’t be half so much fun for me as to have you come here and beg’. MacFarlane reflexively spits out a contemptuous response (‘beg of you, you crawling graveyard rat!’) which is reminiscent of the way he used to treat Joseph – as an animal. It is a response which indicates an overweening and unsuppressible sense of superiority and entitlement, for such expressions of revulsion are entirely counterproductive in this context. Gray replies in a calm, almost seductive voice which, in its refusal to rise to ire, shows a sense of control, of the release of feeling able, at this end point, to be utterly open. ‘Aye, that is my pleasure’, he says, unashamed at this unearthing of his emotional substructure. When MacFarlane does resort to begging, Gray carefully and slowly explains to him why he must refuse he entreaties, since then ‘I would lose the fun of having you come back and beg again’. There is no malice here, just a cool and considered laying out of the facts. The spartan setting of Gray’s home has become and emotional dissection room.

The predatory perch
Gray has now taken up his predatory raptor posture, perched on the edge of the table and leaning forward over MacFarlane. This was the posture he adopted as he began to guide Joseph towards his death. The seating/standing power dynamic comes into play again, and MacFarlane is almost crying as he puts the fundamental question: ‘but why, Gray, why?’ A look of hatred takes possession of Gray’s face, or perhaps it’s disgust at MacFarlane’s weakness, or his lack of understanding. He explains how ‘it would be a hurt to me to see you no more, Toddy’. We feel that this a truthful articulation of his emotions, without the recourse to his customary verbal smokescreens. ‘You’re a pleasure to me’, he adds, regarding MacFarlane as if he were an object, an ornament with which to enliven daily existence, in much the same way as the doctor regards those around him. ‘A pleasure to torment me?’, MacFarlane petulantly prompts, as if Gray were akin to one of his cats, playing with a captured cat or bird. Gray carefully clarifies his feelings, telling MacFarlane that it’s ‘a pride to know that I can force you to my will’. He displays a remarkable level of emotional articulacy, expressing a self-awareness which reveals a reflective, even sensitive nature. This is in contrast with MacFarlane’s unwillingness to confront his own motivations and the murky moral underpinnings of his lofty self-image. Whilst Gray has hidden depths, MacFarlane has barely covered shallows.

I am a humble man
Gray goes on to reveal the very core of the conflict between the two from his perspective, displaying what amounts to an x-ray of his wounded soul. He suggests the role which his lowly social standing and its attendant economic hardships play in driving him to acts contrary to his nature. ‘I am a small man, a humble man’, he starts, with none of the heavily accented mock humility with which he would usually slather such comments. ‘And being poor, I have had to do much that I did not want to do’. Thus he explicitly elucidates the element of social and class division which is embodied in these two characters as well as in the city of Edinburgh itself, with its old and new town areas. ‘But so long as the great Doctor MacFarlane jumps to my whistle’, he continues, ‘that long am I a man’. The heart of the power play is the clash of two egos locked in struggle. One prospers in direct proportion to the other’s decline. Gray’s torment of MacFarlane arise not from an inherent evil, but from a need to survive. It’s a manifestation of the Darwinian principle of the survival of the fittest on the human level of self-definition, based on the need for self-aware creatures to feel a sense of purpose, of having a meaningful position within the order of things. This is a struggle played out not only on the social, but also on the psychological, and beyond that even the metaphysical stage. A struggle which embraces class, mind and soul. If MacFarlane defines himself through his professional prefix as a Doctor, a man of importance who pursues the great human endeavour of the furtherance of knowledge, then Gray defines himself, finds meaning, through a reflection of that sense of importance. ‘If I have not that’, he says, referring to his ability to manipulate the doctor, ‘I have nothing’. His speech has taken on a curiously poetic form of rhetoric, which makes his self-reflection seem at the same time both sad and self-conscious, as if he is listening to himself whilst he is voicing this sense of emptiness. Without this sense of self-worth parasitically derived from the torment of another he would be ‘only a cabman and a graverobber’, someone defined only through his trade, just as he is known as Cabman Gray. No-one seems likely to call him John. As a man defined through such trades, he’ll only ever be an object of MacFarlane’s contempt. And yet, again on both a social and psychological level, MacFarlane does need him. As Meg pointed out to Fettes, it was MacFarlane who used her money to hire Gray in the first place. On the metaphysical level, of course, they are two halves of the same divided soul, and whilst Gray’s concluding statement ‘you’ll never get rid of me, Toddy’ may be intended as a statement of intent for the here and now, it is on this level that it will resonate more truthfully.

Observing human savagery
The two pounce as one and lock into a struggle from the animal savagery of which even the cat shies away. Gray’s suffocating tombstone of a hand comes into play again. He is forceful yet at the same time tender, trying to ease their conflict away from this deathly physical plane and re-establish it on the psychological level where it can continue to feed him. ‘Don’t force me to kill you, Toddy’, he says. ‘My pride has need of you’. The death of one will diminish the other. They will be killing a part of themselves. MacFarlane pretends to acquiescence before renewing his attack with redoubled fury and desperation. The remainder of the struggle is seen in the form of a shadow play projected upon the wall, watched by Gray’s cat, who flinches from the violence it witnesses directly. The shadow world is one which we have encountered numerous times throughout Lewton’s films. It implies a world at one remove from the surface appearance of mundane reality, one which lies beyond death. The cat perching on the shelf sits halfway between the two, able to perceive this tenebrous dimension. The shadows of the two men on the wall merge together as they wrestle with each other, identities blurring until we can no longer tell who is who. One bludgeons the other repeatedly until he falls lifelessly to the floor and fetches the sack to carry him out in. We hear the hooves echoing on cobbles and see a shot of the anatomy room, by now short-cut indicators of death’s delivery routine.

Becoming Gray
It is MacFarlane who comes through the anatomy room door and deposits his cadaver upon the table. He is following in Gray’s footsteps, taking on his work routines. Meg runs down to meet him and tells him that she’s sent Fettes away. As MacFarlane is taking on Gray’s duties, so she is taking control of the household, putting things in order. She has long observed the moral ruination into which MacFarlane has fallen, but she is not prepared to see its corrosive effects passed on. If Gray was seen as a disease, then she recognises MacFarlane as the vector through which its infection is spread. ‘I’ll not see another boy made miserable like you, Toddy’, she says, the name echoing the sorrowful affection with which it was used by Gray as he was smothering him. MacFarlane shows her who it is he has brought in and declares ‘I’m rid of him forever. Now he’ll serve a good purpose’. Ends and means are once more invoked. ‘Tomorrow, when the last bit of him is dissected, demonstrated and entered in the students’ notebooks, then at last there’s an end to him’, he concludes with satisfaction. By getting rid of the physical remains, and also of Gray’s horse and cab, he believes he will be putting an end to the matter. But this is just a destruction of matter, a disposal on the material plane. It does nothing to exorcise all that Gray has represented within MacFarlane’s own persona, all the aspects of himself and his past that he continues to suppress. As Gray himself said in response to Fettes’ ill-advised quip about doctor’s getting rid of their enemies by dissecting them, ‘you’ll never get rid of me that way, Toddy’. Meg agrees. There is a close up on her face as she pauses in her ascent of the stairs. ‘No, Toddy’, she says, ‘you’re not rid of him’. The use of MacFarlane’s affectionate diminutive is added from the script. This has always been a name which represents his human side, the aspect which exists outside of the honorifics of profession or class. Its use here bears the tender hallmarks of a final farewell. As she turns to walk upstairs, she knows this may be the last time she ever sees him.

A farewell
The next scene finds Fettes and Mrs Marsh with Georgina at their usual meeting place on the balustrade overlooking the city. Fettes tells her that he has left ‘the school’, and she draws him aside to speak with him alone. She addresses him as Donald for the first time, a familiar use of his first name which implies a new level of intimacy. Assuring her that his decision has nothing to do with her, he says he ‘feels he learned nothing’ and that ‘he taught me the mechanics of anatomy but he couldn’t teach me the poetry of medicine’, words which echo Gray’s insistence on the limitations of MacFarlane’s knowledge at the inn. Meg’s intervention the previous night has clearly had its effect. Fettes’ salvation lies in the influence of these two women; the human intimacy which Mrs Marsh offers (as well as the example which Georgina provides of the human ends which guide medicine) and the emotional and experiential wisdom which he gains from Meg. Whilst he and Mrs Marsh are talking, Georgina hears the sounds of hooves approaching below and, unable to attract their attention, is motivated to get up from her chair and take a few tentative steps to see over the balcony and greet the white horse. It is Gray’s kindness and concern which has provided this impetus, the ‘poetic’ side of the healing process which completes the mechanical repair. Ironically, of course, if this is Gray’s horse and cart (Georgina never gets to see over the balcony wall) it is being driven away by MacFarlane to be sold. Once more, innocence abuts the world of experience and in this instance remains unscathed. Upon seeing her first steps towards recovery, Fettes determines to go and tell MacFarlane of his triumph. He is greeted at the door by ‘Mistress Cameron’, who no longer wears tartan and appears to have shed her subservient role to become a genuine mistress of the house. It seems she may have come to a decision to put the past behind her. She tells Fettes where MacFarlane has gone and tries to dissuade him from following him, concluding when he ignores her intuitive warnings that ‘there’s no standing between a fool and his folly’.

Another Nietszchean turn
MacFarlane sits alone in a country inn as a circle of horse dealers celebrate their bargaining prowess around another fire. There are no divisions in this inn, which lies beyond the city and is more of a piece with the old Scotland. MacFarlane has come her to do business, and cheerfully accepts the hospitality of the dealer who clearly feels he has won a bargain from him. Fettes arrives and tells him of Georgina’s recovery, to which MacFarlane responds ‘I knew it, the moment I was rid of him’. He adopts an uncharacteristically superstitious view of Gray as a cursed presence, the removal of which has effected a miraculous cure, a sign perhaps that the rigid delineation of his rationalistic world view is beginning to fragment. We know, of course, that Gray has played a more beneficent part in Georgina’s cure. MacFarlane is less than honest about Gray’s departure from his life, claiming that he’s ‘been able to induce him to leave Edinburgh’. They both drink to a ‘good riddance’. MacFarlane pledges to be a good man and a better teacher. Gray’s death becomes an opportunity for his rebirth. A mourning party enters the inn, providing a sombre counterpoint to the jolly drinking songs which are being sung around the fire. The proximity of life and death are highlighted as they were in the graveyard scene at the start of the film. On hearing where they have just come from, MacFarlane muses ‘that’s a lonely cemetery, not a soul around for miles’, adding ‘it’s our own ends I’m thinking about’. His resolution is almost immediately forgotten, and he shows a lofty lack of compassion for the human suffering which is apparent directly before him. ‘I let no opportunity escape me’, he declares, and stands to deliver the latest of his Nietszchean diatribes, railing against ‘the stupidity of the people. The idiocy of their laws shall not stop me’. The humility of his resolution to become a better man is cast aside as he once more lays claim to a loftily superior perspective. This perspective is also voiced by MacFarlane in Stevenson’s short story. He draws the distinction between ‘the two squads of us – the lions and the lambs. If you’re a lamb, you’ll come to lie upon these tables like Gray…if you’re a lion, you’ll live and drive a horse like me…like all the world with any wit or courage’. It is a philosophy which locates mankind within the continuum of the animal kingdom, with its continual struggle for supremacy and survival.

MacFarlane determines to cut out the middle man so that he will no longer be forced ‘to deal with reptilian creatures like Gray’, instead taking on the role himself. He is becoming that which he affects to despise, internalising what was previously an externalised manifestation of a divided soul. There is every sign that, without Gray’s restraining influence, he is becoming transfigured, turning into a creature of true monstrosity. Fettes makes his usual token refusals, but he is clearly easily influenced by such forceful and commanding rhetoric. It is the persuasiveness of the psychopathic personality, affectless and free of the constraints of conventional morality. It is very much reminiscent of the hypnotic power which Captain Stone exerts over Tom in The Ghost Ship. Tom comes to realise the ease with which unquestioned authority shades into tyranny, and escapes from the thrall of the Captain’s influence. He is subjected to it once more through mishap rather than choice. Fettes, on the other hand, willingly follows MacFarlane through the door. He is a natural follower.

The overseer - division of labour
There is a dissolve to the interior of the small cemetery, leaves blowing through the open gates in the tempestuous night. The film opened in a graveyard, under more clement daytime conditions, and now draws to a close in a similar setting, but during a stormy night. It is a contrast which echoes the darkening of Fettes own experience. At the grave, he is doing the heavy spadework, already deep into the pit of his own digging. He is halfway to appointing himself MacFarlane’s new Gray. Is this how Gray himself began his downward descent? MacFarlane stands above him at the graveside, cloak flapping in the wind. The work almost done, he offers to take over and gives Fettes a hand up. The horse neighs outside as they lift the shrouded body from its coffin, another animal shying away from the savagery of the human world it co-habits. MacFarlane laughs mockingly, jeering ‘so we can’t do without Gray, eh? So I’ll never be rid of him?’ This is the equivalent of whistling past the graveyard, making light of your innermost fears. His emergence from the grave (the yawning pit which Meg envisaged?) is like a rebirth, but hardly the rediscovery of youthful idealism and noble purpose to which he briefly pledged himself at the inn. It is more like a transformation into the ‘crawling graveyard rat’ he characterised Gray as with undisguised revulsion. There is a hysterical edge to MacFarlane’s denial. The body is set on the seat between MacFarlane and Fettes, there being no room in the back, and they set off through the driving rain, the small gig rocking back and forth on the rough country road.

The final embrace
The camera observes MacFarlane’s face in close up, lit against the background darkness. The body keeps slumping forward against him, and he asks Fettes to move it. As they progress, Fettes nodding off beside him, MacFarlane looks increasingly agitated. He begins to hear a phantom voice whispering ‘Toddy’, and he tries to shake it off, as if it is falling with the rain. It becomes more insistent, but Fettes reassures him that it’s ‘nothing but the wind’. The voice starts up a repetetive refrain of ‘never get rid of me’ which fits in with the rhythmic beats of hooves and wheels. It reaches a crescendo with a cry of ‘never, never, never’ which finally becomes an unbearable shout. MacFarlane stops the carriage and asks Fettes ‘for mercy’s sake, let’s have a light’, a line taken from Stevenson’s story. As Fettes gets out to fetch the lamp, MacFarlane muses ‘it’s changed, I swear it’s changed’. Holding the light and lifting the sheet to see what’s beneath, he says ‘this is not a woman’, another Stevenson line. A flash of lightning reveals Gray’s corpse, and MacFarlane utters his name with a sense of resignation, of a recognition of the inevitable. Gray is now wholly denuded of his armour, even of his domestic garments. He is naked and bony, a gaunt, drawn figure. Yet he glows with a milky luminescence, as if he is burning with an inextinguishable inner radiance. He appears now to be possessed of an almost supernatural power, an avenging angel of implacable and terrible purpose. A fury unleashed from the depths of MacFarlane’s own troubled subconscious, the dying embers of his conscience. As Gray’s name is invoked, the panicked horse sets of in a headlong rush, a wild ride which carries the helpless MacFarlane towards his predestined fate. The motion of the gig jogs Gray’s corpse forward and with a mocking approximation of life his arm flops across and around MacFarlane’s shoulder. It is a possessive embrace marking a friendship which was sought but never reciprocated and which now lays claim to MacFarlane’s soul, guiding him towards the pit. This is the final, cold contact which is forced upon him, he having turned away from warmer embraces in life. It’s as if Gray is offering to accompany him into the next world, to be his companion in the dark lands beyond. MacFarlane lets fly a piercing scream of terror as the carriage plunges headlong down a steep bank. Fettes, following on behind, comes across his inert, dead form, and looks at the face of the corpse which they had dug up. It is that of the old woman who was mourned at the inn. The final image of the film is that of Fettes walking back along the rainsoaked road, his lamp lighting a way through the darkness. Having been denied Lewton’s customary opening quotation at the start of the film, we are offered one at its close. This quotation, which comes from Hippocrates of Cos, seems to hold out the hope that Fettes, something of a weak and easily led character throughout, may have learned the beginnings of wisdom: ‘it is through error that man tries and rises. It is through tragedy he learns. All the roads of learning begin in darkness and go out into the light’.

Next (and finally!) we find ourselves in BEDLAM.

Carrying the light

Eliane Radigue

A Portrait of Eliane Radigue (2009) from Maxime Guitton on Vimeo.

This is a good little film based around an interview with the French electronic music composer Eliane Radigue. She has been creating works since the early 70s which unfold slowly over lengthy periods of time around extended tones, and which slowly accrete and deposit sounds in a very organic fashion. She had studied with musique concrete pioneer Pierre Schaeffer in Paris and later became an assistant to Pierre Henry, but when she began to find her own voice, it found its expression in an entirely different form. Whereas Schaeffer and Henry remained wedded to an idea of electronic music as sound collage, Radigue stripped everything back to fundamental tones (a reduction to perfect little sounds, as she puts it), which she painstakingly modulated and transformed. It was an approach very much in tune with minimalist trends in America, and she found a more welcoming reception for her music there. Interestingly, her approach predated her discovery of Tibetan Buddhism, which went on to provide the ideal philosophical framework within which she created some of her greatest work, such as the Trilogie de la Mort, Adnos and the Songs of Milarepa.

The film shows her in a domestic setting, with her ARP synthesiser taking up one wall, a Tibetan Buddhist picture above it, and a cat sprawled across her table. It is the perfect setting for a music which resonates with the thrum and pulse of life. Radigue likens listening to her music to looking at the surface of a river, a kind of immersive dream gazing. The music acts as a mental mirror, reflecting the state of the receptive listener at the time, and it can therefore be a very powerful experience. This is a very humble and non-egotistical way to regard your music - she doesn't try to impose her own interpretation but offers it up to others to discover what they may within. Radigue seems to have given up composing electronic music for the time being, concentrating instead on creating works for particular instrumentalists. She has recently finished a trilogy which goes by the title Naldjorlak, the different pieces from which are written for cello and basset-horn duo. Thanks to the re-release of much of her electronic works, however, she has been given the recognition which has long been her due.

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Twenty Nine

The Body Snatcher - Part Six

The pleasures of home and hearth
We hear Gray’s voice as the camera gazes at the fire burning in the hearth. We could almost be seeing the prelude to a flashback, a glimpse into a past alluded to on previous occasions. He tells Meg not to worry about MacFarlane since ‘he’s been drunk before’, a reassurance which implies an easy intimacy between all three of them. The camera pans around to find the Gray with which we are familiar, very much a presence in the here and now. He grasps a tankard with a casually proprietorial air and leans back expansively in his chair before the fire, making himself at home whilst Meg sits with alert tension, focussing intently on her knitting. It is a scene of domestic quietude which might almost be a reverie on Gray’s part, a depiction of the warm acceptance and companionship which he craves. Meg’s openly dismissive response to his assurance that he’ll keep her company in MacFarlane’s absence (‘I’d call that no good fortune’) dispels the illusion of congeniality. Gray’s open recognition of Meg’s relationship with MacFarlane creates something of a co-conspiratorial air, however. Gray creates his own fantasy of companionship whilst Meg’s genuine relationship is concealed beneath a pretence of servitude in the name of social propriety. An uneasy balance between the two is thereby struck. Meg’s rejection of Gray’s friendly airs sends him into a wistful remembrance of a past for whose loss he mourns; a past in which he was viewed without the disgust which he now reflexively invites. ‘There was a time, lass’ he reminds her, ‘when you weren’t so uncommon cold to your old friend’. This nostalgic ache suggests a yearning for what he considers a golden age, an era in which he felt a sense of belonging. It is a time whose remaining fragments he still tries to gather together and reassemble, even though they are now hopelessly tattered and torn.

Making a connection with these remembrances of intimacies past which Gray is trying to rekindle, Meg makes a direct appeal to him. Still partly caught in his dream of acceptance, she senses that his self-defensive verbal armour may have been laid to one side, allowing for a response which will eschew his usual guarded and carefully calculating circumlocution. ‘Why must you be at him all the time?’ she asks. Gray replies ‘he’s my friend. I like to see my friends. I like to visit ‘em’. It is both veiled threat, appeal and assertion of his stake to a position in the household, to a seat beside the fire in the front room. He would seek to resurrect the past (giving a further meaning to his role as resurrection man), insisting on a fidelity with the origins which it encompasses. He is the friend who refuses to be unceremoniously discarded when it becomes politic or socially expedient to do so. When the sound of the front door shutting alerts her to MacFarlane’s return, Meg immediately puts down her knitting, telling Gray with a blunt frankness ‘you’ve no excuse now to bear me company’. Gray’s illusion of a domestic haven to which he can retreat is definitively dispelled.

Gray catches MacFarlane’s glance and pause of recognition and takes an ostentatious swig of his tankard. His use of this tankard brings an air of the inn to the doctor’s front room, and his relaxed sprawl before the fire brings to mind the similar blaze before which he entertained the company of MacFarlane and Fettes in the open ‘commonality’ of its public space. His gestures here make it clear that he is quite prepared to become as familiar a presence at the doctor’s home and hearth as he is at the inn. MacFarlane makes no pretence at hospitality, and his aggressive enquiry into the reason for Gray’s visit draws a mock-innocent response. ‘Would you grudge me a glass with me old crony, Meg?’ he asks, his use of words as ever weighted with hidden meaning. His claiming of Meg for a crony implies a companionship based on shared social background. He thus draws attention to the fact that MacFarlane considers both of them to be his social inferiors, and would disavow each of their acquaintances in public. Meg immediately shrugs off the implied fellow feeling (‘crony indeed!’) but there is more of a connection between the two of them than she would like to admit. Both, in their different ways, suffer from MacFarlane’s cold indifference and rejection.

Being heavy-handed
Gray announces ‘I’ve brought you a little present, MacFarlane’, his use of the surname introducing a theatrical element of solemn formality. Joseph’s body becomes a ritualistic offering, a sacrifice offered to gain access to the sacred domestic paradise upstairs. Gray rebuffs Macfarlane’s attempts to command him to leave with a steely insistence on the acceptance of his offering. He returns to the use of the familiar diminutive Toddy, a more intimate and more intimidating mode of address. MacFarlane strides over and grabs his arm, prepared to use force where words have failed. Physical contact, which has previously been used to draw people in, to create a sense of intimacy and shared purpose, is now used to cast out. This attempt at physical repulsion causes Gray’s tone of lulling insistence to modulate downwards into direct threat. ‘I wouldn’t do it, Toddy’, he glowers. ‘I wouldn’t be heavy handed’. MacFarlane is given pause not only by Gray’s greater physical strength, but by the sense of defiant purpose in his voice. Something has changed in his spirit which makes it clear that he’s no longer content to merely score a few points and leave in the afterglow of a cutting final word. This is Gray with a new determination, fuelled by desperation, which drives him to go further than he has before and which gives him a conspicuously dangerous edge. MacFarlane looks fearful and immediately drops his aggressive stance, his attempt to impose mastery within his own house. Gray’s gaining of the upper hand within the doctor’s own front room (and at night, outside of the time when social visits might be expected) marks a significant shift in the continually fluctuating balance of power between the two. He has staked a claim to new territory. The camera moves in to a close up of the two of them, facing up to each other in intimate, sparring detail. There is a palpable feeling of violence held in tenuous suspension. The balance of power is caught as it shifts on its fulcrum once more, with both antagonists aware of its transference. Gray presses his advantage by making explicit his threat where previously he might have left it implicit, hanging in the air after his tactically timed departure. ‘It might become known’, he suggestively hints, ‘that when the great Doctor MacFarlane finds his anatomy school without subjects, he provides them himself, and from the midst of his own household’. This is the knowledge which has imbued him with the boldness to venture into the upstairs world. He tells MacFarlane to look downstairs, a symbolic exertion of power; sending him to the world below from which he has just ascended.

Lighting the way to the Underworld
MacFarlane’s voice takes on a tone of fearful concern as he inquires as to the whereabouts of Fettes. He walks briskly off and we see him descending into the deep shadowy blackness of the anatomy room, Fettes appearing at the head of the stairs with a candle to cast light into darkness. This is a descent into the pit, a confrontation with fears which have long been held at bay but are now gathering force. The source lies behind the curtains, which MacFarlane sweeps back, allowing us to see beyond the veil for the first time. Joseph is revealed, flesh waxen in the candlelight, stripped of clothing and humanity. His body is not buried or burned but submerged, stored in a barrel for future use; an inert commodity. ‘A member of the household’, MacFarlane says with palpable relief and an underlying contempt which recoils at the very idea that Joseph might be thus regarded. Any trace of concern has drained from his voice, and there is no trace of pity. MacFarlane immediately becomes efficient and businesslike, intent on fabricating a surface appearance of propriety, much as he does in his social life. ‘The more things are wrong, the more we must act as if everything were right’, he declares, a statement which could serve as a personal motto. He orders Fettes to make the necessary entry in the book before carrying out a complete dissection. Such meticulous accounting further reduces Joseph to a depersonalised commodity, a body valued on the scales of economic exchange (ten pounds) much as it was in life. He becomes the embodiment of the anatomy charts before which we first saw him emerge from the dissection room. With their traceries of exposed nerves and veins, these served as augurs of his own fate.

Silent witness
Fettes puts up what by now seems a feebly token resistance which MacFarlane knocks aside with no attempt at the morally persuasive arguments with which he has won him over before. Meg descends and pauses on the stairs at this point, playing her characteristic role as mute witness to MacFarlane’s moral degradation and his gradual corruption of Fettes. She hears him openly threaten Fettes, telling him ‘because the entry of the girl’s body is in your writing, you’ll do as I say’. It was Gray who pushed Fettes into making these entries, so MacFarlane is effectively enforcing the process which he had instigated. This chain of coercion links him directly with Gray and further confuses the vectors of moral causation, of the degree of culpability both for the deaths and for Fettes’ entanglement in the bureaucracy which enshrouds them. Just as Gray threatened MacFarlane upstairs, so he passes on the threat to Fettes downstairs. The lines of division between the two are becoming less distinctly delineated, the parallel more clearly outlined. As Meg attempts to stop him from going to ‘attend’ to Gray, he pushes her aside with not a little violence. It is a gesture which echoes his shrugging off of her affections earlier. His few moments of contact are no longer a means of drawing people in to his way of seeing things, or of expressing fondness, but a physical repulsion, pushing them away. In doing so, he becomes more and more isolated. There is only one person he can really turn to, and to whom he can bare his soul, and he goes to him now.

Meg is left with Fettes, who immediately presumes to a masculine assumption of proprietorial authority, of a superior wisdom and worldliness which he patently doesn’t possess. Meg ignores his stance and his attempts to usher her away from the grim underbelly which is the foundation of the house. She exhibits her own authority in her brisk undercutting of his attempts to play substitute master of the house. She takes hold of his lapels, making contact in order to lend power to her pleas for him to leave. This use of contact to draw him in, to hold him in place so that he listens to her comes directly after MacFarlane has pushed her away, and stands in contrast to this rejection. If she can’t save him, then at least she can pull Fettes back from the brink before he is dragged down in his wake. Stevenson’s original story is told within a retrospective narrative framework. Fettes is observed by the storyteller, a fellow habitué of the George Inn at Debenham, with open contempt, and is an anonymously dissolute character about whom little is initially known. He’s ‘an old drunken Scotsman’ with ‘old, crapulous vices’, who ‘by a mere continuance of living had grown to be an adopted townsman’. Stevenson makes Fettes’ eventual corruption evident from the start. Meg implores him to evade such a fate, telling him ‘save yourself’, and to ‘look at MacFarlane’ as a negative example of what he is in danger of becoming. Fettes sticks up for him, claiming him as ‘a great doctor – a great man’. The two definitions of greatness are co-determinant in his mind. The professional prefix is the badge of self-definition, and the status which it confers is a de facto indication of worthiness in Fettes’ mind.

Making contact - Meg has her say
In the face of Fettes’ refusal to find fault in the doctor, Meg finally has her say, breaking her discrete silence. She questions MacFarlane’s claim to greatness, and portrays a man who is raddled with an all-pervasive sense of shame, and a determination to unmoor himself from his past. She reveals the demeaning performance which she has to maintain, a role for which MacFarlane has cast her, and in which she is trapped by her love for him. ‘Is it a great man’, she asks, ‘who for very shame dare not acknowledge his own wife, so that I must play maidservant for the world’s sake and his success?’ It is only at this moment when the truth is of paramount importance, when it might serve to save another soul from damnation that she steps out of her role and unveils the deception, with all that it reveals about MacFarlane’s nature. Meg expresses both contempt and sorrowful affection for MacFarlane, and her summation of his lost potential, the dissipation of what might have been genuine greatness, sounds, in its use of the past tense, like a painfully honest eulogy. He is anchored to a past which is at odds with his elevated view of himself, a past which doesn’t square with his own notion of greatness as being the realm of superior beings who somehow rise above the squalid concerns of the quotidian world. Meg notes (again using the past tense, as if she is already gone from her) that ‘there was always the shame of the old ways and old life to hold him back’. Meg is part of this shame, the dead weight of love with which he is morally and socially encumbered. Gray is the other part, the persistence of the past which will ‘hound him to his death’. Gray is the embodiment of the unpleasant foundations which underlie this noble pose of eminence, a pose which could be a rehearsal for a future statue. He is a constant reminder of the compromised means employed to gain lofty ends.

Taking a superior position
Fettes still favours an image of MacFarlane which fits in with his own aspirations and ideals. He greets Meg’s outpourings, her revelations of the hollow foundations her life MacFarlane’s outward respectability with a dismissive ‘you’re overexcited’, as if it is all the fevered fancy of her heated passions. ‘I’m as cold as ice’, she replies to the condescension of this upstart boy who is already beginning to show signs of MacFarlane’s influence. She begins to ascend the stairs, to return to the upper world where the charade of her life is played out. Fettes, who is desperately trying to cling on to the order of things as he had understood them, tries to place Gray (and thereby also MacFarlane) in an ordinary social context, someone acting in accordance with the everyday demands of economic necessity. ‘But Gray’s only a resurrection man who robs graves to make a bit of money now and again’, he speculatively states, an implied ‘isn’t he’ hanging silently at the end of the sentence. Meg turns to look him directly in the face, her elevated position giving her authority, an added power which she uses not to assert dominance (as in previous seating/standing encounters) but to force Fettes to face facts. ‘The man’s evil himself’, she dramatically declares, and goes on to describe how MacFarlane had met Gray through Doctor Knox. She highlights the lineage to which Fettes has become attached and now looks to continue, telling him ‘MacFarlane was to Knox as you are to him’. It’s a lineage which connects them all with the unholy trinity of Burke, Hare and Knox. Meg talks, with the cadences of a storyteller passing on traditional tales, of the trial at which Gray testified against Burke, and of how he ‘cried out that he was shielding a gentleman of consequence’. We get a glimpse of Gray as he might once have been. Someone with a sense of honour and even a certain innocence, who, whether out of friendship or social deference (or a mixture of the two) shielded this gentleman, perhaps in the expectation that he in his turn would be protected with the help of the greater resources and connections at this man’s disposal. Meg thus corroborates Gray’s own bitter recollections, through which we know that he never received that protection, and was thrown to the mercy of the mob. Meg also tells of how this man took the last of her money (her ‘paltry savings’) to hire Gray, suggesting that MacFarlane (for there is no doubt that it is he), despite his current social standing, did not come from a wealthy background. He and Gray may at one time have been on a much more equal footing, and perhaps it was Meg, who still bedecks herself in tartan, who may have been a representative of an aristocracy fallen on hard times. Fettes provides the name of this unnamed gentleman (it is, of course, MacFarlane), a moment of clarity and dawning awareness which Meg has subtly prompted. She grasps his lapels again, using the emphatic nature of contact to strengthen this moment of realisation, so that he might hold on to it and not let it fade as his natural tendency to believe in the doctor’s greatness, his acquiescence to his air of authority, reasserts itself. Claiming supernatural insight through her ‘fey’ side, she sees that the ‘pit yawns’ for Gray and MacGregor, and urges Fettes to avoid sharing their fate. Fettes is offered a different kind of knowledge and wisdom from Meg to that which has been offered to him by his male teachers, MacFarlane and Gray. If MacFarlane provides him with intellectual sustenance and Gray teaches him of the ways of the world, then Meg offers him emotional knowledge, an insight into the souls of men. It is this knowledge which might still save him, which might allow Lewton’s Fettes to avoid becoming Stevenson’s.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Blue Veils and Golden Sands

Jarvis Cocker, on his Sunday afternoon show on radio 6 (remember to register your opinion on the decision to axe the station at the BBC consultation pages) alerted his listeners to Kara Blake’s recent film about Delia Derbyshire, the Delian Mode, which is about to receive a further screening at the Flatpack Festival in Birmingham on the 28th March. His guest was Peter Kember (aka Sonic Boom) who talked about his work and friendship with Derbyshire in her later years. He mentioned his role (playing himself) in Martyn Wade's radio drama about Delia, Blue Veils and Golden Sands, which sent me back to listen to it. It’s included on the collection Doctor Who at the BBC: The Plays.

The play opens with the sounds of sirens in Coventry, accompanied by electronic oscillations (Delia’s piece Music of the Spheres). Delia’s voice talks about the emotional content of sound, which is exemplified by the different feelings evoked by the air raid warning and the all clear sirens. This opening, which takes place in the bunker of the air raid shelter and highlights the acute attention paid to the nature of sound, anticipates both her immersion into the radiophonic world of electronic music and her final retreat into the comforting, protective disarray of her house in Coventry and into the isolated world of her self. The play takes the form of a retrospective narration, with Peter Kember’s introductory phone call prompting her into reminiscent mood which calls to mind various incidents from her past. We hear about her rejection by the Decca studios, who refused to hire any women. Her extraordinary ear for sound and feel for its physical quality is noticed at the BBC, where she is able to pick out a casually hummed extract from a symphony and put the needle down precisely on the required spot judging by the appearance of the grooves in the vinyl. She takes up her position in the Radiophonic Workshop with eager enthusiasm, despite being warned that people generally only worked there for a short span of time, since any longer stay would drive them mad. Her meeting with Ron Grainer and his subsequent expression of delighted disbelief at what she’d done to his Doctor Who theme is wryly observed.

Looking back on her music, she distinguishes those pieces of which she is proud from the throwaway jingles and merely functional studio trickery. The former includes Blue Veils and Golden Sands, the piece which she wrote for The World About Us and which summoned up the atmospheres of the Sahara and suggested the slow journeys of the Tuareg nomads who crossed it (it was a piece which was also used as incidental music in Doctor Who); and the music for the programme she did with Barry Bermange, Dreams, in which people relate their dream experiences over Delia’s oneiric music. These are the pieces which she describes as being in the true Delian mode. Delia is horrified when Anthony Newley takes a piece of her music, which she describes as being ‘pure and innocent’ (another fragment of the Pythagorean continuum) and adds a half-spoken, half-sung narration which turns it into ‘a dirty raincoat song’. It is indeed a peculiarly repellent little ditty which manages to ruin the bubbling, fresh spirit of her music, as you can hear here (it goes under the title of Moogies Bloogies). It is a track which cries out for the vocals to be excised. And yet Newley, like other men before him, is not interested in Delia’s opinion and blithely assures her of his own innate brilliance in his carefree mockney manner.

From the start, Delia extols the virtues of an open mind, of intellectual curiosity and hunger, which is something she never loses. Her voice, as played by Sophie Thompson, never loses its sense of enthusiasm and intense interest in the life of the mind. She keeps up a cheerfully chipper facade throughout, with hints of widening cracks barely papered over with whatever means are necessary (means which may on the surface resemble madness). Her fortitude is fuelled by red wine, which bolsters her failing self-confidence. Delia comes from a generation which was intent on maintaining a semblance of life as normal, even as the world crumbled around them, leaving them shoring up the ruins. We sense that she is a shy and reserved person who sparks into life when expressing her ideas and enthusiasms. These are repeatedly greeted with indifference and lack of understanding, whether by her disdainful tutors at Cambridge (where she has gone as a lower middle class girl made good) or by the amiable but philosophically non-inquisitive Ron Grainer, who is bewildered by her talk of Pythagoras and the music of the spheres. These ideas are at the heart of her intellectual excitement. She is stimulated by the idea of ‘music as numbers made audible’, of the musical equivalent of Pythagoras’ ideal solids, the manifestation of sounds which always and eternally exist. Later, this is confined only to her inner world, as she loses the confidence to continue making music which is compromised by the commercial demands of those who fail to respond to her on the level of ideas. Her idealism is worn away, and she retreats, trying to follow the example of the Tuaregs she depicted so evocatively. Moving North, away from London, she adopts the aphorism ‘avoid cleaning and tidying at all costs’, moving on when things become too chaotic. As she puts it, ‘I went missing’. She comes across as a solitary figure, happy to work through the night at the Radiophonic Workshop studios so that she can use all the equipment that’s available too her, as well as spool out her lengthy tape loops into the corridors. When she retreats into the house her parents leave her in Coventry towards the end of her life, we sense that still hears the Pythagorean music of the spheres, but it is no longer given voice. Whilst she is living in what many might consider to be squalor, and has taken to drinking a little too much red wine, this is not a depressing tale. She acknowledges that the 60s were her decade, and recalls them with an air of wistful nostalgia. She says of her current life and her years of inactivity ‘I’ve not been unhappy. I just wish…looking back…some recognition. It would’ve been nice’.

Delia receives the recognition which she craves as a new generation comes to acknowledge her influence, crate digging archaelogists removing the veil of anonymity from the ‘music for use’ made for the BBC and for library records. Peter Kember draws her out of her latter day Coventry shelter and introduces her to this new wave of electronic music enthusiasts. With their new tools and digital technology, the new means of labour enables whole new worlds of sound without the sheer brain-aching tortuousness of the days of tape-splicing and looping. The ambiguity in such productive facility is hinted in Delia’s experience of the early synthesisers, however. The BBC orders a new arrangement of the Doctor Who theme using their new ‘Delaware’ EMS synth. Delia is frustrated at the limitations of this new technology, and annoyed at the assumption that it is a productive machine which will enable the instant assembly line creation of music to order. The idea of sound as physical matter to be manipulated and twisted into new shapes has been lost.

As the play draws to a close, Delia’s health rapidly deteriorates and she finally admits herself to hospital (her complaints about not being allowed her red wine suggesting a serious problem). As she reflects that ‘there is no such thing as silence unless it’s in death’, it becomes clear that she’s sailing towards the farther shore. The music of Dreams and Blue Veils and Golden Sands has been a premonition of this final state of unanchored drift, and perhaps a hint at what lies beyond. Delia’s declaration of doubt and faith is contained in the statement ‘I don’t know if I believe in God, but I believe in his music’. There is a sense that the play we’ve just heard has been the dream of a life recalled from the hospital bed. The brief snatch of Orbital’s Girl With the Sun in Her Hair which we hear in the background serves both as recognition of her influence, and as an elegy – a blessing on this self-effacing pioneer and sound explorer.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Witchfinder on the Wireless

The Saturday Play on radio 4 this weekend was about the tensions between star and director on the set of Michael Reeves’ 1969 film Witchfinder General. The fact that it was considered a suitable subject for a drama in such a high profile mainstream slot is indicative of the extent to which the film has slowly risen in critical esteem and recognition. It has also accumulated a considerable mass of anecdotage, the often contradictory nature of which creates a Citizen Kane-like sense that the definitive truth lies forever buried. All the oft-told tales are incorporated into Matthew Broughton’s script; Michael Reeves’ refusal to go out to the airport to meet Vincent Price, and the latter’s command ‘take me to your goddamn young genius’; Reeves’ response to Price’s challenge ‘I’ve made 75 films, how many have you made?’ – ‘Two good ones’; Reeves’ constant needling of Price to stop overacting; and his vindictive instruction to Ian Ogilvy to really lay into Price with the prop axe in his death scene on the final day of shooting after the veteran star allegedly appeared on set a little worse for wear – with extra padding secretly provided to protect him from injury. The title of Matthew Broughton’s play, Vincent Price and the Terror of the English Blood Beast (a reference to Michael Reeves’ first directorial effort, The Blood Beast Terror) is indicative of the lightness of its tone. But just as Price’s surface drollery covered hidden depths, so Broughton’s light entertainment touches on matters of weight and universal import.

The shoot was covered in detail in Benjamin Halligan’s book on Michael Reeves in the Manchester University Press’ British Film Makers series, and I would guess that it was to this source that Broughton turned for much of his background information. The filming is generally depicted as a head on collision between the generations, a clash of styles and attitudes. Michael Reeves, the young punk director with a burning desire to create films of a directness and power which would be worthy of his cinematic idols (principally Don Siegel) squaring up against Vincent Price, the genre star who had relaxed into the mannered flourishes and theatrical gestures which his increasingly typecast roles demanded of him. It is a divide between old and new approaches, between conservative classicism and a new wave desire to break the rules and breach taboos. On the one hand, a view of the horror genre as a gothic dreamworld of shadows and castles, on the other a determination to portray violence and death with an unflinching realism which would depict its true physical and psychological impact. It’s doubtful whether Reeves thought he was making a horror film at all. As he remarks during the play, he comes to see Witchfinder as akin to an English western. Halligan tends to take Reeves’ side of the divide which his antagonism towards Price embodied, which is only natural given that he has deemed worthy of devoting himself to a book length study. Indeed, there is still a sense (as the play’s broadcast testifies) that people feel the need to take sides in an affair which seems to have left significant bruising in the wake of its clash of egos. Reeves’ untimely death obviously meant that he was unable to speak for himself, and Halligan suggests that Price subtly put him down in subsequent interviews when the subject of Witchfinder General arose. According to Halligan, Price’s portrayal of Reeves as a deeply troubled young man served to cast himself in the light of the consummate and kindly professional who tolerated his abusive behaviour with tolerant sufferance. Broughton is more balanced in his treatment of Price and Reeves, seeking to understand their motivations, and the vulnerabilities which lay beneath the repelling magnetic poles of surface behaviour and character.

Vinnie and Tony
The play is framed by trailers for the film, which are pitched at a bludgeoning exploitation movie shriek. The first of these provides the perfect introduction to Tony Tenser, the producer whose Soho film production company Tigon was set up after his successful involvement in producing Roman Polanski’s two British pictures of the 60s, Repulsion and Cul de Sac. He narrates in reminiscent mode, something made evident by the fact that we hear some of the contemporary reviews of the film, with typewriters tapping in the background (these reviews including Alan Bennett’s expressions of disgust, allowing for someone to do their Bennett impression). He is portrayed as an avuncular, down to earth Eastender, adept at allaying the fears and anxieties of his temperamental charges. He is the man in the middle, taking time to listen to the remote recriminations of Price and Reeves, soothing their sensitivities with a sympathetic ear and a brandy. He sees the film unit as being like and extended family, with everyone trying to get along and overcome personal differences. Tenser is a businessman first and foremost, and his interest in producing art is only as a secondary by-product of commerce. Broughton has him re-iterate his eminently quotable rule of thumb: ‘I’d rather be ashamed of a film that made money than proud of a film that didn’t’. On seeing the rushes of Witchfinder General, he is both impressed and troubled. ‘Problem was, it was art. Art doesn’t make money’. Tenser’s introduction of some of his ‘girls’ to make the tavern scene more buxom raises Reeves’ barely suppressed ire, but Tenser, in his amiably authoritative manner, is having none of his nonsense. He quietly makes it clear where the money is coming from and who is ultimately in charge. In some ways, Reeves’ unkind treatment of Price represents a displaced anger at the producers and money men for whom he is a totem.

The hostility of Reeves towards Price can be seen in a wider context as being representative of the tensions between the ideals of the small scale auteur and the commercial mechanisms of larger studios. Reeves’ rude rebuttal of Price’s on-set bonhomie is a rejection of the American studio’s (in this case AIP’s) attempts to interfere with what he sees as his personal creation. Tenser was well-acquainted with the London criminal fraternity of the time, as anyone working in the Soho twilight world in which the cinema and sex industries intersected would have to be. His phone calls with the American studio boss bears all the hallmarks of fearful deference which such a business relationship, in which the balance of power is so heavily weighted to one side, demands. These are the people who loom behind him with all the intimidating presence of gangster. Hilary Dwyer, the English actress whose unabashed admiration does much to restore Price’s ego, points out that Reeves gets on well with the rest of the crew. He is very sensitive to the needs of her and his friend and the star of all his films, Ian Ogilvy. His familiarity and trust in the latter is conveyed by his comment that he doesn’t need to direct him as he knows how to act. With producer Philip Waddilove at his side, he is confident that these are his people, and that they are all working towards a common purpose. Price has been imposed on this ‘family’ from the outside, with the accompanying assumption that they will be receiving the type of product associated with his name (his brand in modern parlance). ‘He comes with the money’, as Tenser points out with characteristic concision. It’s the age old story of the troubled balance between commerce and art, the struggle to maintain the artisanal aspect of an industrial scale production. It’s essentially the story of cinema from its early years to the present day.

Reeves refuses to allow price into his filmic family, ignoring all requests to address him with a familiar Vinnie. It’s only when Reeves is absent that Price can find solace in the camaraderie of fellow actors, and cultivate his customary ‘we’re all in it together’ sense of being in a colourful theatrical troupe. The actors and crew revel in his larger than life camp affectations and respond to his warm generosity and ability to make everyone feel included in his circle. There is much fun to be had with his queeny double entendres and nudge nudge comments, which in their Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Williams fashion fit in comfortably with the English sense of humour. His first meeting with Ian Ogilvy finds him greeting him as Alice and expressing envy at how beautifully ‘she’ rides his horse. He makes much of his injury to his coccyx and delights in receiving a Bishop’s Finger at the pub. It seems likely (as Halligan suggests) that such overtly gay tomfoolery served to alienate Reeves even more. From his point of view, it was a further indication that Price was refusing to take his film seriously, and that he was more a creature of the stage than the screen. Reeves’ moviecentric universe tended to favour the more macho directors in the Don Siegel mould who produced a very masculine form of cinema. Price simply didn’t fit in to this mould.

The Method - Price IS Hopkins
Price and Reeves face each other on the film set from the opposite ends of their respective careers. Reeves is still looking to establish himself and create something which is indelibly his and which expresses his barely suppressed rage. Price is settling into the twilight of his career, no longer seeking challenges, resigned to reproducing his well worn and increasingly affected repertoire of actorial tics and tricks (although it was only four years since his fine performances in the last of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe cycle of films, The Tomb of Ligeia and The Masque of the Red Death). Reeves objects to Price’s presence as an actor because he wants to make a film in which realism is the dominant mood, as opposed to the gothic scenarios or throwaway fantasies with which his style has become synonymous. The play, following the received wisdom, shows how Reeves draws a performance of chilling restraint and intensity from Price almost against his will. There is a great scene in which Reeves’ typically blunt and abrasive criticisms drive the innately affable Price into muttering (perhaps in an internal monologue) a litany of curses and threats down upon his head. The take for the scene being shot is declared to be perfect, much to the star’s startlement (‘you liked that!’) Vincent has been tricked into method acting.

Both Price and Reeves are portrayed as possessing an underlying vulnerability between their respective surfaces of brusque bluntness and bluff good cheer. Blake Ritson plays Reeves with a nervy, high-pitched catch in his voice, lending his seemingly unshakeable self-belief a brittle quality. Nicholas Grace’s Vincent Price captures the actor’s expansive vocal mannerisms without succumbing to the temptation to fall into mere impressionism. Having seen the rushes which he has been so reluctant to view, Price becomes aware of the quality of the performance which Reeves has elicited from him. Grace nicely conveys the touching hesitancy with which Price approaches Reeves, putting aside the theatrical persona to lay himself open to the young director, revealing his insecurities about his talents. ‘All my life, Mike’, he says, ‘I’ve had but one real ability. My ability to make friends. I hope that we can be friends’. But Reeves shrugs off the overtures of the authentic Price as curtly as he had the ‘star’ version. Price wants only to be accepted and to revel in an easeful and pleasant sense of companionship. He immediately concurs with Hillary Dwyer’s assessment of him as being ‘a big softie’. He can’t bear being made to feel the violence and hatred which Reeves demands of him in creating a realistic portrayal of the witchfinder Matthew Hopkins. It is entirely alien to his nature. If there had always been a certain self-aware staginess to his performances, it was because he had no desire to become lost in the role. Nevertheless, he was prepared to concede what Reeves had achieved, what he’d drawn out of him. But for Reeves, the work is all. He is filled with the impulsiveness and violent intensity of youth and feels nothing but contempt for the more tempered wisdom of old age. For all of Vincent’s efforts at compromise, the two never will understand each other. There will be no recognition variant yet valid viewpoints.

As such, the plays conclusion, in which everyone learns just a little bit more about themselves, is a touch facile. Price looks back on the film as providing him with one of his finest performances and Reeves finally comes round to calling him Vinnie (albeit not to his face) as he recognises that he is indeed great in his film. Tony Tenser is left to draw the conclusions, and the reconciliatory tone is perhaps more of a reflection of his desire for everyone to simply get on together. He admits to shedding tears at Reeves’ death (he is really just as big a softie as Price) and mourns the loss of someone who could have become a great British film maker had he been given the time. And that is perhaps why Witchfinder General and all the legends which surround its making still has such resonance today (resonance enough to find an airing on radio 4). There is obviously a Keatsian appeal to the myth of the beautiful young artist who burns brightly but briefly and dies young. There is a retrospective sense that his death (as with many others) emblematically embodies the death of the sixties. And there is the tantalising sense of what might have been. The fragmentary nature of his output and of the details, gleaned through reminiscences (with all the imperfections inherent in memory) of his life, make it all the more fascinating.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

70s Children's TV Fantasy - Part Three

King of the Castle (1977)

King of the Castle turns away from the ‘we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden’ ethos of much 70s fantasy, with its rural backdrops, and strands its central character in the unforgiving urban environment or a poorly managed and ill-maintained high-rise block; The type of building which came to seem emblematic of the failure of post-war utopian dreams and far more in keeping with the spirit of place of Britain as it hobbled towards the declining years of the decade. Writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin referred to it as Kafka for kids, although they could equally have gone with Ballard for boys, as this is a drama which sets the controls for inner space. The opening episode takes place in the ‘mundane’ world and introduces us to all the characters and elements which will go towards creating and populating the world of the imagination into which the protagonist, Roland, is plunged. The mannerisms and characters of people in the real world get translated into their names, status and symbolic roles in the world of the imagination. So Fulton Mackay’s scornful, authoritarian headmaster at the cathedral choir school, with his birdlike head movements and interrogatory prodding, becomes Hawkspur, a Frankensteinian scientist whose experiments set out to recreate his own ideas of what is right and good. The bully whom Roland has to confront, identified only by the nickname Ripper spelt out in studs on the back of his jacket, becomes the functionally named Warrior, the guttural, monosyllabic guardian of the stairways between the levels of the castle of the mind.

The series draws upon many literary influences and there are allusions to various of them throughout. There is a nod to Susan Hill’s novel I’m the King of the Castle, with its depiction of childhood bullying, in the title. Roland is tormented by Ripper, the tyrant of the high-rise stairways and his cadre of cronies in the opening episode, which plays out in deceptively straightforward social realist style. Kafka is, however, the writer whose influence is most explicitly referenced. The narrative drive of the story can be seen as an inversion of that of The Castle. The protagonist of that novel, K, is attempting to gain access to the inner sanctum of the castle as opposed to Roland, who is inside looking for a way out. The pointless maze of officialdom through which Roland is forced to run in order to progress is akin to the bewildering bureaucratic processes and indeterminately menacing interrogations to which Josef K is subjected in The Trial. There is an atmosphere redolent of the absurdist theatre of Pinter and Beckett too, with its gnomic, evasively circling dialogue and sense of existential angst combined with a vaguely vaudevillian air. The white faced, top-hatted vein could certainly have stepped from the pages of a Beckett play, and the deadpan double act of the lift engineers/basement chefs, with their repetition of each other’s phrases and obfuscatory language, are very Pinteresque. There is much of the topsy-turvy logic and linguistic legerdemain of Alice in Wonderland too, with its feel of a world where madness is the norm. Roland shrinkage to a diminutive self after drinking the queen’s proferred draught (or ‘squash’) and observation of sudden shifts in scale echoes Alice’s similarly disorienting experiences at the bottom of the rabbit hole. Indeed, his fall down the lift shaft can be seen as a modern variant of Alice’s dream descent. Roland’s name is probably chosen for its allusion to Robert Browning’s visionary poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, in which that title provides the tantalising final line, as if the whole narrative is a prelude to the real adventure. If Browning leaves Roland at the gates of the tower, Bob Baker and Dave Martin plunge him straight into its dark depths.

Roland’s confrontation with the bully Ripper and the subsequent retreat from the police who intervene lead him to run into the lift which we have learnt from several previous encounters is out of order and in the process of being repaired. Roland’s pressing of the button shuts him in its confined space and sends him plummeting down to the bottom of the shaft and into a strange imaginary world. The series predominantly takes place within this world, but the occasional insertion of scenes from the real world follow the efforts to reach him and the reactions of his parents and the other characters involved to his predicament. These interludes underline the correlations between the worlds, and the parallels between inner and outer realities, with progress in each being of equal importance. The inner world reflects that of the outer, but as in a distorting mirror which recasts everything into grotesque forms of exaggerated symbolism. Just as he is confined in a literal sense within the claustrophobic space of the lift, so Roland’s imaginary world is contained within the walls of the castle tower in the basement of which he finds himself after his accident. The castle takes its form from the tower block and its architectural cues from the stone corridors and arching roofs of the cathedral school which Roland attends, as well as the dream structures from the fantasy posters which adorn his walls. Of these posters, one is by Rodney Matthews and depicts orc-like creatures running up the staircase winding around a turret; and the other is by Roger Dean, the cover of a Greenslade LP, which depicts a multi-armed, green-skinned man with a ramshackle city of precipitously stacked dwellings receding into the distance behind him. The camera lingers over this roofscape for several seconds, as if to fix it in our minds and suggest to us the building blocks which go towards constructing Roland’s interior world.

Vertiginous distance
The stairs in the castle coil around upon themselves as they rise into the vertiginous distance. They bring to mind the stairway in A Matter of Life and Death as it threads across the starry gulfs of space, its diminishing perspective creating a sense of vastness, or in this case an interior space which contains a whole world. This idea of the castle as a self-contained world unto itself is very reminiscent of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels, a resemblance further enhanced by the distorted gargoyle faces carved into the rock around the stairway passages and the grotesque and theatrically exaggerated nature of its inhabitants. As in Gormenghast, there are different social zones in the castle, areas which serve the needs of a large enclosed community. This reflects the mechanics of the social and administrative workings of the tower block and school, but also, by extension, of the British Isles in their isolationist, Little England fashion. The castle is both high-rise and cathedral school, reflecting both modernity and tradition, and bridging the opposite ends of the social spectrum. The royal crest of the castle, with its crenellated tower, is the same as that of Roland’s school. His ascent to the top of the tower (to be King of the Castle) is an emblematic reclamation of the badge which is torn from his blazer in a self-characteristic act by Ripper, the stairwell bully.

Gothic Vein
In the fashion of video games yet to come, Roland must work his way from the basement in which he awakes and ascend through various levels until he reaches the top and finds the way out. With each encounter on the way he will learn something which will provide him with the key, both literal and figurative, to find his way to the next stage. By implication, his escape will lead to his re-awakening to consciousness in the real world. But it will also be a form of rebirth. His ascent to self-awareness in this inner castle will help him to define his place on the outside. He is guided in his quest by the ambiguous figure of Vein, a character analogous to the testy, grudgeful caretaker Vine in the real world. As Vine seems to regard the high-rise as his domain, so Vein may have motives of his own behind his offers of aid. He resembles a funeral director who has applied his own techniques upon himself. This fits in with the general gothic cast of the inner world, an atmosphere which is given justification by the horror comics which Roland reads and the model of Frankenstein which he has in his bedroom. This was a time when the spirit of Hammer and Universal horror films lived on in plastic model kits and bubblegum cards which made them common currency in the playground amongst children who’d probably never seen the pictures from which they originated.

The structure of the series, following the initial establishing episode, follows Roland through the various levels of his ascent of the tower and the trials which he undergoes at each in order to learn, which, as Vein repeatedly informs him, is the purpose behind his progress. Each episode takes place on a different level and serves to reflect a particular aspect of the outside world which has seeped through into Roland’s subconscious to spread fear and anxiety. The first level finds him encountering the mad scientist Hawkspur and his pitiful creation Ergon, figures analogous with his headmaster at the cathedral school, Spurgeon and his nervy, subordinate lacky Hawker. Hawkspur’s laboratory centres around a sparking piece of machinery in the traditional Frankensteinian syle which is designed to remove a voice (in this case Roland’s) in order to imprint it upon his dumb, childlike creation. This expresses Roland’s anxieties about his singing and the scholarship it has granted him as a chorister, something to which he is not as committed as those who would use his talents (all the while telling him how grateful he should be for such a privilege). He teaches the monster Ergon to defy his master, and its half-absorbed, electronically distorted voice utters nothing other than the idiot phrase ‘I won’t’. It’s a fairly useless rebellion, limited in its reflexive nature, and the creature sustains cumulative injuries as it repeatedly plunges down the shaft of the tower in the course of its lumbering attempts to break free, never learning better. For Roland, this is a start, a piece of displaced defiance. A refusal to be moulded through the imposition of another’s values, to allow his voice to be appropriated for their ends.

Warrior of the stairways - jazz collage backdrop
After a confrontation with the warrior on the stairs, who repeatedly obstructs his upwards progress, the second level involves an encounter with the ‘Lady’ of the castle, who is analogous with Roland’s step-mother June. He is seduced with the temptation of luxury and an enveloping care, the promise that all his needs will be met. A drink of the Lady’s ‘squash’ reduces him to a pocket-sized figure for whom her doll’s house awaits. She offers a suffocating, imprisoning form of possessive love. In the real world, June is tentative in her approach to Roland, anxious as a new member of the family not to impose herself on him and attempt to replace his mother, or to act as a go-between for Roland and his father. Her cautious concern and worry over how she should treat Roland are reflected and inverted in her mirror self, which is also a projection of Roland’s uncertain feelings about this new mother figure. The third level is that of authority, represented by the Governor of the castle, who derives from the police sergeant who sent him running into the lift and thus to his imprisonment. Roland is literally sent down to hard labour at meaningless drudgery in the kitchen dungeons. Here, everyone goes through repetitive cycles, neither knowing nor caring what they are producing or who, if anyone, will actually get to eat it. The child labour all derives from the kids on the high-rise estate, the cohorts and hangers on of Ripper. They are at the bottom of the pile here in the castle, and represent a condition of aimless, unquestioning serfdom, of an acceptance of predestined fate which Roland is determined to rise above. His efforts to set them free are greeted with resentment, since they are comfortable in their slavery, relieved at not having the burden of choice thrust upon them. In a wider political sense, the kitchen dungeons stand for a Britain in decline, overcome with apathy and despondency, and which no longer offers any meaningful labour. It is a place whose old-fashioned values seem increasingly hollow and tokenistic.

Bureaucratic maze
The fourth level is a bureaucratic maze in which any request for information or civic permission leads to a proliferating paperchase of self-generating forms issued by self-important clerks until eventually you begin to lose sight of what you were after in the first place and your identity becomes ever more worn away. The bureaucrat, encountered in many thinly disguised forms, is identified by his desk placard as Voysey. His counterpart in the real world is Voss, the harried-looking building manager for whom everything is too much trouble. His evasion of responsibility ensures that the environment in which Roland lives continues to deteriorate and become the territorial kingdom of violent gangs. He is a representative of a social order which has slipped beyond the control of the general populace and into brute survivalism. He castigates the individual for his own entrapment whilst administering the mechanisms which ensure that such a state endures.

Headphone crown
The final level, the pinnacle of the tower, finds Roland confronting and usurping the power of the Lord of the castle, having first defeated his warrior guard, the samurai version of Ripper who appears once more before the last set of stairs. The Lord is analgous to Roland’s father, Ron, a deliberate similarity in names suggesting the centrality of their relationship to the story. Roland thus completes the reversed (and slightly watered down) Oedipal path which had begun with his encounter with his new mother. In the outer world, Ron is a musician wholly pre-occupied with his ‘sounds’ who lives largely in a headphone world, cut off from communication. In the castle, on his throne, his crown incorporates his headphones and he initially dashes off before Roland can ask his advice. Prompted by a seemingly duplicitous Vein, he forces him to give up the key around his neck at swordpoint, thus acceding to the position of king of the castle. The next episode follows Roland as he attempts to exercise his new found power to make right all the injustices and inequalities which he has encountered along the way. He finds that there is considerable resistance to the imposition of his new systems, logical and enlightened though they might be. His predicament addresses the problems of what to do once have earned the freedom of choice; how do you go about introducing your ideas into the world and affecting change, and what happens when it chooses to resist. The adult world, with its responsibilities and requirements, has to be navigated through negotiation and compromise.

The invisible jury - addressing nobody
The last episode sees Roland put on trial, held responsible for the trail of consequences which lie in the wake of his progress through the tower. This trial scenes conjure a particularly absurdist world and are perhaps what Bob Baker and Dave Martin had in mind when they coined their Kafka for Kids caption. There is certainly an air of Kafka’s Trial about this one. It is also vaguely reminiscent, albeit on a far less grand scale, of the trial at the climax of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death. As with David Niven’s airman in that film, who is simultaneously undergoing a critical operation on his brain, the implication is that Roland’s own safe return to the world is dependant on the outcome. The trial ultimately forces Roland to confront himself and be the judge of his own worth, as the vanishing jury suggests.

Upon returning to the real world, Roland goes about putting the lessons which he has learned into practice, facing up to the twin bullies of the headmaster in the cathedral school and Ripper in the high-rise and establishing the possibility of a closer relationship with his father. He also puts away childish things, which in this case consists of his monster models and magazines (including a copy of Hammer House of Horror magazine, I couldn’t help but notice. I wonder if he enjoyed John Bolton’s Father Shandor strip). It is through the resources of his imagination that he has come to feel stronger and more self-reliant in the world at large, however, so they have served their purpose. In this sense, the story is at least in part an argument in favour of the value of the literature and fiction of the fantastic. It acknowledges the dangers of a wholesale retreat into escapism, whilst suggesting that a temporary retreat into an imaginary world can help bring a renewed perspective to the real. He’s also got rid of his Roger Dean and Rodney Matthews posters. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s tempting to read this as a rejection of the fag-end of the prog-rock triple-gatefold era, particularly with Roland sporting a punkish sleeveless T-shirt. Anyway, having asked his dad whether he minds calling him Roland rather than the non-committal ‘son’, the frame freezes (in Quatre Cents Coups style) on his face, and we are left with the image of him smiling. There is a feeling that in the end is a new beginning

King of the Castle
King of the Castle is a remarkably ambitious piece of writing by Baker and Martin, a series whose coherence and thematic richness bears repeated viewing. The inclusion of all the elements which will go into the construction of the fantastic world in the first, real world episode is very skilfully and unobtrusively achieved. The direction is interesting at times, too, particulary at the ends of episodes, where a shot is held and an element of the scene zoomed in upon in short incremental steps. The acting is a little variable, which is understandable given the youth of much of the cast, but serves its purpose. Talfryn Thomas is particularly excellent as Vein (in many ways the major character besides Roland) in a role which gives him a break from his customary comedy Welshmen (he’s good in Doctor Who and the Green Death too, mind). The theme tune is a good, off-kilter version of the I’m The King of the Castle nursery rhyme, with crashing, Messiaen organ chords intruding when the lift is seen to malfunction in a shower of sparks at the end of the credits. King of the Castle was nominated for a BAFTA in 1977 but lost out to another type of children’s story entirely: Oliver Postgate’s colour retellings of the tales of Ivor the Engine. At least they lost out to the best. Bob Baker would eventually collect his BAFTA some twenty-two years later for a similarly hand-crafted piece of animation featuring the characters who he had helped to create (and whose adventures he had scripted from the start): Wallace and Gromit in ‘A Matter of Loaf and Death’. Baker’s writing partner Dave Martin sadly passed away in 2007, but their co-creation K-9 looks set for a revival in the near future. Find out more, and read about his other projects, at Bob Baker’s entertaining web site.