With 16 days to go the Facebook Funeral Kickstarter campaign has attracted just under £7000 in pledges. This is some serious cash and I could certainly make the film for that amount of money - but I am determined to produce a cinematic film with very high production values and the best cast and crew that are available. This is because the film is a staging post on the way to my first feature - A Love Like That - and the backers of that feature are only going to be impressed by something that blows people's heads clean off. The good news is that the Kickstarter campaign has attracted some serious interest in the film and I am now talking to two separate financiers, one of whom is interested in putting up half the budget and the other of whom is interested in financing the whole production. In addition the film has got through the first round of a nationwide new talent funding scheme and if the application is successful this would also provide full funding for the film. If I was a gambling man I would be hard pressed to say which of these funding options I would bet on but I can say that the Kickstarter route would be the best - because I could go ahead and make the film without having to compromise my vision in line with outside demands. That is not to say that I will be closed to suggestions and advice - and I very much believe in the philosophy of the director Stephen Daldry who listens to absolutely everybody's suggestions because 'you never know where a good idea might come from'.
Please check out the Facebook Funeral pledge video and other info here - and make a pledge. Unless I achieve the full amount you will not have to pay - but I'll still be eternally grateful!
'Facebook Funeral' is a ten minute short film that I have written and will be directing as a 'calling card' demonstration piece that I believe is going to make the world laugh and lead to me directing my first feature. It is an outrageous little story about a monstrously inappropriate eulogy given at the funeral of a girl who has died in a skydiving accident and the screenplay has already been winning over some serious players in the film industry. For example Samantha Waite, who was production manager on the Oscar winning documentary Man on Wire and produced the Oscar nominated short Wish 143 (and is producing three features as I write) has agreed to produce Facebook Funeral and use her considerable contact list to bring in the best possible technicians and performers.
Samantha has already completed a budget and schedule for the project and I am launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds to make the film to the highest possible professional standards. My ambitions for the film are to win festival awards and achieve massive viewing figures on line so that I can put together a persuasive case for directing my first feature A Love Like That. Please support m Kickstarter campaign either with hard cash or by sharing and promoting the campaign - I will be eternally grateful. People support Kickstarter type campaigns for all sorts of reasons - but for me its about not just waiting to see what the entertainment industry offers up next but playing an active role in choosing what projects you want to see come to fruition. You also get real rewards and in the case of Facebook Funeral these include limited edition and original artwork, storyboards, scripts and of course the opportunity to see the film before the rest of the world - at screenings or using a Vimeo code that will be sent to you when the film is completed.
Please go to the Kickstarter page here to see the video about the project and all other information:
My interview with David Hare is on the British Film Institute website here:
Or you can read the unedited version below
Best known for his screen adaptations of The Hours (2002) and The Reader (2008) Sir David Hare is a highly respected playwright who has been named as one of the fifty most influential Britons of the last fifty years by The Sunday Times. He is also a director who made television films in the seventies, three features in the eighties and recently a trilogy of films for the BBC starring Bill Nighy. The three films, which examine the role of the security services and big business in the War on Terror, began with Page 8 (2011) and when I met him recently at his Hampstead writing studio he had just completed post-production on the last two - Turks and Caicos and Salting the Battlefield (both 2014). I started by asking about his early life.
He credits the sheer dullness of his upbringing in Bexhill-on-Sea for inspiring him to write. “I was in a suburb that was incredibly boring so I was thrown back on my imagination” he tells me, while also acknowledging his Scottish mother’s emphasis on education and her drive to give him “a life she did not have”. His father worked on P&O liners and was often absent. Hare describes him as “anti-Semitic and racist - his politics were extreme right wing,” but he rejects the notion that his writing, which is often avowedly political and left leaning, has been a response to his father. He does concede that “there was a lack of love in our family and there was a sense that it was incomplete, and when my father did come home he was totally uninterested in us.” Hare found solace in the cinema, catching every film shown at the Playhouse Cinema in Bexhill, but he was also regularly seeing his mother perform with an amateur dramatics group that boasted a young Julie Christie among its members.
Hare, who was, by his own estimation, “very precocious,” won a scholarship place at Lancing College and he has said in the past that he had to alter his accent to fit in. I try to argue that his exposure to a class-bound institution might have influenced his approach to writing character but the suggestion falls on stony ground. However, when I suggest that nobody writes about a certain kind of English ruthlessness like he does (Ian McKellan’s speech about how to rise through the ranks of the Foreign Office in Plenty (1985) is a good example) he assigns this to his time at the posh private school.
Studying Literature at Cambridge he embraced an art which professors like FR Leavis dismissed as “stupidity”. “In the 60s cinema wasn’t just at the cutting edge of art, it was at the cutting edge of thinking. The people I loved: Louis Malle, (Ingmar) Bergman, (Michelangelo) Antonioni, (Federico) Fellini, (Jean-Luc) Godard - they were the great thinkers in Europe.” Later Hare helped set up the radical Portable Theatre Company, embarking on a career that has led to The Guardian calling him “The finest living British dramatist”. But things might have taken a very different turn. After leaving university, director Tony Richardson offered him a job as fourth assistant director on a forthcoming biopic of Che Guevara – a project that collapsed. “You needed luck,” he concludes, “and I didn’t have any luck.”
It is a surprising admission from someone who might be thought of as primarily a creature of the theatre but it becomes increasingly clear, as we talk, that he adores the cinema, though he is certainly not complacent about the difficulties of directing and is candid about past failures. Regarding his film Strapless (1989), he observed that film directors’ careers are often U shaped, adding that the film represented, for him “The bottom.” “The question will be ‘will you ever climb back up the other side?’ and so I went 20 years without making any films.”
When I asked if he would prefer to be remembered for his films or his plays he laughed heartily. “It’s like saying ‘what do you want to die of?’ – you’re not going to have any choice”. That said there was no doubt in my mind, by the end of our conversation, which of the two arts claimed his heart. At one point he remarked: “If I see a cinema with the name of my film on it, I’m just incredibly excited and I’m still excited at the age of 65 which is ridiculous. I don’t think you ever lose that if you have a deeply provincial childhood.”
Reading your plays and watching your films has been refreshing because your work is not just a distraction, you engage with the times.
The thing that’s important to me is the subject matter. The American actors in Turks and Caicos would say, “In America this script wouldn’t be possible”. I said, “Don’t be ridiculous, I thought American television was meant to be living through a golden period,” and they said, “Yes it’s living through a golden period stylistically but not in terms of content.” So there will be a series about what it’s like to be Vice President but it wont be about what Vice Presidents are actually, in the real world, dealing with and in particular the moral dilemmas that come out of The War on Terror are just a ‘no no’ either in the movies or on television.
You are in the very privileged position of being able to move between film and theatre…
The reason I wrote Page 8 (2011) was that I finally had the courage to spend a year writing something that might or might not be made. If I write a play I know it will go on. As I get older, I get scared that I’m going to waste time on something that doesn’t get made – it’s a complete waste of my time. So I finally said, “I’m going to have one last throw of the dice and I’m going to write an original film”. I hadn’t written an original film since Strapless.
When you sat down to write Page 8 you really didn’t know that it was gong to be made?
I showed it to Christine Langan, who was running BBC Films, and Christine said “You can either now spend two or three years with us, raising the money, and you having to listen to the views of all the partners, or if we do it for television we can be filming in six months time, so I made what I call an actuarial calculation and decided to be filming.
I wanted to ask about how you develop characters. You’ve said in the past that at Lancing College you had to adjust your accent and I had this idea that maybe that gave you an insight into how characters are constructed...
Not really. I think that when I started writing people struggled, actors struggled with the idea that my characters were different people according to who they were with. In other word; I’m a different person when I’m dealing with my mother, I’m another person when I’m dealing with the bank manager, I’m a completely different person when I’m talking to actors. It seems to me clear that we’re all many people.
When you’ve decided on your subject and who your characters are – do you then start blocking out – doing the heavy lifting and creating a story line or do you start writing scenes?
I start writing scenes.
Which is against everything that every book will tell you about how to write a screenplay…
If I’m adapting something then I will work out what the story is and then I will hang the dialogue on at the last minute. But with my own work, I want the freedom to go where the work leads me.
So surely that must lead you into writing a lot of scenes that take you off in the wrong direction.
But for you it’s essential to let the characters live and speak…
I had a brilliant script editor (on Turks and Caicos). I need somebody to talk to. I don’t in the theatre, but in the films I do and you have to be able to argue out where they’re going. Now obviously when I work with Scott Rudin, Scott is the person I do that with because I think he’s the most brilliant developer of a screenplay alive. I don’t think there’s anyone to touch him.
When you are directing your own screenplay do you give yourself more rehearsal time and use it as a writing tool?
In an ideal world the writer should plainly be there at rehearsal because the minute you have a great actor they will show you what you need and what you don’t need and so why would you not go to a Meryl Streep rehearsal? Or a Christopher Walken rehearsal? Because the minute Chris says your words, you know what you need and what you don’t need and he will say to you, “I don’t really need that because I can imply that,” and so the craziness is not to be at the rehearsal. But if you’re only the writer it’s a very tiring way of life because you basically have to go out to bloody Pinewood at eight o’clock in the morning, attend the rehearsal and your day is ruined.
I find the changes that you make on the day the most satisfying part of filmmaking. I love it.
The changes you make on the day when you’re actually shooting?
Yes – or when an actor comes to you and says, “You know I feel I should have something in this scene where I…” you know – and those bits that you write on the spot are deeply satisfying – they’re lovely, you know you sort of go: “I woke up without even knowing I’d have that idea and now its in the can and its perfect because an actor brought it to my attention.”
I thought the acting styles of the British and American actors in Turks and Caicos were meshed together beautifully. I wondered what your attitude to improvisation was.
I suppose I would crudely say what I do stand for - I mean I am very aware that two of the most conspicuous films of this year are The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle and both are plainly improvised by the actors - and when people say the Wolf of Wall Street has the word “fuck” 520 times, I know, from experience, that when you ask actors to improvise they tend to use the word “fuck”, and that’s why it appears 520 times. Clearly that kind of acting is the very opposite of the kind of acting that I admire and so I’m very deliberately not using those kinds of American actors who come to the set and expect to improvise and say something close to the line. I’m insisting that the actors say exactly the line because I want the whole thing to be an ensemble and I want the English to belong with the American. Look, I admire improvisation as a technique. In other words if you spend six months, as Mike Lee does or John Cassavetes did, that will achieve an effect of style that is very very satisfying, but if you throw an actor onto a film set and say, “Can you please just say whatever comes into your head”… you know…I think that kind of belief that if the actor makes the line up on the day it’s going to be more real also leads to a very generalized kind of acting that is not precise and I really, I don’t really know how to say this tactfully so maybe I wont say it tactfully, but I think some of the worst acting I have seen this year is in American Hustle. I think they’re four very bad performances. And I’m absolutely astonished that they’re nominated for Oscars. Because they’re all very good actors who are in my view doing their worst work, by a kind of sloppy generalizing. They’re rotten performances.
You’re collaborations with Stephen Daldry have been particularly fruitful – has Stephen influenced you in the way that you’ve directed?
Oh yeah - I don’t think I’d have gone back to directing… I think that in the eighties, as I sensed that I was getting worse, I became more and more defensive and more and more, “I am the author of this film”. Stephen is the most collegiate director I know - I mean to a fault. In other words I will kind of say to him, “Stephen we don’t have to ask the caterers what they think of the script you know, we do not have to go through the caterers! Because he literally will ask anyone their opinion and he is completely un-defensive, so it’s wonderful for me and I learned that you’re not, as a film director, doing that awful thing called “protecting your vision” - what you’re doing is opening out your vision. It’s having the confidence to listen to everybody and everybody will then contribute creatively.
There’s talk now of cinema breaking into two because the 200 million dollar blockbusters are such big spectacles that when people go to the cinema it’s seen as ridiculous that you pay the same price to go and see that film as you do to see something that cost two or three million - do you see any danger in that?
I just think that the whole...I mean it’s silly to say the game is up but certainly the properly financed serious film is now an endangered form. You know we made The Hours and The Reader - both of them cost 20 – 25 million dollars, both of them did what you dream of, which is you break out – you get out of the art house, although they are art house subjects, and you go into the mainstream and you take over a 100 million dollars. So everyone takes home 50 million dollars, but the studios have now decided that that’s not enough and that they’re only interested in taking home 300 million dollars.
I guess the whole way people view things is changing so fast.
Totally, I mean there was a ridiculous thing in the paper where somebody said - a film writer said, “It’s very hard to understand why David Hare, who can do anything he wants in theatre or film, is wasting his time on television,” and you just go, “This person doesn’t get it, they haven’t noticed that the world has changed over the last 25 years and I think changed for good – I don’t mean for better, I mean for ever.
I read somewhere that you watch a lot of films.
I now keep a diary of my film watching activity and its 250 – 260 films a year. I watch a film most days. My wife and I love to watch a DVD at 6 or 7 in the evening.
I just happen to be married to somebody who loves the cinema as much as I do and so we love watching a film. I still don’t think of it as my profession, whereas going to the theatre is a bit of a torment to me - a duty – and I don’t really enjoy it as much as I enjoy watching the movies.
A real treat yesterday - I was privileged to be invited into Sir David Hare's snug writing studio in Hampstead for a chat about his career and the art of screenwriting for a Sight and Sound article. Hare is best known for writing the screenplays for The Hours and The Reader but he is also a prolific playwright who has achieved the remarkable feat of having three plays running on Broadway simultaneously.
He was charming, loquacious, fascinating and a tiny bit indiscreet - which hopefully will make for a decent piece for the film buff's bible. The studio, which was like the ultimate man cave (for a man who is obsessed with theatre, film and literature) was once the painting studio of the artist Mark Gertler who was played by Rufus Sewell in the 1995 film Carrington, the script for which was written by Hare's old mucker at Lancing College, Christopher Hampton.
The route by which I ended up chewing the fat with this eminent scribe (named by the Sunday Times as one of the 50 most influential Britons of the last 50 years) is somewhat tortuous. Some years ago I sneaked into a series of lectures by the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière at the FAMU film school in Prague. The school were so hard up that when they heard I had a car they asked me if I would drive him to the airport. I hastily ran outside to give my beaten up Citroen a bit of a wipe down with some paper towels and a bottle of water (it was covered in cherry blossom). On the drive to the airport Carrière was chatty and told me a thing or two about working with the great Luis Buñuel but when he complained of being too hot there was a bit of an incident. I turned on the car's airconditioning and a thick cloud of cherry blossom fired into Carrière's face. He didn't see the funny (or surreal) side of this but in his defence he was exhausted at the time. However a few months later he was good enough to agree to let me interview him at his home in Paris - and when I told Nick James, the editor of Sight and Sound, he commissioned the piece which you can read below. Subsequently I have always grabbed the opportunity to meet screenwriters whom I admire - it's a great chance to learn from them.
Interviewing the screenwriter of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), Cyrano De Bergerac (1990) and most of Luis Buñuel’s French oeuvre requires me to find a discreet Parisian archway that leads into a charming tree-shaded courtyard. On one side stands a large white house with a spacious front terrace, in the middle of which stands Carrière, the man who describes film as “the first language successfully invented by man”.
In France Jean-Claude Carrière is known as a leading intellectual who happens to have one of the longest and most distinguished lists of screenwriting credits in the world. Mention him to a French person and they are likely to talk about his book Conversations Sur L’invisible, his exploration of the frontiers of science, or his theatrical partnership with Peter Brook. His TV film La Controverse de Valladolid (1992), a 16th Century courtroom drama, is often cited as an example of the occasional excellence of French television. Where another writer might have been typecast for life as a surrealist following “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972) Carrière has been mercurial in the extreme, working with directors as diverse as Jesus Franco and Louis Malle. Today he is as much in demand as ever. He has just returned from Spain where Milos Forman is filming his script for ‘Goya’s Ghost’.
Before I have even asked him a question he starts to talk about The Mahabharata. He adapted this ancient Indian epic for a 1985 stage production directed by Peter Brook and it later emerged as a five and a half hour film in 1989. He has recently been asked to take a stage production back to India and the project is clearly important to him. “An Indian friend said to me: ‘once you have entered the Mahabharata you never escape’ – but” he adds, “it’s a pleasure - a delight.”
As Carrière explains the startling parallels between the story and the war in Iraq I notice that the room we are in is furnished with ancient Indian carvings and I begin to wonder if it will be possible to shift the conversation to his early career – particularly events leading up to his meeting Luis Buñuel in 1963. Biographical information about Carrière is surprisingly scarce but when I ask him what made him a writer in the first place he answers willingly.
“I am a pure product of the system of public education in France”, he begins, adding that he was “born to be a peasant”. His parents could not have afforded to send him to college but at the age of nine and a half he was judged the brightest child in his département and this put him on a path that lead to France’s elite École Normale Supérieure in Saint-Cloud. Here he received the education which, he believes, forms the bedrock of his ability to tell stories well, but he places equal emphasis on the practical skills he aquired. “Some of the teachers really taught me how to work, how, for example to use a library. This saves you a lot of time later. Even now I work much more rapidly than young people”.
To Illustrate he tells me about the research he undertook for the script for Cyrano De Bergerac. Facing the tricky question of how Cyrano escapes each day through the besieging Spanish lines to post his letter to Roxanne, Carrière started looking at agricultural history. He discovered that in the 17th century the wheat was considerably taller than it is today. He contacted France’s Musée d’Histoire Naturelle and it emerged that strains of ancient cereal crops had been preserved. A field was sown in Hungary and several months later - voila! Not only can Cyrano run, unseen, through the towering wheat but also the director, Jean-Paul Rappeneau, had an image for the poster.
After university Carrière, like many Frenchmen of his generation, did his national service in Algeria, the subject of his only autobiographical film - C’était La Guerre (1993). He had, however, already published a novel and two novelizations of Jacques Tati films. Tati had invited writers to submit outlines for Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and Carrière won the commission by proposing that the story be told from the point-of-view of a minor character in the film. He followed this up with a reverse-adaptation of ‘Mon Oncle”. The novelization may be a debased genre, but it seems an extraordinarily fitting way for a novelist to begin his metamorphosis into screenwriter.
Despite what Carrière describes as Tati’s “paranoia – his persecution mania” they became good friends and Tati instructed his assistant, Pierre Etaix, to let Carrière learn about the film making process. “I was already completely addicted to film. This was the early sixties and everybody wanted to make films, I was a member of the cineclub at university, I didn’t want to do anything else.”
But Carrière’s interest extended beyond mere film fandom and throughout his career he has directed his considerable intellectual powers towards understanding film’s continually evolving grammar. Where other film makers of his generation might have shown a tendency to become nostalgic about the old ways of doing things, Carrière has been far too busy observing the way this new language is constantly shaping and enriching itself. A typical passage in his 1994 book The Secret language of Film analyses the development of the filmed close-up of the human gaze, showing how the actors have been directed to look progressively closer to the camera. Both this analytical approach and his love of sharing his knowledge eventually lead to his directorship of FEMIS, France’s most prestigious film school, and nowadays he gives lectures and screenwriting seminars all over the world.
On his return from Algeria Carrière teamed up with Pierre Etaix and a producer gave them the opportunity to make two short films. The second, “Heureux Anniversaire” (1962), won the Oscar for best short. “When the producer told us we had won the Oscar we asked ‘What is an Oscar’?” A first feature “Le Soupirant” (also dated 1962), followed. It was a remake of a Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925) and it won the attention of Luis Buñuel.
“The very first edition of La Révolution Surréaliste had included an article about Buster Keaton and American slapstick – which was very close to the surrealistic state of mind”. Buñuel had also admired a documentary that Carrière had written about the sexual life of animals but when they met in Cannes Carrière was far from being a shoe-in for the job of writing Buñuel’s next feature.“ Buñuel met four or five other writers, but I knew he was looking to adapt ‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’ so I had already done the preparation and we had a long talk about it. A week later the producer called me and said, ‘you are going to Spain tomorrow’. That was the beginning of my wandering around the world.”
From then on Buñuel employed Carrière to write all his French films in a partnership that lasted 19 years. Their final collaboration, on Buñuel’s book of memoirs (My Last Sigh, 1982), provides a telling anecdote that speaks volumes about Carrière’s quiet determination and adaptability.
“He (Buñuel) couldn’t work any more – he was seventy nine – eighty. I proposed to him that we write a book about him but he said ‘no’. So to convince him I wrote, by myself, one of the chapters as if I was Buñuel. And he read it and he said to me ‘I think I wrote it!’ And I said ‘well in a way you did’ because from talking with him so much I knew his character and his history. So then we sat down and started to work exactly as if it were a script. Working together in the morning, talking - with me alone in the afternoon; writing.”
Carrière is clearly proud of his achievements and he doesn’t clutter up his conversation with false modesty, but in his working life it is perhaps his ability to set aside his own ego and enter the mind-set of a highly idiosyncratic creative personality that has drawn so many of the worlds finest directors to him over the years. When I ask about his lack of professional egoism he describes it as being simply a matter of “personal character” but he admits to learning about the need for a writer to be flexible early on. “I was asked to adapt Robinson Crusoe for television and in one of the very first meetings the producer said to me; ‘don’t you think Crusoe is a little bit too much alone?’ So after that I was ready for anything!” The irony is that his openness has lead not to his being pushed around and forced to work on rubbish – but instead to producing a body of work that is consistently of the highest quality. Glancing through his credits a pattern emerges that cannot but speak in his favour; if a director you have heard of has teamed up with Carrière once – you can be sure he came back for more.
The success of the films themselves obviously plays a significant part in this but clearly the atmosphere of mutual respect and amicability is important. There is a sense also that Carrière enters each new project with the attitude that he is going to learn something and might even be changed by it – rather than with a set of fixed ideas. What is without doubt is that he always brings his remarkably robust imagination. Whether you are telling the story of a woman falling in love with a chimpanzee as in Max Mon Amour (1986), or a bunch of petty criminals on the make in post war France (Le Gang, 1977), Carrière will enter the situation with unbridled enthusiasm. “The imagination is a seamless capacity of the mind”” he says “but it is also a sort of muscle.”
It was Buñuel who introduced to him the idea of giving this muscle a workout. After their days work on a script they would both withdraw to their rooms to create a story. “Then we would meet at the cocktail hour to tell them to each other. After a long day I was often tired and would have preferred to watch TV!” Even now he makes an effort to stretch his imagination, seeking out the “vicious and the criminal” within himself.
Interestingly enough Carrière does not share that great obsession of all screenwriting gurus – story structure. “They are teachers, not writers” he says – then diplomatically adds; “I have lunch with Sid Field (the American screenwriting teacher) whenever he comes to Paris. I have absolutely no disdain for these teachers. I agree with Kant that you must know the laws if you want to break them, but I had a classical education. I learned storytelling from Shakespeare, Racine, Seneca.. also – when you are working with the kind of directors I work with, you know you are not going to respect conventional ways of storytelling”.
At this point in our conversation a beautiful dark-eyed little girl totters into the room and clambers onto Carrière’s lap. This is his two-and-a-half year old daughter, Kiara, by his Iranian-born wife. He has another daughter by a previous marriage and is also a grandfather. Carrière’s deep voice seems to hypnotise Kiara and she quickly falls asleep.
If he has a bugbear it is the unfairness of the American dominance of cinema distribution in Europe – what he calls, “the free fox in the free henhouse”. In his opinion European integration has made the situation worse because American distributors no longer have to deal with countries individually. But today, rather than focus on the adverse effects this has on Europe, he chooses to pity the Americans who, he says, only get to watch American films; “What I call the solitude of American culture”.
Carrière has worked, occasionally, for American studios but when I ask what kind of practical differences he encountered he replies, “Certainly I signed a different kind of contract but the American films I worked for were not really American. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) for instance, takes place in Europe, Phil Kauffman (the director) is a friend of mine.”
Mentioning this film triggers Carrière to talk about a year with which he is perhaps identified more than any other screenwriter. In 1968 he had just finished writing The Milky Way for Buñuel and was working on the script for Taking Off (1971), Milos Forman’s essay on the American hippy movement. They researched the script in New York then proceeded to Paris to do the writing - just as the May riots were coming to the boil. Still regularly meeting Buñuel, Carrière had a unique perspective on events. “Buñuel was coming from Fascist Spain and Milos from Communist Czechoslovakia, and they could not understand, at all, what the students wanted.” But Carrére supported the students and still does; “we gained so much. It was the beginning of women’s liberation, homosexual rights, the ecology movement – everything was being born”. Certainly the events of ’68 are a subject he is qualified to speak on. As well as living through them he has written a diverse trilogy of films specifically set in that year – The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Taking Off (1971), and Milou in May (1990), as well as a novel (The Years of Utopia).
Talking to Carrière I am aware that I am in the presence of a man for whom life has been a remarkably stimulating adventure. Driven by a consuming curiosity and a willingness to learn and change, he has become the epitome of the successful European screenwriter. He has been courteous and willing to talk about the past while his enthusiasm for the things he is working on now has proved to be irrepressible. He tells me that he hates to repeat himself and recently turned down an offer to adapt another Indian epic, the Ramayana. Instead he has chosen to enter the world of opera. “I noticed that in opera there are long scenes of dialogue which are not sung. They are always boring and very bad, and badly acted.” He had the idea of writing, instead, a short text that would be read out by a professional actor (Carole Bouquet recently performed this role at Paris’s Théâtre du Chatelet). “Maybe it’s a new form” he says “and that really interests me”.
Kiara is stirring awake and we have started to bite into time set aside for another meeting. It is time to bring the interview to a close. Finally he tells me a charming story with a winning mixture of irony and regret. He has retained what he calls his “native home” in the rural Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France, where he likes to keep in touch with his peasant roots. He recently invited over a neighbour of his own age who has never left the region, to show him a dry stone wall Carrière had built with his own hands (a craft he has taken to with characteristic vigour). The neighbour assessed his handiwork and finally announced: “You have not lost everything”. Even this idea – the idea that Jean-Claude Carrière should never have left the family farm – is one that he is open to.
Every year it happens. Some time around mid September I see a too-early Christmas-themed TV advert and my inner Scrooge wakes up and says ‘Humbug’. Then, usually in late December, someone puts on the DVD of Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1951 film Scrooge (released as A Christmas Carol in the US) and I wake up to what Christmas is all about.
Although there have been many film versions of Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, in which he pretty much invents our modern secular approach to Christmas, Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1952 version stands head and shoulders above all the others. Orson Wells once said that it was the fate of all films to become old fashioned and this is certainly true of older film versions, which are now curiosities for hard core film buffs. But, through a strange alchemy, Hurst’s film seems to acquire more power with each passing decade.
This is partly because of the perfect adaptation undertaken by the screenwriter Noel Langley (who also did the adaptation on The Wizard of Oz – although on that film he shared credit with others). Langley successfully boils the story down with such consummate professionalism that one is left feeling that the book has been subsumed and no longer needs to be read. But another reason for the film’s increasing emotional impact with each passing year is that the film was made at a time when all the myriad artistic and technical aspects of film were sufficiently advanced that we don’t feel shut out of the film yet it appears, more and more, to actually emanate from the Dickensian age – it feels like the authentic telling of the tale. And this is perhaps not an entirely far fetched notion - as everybody involved in the film would have known people who lived during Dickens’ time and therefore, however tentatively, they still had one little toe dipped in that age.
What is more some of them had ‘Dickensian’ experiences. The director himself was born in East Belfast in 1895 into a working class family. His mother died in 1899 leaving his father to raise six surviving children. At thirteen he had to leave school to work in a linen factory.
Incidentally Brian Desmond Hurst is one of only five British directors to have blue plaques on their houses (the others are David Lean, John Schlesinger, Alexander Mackenderick and Michael Powell) – and should probably be a household name for Scrooge alone.
Hurst’s Scrooge was a box office hit in 1951 and it must have been a joy indeed to see it fresh in a cinema at the time. Perhaps it’s popularity in Britain partly stemmed from the fact that people had been living under wartime austerity conditions for years (meat and food rationing didn’t end until 1954) – conditions which imposed a sort of Scrooge-like regime on people, and the message that it was time for you to loosen up, let go of all the scrimping and saving and indulge a little must have seemed very appealing.
Alastair Sim’s performance as Ebenezer Scrooge is so perfect that Jim Carey had the good taste to steal his characterization and vocal delivery for the 2009 animated version of the same story (sadly Carey’s version is spoiled by excessive sentimentality and pointless CGI spectacle – at one point Scrooge flies to the moon for no reason!) Sim had just been voted Britain’s most popular Film actor when he played Scrooge – a part he was perfect for in every way. Aged fifty-one it took little effort for him to look older and his own personality was not dissimilar to that of Ebenezer after he is transformed by his night of ghoulish encounters. In the film he sings “I don’t know anything, I never did know anything, but now I know that I don’t know – all on a Christmas morning”, a sentiment not far removed from a delightful utterance from the actor himself: “It was revealed to me many years ago with conclusive certainty that I was a fool and that I had always been a fool. Since then I have been as happy as any man has a right to be.”
Another highlight of the film is Mervyn John’s portrayal of Bob Cratchet - one of the most perfectly judged performances in all cinema and one which makes it unbearable to watch more modern versions of the films as they tend to try and milk the emotions, rather than intelligently underplaying them. The scene where Scrooge reveals to Bob Cratchet that he wants to ‘Help raise that family of yours’ makes me weep every time – because Mervyn John’s does not go all cringingly and pathetically grateful – instead he looks frightened – thinking that Scrooge has lost his mind. The poor man has been so ill-treated that madness is the only explanation he can think of for a man suddenly being kind to him. Likewise the scene where he describes how he has found the perfect burial plot for his son Tiny Tim is beautifully judged and brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it. Rather than delivering the speech as someone who is deeply sad he instead delivers it as someone who is thrilled to have found the perfect spot to lay his son’s body to rest. Such intelligent playing against the grain almost certainly comes from Dickens’ writing – like any good writer he avoids writing on the nail of the emotion – but staying true to such things takes courage. It is impossible to know if such decisions were made by the actor or the director but it is remarkable how again and again in modern versions they get it wrong. Emotions are drawn out of audiences when you show characters trying bravely to triumph over adversity and master their emotions, not wallowing in adversity and indulging their emotions.
Also brilliant in the film is Kathleen Harrison as Mrs Dilber, a woman who has been brutalized into utter callousness by the mean bloodless world she inhabits. Harrison's performance is utterly impeccable and the part allows for broader comic moments – such as when she runs screaming from the room when Scrooge threatens to do a handstand in his nightshirt - a golden moment in world cinema. What is so incredible is the way our sympathies for this woman are awoken the moment she becomes the recipient of a bit of human warmth and decency. Even though we know she would have sold the very sheets on his bed when he died we realize that Scrooge's awakened humanity is going to allow her to be the person she should be.
I find it very hard to do justice to this film in writing – and perhaps all I really need to do is recommend the film and leave it at that. I do know that absolutely the best Christmas present you could give yourself is to settle into a big old armchair with a cup of tea and some hot buttered crumpets and watch the 1951 Scrooge without smartphone, ipad or laptop to distract you. I promise you will have a merrier Christmas as a result.
To listen to a podcast documentary about Brian Desmond Hurst click here: http://tinyurl.com/3vme8dq
The real Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.
Get robbed at gunpoint by a maniac it’s highly unlikely that your first thought will be, ‘I’d love to see a movie about that guy’. Yet we love watching the antics of criminals - as witnessed by the enduring popularity of films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Godfather (1972). This has never struck me as a complicated phenomenon. We spend our lives hemmed in by the laws required for human civilization to function. Ignore a parking ticket and the grim bloodless cogs of the state begin to turn. Watching Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow on their wild spree, we take a vicarious holiday from the constant pressure to be law abiding. Clyde laughs at parking tickets and if he wants something he points his Browning Automatic Rifle and takes it. Transformed by art into a jaunty narrative the Bonnie and Clyde story becomes a roller coaster ride filling us with the fresh air of pure freedom.
Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot
Of course in many films criminality is simply a plot device. For example in Some Like it Hot (1959) the writers needed a threat so terrifying that it would persuade the two male protagonists to disguise themselves as women – so they borrowed the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre and had them witness it. But in films that take criminals as their chief subject matter, criminality becomes a useful shorthand for freedom –and to really appeal to a mass audience it is essential to transform reality.
Robert Redford and Paul Newman, in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
First and foremost we must empathize with our protagonists and the easiest way to do this is to cast movie stars. Their charisma and beauty will mean, vain creatures that we are, that we will identify with them instantly. If you cast Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with actors who actually looked like Robert LeRoy Parker and Harry Longabaugh you might make an interesting film but you’ll also lose your shirt. Interestingly Bonnie Parker was actually a very attractive and elegant lady, and contemporary photographs show the casting of Faye Dunaway to be remarkably accurate – but this is certainly an anomaly in the genre, and in fact part of the reason Bonnie and Clyde became so famous is that photographs of her were widely published while the gang were still on the run – and the public fell a little bit in love with the slim petite Bonnie and her jaunty beret. Clyde, however, looked nothing like Warren Beatty.
The next thing you must do with these ‘true crime stories’ is take care not to dwell too much on the consequences of the crimes committed. Yes you can show Clyde Barrow shooting innocent people – this, after all, is what conjures up the counter force (the police) that will provide so much of the conflict in the story. But if you show grieving relatives at funerals then the audience will start to hate Bonnie and Clyde and will lose interest. There’s a remarkable detail from the real story, which a director might have been tempted to include. One of the more controversial killings by the Barrow gang was that of a young soon-to-be-married patrolmen, H. D. Murphy. Eyewitness accounts stated that Bonnie Parker was seen laughing when the patrolman’s head bounced on the road as he fell. His young fiancée later attended his funeral in her wedding dress. The sight of this young woman in white, surrounded by mourners in black, following a coffin, would have been extremely arresting – but a powerful disincentive for the audience to continue rooting for the two cheeky tearaways. Likewise when Bonnie and Clyde were eventually gunned down a large crowd formed and the two officers charged with guarding the bodies lost control. A woman managed to cut off some of Bonnie Parker’s hair and bits of her dress (later sold as souvenirs) and a man was only just stopped from cutting off Barrow’s trigger finger – another nearly got an ear. This too might have made an unforgettable sequence – but it would have left audiences with the uncomfortable feeling that their fascination with the two legendary figures placed them in the same category as the gruesome treasure hunters.
Bonnie and Clyde is a charming and entertaining film and I feel no unease in enjoying it. The period setting is an effective distancing device and Arthur Penn’s direction remains stylish and fresh. When filmmakers attempt to be more realistic in their telling of these outlaw tales they tend to come a cropper at the box office – although it can result in a fascinating movie. The Assassination of the Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) is an extraordinary, languorous but captivating film that tells with almost forensic precision of the months leading up to the judicial killing of Jesse James by his disloyal accomplice Robert Ford. The film gives the impression that Jesse James, despite being a hardened criminal who had ruined many lives, was at least something genuinely amazing in an otherwise moribund world. But hunted unrelentingly by the law he was forced to rely increasingly on a shrinking band of low-grade individuals, barely worthy of our attention, who were only involved with him through vanity, stupidity, and their failure to excel in any other field. If you want to see the presentation of a railroad robbery as a glamorous and hilarious escapade, watch the scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where the railroad employee is rendered as a comic figure, constantly citing his employer’s name in the hope it will protect him from being blown to smithereens. If you want to see the sordid, greedy reality of a 19th century railroad robbery, watch The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – where the thieves make impoverished rail passengers empty their pockets of their meager earnings and a railroad employee attempts to do his job with dignity and is smashed in the head for his pains. The Assassination of Jesse James boasts producer credits for both Tony and Ridley Scott and has the kind of cast where quite minor characters are played by world-class actors - but not even the presence of Brad Pitt could give this ponderous sophisticated film a box office boost. I love it because it seems to nail a profound truth about outlaws and feels so authentic it is like time travel.
Marlon Brando in The Godfather
But for real box office success the key word is ‘transformation’. How do you take criminal activity – something that we so thoroughly despise when we are victims of it ourselves - and transform it into something that is appealing? The Godfather, the first of Francis Ford Coppola’s trilogy about the fictional Corleone crime family, utilizes the simple and, at the time, revolutionary idea of making the boss of the family, not a cigar chomping machine gun-wielding ‘public enemy’, but someone with the dignity and authority of a Medici Pope. His lieutenants, meanwhile, are largely presented as immaculately turned out gentlemen, ruled by an admirable code of honour. A side effect of this was that the Godfather movies acted as a boost to the morale and self-image of Mafiosi in the US. Of course Francis Ford Coppola might argue that his film uses the activities of the crime syndicates as metaphors for corporate America but ‘made guys’ were drooling over the film because it made them look good. For example in the book Mafia Wife, Lynda Milito, wife of Louie Milito of the Gambino crime family (his speciality was robbing payphones – very classy), writes:
“When the Godfather movie came out, Louis got a copy and watched it like six thousand times. It was like a searchlight had lit up on something he had always believed in but had never seen the proof of before. He couldn’t pull himself away from the TV. He couldn’t stop watching that stupid movie. A dozen times he told me, “This movie is fantastic!” He was amazed that the people who made it knew so much. All our friends were watching it.”
“…the guys who came to the house were all acting like Godfather actors, kissing and hugging even more than they did before and coming out with lines from the movie.”
(From Mafia Wife by Linda Milito and Reg Potterton)
Joe Colombo Senior
In fact The Godfather producers originally faced great opposition from Italian-Americans to filming in New York. In the spring of 1970, Joe Colombo Senior had created the Italian-American Civil Rights League to protect the interests of Italian Americans and to protest at their treatment by the Federal government and their portrayal in the entertainment industry as a bunch of hoodlums. Colombo himself was actually the boss of the Colombo crime family, one of the "Five Families" of the Cosa Nostra in New York. In fact for a while he became a sort of media-friendly mob boss and Albert Ruddy, the producer of the Godfather, met with him and agreed to excise the terms "Mafia" and "Cosa Nostra" from the film. After this the League cooperated fully with the production. The Godfather is often voted as the best film of all time and it is certainly a highly seductive portrayal of power, ruthlessness and family loyalty – but it is not an accurate portrayal of organized crime. It transforms it into something glamorous and dignified, giving it a gravitas it does not possess – and that’s what audiences love about it.
If you want to see a more accurate portrayal of organized crime you could not do better than to watch Gomorrah (2008). This is a clear-eyed examination of the activities of the Camorra, southern Italy’s crime syndicate. All pretence of glamour has been peeled away to reveal a shameful truth. The film was based on a remarkable book by Roberto Saviano who grew up in a small town on the fringe of Naples where 80% of Europe's cocaine is processed. A 2012 report by the Italian Employers Association states that organized crime is the biggest business in Italy generating an annual turnover of 140 billion Euros. Saviano showed how, far from being victimless, organized crime in Italy has seeped into every aspect of life and degrades and ruins countless lives. For having the courage to tell the truth about the Camorra, Saviano has been forced to change his identity, cut ties with his family and will spend the rest of his life under twenty-four hour police protection. It’s a hell of a lot safer to dress these people up as heroes than to tell the truth about them – but to my mind Roberto Saviano is a real hero. The first Amazon review of Saviano's book of the same name, on which Gomorrah was based, ends with this heartfelt plea: “Please read this. The Camorra is not a Scorcese movie, the mafia is not some antiquated clichè. We live with it, and our country is slowly dying because of it. This is not a work of fiction, sadly”.
Patsy Byers after being paralysed.
I would feel uneasy if I was involved in a film that inspired copycat crimes but it is never going to be possible, in my view, to prove a direct causal link between a movie and a specific act of violence. The number of massacres that have been shown to have some connection to the film Natural Born Killers (1994) (through the murderer’s citing it as a favourite film or actually watching it immediately prior to their crimes) are too numerous to mention here but include the infamous Columbine massacre (in correspondence prior to the massacre the killers used the shorthand “NBK” – short for Natural Born Killers - to mean a killing spree). Most worrying for the film makers – and frankly all film makers everywhere – the film became the subject of a lawsuit, claiming that it had incited the 1995 killing of Bill Savage and, in a separate incident, the shooting of Patsy Byers (who was rendered paraplegic). The attackers watched the movie obsessively before they went on their spree. On January 23, 1997 the case was dismissed on the grounds that filmmakers and production companies are protected by the First Amendment, but the Intermediate Louisiana Court of Appeals overturned that decision, claiming there was a valid case against the filmmakers. Director Oliver Stone must have lost a bit of sleep but on March 12, 2001, judge Robert Morrison dismissed the case on the grounds that there was no evidence that either Time Warner or the director intended to incite violence.
Mickey and Mallory tie the knot
The first section of Natural Born Killers is stylistically audacious – telling the tale of young Mickey and Mallory’s entry into a life of murder and mayhem as if we were flicking through the channels of a television and all the channels were telling the same story through a multitude of trash genres. The film is baroque, frenetic – almost deranged – and despite being only credited with writing the story, the hand of Quentin Tarantino is detectable everywhere. There is plenty for the dispossessed, the marginalized, the bitter and the mad to latch onto. The film seems to suggest there is no reality – only different types of television, or at least that you can escape mundane reality and enter television by becoming a sort of one man terrorist - hell bent on the sacred cause of becoming famous. Woody Harrelson’s character Mickey delivers an array of insane but articulate reasons for his actions, and the film sketches in abusive childhoods for both himself and his wife, providing a whole shopping list of justifications for would-be mass murderers. As Robert Downey Junior’s Ozzy reporter says after an interview with Mickey is over: ‘every moron on the planet is going to see that’. The truth is you would have to be a moron not to see that the film is a bludgeoning satire on the media’s obsession with violent criminals. At one point, when Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as Mickey and Mallory are about to kill a Native Indian, Oliver Stone actually projects the words “Too much TV” onto their chests . On the plus side if you want to gain access to the self-image and worldview of your average attention-and-revenge-craving mass murdering nut job the film probably has not been bettered. In fact the irony is that despite using a colossal number of distancing devices it probably is the most accurate film about the relationship between the media, violent crime, and the public yet made – even if the last section, with Tommy Lee Jones gurning like crazy as a prison governor during a riot, is completely over-the-top.
A person who has very little stake in the world, no reliable role models, perhaps has suffered abuse, feels a deep rooted sense of personal injustice and craves attention might well see a film glorifying criminal activity not as a metaphor but as an advertisement. Many film makers put out a blanket refusal to accept any relationship between screen violence and actual violence but that is disingenuous - nobody would suggest that there was no connection between human culture and human behaviour. I am no advocate of censorship and would not suggest that film makers should try to make films 'safe' for the mad, sad or bad. But I would urge a healthier, more honest attitude to the whole subject. In short, be more like the director John Waters who started out with deliberately shocking fare like Pink Flamingoes (1972) which famously features the actress Divine eating a real dog turd. Later he entered the mainstream with films like Hairspray (1988) and Serial Mom (1994). Waters used to visit prisons and show his movies to the inmates. Afterwards he would tell the prisoners to find a creative outlet for their transgressive urges. "These films" he told them, " are my crimes".
Frank Cottrell Boyce
A while ago I attended a screenwriter’s event at BAFTA where Frank Cottrell Boyce, screenwriter, author of children’s fiction and writer of the Olympic opening ceremony gave a lively and inspiring talk. At one point he extolled the benefits of having children, saying that it hadn't interfered with his work at all and there was a sense that he was encouraging us to go forth and multiply. I hadn’t noticed that a shortage of humans was a particular problem besetting planet Earth but as the father of seven children perhaps he felt the need to talk up fecundity. Either that or, as a good Catholic boy, he felt that the lack of babies in our lives suggested that we had been making use of ungodly contraception. Ar one point he quoted Cyril Connelly’s famous dictum that “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” Now of course Connelly was saying: “don’t for Christ’s sakes have kids if you want to be a great artist” but Cottrell Boyce’s point was that Connelly was a bit of an idiot who didn’t know what he was talking about. His proof was that “Connelly never made any art – he was just a critic.”
Barbara Hepworth's triplets
In practical terms there is no doubt that having children is likely to interfere with your working life and in the past the burden of taking care of them has largely fallen on women. I always think of the great sculptress Barbara Hepworth who, to her considerable inconvenience, gave birth to triplets in 1934. Any hope that the father might step up and do the multiple nappy changes and night feeds while she concentrated on her minimalist forms was utterly forlorn. Ben Nicholson was at least as obsessed with his work as she was with hers, and although Hepworth’s sculptures at the time were clearly influenced by motherhood the truth is that little Simon, Rachel and Sarah were farmed out to a Hampstead nursery-training college. I don’t want to put word into those babies’ mouths but I’ll take a wild guess that being raised by professional’s in starched uniforms in an institution that probably reeked of disinfectant and overcooked cabbage was not top of their list of lifestyle choices. Thus it wasn’t so much the pram being the enemy of art as art being the enemy of three adorable rosy-cheeked babies .
In fairness to Cyril Connelly it is not quite true that he produced no art. He did in fact write several books although it has to be said that his second book “The Enemy of Promise” (from which the pram quote comes) is a detailed explanation of why Connelly never fulfilled his promise and was, in his own estimation, a failure.
In one section he uses an elaborate metaphor about weeds which choke the rye. Each weed represents something that Connelly regards as being detrimental to an artist, with journalism, politics, escapism, sex and success all being found guilty to some extent. Poor Cyril was a golden youth who excelled at school but never fulfilled his promise, while suffering the added indignity of watching his old schoolmate, George Orwell, become a great writer. You have to admire his searing honesty in facing up to his shortcomings but I can’t help feeling that for the real culprit you need look no further than Connelly’s chubby face. Does he look like the kind of man who is prepared to starve in a garret while he pens his masterpiece? It is said that when he stayed with friends his host would afterwards have to remove rashers of bacon from the books he had borrowed (he used them as a marker) and would find half eaten plates of food in drawers. There was to be no Down and Out in London and Paris for Connelly, who was probably a little too fond of good food to resist lucrative commissions from publications – thus keeping him from what he regarded as his true vocation.
Tabby and I at the Koax drawing exhibition
My own experience of recent fatherhood has been that my daughter has imported into my life that essential ingredient of any screenwriter’s career – good luck. Projects that have been stalled or trapped in development limbo are suddenly springing to life. What is more some drawings I did of her in her first weeks were recently selected for an exhibition at Mascall’s Gallery in Kent, proving that the pram in the hall is not so much the enemy of art, as excellent subject matter for it. Incidentally the next exhibition at the excellent little Mascalls Gallery is Barbara Hepworth’s 'Hospital Drawings"; her beautiful drawings of surgeons undertaking serious operations. We can be thankful that her triplets don’t feature in them.
So often books that are advertised as “humorous” turn out to be about as amusing as having a bouquet of nettles stuffed down your gruds. The following is a list of ten writers whose prose has cheered me up, made me smile or made me laugh out loud.
Left: Terry-Thomas in 'School for Scoundrels', the 1960 screen adaptation of Stephen Potter's 'Lifemanship' books.
10. Mordecai Richler. Reason on list: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959). Richler breaks a cardinal rule of story telling in this vibrant novel in that his hero is unsympathetic. Duddy Kravitz is a greedy little shit, obsessed with the dream of acquiring power, wealth and status (all symbolized for him in the dream of acquiring some unspoilt land by a lake). But the little swine is just so energetic, cheeky, and unrelenting in his pursuit of his goal that you can’t help but cheer him on. Above all there is a mad, youthful zeal coursing through the whole story which is thoroughly exhilarating. A film version of the book was released in 1974 starring Richard Dreyfuss, who, when the film wrapped, was reputedly convinced he had made a stinker that was going to sink his career. He quickly signed up to take a role in a small movie called Jaws directed by an unknown called Steven Speilberg to hedge his bets. In fact Duddy Kravitz was the most commercially successful Canadian film ever made at the time of its release. Jaws did OK too.
These days Richler is probably better known for the film version of his novel Barney’s Version, which also has a not particularly sympathetic main character who hits an all time low in the rat stakes when he falls in love with another woman on his wedding day. It’s a scene that might be regarded as rather far-fetched but in fact Mordecai Richler actually did fall in love with Florence Mann on the eve of his wedding to Catherine Boudreau. He later divorced Catherine and married Florence.
Richler frequently said his goal was to be an honest witness to his time and place, and to write at least one book that would be read after his death. I suspect that The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is that book.
9 David Niven. Reason on list: His bravura autobiographies The Moon’s a Balloon (1972) and Bring on the Empty Horses. David Niven’s son has said in an interview that when his father was dying of Motor Neurone Disease, “He was very stiff upper lip about it all. He told me: "Maybe this is God's way of saying you have told enough stories over the years and it's someone else's turn to be the life and soul of the party."
David Niven was such a consummate anecdotalist that he has probably never been bettered, and he would certainly be on my list of dream dinner party guests. To what extent his autobiographies are strictly true has been the subject of a great deal of conjecture and it has certainly been established that several of the incidents that he includes were actually purloined wholesale from someone else’s life (Cary Grant’s as it happens) but none of this makes the books any less entertaining. This is a man who would rather have sawn off his own arm than bore his readers.
And what a story he tells! It almost feels as though Niven had his own personal wicked deity, with a particularly twisted sense of humour and a low boredom threshold, watching over his life and occasionally interfering to spice things up a bit. Thus when, as a schoolboy, he decided to send a human turd to one of his peers as a prank, his personal demon arranged for the recipient to become dangerously ill while the gift was still in transit – so that the parcel was opened by a ward matron in the hospital where the lad was on his deathbed. True? I’m not sure if I care.
One of the things that make the books so utterly compelling is that the roller coaster ride is shot through with extraordinary tragedy. Thus it is beyond doubt that his adored first wife Primmie died at age 28 while playing a game of Sardines at the home of actor Tyrone Power in Los Angeles. She walked through a door believing it to be a wardrobe and instead plummeted headlong down a stone staircase.
Niven was very much an old-school English gentlemen with a highly developed sense of honour. When the Second World War broke out he had already become a star in Hollywood but he threw it all in without a moment’s hesitation and joined up despite the fact that the official advice from the British Embassy was that established British stars should stay. Churchill later thanked him personally. Niven saw action but, despite being inclined to talk and write at some length about anything and everything else (as long as it was amusing) he felt that it was unseemly to bang on about his war exploits – for the simple reason that, in his opinion, the real heroes were lying in serried ranks in war graves in France. However he did say that, when he was about to lead his men into action, he eased their nervousness by telling them, "Look, you chaps only have to do this once. But I'll have to do it all over again in Hollywood with Errol Flynn!"
A favourite nugget of information about David Niven is that at his funeral an immense wreath turned up, paid for by the porters at London's Heathrow Airport, along with a card that read: 'To the finest gentleman who ever walked through these halls. He made a porter feel like a king.' It’s an epitaph that speaks of a vanished age – but it’s a wonderful epitaph all the same.
8. Tom Sharpe. Reason on list: Riotous Assembly (1971) Indecent Exposure (1973) Blott on the Landscape (1975) Wilt (1976) The Throwback (1978) I shall always be grateful to Tom Sharpe whose scabrous anarchic novels I stumbled upon while at boarding school. So outrageous are they that I read them surreptitiously, fearing they may be confiscated, only to discover one day that my housemaster, dear old “Slug” Rouse, had a set of Sharpe’s novels (in the same editions I was reading) on the shelf in his living room. We even bonded, momentarily, over our shared love of the books before slipping quickly back into our entrenched positions of mutual mistrust. I recently re-read Riotous Assembly and it stood the test of time, being a viscous satire on Apartheid era South Africa replete with utterly obscene imagery and grotesque characters – perhaps the hallmark of his work.
7. Rudyard Kipling. Reason on list: Stalky and Co. First Published in 1899 Kipling’s tale of the goings on at a minor English public School churning out cannon fodder for the British Empire is hopelessly politically incorrect, and becoming more so by the minute; but I love it all the same.
Kipling does what novelists are constantly urged not to do – and that is write about himself. In fact he writes about his time as a pupil at the United Services College, at Westward Ho! in Devon (referred to in the book as “the Coll”) where he shared a study with his two pals Lionel Dunsterville and George Charles Beresford (named Stalky and M’Turk in the text). But instead of being an accurate account of these schooldays it is a heightened and idealized portrayal – a fantasy in which the three boys run rings around the whole school, making fools of everyone and anyone who is unfortunate enough to wander into their demonic little sights. Writing as an older and wiser man he is able to revisit his school days armed with his robust imagination and indulge in a shameless and thoroughly enjoyable romp.
That’s not to say it is completely inaccurate. As a schoolboy Kipling was fascinated by Dunsterville’s tactical and strategic genius in concocting scrapes and adventures for his little coterie and Dunsterville’s subsequent career (he became a General) certainly bore this out. Most of all Stalky and Co is on my list because it inspires me to delve into my own history in search of inspiration – but reminds me that in order to expect others to take any interest in such personal material you need to light fireworks underneath it – sending it into the stratosphere of entertainment.
6. PG Wodehouse. Reason on list: The Jeeves and Wooster novels. Plum’s work (the nickname derives from a shortening of his Christian name “Pelham”) is going out of fashion, which for him means that sales of his books in the UK are now running in the tens rather than the hundreds of thousands. It is certainly true that the world of Bertie Wooster and his trusty factotum Jeeves (which was, in any case, a fantasy world conjured up by the author for an American audience) is becoming irredeemably remote and irrelevant. However I have to include him purely for his prowess as a stylist. Wodehouse has always been admired by a broad range of writers for his consistency of voice and his deftness with language (Ben Elton, an old-school lefty, who might be expected to despise Bertie’s world of moneyed privilege, has confessed to being a fan). For myself, I am inspired by Plum every time I sit down to write. From him I learned that good fiction always has strong character or voice, giving it a lot more in common with acting than is generally acknowledged. I can well imagine that Plum would take a moment to get ‘in character’ before writing, building up an internal head of steam of posh twittishness before allowing his fingers to touch the typewriter.
5. Douglas Adams. Reason on list: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979) The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980) Life, the Universe and Everything (1982) So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (1984) Adams’ comic science fiction novels began life as a series of plays on Radio 4 and have since been adapted into a feature film but if, by some chance, all this has passed you by then you have a treat in store for you. I once made the mistake of enthusiastically – in fact feverishly – encouraging a friend to read these books and described in detail some of the intoxicatingly brilliant and imaginative ideas and incidents with which they are packed. Some time later he said: “You were right, they were great, but I kept coming across bits you had already told me about – so those bits were ruined. Then I began to suffer from a sort of creeping dread that I was about to encounter another bit you had ruined – which ruined the whole thing”. Fair comment – and I’m not going to say any more about them. However I can’t resist pointing out that the recent announcement that the first manned mission to Mars is in fact going to be a reality television show is just the kind of thing that Adam’s would have loved – and I’m sure he is smiling wryly about it on the astral plane he inhabits, having been cruelly taken from us in 2001 at the tender age of 49.
I am also a big fan of Adam’s The Meaning of Liff (1983, with John Lloyd) a dictionary of words, created by the two authors, to describe phenomenon for which no word currently exists. They use British place names to create new words, so for example Shoeburyness means "The vague uncomfortable feeling you get when sitting on a seat that is still warm from somebody else's bottom." Despite the dictionary format it ends up being a comic and poetic discourse on all those tiny little and previously uncategorized phenomena that make up so much if our lives. No toilet should be without this book.
4. Woody Allen. Reason on list: Getting Even (1971), Without Feathers (1975), "The Whore of Mensa" (1974) Side Effects (1980) and Mere Anarchy (2007)
Allen famously has a drawer where he throws scraps of paper with ideas on them and when he deems an idea to be unfilmable he instead turns it into a short story. A brilliant example is The Kugelmass Episode, about a CCNY professor named Sidney Kugelmass who is projected into Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary by a magic wardrobe and embarks on an affair with the eponymous heroin. Allen has always been good at flattering his fans by filling his work with highbrow references while running riot with the sacred cows of the liberal arts establishment. The ending, with Kugelmass being chased across a barren landscape by an abstract noun – due to book of grammar being thrown into the wardrobe, is priceless.
3. Jerome K Jerome wins his spot on my list for Three Men in a Boat (full Victorian title: Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). Jerome K Jerome’s hugely famous and successful novel (which has never been out of print and was, for a long time, part of the official school syllabus in Russian and Turkish Schools) was first published in 1889 and although it’s appeal may have subtly changed it is still a delight. Telling the story of three friends who rent a camping skiff for a boating holiday on the Thames between Kingston and Oxford, this is a book that manages to capture an intoxicating spirit of innocent joy in simple pleasures. Reading it makes you want to recalibrate your dreams and ambitions and conclude that all you need to be happy is a couple of old mates, a canvas tent, a boat, a river, a badly behaved dog and some good old shite English weather. Another endearing feature of Jerome’s book is its meandering eccentricity. Amongst the comic set pieces, about such things as opening a tin of pineapples without an opener, there are long rambling digressions that have absolutely nothing to do with the main narrative and would probably be excised by a publisher were the book delivered fresh today. For example there is a wondrously detailed and evocative description of events leading up to the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede and even a note of deep tragedy in a sequence about the recovery of a dead woman’s body from the water. In fact Jerome’s book was inspired by a real trip up the Thames, which he took with his wife on their honeymoon.
The shaggy dog stories and irrelevances only add to the sense of euphoric freedom that infuses every page of the book – they seem to say; “not only is this a story about going on a holiday from mundane every-day life, but (sod consistency of tone) I’m going to take a holiday from mundane everyday editing”. While the vast majority of Victorian literature has become hopelessly fusty, wordy, and old- fashioned and almost all humour ages faster than a mayfly, Three Men in a Boat continues to charm – to say nothing of the dog.
2.Roald Dahl. Reason on list: My Uncle Oswald. I reserve a special place in my heart for Roald Dahl for the unfettered joy he gave me as a child when reading books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach but he wins his spot on this list entirely for his very ‘adult-themed’ My Uncle Oswald. This (admittedly short) work is unique for me in that it is the only novel I have read in its entirety at one sitting. Some time in the 1990s I awoke with a hangover in a flat in Notting Hill Gate in London and grabbed this book off a shelf in order to have something to read while I downed a cup of tea. I don’t want to give too much away but My Uncle Oswald tells the completely outrageous tale of what the eponymous Oswald does with a powerful aphrodisiac derived from the “Sudanese blister beetle”. You or I might simply employ it to seduce attractive members of the opposite sex but for Oswald this isn’t enough. He hatches a plan that is ludicrously far-fetched, deliciously disrespectful of crowned heads and sundry geniuses of the 20th Century, wickedly bawdy and a non-stop delight from beginning to end. Needless to say in my alcohol poisoned state I sat transfixed, occasionally letting out the odd bark of laughter, until I had polished off the whole frivolous, filthy hilarious thing. If you haven’t yet discovered this gem I suggest you take it on holiday.
1. Stephen Potter. Reason on list: The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship: Or the Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating (1947) Lifemanship: With a Summary of Recent Researches in Gamesmanship (1950), One-Upmanship: Being Some Account of the Activities and Teachings of the Lifemanship Correspondence College of One-Upness and Games Lifemastery (1952) .
Amongst my most cherished possessions is a complete boxed set of Stephen Potter’s ‘Lifemanship’ books. I only have to pluck one of these volumes from its snug housing and I am snorting out little irritating bursts of laughter within seconds. Potter gifted the word ‘gamesmanship’ to the world and his books are a master-class in sustaining a comic conceit. His idea was that the books summed up the teachings of a secretive shadow-world of men who had acquired skills (either at the headquarters at Station Road, Yeovil, or at various satellite colleges) that allowed them to always come out on top in any situation and generally ‘get one over on the other chap’ at every turn. This they achieve through a myriad of precisely documented ‘ploys’ and ‘gambits’. Hilariously there is a sense, as you read, that the books themselves are one huge ploy by the author to get ‘one up’ on you, the reader and he even has a chapter on ‘Writership’ in ‘Some Notes on Lifemanship’. The text is peppered with asterisks and other symbols directing you to exhaustive footnotes which are themselves little gems of intricate far-fetched wisdom and advice, as though the whole thing were an academic text intended for the serious student.
Potter landed on an undeniable and essentially truth: that winning – not only in sport but in life generally, is somewhat dependant on others losing – and they are more likely to lose, and you more likely to win, if you can undermine their confidence while building yourself up into something you quite plainly are not. Thus although the books are essentially absurd every page of it contains real wisdom and you can not but find yourself thinking “I might just try that”. In fact I once persuaded my father to try a bit of “Weekendmanship” when he was invited to a very smart country house weekend. Potter advises that you pretend to be an expert on the local birdlife and simply make up names for birds that you hear singing, then add the words: “as I believe they call it in these parts”, to cover yourself in case there is an actual expert within hearing. My father is in fact a genuine moth and butterfly expert so I advised him to take his moth trap (a harmless device) with him to stay with his millionaire acquaintance. It was a triumph, and by the end of the weekend the millionaires two young sons were rushing about with their ‘moth monitor books’ excitedly telling anyone who would listen that ‘uncle Simon’ would be opening the day's catch any minute. Rival quests, who had been banking on their expensive cars or glamorous jobs to bring them out ‘on top’ were practically running up white flags.
In the first book Potter claims that Gamesmanship was born during a game of Tennis during which he and his partner, C. Joad, soundly beat a pair of younger, healthier and superior players. During the game Joad interrupted play at a key moment and said to one of the opposition players: ‘kindly say clearly please, whether the ball was in or out.’ This threw them off badly, as it contained within it the suggestion that they had been doing something unsporting up to that moment (which they hadn’t). The younger players were soundly beaten and Potter wondered: ‘Could not this simple gambit of Joad’s be extended to include other aspects of the game – to include all games?” With this creation myth out of the way he is off - with his first chapter on “The Pre-game”, which opens with instructions on, ‘the processes of defeat by tension’, a detailed account of how to get your tennis opponent into a state of ‘flurry’ before the game. The entire sequence is recreated in almost precise detail in the wonderful School For Scoundrels – the 1960 film adaptation of Potter’s books, which I count amongst my top ten British films of all time. For a while my family organized an annual grass tennis tournament at which the words “hard cheese” (another Potter gambit, designed to build up a head of debilitating fury in your opponent) would be heard every time a point was lost. For die-hards there is a golf tournament called "The Potter Cup", held annually at Fenwick Golf Course in Old Saybrook, Connecticut.
It may seem grotesque, even pretentious, that I award these dated books the number one spot on my list, and it is certainly true that they contain passages that have lost their comic power due to social changes. But I find that Potter still surprises me into bursts of loud laughter with the sheer dexterity of his wit, which is always based on exquisite observation. The books also raise an issue which is something of a bugbear for me. Wherever I go I am constantly finding myself having conversations with people (chiefly but not exclusively men) which consist almost entirely in them telling me how wonderfully they are doing in their work life, love life, and every other aspect of their uniquely blessed existence. If only more people would read Potter's Lifemanship books they might learn to develop a more cunning and imaginative strategy for achieving ‘one upness’ – and life generally would become far more entertaining. How much more amusing it would be if everyone turned up at a country house weekend with moth traps, rather than just their boasting gear.
Literature and alcohol have long been seen as natural bedfellows, from the young Christopher Marlowe with his colossal buttery accounts at Cambridge in 1585, to the screenwriter and novelist Bruce Robinson (most famous for his drink- sodden film Withnail and I) who likes to swig beer while tapping out his screenplays. But it is surely in the 20th Century that the love affair between boozing and writing reached its apogee with dipsomaniac scribes such as William Faulkner, F Scott Fitgerald and Dylan Thomas, whose last words are reputed to have been "I've had 18 straight whiskies......I think that's the record".
When I lived in New York I went occasionally to the White Horse Tavern, which was Dylan’s favourite bar in the city. Screwed to the bar was a small plaque stating that ‘from here Dylan Thomas sailed out to die’. On his fourth American tour in 1953 he was so ill from the effects of chronic alcoholism that he suffered blackouts, behaved erratically and referred to his wife Caitlin as ‘my widow’. He had his whisky binge at what he affectionately called ‘The Horse’ in the early hours of the 4th of November and made his famous comment about ’18 straight whiskeys’ on his return to the Chelsea Hotel. However he returned to the White Horse for a couple of beers later that day and did not die until the 9th November.
It is far more likely that his last words were: “after 39 years, this is all I’ve done”, which were witnessed in the Chelsea Hotel by the painter Jack Heliker. The “18 straight whiskies” quote , however, fits more neatly into the ‘romantic drunk’ mould and has been fixed in the popular imagination as his dying words. When I visited the White Horse I didn’t attempt to beat Thomas’s record and I would have been a fool to do so – and not just because 18 American shots of whisky could be fatal even to a young liver. Dylan Thomas loved to exaggerate his drinking prowess and the owner of the bar, interviewed shortly after Dylan’s death, reported that the precise number of shots was more likely six (18 would probably have killed the very unwell Thomas on the spot). There is some controversy about the treatment given to Thomas by the doctor but his liver (which was described as ‘fatty’ by the coroner) was on its way out.
But I hate to be a killjoy. I should point out that Thomas is probably my favourite poet and I certainly enjoy the colourful stories of the great drinker/writers of the past. My favourite is probably playwright, actor and screenwriter John Osborne (pictured above). He was a great Champagne drinker who quaffed away almost all his writing life in an apparent non-stop celebration of the fact that he had acquired considerable wealth through his pen. Famously Osborne kept a fridge in his bedroom entirely for chilling Champagne. When he moved out of his mansion near Edenbridge in Kent the new owners dredged the lake – and found the banks choked with empty Champagne bottles. But my favorite detail is the pet word he had for Champagne. At their home at 30 Chelsea Square, Osborne and his then wife, Jill Bennett, would dispense with the word "Champagne" altogether and simply ask guests; “Would you like some?” or “I think we’ll have some”. When I read about this in John Heilpern’s superb biography, John Osborne, A Patriot for Us, I found it so appealing I briefly attempted to instigate the practice into my own circle of family and friends. This failed when my brother, prompted by my campaign, sent me a text which said, “shall we have some?” and I, having already forgotten all about it, dopily replied: “what?”
Osborne’s marriage to Jill Bennett, it has to be said, was not a great success. A bitter divorce was followed by her suicide, prompting Osborne to announce, after her funeral, that his only regret was that he hadn’t shat in her grave. Could this be the least chivalrous utterance in history? Osborne himself died far too young, even for the original “angry young man”. His liver, of course, was the problem, Champagne, sadly, the culprit. But as well as “Look Back in Anger”, “The Entertainer”, “Tom Jones” and “The Charge of the Light Brigade” – all masterpieces in my opinion, he also left us the image of a lake choked with Champagne bottles as an eternal symbol of decadence and joie de vivre. Shall we have some?
Kafka’s short novel Metamorphosis was first published in 1915 in an edition whose cover was illustrated with a picture of a man clutching his head in front of a half opened door. The famous story is about a man who wakes up to find that he has transformed into a beetle, although Kafka never uses the word ‘beetle’ in the book. In fact Kafka, who wrote in German, never even uses the German word for ‘insect’. He instead describes it as a Ungeziefer, the literal translation of which is "unclean animal not suitable for sacrifice". Colloquially it was used to mean a bug or vermin - a pretty vague word. The idea that it is a beetle probably derives from Kafka’s description of what Gregor Samsa, his hero, gets up to after his transformation – particularly his ability to scuttle up walls and under furniture. But at one point his father flings an apple at him which sinks into a soft part of his back and gets stuck there – something which does not entirely fit in with what might be expected to happen to a giant beetle with a hard exoskeleton. Kafka himself did use the word ‘insect’ when writing to his publisher – but this was in a letter in which he begged them not to illustrate the cover with a picture of the creature. In fact it is clear from the letter that this idea really horrified him. I think the point is that Kafka was experimenting with the amazing magical power of the written word. Yes the story is about alienation (and it certainly spoke to me as an angst-ridden teenager) but it is also about how, in writing, you can say the impossible and somehow the impossible happens inside the mind of the reader. What is more the reader will fill in the blanks. The creature that Gregor Samsa turns into is the right creature for each individual reader. For me it was a lesser stag beetle because that was something I was familiar with. For a lot of people it is a cockroach, although Nabokov, who was an expert on insects, declared that Kafka's creature could not be a cockroach as it doesn't fit in with his description. A quick glance at Amazon reveals five editions of the book on the first page – each of which ignores Kafka’s pleading by showing a picture of a beetle – some of which are very specific breeds. http://tinyurl.com/cpn3age
So much for the wishes of the author – although you can sympathise with publishers – a man clutching his head does not really cut it either. Bizarrely, Metamorphosis has been adapted into a successful play as well – something which I feel Kafka would have also hated. I once saw a production in Prague, which I found arse-numbingly dull. Very little happens in the book in terms of action and character development and the vast majority of what we read constitutes the interior monologue of Gregor as he lies, locked in his room, contemplating his horrifying predicament. I won’t reveal what happens in case you have not read it. It is one of my favourite books of all time and I highly recommend it. I suggest you avoid looking at the cover if you want the authentic Kafka-approved experience – and avoid the play as you would a plague of cockroaches.