Sunday, 12 November 2017

‘FLIPPIN’ ‘ECK, TUCKER’ – When Is It Appropriate To Swear in Class?

(A conference paper given as part of my PGCHE earlier this year.)

Two things I should maybe say before starting.  Firstly, it would be a little dishonest to discuss contentious language without using it, so I’m going to swear a certain amount during this paper.  If that bothers anyone, I can only really suggest you leave the room for a quarter of an hour.

Secondly, for those who aren’t British or middle-aged, I should explain my title.  In the late ‘70s/early’80s, there was a BBC television series called Grange Hill, set in a comprehensive secondary school just outside London.  It was a children’s programme, so there was no swearing in it.  Anyone who’s ever worked in a secondary school will know that creates a problem of realism, which the scriptwriters dealt with by using euphemistic swears, so that the characters, including one Tucker Jenkins, would often say ‘Flippin’ ‘eck’!.  Now, in real life, so secondary school child has ever said this but, as viewers, we accepted it, as a substitute for the stronger language that the characters would actually be using.   It’s an example of the way in which an audience accepts a convention, so long as it’s clear.

For most people in the room, the answer to the question in the title of this paper is probably ‘never’, and that’s fine – I have no especial interest in getting people to swear either more or less.  However, in my discipline, it’s more complicated.  I teach Creative Writing, so the thing I teach  – language – is also the material I teach it with.   Writers need, by definition, to understand the ways in which language works, so that a willingness to explore language, including its problematic aspects, may be considered an essential part of our community of practice.  Someone who has a problem with swear words, as such, probably shouldn’t be studying writing.  This is made especially clear with some of the texts that we use – you can’t afford to be prissy if you’re teaching or studying the television series The Thick of It or Mark Ravenhill’s play Shopping and Fucking, which I took a group of first years to.

I often make this point early on in the first year.  I teach an exercise in which students have to think of someone in their own life, write down ten things that this person has said, read them aloud in pairs and then for each student to say what they would conclude about the character from those ten lines – age, gender, ethnicity, attitudes.  It’s an exercise in the way in which dialogue reveals character.  When the students are writing their initial ten lines, someone will often stick up her hand and say ‘Is it alright to swear?’.  To this, I always say the same thing ‘Fuck, yes.’.

This serves a number of functions – it gets a laugh, which is always useful, it establishes the principle that no use of language is – in and of itself – barred within the seminar room.  It also, indirectly, introduces one of the threshold concepts of creative writing, which in linguistic philosophy is called the use/mention distinction. 

‘When a word is used to refer to something, it is said to be being used.  When a word is quoted, though, so that one is examining it for its surface aspects (typographical, phonetic etc.) it said to be being mentioned.

(Douglas R. Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern, p. 9)

I’d argue that to quote a line from someone else, or to write in a script is to mention it rather than using it.   My own ‘Fuck, yes’ occupies a slippery place between the two – it appears to be a use, but because of the context in a conversation about swearing it’s actually a mention.  (That’s why it gets a laugh.)

So far, so good.  I think it’s uncontroversial to argue that a creative writing lecturer can mention swear words in an educational context.  Is it ever alright for students or lecturers to use them?  I think that’s more complex.  The university regulations don’t say anything on the subject that I can see though they do say that students must not use:

‘violent, indecent, disorderly, threatening, defamatory or offensive behaviour or language whilst on University premises or engaged in any University activity’  (Middlesex University Regulations, p.59, B.3). 

 ‘Indecent’ and ‘offensive’ are of course quite ambiguous terms, especially in an environment as diverse as Middlesex.  Again, I think this relates to one of the central concepts of dramatic writing, which in this case is a core concept rather than a threshold concept, and this is the idea of ‘actioning’.  

This was invented by the director Max Stafford-Clark, and is based on the idea that every line of dialogue can be linked with a transitive verb, that expresses the character’s intention in saying it.  The important thing is not what’s said, but the action that’s behind it.  If you look on YouTube, you can see a video of an actor saying the same line ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ with the actions of seducing, patronising, jeering and about twenty more.

Now, this applies to swear words as much as to any others – it’s fairly obvious that ‘Fuck off!’  (I threaten)  is different from ‘Fuck off!’  (I wind up). 

Once you start thinking in terms of the actions rather than the words, it becomes a lot clearer.  I think it goes without saying that neither we nor our students should ever use (as opposed to mention) swear words such as racial, homophobic, gender-based or ethnic slurs where the action is to threaten or insult.  (Nor should we ever do those things without swearing.)

Similarly, we should never swear with the intention of excluding, as with the macho swagger of Malcolm Tucker.    My first year film students seem to understand this instinctively – on the code of conduct that the wrote for a film production course one of the rules (along with ‘Don’t be a dick.’) is ‘Don’t swear too much.’

The wording here is interesting – it seems to acknowledge that it’s unreasonable to expect people in a creative environment not to swear at all.  So, does the same thing hold true for lecturers?   It seems to me that the central principle here is that of authenticity – of what therapists call ‘congruence’.  This is a concept that was identified by Carl Rogers, one of the key thinkers of the humanistic school of educational theory, and the originator of patient-centred counselling, as one of the core conditions in which such therapy can take place.  Within the counselling profession, it’s defined as relating to one’s clients as an authentic human being:

“What you say and how you say it rings true.    You do not hide behind professional facades or wear polite social masks.  Congruent communication is characterised by honesty and sincerity. […]  Congruence does not mean ‘letting it all hang out.’.”

(Richard Nelson-Jones, Introduction to Counselling Skills: Texts and Activities, p.50)

Congruence in a teaching context means that you don’t swear as macho swagger, like Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It or to be ‘down with da kidz’, but equally that you don’t self-consciously avoid it, like the writers of Grange Hill.  Either way, your students will pick up that you’re not being authentic and, at least in my discipline, that’s death to the teaching environment, which depends on a degree of self-revelation.    The playwright and writing tutor Noel Greig says something very similar in his book Playwriting: A Practical Guide:

‘… I do believe that, if we are going to challenge any group or individual to reveal their souls through a creative practice, we must be prepared to offer something of ourselves, in whatever way is appropriate to the circumstance.’

(Noel Greig, Playwriting: A Practical Guide, p.203)

The key word here, of course, is ‘appropriate’.  I’d just like to finish up by telling a story of an occasion where I did swear in class, where I will absolutely defend my right to do so, and a rather unexpected consequence.

I give a first-year lecture on Tragedy, in which I recount the story of Oedipus.  One of the things I say is that people are often mealy-mouthed about this story.  People will say that it’s the story of a man who kills his father and marries his mother.  No, it’s the story of a man who kills his father and fucks his mother.  I would argue that, in that case, the sentence needs the swear word – I could say ‘sleeps with’ but that’s an euphemism, I could say ‘has sex with’ but that’s clumsy.  No, the sentence needs the opposition of the two words, both Germanic, both monosyllabic, and with those alliterative K sounds.

So, I gave the lecture; a week later, one of my students took me to one side, and showed me a meme that had been going round the class:




Now, I have mixed feelings about this - I wish it wasn’t grammatically incorrect, and I’m a little worried as to where they found the photo - but broadly, I was very happy about it – at the very least, it shows that they’re listening.  So, if you ask me if it’s ever appropriate to swear in class, my answer has to be (wait for it)  ‘Flippin’ ‘eck, yes.’ 




Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Richard III (1995)

 (The following, in a slightly shorter form, was originally written as a programme note for a screening of the film at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, on 28th April 2016.)
‘Playful’ is an unlikely word with which to describe a Shakespeare film, especially one in which the protagonist is a multiple murderer, but here it seems appropriate.  A lot of the best film adaptations of Shakespeare were the result of an existing stage performance meeting up with a specifically cinematic sensibility.  Often (Olivier, Welles), the stage and film specialists were contained in the same body; here, they're two people: Ian McKellen, repeating a role he played at the National Theatre in 1992, and joined forces with film and TV veteran (also, incidentally, the inventor of the executive toy Newton's Cradle) Richard Loncraine.
Like the stage production, directed by Richard Eyre, the film locates the action in an alternative British 1930s, with Richard evoking the Fascist leader Oswald Mosley, or an imaginary member of the House of Windsor, a psychopathic third brother for a womanizing Edward and an introverted George.  McKellen, adding another to his portrayals of Shakespeare’s peacetime soldiers (he's also played Macbeth, Coriolanus, and Iago) de-emphasises the character’s physical disability; taking a cue from his self-reference as ‘scarce half made-up’, he gives Richard a weakened left side.  This Richard’s malevolence comes not from his physique, but from people’s reactions to it; he learnt to hate from his Queen Mary-like mother (Maggie Smith).
The film adds the directorial skills of Richard Loncraine – his debut Slade in Flame (1975) is arguably the best rock movie ever made by a British director  (Richard Lester is an American).   Loncraine, neither a Shakespearean nor a theatregoer, is responsible for some of the film’s most striking visual sequences, such as the death of Robert Downey Jnr’s Earl Rivers, which uses the same method as that of Kevin Bacon in Friday the 13th (1980).
The film version develops the period setting.  In Shakespeare (and history) the Woodvilles, Edward IV’s in-laws, are outsiders to the London court: McKellen and Loncraine wittily reimagine them as American, with Annette Bening’s Elizabeth inevitably suggesting Wallis Simpson.  At times the parallels are more international: Jim Broadbent’s Buckingham, with his Himmler glasses and Goering smile, puts us in the milieu of Hitler, with whom this Richard shares a sweet tooth and a fondness for early morning meetings.
McKellen and Loncraine’s method is epitomized in the opening sequence.  A small budget is used skillfully, with the Wars of the Roses evoked by a single interior set (recycled from a BBC period drama).  Richard is introduced in a gas mask, his heavy breathing providing a subliminal introduction to the iambic pentameter.  McKellen had originally intended to introduce this through the footsteps of the fleeing soldiers, but discovered (as others have pointed out) that it's quite hard to run in iambics.  I once mentioned this in a seminar, and one student suggested that he could have achieved it if Richard had shot one of them in the leg.

A jazz song, with lyrics by Christopher Marlowe, and played by a jazz band with 'WS' on their music stands, takes us into the world of Dennis Potter (Loncraine directed Blade on the Feather on television and Brimstone and Treacle on film), as the characters’ relationships and attitudes are set up in a series of visual vignettes, so that we know who everybody is before the first ‘Now’ of Richard’s opening speech. 
McKellen recasts this speech as a public oration – again, easing in an audience unused to the formal language - before switching to a gents’ toilet, where Richard goes into soliloquy, catching sight of the camera (and therefore, the audience) in a mirror.  Here, McKellen’s performance echoes that of Laurence Olivier, whose 1955 Richard had a similarly flirtatious relationship with the camera, at one point even beckoning it closer.  (Loncraine also nods towards that film in his casting: the Vicar of Bray-like Lord Stanley is played by Edward Hardwicke, whose father Sir Cedric was Olivier's Edward IV.)
At times, the Shakespeare film that this most resembles is Theatre of Blood ; both feature a series of imaginative deaths, and a charismatic, role-playing protagonist.  There are coincidences of casting; Vincent Price played both Clarence and Richard in the two films of Tower of London (1939 and 1962), a horror-fied version of the Shakespeare play, while Jim Broadbent took over Price's role in the stage version of Theatre of Blood.  Both films also use an eclectic collection of London locations.  Loncraine made an early decision not to use iconic buildings like Buckingham Place and Downing Street, so the film takes place in an alternative geography of decayed industrial and imperial grandeur – Battersea Power Station, St. Pancras Chambers (also the location, around the same time, of the Spice Girls’ Wannabe’ video), and Strawberry Hill House, home of the Gothic novelist Horace Walpole. 

Like Theatre of Blood’s Edmund Lionheart, this Richard dies in a conflagration and Lucifer-like fall, with Loncraine adding an Al Jolson song that echoes James Cagney’s dying cry of ‘Top of the world, ma!’ from White Heat (1949).  As Richmond takes over the throne (and Richard’s relationship with the camera), the film reminds us of the time of its making, towards the end of the John Major government, and during the rise of Tony Blair; if the story began with a winter of discontent, it ends with us questioning whether, under the new regime, things really can only get better.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Theatre of Blood (1973) - Notes

(The following, in a slighter shorter form, was written as a programme note for a screening of the film at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff on 18th April 2016.)

Stories of serial retribution have existed since at least Alexandre Dumas Pere’s 1844 novel The Count of Monte Cristo.  They focus on characters, left to death or dishonour, who return and take their revenge on those who have wronged them, one by one.  The sequence of killing gives the piece a structure and, in the cinema, allows for a good cast; each victim only needs to be paid for a few days of shooting.  The protagonist can be an investigator, an intended victim, as in My Learned Friend (1943)a vehicle for the English comedian Will Hay, or the avenger, as in the most famous British example, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), which shares a scriptwriter, John Dighton, with the Hay film.

In the post Bonnie and Clyde 1970s, there came a mini-cycle of horrors in which the focus was not on the fact of revenge, but the methods of killing.   Vincent Price appears in three of them:  The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) in which the murders follow the Biblical Plagues of Egypt, its sequel Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972), and Theatre of Blood.  In this film, Price plays Edward Lionheart, an actor who murders a series of hostile critics, using methods drawn from Shakespeare plays.  He’s assisted by his daughter, Edwina (Diana Rigg), who serves him as both Miranda and Cordelia, and a chorus of spirit-like down-and-outs; the film bears a surely unique credit for ‘Choreographer of Meths Drinkers’.

Lionheart has something in common with the idee-fixated villains of the British TV series The Avengers, and it’s not surprising that the cast includes former Avengers Rigg and Ian Hendry, the latter as Devlin, most likeable of the critics, and a male equivalent of a splatter film’s ‘final girl’.  Anthony Greville-Bells’ hyper-literate script gives both Price and Hendry a number of James Bond-ish one-liners after each death; the most characteristic comes after the revelation that one murder is dependent on making an alteration (or ‘one rather large cut’) to The Merchant of Venice: ‘It’s Lionheart alright.  Only he would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare.’  - how many horror films use the word ‘temerity’?

In-jokes and actor allusions abound: Robert Coote’s bibulous critic meets his end in a wine merchant labelled ‘Geo. Clarence and Sons’, Dennis Price, the murderer in Kind Hearts and Coronets, turns up as a victim, as if passing on a torch,  Robert Morley, a gourmet in real life, plays one in the film, and gets fed his own poodles, cooked in a pie by Price, a real-life celebrity chef.  This murder, taken from Titus Andronicus, is the one that people tend to remember with greatest discomfort when recalling the film, and confirms what Robert McKee said about Fatal Attraction (1987); as audience members, we’ll happily lend our sympathy to a character who kills people (or tries to), but withdraw it once s/he attacks an animal, especially one that’s cute.

When Shakespeare is used in genre films, it’s usually as a sign of ‘high’ culture, either to give a touch of class to a character, as when Christopher Plummer quotes Mark Antony in Star Trek VI; The Undiscovered Country  (1991 - 'You haven't heard Shakespeare until you've heard him in the original Klingon' - a variation on an old Cold War joke) or to oppose it against the more dynamic ‘low’ culture of film – witness Last Action Hero (1993) which imagines Hamlet as played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Theatre of Blood is unusual in that its opposition is not between ‘high’ and ‘low’, but between two kinds of ‘high’.  Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart – his name evokes a nineteenth century actor and an eighteenth century playwright – loses the Critics’ Circle Award to William Woodstock, whom he describes as a ‘twitching, mumbling boy’, suggesting a Brando-ish methodist.  Lionheart belongs to the theatrical past – as superannuated as the actor-managers like Johnston Forbes-Robertson and Frank Benson whom we see on silent film under the opening credits.

The film is ambivalent towards Lionheart; his victims, played by an array of British character actors, are an unpleasant bunch (and far more well-heeled than any real-life theatre critic has ever been - Devlin's riverside flat is in Alembic House, currently occupied by Jeffrey Archer) but it’s never made clear whether they're right about his acting – the most complimentary word used about him is ‘vigorous’ (by Milo O’Shea, no shrinking violet himself).  This is complicated by the fact that Price, though very well-spoken, is clearly not a Shakespearean – when he plays Shylock to Rigg’s Portia, it’s like watching an amateur boxer getting in the ring with Mike Tyson.   It’s implied that Lionheart’s murders may be his greatest performance, more credible than anything he ever did on a stage.

The film retains a considerable cult following, among fans of both Shakespeare and horror  (a remarkable number of people seem to have seen the same television screening at Christmas 1979) and extends its influence into gimmicky murder films like Se7en (1995), which reuses several of its motifs – death through force-feeding, a pound of flesh, body parts in a box.  In 2005, Lee Simpson and Phelim McDermott of Improbable Theatre produced a stage version at the National Theatre (which was itself being built while the film was made), with Jim Broadbent as Lionheart and Rachel Stirling, Rigg's daughter, in her mother's part (here renamed Miranda - the play was more explicit about the Tempest parallels than the film).  The play imagined Devlin as a possible future Literary Manager of the NT, a fictionalised successor to Kenneth Tynan, and positioned the Lyttelton theatre, where the show took place, as the critics' final triumph over what Lionheart represents:

'Look at it!  Look at it!  Hard, empty, coy and sexless.  Look at it!  Smooth and gray so you can wash the blood away when you have done the deed and killed the actor.  It should be ours!  It should be mine!  Brave and foolish, ludicrous and magnificent, wasteful and awesome.  Knowing nothing, understanding it all, expressive and inarticulate.  We are dead.  Murdered like mafia hits and buried in the concrete walls of this mausoleum lest we misbehave, lest something not considered by the brains and the nice boys should spill messily onto the stage.  We are the dead.'

(Lee Simpson/Phelim McDermott, Theatre of Blood, p. 92)

The stage production got mixed reviews; for my money, Jim Broadbent was miscast as Lionheart - a quirky character actor, he was never believable as a barnstormer.  (Steven Berkoff would have been perfect.)  It is, however, appropriate that the play should focus on (and criticise) its own location.  One of the film’s incidental pleasures is in the spotting of London locations, including, in the final scene, the Edwardian Putney Hippodrome, which had lain empty since 1960.  Like Lionheart, and the Lear that he plays at the film’s end, the building was a leftover from the past – Theatre of Blood allows all three to make one last grand exit.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

The Four Feathers, the British Colonial Film and Culturally Specific Dramatic Irony



(A paper given at the Screening Politics conference at Pitt University, Pittsburgh, on the 2nd October, 2015)

I’d like to talk about the 1939 British film The Four Feathers, its status as part of the genre of the British colonial film, and particularly, the concept of culturally specific dramatic irony.


To elaborate on that a little, ‘dramatic irony’ in this context refers to the device whereby the audience’s knowledge is greater than that of the characters, and the production of dramatic tension through this. Period dramas, especially those that feature historical events or real people, inevitably create dramatic irony. To take a very obvious example, our view of the lovers in Titanic (1997) is coloured by an awareness that the ship’s going to sink.


Culturally specific dramatic irony is a concept that occurred to me quite recently, when I watching the show Memphis. In case you don’t know, this is a musical written by David BrIan and Joe DiPietro that ran on Broadway between 2009 and 2012, and which has been running in London since last year. It’s about a 1950s white disc jockey in Memphis who starts playing black music, loosely based on the real-life DJ Dewey Phillips. Towards the end of the show, he’s being considered for a job presenting his music on television. A TV executive says to him (I won’t attempt the accent) ‘It’s between two people; you, and a boy called Richard Clark..’.


In London, that line doesn’t get a laugh – most people over there, unless they’re music geeks (like me), haven’t heard of Dick Clark. Over here, where he was a television fixture for three decades, the effect is very different – the audience knows from that moment that the protagonist is doomed. The line depends on a piece of information that is possessed by audiences in the United States, but not (on the whole) in the UK.


I want to apply this concept to the 1939 film of The Four Feathers, which is an adaptation of a 1902 novel by A.E.W. Mason. The story of one of serial revenge, like a less bloody version of The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s the story of Harry Feversham, a young British Officer from a military family, who resigns his commission the day before his regiment is due to go and fight in the South Sudan in 1882. Three of his colleagues and his fiancée, Ethne, send him white feathers, the mark of a coward. Feversham travels to the Sudan and returns three of the feathers, performing great deeds of heroism in the process, and returns to the UK, where he gives Ethne back her feather, and the two of them get married.


There are implicit references to the story of Ulysses (Feversham’s dog is the first creature to recognise him when he returns) and explicit ones to that of Hamlet, to whom Feversham is compared by Lieutenant Sutch, a friend of his late mother:


‘Did you ever read ‘Hamlet’? he asked.
‘Of course’ said Harry, in reply.
‘Ah, but did you ever consider it? The same disability is clear in that character. The thing which he foresaw, which he thought over, whch he imagined in the act and the consequence – that he shrank from, upbraiding himself even as you have done. Yet when the moment of action comes, sharp and immediate, does he fail? No, he excels, and just by reason of that foresight.’

(A.E.W. Mason, The Four Feathers, p. 51)


The story had already been filmed three times in the silent era, most recently by Merian C. Cooper in 1929, and has beeen filmed three times since.  It’s a story with the quality of myth - any of you who know Jospeh Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces will recognise many of the features of the archetypal Hero's Journey - the call to adventure, the refusal of the call, the journey to another world, and the triumphant return.  Given this, the most surprising thing about the novel is how little it's concerned with this central story.

Of the novel’s thirty-four chapters, the first six set up Feversham’s story, ending with his decision to return the four feathers (in screenwriting terms, the first act climax). Mason then spends the central section of the novel, roughly the next twenty chapters, focusing on the character of ethne, Feversham’s fiancee and her suitor Durrance, a colleague of Feversham who has been blinded in battle. Feversham returns in the final eight chapters as the protagonist, but its still Durrance who has the final words, heroically abandoning Ethne to Harry, and returning to the Sudan. To come to the novel after seeing a film version (as most modern readers surely do) is a disconcerting experience, like discovering that Homer originally wrote the Odyssey from the point of view of one of Penelope’s suitors.


The 1939 film was produced by Alexander Korda for London Film Productions, which at that time was the British equivalent of M.G.M., by which I mean that their films were prestigious, expensive, frequently set in the past, and often based on a pre-existing literary property. Korda had produced The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), the first British film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and the one which set the template for British success at the Oscars – when the Academy honours a British film it tends to be one that includes at least two elements of Henry VIII’s combination of history, royalty and sex (or at least scandal): witness Tom Jones (1963), Shakespeare in Love (1998) and The King’s Speech (2010).


As well as being an Alexander Korda film, with all that implies, The Four Feathers is a British colonial film. Korda had already produced three examples of this genre in the ‘thirties: Sanders of the River (1935), Elephant Boy (1937) and The Drum (1938), all directed or co-dirceted (as was The Four Feathers) by his nephew, Zoltan Korda.  Rachael Low describes these films as a British equivalent of the Western, and there’s a degree of truth to this – like Hollywood Westerns, these films mythologise landscape (both Elephant Boy and The Drum start with captions thanking the Indian rulers on whose territory they were filmed) and treat it as a sort of blank canvas on which can be played out mythic dramas of personal and national identity.


The analogy break down on two specific issues, at least as far as the three films preceding The Four Feathers are concerned. The hero of a Western, whether a rancher, an outlaw or a gunslinger, is typically a rugged individualist, defining him- (or, less often her-) self outside the system. There are exceptions, particularly films that deal with the U.S Cavalry, like They Died With Their Boots On (1941), although even in these the protagonist (in this case, Errol Flynn as General Custer) is often a maverick within the organisation. By contrast, the hero of a British colonial film tends to be an establishment figure, a military man, or (like Sanders) a Commissioner. Where the values of the Western tend to be those of the outsider, who gradually makes himself redundant as the frontier moves West, the British colonial hero already works within an institutional framework.


The second issue where these films are unlike Westerns is to do with the representation of what their makers would probably refer to as the ‘natives’. Before the ‘fifties, Hollywood westerns tend to treat Native Americans as part of the landscape, rather than active characters (again, there are exceptions). Again, by contrast, all of the films before The Four Feathers feature a character played by a top-lined non-white actor – Paul Robeson in Sanders of the River, Sabu in both Elephant Boy (where he gets the title role) and The Drum. All three films are unquestionably paternalistic in their treatment of non-white characters – both Sabu’s boyhood and Robeson’s large, slightly awkward physique contribute to a sense of the characters (and implicitly their countries) as overgrown children (I'm told that in parts of modern-day India, the name 'Sabu' is used as an insult, meaning something like 'Uncle Tom') – but it’s striking that these characters are the ones that carry the burden of their stories.


The Four Feathers is an exception to both of these rules, and is thus more like a Western than any other British colonial film – its protagonist is an outsider, and white.  Indeed, there are hardly any named non-white characters in the film – the most significant one, the Mahdi, is played by the white, Scottish actor John Laurie (familiar to British people my age as Private Fraser from Dad's Army).


The screenplay for The Four Feathers was written by R.C.Sherriff, who is better known as a playwright – he wrote the classic First World War play Journey’s End (1928) – but had a long career as a screenwriter. He worked initially in the United States, working for the two most Anglophilic studios, Universal – he wrote The Invisible Man (1933) – and later M.G.M. – Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), and later in the U.K. where his last significant credit was for The Dam Busters (1955).  His archive, kept at the Surrey History Centre in Woking, contains two drafts of the screenplay, and I'm going to be referring mostly to the first of these.


Sherriff makes many changes in Mason’s novel. Like the writers of almost every film version, he alters the name of the protagonist from Feversham to Faversham – it’s possible that when you actually have to say it, the echo of ‘feathers’ was a little too on-the-nose – and changes the focus, so that Faversham is much more the protagonist. Most significantly, he changes the historical period.


Mason’s novel is very specific in terms of its location in British military history. We’re told that Feversham’s father was a General, a veteran of the Crimean war, and was invalided out of the services on June 15th 1855, the day of the Battle of the Redan, and also the day that Harry was born. The campaign that the adult Harry and his colleagues are going to fight in is he 1882 Sudan campaign, a notoriously unsuccessful campaign that led, in 1883, to the defeat of Hicks Pasha by the Mahdi, the only time in African colonial history that a European power was defeated by an African leader. Although the book’s original readers will have been aware of the ultimate success of the Sudanese campaign, and the decisive British victory at the Battle of Omdurman in 1897, the book ends with that event in the far future.


Sherriff changes the dates significantly - the film starts with the death of General Gordon at Khartoum in 1887, an event that coincides with Harry Faversham’s tenth birthday, and ends ten years later, with Harry playing a significant part in the victory at the Battle of Omdurman. The story thus becomes one of redemption, both for Harry and for the British army. To use Joseph Campbell's terms, Sherriff changes the story from a fairy tale to a myth:


‘Typically, the hero of the fairy tale achieves a domestic, microcosmic triumph, and the hero of myth a world-historical macrocosmic triumph. Whereas the former – the younger or despised child who becomes the master of extraordinary powers – prevails over his personal oppressors, the latter brings back from his adventure the means for the regeneration of his society as a whole.’

(Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. pp. 37-8)

Sherriff’s other changes emphasise this linking of the domestic and political. In Mason’s original novel, General Feversham, Harry’s father, is still alive at the time of his resignation of his commission (rather improbably, he continues to pay Harry’s allowance during his adventures in the Sudan). In the film, his death provides the motivation for Harry’s resignation. Sherriff makes this explicit in the first draft version of the screenplay:


‘I should have taken this action months ago – when my father died. I accepted a Commission for his sake, because all his family were soldiers. When my father died, my duty towards him was done. […] When my father died I took over an estate on the verge of ruin because every man of my family has neglected it to fight in India and Africa – in every country but his own. If I do my job here I may save my home – with a hundred good farms and a hundred good men who are starving through my family’s neglect. If I go to Egypt I shall be away for years and the ruin will be complete.’


The finished film thus conflates Harry’s Hamlet-like desire to placate a dead father with a redemption of the British military, from the failures of the Crimean War and the death of General Gordon, to the successes of Omdurman and the triumph of Lord Kitchener.


This is made explicit in the final scene of the screenplay’s first draft. Faversham has returned three feathers to his colleagues, and has to return the fourth to his fiancée (called Daphne in this draft) who ask the same question that the audience must be thinking: ‘What deed of reckless daring are you going to do to make me take back my feather?’. The answer comes when her father, General Burroughs, (played in the finished film by C. Aubrey Smith, the definition of an old buffer) starts talking about the failings of the modern army.


HARRY
General Burroughs – you’re a great soldier and I acknowledge it; but let me tell you, General, here and now – that the wars you fought were garden parties compared with ours! The reason you never got any breakfast was because your organisation was rotten and your sanitary arrangements so bad that the maggots got your breakfast before you got a chance! The reasons your battles went on for three weeks was because both sides only had three cannon balls between them and you had to go and find them before you could fire them back again! Your feather, Daphne!


Harry holds out the fourth feather to Daphne. She takes it and holds his hand in hers.


The General is too astonished to say a word.


FADE OUT.


This speech neatly ties up several of the script’s themes – it marks Harry’s final act of courage, finally standing up to the military generation that had also included his father, winning the hand (literally) of Daphne and establishing the superiority of the modern army over that of General Burroughs’ generation. This works on two levels, historically, which brings us neatly back to my original point about culturally specific dramatic irony. Historically, the speech draws on the audience’s awareness of the Crimean war, a notoriously under-prepared and poorly equipped campaign, which is contrasted with the successes of the 1897 campaign.


In terms of the 1930s, the speech also carries a subtextual contrast between the army of the First World War (which Sherriff had portrayed in Journey’s End) and that of 1939.  The film was released not long before the start of the Second World War, and is clearly aimed at both appeasers in Britain and isolationists in the United States. This is less explicit in the finished film than in Sherriff’s first version of the screenplay, which opens in the House of Commons where the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, is arguing against sending further aid to the besieged General Gordon: If we send an army we engage ourselves in a senseless war of no concern to us […] Let the Egyptians work out their own destiny, and let the British Empire mind its own business.!’


The historical parallels were clearly seen at the time, particularly in Britain. At the film’s premiere, A.E.W. Mason, the author of the original novel, made a curtain speech. The London Evening Standard reported on this in an article headlines ‘Fine Film of British Heroism’:
“‘There is a peculiar constancy and endurance in the English character’ said Mr. Mason, implying that the picture had demonstrated those qualities.
‘And if the occasion should arise they will be demonstrated again.’
The audience cheered.”
(This speech is made more remarkable by the fact that Mason was no red-faced Jingoist - he had sat as a Liberal M.P. between 1906 and 1910.)

Sherriff’s screenplay, by a number of means, including the switch of period, makes the audience draw two sets of parallels – one between the Crimean and First World Wars, and one between the Second Sudanese campaign and the war that was on the horizon. Faversham doesn’t just redeem himself – he redeems the British Army.

Although this historical context isn't available to the modern viewer, the film has gained a third parallel since it's release, in terms of the writing of Sherriff himself, which also tells a story of redemption of the military, starting, ironically enough, with Journey’s End and finishing with the The Dam Busters (1955), an unambiguous celebration of military heroism, and, as a World War Two film, part of the genre that arguably took over from the Colonial Film as the British Western.  


Thursday, 16 July 2015

The Sunny Side of the Screen

One of the weirder things about the news stories following James Corden's debut as a US chat-show host earlier this year (apart from the fact that it was news at all) was the list of things that American audiences found unusual about the History Boy's technique; the studied informality, the fact that he put his guests on a sofa rather than chairs, encouraging them to interact rather than go off on one and, above all, the fact that he sat to the left of his guests rather than to the right.

To anyone who knows Robert McKee's Story; this isn't a great surprise.  McKee devotes a section of his book, and the seminar from which it derives, talking about what he terms Screen Dynamics.  Studies have been done showing that, as cinema (and television) audiences, we don't spend equal amounts of time looking at all of the screen.  The eye describes a sort of perpetual oval, starting in the top left hand corner, travelling right, down, left and up, before starting all over again.  The second half of this journey is quicker than the first, so that the right-hand side of the screen (as you look at it) is the one that gets more than its fair share of attention.

McKee argues that good film directors and cinematographers have always known this, and brings it into his analysis of Casablanca, in which Michael Curtiz almost always places Ingrid Bergman on the stronger, right-hand, side of the screen, even when it means giving Humphrey Bogart an inappropriately right-hand drive car in the French-set flashback scenes.  Corden, in sitting on the left, is playing low-status, giving his guests the stronger postion.  In this respect, he's following a more British tradition of the chat-show host as vehicle, rather than star - Michael Parkinson sat on the left, Johnny Carson on the right.

It's debatable whether all this is hard-wired or culturally determined, and whether it works the same way in other cultures, especially those where script is written in a different configuration, as in Arabic or Japanese.  Roman Polanski believed that habits of writing affected the way in which we interpret motion on screen, telling Ken Tynan on the set on Macbeth that 'To the Western eye easy or successful movement is left to right, difficult or failed movement is right to left.' (The Sound of Two Hands Clapping, p. 101).

Once you've been told about this, it becomes almost impossible not to start seeing it in action.  For instance, when Scarlett Johanssen and Bill Murray are onscreen together in Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola almost always gives Murray the stronger, right-hand position.  (The only shot in which this isn't the case, at least for a sustained period, is the one used as the film's poster.  Make of that what you will.)  It's tempting to suspect that Murray's star power was a factor here, but it's more likely that Coppola, as visually aware a director as any, realised that the screen would balance better if the weaker position were occupied by the younger, and more visually striking, of the two.  (And yes, I write that as a male heterosexual, but still.)    Indeed, when creating a shot with two people, it could be considered a film-maker's convention that the image balances better if the more physically attractive person is on the left.  If I was from a naval background, I'd call it the Fair/Port Convention.  (Start the car.)

It's also difficult to say to what extent it's also true of the theatre - stages have their own dynamics and hotspots, to do with architecture, so it's harder to generalise about them than cinema screens.  There also may be other factors; I remember being surprised that Richard Olivier, directing the Globe theatre's inaugural production of Henry V, had staged the final negotiation scene with the victorious English, and Mark Rylance's Henry, on the right.  Most productions that I'd seen - Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh on screen, Michael Bogdanov on stage - do it the other way round,  magnanimously giving the stronger position to the defeated French.  After a while, I realised (or at least, guessed) why this production bucked the trend.  Charismatic and talented actor that he is, Mark Rylance isn't obvious casting as Henry - to put it bluntly, he's quite short.  Sometimes, an actor can use all the help he can get.


Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Okay, Here's 10 Audiences I Have Known

This is a sort of cover version of/response to Dan Rebellato's recent blog 10 Audiences I Have Known, describing ten theatre audiences he's been part of over the years.   If you haven't read his piece, do so now.

1.  The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby - Charles Dickens/David Edgar, Aldwych Theatre, London, 1980.

For me, as for a lot of people my age, Nicholas Nickleby was the show that made me want to work in theatre.  Two plays, each about four hours long, putting a whole society on stage, with a cast that sums up a gneration of RSC acting - Roger Rees, David Threlfall, John Woodvine, Edward Petherbridge, Ben Kingsley, Bob Peck, Timothy Spall, Suzanne Bertish - and proving that Charles Dickens was, as Trevor Nunn said, 'the greatest playwright who never wrote a play' (actually, he did, but his plays are far less theatrical than his novels).  Pretty much everything I've done in the theatre since then, as director, writer or teacher, has been partly an attempt to recreate the sense of ensemble and community in those shows.

The moment that sums up the piece, and what it did, came towards the end of the first act of the first play.  Nicholas, our hero (Rees), is working as a schoolmaster at the Yorkshire school run by Wackford Squeers (Kingsley), a dumping ground for unwanted sons.  The underfed, disturbed boy Smike (a pre-Shameless Threllfall) has tried to escape, and is due to be beaten by Squeers.  Nicholas watches for as long as he can stand it, then intervenes, grabs Squeers' cane, and beats the schoolmaster.

And the audience cheers like mad.

A metropolitan audience doesn't cheer or boo easily, and when it does, it's usually with a knowing post-modern wink, as when Globe audiences used to boo the French in Henry V, presumably casting themselves as Shakespeare's audience.   This was something different - a genuine moral approval, an acknowledgement that Nicholas had, in defending the helpless Smike, done the right thing.   It remains one of the very few times I've ever heard a sincere, non-ironic moral response in a theatre, and, at the beginning of what we now know to be the Thatcher era, it seemed like a very neceessary thing to hear.

2. The Lover, Harold Pinter, Sewell Barn Theatre, Norwich, 1985.

The Sewell Barn was (and is) an ambitious amateur theatre in Norwich, where I went to university.  The piece was a stage adaptation of Harold Pinter's television play.  Around the middle of the show, the female lead is pouring out tea for her lover, Max.  He picks up a pair of bongos and starts to play, which leads to the two of them playing out a seduction scene, which climaxes (ahem) with the two of them crawling under the tablecloth, and her crying out 'MAX!'.  Blackout.

When the lights come up, the two of them have emerged from under the cloth, and are both drinking a cup of (presumably) post-coital tea.  The woman sitting next to me turns to her companion and says 'It'll have gone cold by now.'.

3. Entertaining Strangers, David Edgar, Cottesloe Theatre, London, 1987.

Another David Edgar play.  So sue me.

Entertaining Strangers was written as a community play for the people of Dorchester in Dorset, one of the massive projects initiated by the playwright Anne Jellicoe.  The year after the premiere, Edgar rewote it for the National Theatre, where it was directed by Peter Hall, in a promenade production with a cast that included Judi Dench and Tim Piggot-Smith.

The evening I saw happened to be the performance to which the National had invited the people of Dorchester, including many of those who'd been in the original production.  The Mayor of the town was there, wearing his chain of office, together with David Edgar and Neil Kinnock (one of the small group of politicians I've seen at the theatre - Kenneth Baker seems to be the most frequent attender).

In the interval I heard one Dorchestian saying 'I think they're doing it very well.'.  At the end, a woman said, in mock (but maybe not) indignation 'Well, whatever happened to..?.'  and named a character, presumably the one she'd played.  The thing that struck me was that, as far as they were concerned, their production was the definitive one and this, by their country's National Theatre, a mere shadow on the Platonic wall.  And, thinking about it, I suppose they were right.

4. Henry V, William Shakespeare, New Theatre, Cardiff, 1988.

In the late 'eighties, Michaels Bogdanov and Pennington formed the English Shakespeare Company, an ensemble designed to challenge the supremacy of the RSC.  Their first project was a three part version of the two Henry IV plays and Henry V - a year later they expanded it to include the whole History cycle.  The plays toured nationally and internationally, allowing an audience the chance to watch the whole lot over a week, starting with Richard II on Tuesday and finishing on Bosworth Field on Saturday night.  The company never did anything nearly as good, and became known as a one-hit wonder, insofar as it's reasonable to call a seven-play cycle 'one hit'.

Henry V is sometimes described as a theatrical equivalent of the duck/rabbit optical illusion, a play that can be read as both as pro-war and anti-war (though not at the same time) depending on how you look at it.  If Laurence Olivier's film gave us the full duck, Bogdanov served up a the most rampant of rabbits, playing up the questionable nature of Henry's claim, his status as a war criminal, and the brutal realpolitick of the final negociations with France.

As with Nicholas Nickleby, there was a defining moment in the crossover between Act II Scene 2 and 3. The low-life characters, Pistol, Nym and Bardolph, are going to war.  Pistol bids a tearful farewell to his new wife, Mistress Quickly, as a guitar plays 'My Way' in the background.  As she leaves, the farewell song morphs into 'Here we go' and the English army become a crowd of football hooligans, complete with scraves and klaxons; some carry a banner that reads 'Fuck the Frogs', the Chorus appears with a sign that reads 'Gotcha!'.

As the English army withdraws, we see the French court, in a peaceful Arcadian scene, carrying champagne galsses and wearing white suits and dresses, as if at a picnic.  The final English hooligan exits and the French King (the late Clyde Pollitt, who'd already played John of Gaunt and Justice Shallow in the previous plays) says his first line:

'Thus come the English.'

It was a beautifully modulated gag, and I'm sure got a laugh everywhere. In anglophobic Cardiff, it brought the house down.

Growing up in London, I'd never really given much thought to the way in which different parts of the country might receive a piece of theatre, that there were regional reactions as well as national ones. Shakespeare's Histories, with their heterogenous world-view, and focus on civil war, taught me a lesson.  (The video version of the production, filmed at the Grand Theatre, Swansea, preserves this  audience reaction.)

5. Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov, New Theatre, Cardiff, 1991.

Same theatre, a few years later.  Kenneth Branagh's production, with Richard Briers as Vanya.  In the interval, a group of people wearing Open University badges are standing in front of me in the ice-cream queue.  They stand in silence for a while, then the man nearest to me says:

'Of course, falling asleep's not necessarily a criticism...'

6. Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine,  Phoenix Theatre, London, 1990.

This was the British premiere of Sondheim's musical, three years after its Broadway debut.  At the end of the show, I overheard the elderly gent next to me saying:

'They don't make 'em like that anymore!'

I'm still not sure what he was doing - was he just uttering a complimentary phrase without thinking about what it meant?  Was he commenting on the decline of the musical theatre since 1987?  Or did he genuinely believe that he'd been watching a show from another era, a golden age?  And if so, when?

Most of us like to think of ourselves as omnivores, who can watch (or read, or listen to) anything, without being influenced by its period and provenance.  Of course we're not; part of our perception of a work of art is created by our sense of how near or far it is from us, in terms of time and place, and where we can put it in relation to other works.  Some of the original audiences of The Boy Friend reportedly thought that it was a revival of a '20s musical, rather than a skilful pastiche/distillation; converesely, I'm sure that many people watch modern translations of classic plays (David Harrower's version of Ibsen's Public Enemy, for instance) without knowing that the original play is over a century old (and more power to them, I say). 

Does it make a difference?  Of course.  How?  No idea.  And I'd still love to know what that man thought he was watching.

7.  Oleanna, David Mamet, Royal Court Theatre, London, 1993.

This is the one production that's also on Dan Rebellato's list.  I saw it a little earlier in the run, at the Royal Court rather than in the West End.  Maybe for that reason, the audience was quieter than the one he describes, with not even a hint of cheering.  In the interval, after watching David Suchet's impossibly smug academic for an hour, I was standing in the Gents next to another man.  We didn't know each other, but the play seemed to demand a response.

Him:  Got it coming, hasn't he?
Me:   And I imagine he's going to get it.

We finished up, and went back to our seats, where Suchet's character did indeed get what was coming to him.

Till that point, I'd always been opposed to intervals, unnecessary breaks in the tension, making a director's job harder than it already was.  That was the first time I'd ever experienced an interval as an actual building of tension.  As Marsha Norman says ' the play is also what is not said, what lies under the lines, and what the audience imagines during intermission.'.We were like the spectators at a sporting event (it's not a coincidence that the set resembled a boxing ring) waiting to see the characters laying into each other, and wanting blood.

8.  Love's Labour's Lost, William Shakespeare, Shakespeare's Globe,  London, 2012.

I've written in other posts about the 2012 Globe to Globe season, all of Shakespeare's plays plus Venus and Adonis, each one performed in a different language (stretching the point a bit in some cases).  As I observed at the time, one of the glories of the season was the audience, as multi-culti London emerged for individual shows - the Urdu Taming of the Shrew, featuring Lollywood star Nadil Jamel as Kate, was especially moving in this respect, starting with the Pakistan National Anthem and a senior member of the company giving a speech (in English) thanking the Globe for inviting them to play 'in this theatre, which is sacred to all actors'. 

Love's Labour's Lost was played in British Sign Language, by the company Deafinitely Theatre (showing commendable chutzpah, they took on the most verbal play in the language).  There's a lot to say about the eloquence of signing as a language, and many have said it better than I can.  Some moments still stick in my mind - the four Lords, at the end of the first half, gradually lowering the hands from their hearts, relinquishing the sign for 'oath' as they resolved to break theirs.  Watching Don Armado's Hispanic flourishes was also the first time I realised - and it seems so obvious in retrospect that I'm embarrassed to say it - that people sign in different accents.

In the Globe courtyard, I got chatting to my neighbour, who turned out to be a gay rights activist from Dublin ('Best of luck' seemed the only appropriate response.).  He'd learned to sign when he had a relationship with a deaf man (male homosexuality is far more common in the Deaf community than others - he said that nobody really knows why).  He told me of learning to sign, and being complimented by a mutual friend on the quality of his signing after the conversation in which he and his partner had broken up.

As a theatre-goer, I've often seen shows in other languages, or aimed at audiences of which I'm not a part.  I've been the most heterosexual person at a drag show and the only goy in the village at Hampstead.  I've been the only white person in all-Caribbean audience, feeling like a ping-pong ball in a  bucket of caviar.  In my early forties, I once had the experience of being the youngest person in the audience, by about twenty years,  and the next afternoon, of being the oldest, by about the same margin.  But Love's Labour's Lost was the show, more than any other, where I was conscious of being, although welcome, a tourist in someone's else's world.

9. Mr Burns, Anne Washburn, Almeida Theatre, London, 2014. and

Mr Burns, which brought out rave reviews and virulent hatred in roughly equal measure, is a dystopian fantasy, set in a world where The Simpsons has become folklore.  The three acts are set several years aprt, as the stories get further from their original form, ending with an operatic version of the episode 'Cape Feare'.  Once you've got the basic concept, it's a very enjoyable show, although it helps if you know your Simpsons.  Before you grasp that, it can be a bit tricky, as evidenced by what was (to me at least) a new phenomenon; audience members googling the show on their phones in the interval, to make sure they were following the plot.

10. Flowers of the Field, Kevin Mandry, White Bear Theatre, London, 2014.

Dan included a play he'd written, so I'm going to mention one I directed.  By definition, fringe theatre audiences are more variable from evening to evening than those in larger theatres - a single large party can alter the demographic in ways that you don't expect.

Flowers of the Field was a beautifully-written play about a folk song collector, a sort of fictionalised version of someone like Cecil Sharp, in 1916.  it tended to play to an older audience, one that knew about folk music and/or the First World War, in which the hero had served.  Except for one evening, when an enterprising lecturer from a summer school brought along a group of American students.  It was the youngest audience we ever played to, and one of the best.  Laughs came in different places, the romantic plot suddenly became central, and one girl gasped 'No!' audibly at the final twist.  A couple of audience members walked off with the pre-decimal coins that we'd used as set dressing, and I don't resent the loss one little bit.





















Thursday, 5 September 2013

Character as Medium: Don Quixote, Hamlet, Citizen Kane, Superman and the Doctor.


(A paper given at the Conference 'Doctor Who:Walking in Eternity' at the University of Hertfordshire, 5/9/13.  I've added, in double brackets, a few points made in the Q and A following the panel.)

I should maybe start by saying that I feel a bit of charlatan at this conference.  I'm not particularly a Dr. Who obsessive; compared to many people here I know very little about the show.  I direct and write in the theatre, and teach dramatic writing, both for the screen and the stage.  I also worked for several years as a scriptreader for a West End producer, specifically reading musicals.

All these jobs have involved me dealing with the same question – why should a specific story be told in one medium rather than another - what makes a story cinematic, theatrical, novelistic?  Why, for instance, is the film  Psycho so much better than the original novel?  Why do certain plays adapt well as musicals, why do some fail? – Stephen Sondheim said of the show Do I Hear a Waltz?, which he wrote with Richard Rodgers, that it was doomed as a musical because it was a woman who couldn’t fall in love – who, metaphorically, couldn’t sing.

This led me to thinking about characters who belong very firmly to their medium, to the extent that they’ve become metonyms for them.  So, for instance, when we see an image of a man in black holding a skull, we read it not just as a symbol of Hamlet, not just of William Shakespeare, but of the theatre itself..  Similarly, a Spaniard tilting at windmills represents the novel, a millionaire dropping a snowglobe the cinema, and a colourfully-dressed alien the comic book.

And an eccentric time-traveller who occupies a police box becomes a symbol for television itself, for British television in particular, and the BBC in even more particular.

So… why do these characters occupy such an iconic position within their own medium?  I’d argue that in each case, the character shares central qualities with the medium itself.

With the two earliest examples, Don Quixote and Hamlet, I’m not really saying anything very profound here.  Both of these characters, created around the end of the sixteenth century, are presented as creatures of their media.  Don Quixote is explicitly identified as a creation of (and to some extent a warning against) the power of the printed page, someone who’s read too many romances of knight errantry, and lost his reason as a result.  He is, like the novel, a creature of intertextuality, owing his existence to earlier writings, and aware of his own status as a character in a book – one of the books that sent him mad was written by his own author, Miguel de Cervantes, and in the novel’s second volume, we frequently encounter people who’ve read the first.  Prose fiction, unlike the cinema and the stage, is a subjective medium, one we read to gain an individual’s perspective on the world, and Quixote’s defining feature is his ability to rewrite the world in his own terms, seeing an inn as a castle or, famously, windmills as giants.   Quixote even slightly resembles a slim volume - Andrew Piper identifies the 'vertebral' nature of books, and the skinny, angular knight has very little other than vertebrae.  ((I owe the Piper quote to an earlier speaker at the conference - Christopher Marlow of the University of Lincoln.)) Like the novel, Quixote has a very individual, subjective reading of the world, and one formed by earlier writings.

Hamlet is similarly direct in its self-reference, although unlike Quixote, he’s not happy about the fact.  In his most important soliloquy, the one that starts ‘Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I’ – he compares himself unfavourably to the Player King, a man who can react more authentically to fictional emotions than Hamlet does to real ones.  It’s an actor’s maxim that tragic protagonists aren’t aware of the fact that they’re in a tragedy – Hamlet is the great exception to this.  Hamlet knows perfectly well that he’s been cast in the role of the avenger in a revenge tragedy, and he’s acutely aware of his unsuitability for the role – ‘The time is out of joint; o cursed spite!/That ever I was born to set it right.’  Like his medium, Hamlet is caught in the tension between character – in his case, cautious, introspective, detached – and action.  Also, in a medium that’s defined by its ephemerality, Hamlet is preoccupied with mortality – ask most people to draw him, and they’ll come up with a young man dressed in black, either holding a dagger and contemplating his own death, or holding a skull and considering somebody else’s – a professional entertainer, as it happens.

Move on four hundred years, from Elsinore to Xanadu – the two buildings do rather resemble each other, especially in Laurence Olivier’s film - and we get to Citizen Kane.  In this case, the self-reference is established early on, but then isn’t referred to again.  Almost the first thing we see – after the ‘Rosebud’ prologue - is a cinema newsreel, showing the public face of Charles Foster Kane.  The action of the film is the way in which this representation is shown to be inadequate, through five different accounts of the character, sometimes conflicting, and none completely making sense without the other four, and the final, privileged view of the audience, which reveals the mystery set up in the opening moments.  Sometimes, the action in one account only makes sense because of what we’ve seen in another – for instance, the story of Kane’s declaration of principles, set up in Leland’s story and paid off in Susan’s.  In a medium where meaning is created by the relationship between shots, Kane is a creature of montage.

A little bit before Citizen Kane, in 1938, Jerry Seigel and Joe Schuster introduced Superman, the first iconic character of the comic book, in Action Comics issue 1.  He’s the final survivor of another planet, Krypton, who is saved from the planet’s destruction by his father, Jor-El, and sent to earth, where he’s adopted by an American couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent, who raise him as a human.  Like a lot of successful Americans, especially in the early twentieth century, he’s an immigrant, and leads something of a double life, dedicated equally to both of his cultures – he’s the Last Son of Krypton, but he fights for truth, justice and the American way.  He muses on his dual heritage in the comic Man of Steel Issue 6, written and drawn by the Canadian John Byrne:

‘I can quote from the great literature of Krypton’s ancient culture.  I can summon before my mind’s eye the great works of art.  I can speak the seven languages of krypton’s proudest epochs.  I can sing ballads of its heroes.  I know the name of Krypton’s god, and all the prayers that praised his name.  This is the last gift of Jor-El to his son.  And all of it is ultimately meaningless.  I may have been conceived out there in the endless depths of space, but I was born when the rocket landed on earth, in America.  I’ll cherish always the memories Jor-El and Lara gave me, but only as curious mementoes of a life that might have been.  Krypton bred me, but it was Earth that gave me all that I am, all that matters.  It was Krypton that made me Superman, but it is the Earth that makes me human.’

((It was pointed out that this speech can also be read as John Byrne's statement about his own attitude to the historical heritage of the character.))

He also, like many comic heroes, has a secret identity.  Jules Feiffer has written, in a passage used by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill 2, that Superman’s secret identity is unusual among comic heroes in that with him, it’s the human identity that is the masquerade – Batman is really Bruce Wayne in a suit, Clark Kent is really Superman in a pair of glasses.  The comic strip as a medium was created by the intersection of two popular forms – newspaper strips and pulp magazines – and, more fundamentally, of words and pictures.  Superman, with his split identity and parentage, is the archetypal character of a medium based on duality.

Before I get to the Doctor, let me say right now that these aren’t the only characters for whom this has happened – for the cinema, I could have had Chaplin’s tramp (like early cinema, he was a mix of low social status with higher aspirations) or Mickey Mouse who, with his prominent ears,  even resembles a film camera. I could have done an all-female list with Anna Karenina, Hedda Gabler, Dorothy Gale, Wonder Woman and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but then I wouldn’t be here.  I could also have mentioned opera, in which case I’d be talking about Carmen.

And finally…  I realize that you’re all probably way ahead of me here.  I don’t think it’s controversial, especially in this company, to argue that the Doctor serves as a symbol for television in general, for British television in particular, and for the BBC itself. The trailer for the anniversary programme says ‘Fifty years ago, television changed forever…’ If you go into Broadcasting House as an audience member, practically the first thing you see is a gold Dalek.

The Doctor is a specifically Reithian hero – both an educator and an entertainer, created out of the tensions at the heart of the BBC, originally sold as an educational show, but then changed into something else through an combination of circumstances, notably the influence of producer Verity Lambert.  The programme currently serves as a flagship for the Corporation, as The Morecambe and Wise Show did in the ‘70s, headlining the programming on Christmas Day, showing off the stars of other series  - Catherine Tate, Peter Kay, John Simm – and serving as an index of television success – when Andy Millman in Extras wants to raise his profile, we see him playing a Doctor Who villain (albeit one who would have looked more at home in the Jon Pertwee era.

Like British television, he’s an eccentric, full of unexpected knowledge, and a time traveller, especially happy in the nineteenth century, prime period of BBC costume drama..  Since the revival, he’s become a survivor, like Superman, the last of his race, which I believe echoes the status of the programme itself, a last example of Reithian values, a survivor of the cable and satellite wars.  Also, since the reboot, he’s developed a certain affinity with writers, meeting Charles Dickens, Agatha Christie and William Shakespeare (the last was the only character to see through his fake ID) – which links with the programme’s identity as something ‘authored’, initially by Russell T. Davies and now by Stephen Moffat.

Because the Doctor constantly regenerates, surviving by change, the show’s central visual icon isn’t an actor but a machine, the TARDIS, which serves as a metaphor for the show itself, on t-shirts ((at this point I was able to refer to an audience member, Professor Matt Hills)), on book covers, or the current logo.  The nature of the TARDIS is established in the show’s opening episode, An Unearthly Child. After Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, the viewer’s representatives, enter the TARDIS and comment on its spatial oddities, William Hartnell looks directly at the camera (I’m not sure if he does it on purpose, it’s always hard to tell with him) and says ‘You don’t understand, so you make up excuses..’.  Then he turns to Ian and says:

‘You say you can’t fit an enormous building into one of your small sitting rooms.  But you’ve discovered television, haven’t you?  Then, by showing an enormous building on your television, you can do what seemed impossible, couldn’t you?”

Then he turns back to the camera and says ‘What matters now is not whether you understand but what happens to you.’

Notice by the way, that the Doctor refers to ‘discovering’ television, rather than ‘inventing’ it.  The medium is presented as part of the natural world, rather than a creation of technology.  ((One audience member suggested that this might have been a Hartnell misspeak, like the can/couldn't confusion of the next sentence.  It's possible, though it doesn't really affect the meaning of the line.))

The science may be questionable, but I think in that speech you can see that the equation is made explicit – the TARDIS is like a television.  The speech is a well-known one, and is often quoted by Whovians.  One thing I hadn’t realized until I started researching this paper is that it’s not in the pilot episode.  It was added by Anthony Coburn between the pilot and the version that was actually broadcast, possibly at the suggestion of Sydney Newman.  It’s often said that the key to the programme’s success can be seen in the differences between those two versions of the episode – in particular, Hartnell revised his performance, playing the character as more avuncular and less irascible.  It’s interesting that another aspect that made the difference was this first glimmering of the idea of the TARDIS as a symbol of television in general, and British television in particular – unpredictable, slightly old-fashioned and (all together now) bigger on the inside.