Titbits

July 25, 2018

Apologies for the radio silence since February, but I’d been waiting for something important to come along.

Saving Mr Banks, I think we can all agree, is a film. And not a very good one, though opinions are divided on that matter. If you’ve forgotten about it, firstly well done, and secondly it’s Disney’s desecration of the life of P.L. Travers. I saw it at the cinema when it came out and have no great appetite to watch it again. (Or Mary Poppins either, if I’m brutally honest, monument of all our childhoods though it be; last time out I thought it a 6 at best. ‘We are not a codfish,’ oh fuck right off would you. And take your fakey chimney jockey with you. Step in toime, step in toime. Inexpressible tedium. Anyway.)

In spite of my heartfelt desire to have done with it once and for all, one scene from the film regularly returns to my mind, specifically the one where Travers, played (with customary professionalism, let’s not deny it) by Emma Thompson, objects to Disney’s use of the word ‘titbit’, which she corrects with practically-perfect pedantry to ‘tidbit’, the obvious implication being that Travers, a prim and proper Englishwoman despite the fact that she is demonstrably Australian, will not tolerate the usage even by uncouth Americans of the syllable ‘tit’, which (just to be clear) is another word for booby or funbag.

This was the point at which I had been going to rant about the writers having got everything arse about tid. The British usage, I would have fulminated, is titbit, with tidbit a sanitised Americanism. But the earliest sources in OED (1650ish) cite ‘titbit’ (‘he hopeth for tit bits’, 1642) and ‘tidbit’ (‘a Tid Bit of yong Tarquin’, 1650, saucy) equally. Bloody Oxonians: when they’re not ruining the fucking country they’re proving me wrong with their scholarly researches.

That said, all the post-1800 citations have ‘titbit’ in the British sources and ‘tidbit’ in the American (the sole arguable exception being Auden, during his US period). It’s also the case that in Travers’ time, the British gossip sheet Tit-Bits was very much au courant. See the final scene of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) in which Dennis Price, sprung from prison against all the odds, is approached by unlikely angel of death Arthur Lowe: ‘Your Grace, I represent the magazine Tit-Bits, by whom I’m commissioned to approach you for the publication rights of your memoirs.’

The word ‘titbit’, silly though it may be (if not as silly, admittedly, as ‘responstable’), would not have provoked Travers’ wrath. Far better to write the scene with her as a formidable grande dame (which may or may not have been the case; I don’t believe the writers of the film cared either way) proudly asserting the rightness of the British nomenclature of ‘titbits’ in the face of American mealy-mouthedness.

All the flashback stuff with Colin Farrell’s a load of old shite too.

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50 films: #10. If…. (Lindsay Anderson, 1968)

February 3, 2018

Sad news yesterday of the death at 75 of screenwriter David Sherwin – do read his Guardian obituary and this lovely piece by Malcolm McDowell, who played Mick Travis in his trilogy of films – prompted me to revisit a film that on reflection is probably my favourite of all time: Lindsay Anderson’s If…., which celebrates its 50th birthday this year.

A teenager who habitually read film guides, I knew of the reputation of If…. long before I saw it. I’ve written before here of the impact the death of my uncle William had on me when I was 14, and of the legacy that he left me, partly through the things he had owned that I inherited. From his collection of videos, I took a couple that contained films he’d recorded off the television: one was Death in Venice, and the other was If…. He’d recorded If…., I discovered on doing an audit of all my videos a month ago prior to chucking them out, on the occasion of Lindsay Anderson’s death in 1994, when it was broadcast on Channel 4 with a specially recorded introduction by Stephen Frears, who had worked on it as a young assistant director.

I don’t think I watched it until I was 16 or 17, and then probably only when it was shown late one Friday night on BBC2, in the days when BBC2 did that sort of thing. It must have been a mindblowing film to watch at that age. When the BFI rereleased it in cinemas in 2002 and there were two screenings in Cambridge, I went to both. By that time it had become an obsession. Last September I happened to meet Philip Bagenal, who played scientifically-minded Peanuts in the film shortly before going up to Cambridge. I was too starstruck to tell him how moved I was to be in his presence.

If…. originated as a script, Crusaders, written by Sherwin and John Howlett while the two were teenagers at Tonbridge School. Anderson eventually filmed it mainly at his own Cheltenham College. The film amounts to a study of power relationships within one house, College House, at an independent school, and of the repressive regime of the Whips (four prefects, Rowntree, Denson, Fortinbras and Barnes). Rebelling against their brutality are five Crusaders, senior boys Mick Travis, Johnny Knightly and Wallace, junior boy Bobby Phillips, and a girl (called simply The Girl in the credits) whom Travis and Knightly meet in a roadside café while playing truant.

The opening of the film, which sets the familiar black and white Paramount logo against the school song, ‘Stand up, stand up for College’, sung to the familiar tune Ellacombe, is excitingly uneasy, and I think I have always found it so. Still uneasier, suddenly the titles are in colour. A great deal has been written about Anderson’s juxtaposition of black & white and colour film, much of it nonsense. I think it’s generally accepted now that logistical problems led to the filming of the interior of the chapel being done with black & white film. I’m sure Anderson, mischievous to the last, would have enjoyed critics looking for meaning in the contrasts between the colour and monochrome sequences, which might or might not really be there. Still, the contrasts can be striking. Take for instance the Whips’ study, filmed in colour, a place of privilege and sober discussion, set against the happy austerity of the juniors’ black & white kitchen, where the scum are having a great time eating beans on toast. Or the fencing scene, where the Crusaders’ black & white game of war with their mock Shakespearean dialogue turns, West Side Story-like, into real war when they burst balletically through a door and Wallace draws Mick Travis’s blood, however accidentally. Travis is thrilled.

I got sidetracked. Let’s talk about Jute and about power. Our way into the film is through Jute (Sean Bury). Like us, he’s a new boy in the school. In the opening scene he is overawed, gazing uncomprehendingly at the noticeboard, not knowing the rules. Even the perpetually bullied junior boy Biles sneers at him, ‘You’re blocking my view, scum.’ Jute’s never the main player in the film, he’s an everyman (or everyboy), and through the film we follow his assimilation into the school. At the start he’s unsure. He calls Rowntree ‘sir’ even though he’s not a teacher; in chapel Brunning has to help him find the right hymn; he struggles to remember the right words when Brunning and Markland test him on school vocab; in gym he quakes before the vaulting horse like a fawn. But increasingly he takes part, he’s a joiner in. He plays rugby, sings in the chapel choir, he takes on ceremonial roles like bringing the chalice the house has just won to the top table. By the end he’s serving in chapel. Jute is the boy schools like this are supposed to turn out.

Starting at the same time as Jute is straggly-moustached John Thomas (Ben Aris), one of those teachers who is both disappointed and disappointing. He is shown up to his room by the housemaster’s wife in the film’s first black & white sequence. Both he and Mrs Kemp are shy and nervous, and after she leaves he sits on his bed in this drab little room, the eaves imposing, and seems to be the embodiment of human loneliness. He too assimilates in a way, and in rugby practice appears to be popular with the boys, but later scenes tell a different story. Whip Denson, doing his nightly rounds, finds Thomas working on his car and advises him not to be too long. ‘Sorry, Denson,’ he replies. When, out on manoeuvres with the cadet corps, he dives for cover and is liberally drizzled with hot tea from a leaking urn, it becomes clear he is a man without authority. Simply by looking unlucky, he becomes unlucky.

It’s not a matter of everyone knowing their place in established power structures, it’s also about people (Denson among them) who don’t toe the line. Just as John Thomas cowers before Denson, so too does housemaster Mr Kemp (Arthur Lowe) before all the Whips. Here is a man who by temperament should have been a bank manager, not put in charge of children. Warned of insurrection by Rowntree he simply devolves his power to the Whip, saying pathetically, ‘You must do what you think best,’ and popping another orange segment into his mouth. The Headmaster (a magnificent Peter Jeffrey) paints himself as a progressive, making platitudinous speeches to the prefects, but turns out to be just another fool. By their failure to fulfil their designated roles they are complicit in the Whips’ reign of terror.

Terrifying it is, too. Barnes and Denson stalk the corridors and yell ‘DORMITORY INSPECTION IN THREE MINUTES’ with military synchronicity. You can see why they don’t like Travis, a boy (man, really; he returns to school with a resplendent moustache that only Knightly is allowed to see before he shaves it off) who is determined to stick out, apparently for the pleasure of sticking out. Though Knightly and Wallace are committed to the cause, Travis is invariably the one who goes a step too far. A marvellous scene in the Crusaders’ study with the three boys talking at cross purposes illustrates perfectly the temperamental differences between them. Travis poseurishly expounds his theories of war (‘Violence and revolution are the only pure acts’), while Knightly, the joker, reads the horoscope aloud for the others’ amusement, and dreamy Wallace talks of his concerns that he’s going bald.

What I’ve written so far may give the impression that If…. is a cold and earnest film. In fact it’s so far from that. It depicts the whole experience of being young, including the romance of youth. Take Wallace’s love affair with Bobby Phillips, a junior boy a few years younger than him though more mature in outlook, a relationship depicted with such economy and tenderness. They don’t share more than a handful of scenes together, but it’s one of my favourite romantic relationships in film. If you’ve seen it, you’ll remember that scene. Phillips, about to put his sweater on, looks down and sees Wallace preparing to leap up to the high bar. They exchange glances as Biles and Machin look on. Wallace’s gymnastics are hypnotic, set to Marc Wilkinson’s shimmering music (itself partly inspired by the Missa Luba that Travis likes to put on his record player, and sometimes underscoring it in the film). It feels like one of the mesmerising scenes with backwards music from the end of Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite, the film supposed to have inspired this one. Who wouldn’t fall for Wallace under these circumstances? Bobby puts his sweater on but continues to gaze, distractedly. The moment of falling in love has never been better depicted on screen.

Some boys are misfits. Peanuts, for instance, whom Travis approaches one night, apparently to invite him to become a Crusader. Peanuts looks at the stars through his telescope and talks of space. His concerns seem to be higher, and he hands back the bullet Travis offers him. He’s a pacifist, we might think; only out on manoeuvres he embraces warfare absolutely, condemning his charges for failing to do the Yell of Hate, so it can’t be that. Meanwhile, Mick accepts the thing Peanuts offers in return, his telescope, but uses it to look not at the stars but at the Girl he and Knightly have enlisted to join the resistance. Stephans is another nearly boy, intent on becoming a Whip, and unpopular with others because of his priggishness. Might he have made a Crusader instead? He’d surely have had more fun that way.

Let’s look at Biles, strung up in the toilets by his bullies. Who would think to view him sideways on? The anarchy of the gaze.

There’s a peculiarly British kind of anarchy and absurdity in the humour too: in the medical test, where the boys have to answer four questions (‘Ringworm? Eye disease? VD? Confirmation class?’); in Mr Kemp’s pink-pyjamaed performance of ‘Fairest Isle’ accompanied by his wife on the recorder; in the unexpected reappearance of the Chaplain, recently slaughtered on the battlefield by Travis (complete with Yell of Hate), alive and well and living in the Headmaster’s drawer; in the Headmaster’s reprimand to the boys, perhaps the funniest moment of the film: ‘So often I’ve noticed that it’s the hair rebels who step into the breach when there’s a crisis, whether it be a fire in the house, or to sacrifice a week’s holiday in order to give a party of slum children seven days in the country.’

What about the ending? The actions of the Crusaders may be understandable, but can they be justified? It’s easy to be on their side, but what if they asked you up on the roof? There’s a tremendous power in that final crescendo, with the beating, then the play battle, then the real battle, some of the agony of the ending coming from the conflict between the viewer’s desire to be one of the cool kids and the attendant reality of the civilian casualties. The extras in that scene, the parents and grandparents of the boys, look so ordinary. They don’t deserve to die. And yet a change surely has to come, and this may be a way of effecting it. The discomfort is part of the thrill. (And the guns.)

Then the title appears on screen again, ending the film as it began. Was this just an academic hypothesis, an exercise, as the Brechtian intertitles might lead you to believe? Even if so, it’s an engrossing one. I love it because it seems to contain everything (well, except girls). I loved that, watching it as a boy, there were any number of characters I saw reflections of myself in, so many that I might have been. I think I wanted to be Wallace, probably because I had a thing for Bobby Phillips. In reality I was probably Markland.

End-of-year reading meme

January 6, 2018

This bloody thing again.

How many books read in 2017?
121. An all-time record that will surely not be surpassed, and a sign that I’ve been reading far too fast.

Fiction/non-fiction?
82 fiction, 35 non-fiction, 4 a bit of both.

Male/female authors?
70 male, 47 female, 3 both, 1 neither.

Favourite book read?
A tough call, but let’s say Erich Kästner’s The Flying Classroom. I had something in my eye towards the end. I usually find, reading them as an adult, that children’s books lack magic; not this one.

Least favourite?
When you read 121 books there are bound to be some letdowns. The worst book I read was an abysmal fantasy novel written by someone I know and published through a vanity firm. It should never have seen the light of day. But authorial incompetence didn’t stop me enjoying it (rather enhanced my enjoyment, if truth be told), and there were certainly books I liked less. Emily Witt’s initially engaging but eventually tedious Future Sex, for example, or (though I don’t like to admit it) Michael Cunningham’s The Snow Queen.

Oldest book read?
Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II (1593ish), though a couple of Shakespeares weren’t far behind.

Newest book read?
I read five books published in 2017, namely A Distant View of Everything and A Time of Love and Tartan, both by Alexander McCall Smith, The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel, Elmet by Fiona Mozley, and Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard.

Longest book title?
That honour goes to Michael Blakemore’s super Stage Blood: Five Tempestuous Years in the Early Life of the National Theatre.

Shortest book title?
Romain Rolland’s Dawn, though if you take its French title, L’Aube, it ties with Elmet.

How many rereads?
12, the most satisfying of which was André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name, which I loved even more the second time than I did the first. A lightning bolt of a book.

Most books read by a single author?
8 (Margaret Stuart Barry, all of whose Simon and the Witch books I devoured during a bout of nostalgia in the summer), then 7 (Arthur Conan Doyle, most of whose Sherlock Holmes books I reread).

Any in translation?
30, including translations from Estonian, Hebrew, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Romanian, Slovak and Slovene. No books read in French or German, though, which may be something to address in 2018.

How many books were borrowed from the library?
62. Down on last year, partly because of having to buy obscure books in translation. At the end of the year I began to feel I was finally starting to make progress in reading books I’d owned for ages but not got around to, and I hope I can carry on with that this year.

I had no clue what was going on:
Perhaps it was foolhardy of me to read Mya Tannenbaum’s Conversations with Stockhausen.

Favourite character encountered this year:
I don’t know if you can count real people, but probably Mr Elliott. Otherwise, maybe Lilian Faschinger’s Magdalena.

What next?
I’m intending to read Proust in 2018, and have made a tentative start. I’ll have to go slow (the book count will be in double rather than treble figures this year, I fancy), and am looking forward to it. I hope to get around to rereading some favourites (Nabokov, Hollinghurst, Leavitt), and would like to get stuck into Edward St Aubyn too. Roald Dahl’s short stories as well, perhaps.

2017 foursomes

December 31, 2017

In which I celebrate another year of having successfully cheated death by looking back at my cultural highlights of the past twelve months.

Top 4 theatre
My two best shows of the year, towering above the rest, were Angels in America and Follies, both at the National Theatre, sublime and superlative achievements, thrillingly staged and acted. I’d like to list the entire casts of both, really, but the performances that have stayed most in my memory are those of Andrew Garfield, Denise Gough, Aidan McArdle and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett from Angels, and Tracie Bennett, Di Botcher, and the central quartet from Follies, perhaps especially Imelda Staunton, desperately vulnerable as Sally. I saw excellent productions of Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus at Stratford, but my Shakespeare highlight of the year was Twelfth Night, again at the National, with Tamsin Greig imperious as Malvolia, Tim McMullan swaggering all over the place as Belch, Daniel Rigby as good a communicator of Aguecheek’s damagedness as I’ve seen (the man bun clearly a cry for help), and Tamara Lawrance a touching Viola. (Also, anything with Oliver Chris in it ticks my box.) And She Loves Me at the Menier Chocolate Factory, which I saw in January as a post-Christmas treat, a twinkly production of the most chocolate-boxy of musicals. I’d gone expressly to see Mark Umbers as Georg, but in the event his understudy Peter Dukes proved excellent. The decision to use British accents worked a treat, with ‘A Trip to the Library’ in Katherine Kingsley’s broad Cockney the high point.

Top 4 student theatre
It’s been a very good year at the ADC in Cambridge, starting with my first García Lorca, The House of Bernarda Alba, done by an extraordinarily strong cast of future stars (the performances of Xanthe Burdett, Daisy Jones and Emma Corrin among the standouts) in Jo Clifford’s translation. Alecky Blythe’s London Road received probably the finest student production I’ve seen of anything ever, an exacting musical done brilliant justice by a cast and band who clearly knew it inside out (Footlight Orlando Gibbs, playing one of the press photographers, even managed some improvised business when the lens fell off his camera). Its composer Adam Cork saw the production, and I can only imagine he was thrilled. Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce is a bit dated now, but still very amusing, and was fortunate to have some of the funniest people in Cambridge in its cast, most notably Colin Rothwell, having a ball as the perpetually whinging Nick, and John Tothill, who must surely be recognised before too long as one of the great character comedians of his generation. And recently, Gypsy, a show I begin to see the point of. Ashleigh Weir (Rose) is one to watch, but everyone in Cambridge knows that by now.

Top 4 Edinburgh
Although I didn’t have the energy to blog about it here at the time, I had a good few days at the Fringe this August, the highlights being as follows: Colin Hoult as Anna Mann (‘Oh, fuck off!’) in How We Stop the Fascists, fabulously warm and witty, the funniest part for me being the point at which Mann asked the audience what we thought a fascist looked like, then slyly produced a mirror for us to look at and pass around, concluding with ‘Anyway, you get the point – fascists look like mirrors!’ (Maybe you had to be there.) Joseph Morpurgo’s Hammerhead, the discussion following his nine-hour one-man performance of Frankenstein, was a tour de force. Then there was Ivo Graham’s fun and exciting Educated Guess, a stand-up show with a difference, the difference being a quiz in which Graham’s encyclopaedic knowledge of MPs and their constituencies was put to the test. The night I saw it he fell down tragically on Jeremy Wright (Con, Kenilworth and Southam), but the video at the end helped to soothe the pain. And lastly but mostly, Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, the worthiest winner of the Edinburgh Comedy Award, though as she says it’s not really comedy, it’s very dark and very important. She made me feel worthless, and somehow in a good way.

Top 4 live music
I’m surprised at how few concerts I’ve attended in 2017. Theatre seems to be usurping music in that respect. But it was special to see Joshua Bell and Dénes Várjon in Edinburgh playing, among other things, the Brahms G major violin sonata, which almost moved me to tears, an effect music almost never has on me. Brahms has not shifted from his place at the top of my personal pantheon, and seeing the Endellion Quartet and Barry Douglas play the G minor piano quartet in October was exciting, especially that furious Hungarian finale. I saw Mitsuko Uchida twice, playing two different Schubert programmes, the better of which was the one at Peterhouse in Cambridge, where the ‘Con moto’ movement of the D.850 sonata was particularly divine. And it was great to see Max Raabe and Christoph Israel at the Wigmore Hall, where Raabe sang a lot of unfamiliar songs by the likes of Walter Jurmann. Especially lovely was Jurmann’s ‘Tomorrow is Another Day’, complete with whistling duet.

Top 4 albums
Of this year’s releases, up with which I have very much not kept, Nelson Freire’s Brahms recital has been on repeat – I hadn’t known the third piano sonata, but it’s beautiful; the shorter pieces are exquisite, and exquisitely performed. My great discovery early in the year was the fourth symphony of Franz Schmidt, in the recording by the London Philharmonic and Franz Welser-Möst, a masterpiece whose organicism excites and entrances. I’m pacing myself, but want to get to know the other three (and got the Bychkov recording of the second for Christmas). The NT production sent me back to the 2011 Broadway recording of Follies, admirably exhaustive and addictive. And lastly, loads more Prefab Sprout. Why has it taken until my thirties for me to become properly obsessed with this band I have known from my teens? Maybe they’re too good for the young. I’ve listened to their 1985 album Steve McQueen constantly, as literate and elusive and romantic a collection of songs as anyone could wish to hear.

Top 4 old films
Don’t judge me, but I’d never seen Ninotchka before. Actually I’m not sure I’d ever seen a Greta Garbo film before. But I love Ernst Lubitsch, and it has his usual gemütlich charm and cosiness in spades, while at the same time, like his To Be or Not to Be, commenting smartly on the politics of its time. Garbo is fabulous, especially in her stone-faced incarnation, and Melvyn Douglas is a pleasing foil, but Felix Bressart steals every scene as usual. Is there any film actor pre-1950 I love more? Sidney Lumet’s bleak masterpiece Fail-Safe, a sort of Dr. Strangelove without jokes, left me deeply discomfited, a chilling film to watch at a time when the threat of nuclear war seems greater than ever before during my life. And two Japanese films: Juzo Itami’s ‘ramen western’ Tampopo, playful, erotic and hilarious from start to finish; and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister, a straightforward drama of human relationships made with such delicacy and acuity that it’s exhilarating to watch. Kore-eda has an amazing hit rate in recent years, and this film is up there with I Wish and Still Walking. It’s been a very good year. Films that narrowly failed to make the cut: Ikiru, Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Nobody Knows (more Kore-eda), Girlhood, Love is Strange, Holy Motors, In the House.

Top 4 new films
It’s been a great year at the cinema too. Most of all, Luca Guadagnino’s sumptuous Call Me by Your Name, one of those films I felt might have been made just for me. Given the novel is a favourite book of mine, the film had a lot to live up to, but it succeeded in almost every particular, a sensual, slowly intoxicating adaptation, sensitively scored, gorgeously performed, delicately devastating. Earlier in the year, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight had a similar effect on me, brutal and tender, poetic and pulsating. (I know, I’m overdosing on adjectives again.) Toni Erdmann was an unexpected delight, a film about an eccentric man’s dysfunctional relationship with his daughter. Sandra Hüller is tremendous as the daughter Ines, but my favourite moments were those where I suddenly became aware of Peter Simonischek’s Toni in the background, half Clouseau hunchback, half Les Patterson, simply being funny. It has its melancholic side too, but there’s a lot to be said for fun and funniness. And of course, Paddington 2, supremely entertaining. Not only are Paddington and the Browns lovable (hardly a given, considering how few film families one would wish to spend time with), the supporting cast is stunning. Tom Conti and his various physical indignities, randy Simon Farnaby, forgetful Sanjeev Bhaskar, and Hugh Grant giving the performance of his career (and even starring in a ‘Prisoners-of-Love’-style rendition of a number from Follies that was the cherry on the cake). Irresistible. Honourable mentions for The Big Sick, The Florida Project, and My Life as a Courgette.

Top 4 books
In a pretty good reading year there are a handful of books that stand out above the rest, among them Andrew Hankinson’s gripping You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat], Maggie Nelson’s audacious The Argonauts, Peter De Vries’s heartbreaking The Blood of the Lamb, and Muriel Spark’s wicked Symposium. But if I had to pick four, I’d choose three of my Grand Tour reads – Erich Kästner’s The Flying Classroom, the perfect book to read this Christmas (though you may have left it a little late); Margarita Karapanou’s darkly beautiful Kassandra and the Wolf; and of course Tony Parker’s housing estate compendium The People of Providence – and for a fourth, probably Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow’s mesmeric tapestry of early 20th-century America. I also loved his The Book of Daniel.

More of this stuff in a year, if we all make it.