Director: Basil Coleman
This is kind of where this Shakespeare series began, in that Cedric Messina had been using Glamis Castle and environs for another production and decided it would be a good setting for a version of As You Like It, whereupon he later had the further idea of doing the whole canon (this would be one of only two of the plays to be done on location). I gather this is one of Big Bill’s best-known plays but I’ve never actually read it nor seen any other versions of it, and didn’t even know what it was about, so I was really going in cold…
I was interested to find the story basically being a political intrigue at first; our hero is the son of a deceased duke who’s been dispossessed of his dues by his older brother, and there’s another duke usurping his brother and driving him into exile. This confused me terribly at first, cos this is one of Bill’s comedies (I at least knew that little about it) rather than his tragedies and yet the way it begins I felt it could almost be read as the latter at times during the first hour or so; I felt it wasn’t really until the action moved to the Forest of Arden that it really definitively settled on being a comedy. Found it quite off-putting, to be honest, and I never really engaged with it as much I would’ve liked.
Helen Mirren is our heroine, Rosalind, and is much the best thing about this production; Rosalind is a solid heroine who she makes the most of, and obviously the gender shenanigans she gets to engage in will be a big drawcard for modern audiences (even if I didn’t find them that convincing). I don’t recall anyone else in the cast making a comparable impression (though if, like me, you enjoy playing “spot the actor who was also in Doctor Who at some point” when watching things like this, then this episode offers some rich pickings) other than Richard Pasco, and that not in a good way, really. Jaques is apparently considered one of Shakespeare’s juiciest parts, he has the famous “all the world’s a stage” speech and is meant as a sort of cynical voice to undercut the otherwise lightness of the play, but Pasco (who we’ll see again next time in Julius Caesar) plays him as a kind of tedious brown note of much less interest than the characters seem to think he is. (Well, most of them; Orlando does get to say to him at one point “I do desire we may be better strangers” which is my favourite line in the thing.)
As for the location shooting, at the time it was considered it actually kind of overwhelmed the story and the actors but I liked it; it looks as good as I supposed it could’ve done being shot on video rather than film in 1978—even if it’s kind of shot in studio style, multicamera long takes and so forth—and it probably wouldn’t have looked any better had it been done in studio without going to a lot of expense. Unless they went for something really stylised and artificial, and the BBC weren’t quite ready to go there just yet. I can’t say I greatly liked this production, but it has its points of interest, and I suspect it’ll benefit from a rewatch where I know what to expect next time round…
Director: David Giles
I never did understand what the rationale was for the order in which the BBC tackled Big Bill’s plays in this series, so we go from one of his best-known tragedies to, well, one of his probably less-well known works (this is one of those for which there’s never been a cinema version). Richard II covers a fairly narrow period in its title character’s life, meaning it missed out a lot of stuff like the Peasants’ Revolt to basically focus on his downfall; we see him as a somewhat variable power, exiling people and seizing their assets to fight a war in Ireland and then basically crumbling when he gets home from that and finds Henry Bolingbroke’s come home from exile a few years ahead of schedule.
There’s apparently long been speculation about the historical Richard’s mental state, and Derek Jacobi’s portrayal arguably plays up to that, and, for me at least, ventures at times over the edge into ham. I think I considerably preferred Ben Whishaw’s version in The Hollow Crown. Performance-wise, I liked Charles Gray (who we’ll see again shortly as Julius Caesar) as the Duke of York and Jon Finch as Bolingbroke (remember him as Macbeth in Polanski’s film? He had form playing kings who’d got there by dubious means) a lot better here. Notable too in the cast is Boba Fett, the recently departed Jeremy Bulloch as Henry Percy, and, well, this was not his finest hour… initially I thought it was the bloke who played Prince Harry in the original Blackadder, and once I had that in my head I couldn’t take him seriously. Not sorry that he was recast for the rest of the Henriad…
Regarding which, it’s a bit odd that this was produced separate from the rest of the Henry IV/V/VI plays, and I think the BBC recognised that themselves cos they repeated it a year later ahead of Henry IV. I’m not sure how well it works by itself, I think mostly it serves to lay the background for the rest of the sequence. Overall not a bad job, kind of classically “70s BBC”, albeit somewhat less vigorous than R&J last week.
Director: Alvin Rakoff
So, through the course of 2021, I’m going to attempt a full viewing of the 1970s/80s BBC Shakespeare in an effort to get back into, you know, actually watching things that aren’t Youtube videos (my non-YT film viewing in 2020 amounted to precisely one short film—young mister Elena’s Audio Guide, great—and, I think, two full TV series—Firefly and An Age of Kings, the BBC’s earlier Bardtacular). My TV backlog is threatening to get as out of hand as the infamous never-ending film backlog, so it’s time I started digging in. To which end I’m starting on the BBC Shakespeare, and will try to get through at least one episode a week of that.
We begin accordingly with Romeo and Juliet, which struck me as a pretty satisfying inauguration of the series. I know the earlier productions helmed by Cedric Messina have a bit of a reputation for stodge, but this worked pretty well for me. The Verona street set is impressively large and Rakoff gets a lot of value out of it with some reasonably mobile and active camerawork, particularly during the fight scene between Tybalt (Alan Rickman making his screen debut, already radiating that bass-baritone menace despite an unfortunate head of hair I hope was a wig) and Mercutio then Romeo. The latter is played by Patrick Ryecroft, who I think does pretty well… don’t know if I was as convinced by Rebecca Saire in the other title role, though she is notable for having been the same age as Juliet (who’s usually played by older teens or 20-somethings) and for having sniped a bit at it before broadcast cos she seemed to think Juliet should be a bit more sexy, whereupon the BBC panicked and cancelled all her other promo duties… On the whole, I liked it (surprisingly bloody stuff) though it does tail off some in the second half, R & J’s emo kid business after that sword fight really isn’t as interesting, but I suspect that’s down to Shakespeare himself rather than Rakoff’s direction.
Director: Terry Jones
This film contains one of the most outstanding silences in any film (well, any sound film, obviously) I’ve ever seen, i.e. the bit where Brian shouts “NOW FUCK OFF!” at his suddenly acquired mass of followers, and they pause before, about eight seconds later, John Cleese’s disciple asks him how they should fuck off. It’s one of the most beautifully timed jokes in a film that swarms with them; watching it again tonight for the first time in several years (the first film I’ve watched in months, obviously, except for repeats of Flash Gordon and Heavy Metal which obviously didn’t need to be reviewed again here) was a great reminder of just how thick and fast the comedy comes, and how absurd baffling the controversy the film generated back in the day (still does? Apparently the town of Bournemouth only lifted their local ban on the film as recently as 2015, and even in this country it actually got upgraded from an M rating—which is the one my DVD copy bears—to an MA for its blu-ray reissue. Unless that was on account of the bonus features?) was. Even allowing for changes in attitudes over time, it seems bizarre that people could seriously accuse it of blasphemy; it clearly doesn’t have a go at that Jesus fellow in any way, the one scene in which Jesus appears—i.e. the Sermon on the Mount—plays him straight and the humour comes from the crowd who mishear what he says. And that’s the real root of the film’s satire; it’s not taking the piss out of Jesus, it’s taking the piss out of his followers, as witness the speed with which Brian’s disciples not only attach themselves to him for no good reason, then become divided as to whether the gourd or the shoe (and indeed whether it’s a shoe or a sandal) is his true sign, and finally not only misunderstand but actively ignore what he actually says… Come to think of it, maybe that’s really why people took such offence to Life of Brian back then, cos they recognised it was about themselves rather than their Lord…
As a final thought, how good is Graham Chapman as Brian? I only discovered tonight John Cleese actually wanted the role, and had to be talked out of it with difficulty by the other Pythons. What a piece of potentially terrible miscasting that could’ve been; considering Cleese’s general Python persona and the other parts he plays in the film, I just can’t imagine him working as Brian. Chapman was so determined not to fuck it up that he overcame the alcoholism that had plagued him for years, and you can see that commitment in his performance. I mean, all the Pythons are good in their many and varied parts, but it’s Chapman’s film, really. Absolutely top stuff.
Directors: Chuck Jones & Phil Monroe
Look, I know there isn’t much point in me watching this. I’ve got the big DVD box set with all the original cartoons on it (barring, notably, Hare-Way to the Stars, incomprehensibly excluded from the Golden Collection series) remastered and uncut (the editing performed here on Long-Haired Hare damages one of the best gags in it). It’s kind of outlived its usefulness in some respects, and there’s not a lot of point to watching it now, unless you really want to be faintly disgusted by the absence of Bob Clampett and Ben Hardaway among the list of Bugs’ “fathers” (the latter—who only gave the bunny his name, after all—seems to have been an honest mistake on Jones’ part, but the former was a deliberate act of spite by Jones, who had a notable grudge against him). And yet, when I was looking through the TV guide to see what was on today and I saw TBB/RRM listed there… how could I not watch it? Cos it’s great. The component parts are all great, some of them among the very best things to come from Warners’ animation department (and I’ve said for a long time now that the best of the Warner cartoons are among the best films made by anyone anywhere at any time), and it’s still a pretty amazing highlights package, markedly better than the other recycled compilations that followed it in the 80s, cos Jones and Monroe were careful to (mostly) leave the originals alone and limit the new material to essentially introductory links rather than trying to embed the old stuff as stock footage into a new story (cf. 1001 Rabbit Tales). I’ve loved this since I was little, and it still works for me now. It’s a joy to watch, basically, and I suppose that’s really all the reason you need to do so.
Director: Jess Franco
It’s only taken me just short of five years after seeing Pere Portabella’s Cuadecuc vampir to finally watch the film associated with that one… There’s a really interesting comment by Christophe Gans in an interview on the Severin DVD of this film (which handily includes the Portabella film as an extra, evidently he got over his reluctance to let people see it), that Franco’s absurd work rate (especially in the 70s) meant what you got from his films was more of a “trance” than “a worked-out product”. Which, basically, sums this film right up. The idea for it seems to have really come from his producer Harry Alan Towers, who thought it would be a great idea to make an adaptation of Dracula that was actually faithful to the novel. On which level I’m not sure it fully succeeds (though it’s a damn sight more so than the 1931 Tod Browning film, to say nothing of Hammer’s version), but give it points for trying. Actually, what struck me more than anything was what I can only describe as the disorienting feel of the whole thing… I don’t know how else to describe it, there’s just something really strange at work that I can’t quite put into words. I’ve said before about some of Franco’s films that they don’t seem to fully take place in a recognisable world, but it’s not quite that here… It seems to be a mix of things, like the way it’s shot at 1.33 (unusual by 1970), the compositions within that frame, the camera angles, maybe even the camera lenses… things just seem slightly off somehow in a way I find hard to describe, as you can see… In the end Franco’s Dracula is what it is, i.e. a cheap European horror film made at the end of the 60s, and the slow pacing doesn’t help much, but the atmospherics are interesting and performances are actually decent; Christopher Lee in particular attacks his lines with some vigour, knowing Hammer would never give him the chance to speak actual Bram Stoker…
Director: Ted Post
Cult Sinema is back in Sydney! It’s been an awfully long time since the Mu-Meson crew ran films at the Annandale; now they have a new home in Petersham, and OY did they kick off the revival in style… Being part of the Drive-In Delirium collection, The Baby is a film whose trailer I’ve seen many times, and so I had some idea of what to expect, i.e. a sort of southern Gothic melodrama (albeit one set in what I presume were rather more northern suburbs) involving the titular baby… who just so happens to be a young adult who never developed beyond infancy. And one day a social worker takes on Baby and his family—mother and two sisters—as her latest client, for reasons that finally become clear at the end. So I was prepared for some strangeness… and yet I was woefully underprepared for just how strange it would get. Put bluntly, this is profoundly fucking warped; there’s an early hint that something untoward happened to a previous social worker who dealt with the Wadsworth family, and it doesn’t come as a great surprise to learn that the rest of the family has even more problems than Baby, but OH MY just how problematic they are is something else. The scariest actually scary thing in the film—which I’m filing under “horror” cos that’s the best I can do with it—is Marianna Hunt’s astounding bouffant hair in the party scene, cos it looks more like 1983 than 1973, but the overall atmosphere of wrongness (enhanced by the film’s bizarre pacing and bravura scenery chewing by pretty much everyone involved, especially Ruth Roman’s matriarch) is the main thing, especially in the last third or so when the emotional temperature goes from merely superheated to positively thermonuclear. This film, basically, is fucked, and I enjoyed it immensely through all the times I had to keep picking my jaw off the floor.
Director: Robert Fuest
It would be harsh to say that this film’s credit sequence, which uses the work of Hieronymus Bosch for its backgrounds, is the best thing about it, but I’m sure some people—probably a lot of people, in fact—would say it’s also fair… we’re looking at a somewhat notorious dog here (Scott Ashlin’s observation about the film’s nonsensical promotional tagline is apt), which more or less killed Fuest’s film career, he only made one more theatrical film in the early 80s and otherwise remained stuck working in TV for whatever remained of his career. The problem seems to have been producer Sandy Howard, who wanted a movie featuring Satanists and a climax with all of them melting; quite how the film was supposed to get to that point seems to have been of less interest to him. Fuest was accordingly saddled with a script that didn’t make much sense and little way to force it to do so… conversely, he was also saddled with interesting Mexican locations also picked by Howard, and he does get to do good things with those in widescreen, and his design background serves him well with the Satanist church setting (I presume this is where Anton LaVey offered “technical advice”). The story involves a book belonging to a Satanic cult back in pilgrim times, containing the names of the members who’ve sold their souls to Satan, and when it’s stolen it means cult leader Ernest Borgnine can’t actually dispatch their souls to Hell. Quite why Satan is so picky about this detail is something the film never addresses, as is the question of quite why Borgnine takes, you know, a few hundred years to find the book, doesn’t say a lot for his supposed Satanic powers… But none of that was the point anyway, the point was Sandy Howard’s melting Satanists, and, well, he surely got those, frankly to excess as Fuest himself says in the DVD commentary. Alas, the evident determination to get a PG rating means you don’t even really get that much of a gorefest, everyone just melts into goo rather than blood and guts. On the whole pretty meh, but there is some bravura ham from Borgnine (and from Bill Shatner to a smaller extent) and a certain overall strangeness that does keep you watching, even if the attempt to understand is sometimes in vain…
Director: Robert Young
And we need a bit of Hammer for this month, too, so why not go with one that’s been on the to-do list for a while. This is, obviously, latter-day Hammer, and I gather it’s generally regarded as one of the better such films these days—even Sinclair McKay is quite kind to it in his book on Hammer—although at the time it seems to have been comparatively unloved. Again we have Hammer somewhat stuck in its fading gothic mode, but at least this time they had some new people on board to write produce and direct it, and at least it wasn’t just another Dracula sequel (though there’d be one of those that same year, and the next). It’s a film of kind of limited resources, whose production was kind of hampered by Young’s determination to take his time with it and make it as good as possible; this was the height of presumption at Hammer, and in the end some key scenes never got shot. For the most part, though, I don’t think the film actually suffers too much. Our story is set in some Mitteleuropa village suffering a plague which the townsfolk ascribe to a curse laid on them by a vampire killed nearby some years earlier; somehow, despite roadblocks being place, the titular circus comes to the village and, you know, things don’t get any better from there, cos the circus people are there to fulfil the vampire’s curse and restore him to life. Or unlife, whatever. Kind of bold in some ways (opening with a child as the first victim, and having two more later, gives it a decidedly unpleasant edge) and problematic in various others (the animal attack scene is just terribly done, and there are slips in continuity and logic even I noticed), but generally it’s pretty solid and markedly better than most of the other 70s Hammers I’ve seen.
Director: Jess Franco
Cos we need some Franco in there if we’re going to be spending this month doing horror, and this is one of a number of unwatched Franco titles on my list… and Jesus fuck, what a film it is. This could be, in many ways, the most bizarre Franco film I’ve seen yet, not just in the inherent strangeness of the story—a rather singular take on the Frankenstein story that’s actually nearer in its way to Bride of Frankenstein, except in colour, in widescreen, and rather more fucked—but in the telling of it, too, from the baffling camera angles which reminded me of Sergei Urusevsky to some extent (the credited cinematographer is Raul Artigot, who also shot The Pyjama Girl Mystery among a bunch of other stuff I don’t recognise, but Tim Lucas reckons in his DVD commentary Franco himself actually shot some of it at least) to the somewhat casual manner in which it approaches some of its more ludicrous moments, like the reanimation(s) of Frankenstein… and that’s before we even think about the extraordinary Anne Libert’s bird-woman. Lucas refers to the influence of the adult-oriented European comics of the period, of which Franco was apparently a fan, and the “comic book” comparison is perhaps the key to understanding a film which is even less realistic than usual for uncle Jess. Plot, well, the wizard Cagliostro wants Frankenstein’s monster to, er, assist him in his own project at creating a new race. Simple enough, and yet so many of the details make it just… something other (some of the more out-there stuff was apparently suggested by star Howard Vernon, who plays Cagliostro in a manner as bug-eyed as the rest of the film). And in many ways I suppose it is the sheer strangeness of the film that carries it along more than anything; Franco gets good value from his Portuguese locations, particularly that castle exterior, and from Artigot’s perplexing camerawork, but the overall oddity of the thing makes it weirdly compelling.