Theatre Censorship – 34: Simulated sodomy, or The Romans in Britain trial (Part 1)

Romans in BritainOn 24th October 1980, the Attorney-General sent a lawyer to the theatre to watch a performance of The Romans in Britain. The National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association (NVALA) did the same, asking John Smyth QC to witness the activity on the stage and form his own conclusion. On his return, Mr Smyth said he had been shocked by the play and recommended that NVALA’s legal adviser, Graham Ross-Cornes, should ask the Attorney-General to take action against the play and insist on its withdrawal. A month later the Attorney-General’s reply was received, to the effect that he would neither prosecute the play nor permit NVALA to do so. When asked why, he simply replied that he did not believe that the case would be successful. This split the two sides in the argument even wider. NVALA became even more determined to prevent the play from continuing and the National Theatre regarded the decision as an official condonation of the production.

It is not difficult to see why the case might have failed. The prosecution would have been brought under the 1968 Theatres Act which states “a play shall be deemed to be obscene if, taken as a whole, its effect was such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who were likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to attend it.” It is very rarely that these woolly words are exposed as the meaningless drivel they are. The problem with any prosecution brought under this paragraph is one of proof and criterion. In these circumstances, what is depravity and corruption? In terms of morality, it’s hard to define what corruption really is. And, even if you can define these terms, how can they be proved to have happened?

Howard Brenton

Howard Brenton

There seems to be four or five possible reactions to the play and most particularly the rape scene. One can appreciate the symbolic meaning of the rape as signifying invasion by an alien culture and accept the scene as writer Howard Brenton intended it. This would not involve any depravity or corruption, as one would not view the incident in sexual terms, but purely symbolic. Those people who were shocked by it and found it offensive would voluntarily detach themselves from the play, stop watching it, and stop thinking about it. Perhaps they might walk out, in which case they would no longer be present to face depravity or corruption. Some people might feel that the whole scene was ludicrous and either out of embarrassment or simply because of the inept choice of metaphor, find it funny. This reaction would mean they wouldn’t take it seriously, and would mentally block any seriousness about it. Perhaps as a result they might be accused of condoning such sexual violence; but above all, laughter is a defence mechanism to protect oneself, and one would be most unlikely to be corrupted by laughter.

Even if the scene were to excite a member of the audience sexually or pornographically, one could claim – and this a matter of much debate – that that person was already depraved and corrupt anyway and that the play made no particular difference to their already established outlook. Only if a dangerously impressionable person with no criminal record were to go out and commit homosexual rape as a result of the performance could the play decisively be said to have been proved to have depraved and corrupted this person. In any case, this mythical miscreant would have to be so impressionable; reading an Agatha Christie murder mystery would be as likely a cause for them to commit murder. The legal viability of the Theatres Act obviously has its limits.

Michael Bogdanov

Michael Bogdanov

After the Attorney-General’s refusal to prosecute or grant permission for others to prosecute, NVALA was left with two options. Either they could drop the case and admit defeat, which is certainly what the Attorney-General would have preferred, or they could take out a private prosecution against director Michael Bogdanov under the Sexual Offences Act of 1956. Section Thirteen of this Act stated: “It is an offence for a man… to procure the commission by a man of an act of gross indecency with another man.” At the time, the charge of procuration carried a maximum penalty of three years’ imprisonment. This was the course of action that Mary Whitehouse took. It’s interesting to note that Section Thirteen of the 1956 Sexual Offences Act was repealed by the 2003 Sexual Offences Act, and the charge of procuration is no longer an offence.

Michael Bogdanov’s reaction was one of surprised annoyance. In the LBC Artsweek programme broadcast on 21st March 1982 he stated: “I felt that she was pursuing to an illogical end a case that she had got obsessed with, and therefore had not due regard to the circumstances and the occasion of the play.” This comment is at odds with Mary Whitehouse’s denial after the trial that she would prosecute “The Romans in Britain” again if it were to be presented at a different theatre. Her words were: “I’m not interested in chasing a particular play”.

Mary Whitehouse

Mary Whitehouse

There were two aspects of the case which captured the attention and imagination of the public. The first, which was frequently used against Mary Whitehouse, was the fact that she was going to all the trouble of privately prosecuting Michael Bogdanov, and running the risk of incurring very expensive legal costs if she failed, when she had never actually seen the play herself. This struck many as hypocritical and censorial, because she was attempting to influence what other people could see from a position of ignorance, depriving herself of first-hand knowledge of the matter in question. She defended her position by saying that she had been told in full by her representatives who had seen the play all about it, and that therefore she knew enough. She said that quite simply she had no wish to see it; and she considered that if she did go to see it that would benefit her opponents in the argument. They would say that she’s been to see it and she hasn’t been depraved and corrupted by it, so why should anyone else? I’m sure she was right on this particular point.

The second aspect which stirred public interest was to what extent was the homosexual rape on stage “real”. It had always been taken for granted by the public that the rape had been simulated, but accounts of the scene made it sound very real indeed. Bogdanov cavilled over the use of the term “simulation”. From the Artsweek programme: “I don’t believe you can simulate buggery… like you don’t believe the woman can really be sawn in half, you can’t simulate that, you can only create the illusion of it… a leading lady and a leading man are not necessarily in love; in fact they might hate each other, and one might have bad breath and the other a pimple on the upper lip and neither of them actually likes kissing each other but one says to the other “I swear I will love you for ever” and he kisses her, and that is the simulated kiss. But actually, you can create the illusion of a kiss; you can take somebody’s face in your hands and you can appear to kiss them but actually your thumbs have masked the fact that you’re kissing your thumbs, not their lips.” He preferred to use the term “illusion”, because “simulation” refers too closely to physical appearance instead of how the act appears to the mind. Bogdanov also insisted that the physical positions of the actors meant that “biologically it was impossible for it to have occurred”.

Six months after the decision had been taken by Mary Whitehouse to prosecute under the Sexual Offences Act, in June 1981, the charge was heard at Horseferry Road Magistrates Court in London. Bogdanov was represented by Lord Hutchinson who was the defence lawyer in the Lady Chatterley trial in 1961, which gave the whole affair an additional frisson for the general public. It also, subconsciously, emphasised the censorship nature of the case. Much to the surprise of theatrical and legal commentators, the magistrate decided that the theatre was not exempt from the Sexual Offences Act and that there was, indeed, a case to answer. Therefore, he committed Michael Bogdanov for trial at the Old Bailey. The legal commentators were especially baffled since the paragraph cited from the Sexual Offences Act, under which the charge was brought, was originally designed to prevent sexual acts taking place in public lavatories.

The theatre world generally regarded this decision as an insult, and it became a matter of pride for bodies such as the National Theatre Board, the newly-formed Theatre Defence Group and the Actors’ Union Equity to fight the charge tooth and nail. A fund was set up, called the Theatre Defence Fund, whose chief object was to raise money to fight the case and pay for Bogdanov’s trial costs if necessary. A most lucrative way of raising this money was the organisation of a chain of readings of “The Romans in Britain” at theatres up and down the country, at which audiences would donate however much they wished. Interestingly, NVALA made no comment about these readings, which showed that it wasn’t their intention to silence the play itself. It was also evidence of the fighting spirit of the theatre world who saw it as a legal way of showing defiance. This was especially true of the group of actors at the Oxford Playhouse who daily staged a reading of a transcript of that day’s proceedings in court, thereby creating theatre out of the theatre, so to speak. This continued despite a warning from the judge Mr Justice Staughton that they might be in contempt of court.

More about the trial in my next blog post.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 14th September 2018

Screaming Blue MurderHurrah and Huzzah, it’s the return of Screaming Blue Murder! After those dark Friday evenings of the summer (well, they were quite light actually, but you get my meaning) where all you could do was to relax in the sunshine and fresh air, eat healthy salads and drink homemade fruit smoothies, it’s a welcome back to spending Friday nights in a dark, overheated cellar room at the Royal and Derngate, knocking back the vino collapso and enjoying the finest comedy on the circuit.

Dan EvansAnd it was a welcome back to our usual genial host, Dan Evans, who was on fine form as he set us all at our ease, including Ian who was celebrating his 57th birthday (youngster!) and the attractive young couple in the front row – it turned out that she was a trainee social worker specialising in child safeguarding, and he worked in recruitment for Help for Heroes, trying to get ex-forces people back into work. As you can imagine, the scope for taking the mick out of them was minimal!

James BranThis was one of those rare occasions when all three comedians were new to us. First up was James Bran, a likeable young chap with a rather cerebral approach to his comedy, which we both appreciated. He had some good material about living in the technological age and a great story about dealing with those “have you been involved in an accident” calls. He built up a nice confident rapport with the audience, and, whilst it was never wet-your-pants hilarious, it was intelligent, well structured, and thoroughly enjoyable.

Rob KempOur next performer, and a change to the original line-up, was Rob Kemp. He’s another really likeable performer with tons of zest and a really positive approach to his act. He’s clearly naturally a very funny guy but his material is more than somewhat on the eclectic side. He started to lose us (and he knew full well this was happening) when he tackled what I’m sure was a very clever parody of the 1982 movie The Thing. However, unless you’re really au fait with the film – and I reckon 99% of us weren’t – so much of it went over our heads. It was a shame because you could tell there was so much preparatory work that went into his act but sadly a lot of it was wasted on us! So although he largely missed the mark, he was still strangely admirable!

Sean MeoOur headline act was Sean Meo, a former professional snooker player but that was some time ago and does not feature in his act. He has quite a dour, semi-aggressive persona, and he spends his act constantly walking from side to side across the stage, like a frustrated caged tiger. His material is devastatingly funny, but not for everyone; he opened with some brilliantly comic observations about ISIS, at which one member of the audience took offence, shouted out “you should be ashamed of yourself” and stormed out. I can completely understand that; if your son had died in Helmand Province, for example, you’re unlikely to find that kind of stuff funny. However, Mr Meo simply carried on, making the observation that she made the mistake of taking it seriously, and to his absolute credit, it didn’t affect the comedy flow in any way. The best way I can describe his entire set is as being superbly offensive – I’m sure you’ve got the idea. His timing is immaculate, his delivery sure-fire. You have complete confidence in his ability to hit the comedy nail on the head again and again. We thought he was fantastic, and would definitely seek him out again.

As always, a fabulous night of comedy, with a sell-out audience. Next one is in two weeks’ time. Will you be there?

Theatre Censorship – 33: Howard Brenton: The Romans in Britain

Howard Brenton

Howard Brenton

“It was an illusion… a point that was made to illustrate the main theme of the play… that invasion by an aggressive force is wrong; that a territorial acquisition, the destruction of one culture by another, invasion by forces who are stronger than the country that they are invading is absolutely immoral. And therefore, what we were doing was showing a moral act, not an immoral act.” With these words Michael Bogdanov justified the scene of homosexual rape in Howard Brenton’s notorious Romans in Britain which opened at the National Theatre on October 16th 1980. As director of the play, Bogdanov was at the centre of what could have become the most thrilling theatrical trial of all time, and one which did, at any rate, question the freedoms which had been granted to the theatre in 1968.

LBC, the news radio station that now broadcasts nationally (and all over the world thanks to the Internet) was, in 1982, confined to coverage in only London and the surrounding satellite towns. On the schedules was a regular weekly programme called Artsweek, a digest of what was happening in the arts scene in London; and on 21st March 1982 they transmitted a programme purely devoted to The Romans in Britain, and its famous trial that never was. I recorded the programme onto cassette, transcribed it, and it provided a wealth of first hand accounts that today are of invaluable help in remembering what happened and explaining what all the fuss was about. Alas I no longer have the recording, or the full transcript; but I do have several quotes from the key players in the story – Howard Brenton, Michael Bogdanov and National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association supremo Mary Whitehouse – which I will use to bring this extraordinary episode in theatrical history back to life. All the comments quoted in this chapter are taken from this radio transcript unless stated.

Michael Bogdanov

Michael Bogdanov

For four days in March 1982, the No 1 Court at the Old Bailey heard about the scene which caused all the fuss. Three Roman soldiers approach three naked young Celts, kill one, wound another, and attempt to rape the third. For reasons of biological impracticality there was no penetration (a question of haemorrhoids, apparently) and from that point of view the rape does not actually take place, but neither Brenton nor Bogdanov regarded this as a “get-out clause” in the trial because it never occurred to either of them that they would have a case to answer. “I have always believed implicitly in the integrity of the play and indeed in the integrity of the National Theatre in asking me to produce this play,” Bogdonov stated. In retrospect, this seems obvious, as the National did not consider it necessary to take any legal advice on the production until the rumours of prosecution began to circulate after it had opened. Brenton’s attitude to the production was more ideological, and perhaps naïve: “I believe in a free theatre… you should be able to stage everything that happens in life, and say indeed what you will about it.”

However, then as now, the theatre is subject to laws and if the laws are broken, then inevitably justice must take its course. Brenton wanted to change the theatre and confer on it an even greater freedom than it already possessed, by stretching the boundaries of what is acceptable on stage. As such, he did not shy away from his responsibilities towards the play and was in fact annoyed and disappointed when, in the end, the law did not require him to defend his own play.

Romans in BritainThe play itself tries to make a very simple point. Brenton suggests that the presence of Roman soldiers in England in 55BC creates a parallel with the presence of the British Army in Northern Ireland in 1980. This ambitious play deliberately muddles reality and fantasy to prove its point. Part One is set in 55BC, but in its final scene Caesar and his legates appear on stage in the dress of the British Army of 1980. Similarly, Part Two, ostensibly set in modern day Northern Ireland, is interspersed with scenes set in Britain in 515 AD. The relevance of this date escapes us, the audience, until the end of the play. Brenton uses this complicated time scale to illustrate Caesar’s central belief. Caesar says: “it’s an affliction to see in any one act its consequence… in any predicament, its opposite. To build a tower, knowing brick by brick, how it can be destroyed. Even in the victor of an enemy, I see his defeat”. Caesar may be enjoying a glorious victory in 55 BC, but Brenton also shows us Britain in 515 AD, the date of the death of the last Roman lady on the island of Great Britain. This was the heinous murder of a wretched noblewoman, riddled with plague and paranoia, by her treacherous lover, a mere steward.

In the same way that Caesar looks to the future, British Army Officer Thomas Chichester, his unorthodox 1980s counterpart, looks to the past and relives in his mind the 515 AD scenes that we see on stage. He is in Ireland to kill Republican activist O’Rourke, but like the invading Saxon of Part Two, Scene Four, Chichester is killed instead. How often do we cry that we never learn the lessons of the past? Chichester learns this lesson; that the sequence of consecutive invasions has to be broken. This is why he does not kill O’Rourke when he has the chance. O’Rourke, on the other hand, not having reached Chichester’s same state of awareness, takes his opportunity and has Chichester shot.

These balancing mirror images between the past and the future are not only found in the main elements of the play. There are minor occasions on both sides of the time-gap which reflect the same mental processes and attitudes; for example one of the soldiers in Part Two thinks “we’re just in Ireland to dig toilets”, while in 55 AD a soldier is not particularly proud of his war effort. He sums it up with the words: “I dug a shit hole on the edge of the world”.

Romans in Britain - Celts

The Celts in the original production of The Romans in Britain

However, all these images are secondary to the chief theme of invasion. The rape of the Celts is not the only example of sexual assault symbolising territorial gain. Caesar, the supreme expansionist, sends a legate back to his mistress in Rome with the instruction “tell her to guard with this knife, what I would enter as a knife”. Sex is replaced by violence from the top down, so to speak, so it is not surprising that the soldiers’ attitude to the Celts should also be a confusion of sex and violence. Furthermore, the invasion gives rise to the destruction of the native culture, as Bogdanov stated in the opening paragraph of this chapter, and it is worth noting that it is not the attempted rape that drives the young Druid priest to suicide, but the imposition of wearing Caesar’s Venus pendant around his neck. For him that creates taint beyond redemption and thus he ends his life; in the same way, incidentally, as a Roman would traditionally take the honourable way out. The play makes the point that Caesar inflicting Roman gods on the Celts is the same as England inflicting Protestantism on Irish Catholics, a source of conflict that has troubled Anglo-Irish relations since Cromwell’s time.

The play’s two sections are individually titled; Part One is called Caesar’s Tooth and Part Two, Arthur’s Grave. Caesar suffers with toothache, which, on a symbolic level, might represent an sickness within the body politic. During the first act, the problem tooth is removed. This represents Caesar’s ability to see disaster in the future; the pain is perhaps a warning system, telling Caesar that all will not be well in the future. Similarly, “Arthur’s Grave”, a title that represents the ideological downfall of England, is, Brenton argues, the consequence of the country’s meddling in Ireland. Moreover, the play ends with the birth of Arthur; not the legendary mystic arrival as lyricised by the likes of Malory and Tennyson, but simply an idle arbitrary invasion by a couple of cooks. In terms of the year 515 AD, the cooks represent hope for the future; seen from 1980, this hope is replaced by conflict. In any case, the revelation that he did not exist but is purely a work of fiction symbolises the total destruction of England’s misplaced national pride. “A king who never was” – as described by the First Cook – of the great country that also never was.

One final point concerning the play is the general tone of the language that occurs within it. As I mentioned when referring to the works of Arnold Wesker, the writer David Zane Mairowitz has said “what is unbearable to the average British theatregoer is language, raw, abusive language”. From the opening speeches, the tone of the language and the words used are frequently a mix of the sewer and highly sensuous imagery, designed to disconcert the audience. In the middle-class comfort of the Olivier Theatre, the language may have felt more offensive than if it was staged in, say, the Young Vic or the Donmar Warehouse. In fact, Brenton has successfully used the device that Handke failed with in “Offending The Audience” (see Chapter Five). The opening conversation between Conlag and Daui – two rather superfluous characters – feature words such as fuck, shit, leeches, boils, dogshit, arse and pus. Although this sets the scene quite successfully, it acts as a barrier to the audience from gaining any real sympathy with these characters. You could say this is unfortunate as Conlag, throughout Part One, is a common man on the run, requiring our sympathy. The whole exchange between the two involves a very sensuous linguistic construction. Consider what you feel with the sentence: “Lying in a boat with salt round the back of my eyeballs”. It conjures a very vivid picture of discomfort and unpleasant taste, blurred sight and a rocking movement. Another example; Conlag’s description of how he reacts to this alien environment: “smell their food. Smell how their teeth went into it. The little squirts of fat in the meat. The spit that washed it down”. It suggests a sickly taste and you can almost hear the sound made by the teeth as they sank into the meat.

The sensuous language works very hard to create images that prepare the audience for the violence later in the play. As an example, Viridio’s eloquent hatred for the Romans -which causes his death – involves a good deal of sensuous invective: “with my fingers in the sockets of your eyes, I will hold up your skulls, wet with the flesh of your eyes and your blood!… I will hold your bloody hearts… up to the sun as it sets, and squeeze, and your blood will run down my throat, and I will drink you, get pissed on you! And vomit on you and drink more of you!” There’s no limit to Viridio’s expressions or his intentions.

The production earned generally bad reviews across the whole spectrum of critical comment. Most reviewers could find nothing at all to praise in it, and many were shocked by the homosexual rape – indeed even those who were not themselves shocked were alarmed at the play’s capacity to shock others. Some commentators were startled by the simplistic equations made in the play – especially the reappearance of Caesar’s army in modern British uniforms. Others found the standard of the production generally feeble and an insult to the audience – considering the great reputation of the National Theatre that had produced it. Typical of some of the comments on some of the scenes was that singled out by John Walker in his review in the now defunct Now! magazine: “there is one scene of total unintentional hilarity in which a fugitive, running from Irish wolfhounds, is seen wrestling with a stuffed dog which, after much effort, he bravely subdues. It seemed aptly symbolic for an evening of nursery theatre, of self-indulgent shock-horror fantasy.”

Mary Whitehouse

Mary Whitehouse

By concentrating too heavily on the shocking and violent nature of the presentation, Bogdanov appeared to destroy any serious intentions the play originally had. Some believed the Olivier Theatre should be the pinnacle of art of the highest standard; and this idea was central to the indignation felt by Mary Whitehouse who believed that “Britain is judged in part by what goes on at the National Theatre.” The production was considered a threat to the country’s reputation; and of course, as a recipient of public money to fund the National Theatre, the scandal just grew and grew. Indeed, Sir Horace Cutler, at the time Conservative leader of the Greater London Council, said that the National Theatre’s grant from the Arts Council should be withheld until the play was withdrawn from the repertoire.

In my next blog post, I’ll recount the story of the trial.

Theatre Censorship – 32: Political Extremism in Stephen Poliakoff’s Strawberry Fields

Stephen Poliakoff

Stephen Poliakoff

In comparison with David Edgar’s Destiny, Stephen Poliakoff’s Strawberry Fields is one stage nearer to reality; although the English People’s Party, which features in the play, does not exist as such, and we know it’s not just another name for the National Front because they also get a mention. By using radio news broadcasts from Doncaster and Newcastle – places that we know do exist – Poliakoff increases the atmosphere of realism.

“Strawberry Fields” tells of the journey made by Charlotte and Kevin, two representatives of the English People’s Party (EPP), from London to the North of England, meeting other party members at pre-arranged spots and distributing leaflets. Things don’t go quite according to plan because a young teacher, Nick, cadges a lift in their van and as he finds out more about them, he tries to undermine their cause and their confidence. At first he only succeeds in being an irritation to them; but after Charlotte shoots the policeman who catches Kevin and Nick raiding a hot dog stall he – unsurprisingly – becomes a nervous wreck who slows them down. Because he witnessed the murder, his presence threatens the as-yet-untarnished reputation of the party; and the play ends with Charlotte’s shooting Nick, symbolising the death of the “reasonable voice” against right-wing extremism.

Poliakoff is a little clearer about the policies and stances of the EPP than Edgar is about Nation Forward in his play Destiny (see previous blog). They seem to have three major political beliefs: they are an ecology party, taking a stand against pollution and the mauling of the countryside; they propose to improve the lives of inner city dwellers by making “urban wastelands” a thing of the past and by improving town planning; and finally, they are opposed to “impersonal government”. None of that sounds very controversial, although they’re light on practical policies. However, one suspects that in order to reduce the “crammed populations in city centres” they would enforce repatriation of all immigrants, creating racial tension and feeding racist tendencies.

Strawberry FieldsEdgar’s play may have a better worked-out structure, and possibly more thoughtful themes, but Poliakoff’s has sharper characterisation. The character of Kevin tells you a lot about why someone might want to join the EPP. Kevin is a romantic at heart; he sees glamour and excitement in the most mundane things and can use language to express the awesomeness of his appreciation. He sees the journey along the motorway as a celebration of the expansiveness of England; the pictures of “landscape with road” which he takes along the way acquire a strange beauty through his eyes. Later, when local activist Mrs Roberts and Charlotte are discussing political matters and Nick is concentrating on the fruit machine, Kevin romanticises about an open air concert which he has suddenly remembered: “there were jugglers, people lighting bonfires along the way, sword swallowers, a whole fayre”. The use of the word “fayre” with its archaic spelling summons up everything that is beautiful and traditional about England; at this stage of the play Kevin’s idealism has not yet been shattered. Unfortunately, because of his blindness, both actual and metaphorical, Kevin cannot discern the beautiful from the ugly. He romanticises equally keenly about the sordid horror films that run through his brain and which he almost believes he can project onto walls, so vivid is his imagination: “he blows his head off, and it bursts open, it bursts right open, splashes all over them… they throw him into a dust-cart shredder, you know, and he’s squashed, and eaten, and shredded up, you know, by the spikes, screaming his head off, screaming so loudly, really loudly, and they pick up little pieces of him, they do, collect him in their hands. RAW PIECES OF HIM. YOU SAW IT.” Steady, Kevin.

So Kevin’s blindness, coupled with his love of all things “fayre”-like, creates a right-wing desire to return to the England which has not been ruined by modern technological and sociological developments. Nick realises the danger of the “grenade in the hamburger box”, the evidence of warfare peddled out in a most acceptable and convenient form, which has infiltrated the country. Lurking similarly beneath the surface are the many party members who do not necessarily make their activity in politics obvious, but who, according to Nick, can still supply Charlotte with arms and ammunition wherever she goes.

Mrs Roberts, for example, is a pleasant, perfectly ordinary woman, who shares the same anxieties as most people about missing coaches to Preston and what to cook for her family that evening. Her story about suspecting the presence of a bomb behind the radiator shows her paranoia about safety and her need to be on guard against all forms of terrorism. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it has also turned her into a nervous wreck. Nick remarks: “she’s the sort of person that thinks there are bombs and landmines in every litter bin, illegal immigrants everywhere, drugs in the lining of every car, isn’t she?” Her anxiety has made her extreme, for she believes that the people who make her nervous should be punished severely: “I really think people who… leave bombs and think up these terrible hoaxes, have to be really dealt with now. I think they have to be shot really, don’t they? Shot on sight.” Mrs Roberts’ form of justice is clinical and unforgiving: shoot first, ask questions afterwards. Her obsession with it is shown by her keeping a book of cuttings from newspapers, illustrating the points she likes to make and the beliefs she holds. For instance, she refers to a Mr Relph, who was a real person in real life, who came from Leamington and wasn’t a creation of Poliakoff, who insisted that his house was only for sale to a white English family. He advertised it as such, and was subsequently prosecuted under the Race Relations Act. By introducing real references such as this, Poliakoff clearly places the play within our world and is not a mere work of fantasy. Mrs Roberts is also a member of the National Front – again real – an organisation, according to Charlotte, which is led by “pathetic nonentities”.

Jane Asher as Charlotte in Strawberry Fields

Jane Asher as Charlotte in the original National Theatre production

Charlotte herself is the embodiment of the terror that lurks beneath the surface, the grenade in the hamburger box. Whilst appearing a gentle, well-mannered, friendly (to Kevin), tasteful young lady, she is, in fact, pure terrorist through and through, using a gun, she says, as protection against the armed left-wing groups sweeping the country. She doesn’t see the irony that, by doing so, she has become a member of an armed right-wing group. She feels she has no choice but to shoot the policeman because she does not want the party to be involved in anything illegal which might damage its reputation. Of course, shooting the policeman, and later Nick, compound the problem; they are actions far worse than simply raiding a hot dog van. Her absolute confidence about using her gun – not merely as a bluff – also shows that she has no compunction about taking the law into her own hands, positively advocating anarchy; nothing is ever going to defeat her. It might be an ominous warning that Charlotte predicts guerrilla-style warfare within two years. The play’s grim view of the future can only be averted by tolerance and understanding, and Poliakoff’s hope is for a more moderate trend in politics in the future. Sadly, from today’s point of view, I’m not sure the evidence is there to support it.

Destiny and Strawberry Fields are, I feel, two great examples of highly contemporary plays that simply would not have been possible under the regime of the censor. It would be fascinating to see them revived.

We’re coming in to the home straight now! In my next blog I’ll be starting our look at that famous cause célèbre of the 1980s, The Romans in Britain.

The James Bond Challenge – From Russia With Love (1963)

From Russia With LoveIn which James Bond is summoned to Istanbul to meet Tatiana Romanova, who has allegedly fallen in love with him after seeing his photo, and who offers to defect to the West, bringing with her a Lektor cryptographic device which Bond is to take back to M. However, Tatiana is herself a pawn in a plot by SPECTRE to steal the Lektor from Bond and then kill him. Obviously, that doesn’t happen, otherwise there’d be no more Bond films! But how does he survive….? To find out, you’ll have to watch the film, and remember, careful what you read here, there will be spoilers!

Chess matchFollowing the artistic and financial success of the first Bond film, Dr No, the budget for this next film was doubled to $2 million – $150,000 of which was spent on the set for that brief scene at the beginning, where Kronsteen beats Macadams at Chess. With an eye to realism, the game that is being played out is actually a re-enactment of Boris Spassky’s victory over David Bronstein in 1960! Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman chose From Russia With Love as the next adaptation because, apparently, it was one of President John F Kennedy’s favourite books. Once again it was to be directed by Terence Young, with a screenplay by Richard Maibaum (originally it was to be Len Deighton, but he wrote too slowly!), cinematography by Ted Moore and editing by Peter Hunt – the Dr No dream team reunited. Amongst the changes in personnel, the production designer was Syd Cain (who had been art director on Dr No), the title designer was Robert Brownjohn (who would also design the titles for Goldfinger), Peter Perkins was the new stunt co-ordinator, and John Barry composed the soundtrack.

LektorFrom Russia with Love was published in 1957 and was the fifth in Ian Fleming’s series of James Bond novels; ironically, it immediately preceded the novel of Dr No, but in the films, the order was switched. There is a story – which may just be a rumour – that Fleming originally had thought this would be the last James Bond novel – he was getting bored with his creation – but its good reviews (see later) and even better sales made him think again. As with the adaptation of Dr No, the bulk of the story is reasonably faithfully portrayed in the film; but there are a few alterations. In the book, SMERSH, the Soviet counterintelligence agency, are the “baddies”, and the cryptographic device is called a Spektor; in the film, it’s SPECTRE who want to steal the device – Saltzman and Broccoli didn’t want to emphasise any Cold War aspects to the plotline – and the device is called a Lektor (because Spektor would have got confused with SPECTRE!) Neither the helicopter chase nor the boat chase are to be found in the book – they were added to the film for some extra kapow! factor; as was the SPECTRE training school, which was inspired by the Gladiator school in the film Spartacus. Both the book and the film have the “sea of rats” scene – but they come at different times in the story. The book also ends on a cliff-hanger, with Rosa Klebb having kicked Bond with her poisoned switchblade-shoe, leaving him fighting for breath and collapsed. In the film, however, Tatiana shoots her dead. I told you there would be spoilers! Interestingly, Ian Fleming had himself tried to steal the German Enigma machine during his time in the Naval Intelligence Division in the Second World War. This no doubt gave him the idea for the Spektor/Lektor device.

Odeon AylesburyI’m sure I’ve seen From Russia with Love at least once before. I believe it was at the Odeon, Aylesbury, in the 1970s, when it was on as part of a double-bill with Diamonds are Forever, and I saw it with my school friend John. The fact that we almost certainly spent the film gossiping and giggling means I had absolutely no recollection of the plot at all. This would have been one of the many occasions when the Cinema Manager would have told us to shut up or get out. Ah, the follies of youth.

FRWL NovelWidely considered to be both of one of Fleming’s best novels and one of the best films in the series, the author was delighted with his reviews. Fleming’s “tautest, most exciting and most brilliant tale” said Julian Symons in the Times Literary Supplement. The critic for the New York Herald Tribune wrote that “Mr Fleming is intensely observant, acutely literate and can turn a cliché into a silk purse with astute alchemy”. However, The New York Times described it as Fleming’s “longest and poorest book”. Of the film, Time magazine called it “fast, smart, shrewdly directed and capably performed”. Penelope Gilliatt in The Observer said the film manages “to keep up its own cracking pace, nearly all the way. The set-pieces are a stunning box of tricks”. The critic for The Times wisely noted that “the nonsense is all very amiable and tongue-in-cheek and will no doubt make a fortune for its devisers”. It would actually be the last James Bond film that Ian Fleming saw; it was released on 10th October 1963 and he died on 12th August the following year.

Is it Bond?The opening credits start precisely as they did for Dr No, with Maurice Binder’s iconic glimpse of Bond walking across the screen whilst being captured by the barrel of a gun, only for him to turn around, see us, and shoot; and then for the blood to start filling up the screen. Then, before any opening titles, we then go into the first scene. Bond, dressed in his habitual dinner jacket, is walking through a grand, ornate twilit garden when he realises he is being followed. He hears a footstep on twigs and turns around in a heartbeat (the background music also sounds a stabbing, terrified note) but Bond still can’t see who or where. A little further… the music continues to quiver in the background… the sound of footsteps and owls hooting. Bond is beginning to look anxious. He turns; he shoots; he misses. We see the prowler continue to stalk Bond. Behind a fountain they walk, the violins getting more jumpy, Bond, with his pistol in his hand just ready to strike; then we see the prowler pull out a garotte cord from inside his wristwatch, and as Bond walks in front of him in the shadows, the prowler emerges from the darkness, pulls the garotte around Bond’s throat, as 007 seemingly falls to his knees and dies.

Training schoolThen the lights go up on the big house in the distance and we realise that we are at a training ground; a henchman (Morzeny) comes up and tells the prowler “exactly one minute fifty-two seconds, that’s excellent” – although his mouth never moves, curious that, the first gaffe of the film comes very early. The camera falls to the dead man on the ground, a hand reaches out to its throat and, it’s not Bond after all, but some poor sap wearing a Bond mask, sacrificed in the quest for the perfect spy mission. So who was killed in Bond’s place? (we never find out!) Apparently, the extra who originally played this fake Bond accidentally looked surprisingly like Sean Connery, so they had to re-shoot with a moustachioed man, so as not to confuse the audience! And who is the prowler? (That we definitely do find out!) And what happens next?

Opening creditsWhat happens next is a return to the rest of the title sequence. Robert Brownjohn created a semi-glamorous, semi-seedy vision of the titles being projected onto the scantily-clad body of an exotic dancer, the words floating and contorting as they reflect over the dancer’s undulating form. The dancer was actually the same one who takes part in the gypsy scene, Leila, who, apparently, danced with the Lebanese National Ballet in Iran for the Shah’s coronation! Whilst she is dancing we hear John Barry’s Latin American/Middle Eastern jazz arrangement of the From Russia with Love theme, mashed up with his James Bond Is Back theme. Musically, it’s very arresting! And as the credits come to a conclusion, the lights go up on a very familiar sight…

VeniceAnd the locations? … gondoliers on the waters of the Grand Canal in Venice. The first scene after the opening titles take place at the Venice International Grandmasters Chess Championships, where Czechoslovakian Kronsteen is taking on the Canadian Macadams. The rest of the film takes place in London, then Istanbul, and then Bond and Tatiana work their way back to Venice on the Orient Express, via Zagreb and Belgrade. However, all the railway station scenes were filmed at the Sirkeci station in Istanbul. Almost all the interior shots took place at Pinewood Studios: M’s office, SPECTRE island, the Venice hotel and even on board the Orient Express. The gypsy camp scene was originally to be shot at Topkapi in Istanbul, but funding required that it be shot in the UK, so a mock-up was created at Pinewood. Other short scenes were filmed in Argyll and Scotland, with the “rats” scene filmed in Spain.

Hat trickBond, James Bond. Although the book features that famous phrase, Sean Connery doesn’t get to utter it in this second film. However, he did get a considerable pay increase, from the $100,000 he pocketed for Dr No to $250,000 for this film; and his wages never decreased as the series continued. The success of From Russia with Love truly sealed his own personal success as an actor and he never looked back. Apart from the pay, and the success, the other thing that Connery got out of this film was the chance to wear eight Savile Row suits, each one costing approximately $2000. But then he always was something of a clothes horse.

SteamFilm editor Peter Hunt realised whilst making Dr No that it was vital to keep everything moving as quickly as possible, so that the audience doesn’t start to analyse the plot. It’s got to be here and now entertainment. And as in that previous film, as a result, there are a number of gaffes and continuity issues that remain in the film due to this keenness to move on and make it all at breakneck speed. For example, one scene was cut right at the very last minute because, at a private screening, Terence Young’s 12-year-old son pointed out that it contained a character – the Bulgarian Agent constantly pursuing Bond – who had been killed earlier on in the film. When Kronsteen plays the winning move in his championship match, the chessboard on the wall shows the movement of Queen from F4 to E4, but one moment later, after Macadams has conceded, it’s back on F4 again. When Klebb arrives at the SPECTRE training camp and meets Morzeny, they’re clearly saying the word “pool” whilst their voices say the word “lake”. No time to retake, perhaps? There’s no way that Bond could have put his shirt on that quickly when he has his first phone call with Moneypenny. The bath that he runs when he comes back after Krilenku’s death only has steam coming out of the tap even though you can distinctly hear water pouring out. The Flower truck changes from being a Ford F-350 Flatbed to a Chevrolet C30. Minor errors each one, but when you add them up, it clearly shows that pace and effect was more important than accuracy!

PuntingThe Bond Girl. We last saw Sylvia Trench attempting to get a hole in one in Bond’s bedroom just as he was being called for Dr No duty in Jamaica. Here she is again, up to her elbows in romance, snuggling up to Bond in a punt on the river Cam (I presume – the punter who goes past is punting from the Cambridge end) when, once again, he gets the call to action – no, a different kind of action. Originally there was to be a running joke throughout all the films that Sylvia and James would be just about to shake their groove thangs when M would insist on his being sent to some other part of the globe. But the powers that be decided this would be an unnecessary distraction, and I reckon they got that right. So this is the second and last appearance of Miss Trench attempting to tee something up with Bond.

TatianaInstead, meet Daniela Bianchi, at 21 years old, the youngest to perform the role of Bond Girl. In 1960 she was runner-up to Miss Universe, and it’s not hard to tell why from her extraordinary good looks. From 1958 to 1968 she appeared in a string of movies, mainly performing in her native Italian; and at the grand old age of 28 she retired from acting, to marry a Genoese shipping magnate and bring up a family. Because her accent was too strongly Italian, her lines were dubbed by Barbara Jefford, the first of three times that Ms Jefford would provide the spoken words for a character in a Bond film.

Tatiana looking sexyWhat Bond Girls Are Like. From watching Dr No, we came to the conclusion that Bond Girls are: sexy, with an exotic background, unpredictable, as equally likely to attack Bond as to support him, strong and self-reliant up to a point, and sometimes tragic. I think it’s fair to say that Tatiana fulfils all those descriptions – apart, perhaps, from tragic; the end of the film suggests that they could go on to have a long and happy relationship….as if that would be likely with James Bond!

FilmingInterestingly, the scene where the SPECTRE agent is secretly filming Bond and Tatiana in bed together caused some problems with the film censors. They didn’t like what they felt was the extreme voyeurism of the arrangement; and to make it more palatable for the censors, the film doesn’t dwell on the agent doing the watching.

BlofeldThe Villain. It’s not so easy to identify just one “villain” in From Russia with Love. In one respect, the villain is the entire SPECTRE community. In another, it’s the unnamed, uncredited character Number One, who lounges in his comfy chair, stroking his pussycat. We know from subsequent films and stories that he is Blofeld; but at this stage, Bond’s cinema audience would only know him as Number One. In fact, he was played by Anthony Dawson, who played Professor Dent in Dr No; although the character was voiced by Austrian actor Eric Pohlmann.

KlebbOther memorable characters? For me the big memorable character is the icily sinister Comrade Colonel Rosa Klebb, formerly with SMERSH, now “Number Three” in SPECTRE. With a face like a ripped trainer, she socks wannabe SPECTRE agents in the stomach to check their strength, lingers dubiously long over the prettiness of Tatiana in a rather icky way, and is ready to despatch Bond to the Pearly Gates with one flick of her poisoned-bladed boots. It’s a brilliant performance by Lotte Lenya, whose first husband was Kurt Weill, responsible for the music in The Threepenny Opera and other collaborations with Berthold Brecht as well as a range of classical compositions. She had a long and wide-ranging career, and was a renowned singer as well as actress.

GrantAnd there’s also “Nash” – Bond’s associate with whom he meets up on the Orient Express, except that he isn’t really – he’s SPECTRE assassin Donald “Red” Grant, whom we meet in that first scene, successfully stealing up on the pretend Bond and garrotting him. Grant’s classic Aryan looks set the hallmark for future tough-guy henchmen. He’s a pure psychopath through and through. He was played by Robert Shaw, an English actor who appeared in a number of top roles in great films – A Man for All Seasons, Young Winston, Jaws, and so on. Sadly he had quite a tragic life, dying at the age of 51 through an alcohol-induced heart attack.

Karim BeyThere’s a lot of fun lurking within the role of Ali Karim Bey, Head of MI6 Station T in Istanbul. He likes the good life – food, drink, women, and never seems to do much in the way of work, although he proves himself a fine marksman with the revenge killing of Krilenku. This excellent performance was the last that Mexican actor Pedro Armendáriz gave, as he died from suicide during the filming, as a result of a diagnosis of terminal cancer of the hips. He was apparently in great pain whilst the film was being made – you can see him limping in many scenes – and actually only took on the job to provide additional income for his wife/widow. Curiously, like Robert Shaw, he too was only 51 when he died.

KronsteenIt’s a small role, but superbly judged: Vladek Sheybal as Kronsteen, the Czech Grandmaster who also works for SPECTRE and who suffers at first hand the displeasure of Number One. His seriously dour countenance was perfect for this humourless, arrogant character. It was actually Sean Connery who recommended him for the role, as they were already friends, and he went on to have a hugely successful career, mainly playing villains in dozens of films in the 60s – 80s. Born in Poland, he became a British citizen and was a very familiar presence on our screens.

QJust briefly to check in at M’s office; Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell reprise their usual roles, and Desmond Llewelyn appears for the first time as Q – a role he would undertake with true devotion 17 times in all. There’s a very funny scene where M cuts off Bond’s recording as he is about to share a dubious story about him with Tatiana, and which everyone around the table would have ended up hearing. Spoilsport!

John_BarryAnd what about the music? So of course we have the main James Bond Theme, written by Monty Norman, which remains as iconic and attention-grabbing as ever. The rest of the incidental music is written and arranged by John Barry, and it works extremely well. The sequences in the Russian embassy (007 Takes the Lektor), on the Venice canal and accompanying the closing credits are (IMHO) outstanding.

matt-monroBut the main song this year was “From Russia with Love”, sung by Matt Monro, and written by Lionel Bart, two men who were pretty much at the top of their respective trees. Matt Monro’s biggest hit Portrait of my Love was released in 1960 and he had a string of chart hits for six or so years that ended with his superb cover version of the Beatles’ Yesterday. In that period he represented the UK at Eurovision in 1964 (with a song that didn’t chart) although his second-most successful single, Walk Away, was a translation of that year’s Austrian entry, Warum nur warum. But perhaps his most famous track is the title song from the film Born Free. He died in 1985, but his son Matt Monro Jr is still performing his dad’s old numbers.

Lionel BartLionel Bart was most famous for writing Oliver! along with a few other musicals, plus a few odd songs like Livin’ Doll for Cliff Richard and Little White Bull for Tommy Steele. He had something of a rollercoaster career, with incredible highs and lows. Although the phrase “from Russia with love” is repeated throughout the song, there is no crossover between the lyrics and the story of the film, which John Barry perceived to be a weakness and decided shouldn’t happen again. We first hear the song on the radio when Bond and Sylvia are reclining in their punt, and then not again until the final credits.

HelicopterCar chases. Well, rather disappointingly, there aren’t any. Instead, we have a helicopter chase and a boat chase. I guess they thought it was important to take a step-up from the car chases of Dr No. The helicopter chase was inspired by a scene from Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and the boat chase by a scene from The Red Berets, also directed by Terence Young. The helicopter was a model – all very clever cinematography – but the boats were real enough, and they were so highly tuned that they didn’t make a sufficiently “turbo” roar to make the scene exciting, which was a challenge for the sound editor. Although there are no car chases, we do get to see Bond with his beloved Bentley, a 1935 3.5 litre model. Perhaps even nicer, depending on your taste, is Karim Bey’s Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith.

Turkish CoffeeCocktails and Casinos. Again, I expect the producers wanted to move away from that aspect of Bond, putting him in a different environment. So there are no cocktails and no casinos in this film. We do discover, however, how Bond takes his Turkish coffee – medium sweet – although at breakfast time his only stipulation is that it is “very black.” In other alcohol-based news, the scene in the restaurant car on the Orient Express is where Bond realises that his associate Nash is not all that he seems. Red Chianti with sole? Unthinkable!

Phone bugGadgets. Another year, another set of gadgets. Bond has a pager in his punt – it would have been the envy of all hospital staff in the 80s. Q issues Bond with a terrific briefcase, which contains an Armalite AR-7 folding sniper’s rifle with infrared telescope and detachable suppressor, 50 gold sovereigns concealed in a strip, a tear gas cartridge disguised as talcum powder, set to discharge when the briefcase is opened incorrectly, and a spring-loaded throwing knife concealed within the case. Bond wouldn’t have won his fight with Grant without it! There’s a bug checker under the phone, which is useful for all those times when you need to know who’s listening in. There’s a mobile phone in his car – it looks like an ordinary receiver of the time, which is kinda cute. Bond’s charming old Box Brownie camera (which would have surely been archaic in 1963) reveals its secret as a tape recorder.

Walkie talkieBond’s not the only one to have a decent gadget – Grant’s garrotte wire within a wristwatch is a pretty neat trick. And of course, the lektor, around which the whole film revolves, could be considered the ultimate in gadgets. And have you seen the size of the walkie-talkies used Krilenku and his cronies? They’re bigger than a rifle!

In MemoriamIn Memoriam. Dr No had a death count of approximately 11, plus all those who perished in his lair when it explodes at the end. Can From Russia with Love do any better? Let’s briefly remember those who gave their lives so that Bond and Tatiana can go off in that boat in the end scene for some nookie (just like Bond and Honey did in Dr No):

1) SPECTRE man who was killed at the beginning who we all thought was Bond.

2) Bulgarian agent trussed up in the back of the Citroen hijacked and killed by Grant.

3) Guard at the gypsy camp, murdered by Krilenku by hurling a machete in his back.

4) All those who perish in the gypsy camp skirmish. Impossible to judge really, but I counted at least 14.

5) Krilenku, shot through Anita Ekberg’s mouth in a poster for Call Me Bwana, a 1963 film which was also produced by Eon productions and had largely the same crew as Dr No. Canny!

6) Bulgarian Agent who followed Tatiana into the Saint Sophia, killed by Grant.

7) Russian embassy guard.

8) Anyone who may have died in the explosion at the embassy.

9) Karim.

10) Metz.

11) Station Y officer who should have met Bond at Zagreb, taken into the toilet at the railway station by Grant and mysteriously never seen again.

12) Grant. The fight that ends with his death is under two minutes in the film but took two days to shoot.

13) Kronsteen.

14) Two guys in the helicopter.

15) Everyone who died on the boats (approximately ten people including Morzeny)

16) Rosa Klebb.

That’s at least 40 deaths. Dr No’s death count is chicken feed in comparison with that lot!

Petrol drumsHumour to off-set the death count. Following his jokey remarks whenever someone died in Dr No, Bond continues that morbid sense of humour. Here are the throwaway lines that marked some of the deaths in this film:

After Bond has helped Karim Bey to shoot Krilenku dead as he climbs through the window, framed by the smiling lips of the Anita Ekberg poster, Bond helpfully observes: “She should have kept her mouth shut”.

When the helicopter that’s been chasing him, finally blows up, killing the two guys inside, Bond says “I’d say one of their aircraft is missing” – referring to the 1942 film of (nearly) the same name.

After he’s shot the petrol barrels that explode in flame killing those pursuing Bond and Tania on the boats, he says to her “there’s a saying in England, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

And after Tatiana has shot Rosa Klebb dead, Bond observes, “she’s had her kicks”.

sexismAny less frothy elements? So once again it’s time to consider if there are any outstanding themes or elements that don’t sit well with today’s audience. As in Dr No, I couldn’t perceive any obvious homophobic or racist elements, but when it comes to sexism, it’s quite another story. Once again I think it’s important to remember that definition of sexism, so that we know where we’re at. Sexism is: “(Behaviour, language, etc, reflecting) the assumption that one sex, esp. the female, is inferior to the other; prejudice or discrimination, esp. against women, on the grounds of sex; insistence on (esp. a woman’s) conformity to a sexually stereotyped social role.”

LeilaSo those opening credits, where the words are projected onto the belly dancer’s body, aren’t really sexist; and the belly dancer’s entertainment sequence at the gypsy camp can in many ways be interpreted the other way – she’s revealing her skill, her ability to do something that the others can’t do, her sexiness (which is a gift) – in no way is this showing that women are inferior to men.

Fight!However, the rest of the film is not quite so straightforward. Karim Bey’s on-off girlfriend is dressed to show off her remarkable cleavage, and she does nothing else apart from pout and look sexy. But then Karim Bey would never be the kind of guy who’d want an equal for a girlfriend. The fight between the two gypsy women, Vida and Zora, to see who wins the hand of the guy they both love, is pretty degrading. True, in the old days, two gentlemen might have fought a duel to win the hand of a fair lady; but that would have been an honourable and somewhat clinical procedure. Aliza Gur’s Vida and Martine Beswick’s Zora get down and dirty, bosoms almost popping out of their colourful bras, in a scene that only lacks mud and a soft porn soundtrack, rather than John Barry’s more dramatic Girl Trouble theme. Then, to cap it all, they fawn over Bond, trying to make his stay as pleasurable as possible. Where’s their self-respect?

Tatiana's nightieTatiana shows less fighting spirit than Honey in Dr No, thereby taking on that sexually stereotyped social role that is the definition of sexism. The very idea that someone should fall in love with someone else just through seeing a photograph of them, so that they want to marry, defect, and risk their life is pretty appalling. I realise that Tatiana is forced into this position by SPECTRE – so I’m happy to accept that it’s SPECTRE who are sexist more than she is. The behaviour of Bond with “Nash” on the Orient Express is also very sexist. Bond insists that she doesn’t go to the restaurant car with the men. He slaps her on the bum. Together, they refer to Tatiana as “The Girl”. Again, she is on the receiving end of the sexism, but does nothing about it. I guess she still has her eyes on prize at the end – which is, not being killed by SPECTRE.

BondBizarre other stuff that occurred to me. Once the film gets underway and the first scenes are of Bond at play, Bond being called into M’s office, Bond being sent to a foreign destination, Bond arriving at a foreign airport, and Bond being collected in a car… I wondered if I was watching Dr No again.

I know foreign travel and tourism has grown a lot in the last 55 years, but how on earth did they manage to film inside the St Sophia in Istanbul when it was so empty? We’ve been twice, and it’s been absolutely thronging with people both times!

Uncharacteristically lax of Bond to let himself get so trapped with “Nash” on the train. Where was his training? If it hadn’t been for Q’s briefcase, he’d be a gonner.

I had no idea Bond was so attached to his hat. In the most trying of circumstances, he’s still headgeared up. It never leaves his head even when he’s on the run, being strafed by helicopters. What a fashion hero!

Those fighting fish… the one that Blofeld says is being trained to wait until its rivals are exhausted… you can see the pane of glass that separates it from the others. Of course it can’t fight, it can’t reach them!

The scar that Sylvia tenderly fingers above Bond’s left hip suddenly disappears when he gets up out of the punt. Magic!

Terence Young didn’t like Daniela Bianchi’s legs. So she had a stand-in reveal her legs in that periscope scene under the Russian embassy.

BAFTA_awardAwards: Ted Moore won the BAFTA for Best British Cinematography (Colour). It was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Song (From Russia with Love), but it lost out to Circus World, from the film of the same name. Never heard of it!

Goldfinger posterTo sum up. From Russia with Love feels like a much more mature film than Dr No, and its baddies (Klebb and Grant) are so superbly created and performed that you can really wallow and revel in their misadventure. The Istanbul (and to a lesser extent Venice) settings add a real taste of intrigue and I’m not surprised to discover that this is many people’s favourite Bond film, including Sean Connery himself. Although the budget was doubled to $2 million from the first film, it returned $79 million at the box office, $20 million more than Dr No. It’s a really enjoyable, escapist film that leaves you wanting more. I’d be fascinated to hear your opinions of From Russia with Love – and whether or not you agree with me! Please leave a comment below. Next up – Goldfinger!

My rating: 5 Sparkles
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All photos from the film of course belong to their various copyright holders.

Review – The Lovely Bones, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6th September 2018

The Lovely BonesAs I get older, gentle reader, I discover how relatively poorly-read I am. If I had a fiver for everyone who has said “oh, they’re making a play out of The Lovely Bones? Wow, it’s a brilliant book, I wonder how they’ll do it” then I would have … well, several fivers. Not only have we never read it, we’d never even heard of it. Do we live under a rock or something?

TLB 1Bryony Lavery has adapted Alice Sebold’s award-winning and best-selling (apparently) 2002 novel into a play co-produced by the Royal and Derngate, Birmingham Rep and Northern Stage. There was also a 2009 film, which got a mixed reception, bordering on the disappointing; I note the use of the words “cloyingly sentimental” and “squalid” in some of its reviews.

castWell there’s no doubt in my mind that you couldn’t possibly ascribe those adjectives to this production. From its sudden, shocking start (which has everyone jumping out of their seats) to its unexpectedly happy ending, this is a delight through and through, with a very moving, very sad but often very funny story, a razor-sharp script, wonderful theatricality, tip-top lighting and sound, superb ensemble work and a simply beautiful central performance.

TLB 13I’m not giving the game away by saying that Susie Salmon is dead. She was raped and murdered and chopped into little pieces. But Susie is welcomed into her own heaven, guarded and guided by the fearsome Franny, and from there she can see her family and friends coming to terms (or not, as the case may be) with what’s happened to her. To say that she’s furious is an understatement. She had so much life to lead, and how stupid of her to believe that man and accept his invitation into his cellar! But under the circumstances, I bet the majority of 14-year-olds would. Can she somehow influence the police investigation into the crime? Can she infiltrate the minds (and even bodies) of those left behind, and remain part of their lives? And can she finally let go and allow the living to get on with their lives without resentment? You’ll have to watch the play to find out – but no doubt, you’ve already read the book and seen the film so you already know!

TLB 14The stage design, by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita, is instantly arresting and exciting. A blank canvas, with a cornfield in the distance, and with a white square spray-painted on the ground by Franny as she demarcates Susie’s own private heaven, like a football referee determining where the free-kick should start. Later on, in a rather cunning and slightly creepy double-use of the space, this will also become the floorplan for the murderer’s house. It did in part remind me, albeit much simpler, of the design for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but it’s none the worse for that. Snow falls, often; and it accumulates on the stage like a fluffy white heavenly cloud. And above the action, a slanting mirrored ceiling, that allows you to see the stage from overhead, accentuating the sense that Susie’s heaven is, indeed, somewhere in the sky. It also adds to the theatricality of the show, as it also reflects the wings of the stage, so you can sometimes see actors waiting to come on, or members of stage management milling around with their earphones on. Surprisingly, this isn’t a fault or a misjudgement; rather it simply enhances a sense of strangeness.

TLB 12Dave Price’s incidental music weaves its way seamlessly into the piece, but even more memorable is how extracts from the soundtrack of our lives are included. If Susie Salmon was 14 when she died in 1973, she’s pretty much the same era as me, and I too would have wallowed on my bed to the sound of Space Oddity, or sang solemnly along with Heart of Gold. Matt Haskins’ lighting design is – literally – electric, with its terrifying flashes, the accurate way it picks out the white borderline of heaven, the simple but scary headlights of the murderer, and its convincing representations of daylight and dungeon. Technically this is a dream of a show.

TLB 3At the heart of the entire performance is Charlotte Beaumont as Susie; once on stage, she’s never off. She’s an immensely likeable actor, and her Susie is a very well-rounded, charming, funny, accurate portrayal of a 14-year-old girl cut off in her not quite her prime yet. She has a wide-eyed innocence that really drives home the youth of the character, and reflects the immaturity that causes Susie to be so anxious about life carrying on without her. But as the character progresses through the years, even though Susie doesn’t age like the rest of her friends and family, she discovers an element of maturity in her attitudes and finds a contentment that can allow her to dance her way forward at the end to the rhythm of Tears for Fears. I just loved her performance. I was on her side all the way through. I only know Ms Beaumont from her appearances in TV’s Broadchurch, but I’ll definitely be on the lookout for her future stage performances.

TLB 9I really enjoyed Jack Sandle and Emily Bevan as Susie’s parents, Jack and Abigail. Mr Sandle gave a terrific performance as a broken man, devastated by the loss of his daughter, who then fixates on the man whom he suspects has murdered her, and becomes a one-track cipher as a result. Ms Bevan coolly portrayed Abigail’s coping strategy of distancing herself from the family, looking inside herself for answers and reasons to live, and following a course of action that breaks up the unit. I totally believed Abigail’s motivations and found it a very moving performance.

TLB 6Keith Dunphy, as Mr Harvey, is a constant source of creepiness, with his unexpected turns of violence, psychopathic reassurances to himself that everything will be alright, and his easy manipulative lying. This can’t be an easy role to get right, but Mr Dunphy is superb. The suspense that built during the scene where Ayoola Smart’s Lindsey breaks into his house and discovers evidence against him just as she realises he has returned and is also in the house, had me chewing my fingers.

TLB 11The supporting cast are all excellent, but I particularly enjoyed Susan Bovell as the unsympathetic cop and the “evil mother” Lynn, Bhawna Bhawsar as Franny and the cynical Ruana Singh, the no-nonsense mother to the excellent Karan Gill’s Raj Singh, who first finds adolescent love with Susie.

TLB 5At 97 minutes with no interval, your attention never wanders, and I didn’t even miss having an interval (which is unusual for me). After its run in Northampton, it tours to Liverpool, Newcastle, Birmingham, finishing in Ipswich in November. We were both totally enthralled by it and are tempted to go again. Don’t miss it!

TLB 2P. S. In the performance we saw, we had to break after about thirty minutes because of a medical emergency in the stalls. We were asked to remain in our seats and the performance would continue as soon as possible. About 25 minutes later, with the unwell person hopefully out and on the road to recovery, we resumed from the beginning of the scene that was interrupted. I must say, the cast had looked very concerned as they realised something was going on in the auditorium but didn’t know what! I wondered to what extent they would be able to pick the play up again 25 minutes later – but I needn’t have worried – it was an immaculate performance. Super troupers every one of them!

Production photos by Sheila Burnett

Theatre Censorship – 31: The portrayal of fascism in David Edgar’s Destiny

David Edgar

David Edgar

Karn, the detective in Barrie Keeffe’s Sus (see previous blog), probably wouldn’t care for the political alternatives offered in both David Edgar’s Destiny (1976) and Stephen Poliakoff’s Strawberry Fields (1977). Inspired by the rise of the National Front in the early 1970s, “Destiny” begins with the granting of India’s independence in 1947 and the expectation of an influx of Indians into Britain. Then the action comes forward to 1968 as we watch the preparations for the Taddley by-election, fought by the three parties, Labour, Conservative and “Nation Forward”. This new party, just getting off the ground, is apparently an attempt to offer an alternative to the usual pendulum of Labour and Conservative; as such they make glib comments like “under capitalism, man is exploited by man. Under communism, it’s precisely the other way round.” But Nation Forward is not a centre party. It is a highly extreme right party. The introduction of Nation Forward in the play takes place, Edgar is careful to note, on 20th April 1968. The significance of this is lost on us until we realise that the party members are celebrating Hitler’s birthday. They all swear allegiance in German to Hitler’s portrait on the wall: “Ich gelobe Dir und den von Dir bestimmten Vorgesetzten gehorsam bis in den Tod, so wahr mir Gott helfe” – which translates as “I vow to you, and to the superiors appointed by you, obedience to death, so help me God”.

Later, at a Nation Forward rally, the party’s supporters sing “Land of Hope and Glory” whilst hecklers chant “Nation Forward, Nazi Party”. The play helps us to understand how a pseudo-Nazi party can gain quick support, by trading on people’s fear and ignorance and by creating an atmosphere of paranoia where anybody of a different race, religion or colour from one’s own is automatically regarded as the enemy because of that fact. Also, because of the fear of going against the grain, constructive criticisms are overlooked, swept aside, or simply not made. Turner, Nation Forward’s candidate at the election, wants to argue their campaign organiser, Richard Cleaver, out of the party’s anti-Semitic stance, but he backs down through fear. I’m not going to make any comparisons with real political parties of today, but, personally, I find it both fascinating and scary in its potential accuracy.

Nation Forward was obviously conceived as a reaction to an overwhelming immigration problem, hence its slogan “Stand Up For Your Race, Stand Up For The Future”. But Mrs Howard, loyal Conservative Party member for forty years, has decided to leave the party because they have become: “infiltrated. From the left. The cryptos. Pale-pinks” to join Nation Forward, is also worried about “the people on fixed incomes. With inflation. No big union protecting them. What about the people without a union. What about us?” Inflation is certainly a major problem. Mr Attwood is concerned about unemployment: “with the business like it is… if it’s a British firm it’s going bankrupt, and if it’s American, some great Detroit tycoon picks up his phone and says, more profit if we shift the lot to Düsseldorf… what jobs there are, we’re not going to get”. Nation Forward say they care about these problems and lull the electorate into a false sense of security. On the question of race, moreover, Sandy Clifton, the wife of the Labour candidate, talks of a “widow I visit. Only white face in the street. No English shops any more. Can’t buy an English newspaper. The butcher’s gone. The kids smash up her windows. Yes, of course, you’ll say all kids do that, but when the street was white it didn’t happen… so I call her “racist”?” That doesn’t sound like an ideal environment in which to live, and it’s easy to see how a nation can lurch to the extreme right.

When Turner refers to the Community Relations Council at the second Nation Forward meeting, he regards it as “very nearly just a black power front… most of these groups are immigrant groups or left-wing groups like the Family Planning Association and Shelter. Not much chance of any of these being in the slightest anti-coloured or pro-British”. The dated and dubious phrase “anti-coloured” is seen as virtually synonymous with “pro-British”; and this ugly character is prepared, as a prospective Member of Parliament, to condemn the positive efforts of the Family Planning Association and Shelter. In the end, the Conservatives win the election and Nation Forward come third, although they received 6,993 votes, which is 23.8% of the vote, showing a dangerously high number of supporters for such extreme politics.

DestinyTo put the opposing view, Edgar creates the character Khera. We first see him as an eighteen-years-old servant in India, under the command of Colonel Chandler, Major Rolfe and (as he was then) Sergeant Turner (yes, the same horrible man). The Colonel encourages Khera to celebrate India’s independence with them, as an equal, and the scene ends with Khera relishing his new status, proudly and prophetically proclaiming “Civis Britannicus Sum” (I am a British Citizen). Sure enough, Khera came to Britain in 1958 in search of the protection promised by the mother country. Act One of the play ends with Khera working for Platt, the works manager at the local foundry, and the Conservative constituency chairman, but still receiving exactly the same contempt – even the same words – that he did in India in 1947.

Khera is a Labour voter, and therefore asks Labour candidate Clifton to support the strike he has organised to protest against “promotional discrimination”. This support may well be one of the reasons why the Conservatives eventually won the seat. But Khera’s political and union activity is due to his constant subjugation, and in the scuffle that follows the election result, Khera is attacked by Tony and Attwood, both of Nation Forward. Khera surprises them with his flick-knife and the last image we have of him in the play shows him finally wielding the power.

Khera’s ascent is paralleled by Turner’s downfall. Turner is comfortable in India, with some power, despite having more people above him than beneath him. By 1970 he has built up a relatively successful antique business and he is pleased that a new Conservative government has just been elected: “at last, the little man will get his chance against the big battalions”. Ironic, because his new neighbour Razak appears and explains that his landlord has been bought out by the Metropolitan Investment Trust and that Turner’s “particular retailing zone is pencilled in as a Zen macrobiotic luncheon take-away”. The developers have chosen to force Turner’s rent up so ridiculously high that he cannot afford to stay. The whole episode, because of its immediate relevance to himself, instils in him a hatred of developers – what Maxwell refers to as “speculative profiteering” – and kindles his racial prejudices as he believes Razak, a Pakistani who has (Turner thinks) the gall to carry a Union Jack carrier bag, is in charge of the development. That’s what motivates him to play an active role in Nation Forward. It is not until the end of the play that Turner discovers that ex-Major Rolfe, expressing his support for Nation Forward, has been in charge of the Metropolitan Investment Trust all along, and with this knowledge Turner’s political motivation crumbles.

What relevance does this have to a discussion about theatre censorship, I hear you ask? I merely offer it as an example of an insightful and constructive play that could not possibly have been staged under a censor’s regime.

Nation Forward and the National Front are clearly the same in all but name; even the initials are the same. Destiny is a fantasy; there is, in real life, no “Nation Forward”, no Taddley, and Adolf Hitler could not suddenly turn up in real life to close the play. “Destiny” is primarily a work of the imagination. In my next post I’m going to discuss Stephen Poliakoff’s Strawberry Fields, which feels one stage closer to reality.