Theatre Censorship – 27: The blasphemy of Edward Bond and Mary O’Malley

Narrow road to the Deep NorthIn the opening scene of Edward Bond’s Narrow Road to the Deep North (1968), Basho the poet watches a woman abandoning her baby by a river, prepared to sacrifice the weakest of her children so that the five others may live; an act that shows the harsh reality which governs their way of life. Basho’s attitude is clinical; but he feels no further responsibility towards the baby and does nothing to rescue it from its fate. Later, Shogo, the leader of the city, and indeed this abandoned baby now an adult – somehow it survived – entrusts Basho with the responsibility of looking after the son of the deposed and dead Emperor. Again, Basho attempts to shun the burden, but Shogo blackmails him into accepting the responsibility. Basho sets himself up as a pillar of the community only to be pilloried himself. As a responsible adult, he is later to come back from his search for enlightenment in the deep north thirty years later, having decided that “enlightenment is the awareness that there is “nothing to learn in the deep north”. Zen, or ridiculous? As a master of haiku, Bond’s version of his famous verse appears as: “Silent old pool, Frog jumps, Kdang!” Reprehensible or brilliantly comic? You choose.

In his 1977 book The Plays of Edward Bond, Tony Coult refers to how “terrified” the young Bond was “to think how God was love, and he killed His son for us and hung him up and tortured him and washed us in his blood”. Hardly surprising, then, to find so many anti-religious themes in his plays. Narrow Road to the Deep North contains good examples of the use of religion and freakish religious supporters towards attaining selfish material ends. These are all encapsulated in the horrifying character of Georgina. As an evangelising Christian she deprives the peasants of their own sacred religion and enforces hers, infected with hypocrisy, upon them. Bond quickly shows her insecurity and selfishness; when Basho verifies that the city is prosperous, Georgina’s tambourine trembles to show her sudden excitement at the whiff of money. Aware of the noise she is making, she apologises, thereby confirming her guilt all the more. Bond’s portrayal of her is that of a gross parody of a Salvation Army general, continuously banging her tambourine, her symbol of Christian joy, with a hearty meaninglessness that is comic in its tedium. When she permits warfare ostensibly in the name of Christ her stipulations are ridiculous: “We will give you soldiers and guns to kill your enemies – and in return you must love Jesus, give up bad language, forswear cards, refuse spicey foods, abandon women, forsake drink and – and stop singing on Sundays… except hymns and the authorised responses.” The phrase “guns to kill your enemies” is fairly unequivocal in its intentions; it does not even hide behind the easy excuse of self-defence. Loving Christ and forsaking drink are fairly conventional demands; “refuse spicy foods” is mere nonsense.

The character of Georgina is a good example of how to get comic mileage out of religion. Ossian Flint’s irreligious behaviour sparks off a great deal of humour based on deflating hypocrisy. The comic master of the 1960s, Joe Orton, recognised the potential in religious adherence to make people laugh – frequently with considerable savagery, and although it was never really a central theme in any of his plays, he incorporated it in many. For example, the opening conversation in his television play Funeral Games (1968) takes place between two ostensibly religious men, one a leader of a dubious sect called “The Brotherhood”, who wrote a brochure called “Blessings Abound” and who owns a hot water bottle in the shape of a cross; the other is a frequenter of the blue bookshop next to Tessa and McCorquodale’s “love nest”. Of course, these people have no relief belief in God or the scriptures at all. When faced with a tricky situation, Caulfield suggests “perhaps we could pray”; and Pringle replies: “I’d be obliged if you’d treat this matter with due seriousness.” I’m also personally fond of the line: “He’s a preacher of note. They sell the Bible on the strength of his name.”

Once A CatholicMary O’Malley’s Once a Catholic (1977) is a very funny satire poking fun at Catholicism – perhaps destructively so. The virtuous pupil Mary Mooney is the unfortunate product of a combination of a too-trusting, too-innocent imagination, foolish ignorant parents and hypocritical nuns. She does not suspect anything remotely evil of anyone, so she has no qualms about accompanying the mischievous Derek back to his rooms. However, after the “J Arthur Rank”, she is so terrified that she might go to hell, that she visits Father Mullarkey at home, where the father’s concern for her is overshadowed by comments such as “Help yourself to the Lot’s wife”, and “You can’t go to confession tonight. The church is all locked up and I have to get down to the Off Licence”. His attitude is comic, but is most unfeeling for poor Mary Mooney. O’Malley shows here how the church sets you up to be terrified of mortal sins but offers no practical assistance. Mary Mooney simply feels abandoned. The Church’s attitude to crime and vice is fascinating; there is a peculiar ranking of severity of different crimes such as the grouping of both eating meat on a Friday and murder as mortal sins, or: “A person who lies in bed and refuses to get up for Mass is committing a far more serious sin than a person who lashes out and murders his wife in a fit of fury”. How would that go down in a court of law?

The hypocrisy of the nuns is best shown in the biology lesson taken by Mother Basil, a violent and vengeful woman. She is dissecting a rabbit, but unfortunately, as soon as she mentions the vagina, the Angelus, like a psychological alarm bell, calls nuns and girls to prayers which are said at double-quick speed, totally lacking in any expression. Immediately after the prayers are over, they return to the vagina. This humorous juxtaposition prepares us for the end of the scene when the innocent Mary Mooney asks: “Please Mother Basil, could you tell us how the sperm from the male gets introduced into the vagina?” Her question is not designed to shame or embarrass or cause laughter, but nevertheless it does all these, and Mother Basil, not being one of God’s caring creatures, cannot believe her innocence can extend this far. Later Mary Mooney asks Father Mullarkey “what is the sin of Sodom?” Twice then she is punished for her unfortunate innocence, whilst the complacent nuns don’t do their job properly. Music teacher Mr Emanuelli’s attitude to them is straightforward enough: “I loathe and detest nuns. I despise every one of them in this building. They should be tied up with string, laid out in a line and raped by the local police.” This is law and order of Ortonesque sexual savagery.

A short break now from stage censorship blogs whilst we enjoy the Edinburgh Fringe! Back at the end of August, with another blog post where I’ll be looking at the representation of real-life characters on stage.

Review – Me and My Girl, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 11th August 2018

Me and My GirlThe Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle was the poshest person you could ever meet who also claimed to be a Cockney Sparrer. Any show, programme, book or film that had a whiff of the East End about it (or even better, the West End) and she’d be there like a shot. Thus it was that she and I went to see the original production of this revised version of Me and My Girl at the Adelphi Theatre 33 years ago, gasp. It made a star of Emma Thompson, and confirmed Robert Lindsay as the second-best song and dance man in Britain (after Michael Crawford). The current Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with assorted members of her family, saw a revival in Milton Keynes in 2006, which was more notable for the supporting cast of Dillie Keane as the Duchess, the late Trevor Bannister as Sir John, and Sylvester McCoy as a splendid Parchester. And now the Lambeth Walk is back on the elegantly middle-class streets (avenues?) of Chichester, Oi!

Bill Me and My Girl is a pure feelgood show, that plays upon the age-old themes of rags to riches and the class divide; the common as muck hero lording it over the beautifully-bred gentry. Think Penelope Keith’s Margo versus Richard Briers’ Tom, Charlie Drake persistently aggravating Henry McGee, or Eliza Doolittle taking revenge on Henry Higgins. Higgins even fulfils a remote role in this story, and I’m sure you can guess what it is! Bill Snibson, wisecracking costermonger of the parish of Lambeth, is revealed to be the new Earl of Hareford, heir to a magnificent estate and fortune, all because of some irregular hows-your-father committed by the 13th Earl. But there is a condition; the new heir has to be considered to be a fit and proper person to assume the title; and Bill is, to coin a phrase, as rough as guts. Can Bill convince the Duchess, Sir John and their entourage that he and his girl Sally fit into high society? Does he even want to? Or is he a permanent fixture, South of the River? You’ll have to watch the show to find out!

Take it on the ChinFew creative masters can put together an exuberant, crowd-pleasing musical like the dream team of Daniel Evans (director), Lez Brotherston (design) and Alistair David (choreography). It worked in Sheffield, with their productions of My Fair Lady, Oliver!, Anything Goes, and Show Boat, and it’s still working in Chichester with this superb production. Mr Brotherston’s set opens up like a 3-D Advent Calendar, with opaque windows barely concealing partygoers inside; open a door and you get lovely glimpses of priceless tapestries beyond the back of the stage. Noblesse Oblige is the Hareford family motto; and Mr Brotherston does it proud. The costumes and props suggest immaculate taste in preference to creature comforts; Hareford Hall was never going to be a comfy and cosy sort of place, was it? Tim Mitchell’s lighting compliments the set perfectly and gives extra depth to some of the big choreographed numbers – The Lambeth Walk looks particularly beguiling. And Gareth Valentine’s orchestra never has a dull moment with a constant range of great tunes and fantastic arrangements; with the top of Mr Valentine’s head peeping out from a cut out triangle in the stage floor, I kept on hoping that the dancers don’t put a foot wrong and land up on top of him. Not as much as Mr Valentine does, I expect.

Leaning on a lamp...The original book by L Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber was revised by a young Stephen Fry (whatever happened to him?) back in the 1980s and still comes across as fresh and cheeky, with some puntastic lines for Bill to offend the dignified ears of the gentry. Noel Gay’s music still sounds sweet and tuneful. Not only the famous Lambeth Walk, and the title song Me and My Girl, but also the quirky fun of You Would if You Could, Take it on the Chin, and Parchester’s irrepressible The Family Solicitor. If you’ve only ever thought of Leaning on a Lamppost as a George Formby comedy number, you’ll be amazed at how beautiful it is as a romantic ballad. And to cap it all, there’s the terrific silliness of The Sun Has Got His Hat On. Removed from the running order, for some reason, is the delicately funny and sad If Only You Had Cared For Me, performed by the Duchess and Sir John; it’s a perfect little song that gives us an insight into what their lives could have been like, if only one of them had had the courage to say something. I say: reinstate it!

Me and My Girl in personPopular comic actor Matt Lucas plays Bill Snibson, and he absolutely looks the part. Garishly bedecked in a loud checked suit – all colour and no taste, the complete opposite of the Harefords – he’s quite nifty on his feet given he’s a slightly chunkier chap, and there’s an unexpectedly endearing nature to his vocal tone. He bats out the cockney patter like a regular at the Elephant and Castle and his comic timing is excellent. Oddly, he stumbled over a couple of his lines earlier on and never stopped referring back to it throughout the rest of the show; I sense he was less at ease about his little faux pas than the rest of us were; we’d forgiven him and forgotten about it ages ago.

Doing the Lambeth WalkVery good as he was, what his performance lacked for me was a little extra depth in the emotions. I know it’s just a silly and fluffy musical, but these are real people in real predicaments. You never felt the physical and mental anguish of Bill’s being deliberately separated from Sally. His voice never betrayed that doubtful uncertainty of being a fish out of water. All his emotions and reactions were essentially superficial; a little too comic-book and not sufficiently heartfelt for my liking. I found myself wondering what Robert Lindsay was doing that evening. I felt that slight superficiality also extended to his Sally, the wonderful Alex Young, whom we have seen so many times and is always a delight. True, she sang the lovely Once You Lose Your Heart with a beautiful sense of tragedy, and she masterminded the stage invasion that is the start of The Lambeth Walk. But I felt there was less chemistry when she was actually singing alongside Mr Lucas. By the way, her transformation from Lambeth Sally to the refined potential Lady Hareford was immaculately realised.

DuchessThe true star of the evening was Caroline Quentin who gives a huge performance – vocally, comedically, and even choreographically. Perfectly treading that fine line between a Christine Hamilton-style battle-axe and being a kindly matriarch with a twinkle in her eye and a heart of gold, Ms Quentin convincingly shows throughout how, for the sake of tradition, she desperately wants Bill to succeed as the new Earl, because That’s How Things Are Done. She effortlessly slides in to the comic set pieces, such as helping Bill practise meeting grand dignitaries at his party; she throws herself into the Lambeth Walk, so much so that she could become the Pearly Queen of Tunbridge Wells. It’s a brilliant performance throughout. Clive Rowe, too, has a fine old time as Sir John; a perfect comedy foil to Mr Lucas whilst being a supportive arm for Ms Quentin.

As the family solicitor, here's what you have to doDominic Marsh is excellent as Gerald; not quite like one of Ray Alan’s Lord Charles’ Silly Arses so he remains a credible character, joyfully leading us through The Sun Has Got His Hat On, and entertainingly reuniting with the excellent and frightful Lady Jackie (Siubhan Harrison) with the most effective kiss ever planted on woman’s lips. And there’s a frolicsomely fun performance from Jennie Dale as Parchester, who finds refuge from the dryness of a legal career through the medium of song and dance. I’ve not seen Parchester played by a woman before, but there’s absolutely no reason why she shouldn’t be. If anything, I’d liked to have seen Messrs Evans and David allow Ms Dale even more free rein to cavort all over the stage. Having occasionally to repress her irrepressibility was rather sad!

So jump into your sunbathLast Saturday night’s show was pretty much sold out; and these final two weeks of the run are looking fairly cramped too. A terrific production that would certainly suit one of these hugely successful Chichester/West End transfers. This one will have you travelling home afterwards, beaming from ear to ear. Oi!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – The Merry Wives of Windsor, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 14th August 2018

The Merry Wives of WindsorAh, The Merry Wives of Windsor. The name sounds so innocent doesn’t it? Tea on the lawn at Runnymede. Happy jumble sales at Datchet. Street parties for the Queen down Windsor High Street. Well indeed, it was the Queen who wanted this in the first place, as the first scene of Fiona Laird’s new production at the RSC showed at first hand; a projection of Queen Elizabeth I querulously observing that her favourite Falstaff was being written out of Shakespeare’s next play, so she demands a new offering, showing Sir John in love, to be ready in two weeks. Much to Shakespeare’s chagrin.

FalstaffThe ever constant challenge to make new productions of Shakespeare plays modern and relevant is just as valid in the frothy comedies as it is in the heavyweights. But Merry Wives is a significant play in many ways and deserves treating seriously. It’s one of the few Shakespeare plays that is completely original. It is the only one to be written entirely in prose. It’s the only one to be concerned with middle-class life in a small English town; to that extent, it’s the most similar in structure to a modern-day sitcom. Not uniquely, but it’s one of the plays where the action is most driven by female characters; and where female characters win the day. It’s also a contender for being Shakespeare’s funniest play. No wonder it keeps coming around, again and again.

Evans, Pistol, Bardolph, NymThis is the 5th time I’ve seen the play; George Murcell as Falstaff at the now defunct St. George’s theatre in Tufnell Park in 1977; Peter Jeffrey in the RSC’s production at the Barbican in 1986; the Oxford Shakespeare Company’s productions in the grounds of Wadham College in 2005 and 2013; and now David Troughton as the randy big man with the RSC again in Stratford. Each one marvellous in their own way; and this latest production has more entertainment value than you can shake a stick at.

CaiusAnd that’s down to the engagement of one Mr Toby Park, boss of Spymonkey, as Physical Comedy Director. We’ve seen Spymonkey several times, with their endlessly creative, pomposity-puncturing, ridiculousness-worshipping productions; if you’ve never seen a Spymonkey production, You Haven’t Lived. There are elements of Spymonkey-business running through this show like a stick of rock. But does the double-directorship work, dovetailing the comic business with the rest of it? Or is it an Eton Mess? (See what I did there?)

Mistresses Ford and PageI usually agree with the old saying, less is more. Maybe it’s because of my innate conservatism (small C, please note.) Maybe it’s due to my Public School upbringing – you’re not meant to have fun. If it hurts, it’s doing you good. Or maybe it’s because I value quality over quantity, in virtually all matters. However, when it comes to Spymonkey, I change my mind. In this production they throw absolutely everything at it. From the disgusting wheelybin to the pink flamingos by the side of the Fords’ swimming pool, from the stagestruck golf cart to Falstaff’s extravagant codpiece, from Dr Caius’ frenchisisms to Master Brook’s false nose; no visual joke, no audio prompt, no quirky playing with the script goes unmissed. It’s a numbers game. The more funny business you put in, the funnier the end product comes out. I’d say a good 95% of the comic content sticks solidly like… well you provide your own simile. If the main intention of a production of Merry Wives is to make the audience laugh – and why would it be anything else – this is a five-star extravaganza.

Falstaff, QuicklyFiona Laird has picked this production up and moved it from west of the M25 to the east, to create a TOWIE version of the play – The Merry Wives of Billericay. The wise woman of Brentford has become the wise woman of Brentwood, which is somehow strangely funnier; Mistress Ford has her own beautician, which I’m sure isn’t in the original; the refuse guys who come to take away the lurid pink coloured wheelybin (belonging to the Royal Borough of Windsor and Essex) exchange jokes in Polish. Mistress Page hides behind a decadently large electric barbecue; Falstaff hides under a poolside lounger.

Caius, Shallow, Slender, Hostess, PageLez Brotherston’s fantastic costume designs enhance this Estuary Grandeur; Mistress Ford is genuinely stunning in her Versace trousers and tight-fitting top; the Hostess of the Garter is a vision in leopard skin; Pistol’s handbag (you read that right), Dr Caius’ bandana (ditto) and Fenton’s suitcase all reek of expense; and, above all, Master Ford and Master Slender are so trendy that they’ve given up on the socks. And the costumes and padding for Falstaff are genuinely hilarious and incredibly inventive; a quite remarkable achievement.

HostessI can’t decide whether the creative team encouraged the cast to portray their characters partly as impersonations, or whether it’s some natural, evolutionary by-product of the rehearsal procedure. But in any event it’s a delight to see Sybil Fawlty as Mistress Page, Julia Davis as Mistress Ford, Tracy Emin as the Hostess of the Garter, Ricky Gervais as Shallow, Del Boy Trotter as Master Ford, and my cousin Trevor as Slender. No offence, Trevor, but Tom Padley had you down to a T.

Mistresses Ford, Page and QuicklyThe performances are gleefully brilliant from first to last. David Troughton is just magnificent (and only barely recognisable) as Falstaff, completely self-obsessed and repulsive, so puffed up in his own affairs that duping him is like taking candy from a baby. Of course, when a character is so set up in a high and mighty fashion, it makes you deliriously happy to see them crash and scarper in shame. Rebecca Lacey’s Mistress Page, outwardly so respectable but in reality a truly tough nut, can’t wait to interfere in Falstaff’s plans and eggs Beth Cordingly’s sassy Mistress Ford into playing the tart for the fat knight. Together they are a perfectly mischievous pair, and make a great comedy duo.

EvansDavid Acton almost steals the show with his childishly excitable performance as Evans the Welsh parson, his face lit up with joy as he revels in every prank; encouraging us all to join him in a Cardiff Arms Park (his words) chorus of Cwm Rhondda. He’s also a great partner-in-crime for Jonathan Cullen’s Dr Caius, murdering the French language with fantastic ease, espousing all the Spymonkey tenets of making yourself look as ridiculous as possible. I’ve been an admirer of Mr Cullen since I first saw him perform in the First Year Students’ competition at Oxford, when I was in the second year. We always knew he’d go far.

Caius, RugbyTim Samuels is a beautifully mealy-mouthed (and violent) Shallow and Tom Padley simply hilarious as his gormless nephew Slender, constantly trying to cover up his incessant faux pas. Luke Newberry invests the otherwise worthy but dull Fenton with a string of brilliantly performed pratfalls, Josh Finan is an irrepressible Nym, Katy Brittain a superb lush of a Hostess at the Garter, Vince Leigh a fabulously jealous Ford and Paul Dodds a proper bossy Page. But the whole cast work together to make a really funny and entertaining ensemble show.

Anne PageAt the end of the day, it’s up to you whether you like the transferred location away from small town Berkshire to somewhere Chez Lakeside. I thought it worked fine. There are numerous liberties taken with the script, but if any Shakespeare play can take messing around with, it’s this one.

FordMrs Chrisparkle pointed out that in previous productions of Merry Wives that we’ve seen, Falstaff has been even more humiliated in that final horns and spirits scene. In this production, his shame is quickly achieved, and quickly over, which actually made a pleasant change – there’s only so far that you can humiliate one fat randy old knight. However, I sense something didn’t go quite right with that scene; there were a few spirits just hanging around doing nothing and blundering into each other. And the whole imagery of the ghosts and ghoulies is much scarier in its original location of a woodland glade than in a town centre piazza. Maybe it needs a little tightening up.

SimpleStill that’s a small quibble with such a great show. We laughed, and laughed, and laughed. I’m sure you would too. Can’t recommend it strongly enough. It’s in the RSC repertoire at Stratford until 22nd September and then it’s on at the Barbican from 7th December until 5th January 2019 – that would be a perfect Christmas treat!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Theatre Censorship – 26: The blasphemy of Edward Bond and David Mercer

Edward Bond

Edward Bond

Edward Bond’s Black Mass was written for the Anti-Apartheid movement in 1970, and contains that unforgivable sin of two years earlier, the representation of the deity on stage. In this play, which was written to commemorate the Sharpeville Massacre, the South African Prime Minister is receiving communion from a priest in a church in Vereeniging. During the service, you hear the rifle fire of the police shooting seventy “Kaffirs”; the Prime Minister interrupts the communion so that he, the priest and a Police Inspector can go and congratulate the police on their fine work. Christ is so infuriated at the bigotry of the Prime Minister and the Inspector, and the weakness of the Priest, that, unseen, He leaps down from the cross and poisons the Communion wine. On their return, the Prime Minster drinks the wine and dies. In this act of basic revenge, Christ shows Himself also to be capable of committing a crime, to be capable of evil; indeed, as the wine represents His own blood in the Communion service, He poisons part of Himself and therefore you can consider it an act of self-mutilation or suicide. Justice must then be seen to be done, so Christ is questioned, and, as in the Bible, He offers no defence. With delicious irony, the Inspector asks Christ to account for His presence on the premises.

Christ’s treachery reflects very badly on the Priest, who turns on Him and dismisses Him from His post with the hilarious (or disgusting, depending on your point of view) words: “I can’t risk your contaminating the young people we have here”. Christ’s place on the cross is then taken by a stupid fascist policeman who is suited to the task because it is “a nice easy job”; thus, the symbol of Christian love has been replaced by a symbol of corruption and torture. Even today it’s quite shocking to hear the phrase “wank in your own time” used about the Christ figure, especially in a church. By the end, Christ has been subjugated and finally eliminated by the evil of the bigoted South African authoritarians. It is a simple, emblematic play, designed to show the hypocrisy of those who undertake persecutions in the name of religion. However, the treatment of Christ in the play might well be offensive to many people, including those who were vehemently opposed to Apartheid. Bond’s strong imagery might have alienated them, but it certainly shows up the topsy-turvy morals of the Apartheid regime.

David Mercer

David Mercer

Persecution and hypocrisy also feature in David Mercer’s Flint (1970). The eponymous character’s first words are “Do not go into the Church, Ossian, my grandmother said to me – because God is not fun”. Fun is the Reverend Flint’s main occupation and therefore he always leaves a string of lovers and ex-lovers in his wake, like Miss Biggin, the organist. Swash, the curate, pours scorn on Flint’s enjoyment of the bowling alley because he feels it’s demeaning for a vicar to behave like this. However, there is nothing morally wrong with bowling alleys, and his enjoyment of them is one way in which Flint bridges the gap between the church and the people.

Michael Hordern as Flint

Michael Hordern as Flint

The dual aspect of Flint’s character is instantly shown in this first appearance. First, having heard reports of his behaviour, you’re immediately struck by the fact that he’s not a young man. Secondly, his motorbike apparel, which (certainly in those days) was associated with the rowdiness of youth and a fast life, contrast with his being a member of the clergy, which you might think should be a life of quiet contemplation. He cannot be both young and old, quiet and racey; one must be false. The crux of his difficulties is expressed plainly in the line: “I’ve been an agnostic for forty years”. We already sympathise with him because he is tied to a job for which he is scarcely suited, although it is revealing that he is able to give Dixie, his current lover, the comfort she needs and which the “standard Christianity” of Swash’s service totally failed to give her. His only outlet is to disrupt the meaningless ritual of Christian hypocrisy which surrounds him, choking his every move. Therefore, he takes on mistresses, sets fire to buses and to the church, and other such irreverent actions.

At one point he talks about how he has hosed down some little boys; his Ortonesque explanation for their nudity: “It would have been aggressive to hose down four little boys with their clothes on!” has that outrageous yet undeniable logic you’d attribute to the best of Orton’s works. For example, when Mrs Prentice in Orton’s What the Butler Saw announces that she will take an Indian lover in New Delhi, her husband is shocked, but for the wrong reason: “You can’t take lovers in Asia! The air fare would be crippling” is his response. Again, it’s logic, but it’s the wrong kind of logic. And both Flint and Mrs Prentice believe their explanations are perfectly reasonable.

Flint’s life is full of tragedies and crimes, not because he is wilful or malicious, but simply because he is careless and getting old. One can imagine that any intrigues set up in Bishop Auckland (we never know quite what happened there) came as a result of his mistaking the name of the town for that of a senior colleague. He is, nevertheless, kind to Dixie, which creates a direct contrast to his wife, Esme: “You are a monster, Ossian”, she says. “The best thing that could happen to you would be a sudden coronary.” Despite this malice she assumes a godly superiority and even takes the virginity of Mary to extremes in her refusal to consummate her marriage. When Esme dies, Swash tries to comfort Flint with his belief that “she is with God”; Flint replies, “they certainly deserve each other.” Esme’s religion is kept firmly in its respectable place and never allows her to become a good person. “Earl’s Court is an underground station and not a place where one finds Jesus”, she grumpily explains, conveniently forgetting that He is, apparently, everywhere.

However, in Flint’s keenness to cross lines and not to draw them, he is most definitely open to the charge of blasphemy. When he feels the need for a quick drink, he suggests taking some of the Communion wine: “I believe we have a few untransmogrified bottles; mere wine until somebody does the abracadabra bit on it”. Dixie, a devout but easily misled Catholic, cannot take Anglicanism seriously as a religion, and Flint is not the right person to help her out. His religious idol is usually “the incumbent Biggin”, in this case Dixie herself: “The flesh tints of Rubens. The ribald calligraphy of Rowlandson. The sensuality of Renoir. All combined for the terrible sacrament of my disintegration”.

The play ends with Flint, flustered by the responsibility of having to find some midwifely assistance for Dixie, rapidly plummeting over a hill on his motorbike “into an army truck full of something explosive”. Perhaps Flint’s death comes as a salvation for the “sentiment of religious reverence”; alternatively, his death comes at a moment of selfless risk; this could be Mercer’s way of ensuring that Flint is not eternally damned. Whichever interpretation one places on Flint’s death, it feels like a highly moral end to the play.

In my next blog, there’ll be more blasphemy from Edward Bond, and from Mary O’Malley.

Review – The Meeting, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 11th August 2018

The MeetingThe second of our three Chichester weekends this year saw Mrs Chrisparkle and me meet up with Professor and Mrs Plum for our usual fantastic lunch at the Minerva Brasserie – I can really recommend the Whiston Blanc de Blancs for a beautifully tasty sparkling English wine; it would perk up any social event! And the chicken is a real winner.

Meeting 3As usual it was to be a double-header at Chichester, and our first stop was at the Minerva for The Meeting. I think it’s fair to say that unless you are a Quaker, or are personally acquainted with a Quaker very well, you’re unlikely to know much about them. You don’t stumble across and visit their places of worship like you pop into an English Country Church in the Church of England tradition, for example. There aren’t big versions of their Meeting Houses like there are Cathedrals. And you don’t learn about their worshipping traditions, because, as far as I can make out, there aren’t any. The pinnacle of a great Quaker Meeting is to stay as silent as possible for the longest time.

Meeting 4That’s what makes Charlotte Jones’ new play, The Meeting, which has just finished its run at the Minerva theatre, so very intriguing. Set in a Sussex Quaker community in 1805, this small group of people get along by very much keeping themselves to themselves, marrying within the community, not venturing into “the town”; committed to the sanctity of human life, so they cannot fight at war; believing in equality so that even the most junior in the community would not address the most senior with any kind of reverent title. They are a Society of Friends and Friends are always equal. I learned a lot.

Meeting 8But just because this is a community of Quakers, it doesn’t mean they’re not subject to the same emotions, temptations, and desires as the rest of us. Take Rachel, for instance, living with her deaf mother Alice and her husband Adam, a stonemason; three sons she has borne him, each one stillborn or died at birth, each one named Nathaniel in the hope that they might eventually have a survivor. Biddy, on the other hand, married to James, the Elder of the community, is as fecund as the Indus Valley. I lost count how many children they had, but there’s a baby in tow at the moment and older daughter Tabitha is on the lookout for a husband.

Meeting 7One day, Rachel meets a soldier; a young man apparently invalided out of the army, with nothing to do and nowhere to go. His name? Nathaniel. Adam has only recently said he needs a young apprentice, as his strength and eye for detail are on the wane; Rachel sees it as a sign, and suggests that Nathaniel come back with her to meet Adam to see if he thinks he would be a good apprentice. Trouble is, he’s not a Quaker; but Rachel will teach him and encourage him, and, as far as she’s concerned, it’s just a little white lie for The Greater Good. But you know what might happen if an attractive older woman and a handsome young man start living under the same roof….. The gasp of shock from the audience at the final tableau before the interval told its own story!

Meeting 5The play very satisfyingly lets us in to see the secrets of this closed community, that few of us to this day know much about, so it piques our interest initially on the simple level of widening our general knowledge. But then we see the community face the age-old problem of a love-triangle, something we see in many plays and films over the course of a lifetime; and maybe indeed personally experience its pain and complications. It’s a very familiar event in a very unfamiliar setting. At times – as when Adam encouraged Nathaniel to accompany Rachel to keep her company – it reminded me of the previous play we’d seen at the Minerva, The Country Wife – although of course, much less raucous. Adam’s blissful ignorance about Nathaniel’s intentions towards Rachel and Lord Fidget’s similar encouragement to Horner to spend time with Lady Fidget are not a million miles apart.

Meeting 10It’s a fascinating play, beautifully and sensitively written, with much to say about friendship and faithfulness; forgiveness and redemption; expression and suppression. Dry stonewalls provide the backdrop to Vicki Mortimer’s simple but flexible set, a circular mosaic floor providing the setting for the meetings, where the attendees sit around on simple chairs in a circle; when the meeting is over they simply hook the backs of the chairs to a circular roof that descends and ascends to take the chairs out of the way. The costumes are uniformly puritanical grey and drab; I had to cut myself a little chuckle when Tabitha displays her “beautiful” wedding dress which is only fractionally less grey and drab than everything else the women wear. The only exception is the bright red of the soldier’s jacket which must, perforce, be hidden; let’s hope nobody finds it…

Meeting 6Charlotte Jones has written two great parts for women. Lydia Leonard is superb as Rachel; trying her best to be dutiful, bursting forth at the Quaker Meetings because she is full of ministry – or, in her case, emotion and expression which desperately needs an outlet; powerless to fight the attractive force that is the new young man under her roof. And Olivia Darnley is also brilliant as Biddy; on the one hand, the comedy gossip role, always irrepressible with good humour and accentuating the positive; on the other hand, with a past full of resentment and bitterness that she too finds it hard not to revisit.

Meeting 2Gerald Kyd plays Adam with stolid dignity and quiet assertiveness; he is a man whose emotions will always only be revealed behind closed doors. And there’s an excellent, assured performance from newcomer Laurie Davidson as Nathaniel, the seemingly decent and honest worker who turns into something of a sneak and a louse. There’s also the meaty role of Alice, powerfully performed by deaf actor Jean St Clair, eloquent in her sign language and amazingly articulate facial expressions. And there’s great support from Jim Findley as the well-meaning and responsible Elder James Rickman and Leona Allen as his enthusiastic and surprisingly self-confident daughter Tabitha.

Meeting 12We saw this on its final matinee after its three-week run, and sadly the theatre was only about 60% full, which isn’t a great audience turnout for Chichester. Those of us who were there really enjoyed it and were thoroughly carried away by its great story-telling and emotional charge. Whether or not there could be a life for this play in the future, I’m not sure. But I’m very pleased we managed to catch it, as it was a very rewarding and thought-provoking play.

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

The James Bond Challenge – Dr No (1962)

Dr NoIn which we meet Bond (James Bond, that is) who is summoned to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of Secret Agent Strangways, and eventually locates Dr No’s secret hideaway at Crab Key – and defeats the scoundrel. In my Agatha Christie Challenge blog posts I endeavour not to give the game away as to whodunit; James Bond films are a different kettle of fish and so I recommend that if you haven’t seen the film first – well, let’s just say the blogs will be full of spoilers!

BlogAlso – apologies in advance. This is quite a long blog, gentle reader, so I wish you the best of luck in getting through it all. There’s a lot of introductory material that I thought I should grapple with, that shouldn’t be necessary as the film series continues. So, please, may I crave your indulgence just this once?

Dr No novelDr No was the first of the films to be made, an adaptation of Ian Fleming’s novel of the same name published four years earlier. In 1961, Canadian film producer Harry Saltzman read Fleming’s Goldfinger, and loved it so much he bought the film rights to the novels. Albert R. Broccoli (Cubby, to you and me) also wanted to transfer Bond to the Silver Screen only to find that Saltzman had beaten him to it. Saltzman refused to sell but they went into partnership together and, under the title of Eon productions, they made eight Bond films together between 1962’s Dr No and 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun. Although Thunderball had been the original target for the first Bond movie, there was a long drawn out and ultimately acrimonious legal battle over the work between Fleming and Irish writer Kevin McClory, whom Fleming had originally brought in to write a screenplay for a Bond movie in the late 50s. Broccoli and Saltzman wisely chose Dr No instead.

Ursula Andress on the beachBefore this recent re-watch, I think I’d seen Dr No just once before – on television, probably in the 1980s. I remember enjoying it, but my only memory of it, and probably the memory I share with most people, is the vision of Ursula Andress as Honey Rider, emerging from the sea, clad in not very much at all. So it was great fun to watch it again all these years later, and to discover there’s more to the film than just that scene.

Three Blind MiceHow does it start? The opening credits blend into the first scene as we see three (apparently) blind men, all walking in tandem for safety to the tune of Three Blind Mice, crossing a road, holding out a begging tin, then walking up to the Queen’s Club where John Strangways, the MI6 Station Chief in Jamaica, is playing Bridge with geologist Professor Dent, retired military man General Potter, and Government House Chief Secretary Pleydell-Smith. As Strangways leaves to file his usual secret daily report back to London, he is assassinated by one of the (clearly not) blind men, who then take a getaway car to Strangways’ House. There they surprise and murder his assistant Mary, then steal secret files on Crab Key and Doctor No. As the transmission from Jamaica faltered and broke up, London’s suspicions are aroused. So M summons Bond to deliver him his next task: find out what has happened to Strangways. I’m not going to tell you the rest of the story at this point – you’ll just have to watch the film for yourself!

Portrait of the Duke of WellingtonProduced on a low budget of just $1.1 million, there are many stories about how cheaply certain effects were achieved. Dr No’s aquarium, for example, was represented by some stock footage of goldfish magnified many times over. M’s office features cardboard paintings and the expensive looking upholstered door to his office was made of plastic. Dr No had clearly stolen Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery, as you can see it in one scene in his lair. It’s true; the painting had genuinely been stolen in 1961 and was missing for four years. In reality, Doctor No wasn’t the thief; over the course of a weekend, production designer Ken Adam painted up a copy using a slide from the National Gallery as his source. The UK arm of United Artists put up an extra $100,000 specifically to film the scene where Dr No’s hideaway is blown to smithereens – that’s an extra 10% of the entire budget spent on that one brief scene. However, they needn’t have worried about the financial risk; the film went on to be a huge success, taking $59.5 million at the box office.

Terence YoungTo direct the film, the producers eventually decided on Terence Young, after it had been declined by Guy Green, Guy Hamilton (who went on to direct four later Bond movies), Hammer movie expert Val Guest and Ken Hughes (most famous for directing Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). Guest and Hughes would also be two of the six credited directors (which tells its own story) of the spoof film Casino Royale. Terence Young ended up directing three of the first four Bond movies, and is credited with moulding the character of Bond from Fleming’s original characterisation into someone more sophisticated, tasteful and with an eye to humour as well as to women.

Ian FlemingI haven’t read any Ian Fleming books, but the synopses are readily available on the Internet, so I can (hopefully) make a reasonable estimate of how faithful each adaptation was. But first a word or two about Ian Fleming himself. Educated at Eton and Sandhurst, he was the naval intelligence Commander in charge of Operation Goldeneye (recognise the name?) which was a plan to monitor and sabotage Spain’s activity during the Second World War if the country had been invaded by the Nazis or indeed had offered their support to Hitler. It was vital that British communication with Gibraltar was unhindered during that sensitive period. As it was, there was never any need to put the plan into full operation; and in later years, Fleming used the name for his home in Jamaica. Of course, it would also become the name of the 19th film in the series.

Bond and SylviaIn real life Fleming was no stranger to the more enjoyable things in life; a serial womaniser from his time at Eton onwards – he left Sandhurst with no commission but with gonorrhoea – and a heavy addiction to cigarettes which no doubt brought about his early death at the age of 56. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Bond has these attributes too. Fleming clearly brought his experience with military intelligence into his prize creation!

Tarantula sceneDr No was published in 1958 and was the sixth in his series of James Bond novels. Many elements of the story are reasonably faithfully portrayed in the film; although there are a few major alterations. In the book, Dr No runs a guano mine; in the film, it’s a bauxite mine, but with a nuclear pool reactor. In the book No dies through being buried alive in guano; in the film, Bond submerges him in the pool so that No boils to death – neither is a nice way to go. In the book No subjects Bond to the ordeals of electric shocks, burns, an encounter with large poisonous spiders and a fight with a giant squid. In the film, Bond is assaulted by guards and has to crawl through a ventilation shaft that fills with water. The book features a scene where Bond’s life is threatened by a deadly centipede, whereas in the film it’s a giant tarantula. In the film, No is working for SPECTRE, that‘s the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion; in the book he’s operating solo. Much of the rest of the story is true to the book. No’s plans to interrupt the rocket launches from Cape Canaveral; the characters of Honey Rider and Quarrel; the local fear of “dragons” (which turn out to be flame-throwing swamp buggies); even M’s insistence on Bond changing guns, are all to be found in Fleming’s book.

Shoot to killThis was the first of his written works to receive some harsh words from the critics. Famously, Paul Johnson of the New Statesman, under the title, “Sex, Snobbery and Sadism”, wrote: “I have just finished what is, without doubt, the nastiest book I have ever read […] by the time I was a third of the way through, I had to suppress a strong impulse to throw the thing away [..] three basic ingredients in Dr. No, all unhealthy, all thoroughly English: the sadism of a schoolboy bully, the mechanical, two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent, and the crude, snob-cravings of a suburban adult”.

James BondMany of the film reviews were equally grudging. Time Magazine called Bond a “blithering bounder” and “a great big hairy marshmallow” who “almost always manages to seem slightly silly”. The New Republic said that the film “never decides whether it is suspense or suspense-spoof” – but I personally think that’s one of the film’s strengths. The Vatican described it as “a dangerous mixture of violence, vulgarity, sadism and sex”, whilst the Kremlin said that Bond was the personification of capitalist evil; well, they would, wouldn’t they. However, on a positive note, The Daily Express said that “Dr No is fun all the way, and even the sex is harmless”, The Observer said it was “full of submerged self-parody”, and The Guardian‘s critic called Dr. No “crisp and well-tailored” and “a neat and gripping thriller.” Just goes to show that you can’t please all the people all the time.

Iconic title imageThe opening credits always set the scene and the vibe for any film. With the expectation that Dr No would be the first of many movie adaptations of Bond stories, it was important for them to get it right first time round. And that they surely did. We can thank Maurice Binder, an American film title designer, for the idea of having Bond walk 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. Simple, but incredibly effective. For this first film, a stuntman by the name of Bob Simmons played 007 in this sequence (it was also Simmons over whom the tarantula crawls – not Sean Connery).

Opening creditsThe rest of the title sequence consists of coloured flashing discs and squares against a black background with white lettering, representing nightlife signs, traffic lights, casino chips, computer on/off lights – it could be any or all of these; it’s however you want to interpret them, really. This then breaks and becomes a sequence of coloured silhouettes of intertwining people dancing to Latin American rhythms, before another break, revealing the black silhouettes of the Three Blind Mice assassins, hobbling along to a calypso version of the famous nursery rhyme tune.

Le CercleAnd the locations? The action of the story takes place in London and Jamaica, and those are the two locations where the film was shot. Pinewood Studios was used for M’s office, Dr No’s lair and the ventilation duct that Bond has to crawl through. Le Cercle club, where we first meet Bond, was based on Les Ambassadeurs Club in Mayfair, but was another indoor set created by Ken Adam. The external views of MI6 were shot at Queensborough House in London. In Jamaica, the Queens Club scene was shot at the Courtleigh Manor Hotel in Kingston, and Strangways’ House actually belonged to Dolores Keator, the actress who played Strangway’s assistant Mary. Most of the other locations used in Jamaica were very close to Ian Fleming’s home and he frequently popped round whilst they were shooting.

Young Sean ConneryBond, James Bond. Apart from George Lazenby’s one-off portrayal of 007, Sean Connery was the only Bond I’d seen until I saw Daniel Craig in Skyfall. Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan are mere names to me at the moment (until I get around to seeing their films), so, for me, Connery is the one and only truly original. Prior to landing this role, he’d had a few parts, both major and minor, in some obscure films. He’d earned a reputation of being something of a hard man as, on a couple of occasions, he’d shown how handy he was with his fists, both on and off set; and it was director Terence Young who introduced him to the fashionable London scene, with glamorous women and decadent casinos, that knocked some of his rough edges off. But they wanted an actor who had strong, masculine charisma, and he truly fitted the part. Producer Cubby Broccoli had been slightly less than complimentary about some of the names in the frame for the role before they chose Connery.

Bond's first appearanceHe was 32 years old when the film was released; in the books Bond is meant to be in his mid-thirties, so that was a perfect match. Our first impression of him, seated at the casino table, gaining from Sylvia Trench’s losing streak, is of a suave, immaculately dressed, arrogant and maybe dangerous gentleman. He’s introduced to us gradually in that first scene; Sylvia Trench is centre stage, gambling extensively against her invisible opponent. At first, we just see his hands with the cards; then, on side profile, his face is masked by one of the others at the card table; then we see him from behind. We don’t see that iconic first look until he says the magic words “Bond, James Bond”. But it’s not only his words that express his thoughts. His eyes are firmly rooted on Miss Trench, and flirt outrageously with her when he observes, with something of a double meaning, “it looks like you’re out to get me”. When he gets up to attend to business, once again his eyes are more eloquent than any of his words; see you upstairs later, they say, rather than just goodbye. And indeed, by the end of the scene, he has already sorted out a golfing date with her the next afternoon with the prospect of dinner afterwards too. In the words of Sade, no need to ask, he’s a smooth operator.

Fixing a dateFilm editor Peter Hunt realised that the key to success in this film was to keep everything moving as quickly as possible, so that the audience doesn’t start to analyse it. As a result, this vital, iconic opening scene contains a terrible continuity gaffe. On uttering the immortal “Bond, James Bond” line, his cigarette is posed decadently between his lips. As Sylvia speaks her next line, “Mr Bond, I suppose you wouldn’t care to raise the limit”, he removes the cigarette from his mouth and we see it, from behind, held between the fingers of his left hand. However, when the camera pans back up to his face for his next line “I have no objections”, the cigarette is already, magically, back up there in his mouth. Pan back for Sylvia’s next line and the cigarette is back in his hand. There’s a lot of this kind of thing in Dr No. By all accounts, Peter Hunt’s very idiosyncratic style frequently sacrificed continuity for pace and impact. The film is riddled with continuity and factual errors and inconsistencies; no wonder Peter Hunt didn’t want to give the audience time to think. I particularly like the way Bernard Lee as M accidentally says he works for MI7 rather than MI6 – they kept it in, but dubbed “6” over “7”. Watch it back and you realise his mouth is all over the place.

Sylvia TrenchThe Bond Girl. Whilst Sylvia Trench is the first “girl” we meet in connection with Bond, and with whom there is definitely a romantic connection – that’s quite a warm kiss whilst she’s practising golf in his hotel room; and whilst Miss Taro is the first girl with whom he (almost certainly) has some kind of sexual congress, I wouldn’t classify either of them as the first Bond Girl. That accolade surely has to go to Honey Rider, played by the 26-year-old Ursula Andress. Apparently, at first the role was to be given to Julie Christie, but the producers didn’t think she was sufficiently voluptuous.

Miss TaroMs Andress had arrived in Hollywood in the mid-50s but made no films because she couldn’t learn English lines. For Honey Rider, her Swiss-Germanic accent had to be dubbed, in speech by Monika van der Zyl, and in singing by Diana Coupland (Bond theme composer Monty Norman’s wife). But it was definitely the breakthrough moment in her career – she said later that “she owed her career to that white bikini” which was sold at auction in 2001 for £41,125.

Honey and shellsOver the years the “Bond Girl” has developed into its own phenomenon, and of course the books, which by 1962 were extremely popular, substantially feature these glamorous female sidekicks. But it was with this first film that the idea of the Bond Girl really took off; and Ursula Andress’ performance obviously set the tone for future portrayals. Let’s take her performance as Honey Rider as a starting point for What Bond Girls Are Like. Sexy, obviously. With an exotic background? Unpredictable. As equally likely to attack Bond as to support him. Strong and self-reliant up to the point when they just have to collapse into his arms and allow him to rescue them. Tragic? Sometimes. Honey Rider tells Bond how a local landowner took advantage of her against her will; and how she got her revenge by putting a female black widow spider inside his mosquito net – he took a week to die.

Honey getting decontaminatedJust as Sylvia Trench had introduced herself as Trench, Sylvia Trench, and Bond was of course, Bond, James Bond, it’s strangely satisfying that Honey also introduces herself to Bond as Rider, Honey Rider, subtly suggesting a level of equality between the two. This continues with the way that they face their foe together, throughout the majority of the movie.

Bond, Honey and somethingAnother cinematographical anomaly; whilst Bond and Honey are talking seashells on the beach at their first meeting you can distinctly see a grey figure bobbing up and down at the foot of the screen, which disappears when you see them at a greater distance. It must be some kind of film equipment, or even a person trying (and failing) to keep out of shot. Click on the picture to take a closer look!

Dressing for dinnerIt’s a full hour before Honey Rider appears in the film. Well they say good things come to him who waits. Mind you, we don’t get sight of Doctor No himself until there’s just 21 minutes left to go.

Dr No himselfThe Villain. For every Bond Girl, there’s also a Bond Villain. In this case, it’s the eponymous Dr Julius No, a fiendish creation that Fleming based on the evil scientist made famous in the works of Sax Rohmer, Dr Fu Manchu. More recently, he is unquestionably the inspiration for Austin Powers’ Dr Evil. Dr No is half Chinese, half German; he has hands made of metal, which can crush with a vice-like pincer grip; but are also useless for delicate work, for obvious reasons, and are the reason why he cannot escape his fate from the boiling nuclear reactor pool. Displeased at the many failed attempts by his henchmen to kill Bond before his arrival at No’s lair, No even considers welcoming Bond into working for SPECTRE, which of course the latter refuses, although No changes his mind anyway believing Bond is too stupid. However, I can’t help but think that No is remarkably unobservant that things are going wrong in his reactor room, and that Bond has escaped and is slowly but surely punching all his assistants up the throat to sabotage No’s ambitions. I suppose that’s the typical conceit of the arch-evil enemy. Synchronise radio beam for toppling is a great masterplan. I’d have loved to recreate that in the playground. Too young, sigh.

Joseph WisemanDr No was played by the Canadian actor Joseph Wiseman, who was mainly known for his extensive stage work on Broadway. It was his appearance in the 1951 film Detective Story that convinced Harry Saltzman that he was the right man to play No. Apparently, in later years, Wiseman treated the film with disdain and preferred to be remembered for his theatre career. He died in 2009, aged 91.

Sylvia's handicapOther memorable characters? I felt rather sorry for Sylvia Trench, who loses loads of money at the Baccarat table just to get Bond’s attention, only to have him stand her up for their golf date with a difference and she never reappears throughout the rest of the film. She will, however, be back for the next film, From Russia With Love. She’s played by Eunice Gayson – again with her voice dubbed by Monika van der Zyl – who was originally due to play Miss Moneypenny, and Lois Maxwell was to play Sylvia; but Ms Maxwell didn’t like the part of Sylvia, so their roles were swapped. Originally Sylvia was expected to be in the first six films – yes, they were thinking that far ahead – but it wasn’t to be.

No such things as dragonsI also feel sorry for Quarrel, the Cayman Islander, who worked for Strangways and then accompanied Bond on his trip to Crab Key, and who dies at the hands (or should that be breath?) of the dragon that he and Honey insisted roamed the island. The dragon was of course a flame-throwing swamp buggy that wipes out Quarrel with one roar. Bond and Honey, with no room for sentimentality towards others, simply never mention him again. He was played by John Kitzmiller, who had appeared in dozens of European (mainly Italian) films in the 1950s, and who died in 1965 at the age of just 51.

Miss Taro againMiss Taro, who is ostensibly Mr Pleydell-Smith’s secretary at Government House, but in reality a spy working for No, is a very engaging character. Ruthless in her desire to kill, she is expert at using her womanly wiles to entrap any unsuspecting man into her clutches. Bond can see through her like a window pane, but he’s perfectly happy to fill his boots up before ensuring her arrest, even if he has to suffer the indignation of being spat at as a result. She was played by Zena Marshall, who appeared in dozens of films from 1945 on but retired from the film industry in 1967 – she died in 2009, aged 83.

Jack Lord as LeiterJack Lord – of Hawaii 5-0 fame – plays Felix Leiter, the CIA man with whom Bond has to work whilst he’s in Jamaica, and, in all honesty, it’s quite a dull role. He appears a few times, mainly to give factual support and advice, and he’s head of the Royal Navy launch to rescue Bond and Honey; but there’s nothing particularly memorable about him. Interestingly, the character, though frequently recurring throughout the books and films, doesn’t appear in the novel version of Dr No, and was, I guess, written in simply to provide a useful reference for future films. Leiter would be played by many different actors throughout the series, with a particularly uncompromising lack of continuity.

Bernard Lee as MThe other interesting characters are the regular favourites M, Miss Moneypenny, and Major Boothroyd, otherwise known as Q. They only have a brief appearance in Dr No, but they would come back again and again in future films. Bernard Lee played M, as he would on ten other occasions, Moonraker being his last appearance. Major Boothroyd was played by Peter Burton, a jobbing actor who appeared in minor roles in endless films and TV programmes up till his death in 1989. He would return to the world of Bond in Thunderball, although not as Q. For devotion to duty, Lois Maxwell outshines them all, appearing as Miss Moneypenny in all the films (bar the parody Casino Royale) from Dr No till 1985’s A View To A Kill. She discussed with director Terence Young what Moneypenny and Bond’s backstory might have been; and they concluded that the two had probably spent an idyllic dirty weekend away when they were very junior officers but they realised that if they carried on together, she’d have her heart broken and he’d never make a spy. So they just settled for various levels of flirtation. She’s also the first person to call him 007, as she announces his arrival to M on the phone. A security necessity no doubt, but you get the feeling she thinks of it as a rather affectionate nickname. M confirms it’s real significance: if you carry a 00 number it means you’re licensed to kill.

Byron Lee and the DragonairesAnd what about the music? Over the years we’ve got used to associating the James Bond films with some remarkable theme songs – as well as the main James Bond Theme, written by Monty Norman. Whilst there is plenty of incidental music, Dr No doesn’t have any big song; just the arresting original theme, arranged by John Barry, who would later go on to compose the music for eleven Bond films. The incidental music features a few numbers performed by Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, the Jamaican calypso and ska band. The only other recurring song is Under the Mango Tree, also written by Monty Norman.

Monty NormanFew pieces of music so compellingly and arrestingly attract your attention as Norman’s Main Bond theme. You cannot hear it without associating it with 007. It’s as iconic a sound as the opening titles are visually, and another great example of the production team getting it right the first time.

First car chaseCar chases. I don’t know about you, but one of the things I always associate with a James Bond film is a good car chase. So I thought I’d take a look at all the car chases in all the films and see how satisfying each of them is. Dr No benefits from two such chases. The first – of moderate interest – is after he has been met at Kingston Airport by “Mr Jones”, allegedly a chauffeur sent by Government House, but in fact he’s in the pay of the nasty Dr No. Bond gets in the car, a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air 2434, knowing full well that Jones is not a bona fide chauffeur, but nevertheless Bond instructs him to “take him for a ride” as he’s in no hurry to get to Government House. Playing into the hands of the enemy, one might think? But he is pursued by Felix Leiter and Quarrel in a 1959 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider 101-03. As it becomes clear to Mr Jones that they are being followed, Bond suggests he tries to lose the pursuers. Bond tells him to swerve off the main road and, careering through the dust, they come to a panicky halt, whilst Leiter sails past. Jones is just collecting his thoughts when he feels a gun in the small of his back, and Bond interrogates him as to who he is working for. Despite Jones’ insistence he was hired by Government House Bond forces him out of the car, and some fisticuffs ensue. Jones knows he is no match for Bond so says he will talk, but first he wants a cigarette. Just as you think he’s going to spill the beans, he bites into the cigarette which proves to be laced with cyanide. Result: one dead chauffeur, and Bond has to do his own driving. By the way, I know nothing about vintage cars; I’ve gleaned the information about the vehicle models from someone on the Internet whom I hope knows what he’s talking about.

Second car chaseThe second – and more exciting – car chase follows Miss Taro’s invitation to Bond to join her at her house on Magenta Drive. He follows her instructions – now driving a 1961 Sunbeam Alpine Series II – and at first it’s an enjoyable, relaxing, sporty drive down some hairpin roads. But then he’s suddenly pursued by a 1939 LaSalle Funeral Coach Miller Combination Series 50 hearse. It’s all hammy studio stuff, you can virtually see the joins, but nevertheless the thrill starts to kick in. Bond, despite an initial sense of alarm, is clearly loving the chase, trying to outwit his opponents and force them off the road. Suddenly Bond sees the road is blocked by a crane with its boom down but there is a gap underneath that he can just squeeze through. Unfortunately the gap is too small for the hearse, which also can’t stop in time, so swerves left and plummets down a cliff subsequently bursting into flames. Some bright spark has observed that the hearse that gets destroyed is a different vehicle from the one in the chase – a 1949 Humber Super Snipe Mk II Hearse, apparently. I expect it was less valuable than the LaSalle. Budgets mattered enormously.

BaccaratCocktails and Casinos. One always thinks of Bond in the glamorous environment of a casino, discreetly pocketing thousands of pounds worth of gambling wins, whilst always stipulating to an obsessive degree how his cocktail should be prepared. So I thought I’d take a regular look at his gambling habits and alcoholic beverage choices throughout the series. We’ve already taken a look at the casino scene that introduces Bond to the world. He’s playing the Chemin-de-Fer variant of Baccarat, neither of which mean a thing to me, and he’s fleecing poor Miss Trench. I hope she gets a chance to win some back in the next film.

Vodka MartiniAs far as drinks are concerned, he starts off with a medium dry vodka martini – mixed not stirred, prepared by a waiter as he is getting ready to meet Pleydell-Smith, Dent and Potter at the club; later in the hotel room he just drinks neat vodka, from the bottle in his case, not the one that’s been left out, which I presume he suspects may have been poisoned. He pours out two glasses of neat vodka for Miss Taro and himself from a very fine looking Imperial Vodka bottle, even though she’s already been arrested and taken away – it’s a ploy to convince Dent that he and Taro are in bed together. Later, in Dr No’s lair, he’s served another medium dry vodka martini, with lemon peel; this time specified as shaken not stirred – whilst Honey appears to have a red wine.

Geiger CounterGadgets. This is another area of Bondlife with a high reputation – Bond always had the best and most up-to-date gadgets, issued by Q. Well, it looks like it was a soft launch for gadgetry in Dr No, as there isn’t very much to take our attention. A Geiger counter arrives from London; and for day to day assistance, Bond wears a Rolex Submariner watch; perfect for underwater use, as the name suggests, and a stylish addition to his wardrobe. The only other extra offered by M in this film is a self-destructor bag for the case notes, which Bond has to study during the flight.

In MemoriamIn Memoriam. I assumed before I started watching Dr No – and all the subsequent films – that there would be a not inconsiderable death count. So let’s briefly remember those who gave their lives so that Bond and Honey can go off in that boat in the final scene for some nookie:

1) Strangways. Shot by the Three Blind Men.

2) Mary, his assistant. Ditto.

3) Mr Jones, the bogus chauffeur, who chomps on a cyanide cigarette rather than tell Bond who he’s working for.

4) Whoever was driving the hearse when it hurtled down the ravine. I think received wisdom suggests it’s the Three Blind Men again.

5) Professor Dent. Clinically despatched by Bond with deft expertise (and a pistol) – a scene that the censor didn’t like because it was unsporting; he took a lot of convincing by Terence Young to get it passed.

6) The guard on Crab Key who wades through the water, who gets his knifed in the back in one swift movement by Bond, much to Honey’s horror.

7) Quarrel; incinerated by the dragon.

8) The guard whose clothes Bond nicks so that he can steal inside the Big Reactor Room – neck broken from behind, or possibly knifed – hard to tell behind the screen.

9) Doctor No; whilst at first he has the upper hand in his final fight with Bond, balance, gravity and slippery hands are not his friend as he is not so gently poached in a vat of boiling nuclear reactor liquid.

10) There are two guards/scientists treated to a couple of Bond’s sucker punches which up-end them over a barrier landing heavily on a hard floor. So they may have died, or they may just be feeling pretty ropey. However, it’s all rather irrelevant as the death count continues with:

11) Everyone else left in Doctor No’s lair when the whole place erupts.

One dead chauffeurHumour to off-set the death count. It became something of a tradition (or maybe it didn’t! We will see!) for Bond to make some kind of jokey remark whenever someone died. Here are the throwaway lines that marked some of the deaths in this film:

As Bond delivers the dead body of Jones back to Government House, he tells the Sergeant on duty outside “Make sure he doesn’t get away”.

When the operator of the truck that blocked the route to Magenta Drive asks about the hearse the plummeted down the ravine, Bond quips “they were on their way to a funeral.”

Dent creeps into Taro’s bedroom and delivers six bullets into what he believes is the outline of Bond’s body in bed – whereas it’s just some pillows he’d cleverly arranged in advance. Just before Bond shoots Dent, he says “it was a Smith and Wesson, and you’ve had your six”. A good card player always counts the tricks that have already been won.

Oxford-DictionaryAny less frothy elements? Before wrapping up this look back at Dr No, let’s just consider if there are any outstanding themes or elements that don’t sit well with today’s audience. I couldn’t perceive any obvious homophobic or racist elements, which in itself is quite interesting, given the racial mix of people in the Jamaica half of the story. But what about sexism? I think this might be a recurring issue in Bond films, so let’s first of all consult my OED and get a definitive definition, if that’s not a tautological tautology. 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.”

MoneypennyI interpret that as revealing that the sexism in Dr No stems from all the women having subordinate roles – Moneypenny, Mary (Strangways’ assistant), Miss Taro (Pleydell-Smith’s secretary), various hotel receptionists, airline cabin crew, and so on. 15-love. Merely playing up the sexually attractive nature of the women, like Honey in her bikini, or Miss Taro lying on the bed sensuously waving her foot in the air, is not sexist in itself, unless you view it as conforming to the sexually stereotyped social role of looking great for guys to ogle. Even so, Honey wasn’t expecting company and Miss Taro was on her own when she was on the bed, so I think in those moments they’re doing it for themselves and not for others. 15-all.

Bond getting decontaminatedThere is the scene where Honey is taking a decontamination shower (every home should have one), which clearly has sexual connotations. But then Bond is also lathering up, so there’s no assumption that the female is inferior to the male; the decontamination shower treats everyone equally. 15-30.

Rescuing HoneyHowever, the whole notion of the Bond Girl is surely steeped in sexism. The Bond Girl is, by her very nature, an add-on to Bond; a sidekick, an assistant, someone to look up to him heroically, someone to be fluffy in comparison to his hard man image. It’s clear that a woman like that is seen as inferior to Bond, and therefore would come under the definition of sexist. Indeed, a purely vacuous Bond Girl would be both bland and sexist at the same time. But if you imagine or interpret the Bond Girl as Bond’s equal; if they work together in partnership, each bringing different skills to the table; then, perhaps, not. There are a couple of times when Honey fights back at the armed guards who capture her and Bond in Crab Key. However, his instruction to Honey before they dine with No is “leave all the talking to me” – so that’s not equality in the face of the enemy. In Dr No, I think it’s fair to say that Honey needs a lot of rescuing; she’s more eye-candy than partner in crime-fighting. 30-all.

Dismissing HoneyAnd there’s a vital moment, in Doctor No’s lair, over their posh dinner, when Bond insists that any argument he has with No, has nothing to do with “the girl”, and he wants her safely removed from harm’s way. Despite Honey’s protestations that she wants to be involved, she is taken from the dining table and – as far as Bond is concerned – is out of the picture (literally). Gentlemanly or sexist? A mixture of both, of course. But overall, at 40-30, I’m going to call this a relatively sexist film, but with the rider (no pun intended) that it could be a lot worse than it is.

MaoDr No’s joint Chinese and German heritage is significant from a political point of view; at the time, China was a closed country, led by Mao Tse Tung, of whom the West was extremely suspicious. West Germany, whilst having reinvented itself after the war under Adenauer, was still an emotional hurdle for many who had sustained personal loss during the Second World War. And of course there was also Walter Ulbricht’s East Germany to fear.

Get TopplingDr No’s stated aim, to interfere with the rocket launches from Cape Canaveral, sets him firmly in an anti-American, but he claims to be working neither for the East nor the West; SPECTRE are a class apart. Nevertheless, it’s pure Cold War material, which one guesses will continue simply from the title of the next film, From Russia with Love. Whilst Bond is clearly working for the British Government, it’s a given that the American and British security policies are broadly the same, and that Britain will therefore work to support America. Plus ça change…

A pressing needBizarre other stuff that occurred to me. I don’t know whether it’s deliberate or not, but the radio operator who reports that the Jamaica link has broken has the most appallingly un-ironed shirt. That could be a way of showing how long and hard they all worked; or it could be that the wardrobe department had an off day.

Dolores KeatorDolores Keator, who played Strangway’s assistant Mary, was apparently married to Sandford Ziff, who founded Sunglass Hut.

PhotographerMargaret LeWars, who played the unnamed photographer who constantly tries to take snaps of Bond, was the reigning Miss Jamaica at the time. The story goes that she was employed at Kingston Airport, which is where the production crew discovered her, and offered her the job there and then, on the spot.

A singing BondWhen James Bond sings Under the Mango Tree back to Honey, when she first walks in from the sea – apparently that’s the one and only time Bond sings in a film. I’ll make a mental note to Golden Globe Statuecheck that’s correct!

Awards and Nominations: Just the one – the Golden Globe for most promising newcomer – female went to Ursula Andress.

RIchard MaibaumTo sum up. Considering this was the film that launched a hugely successful series – the 25th Bond film is expected to start filming later this year – you would think that Dr No would have had high impact and be considered largely successful; and so it was, and still is. Richard Maibaum (who would go on to write 13 of the Bond films), Johanna Harwood (script editor) and Berkely Mather’s screenplay is tight and compact, witty, with no unnecessary dialogue, smart, but not too smart. It treads a delicate, and I think successful, line between being a genuine spy thriller and a slightly tongue-in-cheek affair, which raises its entertainment status without having a detrimental effect on the suspense. Strong characterisation, a memorable theme tune, and some iconic acting make it extremely watchable. My only criticism would be that the story gets a little bogged down between the time that Bond, Honey and Quarrel are hiding in the Crab Key waters and finally getting to challenge Dr No in person. However, that’s just my small quibble. I’d be fascinated to hear your opinions of Dr No – and whether or not you agree with me! Please leave a comment below. Next up – From Russia with Love!

My rating: 4 Sparkles

4 Sparkles4 Sparkles4 Sparkles4 Sparkles

 

 

 

All photos from the film of course belong to their various copyright holders.

Theatre Censorship – 25: Changing Rooms and Sheer Unadulterated Filth

The Changing Room

The Changing Room, photographed by John Haynes

Julian Hilton, in his essay The Court and its Favours, published in Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 19, draws attention to David Storey’s fascination with what may be termed the off-centre: “he deliberately presents, as it were, the two outside panels of a triptych, but consciously removes the middle”. The three acts of his 1971 play The Changing Room are set in the changing room of a Rugby League club before, during and after the match. The match is the least of his concerns, and our interest is only marginal; we never discover the final score, and we the audience are happy to ignore it. Instead Storey wants us to observe the movements and behaviour of a group of closely united people whose actions are not restrained by any external influence.

On the pitch, the rugby players know they have to put on a show because they are being watched. The changing room, however, offers them a sanctuary away from the public gaze, free from the pressure elsewhere imposed on them. This dramatic reversal provides the play’s strength; as the rugby players are being observed in private, the play offers an outstanding atmosphere of comradeship and frankness, which is certainly enhanced by the use of nudity. Storey wants to show that the characters are all members of the same “team” in two ways. First, that they are the “City” side as opposed to their unnamed rivals; secondly, that they are, for a short time, a group of twenty-two segregated men who can talk freely yet privately about wives, girlfriends and other topics of all-male interest. Such a play in such a setting would not have been feasible without the use of nudity because it couldn’t depict the team members getting undressed and bathing, and the play would not ring true. In other later productions such as Equus (1973), Privates on Parade (1977), The Elephant Man (1977) and Bent (1979), the nudity offers a sense of honesty and genuineness; again, the impression would have been obviously false if nudity had been avoided in these cases. And not just male nudity – Nell Dunn’s Steaming (1981) features the women who take refuge and support from using their local baths, and their fight to keep them open in the face of financial cuts by the Council.

Stephen Poliakoff

Stephen Poliakoff

In discussing sexuality, topics became daring and challenging. Stephen Poliakoff’s Hitting Town (1975), for example, deals with the incestuous relationship between Clare and her irresponsible brother Ralph. One of his pranks – and certainly the most revealing about his character – is to ring the phone-in programme on the local radio station, pretending to be an eleven-year-old and saying he has had sexual intercourse with his sister, also aged eleven. However, as in so many of Poliakoff’s early plays, the author’s main objective is to create a little colour and excitement to cry out and get noticed against the greys and neons of his soulless Leicester walkways.

Lay By

Portable Theatre’s production of Lay By (1971) photo by Roger Perry

Poliakoff was also involved in the writing of possibly the most significant play of its time concerning rape, the infamous Lay-By, first presented by Portable Theatre at the Edinburgh Festival in 1971. Apparently, after a meeting at the Royal Court, David Hare announced, “Anyone who wants to write a play with me join me in the bar”. Thus Poliakoff, Hare, and five other accomplished playwrights – Howard Brenton, Brian Clark, Trevor Griffiths, Hugh Stoddart and Snoo Wilson – collaborated on this work. The play took as its inspiration a newspaper report discussing the apparent innocence of a van driver, Jack, who had been sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment for rape, which, it was alleged, took place in the back of his van. In “Lay-By”, the facts of the rape are very blurred; the presence of Jack’s mistress in the van at the same time as the alleged rape adds to the complexity. The play shows the adverse effects of pornography and drugs, and culminates with two hospital orderlies abusing an unconscious girl who is about to die from the effects of a back-street abortion. Finally, her dead body, and those of Jack and his mistress, whose deaths remain unexplained, are washed in what appears to be blood.

The play is a strange mixture of dramatised documentary and fantasy, its unevenness being an inevitable consequence of its group composition. The different styles of Poliakoff and Brenton, for example, may be seen with regard to their artistic treatment of realism. They are at opposing ends of the spectrum: Poliakoff is deeply concerned with realistic presentation – the Wimpy Bar in “Lay-By” is definitely of his invention – whereas Brenton uses more imaginative and fantastic devices, such as the horses in Epsom Downs or the raising of Churchill in The Churchill Play. “Lay-By” had been commissioned by the Royal Court but they eventually refused to present it because it was too daring, and possibly liable to prosecution on the grounds of its possibly tending “to deprave and corrupt persons…likely…to attend it”. Nevertheless, the Royal Court finally accepted it for occasional Sunday performances, and I’m sure the irony of that wasn’t lost on the theatregoing public of the day.

Denis Quilley as Carmen Miranda

Denis Quilley as Carmen Miranda, with Joe Melia and Simon Jones, Copyright Orion Classics

The inclusion of homosexuality in plays was as frequent as it was before the new Act. Peter Nichols created gay characters for both tenderness and ridicule in Privates on Parade, as well as for the humour involved in Terri Dennis’ drag appearances as Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn and Carmen Miranda. Earlier in 1967, Simon Gray’s Wise Child had featured female impersonation for much more sinister ends. The play was originally written for the BBC, but the producer to whom it was sent turned it down on the grounds that it would offend the general public. Surprisingly, perhaps, the Lord Chamberlain passed it, with a few cuts. Norman Krasna’s Lady Harry (1978) involved female impersonation and was a total box office failure, running for less than a week at the Savoy Theatre. In 1979 Martin Sherman’s Bent won critical accolades for its boldness and maturity, although its very fragmentary and extended structure detracts from the play as a whole, in my humble opinion. In December 1980 Brenton’s The Romans in Britain arrived at the National Theatre to great scandal and I’ll be looking at this episode in theatre history separately later.

Caryl Churchill

Caryl Churchill

In the 1970s you could find much cruder examples of religious irreverence than were around before 1968. Two notable examples are “God? Are You there? Bastard… Well fuck you, God the fucking father, and fuck you Jesus Creepers and fuck you, God the Holy Fucking Ghost” (Deeds by Brenton, Griffiths, Campbell and Hare, 1978) and “Shitting, pissing, spewing, puking, fucking Jesus Christ” (Light Shining in Buckinghamshire by Caryl Churchill, 1976). The latter example, in particular, appears solely to set out to shock, and although it is a fairly effective device, and certainly an alliterative curse, its very frankness detracts from its meaning and, in the final analysis, it’s just a bunch of words. At least when Samuel Beckett wrote “He doesn’t exist!” in Endgame he substantiated his claim.

It’s interesting to think what might have happened if these plays had been written ten years earlier. They would then have been open to prosecution under the old Blasphemy Act of 1697 which was not repealed under the 1967 Criminal Law Act. Paragraph 44 of the 1967 Committee’s report states that “violation of religious reverence is covered by the law of blasphemy” and cited this as a safeguard against offensive texts in its recommendation that censorship be withdrawn. However, in the same year the Criminal Law Act repealed the 1697 Act, and as a result, the “violation of religious reverence” is not held a crime under any circumstances. The old Act, which had been passed for general suppression of blasphemy and profanity, read:

“An offence is committed in:
(1) shockingly or irreverently ridiculing or impugning the doctrines of the Christian faith, or
(2) uttering or publishing contumelious reproaches of Jesus Christ, or
(3) profane scoffing at the Holy Scriptures or exposing any part thereof to contempt or ridicule.”

Caryl Churchill’s description of Christ mentioned above is clearly contumelious, and under the strict codes of law, the passage would have been illegal. One can only speculate whether this forgotten old law would have been brought into practice against such writing.

In my next blog post I’ll take a look at blasphemy in post-1968 theatre.