Sunday, 15 November 2015

Ghost Stories for Christmas: Stigma

Pagan. Now there's a word which gets a hammering all round and is taken up and run with by all sorts of people. Its etymology is Latin, of course, from the word for fields, and it means people of the fields. It's a Latin way of saying country bumpkin, and was coined at the time Christianity was a spreading urban religion to refer to the unbaptised hordes who stuck to their previous Pagan ways. Similarly Christmas is a festival argued over by all sorts of people, and it seems strangely suitable that I should be reviewing this story of alleged Pagan remnants from this box set of ghost stories for Christmas. I may or may not write about the others, which are in the main adaptations of MR James's marvellous stories, but I've chosen to start with this one since I find, reading the reviews of the internet, it gets widely criticised for not being a ghost story. It seems to me that it can be considered a ghost story, it's about a ghost of a different sort from the usual run of ghost stories. It picks up on some of the themes familiar to readers of this blog, found in the zeitgeist of the 1960s and 1970s: modernity versus tradition, religious symbols of baptism and virginity, ideas of religious sacrifice, and the idea popular at the time of 'the old religion'. Personally I think it's absolutely superb and just had to blog about it here, to try to counterbalance the largely critical drumming it's tended to get.
The main divide here is a truly Christian/Pagan one between baptism and ancient sacrifice. The theme is introduced by the name of the young girl, Verity, again a word of Latin etymology and which refers to truth as a virtue. She is seen driving home with her mother in a car (it's a Citroen Diane for those interested in that sort of thing), and the car is contrasted with the surrounding countryside, which countryside is also contrasted with the digger employed in alterations to the garden, including removing one of the standing stones. The pictures of standing stones are the real thing, taken from the circle at Avebury in Wiltshire, and I believe that those sort of things are probably protected as ancient monuments in reality. These contrasts of nature versus mechanisation introduce the main themes.
The story is one of a dead body, with knives through its ribs and at all four corners of the grave, whose disturbance leads to the death of the mother of the house, who bleeds to death by spontaneous bleeding with no visible wound. The blood is a major visual theme throughout the piece. Mrs Delgardo's later bleeding to death is presaged by the blood of the joint of beef she is preparing for dinner just as the men are trying to take up the stone. Blood is of course one of the major elements of religious sacrifice throughout the world and throughout history – the implication here is that because the ancient sacrifice has been disrespected, Mrs Delgardo must pay for this with her own life. Further religious symbolism is added by the comparison of blood with red wine – again a Christian reference to the eucharist – when Mrs Delgardo thinks she is bleeding although her husband (played wonderfully by Peter Bowles) thinks she has got the red wine down her front, which is actually the case.
A further visual reference to Christianity is in the recurring visual of white sheets, towels, clothes, walls. In the early church, the newly baptised would wear white only for a period after baptism, and it of course remains a symbol of illumination. In the ancient world it would be contrasted with black, which while it would tend to be seen as racist nowadays, is of course influenced by the sheer fear of the dark in Europe before electricity. As Mrs Delgardo is bleeding in the bathroom, and wiping the blood on white towels, or as her blood later pools on the white bedding, it is as if visually the symbol of Christian baptism is being overtaken by the blood of ancient sacrifice. Significantly the time when it turns out that what looks like blood is actually red wine, she has changed into a flowery ethnic dress for dinner, visually a pagan representation opposed to the white which otherwise dominates. Mrs Delgardo's partial nudity while she dabs at the blood in the bathroom, represents a taking off of the Christian baptism, which she keeps trying to put on again by repeated washings, repeated use of white towels, bandages, etc, but through all of which the ancient blood seeps. Her nudity is a return to the state before modern sophistication – a true paganism.
The knives which pierce and surround the sacrifice in the garden are reflected in a scene in the kitchen when Peter Bowles can't sleep. It is apparent that the sacrifice is happening then, since the vegetables on the stove represent the country, and the knife on the stove represents sacrifice: the country is taking its sacrifice.
Ironically it turns out that the cottage the family live in was previously in the family of one of the men digging up the garden. This exchange of the 'natives' (with regional, although somewhat confused at times, accents) with the incomers who speak received pronunciation, is a further image of the land wanting its own, wanting sacrifice, and not actually really belonging to the people who merely live in the cottage. They are portrayed as townies and contrasted with the villagers: it is not really loud-pedalled in this piece, but it is very apparent that their way of life would have been relatively expensive for the 1970s. They own two cars, the kitchen is obviously an expensive fitted one, they can eat a joint of beef for dinner, they have afforded to buy and do up an old cottage, and furnish it with antiques. But this film criticises their way of life – there is a very real sense in which it is not real, and in fact drawing on a major concern of the time, it is seen as actually inevitably leading to its own destruction.
Also about as 1970s as you can get are the visuals (I've included pictures of the cottage as well as the stone to make the contrast clearer, and to indicate that although the family obviously want to live in the country it is not in an authentic way). The cottage is a dream of tasteful 1970s decoration: we're not talking avocado bathrooms here, but rather Terence Conran decoration books. It is paced exactly right and in some ways I will have to grant is more suspenseful and horrifying than ghostly, because you just know something terrible is going to happen and the film draws you inexorably towards it. 
My one criticism is one extraneous to the actual show, & it is that my suspicions are always aroused by the phrase 'the old religion'. It is sometimes used to refer to Wicca, which although it is bigger in the States in the only living religion Britain has given to the world, & is a wholly twentieth century creation, drawing on popular (not academic) ideas of what ancient religion was like. These ideas are present here to the full, including the 13 year old girl who is definitely flirting with one of the workmen at one point. Sex & knives, the visual paraphernalia of the imagined old religion which became Wicca. This was the age of The Wicker Man, of course, & this ahistoricity is a personal quibble rather than a criticism of the film, but this is a blog & I reserve the right to fill it with my opinions!

Apartheid in The Prisoner: It's Your Funeral

In so many ways, this episode is a no-brainer when looking for possible allusions to South African apartheid. The level of surveillance in The Village rivals anything Botha's government could later have thought up. The laying of traps using the sophisticated methods of corrupt medicine. The use of technology to monitor events. The activities of the 'jammers' are not dissimilar to the method of keeping your opponent busy which I delineated in my last post in this series.
But what particularly catches my interest in this episode is the activities prognosis on Number 6. Even though he is usually portrayed as the most discontented inhabitant of The Village, it is interesting how much – unless intended to lull his captors into a false sense of security while he is gaining intelligence – his daily life in The Village is a routine of simple leisure and relaxation. In fact that would seem to be the routine of every inhabitant for the purpose of this episode, although such things as domestic work and maintaining the grounds are shown in other episodes. In fact the reason this is the aspect which most resonates with apartheid for me, is that it has such strong echoes of the leisured, affluent life lived by the white minority in South Africa. Despite the slight change in economic power towards some of the black population, this is actually still largely the case, only now the affluent whites' privilege is buttressed by money rather than apartheid.
Under apartheid whites living in South Africa – even poorer white people – were virtually guaranteed a secure, prosperous life, and part of this was the amount of work done by blacks for whites. This caused the volume of leisure time enjoyed by white people, exactly the kind of life shown in the activity prognosis in this episode of The Prisoner. Just as the fact that the whites in South Africa constituted the electorate on their own and naturally had strong incentives to maintain the status quo, no wonder that the majority of the inhabitants of The Village settles down to their sedate, leisured life, because it affords one of the main aims of human life. Even the malcontents are clearly identified and eventually just ignored: jamming is the process of keeping your opponent busy and in a society where the authorities don't really have to account for anything, they can just ignore the threat. This is jamming gone wrong.
Into this sedate world comes an apparent assassination threat. Again it is interesting how exactly this mirrors the tactics of successive apartheid governments – when comfort alone isn't enough to keep the electorate voting for you, there is no harm in introducing a terror threat. Of course it helps if there is ongoing unrest among the malcontents/non-white population, which can be loud pedalled to create a perceived threat. In this case, this process is actually turned round on Number 6: in fact the process is almost exactly the same as 'jamming' only turned round to be used by Number 2 on Number 6. The tactic is then turned around again, so that Number 6's warning is manipulated to discredit him. In the faked films of his warning successive Number 2s, none of whom have appeared in the show before, history is created to make Number 6 believe what the authorities want him to believe.
The sheer power in this technique is shown by the simple fact that Number 6, surely one of the least credulous men one could ever want to meet, falls for it completely. In fast succession to this, Number 2 wants this investigated, and of course the records he asks for aren't there. Again a clear echo of the ethos of apartheid, where history is written as it goes along, a spin in placed on every event to make it conform to the required pattern, and ultimately everybody's head is spinning so much that nobody knows what the hell is going on. The effect of this episode on the viewer – which must surely include an element of confusion – is probably exactly how living under apartheid, in any racial classification, must have felt. It is impossible to know who is on what side in this episode, and although the 'goodies' in the form of Number 6, win, it is never apparent what is going to happen.
Just as under apartheid, in The Village this all takes place against the background of the pretence of democracy and forced appreciation by the people for the wise men who govern them. Once again, it only takes a few plants to start this so that everyone else will join in, using the power of crowd psychology.
Finally the introduction of terror is the most powerful means of manipulation. I don't mean on the part of those who are committing acts of terror, because it is usually rather counter-productive in that it makes people fear those who commit these acts. Politically it is therefore very useful is your opponent will resort to acts of terror, because it will force the populace to fear them, rather than do what they want. In fact it is very difficult to see how The Village could reasonably have continued if the plot to assassinate Number 2 had actually gone ahead, since the pretence would have gone completely. Of course that is a different in the South African situation, since when terror was resorted to the aim was actually to cause the destruction of the ruling regime.
Incidentally I like Derren Nesbitt very much as Number 2 – he makes an unusually eccentric one, and I particularly love the scene where he wears pyjamas and a dressing gown – almost the Noel Coward approach to being Number 2.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Sweeney! and Sweeney Two

I touched briefly on The Sweeney, when I did a series of posts on 1970s TV shows earlier in the year. Re-reading my post, I find that I was mainly interested in the historical context of the show, making reference to the contemporary history in my local area. To tell the truth, I have never actually got on well with The Sweeney. I thought for a long time it was because one of my old neighbours put me off it by describing it sneeringly as 'very old fashioned', and recounting how she and her partner, who likes it, would fight over the remote interminably until her got so drunk he would go to sleep and then she would watch what she wanted.
Unfortunate and largely irrelevant associations aside, I didn't realise that The Sweeney also spawned two films, the subject of this post, and through watching them I have discovered what I think is wrong with The Sweeney. The show is much better served as a film than as a TV show. There, said it. These two films are basically Sweeney episodes, with the same characters, same milieu, etc, but in my humble opinion flow much better than in the TV episodes. The acerbic Regan is not well served by the TV slot medium: he comes across as too acerbic and does not have the opportunity for character development afforded by these films.
This development is most helped by the sub-plots possible in a film, although the basic gritty premise remains unchanged. This is London of the 1970s, and it's rough as a bear's bum. The basic subject of these two films is really police corruption. This was of course a major public concern at the time – and the real history behind The Sweeney includes many a resignation of a police officer and repeated scandals. Nor is the rest of gritty reality ignored: the illustration to this post is Regan in a bathroom with a high-class prostitute. There is porn, corruption in high places, you name it. I always find it interesting how 1970s TV managed so effectively to combine fascinating glimpses of the rich and privileged of the time, with a view of how that world interacts with the desperate underbelly of society. This in a sense breaches the real/unreal divide that I am so fond of, since both sides of this divide are naturally somewhat unreal to the other half.
To anyone my age or older, these films are a visual delight. One of the reasons I chose the bathroom picture for this post is the truly awful wallpaper. The locations are expertly chosen, the clothes are ridiculous, the interiors are tasteless. This is a retrospective of the 1970s at its best. My main concern is how any film of the time would have coped without a concrete multi-storey car park in which to have a chase! The cars are a dream of reminiscence, in fact at one point there is a scene in a scrap yard which would be a delight to any classic car enthusiast. Te films also serve as yet another reminder of how awful British cars were at the time, since at one point a Morris Marina is written off. Anyone remember those? Thought not, but my godmother had a gold-coloured coupe.
I would have to admit to a certain ambivalence about John Thaw in this, since for me he is only and ever Inspector Morse. I find it interesting how Regan almost provides the other side to the apparently more refined Morse character; the other side because in terms of being antisocial there really isn't much difference. It is strange to see Thaw smoking, given that he died of throat cancer. I see that he smoked from the age of twelve.
In the manner of the time and the straight-up nature of these films, sexiness isn't lacking. In line with the 'topless on TV' undercurrent here, I see that even though this disc is an 18 certificate, the nudity is described as moderate, in comparison to the language and violence which are described as strong. There are glimpses of breasts at various points in both films, and in one scene the entire criminal gang line up supposedly in the sun (although they look very cold) in wonderfully 1970s swimming trunks. The depictions of sex are rather ambivalent – Regan at one point gets off with the posh tart, while Carter is also seen in bed with a woman. Regan makes it quite plain that he is happily divorced, and judging from the horseplay depicted in the office at one point, this is a very male team, hard-working, -playing, -drinking, …you get the idea.
All in all I would strongly recommend these films over the TV series of the same name, although of course I'm going to have to look it up again now to make sure I'm not doing it an injustice.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Theatre of Blood, starring Vincent Price and Diana Rigg

This film may seem like a departure from the normal televisual delights blogged about here, but I am actually writing this piece because this film is worthy of probably the highest approbation I have ever given here: it is almost like an episode of The Avengers. It is necessary of course, to ignore the fact that Diana Rigg plays the baddie's daughter, and the baddie's ultimate target is played by Ian Hendry, but the plot itself is worthy of The Avengers:
'Shakespearean actor Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price) appears to have committed suicide by diving into the Thames, after being humiliated at an awards ceremony. But he has been secretly rescued by vagrants, who welcome him into their circle. Weakened by meths-addiction, they prove to be a docile crew, that he will use in a campaign of revenge on the drama-critics who failed to salute his genius.
'Lionheart plans to destroy his critics in a series of poetic killings, based on classic Shakespearean murder-scenes. So one of them is depatched on the Ides of March, like Julius Caesar. Another has his heart cut out, referencing Shylock's 'pound of flesh'. Some of the murders are also linked to the seven deadly sins. One critic, noted for envy, is tricked into murdering his wife in a jealous rage, like Othello, before being jailed for life. Another one, noted for drunkenness, is drowned in a cask of wine, like Clarence in Richard III.
'Meanwhile Lionheart's daughter Edwina has been arrested as the chief suspect, and he needs to reveal himself in order to save her. In the final drama, he orders his chief critic Devlin to give him the coveted award in order to spare his life. But he refuses, and Lionheart plans to put out his eyes with red-hot daggers, as with Gloucester in King Lear. His contraption gets stuck, however, just as the police arrive to save Devlin. To thwart them, Lionheart sets fire to the theatre, and in the confusion, one of the vagrants kills Edwina with the award statuette, unwittingly casting her in the role of Cordelia. Lionheart retreats, carrying her body to the roof and delivering Lear's final monologue before the roof caves in, sending him to his death. Devlin comments "You must admit he did know how to make an exit."' (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theatre_of_Blood)
Brim-full of eccentrics, odd theatrical characters, unusual scenes, hatred, lunacy, it is extraordinary to find a film of the horror genre set in a world so close to Avengerland. In fact it has made me ask myself whether it couldn't possibly actually be parodying The Avengers, in a strange postmodern reversal of the way in which The Avengers parodied other genres. Certainly, the Avengers never made the mistake of setting an episode in the theatre – the fiction that is Steed would have looked far too artificial in the world of greasepaint, but if it had I feel that this would be very much an Avengerland version of the theatre.
In a strange way it helps that the cast of this film is like a roll call of big names of the time – normally my dislike for familiar faces would make me hate that, but once again it works by making it impossible to forget that the sort of tensions among actors and hatred for critics depicted in the film, are actually the daily life of the thespian. In fact I found myself looking around the cast and wondering what level of animosity they could manage to conjure up among themselves!
Despite its Avengersesque world view, of course Theatre of Blood differs in one important way – the violence is very real and very graphic, in a way it never was in the Avengers. This film can manage to be both very funny and horrifying at the same time – the scene where one of the critics is force-fed a pie made of his dogs is particularly revolting. This comes as a shock against the theatrical, privileged, world in which the film is set, very different from the stereotypical (to me – I'm not a great fan of horror) settings of the horror film. Visually the film looks very much like the sort of scenes depicted in The New Avengers or The Professionals, and apparently is unusual in being filmed almost completely on location rather than in studio. Visually it is superbly 1970s – step this way to see the shag pile carpet, and Ian Hendry in a frilly evening shirt in a colour which may well be best described as lavender. The film also doesn't feel like a simple horror film – there are elements of the detective genre as well.
If I have one criticism it would have to be that I don't think Diana Rigg is used nearly enough – obviously this is completely personal. That said, while she has the perfect foil in Vincent Price, you can't fail but notice her when she is with the other actors, so perhaps it was to get her appearances in proportion. A plot fault is that it becomes clear as the film progresses, that as Lionheart's daughter, the fact that she was sympathetic to him must have been known to all of the critics, because of the way he appeared to kill himself. The fault is that obviously suspicion was going to fall on her. Price is of course superlative as an embittered Shakespearean actor: he overdoes it to exactly the right degree.
All in all, although it isn't cult TV as such, and so purists may feel it has no place here, this film is an excellent addition to the library of anyone who loves The Avengers.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Apartheid in The Prisoner: Hammer into Anvil

Periodically the question comes up in the classic TV blogosphere, of the standing and worthiness of television viewing. Could one put it on a CV as a hobby? Or would that risk being interpreted as meaning the person is a couch potato? Certainly there are different ways of watching television and engaging with the shows that one is seeing, and by a strange coincidence I have recently proved the utility of television viewing to myself, with a link to this episode of The Prisoner, and even to allusions to apartheid!
I have been somewhat silent here for a little while, and rather than just be silent I will say that this silence was caused by a spot of bother at work. Another one. My 'manager' is completely ineffectual, determined to get rid of me, and periodically has a go at trying to push me through the door, which always end in her looking stupid. Some people never learn. Naturally the only parallel here to the kind of risk under which those who suffered under South African apartheid lived, in the need for tactics in overcoming a hostile, dangerous power. I would argue that this episode could almost function as a perfect primer in resistance and causing confusion in a powerful opponent.
These are also of necessity the tactics used by those who resisted apartheid. There is a necessary power play involved here, and just as in Hammer into Anvil, it so happened that the powers that be in South Africa were under pressure from outside as well as from their target. 'I'll break you, Number 6,' says Number 2. That is his mistake, because the almost hysterical tone of voice in which he says it, shows that he is not actually in control at all. At the time this episode was made, apartheid was at its height and the South African economy was at its strongest: by the mid-seventies it was apparent that the cracks were showing, and just as with Number 2, the weaknesses only had to be seen to be exploited.
Number 6 starts on a campaign of what I can only describe as 'keeping them busy'. I think it marvellous that the mere act of sampling gramophone records could have such an explosive effect. Of course this kind of civil disobedience would have been difficult to maintain in South Africa, but once actual resistance started, the government's reaction, to impose states of emergency and so on, was even more criticised by the outside world, leading to an increase in external pressure. I personally used almost exactly the same technique by managing to draw attention to things she was doing. Already under pressure from her manager as a result of not doing appraisals, she is also now facing an enquiry into her mismanagement over a period of years. Oh, I could tear my own tongue out.
I love the blank sheets of paper trick. The thing is that Number 6 isn't actually doing anything at all, he's merely putting papers in the boat. From that point on, the technique moves into actually driving Number 2 off his rocker, and remarkably successfully. It is of course essential to 'reconnoitre' the entire situation when working to change regime, to avoid unexpected consequences. Number 6 has successfully identified that he is actually too valuable to The Village authorities to be killed or actually broken. I feel that in this sense the actual point of The Prisoner is exposed: the authorities want Number 6 to tell them the information he has, this information is obviously valuable. The elephant in the room with The Prisoner, is what this knowledge is, and how you interpret the show is largely dependent on what you think the knowledge is likely to be. This idea of resistance and overtones of the apartheid situation I think makes the show much more pointed: in many ways Number 6 shows them what he knows. They think they've got all the information on him, but all the time he is watching the authorities much more systematically than they are watching him. The failure to check the facts of his birthday and Number 113, shows a remarkable sloppiness that Number 6 would never have fallen into.
Of course it is at this point that Number 2, buckling under the pressure, starts blaming other people. This is paralleled very closely by the response of the South African authorities to any resistance. 'He's out to poison the whole Village,' is stated as Number 6's intention, and naturally the intention of the resistance to apartheid had to be to destabilise the whole economy. Again it is necessary to decide on what losses you are prepared to bear before the battle, and the losses in South Africa were very high indeed.
This is the point, at the beginning of the episode, where this Prisoner perhaps has the loudest echoes of apartheid, more than any resistance or tactical manoeuvres. It is the 'suicide' in the hospital. It is somewhat anachronistic when talking about The Prisoner to use the example of John Vorster Square police station in Johannesburg as the example, since it was only opened at the end of the 1960s, but it became notorious for the kind of deaths in custody that the apartheid regime was expert at. Just as things were covered up in The Village – at one point revenge on Number 6 is planned in a way that could not be traced back to Number 2 – so these deaths were covered up with excuses which would be plausible if they happened rarely, but not when they keep on happening. These excuses became the subject of a poem:
In detention-Chris van Wyk

He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing
He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing
He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself while washing
He slipped from the ninth floor
He hung from the ninth floor
He slipped on the ninth floor while washing
He fell from a piece of soap while slipping
He hung from the ninth floor
He washed from the ninth floor while slipping
He hung from a piece of soap while washing.