Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Diana Rigg’

My usual position when it comes to Theatre of Blood (1973) is that it shows that everyone has at least one great film in them – but only one in some cases. The script is wonderful, the direction is capable, and the music is fantastic – and yet none of the people responsible for these things have a noteworthy career beyond this film. The one who came closest was Douglas Hickox, the director, who had a longish career, much of it as the AD on fifties potboilers: I’ve heard of some of the films he made (Behemoth the Sea Monster and Zulu Dawn, for example), but would struggle to describe them especially distinguished. Nevertheless, every year BIFA gives out the Douglas Hickox Award for the best new director, which probably isn’t anything to do with Theatre of Blood – but I can’t help feeling it should be.

The movie is set in the present day and opens with pompous theatre critic and grandee of London society George Maxwell (Michael Hordern) being summoned by the police to move a gang of homeless people on from a property he is involved with. Maxwell wades in fearlessly – ‘We’ll have no trouble here!’ he cries, unwittingly spawning a catchphrase for a future age. However, the mob of homeless people clearly would like there to be some trouble, and set upon Maxwell, bloodily stabbing and hacking him to death, all in sight of an oddly detached policeman and a poster advertising a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Maxwell’s fellow critics are upset, which rapidly turns to alarm when a second of their number (Dennis Price) is run through with a spear and his corpse tied to a horse’s tail, thus reproducing the death of Hector from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. A third (Arthur Lowe) has his head sawn off in his sleep (this one comes from Cymbeline). Someone is clearly staging a season reviving some of Shakespeare’s most spectacular murders, with the members of the Critics’ Circle in the central role each time. But who, and how?

The surviving critics are uneasily reminded of the actor Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price), who would only ever appear in Shakespearean roles and whom they were all routinely very cruel to: in the end, their mockery, and the fact they refused to give him their award for best actor, drove Lionheart to apparently commit suicide by diving off the balcony of leading critic Devlin (Ian Hendry), into the Thames. But his body was never found – could he have survived somehow? Devlin approaches his daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg), but she is hostile and uncooperative.

Meanwhile the murders continue, restaging scenes from Richard III, Othello and The Merchant of Venice (a radical reinterpretation where Antonio does get his heart cut out – ‘Only Lionheart would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare,’ says a shocked Devlin, who seems to be more aghast at this than the death of his colleague). Can the police track Lionheart down before there’s no-one left in England to write theatre reviews…?

Quite why this particular group of people wound up making a film as distinctive as Theatre of Blood remains a mystery, but the lineage of the film itself is rather less obscure: it’s obviously a successor to the two Dr Phibes films Price made for American International in the preceding couple of years, but one which greatly refines and enhances the same formula. The basic plot, of a vengeful madman committing a series of extravagant murders, is retained, but the slightly laborious, almost steampunkish whimsy of the Phibes films is dispensed with along with the period setting.

Perhaps most significantly, the weird decision to make Phibes horribly scarred and functionally mute, thus seriously impacting on Vincent Price’s ability to give a performance in the role, is no longer a consideration. As a result this is one of the actor’s greatest films, as he gets to play not just Lionheart, but Lionheart performing many of Shakespeare’s greatest roles. One of the reasons why many horror films from the fifties, sixties and seventies are so memorable is because they feature some of the finest actors of their generations, never quite getting the respect they deserve: you could argue that Theatre of Blood is on some level an oblique commentary on this whole phenomenon. But let’s not overthink this – it’s Vincent Price and Diana Rigg performing a range of characters (policemen, masseurs, rather camp hairdressers called Butch), causing mayhem and performing Shakespeare: how can it not be brilliant?

The film’s other stroke of genius, or possible good fortune, comes in the casting of Price’s victims, for Theatre of Blood has possibly the most distinguished ensemble of any British horror movie (even if most of them are only in extended cameos): quite apart from Price, Rigg, and Hendry, the cast includes Hordern, Price, Lowe, Robert Morley, Jack Hawkins, Harry Andrews, Coral Browne, and Diana Dors. (Milo O’Shea and Eric Sykes play the detectives.)

I suppose some people might say that Theatre of Blood isn’t really a horror film because it’s not actually scary – and it is true that it functions as a knowing, grand guignol comedy more than anything else. But even here the film has a few surprises to offer: in places it actually becomes genuinely moving to watch. You believe in the relationship between Lionheart and his daughter completely, and the critics do seem unspeakably cruel as they mock and scorn Lionheart just before his ‘suicide’. The film has an unexpectedly bittersweet, melancholic tone to it, almost as if it is suggesting that there is no place for someone like Lionheart in the modern world – that, rather than taking his revenge on the critics, his plan is simply a doomed parting shot from an earlier age of sincerity (even if it is rather hammy sincerity).

Because, apparently, even as late as the 1970s, it was apparently unacceptable for a film to conclude with Vincent Price getting away with it. Perhaps this was the result of moral concerns, or perhaps because one of the things that lifts the film is that fact that Lionheart is somehow a doomed, tragic figure from the start. The manner in which his plan comes undone is one of the few weak links in the script, but it does lead to an appropriately spectacular and operatic finale. This was apparently one of Vincent Price’s favourites from amongst his own films; Diana Rigg feels it is one of her best, as well. I can’t argue with that. This is one of the great obscure treasures of the British horror tradition.

Read Full Post »

I can’t let the passing of the great Brian Clemens go without some kind of comment, or indeed a bit of a tribute. Throughout the 60s and 70s, and arguably beyond, Clemens was one of the hidden masters of British TV drama, writing dozens of episodes for many different series, many of which he created himself. As late as the launch of Bugs in 1995, other distinguished writers were attracted to projects simply by the opportunity to work with Clemens. He also did some good work in the cinema, too, writing a couple of fun late-period Hammer horrors (Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde and Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter, the latter of which he directed himself), although the less said about his involvement with Highlander 2: The Quickening the better.

In any case, it is of course The Avengers for which Clemens will be remembered above all else. He wrote the very first [Er – no he didn’t. Stupid past-me. Very second, maybe – A]  and very last episodes of the original run, overseeing its transformation from a gritty crime drama to something utterly eccentric and distinctive in the process, and went on to write many of the episodes of The New Avengers, which brought proceedings back down to earth somewhat. (I suppose one should also mention The Professionals, which on reflection takes The New Avengers format back into realms of slightly absurd grittiness.) Where does one start, faced with such a multitude of riches?

Well, you have to go to mid-period Avengers, of course, with one of the Diana Rigg episodes, and of these perhaps the most notorious, and almost certainly the most influential, is A Touch of Brimstone, originally broadcast in February 1966.

The story opens with, we are assured, the British government thrown into turmoil by a series of bizarre and sinister practical jokes – Russian diplomats are given exploding cigars live on TV, whoopee cushions are snuck into the House of Lords, and so on. (The Avengers quite often resembles a slightly kinky version of the 60s Batman TV show, and never more than here.) On the case are knight-errant-cum-intelligence-hard-man John Steed (Patrick Macnee, of course) and his amateur partner Mrs Peel (Diana Rigg).

As luck would have it, Steed and Mrs Peel don’t have to do a lot of that tedious investigating in order to uncover who’s behind these various outrages, as the first suspect Steed suggests – based on the fact he’s been seen hanging around all the various crime scenes – turns out to be guilty as sin, and perhaps quite literally so. He is John Cleverly Cartney (Peter Wyngarde), an aristocrat with a taste for anarchy, and one of the founders of a revived Hellfire Club. Having only really stirred things up prior to this point, Cartney and his cronies are intent on a much more spectacular coup – once again, perhaps literally so…

Brian Clemens himself would gleefully tell the tale of how A Touch of Brimstone was omitted from the series’ original run in the States, due to the rather pronounced sado-masochistic overtones and cheerfully dwelt-upon debauchery in the latter sections of the episode. (He would also mention that the same US network chiefs who banned the episode on moral grounds organised a private viewing for themselves.) By modern standards the episode is pretty tame stuff, but even to this day one can’t deny a certain frisson when Mrs Peel makes her spiked-heeled-and-collared, corseted appearance as the Queen of Sin (Dame Diana apparently designed this, dare I say it, iconic ensemble herself), and in any case it’s hard to shake the impression that this sort of big set-piece moment is the episode’s raison d’etre – the rest of the plot is frankly pretty thin and spurious.

brimstone

Sorry, this picture is really obligatory when you write about this particular episode.

 

But then again, classic Avengers is all about big set pieces, rather than tight and innovative plotting, not to mention servicing its two leads with some properly beefy material. While it may be Diana Rigg as Mrs Peel who lingers in the memory, most likely for her climactic battles with a man in tights and a whip-cracking Wyngarde, but Steed gets a full-blooded sword-fight and lots of other good stuff too – it hardly needs saying that Macnee takes to dressing and acting like an 18th-century rake like a mallard to a particularly placid pond. Both benefit from James Hill’s direction – Hill knows exactly what this episode’s about, and takes great care to give both his stars reaction beats they can utterly nail.

In short, it doesn’t take itself remotely seriously – the tone of it all is a slightly detached, slightly tongue-in-cheek sardonicism – and while it features none of the full-on SF elements that had started to appear in Avengers scripts by this point, it’s quite clearly not set in the world as we recognise it. And it is supremely entertaining.

And, as I say, influential: somehow this little black-and-white TV episode ended up inspiring an X-Men comics storyline and a bunch of characters who went on to be popular in their own right. I’ve no idea if Brian Clemens ever knew about this, but I expect he did, and I suspect he was highly amused. We shall not see his like again, I suspect. I’ve no idea what happens to us when it’s all over, but if there is anything waiting, I hope he gets the good stuff he deserves. RIP.

 

Read Full Post »

So, then, other than a potential continuity headache regarding the Silurians, what has The Crimson Horror brought into our lives? What have we learned? What feelings has it summoned forth?

Well, firstly, a mild sense of surprise, although quite at whom it should be directed I’m not entirely certain. Ben Kingsley has taken a considerable amount of stick in the past over his supposed insistence upon being called, and credited as, Sir Ben (I don’t seem to recall this happening on Iron Man 3, for what it’s worth), and yet here we have the show’s major guest star listed as Dame Diana Rigg, and hardly anyone seems to have raised an eyebrow. I’m not sure I would have recognised her were it not for the attendant publicity, but then the image of Diana Rigg I store in my head is of her in about 1967, and the passage of time does make grotesques of us all. Not that she wasn’t predictably brilliant, of course.

No, not doing a sarcastic caption. It's Diana Rigg and she's awesome.

No, not doing a sarcastic caption. It’s Diana Rigg and she’s awesome.

This was a good episode all round for the guest cast, though – when I was first watching it, I found myself thinking ‘is some sneaky double-banking going on here?’ because the actual regulars felt like they were in it rather less than usual. You notice this less than would be the case with most other episodes due to the raft of recurring characters brought in to cover the hole. Now, I’m not in the habit of frequenting Doctor Who message boards as I am generally wary of Doctor Who fans en masse (except when they’re queueing up to buy Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories, available now from ATB Publishing, of course) but recently I was quite surprised to discover that in some ways my opinion is not that far removed from the superfan consensus.

Now, I like the Paternoster Street Gang, broadly speaking. I’m a bit wary of the way they seem to have been designed to appeal to the in-jokey cutesy meme-loving element of fandom – and if this wasn’t intentional, they’ve certainly been adopted by said element – but on the whole I like the characters, especially Vastra. At the same time, though, I’m very sympathetic to the suggestion that the characterisation of Strax in particular is a bit problematic if you like the Sontarans as a proper antagonistic returning race: we’ve gone some way beyond the basic idea of an honour-bound warrior forced to go against his instincts and natural proclivities, and into the realms of comedy so broad it inevitably kicks you out of the story. I’m thinking particularly of the satnav joke, which was… well… jaw-droppingly stupid.

And this was a shame, because I have to confess that overall I enjoyed The Crimson Horror much more than most of the other episodes in the last year, its only real rival being The Snowmen (another Paternoster Street Gang story, funnily enough). I’ve been trying to think why this should be – I don’t think it’s just down to my appreciation of the performances involved. In the case of The Crimson Horror I think it was just because this was a rattling good yarn where the basic plot came first, didn’t feel over-squashed by other considerations, and didn’t seem to exist mainly to articulate some sort of hackneyed and overwrought emotional story. Not that it was wholly bereft of this sort of thing: but the revelation of the truth of the relationship between Diana Rigg and Rachael Stirling didn’t swamp the story and didn’t feel particularly contrived or irrelevant.

As I say, some of the humour was too broad for my taste, and some of the plot developments whizzed by a bit too fast for comfort – brilliant scientist by the standards of her day she may have been, but where exactly in 1893 did Mrs Gillyflower get the funds and expertise to build what’s essentially an ICBM? No doubt collusion with Torchwood will be proposed by someone, sooner or later. And quite how did standing in a cupboard with the sonic screwdriver enable the Doctor to miraculously cure himself of the odd affliction he’d acquired? (I’ve been watching this show too long: I guessed pretty much straight off the bat the identity of the monster in the locked cell.)

But now I think I’m starting to nitpick. It occurs to me I’ve slowly turned into one of those people who claims to be a Doctor Who fan but really does nothing but whinge and pick holes in the current version of the programme. This is quite a recent phenomenon – certainly, even during David Tennant’s final full season I remember walking away from each episode shaking my head in delighted amazement at the consistent inventiveness and surefootedness of the show in balancing its various constituents, and my memories of Matt Smith’s first year are overwhelmingly positive too. These days, though – I don’t know. Most of the time gimmicks and cleverness for its own sake seem to be the guiding principles involved in commissioning episodes, sentimentality feels crowbarred in, and the show’s beginning to feel relentlessly pleased with itself. Even Matt Smith’s performance is starting to feel less nuanced than it used to.

The Crimson Horror was not what I’d describe as a genuinely great Doctor Who story by any means. But there were still enough of what I’d describe as the classic Doctor Who virtues in it for it to qualify as a superior example of the modern show. I’m hoping for more of the same over the next fortnight; not, admittedly, with much expectation of them actually appearing. I think I am almost at the point of hunkering down and waiting for Moffat and Smith to finish their work and move on, although where the series will go then is surely anybody’s guess. I’m betting the answers will not be too long in coming, though.

Read Full Post »