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Posts Tagged ‘John Mills’

In the Earth Year 1979, one thing that everyone involved in commissioning films and TV series was absolutely certain of was that science fiction and fantasy had suddenly become very, very popular over the previous couple of years. As producing popular movies and shows is basically part of the job description for these people, the inevitable result was the late-seventies boom in SF and fantasy, which resulted in a vast number of frankly variable new projects hitting screens both large and small. Some of these were very good, many of them were extremely poor, and a few of them are clearly the work of people with only the vaguest ideas about what science fiction is.

Which brings us to the 1979 version of Quatermass, written (of course) by Nigel Kneale and directed by Piers Haggard (who had previously been in charge of the cult folk horror movie Blood on Satan’s Claw, which has a few very vague similarities to this). Also known as Quatermass IV and The Quatermass Conclusion, this had started life as a project for the BBC some years earlier, which progressed as far as some initial special effects filming before the corporation had second thoughts about the tone and expense of the undertaking. It is understandable why the commercial network ITV would want to take over a prestigious project by a celebrated screenwriter, especially given the fact that it was the late 70s and this is ostensibly an SF show, but watching the end result you can’t help but wonder if the BBC weren’t right in the first place.

 

The proper big movie star John Mills plays Professor Q. The story has a near-future setting which, nearly 40 years on, inevitably feels rather quaint: there are various not-very-subtle references to King Charles being on the throne, but the USSR is still a going concern. Things have not changed for the better, however – ‘in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the whole world seemed to sicken,’ intones the opening monologue of the story. Things seem pre-apocalyptic, if not actually apocalyptic, from the word go, with law and order breaking down in the UK, dead bodies in the streets, armed gangs on the rampage, and regular power cuts. (Some of which must have seemed very familiar to a country which had recently experienced the rise of punk rock and the Winter of Discontent.)

With the British Rocket Group apparently disbanded (there are vague allusions to the events of the previous three Quatermass serials), Quatermass has been living in seclusion in Scotland, and is shocked when he returns to London, ostensibly to appear on a live broadcast covering a joint Russian-American space mission. Practically the first thing that happens to him is an attempted mugging, from which he is rescued by Joe Kapp (Simon MacCorkindale), a radio astronomer booked for the same show. Uncompromising as ever, Quatermass goes on live TV and dismisses the mission as an empty display from two diseased superpowers that is bound to end in disaster, before revealing why he’s really decided to appear: his teenaged granddaughter has disappeared and he is desperate to find her. Naturally, he is yanked off the air, but moments later something mysteriously causes the spacecraft to disintegrate in orbit, killing all the crew…

Finding his suspiciously-accurate prophecy of doom has made him a person of interest to the authorities, Quatermass takes refuge with Kapp and his wife (Barbara Kellermann) at their bodged-together radio telescope installation in the countryside. On the way he and Kapp encounter members of a mystical youth cult, the Planet People, who speak of being transported to another world by mysterious forces. Kapp is scornful of this anti-intellectualism, but Quatermass is not entirely unsympathetic and decides to visit the local stone circle which the Planet People are congregating at.

While he and the Kapps are there, however, something rather unexpected happens: a blinding column of light descends from the sky, striking the circle and the hundreds of cult members assembled there, and when it withdraws only an ashy detritus remains of them. Other Planet People believe that the worthy have been transported to another world – but Quatermass and Kapp draw a different conclusion, that the young people have been obliterated. It emerges that similar visitations have been happening around the world, the first of which coincided with the destruction of the space mission.

Quatermass slowly draws the threads together and realises what is happening: an implacable alien force which first visited Earth five thousand years previously has returned and is harvesting the youth of the human race, drawing them to assembly points (many of them marked by stone circles and the like) and then vaporising them. Quatermass speculates that this is just some kind of machine, not an actual sentience, and that it is functioning on behalf of ‘unimaginable beings’ who have a taste for human protein, and nothing on screen contradicts him, naturally. But can anything be done to stop the slaughter of the human race?

I imagine that for many modern viewers, the first thing that will strike them about Quatermass is the extent to which it clearly appears to have inspired the Torchwood mini-series Children of Earth, because both programmes have basically the same plot – alien forces return to Earth intent on devouring, one way or another, the youth of the planet. In both cases the response of the authorities leaves much to be desired, and it falls to the outspoken outsider to see what needs to be done and make the necessary terrible sacrifice. That said, while Children of Earth is a pretty bleak element of the larger franchise of which it is a part, it is still in many ways a musical comedy version of the story, compared to Quatermass – many years ago I met someone who had it on VHS, and his opinion was that it was ‘the most depressing thing you will ever see’.

He kind of had a point. Most late-seventies SF, both on TV and in the cinema, followed very much in the wake of George Lucas’ first stellar conflict movie, which after all inaugurated the SF and fantasy boom to begin with – swashbuckling action, cute robots, and ray gun battles were very nearly de rigeur. Quatermass has no truck with this, being firmly ensconced in the ‘bloody miserable’ tradition of British SF. And it’s a very particular kind of miserabilism, too: on some level the story is about a clash between science and anti-intellectualism (Kneale seems to have had an almost superstitious dread of the latter – there are several scenes in which previously-sensible characters encounter the Planet People and somehow become ‘infected’ with their New Age beliefs, abandoning their former friends and responsibilities), but it’s also about the conflict between youth and age.

Quatermass seems to be in his seventies in this story (Mills was 71 at the time), but Kneale was only in his late fifties when it was broadcast, and considerably younger when the project was originally conceived. So it is a little disconcerting that this should feel so much like an old man’s wail of rage and despair against a changing world. This is very Daily Mail SF: everything is getting worse and worse, society is heading for collapse, football hooliganism is a blight on society, young people don’t respect their elders and have all kinds of ridiculous ideas, the telly is filled with sex and violence. We tend to think of SF as an inherently youthful and progressive genre: but this is SF in reactionary mode, the generation gap viewed from the senior side – the central metaphor being that young people seem alien to their elders because they are indeed subject to some extraterrestrial influence that older and wiser heads are immune to.

Naturally, it falls to Quatermass and a picked team of elderly boffins to resolve the crisis (young people can’t be trusted, due to their susceptibility to the alien ‘fluence) – making tea and sandwiches for everyone is Ethel from EastEnders (there are quite a few familiar faces in supporting roles here – Toyah Willcox pops up as a Planet Person, Brenda Fricker plays one of Kapp’s team, Brian Croucher appears as a cop). Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong or necessarily stupid about this as a piece of storytelling, it’s just so very peculiar and at odds with how TV SF usually operates that you almost can’t help reacting negatively to it – the doomy bleakness of the whole thing doesn’t help much, either.

This is not to say the storytelling is perfect – the manner in which Kneale kills off both the leading female characters can’t help but feel rather arbitrary, while he can’t help letting his interest in Judaism (a feature of many later scripts) show, to no very obvious purpose. But on the whole this is a solid story, lavishly realised for the most part – although the model work on the spacecraft sequences is really quite poor. The writer, typically generous to his collaborators, apparently felt that Mills lacked the authority to play Quatermass, and that MacCorkindale was ‘very good at playing an idiot’, but all the performances in this series seem perfectly acceptable to me.

It’s not the acting that sticks with you after watching Quatermass, anyway, nor even much of the story: what stays are a few images and a general sense of the all-consuming mood of despair and hopelessness which suffuses the story from start to (very nearly) finish. This is well-achieved and sustained, but not particularly easy or relaxing to watch. This is SF, but not escapism; not a cautionary tale about how things could be worse in the future, but a jeremiad about how bad they are now. It’s competently made, but inevitably depressing: that’s really the point of it. It’s watchable, and occasionally impressive, but really difficult to warm to or genuinely like.

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There comes a time in every film reviewer’s life when he realises that, having set out to write a series on notable musicals from years gone by, the films actually at his disposal are not exactly a representative bunch: tending towards darkness in their tone, arguably Euro-centric, and mostly hailing from a brief period in the late 60s and early 70s. What can I say? The Sound of Music isn’t on Netflix, and anyway, that one’s about the Anschluss and has nearly as many Nazis in it as Cabaret.

Let’s briefly step away from musicals about the rise of authoritarianism and the insidious creep of prejudice and move on to the lighter subject of… oh. The First World War. Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb. Oh! What a Lovely War was made in 1969, directed by Richard Attenborough (his first time in the big chair) and, nearly as interestingly, produced and written by the noted novelist and chef Len Deighton. The project began as a stage production by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, and the theatrical origins of the film are fairly apparent to the discerning viewer.

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The film’s main conceit is to present the First World War (or, as it’s slightly jarringly described here, World War One) as a sea-side attraction on a pier in Brighton. Field Marshal Haig (John Mills) is manning the turnstyle, handing out tickets to the families eagerly crowding in, most prominently the Smiths, who are the main points of audience identification. Within the pavilion on the pier, more distinguished figures gather – initially heads of state and foreign ministers, later the senior staff of the army.

Initially the tone is cheery and playful, no doubt intended to reflect the enormous public enthusiasm for the war during its early stages, but as the initial battles occur the film grows darker and more sombre, as it continues to do throughout the film. We are surely all aware of the grim progress of the war: a labyrinth of trenches stretching from the Alps to the coast, and slaughter on an almost industrial scale as the commanders settled on a policy of victory through attrition.

So, you may possibly be wondering, where are all the songs? Well, they are present, but one of the things that makes Oh! What a Lovely War a bit of an outlier as musicals go is the fact that it is mainly built around period songs – the popular music of the war itself, with numbers like ‘Who put the Kibosh on the Kaiser?’, ‘The Bells of Hell go Ding-a-ling’ and ‘Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire’. These are not the stuff of conventional musical theatre – they’re not strictly speaking ‘I am’ or ‘I want’ songs as they are conventionally understood, and their role in the film is equally ambiguous. They’re not exactly there solely to create atmosphere, but neither do they really advance the plot much.

Not that there really is much of a plot, of course, just a series of vignettes, some strikingly naturalistic, others surreal, detailing the course of the war. One consequence of this is that the Smith family, whom we are supposed to identify with, never quite come to life as people despite being portrayed by some very fine actors (Maurice Roeves, Angela Thorne and Corin Redgrave amongst them).

Rather more striking are the film’s cutaway scenes, generally surreal, featuring other characters – and here Richard Attenborough was clearly able to call upon all his resources as a fixer and a movie star in his own right, for the cast list of this movie is virtually a who’s who of great British actors of the period. The only major performer who seems to have eluded his net is Alec Guinness – the opening scene alone features Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Kenneth More, Ian Holm, and Jack Hawkins. Appearing elsewhere are Laurence Olivier, Dirk Bogarde, Susannah York, most of the rest of the Redgrave family, and Maggie Smith (vamping it up a bit as a music hall singer). Apparently, Attenborough managed to secure his stellar cast after Olivier agreed to work ‘to scale’ (i.e., for the minimum actor’s union wage), effectively obliging all of his peers to do the same.

These days the prevailing narrative of the First World War is well-established – four years of mud, blood, and futility, the death-spasm of the great empires of the 18th and 19th centuries, with clueless soldiers massacred by unfeeling, remote generals. I was about to say that Oh! What a Lovely War adheres quite closely to this view, but then I wonder if it didn’t to some extent embed it in the public consciousness? It is an extremely vivid and powerful piece of film-making, especially in its fantasy sequences. It is eviscerating as far as the generals and upper classes are concerned, but never less than profoundly sympathetic to the lower classes. Jeremy Paxman and others have argued that this line of thinking is a disservice to history and the people involved in the war, but it’s a tough fable to shift, especially when it’s promoted as effectively as happens here.

(And, unfortunately, still resonant in some ways: one sequence has Sylvia Pankhurst addressing a working-class crowd, speaking out in favour of ending the war, doing so in an educated, progressive manner. And, of course, the crowd turns on her, repelled by her arrogance and condescension and perceived lack of patriotism. It occurred to me you could change the words, but the tunes would still serve very well for a film about the British vote to leave Europe, or the rise to power of Trump.)

For a downbeat film with not very much in the way of characters or genuine plot, Oh! What a Lovely War is arguably rather too long at nearly two-and-a-half hours, but it does contain many moments of brilliant cinematic invention, and some extremely powerful images – the final shot, a zoom out by the camera to reveal a seemingly-endless field of crosses, each one marking a grave (I believe 15,000 were used, and this was done as a practical effect) is haunting. Probably not everyone’s idea of a good time, but still a powerful and important movie.

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