Posts Tagged ‘Michael Palin’

I first saw Terry Gilliam’s 1977 filmĀ Jabberwocky on its British TV premiere, over thirty years ago. It almost goes without saying that the world was a very different place back then – the fact that a film could be ten years old before turning up on a TV channel or streaming site in itself confirms that we are discussing a very different world. And of course, if you’ll forgive a little personal reminiscence, I was a very different person myself at that time in my life: most specifically, I was barely familiar with Monty Python except from what I’d read about it in books and magazines – I hadn’t seen any of the TV shows or movies, and to be perfectly honest wasn’t really sure which members of the group were which. As I say, another time, another place.

Then again, as a 1977 fantasy movie, Jabberwocky is a product of the pre-stellar conflict era, and – perhaps appropriately enough – is a rather peculiar beast in many ways. It is, as I hope you do not need telling, based on (or perhaps inspired by would be more accurate) Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem of the same name. The poem’s setting is essentially indeterminate, but the script (by Gilliam and Charles Alverson) relocates the story to the Dark Ages, at a time when the land is being ravaged and despoiled by a ferocious beastie, causing panic and upheaval.

None of this penetrates the notably thick brain of Dennis the Cooper (Michael Palin), a young man who seems less interested in actually making barrels than in time-and-motion studies and efficiency in the workplace. This so disgusts Dennis’ father that his dying act is to disinherit him, and in order to win the hand of the girl he loves (a young Annette Badland), Dennis is forced to set off and seek his fortune.

He ends up in the city, which is bursting at the seams with survivors fleeing the depredations of the jabberwock, causing some consternation to King Bruno the Questionable (Max Wall) and his chamberlain (John le Mesurier). The chamberlain hits upon the plan of holding a contest to select a champion to slay the monster, with the hand of the King’s daughter (Deborah Fallender) and half the kingdom as a reward, and Dennis inevitably finds himself caught up in this. The crisis, however, is proving a bonanza for the wealthy merchants and guild leaders of the city, who have embarked upon their own scheme to ensure continuance of the monster…

This was Terry Gilliam’s first film as sole director; he had previously co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and there is perhaps an obvious sense in which the two films are connected – they share the same Dark Ages setting, and various members of the Python collective appear on screen (in addition to Palin, there are cameos by Terry Jones and Gilliam himself, not to mention associate Python Neil Innes). Gilliam was unhappy to find the film being billed as Monty Python’s Jabberwocky for its initial American release, and unsuccessfully tried to have this stopped.

That said, however, Jabberwocky isn’t just a product of members of the Oxbridge tradition of British comedy, although various members of it appear. This is one of those films which is stuffed with familiar faces from both the big and small screen, drawn from a broad range of comic backgrounds – Max Wall started his career as a music hall clown, John le Mesurier was a hugely familiar face from both films and mainstream sitcoms, as were Warren Mitchell and Harry H Corbett. Bernard Bresslaw, who only a couple of years earlier had been appearing in Carry On films, also turns up.

If it isn’t quite a who’s who of British comedy in the middle 1970s, then it’s certainly a film with no shortage of talented comic performers. Which really forces one to wonder why it is that Jabberwocky is not actually particularly funny. You can certainly recognise the jokes as they go by, but you just don’t feel especially inclined to laugh – which is odd, as it’s the same kind of humour that worked quite well in Holy Grail, specifically the subversion of the conventions of this kind of fairy tale, and also the insertion of modern stereotypes into a historical context. There are also occasional forays into slightly laborious absurdism – the horrifically high casualty rate amongst the knights taking part in the joust forces the King to cancel the event and choose his champion via a hide-and-seek contest.

The strange non-funniness of Jabberwocky is perhaps explicable by the fact that while most of it is written and played as comedy, on the whole it is filmed and edited like some kind of art house film or costume drama. It is certainly very atmospheric, with an almost palpable sense of the mediaeval. Of course, this usually takes the form of filth, squalour and brutality, to the point where the film is probably quite off-putting to viewers of a sensitive disposition: Jabberwocky is filled with spraying blood and severed limbs and people taking care of bodily functions out of windows or off the top of battlements. It’s all quite authentic, though not necessarily what you associate with an actual comedy, except in its sheer grotesqueness.

Also notably grotesque is the titular beast of the film, the jabberwock itself. This isn’t really a monster movie per se, although there are a few nods in the direction of the form. When the beast finally appears, it is through the magic of suitamation, with perhaps just a touch of puppetry also involved. It’s quite amusing to look back at responses to Jabberwocky from close to the time it was released – one 1980 book asserted that the jabberwocky was the best monster in the history of cinema, up to that point. Well, to me it seems like a qualified success at best, a brilliant design somewhat sabotaged by somewhat clumsy execution.

The same is really true of Jabberwocky as a whole – it’s a minor miracle that the film looks as good as it does, given it was clearly made on a very low budget (at one point Dave Prowse, doubling up as two characters, has a fight to the death with himself). You come away from it feeling entertained, and impressed by the consistency of the film’s vision and atmosphere, even if it is a view of the middle ages more inspired by Hieronymous Bosch than Hollywood. But you most likely won’t come away having laughed your socks off. Gilliam seems to have felt obliged to make a comedy, given his career up to that point, when he was really more interested in something more ambitious. Subsequent films would be considerably more successful, but this is still a pretty good and very interesting debut.

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If you want to get on in your career, it doesn’t hurt to have a memorable name, and on this point at least Armando Iannucci has got nothing to worry about. I suppose that being a key collaborator in the careers of Steve Coogan, Christopher Morris, and Lee and Herring can’t help, either, nor can being variously the creator, producer and director of TV and radio shows and films like The Mary Whitehouse Experience, The Saturday Night Armistice, The Thick of It, In the Loop, and Veep. Apart from the Alan Partridge movie a couple of years ago, most of Iannucci’s work over the last decade or so has been mainly in the area of political satire, of both the British and American systems. You would have thought that the unravelling disasters taking place in both countries at the moment would give him plenty of raw material to work with. Perhaps it’s a little curious, then, that Iannucci’s new film is a historical piece about Russia. It’s still a comedy, although the title might suggest otherwise: his new film is entitled The Death of Stalin.

The year is 1953 and Joseph Stalin (Adrian Mcloughlin) has been the unquestioned ruler of the Soviet Union for decades, a figure whose very name provokes panic and alarm amongst everyone else in the country. Stalin rules through fear, as is made clear when he requests a recording of a concert at the start of the film – Andreyev (Paddy Considine), the organiser, is horrified to discover the recording was not made, and is forced to re-stage the event under farcical conditions – people are dragged in off the street to bulk up the audience, the soloist has to be bribed, a new conductor brought in in his pyjamas, and so on. It’s hilarious, but the vein of terror running through it all is genuine, and it sets the tone for the rest of the film.

However, Stalin then suffers a massive stroke, throwing the status quo in the USSR into question, and provoking frenetic jockeying for position amongst his various courtiers. First off the blocks is security chief Beria (Simon Russell Beale), who has the advantage of being in charge of the secret police and the death lists, but close behind him are several others, including deputy leader and supposed heir apparent Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), minister for Labour Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley), and Communist party chief Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi – I don’t know about you, but as long as I’ve been aware of Steve Buscemi as an actor, I’ve been thinking ‘There’s a guy whose career will not be complete until he’s played Nikita Khrushchev.’). The presence on the scene of Stalin’s troublesome children (Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough) does not help matters much, either. As Stalin passes away and the funeral arrangements are made, who will manage to establish their grip on the levers of power in the USSR?

It is perhaps not entirely surprising that The Death of Stalin is unlikely to get a release in Russia itself, with Russian commentators announcing it is a ‘nasty send-up’ and a ‘planned provocation’ – Stalin himself was recently voted the greatest person in history in a Russian poll (Vladimir Putin came second, by the way). Even some British viewers have been critical of the film’s very flexible approach to historical fact – Beria was not head of the NKVD in 1953 (not least because the NKVD itself ceased to exist in 1946), nor was Molotov (Michael Palin) the foreign minister at the time.

That said, I doubt anyone watching The Death of Stalin will long be under the impression that this is intended to be a rigorously accurate historical reconstruction. Everyone involved is using their ‘normal’ voice, which for Buscemi means a Brooklyn accent, for Tambor one from California, and for Palin the sounds of Sheffield – the only real exception is Jason Isaacs, who comes on halfway through as a medal-festooned Marshal Zhukov, with a broad Yorkshire accent. It’s not as if the actual dialogue is any more plausible – ‘Phew, it’s been a busy old week,’ observes Anastas Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse), having just participated in the execution and then incineration of a colleague. Obviously, much of this is done for comic effect – ‘All of you can kiss my Russian ass!’ cries Malenkov at one point – but it’s surely also sending a signal that we are not supposed to take it too seriously as a piece of history.

That said, of course, one wonders what the point of the film is, and what point Iannucci and his co-writers are trying to make. Is it really just a film about dysfunctional politics, as he has suggested? As previously noted, the world isn’t exactly short of real-life examples of that at the moment. If the film is making specific points about the Trump regime or the Brexit fiasco they are very heavily veiled, and one has to say that comparing Donald Trump to Stalin would be a little harsh (although given Stalin’s reputed degree of political skill, it might not be entirely fair on the Soviet leader, either).

Perhaps it’s just the case that this scenario offers plenty of opportunity for satire and a selection of characters whom many people sort-of know – I’m no expert on Soviet history, but I still know a bit about people like Molotov, Zhukov and Beria (even if only because a fictional version of Molotov is a major character in WorldWar and Beria is mentioned a lot in From Russia with Love). On the other hand, it’s not as if the film-makers aren’t aware of some of the horrors perpetrated under the Soviet regime, because they are crucial to the atmosphere (and occasionally, plot) of the film. Mostly these are handled ‘straight’ – we see a purge under way, with the terror and blood involved shown unflinchingly – but on the other hand, the potential for jet-black comedy is often fully exploited: for example, one of the problems involved in finding medical attention for the ailing Stalin is the fact that all the qualified doctors have been sent to Siberia.

I don’t know. This is a very funny film, the blackest of black farces, filled with great lines and cherishable comic performances from a terrific ensemble cast. But it’s still slightly uncomfortable and rather unsettling to watch, simply because it takes a situation which arguably wasn’t funny at all, and reworks it as a source of humour. This is one of the funniest films I’ve seen this year. It has absolutely no right to be. Perhaps that’s the point. Doing The Death of Stalin as a straight drama would probably have resulted in something so bleak and depressing it would be almost unwatchable; reworking the story as a knockabout, profane comedy at least makes it accessible, while not quite losing track of the fact that this is a film making some very serious points in the most roundabout way imaginable.

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Whatever else you want to say about 2016, and let’s face it you’re not exactly short of raw material, it has been a bumper year for the Death of Celebrities: the glitter-spangled reaper got going very early on with David Bowie and Alan Rickman, then never stopped to draw breath (appropriately enough): Terry Wogan, Ronnie Corbett, Victoria Wood, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, Robert Vaughn… if you sat down and tried to do justice to everyone who shuffled off this year, you’d be overwhelmed. So perhaps best to just pick a couple and at least do that much properly.

So, then: a film co-starring the always-memorable Peter Vaughan, whose notices tended to focus on his roles in Porridge and Musical Chairs, when of course he was in so much more. Including something which is quite possibly my favourite specifically Christmassy film of all time (stop complaining, of course it’s not too early to do a Christmassy bit, they’ve been showing Christmas films non-stop on Channel 5 for the last fortnight) – Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.


Brazil is about bureaucracy, tyranny, paranoia, despair, and madness, amongst other things, which may be why it does not typically feature higher when lists of the great Yuletide films are drawn up – but then it’s a film which seems to drift in and out of public awareness with the passing of time. It was released in 1985, but I don’t think I was even aware it existed until trailers started showing for it ahead of its TV debut at Easter 1988 – which, to be fair, was accompanied by some fanfare from the BBC. I remember that the trailers themselves were like nothing else on TV, even in the late 80s: monolithic skyscrapers erupting out of an idyllic country landscape towards a winged figure, a trick perspective shot where an enormous tramp’s face looms into view over a set of cooling towers, striking retro-40s design…

I made an extremely specific point of watching it, of course, for something so very different hardly ever came along, and I was very impressed by the atmosphere and imagery of the film even if the story didn’t seem quite to hang together. Impressed enough to watch it again the next time it was on a couple of years later (by this point everyone seemed to have decided it was a cult classic, whatever that means, as it was showing as part of Moviedrome), this time I managed to keep myself from getting too distracted by the art direction, realised what it was all about and promptly awarded it a spot on my all-time favourites list, which it has retained ever since.

So what exactly is it all about? Well, Brazil is, I suppose, essentially a grotesque, non-naturalistic fantasy about the horrors of life in the 20th century: but a strange, amalgamated 20th century, where computers and drones and automation exist, but the microchip hasn’t been invented (everything seems to function using valves), where baseball caps and overalls are worn alongside fedoras and suits. A faceless government, basically embodied by a labyrinthine bureaucracy, is doing battle with terrorists (apparently), and is quite prepared to brutalise its own citizens to do so.

Trying his best to ignore all this is Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a lowly clerk in the records department, who to the despair of friends and family is doing his best to disappear – not trying for promotion, not trying to distinguish himself, just live a quiet life where can find escape in his dreams and the beautiful woman he fantasises about there. However, events conspire to force him across the path of the exact lookalike of the object of his affections (Kim Greist), and his increasingly desperate efforts to first find and then protect her lead to the destruction of his quiet little life…

A peculiar kind of nostalgia is part of the rich mixture of elements that makes up Brazil, but even so, watching it now one is reminded that thirty years ago, not only was the British film industry willing to mount a challenging, big budget fantasy film for grown-ups, but that Terry Gilliam could actually get a gig directing it. Neither of these things could happen today: I for one found it bitterly ironic that one of the Harry Potter films included a homage to Brazil, when the studio had rejected JK Rowling’s choice of Gilliam as the director of the first film in the series, due to his perceived unreliability.

Still, the 80s were a different time, I suppose: Python had been a going concern very recently, and you can perhaps detect attempts to position this film to appeal to an audience expecting the same kind of thing – most obviously, the presence of Michael Palin, cast firmly against type and giving quite probably the performance of his career as an utterly immoral government torturer. There’s also a tendency towards the surreal, not to mention a lot of extreme black comedy. The actual jokes included in the script tend to be less successful, however, and sometimes come across as a little bit affected.

The gags do feel like a bit of a sop to audience expectations, anyway, as for all that this film has a remarkable cast of character actors noted for their comic ability – apart from Palin, there’s Ian Holm, Ian Richardson, Jim Broadbent, Bob Hoskins, and of course Peter Vaughan himself – it’s clearly dealing with quite serious and indeed very nearly heavy topics. Like many British films of its time, it’s almost impossible to look at Brazil now and not conclude that it is on some level about Britain under Margaret Thatcher – not that the film has a particular political message to promote, unless it is that every system crushes somebody.

In the end what sticks with you is the extraordinarily vivid and coherent visual world that Gilliam creates for the film – like others before him, he appears to have realised that nothing dates quicker than attempts to predict the future, and quite sensibly has hasn’t even tried. It’s somewhat confounding that such an obviously stylised, abstracted world can seem so real while you’re watching it, but it does, simply because of how thought-through it all seems. No wonder the story can sometimes feel like it gets a bit lost amongst all the production designs.

Brazil is explicitly set ‘somewhere in the 20th century’ and does seem to be both a homage and a reaction to the great 20th century dystopian satires (one working title was apparently 1984 and a Half). And yet, particularly after the 2016 we’ve just lived through, it still feels like a very timely film for the 21st century too: the urge to retreat into fantasy and abandon the real world entirely is as strong as it ever was for many people, or so I would imagine. The film itself suggests that this may be the only real means of escape, although whether it actually encourages it is another question. Brazil may look surreal and peculiar, but it is at heart a serious film about a serious world, and one which looks every bit as impressive and relevant now as it did three decades ago.


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