Sunday, 30 June 2013

Saturday, 29 June 2013

The Curse Of The Wraydons

After a break for the war, Tod Slaughter had a bit of a revival, and made a few more films. 'The Curse of the Wraydons' (1946), takes the fascinating details of the mysterious case of Spring-Heeled Jack and makes them really dull. Shame, as that's a story crying out for a decent film adaptation (no, Tim Burton, I don't mean by you). Regardless of the merits of the film, however, Tod is still good value, especially if you're a fan of gurning.  

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street

In the very early days of Channel 4, the station had less programmes than it had air time. Initially, there were interludes between shows to cover the gaps but, quite quickly, they turned to the past for help. It was here that I first saw ‘The Human Jungle’, 'The Twilight Zone'‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Prisoner’  - and, as you may have guessed, I liked them. They also showed old films – some so old they seemed to go back to the dawn of cinema, so old that they demanded to be watched in a completely different way (I’m sure they showed silent films, for instance, but may very well be wrong). It was like the Wild West for a  while: anything went. It was rather cool.
‘Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street’ is a film that found itself dusted off and unleashed on the UK by Channel 4 nearly fifty years after it was first released, one of a series of films starring the semi-forgotten Tod Slaughter (not his real name. His real name was Norman Slaughter). Slaughter  was an ‘expressive’ actor manager from Newcastle who had successfully revived a number of lurid Victorian melodramas on stage in the twenties, and then on film from the mid-thirties.
Slaughter specialised in maniacs, and was very good at them. He never essayed supercool, intellectual killers, or cat stroking megalomaniacs, concentrating instead on twitching, shouting, foaming at the mouth killer loonies. He gives some of the most gleefully ridiculous performances of all time, somewhere between panto and genuine mental illness. For all that, he’s still a better actor than Terence Stamp, and much more fun to watch.  
When revived on Channel 4, these were old films of old productions of even older plays and, as such, they seemed alien and bizarre, not least with regard to the performances (see above), which all teeter between ham and hysteria. Everything about the films seemed old fashioned, outmoded, ancient, antique - from the dead cast (Slaughter had died in 1956; his company were almost all middle aged) to the blurred, scratchy prints and the noisy hum of the often inaudible soundtrack. You could be forgiven for thinking they had been excavated during an archaeological dig.
Yet ‘Sweeney Todd’ still made a big impression – I remember kids at school enthusing about it, particularly in terms of how exciting and violent it was. Having re-watched it recently, however, I simply couldn’t connect that impression with the stagey, shouty, cheap, creaky, washed out and worn non-spectacle I was seeing thirty years later - eighty years after it had been made. Then I realised that, although the film never actually provided much in the way of murder and mayhem, it had worked a little stage craft and let us see what was not there – it felt exciting and violent, and all the gory details were provided by that wonderful and underused commodity, imagination. Fancy that.      
As a postscript, I'll just add that I performed in a Victorian melodrama while at school, one that Slaughter had great success with: 'Maria Marten and the Murder at the Red Barn'. It was a brilliantly overwrought piece of gothic, full of declamatory statements, fixed poses and intensely serious expressions, so much so that it was difficult to perform without bursting into laughter. It was an enormous amount of fun.
For the record, I played Tim Bobbin, the village idiot. Typecasting: the curse of any great actor.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Off The Job

Finally, the sequence in 'Stone Into Steel' where it all goes weird and the music gets clattery and we see into the men's heads and get glimpses of their public and private passions, gaining an insight into what they do when they're not at work. In the case of the last picture, he seems to be doing Pat Butcher.

A Sense Of Proportion

More from the marvellous 'Stone Into Steel', with a selection of shots designed to put across the sheer scale of the operation in sunny Scunny, and the relatively few and infinitely tiny human beings needed to keep it all going. 

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Life On Mars

The vast alien landscape of the Appleby-Frodingham steelworks in Scunthorpe, as seen in the super duper 'Stone Into Steel'. How do I know the name of the steelworks? Extensive research, instinct, and a small clue within the film itself..

Stone Into Steel

I watch an awful lot of documentaries, public information films and the like. I don't know why, I like them and they make me feel happy and contented and, strangely, full of hope for a long gone age, usually one that I didn't ever experience myself. Some of the films are deadly dull, of course, but most make for riveting viewing, especially the ones about ship building. That was a riveting joke, by the way. 

My favourite film of many favourites is 'Stone Into Steel', from 1960. It shows us the process by which iron ore is extracted from rock and, eventually, turned into battleships and radio telescopes. It does all this in just over half an hour and, apart from some opening captions, no other explanation other than what we see on the screen - no dialogue, no commentary, just the odd bit of ambient noise and an ever changing modernist classical score by Edward Williams. Every frame is beautiful, and although the pace is gentle, it's never boring even if, like me, you have no specific interest in the steel industry. It was directed by Paul Dickson, who later went on to make episodes of 'Department S' and 'Jason King' - clearly, a very talented man.  

Frustratingly, I've been unable to illegally reproduce my nice, bright version of the film, so, if you're interested, for now you'll have to watch a scabby, faded copy on You Tube. Start here.