Friday, 14 November 2014

The Edge Is Where The Centre Is – David Rudkin & Penda's Fen: A Conversation

"Even though its effects are primitive by today’s standards, Rudkin’s drama, appearing a year after Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, is often hailed as a watermark of British horror. But its real peers are eldritch TV thrillers such as Jonathan Miller’s adaptation of an MR James story Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968), Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (1969-1970) and Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972). Another mystery, from a modern-day standpoint, is how Rudkin’s script was even commissioned: deeply layered, rich in sexual and mythological motifs, trusting the audience to have the patience and intelligence to engage with its handling of complex theological, historical and political ideas, it also migrates beyond the social-realist templates of the majority of screen and stage productions in the early 1970s – the West Country has never looked so Aztec – and uses a subtly minimalist sound design shaped by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s Paddy Kingsland"

The Colloquium for Unpopular Culture's May screening of PENDA'S FEN elicited an enthusiastic response on both sides of the Atlantic. There were requests for more opportunities to engage with the work of its visionary screenwriter David Rudkin. To this end, the Colloquium has produced a new book, THE EDGE IS WHERE THE CENTRE IS, that features a lengthy interview with Rudkin, newly-commissioned essays by prominent English curators Will Fowler and Gareth Evans, striking design by SEEN Studio, and two accompanying prints – one of them featuring Rudkin in pyrotechnic mode – by award-winning writer and photographer S.F. Said.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The Moon and the Sledgehammer – A film by Philip Trevelyan

“If you said to scientists even cleverest today, could you create a small world floating in outer space and make miniataure rivers and everything to actually flow, it would … and things to actually grow on it, and they have got to do it with nothing .. nothing … they haven’t got to have anything … they’ve got to do it in the air and they haven’t got to put anything there to do anything, and they’ve got to make this all up, it would be impossible”

Jim: Hey! That’s great Kath. Kath: It is, isn’t it? Jim: Cor! Kath: Ooh, I’ve cut a rose. Jim: Cor! Just the job, eh? ... lovely ... What a lovely smell ... cor! Reminds me of an old song Kath. Kath: It does? Jim: Umh. Kath: Well sing it then. Jim: You are my garden of roses, Kissed by the morning dew, Each little flower that opens, Fortunes I find in you ...

The Pages live in a ramshackle house situated in six acres of woodland, which they own themselves, in the heart of the commuter-belt, 20 miles south of London. The trees cut the Pages off completely from the outside world, and isolated in their island-clearing, they let the 20th Century slowly pass them by. It is a simple life without running water, electricity or gas. Peter and Jim earn what little money the family needs by doing casual repairs to tractors and farm-machinery in the neighbourhood. Machinery is the permanent obsession of Mr Page and his sons. The wood is littered with rusty iron carcasses: parts of old engines, disembowelled car-bodies: a pile of gigantic spanners. Most spectacular are the archaic steam traction-engines which the men tinker with and drive thunderously about the woodland to no apparent purpose. The girls, too, have their special preoccupations: Nancy sits at her embroidery; Kathy tends her garden and plays comforting tunes on the harmonium in the house, or on the piano rotting away outside. As the film unfolds each member of the family spells out their personal fantasies and philosophies to the camera. For all their prodigious skills, they seem at first eccentric, quaint; their ideas tangential to our own. But in the end it emerges that they are in control of their world in a way that we can never be in control of ours.

“In 1970 I approached Jimmy Vaughan with plans for The Moon And The Sledgehammer. I knew him already as the distributor of my previous film along with a personal choice of underground and experimental films. It was thanks to his initiative as a financier and producer that The Moon And The Sledgehammer was able to go into production. The film took over a year to complete, and was subject not only to the strains and stresses of an emerging production company, but to considerable differences of opinion between Vaughan and myself. It may still be possible, thanks to the calm engineering of the editor Barrie Vince, to find in this film some evidence of two minds and two talents working together”

PRODUCER: James Vaughan, DIRECTOR: Philip Trevelyan, CAMERAMAN: Richard Stanley, EDITOR: Barrie Vince, SOUND RECORDIST: Paul Robinson, DUBBING MIXER: Tony Anscombe, LOCATION SECRETARY: Lynda Deakin, ASSISTANT CAMERAMAN: Christopher Morphet, ASSISTANT EDITOR: Graham Whitlock.

"Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen, I never go where the cock never crows, and I wouldn’t advise any of you to go where the cock don’t crow ... Walk up Ladies and Gentlemen and see the live lion stuffed with straw, two spots on his belly and one on his ... Get away on you! Stand back you boys! The elephant’s about to make water ... ha ha ha ha ... All the felt hats I ever felt, I never felt a felt hat that felt like this felt ... felt ... felt"

Further information can be found here. Watch the trailer here.

Monday, 15 September 2014

A for Andromeda / The Andromeda Breakthrough / A come Andromeda

A for Andromeda (1961) was the BBC's first major adult science fiction production since the three Quatermass serials of the 1950s. But unlike its predecessors, it used the new sciences of computing and genetics, rather than the established disciplines of chemistry and archaeology, to tell its story of an alien threat to humanity.

The series was developed by producer John Elliot from a story by Cambridge astronomer and novelist Fred Hoyle about an alien transmission that provides details about how to build a supercomputer. Once built, the machine turns out to be a form of messenger that, among other things, provides a formula for a genetic experiment that results in the cloning of a technician who it has deliberately electrocuted. The cloned embryo quickly reaches maturity, and is christened Andromeda, after the source of the original transmission. Despite her outward appearance, the woman has an alien mentality and fears about her intentions are quickly realised. "Our intelligence is going to take over and yours is going to die. You'll go the way of the dinosaurs," she informs her human colleagues.

News of the computer, which has been built in secrecy under the watchful eye of the Ministry of Defence, is leaked to a mysterious organisation - called, curiously, Intel (clearly in its pre-Bill Gates guise) - which wants the device for its own ends. Fortunately, Andromeda is humanised by her interaction with the people who built the computer, and she runs away with young scientist John Fleming (Peter Halliday) rather than play a part in the alien plan.

The series contains several elements that belie its age. Genetics and computer science were then still in their infancy - although both would be familiar to audiences today. Also, the programme features women at the centre of the action - the scientist that instigates the genetic experiment, Professor Madeline Dawnay (Mary Morris) and the alien creation, Andromeda (played by newcomer Julie Christie).

The Andromeda Breakthrough, L to R: Geoffrey Dunn (as Adrian Preen), Peter Halliday (as John Fleming) & Susan Hampshire (as Andromeda).

The series proved popular enough for a sequel, The Andromeda Breakthrough (BBC, 1962), which followed Andromeda's attempts to flee her human captors. Intel is once again interested in gaining access to the alien intelligence but time is running out for everyone - a genetic fault is killing the clone. The BBC's refusal to pay a £300 option to retain the services of Julie Christie resulted in Andromeda being recast, with Susan Hampshire taking over the role.

Anthony Clark

A come Andromeda è uno sceneggiato televisivo in cinque puntate trasmesso dalla RAI nel 1972 e diretto da Vittorio Cottafavi. Basato sullo sceneggiato A for Andromeda prodotto dalla BBC nel 1961 su sceneggiatura di Fred Hoyle e John Elliot, e sul successivo omonimo romanzo fantascientifico degli stessi autori, l'adattamento per la televisione italiana si deve allo scrittore Inisero Cremaschi.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

The Twilight Language of Nigel Kneale / A Cathode Ray Séance

Ed. Sukhdev Sandhu
132pp, 209mm x 137mm
pb, £16.99 (UK only)
+ Audio Cassette.

The first collection of critical and artistic responses to Kneale’s work, available only through Strange Attractor. Designed by Rob Carmichael and edited by SS Sandhu, The Twilight Language of Nigel Kneale is a limited-edition Risograph book – published by Texte und Töne in collaboration with the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture – to mark A Cathode Ray Séance: The Haunted Worlds of Nigel Kneale, a day-long event held in association with Strange Attractor in New York in November 2012. It’s the first collection of critical and artistic responses to Kneale’s pathfinding body of work ever published. Contributors include: Sophia Al-Maria, Bilge Ebiri, Mark Fisher, William Fowler, Ken Hollings, Paolo Javier, Roger Luckhurst, China Miéville, Drew Mulholland, David Pike, Mark Pilkington, Joanna Ruocco, Sukhdev Sandhu, Dave Tompkins, Michael Vazquez and Evan Calder Williams. The book also comes with Restligeists, a cassette featuring specially-composed pieces by The Asterism, Emma Hammond and Robin The Fog, Hong Kong In The 60s, Listening Centre, Mordant Music, and The Real Tuesday Weld"

Thanks to Rob Carmichael & SS Sandhu.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

...Artemis..8..1.... A television play by David Rudkin

Again for BBC Pebble Mill, producer David Rose: an ambitious 3-hour venture, originally conceived as a co-production with TV Denmark - hence the Danish dimension to the story.

Gideon, a successful novelist, insulated from reality and emotionally arid, is deeply and ruefully loved by two people: a woman musician, and a man who teaches film. But Gideon flinches from all human contact. From an alien planet, an angel of love descends, to try to unlock Gideon's emotions and save him. But an angel of death comes not far after, seeking to imprison Gideon in his frigidity. At the climax, high within the tower of an abbey, while an organ recital proceeds below, Death's trap is so sprung that, if Gideon succumbs to him now, the whole world will be destroyed.

An existential morality, told in terms of Gothic fable, with powerful organ music (coming from the woman's part in the story) and Hitchcockian allusions (refracted from the film-obsessions of the other man). I can see why some disparage it now as a 'pretensh-fest' by a 'hi-aim author' (okay folks, let's all be happy little epsilons and aim low...); but where people positively respond to it, it's to its prodigality with images, and its mythic charge that flows into parts of us that meaner contemporary tv drama (and cinema for that matter) do not even know are there.

I acknowledge that the piece is uneven - in the writing and in the realizing. I feel also that some of the playing lacks inwardness - in a very tight shoot, technical and budget considerations predominated, thus the director had little time to do the deeper exploring with the actors that is necessary, so that they were working mainly on technique. (By contrast, Sting, nervous and awkward in his first 'legitimate' rôle, is moving in this very nervousness and awkwardness - with no technique as yet to trust to, he has to use his emotions.) For director Alastair Reid, I think the shoot was a Hellish experience - especially during the mere three days we had for the Danish location work. On the North Sea ferry there and back, there were shots that he had only one chance to get right. He needed all his commitment to the piece, and all his formidable technical mastery.

Some of the futuristic design is too close to '70s Doctor Who for comfort - but to be honest so was my own technical imagination somewhat limited there. Another feature that dates this piece is that the author doesn't have a mobile phone or word-processor: he comes from those few years where the technological cutting edge for a successful author was the IBM golf-ball typewriter. Some of the film's visual devices derive from features of this machine: the Gothic inscription that vanishes letter by letter backwards, the conversion of text into a symbols code... It's a lesson for an author to ponder, that where my own imagery is at its most original, that's where it is most thrillingly realized: the dream-sequence with its stained-glass window (and vanishing inscription) looking out over the sea; the nightmare city where the deconstructed Gideon is taken to be reborn (Birmingham and Liverpool skylines disturbingly fused); the terrifying cathedral, and the murderous set piece with the couple hiding in its great bell; the alien planet with twin suns... The glass-shots are beautiful and unafraid: the insolent red telephone kiosk on the wild green headland; the monstrous ocean-liner dwarfing the dockside street (an affectionate filch from Hitchcock's Marnie)... There was a lot of good will behind this production. On the creative side, everyone involved gave it everything they had.

Then came post-production. The producer David Rose left BBC to take up a senior post at the then new Channel Four, and although he kept a watch on things, in effect we lacked his controlling presence. I nurse a particular grievance about the editing. The up-and-coming young editor I thought right for Artemis, and who wanted to do it, was not even considered: this was a 'big' project, and so was allocated to the Senior Editor - with whom I was never granted so much as a discussion. On Penda, I had been given reasonable access to the edit and the dub, and my responses had been sought and sometimes acted on. On Artemis I was allowed to see no rushes, no rough assembly, no rough-cut; my first invitation to a sighting was together with members of the publicity department. I protested, and was granted a viewing before that; but it was a formality. As I feared, much had been done to Artemis in the cutting-room and dubbing-suite that I could never have endorsed.

But it had been an extraordinary enterprise, and in its making some beautiful things had happened for me. Among the giants I was privileged to work with here, was one of Hollywood's great actors, Dan O'Herlihy, who had been in Carol Reed's classic 1940s IRA film Odd Man Out and later played Robinson Crusoe for the legendary Buñuel. And there was Sting. As an author not celebrated and not glamorous, I was shy of my first meeting with so iconic a being. Sting reversed the situation with a gesture of true grace: the megastar asked me for my autograph - on the script of an old play of mine he had seen years ago in Newcastle, before he was famous.

Then there was the Hitchcock dimension. For the film-lecture sequence, we needed the climactic 360-degree tracking-shot from Vertigo. (An hommage to it is to occur at Gideon's and the loving angel's farewell embrace.) Even if we could have afforded financially to incorporate that sequence, it was not physically accessible: together with several other mid-period Hitchcocks, Vertigo was under some legal embargo at that time, and not even the old British Film Institute black-and-white 16mm print could be hired, even for reference purposes. Alastair Reid's brilliant solution was to have the film-lecturer draw a story-board of the 360 sequence, and use that for his class. But Hitchcock's sequence is optically very complex: as Kim Novak and James Stewart embrace, the camera slowly circles sideways around them; as it does so, the hotel-room background dissolves to the contrasted background of an earlier embrace, then becomes the hotel-room background again as the camera's encircling movement comes to rest. Our story-board would need to represent that circular tracking-shot precisely, stage by stage as it proceeds. I was working from memory of the film, which neither Alastair nor I had seen for over 20 years. To prepare such a story-board, we needed to study the sequence itself, somehow, somewhere. Through the good offices of a friend in Paris, we were granted a private (and clandestine) showing of the film at the Cinémathèque. Afterward, in an editing suite there, Alastair quickly did sketches of the sequence as he passed it through a moviola while I stood guard at the door.

For the organ music, I specified for the Gwen's audition piece a late work by Brahms, elegiac and troubled. For the climactic scene in the abbey (shot in Southwell Minster) I specified, among the recital pieces, works by Buxtehude and Nielsen (the Danish connection). But for organ music at the climax itself, we needed a customized piece that advanced in short regular modules, growing in intensity, specifically composed 'to' the shooting-script for this sequence, and so composed that the montage of images could be edited to fit it. I recommended Gordon Crosse for this, a composer with whom I had worked before. I devised a twelve-note theme for him, a demonic distortion of Brahms' theme heard earlier, and using all semitones of the chromatic scale once each and in such an order that they evoked an onward-moving classical harmony; on this, Gordon built a passacaglia, an ancient form in which increasingly complex variations build up over a recurring 4- or 8-bar bass that never changes. Onscreen, the music is interrupted at its climax by the catastrophe from the tower; Gordon later composed an ending for it, and now it stands as an organ piece in its own right: Passacaglia: Artemis. He's a composer whom producers and directors should use much more: he understands film, and knows what film-music needs to be.

Alastair Reid went on next to direct a technically much less spectacular piece, The Secret Servant, that quietly contains (in Jill Balcon's confession speech) one of the most remarkable long-takes in the business - a living demonstration that control and mastery do not need to be demonstrative. He also, soon after that, directed the first Inspector Morse - on which he lavishes a skill and a precision worthy of his beloved Hitchcock, and demonstrating something that Hitchcock's mere imitators will never understand: it's not a question of copying Hitchcock's effects; it's a moral matter of framing an image with that emotional accuracy that makes its inner meaning visible.

Artemis 81 is now available on a BBC DVD. It's unfortunate that the DVD's producers have issued it under an inaccurate title: the 81 is as in the number of a distant star, not the abbreviated number of a year. The IBM golfball typewriter featured in the film is my own, and is now in the IBM museum at Chandlersford.

© David Rudkin