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Get Carters, Sea Wolves: How British Cinema Survived the 1970s

March 31, 2015

I’ve just finished reading Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998), Peter Biskind’s epic history of how the moviebrat generation of directors, who wrestled control from the old-school studio producers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, changed Hollywood forever. Although Biskind gives a rather acerbic portrayal of the dysfunctional personalities and out of control egos that comprised  the New Hollywood set — Peter Bogdanovich, George Lucas, Warren Beatty, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman etc. — the quality of their movies remains unsurpassed. Audiences had never seen films as daring or unconventional as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Exorcist (1973) and Mean Streets (1973). Alas, when you look at the British film industry during the 1970s, the story seems rather desperate in comparison. British cinema thrived after the war. Government subsidies were available to filmmakers, and this attracted some of the best talent from abroad. War films, Costume and Kitchen Sink dramas were popular. By the seventies, however, the money was beginning to dry up as Britain lurched from one economic crisis to another. In the decade of power strikes, the three-day week and Winter of Discontent, the film industry suffered as much as any other industry. There were compensations, for instance the parlous state of the film industry forced some of the best creative talent to concentrate on TV which led to a Golden Age of television drama in Britain. But although the number of British films declined, and some output became notorious (such as the lamentable sex comedies that were churned out by the dozen), there were still some distinguished British films produced in this period. In contrast to the developments in Hollywood, the creativity and narrative vision of the best British films of the seventies owed a lot to a small number of producers, specifically Michael Klinger and Euan Lloyd, who had the drive and determination for films like Get Carter (1971), Gold (1974), Shout at the Devil (1976) and The Sea Wolves (1980) to be made against the odds.

Get Carter begins with eponymous gangster (played by Michael Caine) staring out of the window of the home of the London mob bosses, Sid and Gerald Fletcher, who are happily watching porn slides in the living room. Carter is planning to travel to Newcastle to investigate the suspicious death of his brother Frank. The London Underworld doesn’t want him to go in case he disturbs their business interests in the city, but Carter is resolute, and his fearlessness is demonstrated by the fact that he is having an affair with Gerald’s wife. As soon as Carter arrives in Newcastle, he begins to agitate corrupt businessman Cliff Brumby and local crime lord Cyril Kinnear, both of whom he suspects were involved with Frank’s death, while constantly giving the slip to two London gangsters tasked with sending him home. The plot at first seems to be simply a revenge story, but it develops into a gripping and complex portrayal of the links between organised crime and business in Britain at the time. Aside from the plotting, this is also one of the most brilliantly atmospheric British films ever made. You can almost smell the stench from the back garden  latrines. Every cafe, bookmakers and pub seems rundown and dispiriting. Wallpaper is yellowed and rotting from the endless plumes of cigarette smoke, and rain batters down relentlessly on the cobbled streets.

Steve Chibnall’s book on Get Carter for the British Film Guide is a brilliant account of the making of the film. Michael Klinger had long wanted to make a gangster film and simply browsed through the galley copies of soon to be published novels and discovered Jack’s Return Home by Ted Lewis. Klinger was a larger than life character whose business interests did not necessarily suggest he would go on to produce critically acclaimed films:

The man who would bring Jack’s Return Home to the screen, independent producer Michael Klinger, was a unique figure in the British film industry. He was a showman able to bridge the sizable gap between commercial sexploitation and a cinema of genuine artistic experimentation. The son of a Polish tailor, Klinger was born in Soho in 1920 and thoroughly imbibed its ethos of rule-breaking and shrewd deal-making. He started out as a disc jockey, but by the late 1950s he was cashing in on the Soho striptease boom by managing the Nell Gwynne club. The club’s performers supplied much of the subject matter for the epidemic of 8mm ‘glamour’ films that began to be produced for the home-viewing market at the time, and would later feature in the plot of Get Carter. It was at the Nell Gwynne that Klinger met Tony Tenser, then head of publicity for Miracle Films, a UK distributor for racy continental pictures. In 1960 they went into partnership and opened the Compton Cinema Club to show uncertified movies to a ‘sophisticated’ membership.

MoffatCaineDespite producing some of the best British films of the 70s, Klinger maintained his interest in soft-porn and produced the appalling Confessions series of sex comedies purely because they could be made cheaply and turn a quick profit. Given his background, it is perhaps surprising that Get Carter has a extremely negative view of the deadening, dehumanising effect pornography has on the characters. Although the film is violent from beginning, when Carter sees a blue film featuring his niece (who may actually be his daughter) it starts a chain-reaction of murders which leads the film to its bloody climax. One of the most memorable characters is Glenda played by Geraldine Moffat (pictured), a gangster’s moll with an absolute addiction to hedonism and no apparent sense of morality. Moffat plays Glenda as a booze-addled Dolly Bird living in the wrong decade. All of the carefree joy and optimism of the swinging sixties seems to have evaporated, and all that remains is its sleazy legacy. This is embodied in the inspired casting of playwright John Osborne as Cyril Kinnear. Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956) had made him the original ‘Angry Young Man’ in the late 1950s, but by this stage Osborne was politically leaning towards Tory Anarchism, and he plays Kinnear as a sleazy but cultured middle-aged man who has narrowly missed his chance to become a member of polite society and seems resigned to being a gangster. Even in its title ‘Get Carter’ is intriguing; both the London and Newcastle Firms are out to ‘Get’ Carter, but surely the main focus of the film is Carter’s investigation and determination to ‘Get’ revenge for his brother’s death? However, as Chibnall details in his book, it took critics and audiences a long time to get Get Carter. The film was neither a critical nor commercial success upon its first release. It wasn’t until over twenty years later that VHS releases and late night television showings brought it to a larger audience, and now it regularly appears on lists of the greatest British films ever made.

At the time, Get Carter’s relative lack of success was not discouraging to Klinger. The Michael Klinger Papers are a wonderful online resource which gives you a glimpse into the mind of this extraordinary man. Brash, somewhat crude, with a good head for business and not afraid to take a gamble, Klinger had some of the best qualities of a film producer. When Verity Lambert turned down a role in a proposed film ‘The Chilean Club’, apparently after not liking the script, Klinger replied, ‘I’m sorry you found it disappointing. Katherine Hepburn thought it was the funniest script she had ever read.’ One of his next big projects after Get Carter was the mining thriller Gold. Based on a Wilbur Smith novel Gold tells the story of Rod Slater (Roger Moore), a General Manager of a South African mining firm who is persuaded, against his better judgment, to drill for gold at a depth in the mine which puts it at high-risk of flooding. Slater is having an affair with his bosses’ wife (played by Susannah York). Her husband (Bradford Dillman) uses the affair to his advantage and  arranges for the mine to be deliberately flooded while Slater is away on a romantic weekend. Dillman is part of a crime syndicate which plans to destroy the mine and kill all the miners trapped inside to manipulate the market and exponentially increase the value of their shares in other mines. From the moment Gold opens with its brassy title song by Elmer Bernstein and Don Black you know you’re in for a colourful seventies thriller. Klinger was able to put together a very talented team for the production. In addition to a terrific cast, which includes John Gielgud as the enigmatic head of the crime syndicate, Klinger hired Peter Hunt to direct. Hunt had edited the first five James Bond films and did much to set the exciting fast-paced style of the films which has been much emulated by action films since. In the days when directors had less influence over the final cut, Hunt had tremendous power as editor. When editing You Only Live Twice (1967) Hunt was so unimpressed by Donald Pleasance’s camp Blofeld that he skilfully edited around the performance so the audience never saw Pleasance’s ‘mincing stride’. Hunt’s directorial debut On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) was not a tremendous success on first release (although it’s now considered one of the best Bond films), and Gold was his first film in five years. His skill as an editor had stayed with him. Some of the best scenes in Gold involve cutting between the germophobic Dillman awkwardly sleeping with his wife while the suave Slater brings one of his many girlfriends back to his apartment. It may not be subtle, but it’s effective. Another memorable scene cuts between the flooding of the mine and the chaos that ensues with the serenity of a bowling green where the mine owners are enjoying the privileges of their life, blissfully unaware that their mines are flooding and workers are drowning.

I don’t know how well Gold did at the box office, but it was enough of a success (Moore complains in his memoir that he was cheated out his promised slice of the profits) for Klinger to green-light another film based on a Wilbur Smith project. For Shout at the Devil, Klinger brought Moore back for the lead role and Hunt is once again on directing duties. But Shout at the Devil is a much more ambitious epic action-adventure film than Gold with shades of The African Queen (1951) in its plotting, and when viewed today it looks like a forerunner to the Indiana Jones films. Set in Zanzibar and German East Africa on the brink of the Great War, Moore stars as Sebastian Oldsmith, a devilish rogue who is travelling through Africa en route to Australia (apparently because his family want him out of the way). Oldsmith captures the attention of Colonel Flynn O’Flynn (Lee Marvin) who arranges for all of Oldsmith’s money to be stolen, leaving the dapper Englishman penniless and stranded in Zanzibar. Oldsmith, unaware that Flynn is behind the theft of his funds, agrees to poach elephants in German territory with the hard-drinking American, incurring the wrath of the German Commander Fleischer (Reinhard Kolldehoff) in the process. The first half of Shout at the Devil follow a series of episodic and comic adventures as Oldsmith and Flynn try to outwit Fleischer, leading to one of the most anachronistic but funny scenes I have seen in modern cinema wherein Oldsmith poses as a German tax collector and visits an African village in the hope of collecting taxes before Fleischer does. Sure enough, Fleischer arrives while Oldsmith is bartering with the villagers and all hell breaks loose. One of the best scenes of the film comes when Oldsmith asks Flynn for his daughter Rosa’s hand in marriage. An enraged Flynn discovers that the marriage is inevitable as Rosa is with child and a fist fight ensues:

Shout at the Devil becomes an altogether darker film after war is declared and Fleischer murders Oldsmith and Rosa’s baby daughter. Hellbent on revenge, Oldsmith and Flynn are hired by the Royal Navy to plant a bomb on a German warship in which Fleischer is currently stationed. The warship barges through this film, destroying everything in its path much like the portly Fleischer himself, who is so cheerfully and relentlessly evil that you can’t help but like him. According to the Klinger papers Shout at the Devil was the most expensive film made in 1976. With a budget of $9,000,000, a staggering amount for an independent British film at the time, you can see the quality of the production on the screen. There are biplanes, dreadnoughts and any number of action scenes which makes the film both a thrilling adventure and stronger than average story with the ending loosely inspired by the sinking of SMS Konigsberg in 1905.

The film which I believe closed this cycle of British films was The Sea Wolves released in 1980. Produced by Euan Lloyd, The Sea Wolves is a true story adapted from one of the most unusual episodes of the Second World War and features an all-star cast including Roger Moore (yes, him again!), Gregory Peck, Trevor Howard and David Niven. Lloyd did not share Klinger’s interest in soft-porn, but he had that similar temperament which makes for a great film producer as his BFI biography states:

A brazen, against-the-odds ambition, an old-fashioned – some would say reactionary – world view, aged stars and a journeyman crew of familiar names who returned with each production: these are the characteristics of a ‘Euan Lloyd Production’. Lloyd stood alone within the depressed British film industry of the late 1970s and early 80s as a producer with the self-belief, charisma and bluff to mount large-scale independent action-adventure films.

Sea WolvesIn the film, Allied forces are sustaining heavy losses in merchant shipping from U-Boat attacks in the Indian Ocean. British Intelligence discovers that a radio transmitter located on board a German merchant ship docked in Goa is passing information to the U-Boats. As Goa is governed by neutral Portugal two SOE agents (Moore and Peck) devise a rather unconventional plan, Operation Creek, to knock out the German communications. They enlist the aging soldiers of the Calcutta Light Horse Brigade (headed by Niven) to lead a clandestine attack on the German ship while the bulk of the crew are being entertained onshore in a party organised by Moore. Operation Creek had only been declassified two years prior to the making of the film, and it was detailed in James Leasor’s book Boarding Party. Although the film has an unusual plot for a covert operation and plenty of comic moments, as the elderly and overweight members of the Light Horse Brigade whip themselves into shape for one last mission, it still feels distinctly old-fashioned. In the year that Raging Bull wowed critics and audiences, The Sea Wolves with its James Bond- like title sequence, Matt Monro song ‘The Precious Moments’ and stiff upper lip attitude would have been a hit twenty years earlier but sadly failed to make much impact on its initial release. Despite this, it remains an interesting and engaging film with superb performances from its stars, who seem to be enjoying themselves immensely, and a host of recognisable character actors, Kenneth Griffith, Patrick Allan, Jack Watson, many of whom had appeared in Lloyd’s hit film The Wild Geese released two years earlier. Watching The Sea Wolves feels like the end of an era for British film, and although some of the films produced during this period were not as distinguished as the most acclaimed American films of the seventies they were still hugely enjoyable and engaging, certainly better than most action films churned out today, and we owe a debt to the producers who defied the odds to get them made.

Both Klinger and Lloyd’s producing careers began to wind down by the early 1980s. At the 1982 Academy Awards, Colin Welland famously declared ‘The British are coming!’ when accepting his Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Chariots of Fire. Alas, no significant revival of the British film industry followed Welland’s heavily mocked prediction. In the 1990s a mixture of Cool Britannia, National Lottery funding and the arrival of new talent like Danny Boyle and Ewan McGregor seemed to herald a new resurgence of British films, but even then, the revival seemed tentative with the film industry not being able to match the quality or quantity of our post-war peak. As for the 1970s, Britain could never have matched the creativity of the moviebrat generation in Hollywood. Still, it’s time we acknowledged creative producers like Michael Klinger and Euan Lloyd, star actors Michael Caine and Roger Moore, directors such as Mike Hodges and Peter Hunt and a host of ubiquitous character actors whose presence seems as constant as family. These guys kept the British film industry alive and produced some damn fine work which doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.

Well done chaps.

Rules of Crime Fiction: Ghosts Edition

March 17, 2015

electricI’ve always been fascinated by writers who have attempted to define or codify the ‘rules’ of crime and detective fiction. Having previously examined Elmore Leonard’s ‘Avoid Prologues’ rule, I decided to take a look at a much older rule of the genre and to see how well it had held up over time. Rule number eight of S.S. Van Dine’s ‘Twenty Rules of Detective Fiction’ states:

The problem of the crime must he solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic se’ances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.

My first reaction on rereading Van Dine’s rules was that rule number eight had long outlived its usefulness. Van Dine was writing in the Golden Age of locked room mysteries and fair play, whereas we now live in an age of genre hybrids when writers are expected to break the rules in what is, after all, the most subversive of genres. However, it’s worth contemplating just how the rule has been broken and to what extent it still applies. One work which I feel is a important challenge to rule number eight is James Lee Burke’s In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead (1993). The sixth novel in Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series, In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead is a gripping novel in which Burke expertly weaves several plot strands encompassing both past and present together – the brutal murder of a prostitute, the shooting of a black convict which Robicheaux witnessed as a teen in 1957, and the criminal activities of mobster Julie ‘Baby Feet’ Balboni who is co-producing a Civil War film in the town of New Iberia where the main action of the novel takes place. The first person narration of Detective Robicheaux guides the reader through this murky tale with his inimitable mix of weary cynicism and southern charm. One night, after his drink is spiked with LSD, Robicheaux has the first of an intermittent series of dreamlike encounters with General John Bell Hood and a rabble of Confederate soldiers under his command. Loyal, gallant and tacitly aware that he has chosen the wrong side, General Hood has all the qualities one expects of the old South. Robicheaux is faced with a series of dilemmas as to whether he should break the law in his investigation as it is the only means to survive and achieve justice working in the corrupt bureaucracies of the New South. Hood gives Robicheaux allusive advice about the investigation, always cloaked in the subject of maintaining his honour:

‘It’s us against them, my friend,’ he said. ‘There’s insidious men abroad in the land.’ He swept his crutch at the marsh. ‘My God, man, use your eyes.’

‘The federals?’

‘Are your eyes and ears stopped with dirt?’

‘I think this conversation is not real. I think all of this will be gone with daylight.’

‘You’re not a fool, Mr Robicheaux. Don’t pretend to be one.’

‘I’ve seen your grave in New Orleans. No, it’s in Metaire. You died of the yellowjack.’

‘That’s not correct. I died when they struck the colors, suh.’ He lifted his crutch and pointed it at me as he would a weapon. The firelight shone on his yellow teeth. ‘They’ll try your soul, son. But don’t give up your cause. Occupy the high ground and make them take it foot by bloody foot.’

‘I don’t know what we’re talking about.’

‘For God’s sakes, what’s wrong with you? Venal and evil men are destroying the world you were born in. Can’t you understand that?’

The ghostly visitations feel so real in the novel as Burke effortlessly evokes the southern atmosphere of both these men’s times, which make the exchanges between the general and the detective captivating to read. As Kevin Burton Smith says of Burke’s writing in the Thrilling Detective, ‘his depictions of the the back roads and bayous of rural Loiusiana verge on poetry. You can smell the bayous, taste the spices of the food, hear the wind whistle through the trees and the canebreaks.’ This novel was the start of Burke’s interest in ghosts and the supernatural, which amusingly lead Burton Smith to grumble, ‘one might quibble that there have been a few too many dead people popping up in the books to offer him [Robicheaux] help on his cases.’ Although Robicheaux’s meetings with Hood appear to be dreamlike encounters, and therefore not an infringement on Van Dine’s rules, Hood not only lectures Robicheaux on his conscience but awakens parts of his subconscious. There is a final twist in the tale, which I won’t give away here, casting doubt on whether the encounters were merely dreams all along. Perhaps then, by the denouement, things are not ‘solved by strictly naturalistic means.’ Genre hybrids may be common now, and many writers have taken a scalpel to Van Dine’s aversion to ‘slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic se’ances, crystal-gazing’, but few have done it with as much charm and credibility as James Lee Burke.

James Ellroy: Grand Master

March 4, 2015
James Ellroy at the Dancehouse Thatre, Manchester

James Ellroy at the Dancehouse Thatre, Manchester

Craig McDonald has written a piece ‘In Praise of James Ellroy’ for Crimespree to celebrate the great man’s sixty-seventh birthday today and the news that he will be made a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America this year. Happy birthday James Ellroy.

 

‘Don’t nod out, Hesh. You don’t get a show like this every day.’ American Tabloid

‘James Ellroy: Visions of Noir’ 1-3 July 2015, University of Liverpool

February 5, 2015

I’m excited to announce that ‘James Ellroy: Visions of Noir’  will take at the University of Liverpool, 1-3 July 2015. The call for papers, including details of how to submit a proposal is below:

Photo Credit: Mark Coggins

Photo Credit: Mark Coggins

‘James Ellroy: Visions of Noir’ 1-3 July 2015, will be held at the University of Liverpool and sponsored by the School of English. This conference will examine Ellroy’s influence on the genre, his inspirations as a writer and his achievements in forging an idiosyncratic and unique style. We seek to foster an interdisciplinary approach in order to explore subjects such as Ellroy’s reinterpretation of the history of Los Angeles and the United States, as well as the connections between genre fiction and cinema through film noir. Our keynote speaker is journalist and critic Woody Haut, who has written on how Ellroy’s work has led to a reassessment of crime fiction as ‘at its most subversive not when it retreats into the confines of the genre, but when it stretches its narrative boundaries and rules regarding subject, style and plot.’ His works include Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction (1999) and Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War (2014), and his keynote address is titled ‘From Paranoia to the Contrary: Exploring the Noir World of James Ellroy’.

Panels at the conference may include, but are not restricted to:

  • Historical Crime Fiction: Ellroy’s manipulation of history, comparisons to other authors such as Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal
  • True Crime: the writer’s place in solving crimes; Ellroy’s relationship with police and true crime writers
  • Mapping Los Angeles: The history and geography of Ellroy’s LA
  • Pulp and Porn: The voyeurism of tabloids and film in Ellroy’s work
  • Film Noir: Ellroy’s adaptation of film and film’s adaptation of Ellroy
  • Femme fatales: Exploring the genre’s gender lines
  • Ellroy and after: Ellroy’s influence on a younger generation of crime writers

Please send proposals of 400 words to Dr Steven Powell (s.p.powell@liv.ac.uk) and Dr Diana Powell (diana.powell@liv.ac.uk) by 30 April 2015. The abstract should include a title, name and affiliation of the speaker, and a contact email address. Postgraduate students and independent scholars are welcome. Papers will be a maximum of 20 minutes in length. Proposals for suggested panels are also welcome. We plan to publish a selection of papers after the conference.

Conference Webpage: https://www.liv.ac.uk/english/our-events/ellroy/

Woody Haut is an acknowledged master of American noir. He’s the author of three non-fiction classics- Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War, Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction, and Heartbreak & Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood- as well as one novel, the recently published Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime.

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New Novel in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Series

January 29, 2015

Well this comes as a very pleasant surprise. The Guardian is reporting that readers can expect the return of Lisbeth Salander in a fourth book of the Millennium series:

A sequel to late Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s bestselling Millennium crime trilogy will go on sale in at least 35 countries from August, the book’s publishers said on Tuesday.

That Which Does Not Kill was completed in November by David Lagercrantz, known for co-authoring Swedish football star Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s autobiography. He stands in for Larsson, who died of a heart attack in 2004 aged 50.

The book will continue the story of the troubled but resourceful heroine Lisbeth Salander first made famous in Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

But the author remained tight-lipped about the meaning of the title or what direction the action-packed political thriller – 500 pages long in Swedish – will take.

 “What I wanted to make use of in the book was the vast mythology that Stieg Larsson left behind, the world he created,” Lagercrantz told the Dagens Nyheter newspaper, adding that he remained loyal to Larsson’s writing style which weaved criticism of social and political issues with criminal intrigue.

“Lisbeth Salander’s not just any superhero. She’s not only great because of her talents but also because of her context and background.”

At the time of his death Stieg Larsson reportedly had plans to write at least another seven novels.

I’d heard the rumours of a fourth manuscript, but I had no idea how close it was to publication. I’m looking forward to this one immensely. It raises a lot of questions. Will it revive the Swedish and American film franchises I wonder? Will Larsson’s former partner Eva Gabrielson receive a fair share of the royalties?

Henry VII: Winter King and the Shadow of the Tower

January 27, 2015

Shadow of the TowerIf you’re currently enjoying the television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, I have two recommendations which should be essential for anyone interested in the Tudor age. One is a TV drama, The Shadow of the Tower, and the other is a historical biography, Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England (2011) by Thomas Penn. Both deal with the founder of the Tudor Dynasty, Henry VII. The Shadow of the Tower was the final series in the BBC’s acclaimed Tudor trilogy produced in the 1970s. It followed the The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970) and Elizabeth R (1971), both of which have come to be regarded as the best historical dramas of their kind, and came at the start of what would be a Golden Age of British television drama. The Shadow of the Tower is the prequel to these two dramas, beginning on the day of The Battle of Bosworth Field when Henry Tudor seized the crown from Richard III.

James Maxwell is superb in the leading role, and his performance as Henry is strong enough to recommend the series alone. An American-born actor, who achieved some of his greatest successes at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, Maxwell perfectly captures the cunning, manipulative, and quietly authoritative nature of Henry in every word and mannerism. Characteristics of the monarch Penn describes as:

A sallow young man, with dark hair curled in the shoulder length fashion of the time and a penchant for expensively dyed black clothes, whose steady gaze was made more disconcerting by a cast in his left eye – such that while one eye looked at you, the other searched for you. […] The soft politesse concealed a sharp observer, a gleaner of information, cool under pressure and used to having to think several steps ahead: a leader.

As soon as you think you understand Henry, Maxwell seems to effortlessly change in character and motivation. His purely political marriage to Elizabeth of York (played by Norma West), uniting the Houses of York and Lancaster in the new House of Tudor, becomes one of genuine love and affection. History still provides the basis for the best thrillers, and the threats posed by Yorkist pretenders Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, the latter claiming to be Richard of Shrewsbury, one of the princes Richard III imprisoned in the Tower, provide the overarching narrative of the series. Even if you’re knowledgeable about this era of history, you’re still likely to find it suspenseful as the Lambert Simnel rebellion marches south to meet Henry’s forces at the Battle of Stoke Field. It is also quite funny, as the teenage Simnel, who is little more than a pawn of the Yorkists in the final battle of the Wars of the Roses, slowly starts to drive his own commanders crazy with his stroppy behaviour. Everyone knows he is a fraud and does not possess a drop of royal blood, but they are forced to pretend he is their king while support seeps away and certain death awaits them. Other episodes are pretty much standalone dramas. There is an episode which deals with John Cabot’s efforts to secure a commission for his expedition to North America (Henry barely appears in this one).

One of the best episodes is titled ‘The Serpent and the Comforter’. In it, Peter Jeffrey plays a preacher who has been imprisoned in the tower, tortured and sentenced to death for heresy; having used scripture to challenge the authority of the Church. Word reaches Henry about the prisoner and, intrigued, Henry summons him. The two men debate the meaning of the Bible and the role of the Church. Henry, for all his malevolence, is sincere in his faith and concerned for the soul of the prisoner, even going so far as praying for him. He wants the preacher to recant before his execution so that, in Henry’s view, his soul will not burn in hell for eternity. However, he is also psychologically cruel, using sophistry to best the preacher and make him doubt his faith. You’ll be left in no doubt that these opposing facets of Henry’s personality can coexist.The performances of Jeffrey and Maxwell as prisoner and king, each determined to convince the other of the rightness of their faith, are outstanding. The episode is very theatrical and, intriguingly, none of the characters are named. Instead they are credited as ‘the prisoner’, ‘the king’, ‘the guard’ etc. We see in the prisoner’s struggle with his conscience a microcosm of an impending conflict that will reverberate through British history for centuries with Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries, the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, and even events that have happened in my lifetime, such as the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Alas, The Shadow of the Tower did not achieve the same level of success as the two Tudor dramas that preceded it. This is partly due to the fact that Henry VII has never had the same grip on the public’s imagination as other monarchs. Penn wrote ‘the most telling verdict of all is that Shakespeare, who omits Henry VII altogether from his sequence of history plays – and not for want of material but, one suspects, because the reign was too uncomfortable to deal with.’ In his review of Winter King, Toby Clements wrote that ‘Henry VII’s reign comes as a pivot on which the story turns – from the medieval to the modern, the dark to the light, the Plantagenets to the Tudors’, and even the Horrible Histories song about Henry jokes about his relative anonymity compared to other historical figures.

There are also some structural problems with the series. The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth R had both followed a six, ninety-minute episode format. The Shadow of the Tower unfolds over thirteen episodes, and even though each episode comes in at a pacy fifty minutes it still feels rather drawn out at times. For instance, there is one completely superfluous episode which deals with Warbeck, after his final defeat and capture, having a series of fantasies/delusions about reigning as King of England. After Warbeck’s execution the series moves at breakneck pace climaxing with the sudden deaths of Prince Arthur and Queen Elizabeth. Rather than ending with the death of Henry, it shows an aging monarch whose meticulous plans for the succession lie in ruins. Henry has lost none of his Winter Kingintelligence, but his passion for life has died with the passing of his first-born son and wife. As a consequence, a tyranny is about to be unleashed, and where the series ends, purely by coincidence, Penn’s narrative in Winter King begins, and this is why the book is such a joy to read after watching The Shadow of the Tower. Penn deals with almost all of the events that feature in The Shadow of the Tower within the first chapter of Winter King. Bosworth Field receives only a few pages of text: the Battle of Stoke Field is afforded even less space. Penn is much more interested in Henry’s plans for the succession of Prince Arthur, and his regime’s descent into rapacious pilfering. There are a number  of events of Henry’s later reign that Penn focuses on that I would have loved to have seen dramatized in The Shadow of the Tower. Henry’s longstanding duel with Yorkist heir Edmund de la Pole, and the downfall of two of Henry’s most cruel and unpopular advisers, Empson and Dudley, both of whom were executed when Henry VIII succeeded to the throne, giving the new king a massive popularity boost and propaganda coup. The athletic and dashing Henry VIII was a very different character from his calculating and paranoid father, and Penn argues convincingly that his reign would have seemed like a new golden age for England after the excesses of Henry VII’s last years: ‘This [Henry VIII] was a monarch for whom gold and jewels were nothing compared with virtue and eternal renown.’ Eventually, it became just a different form of tyranny.

Neither The Shadow of the Tower as a drama nor The Winter King as history can fully answer the question as to whether Henry was a good king. It entirely depends on how you define the term and office, and it is akin to asking whether Napoleon Bonaparte was a good dictator. Henry was a deeply complicated man living in turbulent times, and it’s this that makes him a compelling figure for narrative. If we take the contrived Whig approach and judge Henry by the moral standards of later generations then he comes across badly. This was the age of the Star Chamber and crippling taxation. In his defence he did unite the kingdom after years of civil war, created a stable dynasty and avoided expensive foreign wars. Truly, he is one of the most fascinating and neglected figures of British history.

Postscript: I was delighted to spot James Laurenson playing the Earl of Shrewsbury in the first episode of Wolf Hall. I have somewhat encyclopaedic fascination with character actors, and I was sure Laurenson had appeared in the BBC’s original Tudor trilogy. I went straight on imdb.com to see if my memory was correct, and sure enough, Laurenson played Simier in Elizabeth R and the Earl of Lincoln in The Shadow of the Tower. Are there any other direct connections between Wolf Hall and the seventies productions I wonder?

Perfidia – A Web of Connections

January 15, 2015

PerfidiaIn Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder (2006) Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss created a highly impressive chart they titled ‘Los Angeles 1935-1950: A Web of Connections’ which ‘situates Black Dahlia murder suspect George Hodel within the culturally elite circles of Los Angeles at the time of the murder and illustrates the close geographical proximity of the central characters in our book.’

After completing my second reading of James Ellroy’s Perfidia, I’m beginning to see more clearly how Ellroy has devised his own web of connections within his body of work as a crime novelist. Nelson and Bayliss explored the potential connections of figures such as Man Ray and John Huston to the Black Dahlia case, building upon the work of former LAPD detective Steve Hodel. With Perfidia, Ellroy has embarked upon a second LA Quartet, preceding the first Quartet chronologically, which, in its myriad plotting, forges fictional links between Bette Davis and the Black Dahlia herself, Elizabeth Short. Many of Ellroy’s old and new characters will be linked in the new Quartet which will spur readers and critics to reexamine Ellroy’s previous work in light of these narrative developments. Here are some of the specific connections:

Ellroy’s decision to make Elizabeth Short the illegitimate daughter of Dudley Smith was for me one of the biggest surprises of the novel. In Clandestine (1982), Ellroy’s second novel, Dudley Smith describes how while investigating the Black Dahlia murder he arranged for a cadaver of a young woman to be presented before a group of known lunatics and violent criminals. He dyes the corpse’s hair black to make her look more like Miss Short in the hope of provoking a reaction from one of the men, who would then inadvertently reveal himself to be the murderer ‘I was looking for a reaction so vile, so unspeakable, that I would know that this was the scum that killed Beth Short’. In The Black Dahlia the same scene appears but without Dudley Smith. Smith is not a character in The Black Dahlia because Ellroy feared Smith’s outwardly Irish persona would draw parallels with John Gregory Dunne’s Dahlia novel True Confessions (1977), which is in part an examination of Irish-American culture. But this leaves Ellroy in a tricky situation for the upcoming Quartet novels if he wants to be consistent with the fictional universe of The Black Dahlia. How can a character as demonic, relentless and compelling as Dudley Smith not be involved in the investigation of the murder of his illegitimate daughter?

Perfidia links to Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy through such characters as J. Edgar Hoover, Ward Littell and Scotty Bennett. There is also the wider issue of Ellroy’s fascination with archives. Hoover’s death in 1972 and the fate of his archive of files  is the climax of Blood’s a Rover (2009). Kay Lake’s first diary entry in Perfidia is preceded with the line ‘COMPILED AND CHRONOLOGICALLY INSERTED BY THE LOS ANGELES POLICE MUSEUM‘. If this is the beginning of a link to Hoover’s archive of files we can see Ellroy’s intention for the two Quartet series and the Underworld USA trilogy to be read as one long, continuous secret history. Essentially, a fictional archive of sources.

Ellroy originally planned for Dudley Smith to fall in love with Ellroy’s mother Geneva Hilliker. That would have linked the Quartet to Ellroy the author, outside of his fiction, and potentially, if he wanted the plotline to question Ellroy’s parentage, triggered a rereading of his memoirs My Dark Places (1996) and The Hilliker Curse (2010). Ellroy revised his plans. However, in this interview with Chris Wallace, Ellroy claims that he originally planned for William H. Parker to have an affair with his Geneva Hilliker in the novel:

My original plan was to base Joan Conville, the navy nurse in Perfidia, on my mother, Jean Hilliker—righteous Jean Hilliker. And she and Parker [Los Angeles chief of police from 1950 to 1966, William H. Parker, a central character in Perfidia] have an affair the next book. But, do you really want to have Whiskey Bill Parker fucking your mother? Haven’t we had enough of this woman?

Conville is an enigmatic, haunting character, a ‘ghostly redhead’ as Ellroy calls her, who is referenced by Parker throughout the novel but never seen. The name Conville struck a distant chord and I reached for my dogeared copy of The Black Dahlia. The resolution to the mystery in the novel lies in the skewered bloodlines of the grotesque Sprague family. There is the patriarch Emmett Sprague who has two daughters, Madeleine and Martha. Madeleine is actually the illegitimate daughter of Emmett’s wife Ramona Cathcart Sprague and Georgie Tilden (Emmett’s former business associate). Martha is Emmett’s natural daughter, and her full name is Martha McConville Sprague.

Martha McConville/Joan Conville. It could be overreading or coincidence but I wonder if there is a connection between the characters which will be developed in later novels. According to this surname database Conville has quite an interesting genesis, ‘this unusual surname is of Irish origin, and is an Anglicized form of the Gaelic “MacConmhaoil”, the prefix “mac” denoting son of, plus the personal name “Conmhaoil”, composed of the elements “cu” meaning hound.’

In short, Son of the Hound, or perhaps Demon Dog?

 

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