Firelit effigies: Thomas Imbach’s ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ (2013)

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In exploring the mindset of a figure clouded by legend, this Swiss-made retelling has a beautiful atmosphere. It uses shore, mountain and forest to depict Mary’s psychological terrain; puppet effigies twitch in firelight with folk-ritual precision, and Elizabeth is a constant presence, never made flesh – she is paint or puppet or a glimpse of doppelganger.

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Central to the story is Mary’s court musician and advisor Rizzio. With shades of Hamlet’s ghost, he lends another layer of tragedy to a treatment based on Stefan Zweig’s Maria Stuart with its key notes of suffering and fallibility.

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There are beautiful sequences of Scottish landscape which the director captured himself (though most of the filming was in Switzerland).

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As Mary narrates the letters she writes to Elizabeth, it’s a deathly, rough-hewn and unresponsive backdrop. At her moments of dislocation, the camera flees wraith-like over sea-washed shores or broken forest paths.

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Camille Rutherford captures Mary’s isolation, besieged as a powerful woman, long before she is imprisoned by the English queen, with a grace that captures both youth and regality. It’s a stark, European perspective which shuns Hollywood excess, with a layer of modernity that lies with ease.

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Many sequences foretell a life of imprisonment, with gunmetal-grey lattice and winter’s branches, failing winter light and a cooling sun.

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The years as a prisoner are beautifully distilled to a vision of purgatory: a crown woven with the fabric of her being, stained like Lady Macbeth.

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Mary Queen of Scots is a film that haunts and ebbs and flows. It’s not going to appeal to anyone seeking a history lesson, either gritty or lavish: it’s a theatrical, dramatic sequence of legendary events filtered through a poetic vision of inner life.

It’s released on Region 2 DVD now and also on Amazon Instant Video.

Rediscovered film gem: Tam Lin (1970)

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Roddy McDowall’s 1970 retelling of the Ballad of Tam Lin, like its counterpart The Wicker Man, had a troubled release and was destined to rot away in a vault. It was Martin Scorsese who rescued and restored a print for VHS in the 1990s.

A delayed release in the early 70s (as The Devil’s Widow) dated the mod look and it was dismissed by critics: a surface glance might file it away as a swinging vision of camp Hammer Horror.

For a start, its lead is Ava Gardner, in one of those difficult horror roles given to pre-1960s stars – navigated to perfection by Deborah Kerr in The Innocents but usually always ending in disaster never mind how hard the trying (an example might be Joan Fontaine’s 1966 effort The Witches with its promising village setting).

But it’s actually quite a witty, intelligent film with some really beautiful cinematography and solid performances. As McDowall’s first and only film as director, it’s brimming with ideas and techniques, some of which aren’t exactly successful (cue a particularly awkward and entertaining stop-frame segment), but it all adds up to a fascinating spectacle to enjoy on many levels.

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McDowall appears to have taken the original material seriously: the locations and landscapes are authentic, filmed around Selkirk in Scotland – specifically Ettrick Forest and Tranquair House. The soundtrack features songs by electric-folk icons Pentangle, including a superb version of Tam Lin, and a couple of beat arrangements apparently supervised by Stanley Myers (who orchestrates girl-with-the-sun-in-her-hair embellishments elsewhere).

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What the world looks like through the Devil’s Widow’s sunglasses.

That’s not to say Tam Lin isn’t awash with late 60s stylistic excess, but these exaggerated visions of modern are eery in themselves, and contribute to the success. It’s not nostalgia any more, but a glimpse into the axis-tilt of a parallel universe, an acid-filter processing metaphors for experimentation and otherness. McDowall apparently called Tam Lin a swansong for the sixties.

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An early role for Withnail and I’s creator Bruce Robinson (right) as Ava Gardner’s jilted (and typically well-spoken) elf.

The cast includes many familiar stalwarts of British Cinema (in later years, if not at the time). We’ve got Sinead Cusack, her father Cyril, Magpie‘s Jenny Hanley (OK, not exactly a cinema stalwart), Fabia Drake and Joanna Lumley…

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Joanna Lumley setting a blueprint for a career. When the Devil’s Widow gets a little irritated with her coven, Lumley announces, deadpan, “Life is an illusion therefore nothing is permanent. I think I shall go to Sweden”.

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The Fairy Queen’s cavalcade weaving through the Scottish borders to her castle: at Halloween one of her elves/imprisoned mortals is given as a tithe to hell…

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The first indication that Tam Lin is going to be quite a trip: Jenny Hanley and Ian McShane playing frisbee. In slow motion.

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If this vision had evolved on a different path to the 21st century, John Lewis would advertise similar glockenspiel and cocktail frenzies instead of barbecues. Hang on a minute, they do, don’t they?

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Stephanie Beacham (as Janet, the vicar’s daughter in brown and heroine of the original ballad) delivers a puppy to a member of Ava Gardner’s coven: “She’s not having him! She’s doped or something!”

There are, however, many qualities that make Tam Lin a classic of folk horror, modernity giving way to the ancient in the best traditions of its golden age.

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The hills of time…

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The village, with ‘local’ people…

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The place of simple, certain things.

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A beautiful transitional still.

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Fabia Drake as a wisewoman – her measured, taciturn look would later grace ‘A Jewel in the Crown’ and ‘A Room with a View’.

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Ian McShane’s Tam Linn (or Tom Linn for the 60s) is, like any self-respecting 60s hipster, a photographer.

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Under the surface…

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Janet finds her double-headed rose, a key feature of the folk tale, in a grocer’s barrow.

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One of the many misted or sunlit views of bridges on the borders.

And then the magic begins…

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Tam Lin
has been released as a Region 1 DVD in a restored print.

A brace of Bates: thoughts on the countryside in 1942

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Another H E Bates topic, because I’m really pleased with these which arrived yesterday. Through my last post I found out that there’s an official Facebook page for one of my favourite authors (who is much, much more than The Darling Buds of May). There’s lots of interesting stuff there, and I found out that Unicorn Press have recently published these…

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They’re beautifully produced, in a smaller-format style of the great Little Toller books. The woodcuts by C F Tunnicliffe are a revelation, because these are much more fluid, full page compositions than the decorative examples I’ve dumbly associated him with…

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Both titles were published in the early 1940s by Country Life and contemplate the war, changes in rural life and the future. The blurb introduces The Happy Countryman:

Not wishing to return to “a rural life governed by privilege”… he puts his faith in education as the only means towards a vision of a “new countryside”… economically and nutritionally healthy, and free of the indifference rife in country life.

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On another note, some of H E Bates short stories, along with A E Coppard, were adapted for TV in the early 1970s in the series Country Matters. Some of these were released in the US on DVD, including excellent adaptations of The Watercress Girl and The Little Farm. It’s available for those with multi-region DVD players from Amazon.

 

Rediscovered film gem: Dulcima (1971)

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Network DVD have just released the 1971 film of H E Bates’ novella Dulcima (a story from a collection of three called The Nature of Love). It’s a well-deserved and long-awaited release for a film which has had something of a cult status.

It’s an undiscovered gem for several reasons. The cast is excellent: John Mills, who I would guess was fresh from his Oscar-winning performance in Ryan’s Daughter, and Carol White, the acclaimed actress from Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home and Poor Cow.

It’s also an incredibly beautiful snapshot of an unselfconscious rural Gloucestershire in the early seventies – not the contrived ‘chocolate box’ prettiness of today. The photography revels in the height of full summer down dusty tracks, and the dream-lives of the trapped.

dulcima001The story is H E Bates at his best: natural and earthy, sensitive to a rural reality, fatalistic as Hardy (creating a working-class version of Bathsheba Everdene in the process).

Dulcima Gaskain is a down-trodden ‘daughter at home’, the drudge for a family of ten, who sees a way out keeping house for Mr Parker, a ramshackle widower. Her bank balance creeps up and she begins to access the world she has glimpsed in her magazines, a sunlit, soft-focus world of hairspray, eyelashes and Terence Stamp look-alikes from knitting patterns. (Carol White and Stuart Wilson are indeed the Terry and Julie of the meadows, reminiscent too of 90s Britpop, like a less simian Liam Gallagher teamed with Sarah Cracknell.) The score is by the composer who worked on The Railway Children, and soars and shimmers like the lemonade light through the trees.

Of course, when her dreams are in reach, Dulcima’s gentle wiles can’t support their consequences.

There was a documentary about Carol White some years ago called The Battersea Bardot, and there’s always a tinge of melancholy to her performances. It’s ironic that a fair few blonde, beautiful actresses of the time strived to escape the sexist crap of the era and be judged for their ability alone, whereas Carol White was given unglamorous roles at which she excelled and for which she was respected, but longed to be the typical film star. There’s something great in the fact that she begins Dulcima in a typecast role, scrubbing floors, but emerges later with all the trappings of a Julie Christie romantic lead. So much further potential never realised: not long after her career floundered, and she died young at 48 in Florida.

Network DVD have done a wonderful job producing a great, clean print of the film, which won an award for director Frank Nesbitt at the Berlin Film Festival in 1971.

earned director Frank Nesbitt a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1971 – See more at: http://networkonair.com/shop/1977-dulcima.html#sthash.wowH2nAN.dpuf
earned director Frank Nesbitt a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1971 – See more at: http://networkonair.com/shop/1977-dulcima.html#sthash.wowH2nAN.dpuf
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There’s also a fantastic cameo role by ‘a polecat with a bit of ferret in him’ (right, Stuart Wilson on left). Uncredited – where was the actor’s union back then?

 

 

Entertaining Josephine Poole

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“Don’t think I disagree with you,” she went on, encouraged by his angry tone. “I’ll even continue the argument, on behalf of all forward-thinking people. It’s the greatest of all luxuries, in our society, for a person to be useless, or ill. If we applied your sense of proportion to this house, you’d be almost the only person left in it. Mother and Evelyn would certainly have to go, and in view of the family history I wouldn’t be a very good bet either. You could keep Monty, and Margriet to bring you your tea.”

“What nonsense you’re making out of a bitch in pup,” he muttered. Some cake fell by his feet; the dog’s nose inched hopefully around the leg of the sofa, without risking the narrow-toed suede.

“We would have a mass execution on the terrace. What a scene!” Philippa exclaimed, tossing the mangled knitting on to a cushion. “Mother and Evelyn supporting me, and the two twittering Aunts Jordan not knowing to the last what was going to happen to them. You might have to do Nick in as well. Or perhaps he would just ride away.”

“Executioners, dressed in black plastic, would patrol Britain by motorbike,” Evelyn agreed.

“Machine guns?”

“Painless injections.”

“Who,” Geoffry asked, frowning, “are the Aunts Jordan?”

“My father’s aunts, who live here.” And at that moment, aptly, something fell overhead.

From Yokeham, Josephine Poole

When I first discovered Josephine Poole, it was through Billy Buck (published as The Visitor in the US) and Moon Eyes which I wrote about here and here. Not long after reading those two ‘books for young adults’ I found Yokeham, which I’d read was her ‘first novel for adults’ (it’s not, that was The Lilywhite Boys, which needs a post of its own). Published in 1970, it’s set around the house of the title, ‘a brave attempt at a Palladian Mansion’, and, in another good sign, the cover illustration is by David Gentleman…

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It’s a couple of years since reading, but I still have the atmosphere it left. This includes shades of Harold Pinter and Accident, and an incidental pair of sisters marooned in a hardly-visited Haversham-esque suite adorned with French sofas and pigeon droppings. The characters, if I attempt to explain the awkwardness of their situation and not the treatment, are akin to players in a rural episode of The Avengers - ones starved of any light from the swinging sixties, and cast by the local amateur dramatic group. Poole’s great skill is in exploring the dread of their predicament.

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Like Billy Buck, this book’s all about a Trojan horse visitor with the power to undo. Except, this time, Poole might be echoing Terence Stamp and Theorem (minus anything racy and Italian). It’s a gradual unravelling, under skies that are leaden, in air that’s damp and peaty.

There’s a bleak and frankly unsympathetic portrait of a portly gay gallery owner, yet in this lies part of Poole’s talent – a grisly dark humour in certain situations, not a million miles from Joe Orton. Maybe she’d enjoyed Entertaining Mr Sloane too:

The door opened and Mrs Horner steered a trolley of coffee and unwontedly elaborate biscuits into the room. When she had negotiated the tapestry pouffe and a nest of tables, she turned to him with moist cheeks, and rolling up her eyes exclaimed: ‘Oh, Mr Dando, you’ve made my Frankie such a happy girl! Mr Dando? Hark at me! Compton, I must call you now; and Compton, call me Mother!’

After this novel, Poole went back to young adult fiction, a part of her talent publishers chose to focus on and perhaps at times pushed her into a particular remit, but she has continued to write until recently. In the late 90s and 2000s there was a string of acclaimed stories alongside Angela Barrett’s beautiful illustrations: non-fiction with Joan of Arc, and Anne Frank, besides a retelling of Snow White.

In 2003 she produced Scorched, a return to her trademark setting deep in the Somerset landscape, rich with folklore, the heat of summer harvest and the cool harbour of ancient houses. She certainly hadn’t lost her touch, for this is a richly atmospheric, unsettling novel for young adults, with the indecipherable haunting effect of M R James and an almost Patricia Highsmith-like exploration of duality.

On the dustwrapper of Yokeham, Josephine Poole was asked to write about herself. Later in Scorched, she explains how the idea for the story came to her ‘as we were planting spring bulbs at the far end of the garden’, a perfect image.

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Anyone searching for Yokeham, which is long out of print, must be warned that the ISBN number seems to have at some point become muddled with something inexplicable but which seems to exist, being the autobiography of Gyles Brandreth. You have been warned. Check carefully first.