Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The Final Programme

I was quite surprised to learn that Michael Moorcock would be turning up at the BFI Southbank to participate in a Q&A session following a screening of the 1973 adaptation, directed by former production designer Robert Fuest, of the first of his Jerry Cornelius novels, The Final Programme. The programme rather patronisingly describes him as a ‘pulp novelist’ and ‘sci-fi pioneer’. Aside from the fact that Moorcock’s use of the standard components of ‘sci-fi’ tended to be in the form of pastiche and appropriation rather than innovation (although he could be said to have been pioneering in his formal experimentation), and were merely one part of a general cross-blending of genres, the implication that he is not a proper novelist belittles his considerable literary achievements. These include the Jerry Cornelius books and stories, which mythologise and reflect upon the 60s and their fallout as cogently as any work from that era; Mother London, a heartfelt and compassionate love song to the modern, post-war city and its inhabitants, forged in the fires of the blitz; the Pyat Quartet, beginning with Byzantium Endures, which manages the difficult task of sustaining a sprawling, globe-trotting narrative spanning the first half of the twentieth century, told through the unreliable and self-serving first person voice of the unlikeable protagonist; and Gloriana, his baroque fantasy homage to Spenser and Mervyn Peake, revised to some controversial effect (John Clute strongly expressed the opinion that it ruined the central symbolic thrust of the novel) in the light of Moorcock’s espousal of deeply felt feminist beliefs. The pulp epithet suggests an inherent disposability, and there are indeed a great many hastily written fantasy series which clog up the shelves of second hand bookshops and charity shops to this day. They were often dashed off to raise funds for the struggling magazine New Worlds, which Moorcock edited during the latter half of the sixties. But novels such as the historical fantasies The War Hound and the World’s Pain and its follow up The City in the Autumn Stars, The Dancers at the End of Time trilogy (with its amusing latter day take on fin-de-siecle decadance), and the alternate world Edwardiana of the Warlord of the Air trilogy are all immensely enjoyable, and written with great wit and imagination. Moorcock has now turned his hand to writing a Doctor Who novel, The Coming of the Terraphiles, which comes out in October. With a piratical character called Captain Cornelius, maybe this will draw some parallels between Jerry and the Doctor, both anarchistic souls who favour flux and chaos over order and stasis.

Michael Moorcock

Moorcock’s appearance at the BFI is surprising both since he tends to be resident in Texas these days, which makes appearances in the city he used to make his own more of a rarity, but also because he’s never disguised his contempt for the film and those who made it. He’s never had a good word to say about it, indeed his words tend to be very hostile. He was disgusted at the way that the underlying ethos of the book had been completely inverted in the film, replacing its fluid sexuality and moral ambiguity with leering camp, heavily accented with a nod and a wink and bringing it more in line with the rather desperate sex comedies which the British film industry was churning out. He holds forth on the subject in Stan Nicholls 1993 book of interviews with fantasy, science fiction and horror writers, Wordsmiths of Wonder. He comments that the film-makers had gone for an ‘alternative James Bond’ feel, which was completely wrong. ‘I was very depressed’, he says, ‘because they reversed a lot of the ideas. Whereas I was celebrating transexuality, if you like, or celebrating relationships that didn’t depend on the sex of the people, and celebrating the possibilities of computers and jet planes or whatever, they tried to turn it into a warning about technology. They had Jon Finch making sexist and anti-lesbian remarks, all kinds of crap like that. They were just conventional. It was like somebody takes your ideas and pisses on them. It’s not that they changed the plot, or that they may have sensationalised it. They actually attacked the ideas that are the essence of the book’. Clearly embittered by the experience (and his further semi-comical encounters with the film world are detailed in Letters from Hollywood) he goes on to observe ‘it begins to dawn that these people have a will towards producing crap’, and that ‘they’ve got the imaginations of dead newts’. More recently he has conceded that the acting is of a high standard. With Patrick Magee, Sterling Hayden and Graham Crowden in the cast (creating an associative amalgam of A Clockwork Orange, Dr Strangelove and If…) that could be pretty much taken as read. I think it unlikely that he’s come to celebrate the film, however.

I saw it many years ago and remember agreeing with the general consensus that it was a hollow exercise in surface style and throwaway action, a late, limp and instantly dated entry in the sub-genre of Bond parodies. I trust the critical judgement of my teenage self, who would have realised that it was a far cry from the source material. I was deeply immersed in the work of the New Worlds writers at the time. They brought an air of iconoclastic excitement to British science fiction, and reflected and confronted the technologised and commodified world of the mid to late 60s (and on into the 70s) with an experimental zeal in keeping with the tenor of the times. I read through the 8 Best SF from New Worlds anthologies and the paperback quarterlies which followed the demise of the magazine proper (number 5 was particularly good, as I recall). The Jerry Cornelius books and stories seemed to be at the heart of the endeavour, Moorcock actively encouraging other writers such as M. John Harrison, Brian Aldiss and Langdon Jones to use the character to their own ends (some of the results can be found in the collection The Nature of the Catastrophe). Even Norman Spinrad, a representative of the very different US New Wave of SF, tried his hand with The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde. Harlan Ellison never produced a Jerry Cornelius story (more’s the pity), but there’s a little of him in the (first) title character of his celebrated story ‘Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman’.

The Final Programme presents Jerry as he would like to perceive himself - an embodiment of the spirit of the mid-sixties in all its technological optimism and pop energy. He goes on to become a representation of the deterioration of that spirit, with other characters emerging to embody new hopes, which they are able to give more stable form. The four novels in the Cornelius Quartet, the central pillars of the mythos, convey the sense of a world reconfiguring itself in an age of flux and chaos. The characters who play their part in effecting this reconfiguration are manifestations of archetypal forms (and popular fictional types) playing out the latest act in an eternally recurrent masquerade. Jerry, his sister Catherine, her sometime lover, the temporal adventuress Una Persson, and the decent relic of faded empire, Major Nye, are ranged against the forces of order, control and repression, represented by Jerry’s brother Frank, Bishop Beesley and, above all, Miss Brunner. Miss Brunner is often seen as foreshadowing the rise of Thatcher. Moorcock acknowledges as much in his introduction to The New Nature of the Catastrophe (an expanded edition of the original collection of Cornelius stories by other hands), whilst denying any powers of augury on his part. ‘If, through Mrs Brunner’, he writes, ‘we conjured Baroness Stoneybroke out of Mrs Thatcher, I apologise. I still feel a little chilly when I note how close Miss Brunner and her primitive programmes, her briskly simple-minded solutions, were echoed in the words and policies of the Petite Corporale as we knew her in her hey-day. She led a gang of hypocrites and rascals whose response to the shock of the new was to try and stamp it out or, when that failed, appropriate it to their own crude uses’.

Moorcock would later formalise his troupe of characters, whose fates remain forever intertwined, in terms of the stock cast and reversals of fortune of the Harlequinade, or Commedia dell’arte, the underlying pattern of which becomes particularly clear in the final volume, The Condition of Muzak. Jerry himself is too volatile and selfish a character to create anything permanent in the world. He is both a cheerily amoral trickster, gliding along on the currents of the zeitgeist, and a self-absorbed depressive, helplessly caught up in and overwhelmed by the changes in those self-same currents. His persona flickers between Harlequin and Pierrot, from cocksure mastery to pitiful abjection, as the players in the masquerade swap roles. The film entirely fails to grasp this mythic dimension, which should have been clear by the time of its shooting, since three of the novels in the Cornelius Quartet had already been published. The books’ archetypes were reduced to crude charicatures, going through the motions against a backdrop of gaudily colourful sets. These dovetail with A Clockwork Orange in presenting a very 70s vision of the future, shiny pop surfaces covering an all-pervasive air of seedy decay. Robert Fuest’s designs betray his origins (both as designer and director) in the world of The Avengers, and also follow on from his creation of the archly camp art deco horror comedies featuring Vincent Price as The Abominable Doctor Phibes (another case of style taking precedence over content).

Moorcock on set with Jon Finch

Jon Finch seems wrong for the role of Jerry Cornelius. He has the vague appearance of the Jerry of Mal Dean’s New Worlds illustrations, but brings the same sour, humourless and slightly thuggish characteristics which he displayed in Sunday, Bloody Sunday, Polanski’s Macbeth and Hitchcock’s Frenzy. Jerry is essentially the eternal adolescent, with the energy and charisma of youth combining with a concomitant tendency to retreat into a shell of despondency. Finch is not the person to capture this mercurial quality. Given the ascendancy of glam rock at the time of the film, it would have seemed natural to portray Jerry as Bowie or Bolan figure. Indeed, Bowie’s turn as Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth a couple of years later, in which he conveyed a mixture of innocence and growing worldliness, mania and melancholia, suggest he would have been a good choice. The world of the Cornelius books also seemed particularly suited to the culture surrounding the emergence of punk. Derek Jarman’s Jubilee captured some of their spirit, and Jenny Runacre’s self-appointed modern day Queen Elizabeth, known as Bod, was a variation on her role as Miss Brunner in The Final Programme. Jarman also shared Moorcock’s fascination with the esoteric and mythologised aspects of Elizabethan England, as John Dee brings the Queen through time to witness the future of her realm. Moorcock recast the Sex Pistols film The Great Rock and Roll Swindle as a Cornelius book, changing the title to Gold Diggers of 77, in reference to the depression era musicals of the thirties.

The alchemical wedding of Cornelius and Brunner - Mal Dean's illustration
The end of the film departs from the book in a fundamental sense. Moorcock has Jerry and Miss Brunner merge in a modern, technologised alchemical marriage. The result is a beautiful hermaphroditic composite. ‘A tall, naked, graceful being stepped out. It had Miss Brunner’s hair and Mr Cornelius’s eyes. Miss Brunner’s predatory jaw was softened by Jerry’s ascetic mouth. It was hermaphrodite and beautiful’. In the film, this marriage produces an apelike throwback, bent over with knuckles scraping the ground. This inversion seems to have been effected merely to produce a parodic reversal of the end of 2001, with its evolutionary leap to transcendence. At a stretch, it could be read as a comment on the decline of the ideals of the sixties, and the onset of a weary nihilism. This ignores the emergence of genuine and lasting radicalism in the 70s in the form of feminism and gay rights, however. As Dominic Sandbrook points out in his excellent two volume cultural history of 60s Britain (comprising Never Had It So Good and White Heat), the sexual politics of the late 60s counterculture were dictated by the men who dominated it, and who were far from revolutionary when it came to maintaining the traditional roles of women in bed and kitchen. Even Moorcock, who subsequently embraced feminism, ruefully reminisces (in Wordsmiths of Wonder) that ‘we should have been examining what effect we were having, because half the people involved were wankers when you came down to it’. Perhaps the creature who emerges in the film is a more honest portrayal of the wider realities of sixties countercultural bohemia, then. But in the context of the book and the Cornelius mythos, it’s still essentially wrong. In The Final Programme (extracts of which were first published in New Worlds in 1965, at the height of Swinging London optimism), Jerry wanders amongst the tables of a pop art amusement arcade, and observes happily that ‘the true aristocracy who would rule the seventies were out in force: the queers and lesbians and the bisexuals, already half-aware of their destiny which would be realized when the central ambivalence of sex would be totally recognized and the terms male and female would become all but meaningless’. In the light of such a manifesto, the emergence of the grinning, guttural ape at the end of the film can only be seen as a betrayal. After the credits have rolled and the lights have gone up, it will certainly be interesting to hear what Michael Moorcock has to say about it some 37 years on. He’ll be there after the screening at 8.30 on Tuesday 10th August.

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