Friday, 22 October 2010

Graham Crowden

If - the history master
I remember Graham Crowden best for his roles in Lindsay Andersen’s loose trilogy of state of the nation films If…, O Lucky Man!, and Britannia Hospital. In If…, he is the only school master who makes an attempt to engage the boys’ minds and encourage a flicker of individual thought. He makes a memorable entrance on his old-fashioned wicker-basketted bicycle, sailing through the corridor and straight into the classroom, where he glides to a halt, one leg balletically raised for touchdown, lustily singing To Be A Pilgrim all the while. It is a scene which perfectly embodies the kind of eccentrics which Crowden invariably portrayed. He was the kind of distinctive character actor who Anderson loved to use. You find them throughout his films. Arthur Lowe is in every one (Whales of August excepted), from This Sporting Life, through the short The White Bus to the Travis trilogy. Peter Jeffrey is also in all the trilogy films, and the likes of Leonard Rossiter and Dandy Nichols also turn up. Crowden tosses essays to with no great accuracy to his pupils, with curt summations of the merits of each, before coming to Malcolm McDowell’s rebellious Travis. His essay, Crowden is forced to admit, was lost ‘somewhere in the Mont Blanc tunnel’, although he adds ‘I’m sure it was good’. Travis evidently has some feel for history.

Mad scientist - O Lucky Man!
From this relatively benign beginning, Crowden’s characters in the trilogy get ever more sinister and ideologically obsessive. His Professor Millar in O Lucky Man is a scientist who takes the vagrant Travis in to use as a volunteer guinea pig for his experiments. Travis soon flees when he discovers that these involve creating grotesque hybrids of man and pig. Human beings treated as farm animals. Professor Millar returns in the scabrous finale to the trilogy (no-one was about to let Anderson make another film in the series after this one) Britannia Hospital. Here he begins as a Frankenstein figure, creating a messy creature fashioned from body parts procured from the hospital, including the head of Travis’ snooping journalist. When this inevitably goes bloodily awry, he switches to full mad scientist mode, unveiling his ‘Genesis’ computer before a captive audience which he addresses as ‘fellow members of the human race’. Genesis is the project with which Millar fully takes on the megalomaniacal mantle of a technocratic god, and with which he intends to usher in a post-human age. He It lifelessly intones Mark Anthony’s ‘what a piece of work is man’ speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar before breaking down and repeating the line ‘how like a god’ over and over.

Madder scientist - Britannia Hospital
Crowden also appeared in a number of films within the fantastic genre, where his effortless eccentricity and distinctive Scottish diction fitted in well with some of the more stylised fantasies. He played a mad doctor once more in The Final Programme, a highly stylised and rather loose adaptation of Michael Moorcock’s first Jerry Cornelius novel. He also appeared in a Doctor Who from the rather ignoble latter years of the Tom Baker era. He’s probably one of the few compensatory pleasures in The Horns of Nimon, generally considered to be the nadir of the series from that time. He could in fact have played the Doctor, but turned down the offer, making way for Jon Pertwee to take up the role. I imagine he would have been marvellous in the part.

Pruning in the garden of God
He is excellent in The Company of Wolves as the rather distracted vicar. He is not as daft as he seems, however. He delights in lopping off branches of the evergreen tree in the churchyard, which he deliberately aims to fall on the head of Angela Landsbury’s grandmother, who is making relating mildly malicious gossip about him to her granddaughter Rosaleen beneath its boughs, firm in her belief that he is deaf. He loudly declares the ‘someone’s got to cut away the old wood’ as he gives another vigorous clack of the shears. He climbs up to the pulpit to read from Isaiah chapter 11, verses 6-8 (‘the wolf also shall dwell with the lamb’) and takes particular relish in cheerfully intoning the lines ‘the wee child shall put his hand on the cockatryx’s den’. Crowden’s reading of the words of the funeral service, ‘man that is born of woman hat but a short time to live and is full of misery’, is delivered with his wonderful way of bending the latter clause of a sentence upwards and leaving it hanging in the air in a quizzical fashion. You can also hear this in his postulated theory of the origins of the first world war in If… ‘In studying the nineteenth century, one thing will be clear, that the growth of technology, telegraph, cheap newspapers, railways, transport is matched by a failure of imagination, a fatal inability to understand the meaning and consequences of all these levers and wires and railways. Climaxing in 1914 when the German Kaiser is told by his generals that he cannot stop the war he has started because it would spoil the railway timetables upon which victory depended’. The last is given that Crowden upward rise, leaving the sentence hanging, making it seem to hover half way between question and statement, and also expressing a slightly distanced astonishment at what he is saying. It’s a rhetorical device that can be both affecting and also naturally amusing. And it’s that voice more than anything which comes to mind when you think of Graham Crowden.

Reading from Isaiah

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