Saturday, 5 February 2011

Black Jack

Black Jack is a novel by Leon Garfield, published in 1968 and one of a series of excellent books published in Puffin paperbacks in the 60s and 70s with fine covers and illustrations by Antony Maitland. His cover for Black Jack also adorns the bfi release of Ken Loach’s 1979 film adaptation of the story. Garfield’s novels and stories are generally set in an atmospherically realised eighteenth century world, although he did write a couple of books in the 70s in collaboration with the illustrator Edward Blishen which retold the Greek myths in the form of concise and powerful short stories. He also recast Shakespeare’s plays as stories, accompanied by the watercolours and line drawings of Michael Foreman. Black Jack takes place in the year of 1749, progressing into the early days of 1750, in a London full of the shadowy, decaying backdrops and sudden reversals of fortune and fate found in the more gothically-tinted passages of Dickens’ novels. It is, indeed, a very Dickensian novel, in all but its brevity, but shifted back a century. This is also the London of Hogarth (or indeed of Thomas Bewick, whose etchings are used on the title cards at the beginning of Loach’s film), full of humanity in all its teeming and frequently grimy and grotesque variety. The crowds in the street can coalesce into a mob at the slightest provocation, and all levels of society intermingle in a chaotic, rumbustious parade.

Black Jack tells the story of the young, orphaned apprentice Bartholomew Dorking, who is tricked into keeping watch over the corpse of the notorious criminal Black Jack, who has just been cut down from the Tyburn tree. He is locked into the room with Jack in his coffin by the ‘Tyburn widow’ Mrs Gorgandy. She pretends to be married or related to those taken out for public hanging at Tyburn so that she can claim the corpse and subsequently sell it on to medical practitioners for dissection. On this occasion, however, her source of income proves to be less deceased then appearances would have suggested. Bartholomew helps him back to convulsive and choking life by reaching down into his throat and pulling out the iron bar which has reinforced his neck vertebrae and prevented them from snapping with the tightening of the noose. It’s an instinctive act of pity and compassion for the most wretched in society which changes the course of his life and curses him with the responsibility for this big brute’s existence and his subsequent actions. For Black Jack is soon looking to restore himself to his ‘full ‘ealth an’ strength’ so that he can return to his customary murderous and thieving ways.

Black Jack is a force of nature, filled with elemental feelings of hatred, fear and a fierce delight in his own physical power and ability to inspire terror. He lives by his strength and is guided by his native cunning. He aspires to a life of complete self-containment, reliant on and beholden to no-one – a human monade. He forces Bartholomew to accompany him partly out of an initial practical need to have someone who can find him medical help, as well as to prevent him from revealing that the hangman has inadequately performed his duties. But he also wants to demonstrate, to himself as much as anyone, that although the boy has saved his life he remains entirely disconnected from the attachments and obligations of human society. He wishes to disprove, or perhaps reverse the old belief that if you save someone’s life you thereby become responsible for their subsequent fate. He is certainly not about to shower him with an outpouring of undying gratitude. Black Jack absorbs Bartholomew’s self for a while, and he becomes an extension of his will, his ‘familiar spirit’ as Garfield describes him, sent out into the world to do his bidding. He displays a sharp awareness of the boy’s hope that he might prove a tempering influence on his murderous tendencies, and responds with withering contempt and sarcasm. ‘Oh, mister – I needs you by me’, he mocks, ‘to save me from sin, y’know. To save me from my murderous nature. It ain’t every hanged felon what can travel with a whey-faced weasel of a saint’.

Bartholomew’s relationship with Black Jack is a complex one. It’s not dissimilar to that between Long John Silver and Jim Hawkins in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Jack gives the boy a reductive rechristening, and he accepts his newly given name of Tolly, referring to himself as such from now on. It’s the kind of name a father might give a child, and betokens a growing, unspoken intimacy which neither is able to admit to. Tolly’s feelings towards Jack are a confused admixture of revulsion, fear and admiration. There is something about his power and single-minded strength, his sheer vital presence, which leads Tolly to long for his approval, perhaps even his respect. Garfield writes that ‘the very hugeness, strength and wildness of the giant awed the boy like a phenomenon in Nature. And in due proportion, his contempt was crushing and unendurable. More than anything else in the world, Bartholomew longed to change that contempt into respect. Wit all his heart and soul he craved for Black Jack’s admiration’. Tolly’s sea captain uncle, his guardian and absentee father figure, proves to be a small and physically compact man, a shrunken and diminished figure in comparison with Black Jack’s looming, massive frame. His unexpected petiteness prompts an outburst of barely stifled giggling.

Springtime pastorale - a Yorkshire posy
If Black Jack is a brutally commanding father figure for Tolly, granting him a new familiar name and inculcating in him a need to seek his approval, then he is himself a child-like figure, for all his size. Tolly has been the midwife at his painful re-emergence into the world from the wide-hipped, narrow-headed birth canal of his coffin. Garfield describes this rebirth with the declamatory assertion that ‘more dreadful than violent death itself was this reviving from it’. He is like a big, violent baby, a creature of uninhibited id, wholly preoccupied with the realisation of his own immediate needs. Both he and Tolly have been orphaned at an early age (Jack from birth), and they somehow reversibly interconnect in a way which fills the void this has created in them. The gravitational attraction of their mutual need is weakened by the appearance of Belle Carter. She provides a third, further complicating element in their relationship. Her passage to the asylum in which she is to be disposed of for the sake of the maintenance of the family reputation and the furtherance of social advancement, to both of which she is an embarrassing obstacle, is inadvertently interrupted by Black Jack’s crude attempt at highway robbery. Belle becomes Tolly’s inseparable companion, an innocent who is attuned to natural forces in a manner wholly different from Jack. Jack is wary of her lunacy, avoiding her as if he fears she might awaken a similar storm in his own mind. Belle and Tolly stumble upon a travelling fair, into whose extended family they are welcomed. As, in due course, is Black Jack, who stalks them like an unshakeable shadow, ‘vast and dark as fate’.

The warmth of community
The fair is an exemplar of community, a small, mobile oasis of co-operation and mutual aid. It offers another way of life for Jack, presenting him with the possibility of bringing an end to his brutish, self-contained existence and finding companionship and common purpose. But it is not a choice he initially chooses to make. The fair also houses Tolly’s dark half. This shadow self is the apprentice of Doctor Carmody, the inventor and purveyor of a miraculous wonder potion whose astounding effects are demonstrated to the gullible through clumsy theatrical contrivance. Garfield has a Dickensian way with colourful and self-descriptive character names. This weaselly, deceitful boy, whose self-serving actions create many of the complicating knots in the rest of the story, is named Hatch. It’s a name which serves to convey his physical appearance, sharp and hatchet-faced. It also suggests the tendency of his mind, which matches his features in its sharpness, to constantly hatch plots and schemes. He is also like a hatchling version of Black Jack, possessed of an utterly self-serving nature which is couple with an instinctive viciousness. Appropriately, his name also portends his fate which is delivered via the sharp edge of a hatchet (in his mind at least, and literally so in the film). Tolly and Hatch present Black Jack with divergent choices as to which direction his reborn life might tend. He chooses the familiarity of the latter, allying with Hatch in a plot to deliver Belle to the asylum to which she was originally being conveyed and to collect the reward money offered. He is, of course, immediately betrayed by this youthful personification of his predatory individualistic philosophy. His individualistic approach to life condemns him to be eventually displaced by the younger and fitter generation who share his way of thinking. He is cast out of the warm, companionable circle of the fair having betrayed their trust and attempted to rob the troupe of dwarf performers. It’s a cowardly act made all the more contemptible by the huge gulf in size between them, which makes him seem for the first time like nothing more than a nasty bully. Tolly feels a burning shame on his behalf. He is truly forced to rely on his strength and self-sufficiency, and it is no longer enough. He returns full of broken humility and pleas for mercy. It is granted him by Tolly, who is ready to forgive him, and also by a previously unnoticed member of the wagon caravan, a quiet and unprepossessing man named Jed. He turns out to have qualities of strength, loyalty and tolerance which have gone unremarked until called upon.

Black Jack takes advantage of events to convince Belle that she should voluntarily admit herself to the asylum. In getting rid of her, he seeks to renew the close connection which he and Tolly had shared. He tells her, with an uncharacteristic hesitancy stemming from emotions never before touched upon, that ‘he and I have – unfinished business. Tolly and me…’. In convincing her that her love is insufficient for him, that she will only bring him misery, he confesses his own need for his companionship and balancing presence, the desire to no longer be alone. It’s a turning point for him, and when he realises that he can’t simply resurrect his relationship with Tolly by sending her away, he undergoes what amounts to a revelation, a conversion experience. This will be his last act of destructive self-interest. His earlier sarcastic references to Tolly as his saint and saviour are inverted and become imbued with a new sincerity. He decides to devote his considerable strength and renewed will to righting the wrong which he has committed. His declaration of intent is full evangelical fire. ‘I’m in me full health and strength, Tolly!…what I done, I can undo. There ain’t no living soul to stand against me. Keep your distance, boy! I’m out of your reaching, I’m face to face with my Maker, Tolly’. He also now admits to a past, rather than existing in a permanent present, unanchored and free-floating. He talks of his parentage in a way which further humanises him, making him less of a preternatural monstrosity. He tells Tolly that he was indeed born of ‘a man and a woman – just like you, boy. Only they was cast-offs. He went on the rope, and she was quick with me…for which she was spared. But not for long. I did for her when I was born. No escape for the cast-offs. Till now, Tolly. For I’m rising up in me health and strength. I’m presenting me account, Tolly. I ain’t no chapel bankrupt. I’m rising up – and God help him what tries to keep me down!’

His identification with the cast-offs, amongst whose number he includes himself, lends a social dimension to his violent self-interest; a base instinct for survival borne out of necessity and developed through the means of his strength and size. Through his new awareness of this cast-off level of society, his sense of being rooted within it, he becomes able to identify with his fellow outsiders. The supportive community of the fair and Jed’s patient, unassertive friendship also slowly teach him by example the value of society, as opposed to aggressive and predatory individualism. The sense of religious revelation, of a soul suddenly filled with righteous spirit, is outwardly reflected in the apocalyptic tone which suffuses the story as it builds to its thunderous climax. The northern lights appear in the winter sky like luminous portents of the final days, and the city’s foundations are shaken by a series of rumbling tremors. The recurring vision which Belle has now seems part of the general spirit of consensus madness overwhelming the London populace. Her description of her vision is always visually specific and expressed in exactly the same terms. She sees ‘a tall black tower with a gold top – higher than the sky. There are white angels flying with white wings…and all the world’s singing a lullaby, for the sun’s gone to bed in a blanket’. It appears to be a glimpse into the post-apocalyptic world to come, but turns out to be a very accurate augury of a particular moment. Belle’s fever-fused period of madness appears to have left her with a genuinely visionary sense. Perhaps the physical realisation of her long-held vision (the black tower a mast, the angel’s wings sails and the lullaby a sailor’s song) marks its dissolution, and the final fading of her madness. Her glimpse into her and Tolly’s future is in keeping with the sense of the play of fate manifest throughout the story.

Garfield’s novel is full of rich incident and character, with profound psychological insight mixing with hints of mysticism and the underlying pattern of fate, which erupts into life from time to time. It has a dark, gothic streak running throughout. Corpses shudder back into life in shadowy, candlelit rooms; There are murders and furtive graveyard disinterments; a grim asylum oubliette which threatens a lifetime’s incarceration for the innocent, insane and simply inconvenient alike, forgotten to all outside; And a fearful anticipation of the end of the world, the fiery furnace cracking open beneath the streets of London. So how did Ken Loach manage to turn it into such a lifeless and dull film.

Witnessing the resurrection
Loach’s adaptation of Black Jack is full of blank and affectless performances which fail to convey a flicker of emotion or psychological depth. The dialogue is delivered with the hesitancy and lack of emotional inflection which is far from the naturalism which is perhaps intended. At times it almost has the feel of a play read out in a classroom by a bunch of bored English students. Loach’s failure to direct his younger actors or the other non-professional members of the cast results in the story being drained of all drama. This is evident from the very beginning. The scene in which Tolly witnesses Black Jack’s resurrection is one which is full of heightened drama and terror. A young boy locked into a room in which the evening shadows are spreading seeing a dead man opening his eyes and stir in his coffin! Garfield describes how ‘Bartholomew Dorking…stood almost dead of terror’. In Loach’s version of the scene, there is no sense of shock, terror or even mild alarm. The expression on Tolly’s face remains completely unchanged, without even a widening of the eyes or gasped intake of breath, either of which would presumably have been within the capabilities of Stephen Hirst, the young actor playing the role. Even Loach, on the commentary track, is forced to concede that this is a little underwhelming. And yet it sets the tone for the rest of the film.

Jean Franval as Black Jack
Black Jack in the film has become a Frenchman (Jacques Noir?). This is explained by the origins of the funding on the other side of the Channel, but it is a somewhat uneasy transformation. This central and all-important role is taken by Jean Franval, who had played small roles in some highly distinguished films: Bunuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid from 1963; Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge in 1970; and the hit comedy L’Emmerdeur in 1973, in which Jacques Brel plays the mournful schmuck who steadily brings the meticulously laid plans of the fastidious assassin ‘Monsieur Milan’ to utter ruin. Here, he seems infected by the same sense of anomie as the rest of the cast, however. His Black Jack is not the force of nature filled with fierce rage and newly emergent feelings that he is in Garfield’s book. He seems lost in a daze of stunned puzzlement throughout, a lost figure, lumbering and lugubrious. Andrew Bennett is good as Hatch, and it’s unsurprising to discover that of the younger members of the cast, he has been the only one to continue acting, appearing in Angela’s Ashes and John Boorman’s film The General, two Irish-set films which presumably required him to drop the Yorkshire accent.

Loach also holds back from any real involvement with the story, leaving his camera to passively observe from a distance. He seems reluctant to employ any of the cinematic devices which involve the audience and help to tell a story by enhancing feelings of emotion and excitement. Close-ups, a variety of camera movements, engaging performances, cross-cutting to create rhythm and a sense of connection between events or characters and choreographed action. It’s as if he has a purist distaste for such artificial techniques. As a result, the film has the feel of a documentary rather than a story, and I can only imagine that young audiences at the time must have found it a tedious experience. It’s not that Loach lacks engagement with the material. The choice of the novel was his own. He had discovered Leon Garfield’s work having given some of his books to his children, and is full of praise for his writing. Perhaps he simply didn’t have the feel for producing a children’s adventure story. It certainly stands out as an anomaly within his filmography, and has largely been neglected until the recent bfi reissue.

Framing the landscape
There are compensatory aspects, however. The period details are very well realised, with the fashions of the eighteenth century, the frock coats, wigs and tricorne hats reproduced in a convincingly worn and fraid state. The story has been relocated from London to South Yorkshire (although filming was actually carried out in North Yorkshire), and writer and director display a good ear for period speech and regional dialects. The filming in the North Yorkshire countryside brings out Loach’s bucolic side, as displayed in Kes and The Gamekeeper. Loach chose some wonderful rural locations, and they are framed by Chris Menges’ camera as if they are landscape compositions. Menges’ used a 16mm camera for the exterior shooting, which gives everything a soft-grained haze, blurring edges and enhancing the pastoral feel. Menges is a distinguished British cinematographer who worked The War Games, Peter Watkins’ banned BBC drama-documentary, early in his career and progressed to prestigious major studio pictures such as The Killing Fields and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Loach’s concern for realism in his recreation of the period also led him to search out buildings from the era in Yorkshire. The asylum is particularly well-served by a house which he discovered in Whitby, whose dilapidated state helped to convey the squalor and neglect suffered by the inmates.

Packie plays the whistle
The music was also chosen to fit in with the eighteenth century setting, and was provided by two prominent figures from the 60s and 70s folk revival. Packie Byrne was a singer and teller of tales from County Donegal in Ireland, where he was born in a crofter’s cottage in 1917. He was much valued by the new generation of folk singers and musicians who perceived him as being a conduit feeding directly from the source of the common stream of the tradition. He plays Dr Carmody in the film, and his stilted delivery of his lines suggests that he is not a natural actor. He is certainly entirely inappropriate for representing a man who is supposed to be able to mesmerise a crowd into the belief that he really could have produced an elixir to cure all ills. He does get to beguile his fellow travellers (and the viewer) with an air on his penny whistle, as they sit around an open fire to ward off the chill of the night in the centre of their John Ford-style circle of wagons.

Fairground balladeer
The film’s music soundtrack was provided by Bob Pegg, once half, alongside his ex-wife Carole, of the creative core of the early 70s folk-rock group Mr Fox, who produced two fine LPs (Mr Fox and The Gipsy) before falling apart. They showed their Yorkshire roots in the lengthy title song from The Gipsy. The narrator of this modern, multi-part ballad epic races across hill and dale to catch up with the gipsy for whom he has fallen in an breathless dash which displays a native feel for the Yorkshire landscape. Pegg was clearly an ideal choice to create the music for Loach’s Yorkshire-set Black Jack. He often uses folk instruments in a solo context for the film, creating a slightly wistful, impressionistic atmosphere. We get to hear the hurdy-gurdy, the fiddle and the whistle. These are sometimes incorporated into the narrative, as with Packie Byrne’s whistle playing. A figure is seen wandering through the fair, singing one of the sheaf of ballads clutched in his hand. Could this be Pegg himself (he certainly sports a similar moustache in a picture in the booklet of the CD re-release of the Mr Fox albums)? Or perhaps he is the sailor who sings his lulling shanty at the end of the film.

Rehearsing for Time Bandits - Tom Thumb's Army
The bustling entertainments and diversions of the fair also provide us with a preview of Terry Gilliam’s extravagant fantasy Time Bandits, which would come out a couple of years later. Here we see ‘Tom Thumb’s Army’ capering about to the grinding accompaniment of the hurdy-gurdy on the makeshift stage set up in their wagon for the amusement of the gathered locals. The army is comprised of David Rappaport, Tiny Ross, Mike Edmonds and Malcolm Dixon, who perform the same tumbling, barely competent acrobatics that they put on to bamboozle the likes of Napoleon and Agamemnon in Gilliam’s film, before robbing them blind.

Friedrich in England
The apocalyptic tone of the end of Garfield’s book is absent from the film. Budgeting restraints obviously played their part, alongside Loach’s doctrinaire adherence to realism, of the sort which allows of no element of magic. The final scene does build an atypical mood of poetry and romanticism, however. Belle’s vision is affirmed, and she and Tolly sail slowly down the river on his uncle’s ship. Mist hangs over the fields and the trees fade into a hazy, indeterminate distance. It is a shot which draws on the mystical landscape tradition, which imbues the land with symbolic richness and strange resonances. It seeks to see beyond the surface of things, or to bring out the true radiant (or corrupt) nature of that surface appearance. The masts and sails of the ship are etched against the fading light of the early evening as it glides away from us towards the indefinite horizon. It could be an English version of a Caspar David Friedrich painting. Bob Pegg’s gorgeous music, which now brings together all the instruments in sublime, soaring harmony, adds a strong emotional charge to the scene. At the very end, we get a glimpse of how powerfully the tale might have been told.

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