Saturday, 19 March 2011

Michael Gough

Investigating the crypt - as Arthur Holmwood in Dracula

Michael Gough (who died recently at the age of 94) had a film career full of odd contradictions. He had the patrician bearing and beautifully modulated received pronunciation tones of the trained stage actor, but spent much of his time slumming it in the grimier margins of the British horror movie industry. He had strong and distinctively handsome features, but was generally to be found playing the most untrustworthy and solitary of villain. A good point of comparison would be Denholm Elliott, who regularly played well-bred characters gone to seed, his authentically clammy backstreet abortionist in Alfie and twitching, fearful victim agoraphobically awaiting his diabolical fate in Hammer’s last horror film To The Devil A Daughter being typical. Gough never exuded such an air of sweaty desperation, always maintaining a disdainful superiority to the grubby surroundings (and company) in which he found himself, a bearing which perhaps reflected Gough’s own attitude to the material he was appearing in. The graduation from the idealistic characters which he played in the immediate post war years to the sinister and manipulative villains which he tended to portray in the 60s and 70s can be seen partly as a result of a cultural and generational shift. The authoritative patrician elocution and gestures of the classical stage actor became less of an indicator of noble heroism, and more of the envious and repressive character of an older generation, who a younger generation of writers and film-makers saw as bent on control and exploitation. The conservative romanticism of Powell and Pressburger was out of fashion as the vogue for kitchen sink realism took hold in the late 50s, followed by the hyperkinetic pop styles of the 60s (as epitomised by the films of Richard Lester) and the end of the road exploitation of the 70s. In many ways, the vivid Technicolor gothic of Hammer was the inheritor of this strand of British romanticism, and Gough appeared as a would-be hero in the studio’s second breakthrough film Dracula. He also appeared in the films of Ken Russell and Derek Jarman, later purveyors of idiosyncratic romanticism, in which he once more escaped from the roguish roles of blue-blooded villainy into which he was typecast.

Captain Stuart in The Small Back Room - uncomplicated goodness
In the early years of his film career (which was always ran parallel with a distinguished stage career) he appeared in the 1949 Powell and Pressburger film The Small Back Room, based on the novel by Nigel Balchin. The story is set during the dying days of the war, and Gough plays Captain Stuart, an explosives expert who has to deal with new and complex species of bomb which are being dropped by the Germans, each of which presents a deadly puzzle which has to be solved. Gough is young and fresh-faced here, his character sensitive, empathetic and fearless, one of Emeric Pressburger’s uncomplicatedly good souls. His off-screen death on the shingles of Chesil Beach shocks David Farrar’s enervated anti-hero Sammy Rice into emerging from his alcoholic shell of self-pity to defuse the booby-trapped bomb which has made its unstable nest on the shifting pebbles of the Dorset coast. Gough was once more heroic in one of Powell and Pressburger’s dull war films, Ill Met By Moonlight (1957), from the tail end of their career together as The Archers. The imaginative brio of their wartime films, which transcended their time and propagandistic purpose, towered above the prosaic nature of these workmanlike (if occasionally enjoyable) later efforts. Gough plays Andoni Zoidakis, a Cretan resistance fighter, who looks the part in rounded cap and with the sweeping upward flourish of a thick black moustache, all until he opens his mouth and is instantly an Englishman making a half-hearted stab at an exotic accent.

Cretan in a landscape - Ill Met By Moonlight
A year later and Gough was playing the role of Arthur Holmwood in Terence Fisher’s second full colour gothic horror for Hammer, Dracula. Arthur is a rather ineffectual, powerless character, and plays a distinctly subsidiary second fiddle to Peter Cushing’s decisive and athletic savant Van Helsing. Something of a convenient idiot to whom things must be explained, it’s a thankless role, and critics and commentators have not been kind. Sinclair McKay, in his history of Hammer A Thing Of Unspeakable Horro, refers to ‘the toe-curlingly awful performance of Michael Gough as Arthur Holmwood’, and Howard Maxford, in Hammer House of Horror: Behind the Screams, notes that ‘Michael Gough, it must be said, makes a rather dreary Arthur Holmwood, though the rest of the supporting cast helps to disguise his apparent lack of interest in the role’. Dracula was to prove something of a pivotal moment for Gough. His mere presence in such a hugely successful film, and its initiation of an opportunistic horror boom, meant that he could find plentiful work within the genre. And from hereon in, he would shrug off such bland portrayals of dull normality and begin to enjoy the pleasures of unabashed villainy.

This retreat from heroism was fully evident by the time of his second film for Hammer, Phantom of the Opera (1962), in which he plays composer Lord Ambrose D’Arcy, whose inspiration has long since dried up, and who steals the music of his admirer and soon to be vengeful phantom Professor Petrie and unapologetically publishes it as his own. Gough had by this time begun to appear in numerous horror films which rode in the slipstream of Hammer’s success, but relied on sensationalism rather than good production values, direction and acting. Notorious amongst these was Horrors of the Black Museum, which tested the limits of current censorship. It was the first of three films released by Anglo-Amalgamated, which culminated in Michael Powell’s reviled Peeping Tom. Interestingly, all three had their voyeuristic exploitation elements embedded within the storylines. Horrors of the Black Museum is about a hack writer who sends out an assistant to commit baroque and bloody murders which he then turns into best-selling novels. Circus of Horrors features a circus whose demented owner despatches any performers who threaten to reveal his dark secrets through conveniently arranged ‘accidents’ within the ring (knife throwing acts, lion tamers confronted with suddenly untamed lions etc). And Peeping Tom offers a complex reflection on the voyeuristic basis of cinema with its story of a cameraman who films murders committed with his adapted equipment, recording the terror of his victims’ death throes for his later private enjoyment in his personal dark room. David Pirie writes extensively about this period in Heritage of Horror:The English Gothic Horror. This was the time in which John Trevelyan was just beginning his tenure as secretary of the BBFC (the British Board of Film Censors), and was attempting to usher in a more liberal approach to censorship (often in the face of strident opposition from his fellows on the board), perhaps in view of the huge success of Hammer’s horror films at a time in which business in the film industry was generally declining. The leeway which Trevelyan gave to the makers of Horrors of the Black Museum and Anglo-Amalgamated’s follow-up Circus of Horrors backfired on him when several councils refused to grant Circus of Horrors a certificate. This arbitrary imposition of authority from local government was precisely the kind of thing which the BBFC was set up in the early years of the century to avoid. As a result, Trevelyan’s initial attempts at compromise proved something of a disaster, and the moral outrage directed at Peeping Tom resulted in its swift withdrawal from its limited cinema release. Matthew Sweet, in his book Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema, points out that such outrage could have been transformed into good, sensationalist publicity, and suggests that Anglo-Amalgamated chairman Nat Cohen pulled the film from the cinemas in order to protect his potential, much desired knighthood.

Lee and Gough face off - Dr Terror's House of Horrors
Horrors of the Black Museum, with its horrific opening scene featuring a pair of binoculars with spiked eyepieces, marked a new beginning for Gough, who became a low rent version of horror stars like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and seemed happy to earn a crust with some pretty tawdry fare. He appeared in numerous low-budget horror films from this point on. He made two ape movies at either end of the sixties, one giant sized (Konga) and the other of normal stature but with anthropoid tendencies (Trog), both of which rival the works of Ed Wood for ineptitude and sheer enjoyability (at least from the clips I’ve seen). He made two above average films for Hammer’s rival company Amicus (although truth to tell they never posed any serious threat) – The Skull and Dr Terror’s House of Horrors. The latter was the company’s first foray into the portmanteau format, a series of brief stories arising from a central and usually rather contrived narrative device (in this case fortunes read to the travellers in a railway carriage by the mysterious Dr Schreck). Gough appears in the story featuring Christopher Lee as the pompous and self-important art critic Franklyn Marsh. He portrays Eric Landor, an impoverished artist who reacts to a devastatingly high-handed demolition of his latest traditionally inclined work by Marsh by setting him up for a humiliating fall. He invites him to an exhibition by an exciting new abstract painter. Lee is effusive in his praise, leading Landor to reveal that the artist is present in person. He goes back to fetch him and leads a chimpanzee out by the hand (shades of the artwork reproduced in James Lever’s mock star autobiography Me Cheetah). Landor continues to hold Marsh up to mockery, reminding him of his moment of critical idiocy at every turn and corner. Eventually, Marsh comes across his tormentor drunkenly staggering through the night streets and impulsively runs him down. Landor survives, but loses his hands, and unable to bear the thought of life without his art, commits suicide. But Marsh is not to be allowed to rest easy. Soon, and particularly during storm-racked nights, it seems, he is pestered the artist’s creeping hand, which evades any attempt at disposal and haunts him like some persistent, fleshy scuttling vermin.

Besieging the Tardis - The Celestial Toymaker
The story played well on the contrast between Lee and Gough’s personae. Lee always tended to be stiff and pompous, playing aristocratic or establishment characters (or Carpathian Counts, of course). Gough, on the other hand, had that rebel sneer, the insolent curl of the lip which would always place him on the other side of the divide (probably another reason why Michael Powell liked him). His characters were never actively evil, but they had a louche decadance which took aesthetic pleasure in their contrived maleficence. There was something a little sharp-edged, contemptuous and calculating about his onscreen persona. He had angular, vulpine features and a scouring regard which meant that he was never likely to mature into loveably vague or amusingly snooty aristo roles accorded to acting royalty such as John Gielgud or Ralph Richardson (or Maggie Smith, for that matter). If Richardson was eventually to ascend to the level of godhood in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, Gough would have been more suited to playing his mephistophelean counterpart. At around the same time that he was making Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Gough appeared in the William Hartnell Doctor Who The Celestial Toymaker, bedecked in the oriental finery of mandarin chinoiserie. His imperious manner is manifested to the full as he plays the Gnostic demi-god of his own subcreation, guiding the Doctor and his companions (Stephen and Dodo in this instance) through the moves of a deadly godgame (cf John Clute in The Encycopedia of Fantasy). Gough secured his connections with Doctor Who by marrying Anneke Wills, the actress who played Polly, the companion who replaced Dodo in The War Machines. He would return many years later during the Peter Davison tenure for the 1983 story Arc of Infinity, in which he played another regal character of corrupt and self-serving mores, the traitorous Time Lord Councillor Hedin. The celestial toymaker was always a favourite of longterm (or simply obsessive) Who fans, and there were plans to bring the character back for a story with Sylvester’s McCoy’s Doctor, but the axe fell before they could come to fruition.

Gough tended to appear in less salubrious fare during the later 60s and 70s, however. Kim Newman, in Nightmare Movies, his guide to contemporary horror films (a new edition of which is due imminently - with a bfi interview with Mark Kermode to mark its publication), points to ‘a limbo of fly-by-night productions and colourful entrepreneurs who had their own, supremely disreputable, flourishing horror comic tradition, and awards Gough the dubious honour of being ‘the nearest thing to a star in this area’. These films probably do more than any more reputable and more generously budgeted pictures (not that there were many by the 70s) to capture the seedy and dissolute spirit of the age. In The Corpse (1970), which Matthew Sweet describes as ‘a minor but intoxicatingly poetic horror film’, Gough plays a horrible, tyrannical father whose wife and daughter finally decide that they can’t go on and collaborate in his murder. In the manner of an absurdist play, he simply continues the blandly abusive family routines as if nothing had happened. I’ve not seen that film, but I have seen Horror Hospital (1973), in which Gough plays a demented medic who runs a rest home in the country promising ‘hairy holidays – fun in the sun for the under 30s’. For no very good reason, he turns the guests who answer such an enticing advertisement into lobotomised zombies or violent psychopaths who do his bidding. Our hero is that epitome of seventies simian libidinousness Robin Askwith (who also regularly cropped up in Lindsay Anderson movies and bared his all in Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales). It was directed by Antony Balch, who had made three (deliberately) bewildering short films with William Burroughs in the early to mid 60s, Towers Open Fire (which incorporated routines from Burroughs’ Nova Express), Bill and Tony (ie Burroughs and Balch) and The Cut-Ups. The latter applied Burroughs’ and Brion Gysin’s textual cut-up techniques, designed to jolt the mind out of its customary associations with random collisions and juxtapositions, to celluloid. It certainly shook the viewers at the Cinephone in Oxford Street out of their usual mindset, although they tended to head for the exit as a result. Horror Hospital exhibits a similarly relaxed attitude to logic, sense and meaning and is, in its own undoubtedly exploitational way, just as bizarre.

Grizzled genre veteran - Sleepy Hollow
Gough found work in the 70s and on into the 80s with British romantics Ken Russell (in Women In Love and the Gaudier-Brzeska biopic Savage Messiah) and Derek Jarman. He donned papal red for the juicy role of Cardinal del Monte (sorry) in Carravagio and proved an authoritative Bertrand Russell in Wittgenstein, also giving sensitively articulating Jarman’s poetry in The Garden. Finally, his aloof and disdainful screen portrayals were recognised by Hollywood in the traditional manner, and he was offered the part of a butler. This was the start of a fruitful working relationship with Tim Burton, who says nice things about him on the commentary track of Sleepy Hollow. Gough played Bruce Wayne’s unflappable gentleman’s gentleman Alfred in the two Tim Burton Batmans, and stuck it out for the following two efforts (he’d been in much worse, after all. Mind you…) In Burton’s Sleepy Hollow he played Hardenbrook the notary, surrounded by his dry, curling official parchments. He was wolfish and grizzled, with one staring milk-white eye, and took his place alongside many other veteran British actors who were given free reign to be odd. It effectively marked his entrance into the Tim Burton retirement home for distinguished horror film veterans (Christopher Lee had already appeared in the opening scenes of the film as the burgomaster and Vincent Price was given a dignified late role as the creator of Edward Scissorhands). Gough had already appeared alongside Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee and Barbara Steele in The Curse of the Crimson Altar in 1968, but the film had pretty definitively wasted its fabulous cast, cobbling together an incoherent collection of clichés to tiresome effect. Trish Keenan and James Cargill of Broadcast expressed affection for it, however, imagining themselves as the house band for the rather desperate attempt at a with it party scene which starts the film. Burton remained loyal and constant to his veteran actors, and Gough went on to provide voices for Corpse Bride and Alice In Wonderland (he brought the dodo to life, whilst Christopher Lee intoned the jabberwocky). These films act as a tribute to Gough’s work in the genre.

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