Sunday, 30 November 2014

Bloody Homage: The Hammer of Dr Valentine, Terrors of the Théâtre Diabolique and the Enduring Appeal of Hammer and Amicus

The golden age of British horror movies continues to exert a fascination over successive generations of fans. The films of the late 50s through to the mid-70s belong to a distinct period of post-war popular culture, a pre-corporate era in which small companies could produce and market movies which were relatively small in scale but highly distinguished in quality. It was also a time in which maverick Soho producers at the lower end of the market could knock off cheap exploitation pictures which occasionally (very occasionally) resulted in the revelation of a fresh and exciting new talent, creating something which transcended the formula its backers were flagrantly trying to copy. The horror cinema of this era bears so little relation to contemporary manifestations of the genre, with their emphasis on prolonged physical pain and the dogged pursuit of new extremes, that they seem to come from a far more distant time, beyond living memory. Their values can seem impossibly outmoded, but in this marked difference lies part of their charm. The best of the pictures from this time offer a great deal more than the nostalgic appeal of period quaintness, however. They were made with great care and craftsmanship, featured actors of real class (the oft-twinned names of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee being the stellar examples) and a wonderful array of character performers, and were often possessed of a full-blooded romanticism which formed a continuation of British traditions both cinematic (Powell and Pressburger and Gainsborough), literary and artistic. The Hammer and Amicus studios were the most notable homes from which they emerged. And they were homes, with a family feel to what they produced, a house style which you could depend upon. It’s a seemingly contradictory thing to say about the productions of a genre intended to inspire terror, but a real warmth and affection for their films and those involved in the making of them has developed over the years. Two new books pay homage to them in the form of reference-steeped fiction, and serve as testament to this enduring appeal.

The Hammer of Dr Valentine by John Llewellyn Probert, published by Spectral Press, is a sequel to The Nine Deaths of Dr Valentine, which won the British Fantasy Award for best novella at the 2013 World Fantasy Convention. That first encounter with the diabolically resourceful physician, bent on avenging the death of his daughter, drew very consciously on the films of Vincent Price. The models for the absurdly elaborate deaths meted out to the medical staff deemed responsible for allowing his daughter to die are lifted from Price’s films, Valentine adapting them according to circumstance. The narrative structure and blackly comic tone is lifted from Theatre of Blood and the Dr Phibes movies in particular. They were distinguished by lusciously contrived camp, the horror (and they were surprisingly vicious at times) alleviated by knowingly exaggerated and patently ridiculous excess. Dr Valentine emulates ham thesp Edward Lionheart in Theatre of Blood in his adoption of role-playing disguises, his propensity for gloating moral lectures and his relish for bad puns and mordant quips as agonising at the torments he inflicts upon his victims. These victims are invariably loathsome and wholly undeserving of sympathy, thus allowing us to enjoy the spectacle of their exquisitely plotted and executed demises.

The Hammer of Dr Valentine shifts the focus from Vincent Price and onto the extensive output of the Hammer studios. The Doctor is back and this time choosing as the subjects for his art of death the tabloid sleazemongers and hack bestseller writers who distorted the true nature of his previous escapades. As an aesthete of decadent derangement, this distortion of his carefully constructed narrative or revenge is unforgivable. Thus they are picked off one by one, eliminated by the monster they helped to foster and becoming fodder for more of their kind. Still sticking assiduously with the template of Theatre of Blood and Dr Phibes, even though nominally now on Hammer territory, the Doctor is provided with a young and loyal female assistant, his co-star and siren in the deadly skits he contrives. Also following the pattern, the forces of the law always plod a few paces behind. The returning DCI Jeffrey Longdon is left cursing impotently at his minions, the morbid chorus of DIs Martinus, Graves and Wentworth, as he comes across the latest implausible murder scene. He’s less the stoical Peter Jeffries of the Phibes movies, more the irascible, cynical and petulant Donald Pleasance in Death Line. There’s a less morally compromised character on the roster of potential victims, John Spalding, the equivalent of Joseph Cotton in The Abominable Dr Phibes or Ian Hendry in Theatre of Blood. If anyone is likely to survive and bring the Doctor’s murderous mystery play to a close it will be him. He is also effectively the ‘savant’ of the scenario, the character with the specialised knowledge necessary to defeat the monster. He is no Van Helsing, but his knowledge of the variety of Van Helsings on screen may prove of use. As a film critic he is acquainted with the whole range of Hammer films and thereby with the modus operandi of the supervillain he and the police force face. But will this cinephile learning arm them sufficiently to defeat such a mercurial, elusive foe.

Hammer fans will have a huge amount of fun spotting the films whose deaths Dr Valentine goes to such lengths to reproduce. They’re not necessarily the obvious ones, either. Probert digs deep into the Hammer back catalogue and comes up with some surprising and effective choices. He may just lead you to dust off films you’d put to one side as inessential. Fear In The Night or The Reptile, for instance. Valentine is in some ways a superfan himself, dressing the part and paying his own form of tribute with appropriate bucketloads of Kensington gore. Probert makes no bones about his own love of the studio’s output. Well, most of it anyway. He reserves a pronounced disdain for the 70s psycho Peter Pan drama Straight On ‘til Morning, with the new Hammer star of the time Shane Bryant and an uncomfortable Rita Tushingham (her unease palpable in the commentary she provides for the dvd release). His objects to what he perceives as its failed pretensions towards arthouse status. I find things of interest in it. It seems to be a swinging sixties film infected with the growing disillusionment of the seventies. The Knack or Smashing Time in which the bright pop art backdrops have faded to grey, the zany antics wound down into entropic stasis; the Peter Pan fantasy of carefree youth is no longer sustainable, and the attempt to prolong it induces psychotic breakdown. But no, it ultimately fails to deliver on the promise of such a scenario, and descends into another of Hammer’s tiresome psycho derivatives.

Prominent citation of sources during the opening credits for The House That Dripped Blood
In an extensive afterword, Probert provides a film by film key to the story’s cinematic reference points. There’s a lovely image in the book of the police incident room map, lines of red wool radiating out from the crime scenes to join with small reproductions of the relevant Hammer film posters. The afterword is Probert’s explanatory counterpart to this chart. It is charmingly autobiographical, and his remembrances of first encounters with various films will chime with many readers, prompting their own misty reminiscences. I particularly liked his recollection of watching Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed on HTV Cymru, unconvincingly dubbed into Welsh. Amicus gets a look in via the reference to Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen, the classic study of German expressionist horror. It is prominently placed on a desk and lingered over by the camera at the start of The House That Dripped Blood.

We also get to visit Dr Terror’s Haunted Cornish Funfair, which combines Dr Terror’s House of Horror’s with the fairground setting of Torture Garden. A new entertainment venture for Peter Cushing’s tarot reader, perhaps. The rides include Dr Blood’s Coffin and Crucible of Terror, references to two Cornish set films of surpassing dullness (Zennor standing in for ‘Porthcarron’ and Perranporth for any Cornish folk out there). ‘These local things were never up to much’, one character muses, ‘so they could give the Crucible of Terror a miss’. It’s an amusingly offhand critical dismissal. Probert’s story is full of such pleasing details and, like its illustrious sources, serves up shudders of fear and laughter in equal and well-balance measures. We also get to visit one of the ultimate locations for 60s and 70s British horror: Oakley Court, a neo-gothic mansion by the Thames in Berkshire (conveniently close to Hammer’s Bray Studios). It provided the backdrop to several Hammer films, transported to Cornwall for The Reptile and Plague of Zombies and middle Europe for Brides of Dracula. Amicus used it for one of their few all-out gothics, And Now The Screaming Starts, and it was put to atmospheric use in Vampyres. Intriguingly, a parting reference to Don’t Look Now suggests that the demented Dr V may yet return – but moving into the arthouse and using Nic Roeg films as his sick source material. We can only wait with fearful anticipation.

Terrors of the Théâtre Diabolique is an anthology edited by Dan Barratt and John Davies. It is graced with an urbane introduction by David Warner, who played an unfortunate character in the Amicus film From Beyond the Grave, a devilish cover by Simon A.Brett and illustrations by Paul Griffin. Profits from the sales of the book, whether in physical form or as a downloadable pdf, are going to MIND, a particularly worthy charity. Not least amongst the services it offers is enlightening the public about the nature of mental illness, thus dispelling the bogies summoned up in Amicus’ film Asylum; an absurdly melodramatic view of the ‘mad’ as devious and dangerously unpredictable which is still surprisingly prevalent. The inspiration here is the series of portmanteau horror films made by Amicus from the mid 60s through through to the mid 70s. Or the early 80s if you care to include The Monster Club, which I rather think I do, largely out of blurry nostalgia. Alright, so Amicus had folded by then, but it was produced by Milton Subotsky and is an Amicus film in all but name. It was the first horror film I saw in the cinema. I was thrilled at the prospect of watching an Amicus picture on the big screen, having become familiar with the likes of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, From Beyond the Grave and Asylum via Saturday night horror double bills on the BBC.

Dan Barratt shares my affection for the Amicus portmanteau films and has fashioned a contemporary version in the form of a short story collection. He supplies the framing narrative himself, inviting others to provide the creepy vignettes he sets up. The opening scenes are written with a cinematic sweep, taking the point of view of a swallow gliding down towards a seaside town. This affords us long and medium distance establishing shots, followed up by exterior close-ups of the Victorian gothic details of a crumbling theatre of dark varieties. Following a near escape from a local cat, the swallow conducts a swift (sic) aerial survey of the interior before coming to a rest at a high vantage point, from which it can watch events unfolding below. The choice of a swallow might be a little nod to Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince. The swallow as symbol of selfless sacrifice provides an ironic contrast to the self-absorbed outlooks of the characters who people the stories in the collection.

You're all dead already - end of story
The protagonists in Amicus films are by and large unsympathetic: selfish, mean-spirited, venal, cold-hearted and frequently coldly murderous. They tend to find themselves gathered together in some unwelcoming venue (a crypt, a vault) or linked by a common locale they all visit (a strange shop, a house which changes hands with suspicious regularity). There is a guide or host who welcomes them, generally with a highly portentous, sepulchral air. He then proceeds to tell them their secret stories, reading their fates, which invariably involve a distinct element of finality. Having pronounced their collective doom, he then reveals the shocking truth, which brings the film to an end. This tends to be a reminder that they’re all dead already and will be, or have for some time been spending an eternity in hell.

Peter Cushing's mild-mannered shopkeeper in From Beyond the Grave - just don't shortchange him
There’s certainly a strong current of judgement contained within the stories of the Amicus portmanteaus. Poetic justice is meted out with cackling relish, often rounded off with a summary quip from our guide. I always loved Peter Cushing’s parting words to Ian Carmichael in From Beyond the Grave. Carmichael had just surreptitiously swapped price tags on two antique snuff boxes, buying the more expensive one for a considerably reduced price as a result. In this uncanny shop, hidden away in a forgotten city alleyway in which the Victorian era seems to live on, it is, however, extremely, indeed fatally unwise to cheat the proprietor. ‘I hope you enjoy snuffing it sir’, he says, a pitiless note underlying his amiable, mild-mannered demeanour. He clamps his pipe in his mouth, turns and shuffles off with a certain air of weary disappointment at being confronted yet again with human weakness and greed. The moral comeuppance visited upon richly deserving characters betrays the influence of the notorious EC comics of the 50s. These had a notably satirical undercurrent, drawing (and inking) a picture of contemporary America as a moral vacuum which belied the comfortable self-satisfaction of the Eisenhower era. Vengeance was often carried out at the clawed, earth-encrusted hands of rotting revenants, leering corpses returning from the grave to right wrongs with much rending and tearing of flesh. They were anti-superheroes of a sort, emerging from the earth rather than descending from the skies, draped in ragged shrouds rather than colourful capes. A suppurating Justice League of America for the downtrodden and betrayed. Needless to say, they failed to win the approval of the moral majority. The Amicus films didn’t really share the barbed satirical element of the EC comics, although there was a certain undermining of 70s consumerism and class divisions, the relentless pursuit of wealth and the idealisation of the spotless suburban household. There weren’t many rotting corpses clawing their way out of the grave either. One memorable exception was the tale of Arthur Grimsdyke, a highly effective episode featuring a performance of heartrending pathos from Peter Cushing. We cheer him on when he returns from the dead to make literal the figurative heartlessness of his proto-yuppie tormentor. That story was told in Tales from the Crypt, one of two films directly adapted from EC comics.

Grimsdyke returns in Tales From The Crypt
There’s definitely a strong element of moral comeuppance to the tales told in the Théâtre Diabolique as well. We have our guide here, too. A cowled figure who ushers his ‘guests’ through a tour of the dilapidated Victorian house of varieties, leading them into the subterranean vaults lying beneath the stage. There are conscious echoes of Amicus films throughout, as you would expect from a homage. The touring party pass various dusty objects in storage rooms which hint at stories untold, or perhaps ones we’ve seen before: an ‘ornate mirror’ reminds us of the possessed glass in From Beyond the Grave; ‘a child’s doll’ the toy which Christopher Lee snatches from the hand of the little girl he believes to be a witch in The House That Dripped Blood; ‘some scattered illustrated pages’ are perhaps drawn by Tom Baker’s artist in Vault of Horror, whose portrait subjects suffered damage commensurate with that inflicted upon their images. Others are less familiar, although ‘a large, ominous pendulum blade’ and ‘a human sized ape suit’ might have strayed in from the Roger Corman/Vincent Price Poe pictures The Pit and the Pendulum and The Masque of the Red Death. Similarly, a ‘spiralling metal staircase’ which ‘groaned and swayed alarmingly’ may have been relocated from Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, as memorably visualised in Robert Wise’s The Haunting.

Ingrid Pitt in a publicity still for The House That Dripped Blood
As for the stories themselves, they fit the Amicus mould in that they share a contemporary setting. No moonlit gothic castles wreathed in mist here. Amicus briskly dispensed with the gothic staples in their first portmanteau picture, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, which featured werewolves, vampires, a crawling hand (the beast with five fingers), voodoo curses and, er, a swiftly spreading variety of intelligent, carnivorous weed (menacing poor old Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman). They turned up from time to time, but in a joky context. Vampires bared their teeth with an accompanying nod and wink in Vault of Horror (tucking into rare or medium clots in an exclusive restaurant) and in The House That Dripped Blood (supplying a splendid and much reproduced still of Ingrid Pitt hissing through elongated incisors if nothing else). They no doubt realised that they couldn’t beat Hammer at their own game, and so set their cruel tales in 70s living rooms, bedrooms and lounges (and basements). The horrors often extended to the décor.

JR Southall’s House Sitting is a variant of the malevolent house tale. A building which feeds off the fears and painful buried memories of those who stray into its field of baleful influence. Ghosts of the mind are awakened, personal hauntings set into spectral motion. Southall’s tale harks back to The House That Dripped Blood, with its desirable Victorian detached house from which tenants are despatched with disdainful frequency. It also echoes the evil architecture of Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, with its uncanny feel for the hidden weaknesses of its inhabitants. The Day Martin Anderson Lost It is a latterday tale of Walter Mitty daydreaming. This is extreme Mitty, however, with fantasies of psychotic violence directed against a hated call-centre boss superceding the whimsical escapism of Thurber’s character. In railing against corporate workplaces with their empty managerial mantras, it voices frustrations which we can all identify with to some extent.

David Warner looking decidedly unwell in From Beyond the Grave
Tony Eccles’ The Finding is a haunted house tale whose supernatural manifestations centre upon a mirror with uncanny properties. It’s the kind of mirror whose depths contain a little more than a simple inverted reflection presented to those standing in front of it. It brings to mind the David Warner episode in From Beyond the Grave, one of the more disturbing of the Amicus stories, not least because of Warner’s quietly intense performance. It follows its protagonist into the depths of a psychotic breakdown, his murderous actions prompted and directed by a figure in the mirror he bought from Peter Cushing’s shadowy emporium. He didn’t pay enough cash, either. A haunted mirror also appears in the honourable ancestor of the Amicus portmanteaus, the 1945 Ealing picture Dead of Night. Eccles’ story also plays with the confusion of the real and the imaginary, the border between rational perception and emotionally clouded hallucination. This ambiguity provided the basis for a few Amicus stories. There was the ‘Dominick’ episode of The House That Dripped Blood, in which a murderous character from writer Denholm Elliott’s novel seems to have come to life. And in Asylum, Charlotte Rampling dreams up an imaginary friend (Britt Ekland) who indulges in all the wild things she is far too timid and anxious to do herself.

Simon A Brett’s The Artist’s Medium concerns a very special pen which, when mixed with bodily fluids (their specific provenance doesn’t seem overly important) becomes imbued with the power to alter in reality that which it draws on the blank page. Used unwittingly in a state of post-coital reflection or in a fit of drunken rage in the wake of a bitter break-up, the results prove grimly ironic. They are punning deaths in the Amicus mould, figures of speech or symbolic representations rendered literal, with liberal splashes of gore to bring it up to date. The Vault of Horror story with Tom Baker as an artist who discovers his power to affect reality through his painted representations is a classic reference point here. Tom misuses his powers, but comes a cropper when a workman knocks over a bottle of white spirit onto his self-portrait, causing features to blur and run – a Francis Bacon meat face for real.

Lee Rawlings’ By Rook or By Crook (the agonising Amicus pun contained in the title) is kitchen sink psycho horror combined with the Freudian supernatural of The Birds. The dynastic rivalry between father and son is also a clash between the pragmatic Yorkshireman’s bluntly fiscal worldview and the more aesthetic outlook of his adopted offspring. The age old imperative to displace the father, enshrined in the modern age by Freud, is given a nicely ritualistic air by the stark, ancient landscape in which the story takes place. Jon Arnold’s The Golden Ghouls (another painful pun) draws on the new extreme strands of cinema, and on the body horror which has been a significant generic strand since the 80s. His story is simplicity itself. Two lively old ladies in an old people’s home who still entertain libidinous thoughts are charmed into drinking an elixir of youth. It’s a homeopathic remedy whose sub-microscopic elements are demons from hell. They are duly possessed and their puppeteered bodies are made to dance to the devil’s tune in a strict modern tempo. Arnold takes the satire of the EC comics and some of the Amicus stories to delirious new levels (or depths). His story seems driven by a pervasive disgust at and cynicism about the modern world, and exhibits a visceral horror of old age. The wholesale assault on venality, consumerism and the empty, possessive carnality which accompanies it is unbalanced and more than a little hysterical. Arnold certainly holds nothing back in his detailing of the ladies’ orgiastic rampage. It’s like a mini-Salo, portraying contemporary society in terms of readymade circles of hell. The in your face unpleasantness could almost be construed as rude riposte to the relatively refined horrors of Amicus and Hammer, a mark of how far we have come (or fallen). Milton Subotsky, an old school horror aficionado (as witness the books displayed at the start of The House That Dripped Blood, borrowed from his own collection) would not have countenanced its like. I certainly don’t have the stomach for it, which is why I tend to avoid most modern manifestations of horror. A matter of taste (and age), I suppose.

Who's next? Could it be YOU?
The finale, bringing us out of the theatre once more, creates an explosive eruption of Lovecraftian delirium which Amicus could never have dreamed of staging on their meagre budgets. They tried consigning a soul to a fiery pit of damnation at the end of Vault of Horror, but their ambition outstripped their means, and the effect was frankly embarrassing. Dan Barratt gives a grandiose climax which encompasses and then surpasses the default Hammer way of ending things by bringing the house down, and usually burning it the ground as well. A quiet coda offers a version of the typical Amicus ending in which the guide or proprietor turns to the new visitors, customers or lost souls. Who will be next to enter my domain – could it be you? Here we are introduced to a modern incarnation of the popularly loathed social type, the sort who many would gladly see receiving their just dues. For our age, it is a banker. It rounds things of with a pleasing circularity, ending on the kind of wryly humorous note which characterised the Amicus films. A reminder not to take any of it too seriously. The curtain falls. But which side are you left on? Who is that cackling dryly in the shadows? Why has it all gone so dark? Where has everybody gone? Hallo?

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Stephen Volk's Leytonstone and the Secret Heart of Hitchcock

Stephen Volk’s new novella (novelette? I never did work out the fine distinctions) Leytonstone is a tangential follow up to Whitstable, his acclaimed 2013 book, also published by Spectral Press. He once more fashions a story around a particular time, place and a real person inhabiting them. Whitstable offered a heartfelt portrait of the aged Peter Cushing wandering through the sleepy Kent seaside town in which he had settled with his beloved wife Helen and made his home. It reflected upon both Cushing’s gentlemanly manner, old world kindliness and Christian worldview and the moral rectitude and certainty of the more upright, crusading characters he played onscreen. These qualities were set against the backdrop of the harsh, increasingly desensitised world of the 70s in which such moral and spiritual convictions had begun to dissipate, and to which the fantasy world of Hammer with which Cushing was so indelibly associated was struggling to adjust. New fears and terrors, allied with the uncertainties attendant upon a declining economy, were arising to eclipse the gothic staples of the Hammer universe with monsters of a more grimly realistic tenor – monsters with a human face. Cushing’s personal crisis of faith and hope in the wake of his wife’s death becomes paradigmatic of the crisis of the country at large. In the manner of Boris Karloff at the climax of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1968 film Targets, Cushing has to face a contemporary monster imbued with all the ambiguous complexities of human nature. In that film, Karloff confronted a sniper who had turned his sights on the audience at a drive-in where one of his old cobwebbed gothics was screening. In Whitstable, Cushing intervenes in order to protect a young boy who has turned to him, or rather to Dr Van Helsing, for help in driving out the father whom he believes to be a vampire. In doing so, the actor has to face his own fears of redundancy and helplessness in a world he no longer understands, and feels he has no real place in anymore. It is a deeply moving portrait, full of the compassion and psychological insight Volk brought to difficult and upsetting subject matter in his supernatural TV series Afterlife. This was a fictional iteration of Cushing, but it spoke about the man and his work with great eloquence, revealing much about the enormous respect, admiration, and indeed love with which he is still regarded by so many (myself included).

Volk treads a parallel path in Leytonstone. Whereas Whitstable viewed the compensatory imaginative world of a child from the perspective of an adult, Leytonstone invites us to see things from a young child’s point of view. That child is Fred, or ‘Cocky’ to his schoolmates. We know him better as Alfred Hitchcock, or perhaps as ‘Hitch’, the nickname which he preferred as an adult to the crude name-calling of the playground or childhood streets. At this stage in his life he is a 6 year old boy living in the east end London borough of Leytonstone, in a house attached to the successful greengrocer’s business of his father, William Hitchcock.

Volk adopts a cinematic style appropriate to his subject, setting the scene with the acute eye of the accomplished screenwriter. There is some quick cross-editing in the first few pages, with Fred’s recitation of potato varieties intercut with close-up details of the street, indicating someone approaching (‘dark legs stride in mirror-black shoes’). The imaginary camera eye then pulls out to give us an interior and exterior view of the Hitchcock greengrocer’s. Later, there are expressionist shadows which turn a policeman walking the gaslit streets into a skull-faced ghoul: a nod to the German films from which the young Hitchcock learned so much in the formative years of his career. We get a foretaste of some of Hitchcock’s own cinematic devices too. Windows and peepholes provide voyeuristic screens within the screen, iris ovals which make the audience complicit in what they watch. Fred clears the misted pane of his bedroom window to look out onto the evening street below. Volk observes that ‘it’s black and white out there, like a film’. A view at a safe distance from the pick-up he half-comprehendingly watches take place. Later, he spies on a prototype Hitchcock blonde through a hole in a matchbox he had customised for a practical joke (played upon said blonde). This tiny matchbox is a miniature model of the prying lens of the movie camera. Echoes of Rear Window resonate down the years. The fact that the matches are of the England’s Glory make provides the potential for a crude joke (the glory hole) which Fred would have no understanding of, but which the adult Hitch most certainly would. His love of bawdy toilet humour is anticipated in Fred’s nervous inscribing of a cock and balls, copied from a piece of graffiti he has seen, onto the wall of the toilets at his Jesuit school.

Other well-recorded aspects of Hitch’s character and behaviour are also anticipated, lent dramatic context and provided with psychological insight: his compulsive comfort eating, his yearning for easeful luxury, his enactment of elaborate and cruel practical jokes, and his placid remoteness and emotionally distant demeanour. His iconic image is pictured at the end of the book seated onstage at the American Film Institute’s celebration of his life and work. It is an image of someone who is aloof and at a remove from ordinary human motivations, which he observes and sums up with a few dramatically weighted words of mordant wit. Volk describes him as ‘a vast Buddha as recognisable as any of the actors whose name he put up in lights’. It’s a description which could be applied to the giant sculpture of his head which rests, heavy-lidded and rustily bronze, in the centre of a complex of offices and flats built on the site of the Islington studios where his film directing career took flight. But this is a Buddha, Volk’s story suggests, who never achieved enlightenment; who remained in the dark, alone and filled with a paralysing fear which could only find release through his art. Behind the Buddha’s serene gaze lies a void.

Hitchcock and Truffaut
The first half of the story centres around an event which became a well-worn anecdote reeled off time and again by the mature and feted Hitch. His father took him to the local police station when he was a small boy (‘about six’, as Hitch told it). He had arranged for the policeman in charge to lock him in a cell for a short period of time (‘five minutes’ was the general estimate). ‘This is what we do to naughty boys’ the PC in charge told him by way of explanation. Hitch told this well-rehearsed tale, along with many others, as a way of deflecting any attempts at soliciting personal information. It offered a tidbit of prefabricated insight into the genesis of the ‘wrong man’ theme running through his work, along with the notion of transferable or latent guilt which attends it. The anecdote was duly brought out for the 1962 interview with Francois Truffaut which formed the basis for his 1967 book on Hitchcock. This was the only window on his early childhood he allowed his admiring interrogator, aside from a remark that, rather than being strict, his father was ‘a rather nervous man’. The only other glimpse we can get of Hitch’s childhood is the photograph of him posing next to his father, perched comfortably on a stout pony, in front of the luscious cornucopia of fruit and veg (including pineapples strung upside down like gamebirds) displayed in front of the shopfront with its proudly prominent sign reading W.Hitchcock – Fruit Salesman. William and Fred are both dressed in tropical khaki, the windows draped with flags to celebrate Empire Day (a celebration which the exotic fruits also implicitly play their part in). The photograph is incorporated into Volk’s story, which gives us some idea as to what might be going on behind the distant, detached gazes of father and son.

Volk takes the police station story and transforms it from the inflexible anecdotal shield it had become into a raw and pivotal moment in young Fred’s emotional and psychological development. The constant reiteration of the experience in the form of an amusing tale becomes a double-bluff; a piece of genuine self-revelation coated in the polished veneer of a light, carefully crafted recollection. It’s a pointer to the nature of Hitch’s films, the way in which he embedded his own deeply personal fears and desires beneath their immaculately contrived surfaces whilst never, ever admitting to any such dimension in public. In Volk’s story, the punishment meted out in the police station is a great deal more traumatic than the mild admonishment of the anecdote, the incarceration much lengthier than the brief incarceration Hitch outlined. Fred is left there overnight, bullied and tormented by a sadistic policeman who delights in telling him that Jack the Ripper is lodged in the adjacent cell. He has only a piss-stained bed with an indeterminately sticky blanket to curl up on, his lullaby sinister nonsense songs bellowed by the neighbouring drunk. It’s related with a Kafkaesque sense of existential terror. Fred feels utterly abandoned, and betrayed by his parents (his mother who let him go with a promise of his favourite steak and kidney pie upon his return). But most of all, he doesn’t understand. If he’s being subjected to this terrible punishment, he must be guilty of something. But what? Some latent sin he has yet to manifest? A universal guilt lodged within every human heart? It’s almost as if he is being guided to discover that guilt. At this juncture, he might as well be called Fred K.

The shadows of films to come are glimpsed throughout the story. There’s a certain game-like element to these allusions. They are partly speculative excavations, searching for the psychological strata underlying the stories Hitch chose to tell. But they are also offered with a nod and a wink, an enjoyable bit of movie spotting for terminal film buffs. The Ripper reference looks forward to The Lodger; the stuffed bird in the Jesuit father’s office, the transvestite and the police officer’s taunting ‘bit of a mummy’s boy, are we?’ to Pyscho; the ‘fluttering and scratching’ pigeons filling the upstairs room of a ruined house to The Birds’; the idea of hiding a body in a sack of potatoes to Frenzy….and so on.

Shadow selves - Guy and Bruno in Strangers on a Train
Other abiding themes running through Hitchcock’s films are also alluded to. The idea of disguised or hidden selves is present from the start in the form of metaphorical architecture – the division between the immaculate and bright streetfront display of the Hitchcock greengrocer’s and the dark interior behind in which the family lives. One of the bullying policeman’s methods of playing on young Fred’s imagination is to act as if he believes that his thorough knowledge of transport timetables and routes points to his being a potential spy. He turns something innocent, a source of intellectual pride, into something secret and despicable. Spies are key characters in a significant number of Hitchcock films: The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Sabotage, The Lady Vanishes, Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, North by Northwest, Torn Curtain and Topaz. Volk has Fred ask his father what a spy is. His answer sheds light on their role within these pictures. His dad also inadvertently describes himself and all adults who aren’t unblemished saints (ie all adults), and presents his son with a sketch of his future self. A spy, William explains, is ‘a person who keeps secrets. Somebody who says he’s one thing but he’s really another’. The spy theme and the idea of the self hidden behind a carefully maintained surface extends to the doubled characters which cast mirroring reflections across Hitchcock’s filmography. Cary Grant and James Mason (Roger Thornhill – or ‘Mr Kaplan’ - and Phillip Vandamm) circling each other in North by Northwest is the example that most vividly springs to mind. But there are also the pairings of Cary Grant and Claude Rains in Notorious, Farley Granger and Robert Walker (Guy and Bruno) swapping murders in Strangers on a Train, James Stewart scripting Raymond Burr’s murder of his wife to alleviate his boredom in Rear Window, deadbeat Jon Finch and his psychopathic mate Barry Foster (Richard Blaney and Bob Rush) in Frenzy and many others. In Leytonstone, Fred’s father William is doubled with the monstrous, bullying policeman. The latter is a bluff brute who lives to feed his appetites, without any moral compunctions which might curb them. William is far more uncertain of himself (the ‘rather nervous man’ of Hitchcock’s recollection), filling his life with labour to allay the fear that it might all be ultimately without purpose. Or rather, that he might never discover that sense of purpose which those around him seem intuitively to possess. The doubling theme finds interesting form in Johan Grimonprez’s 2009 film Double Take, in which footage taken from introductions to the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series is contrasted with interviews with and footage of a contemporary Hitchcock impersonator.

Villain as victim
There’s an often ambiguous borderline separating hero from villain in Hitchcock’s films. They are, to varying degrees, different aspects of a divided self. The hero is sometimes bland and rather weak, as with Guy in Strangers on a Train or Richard in Frenzy. The villain is contrastingly smooth, decisive and charismatic. In other cases, Psycho being the prime example, the heroes are little more than bullies, the villains damaged, fearful and misunderstood (save by the director and, perhaps, their victims). Fred exhibits sympathy towards the ‘villain’ as he appears at the beginning of Dickens’ Great Expectations. ‘I like him’, he says of Magwich after his mother has called him ‘a terrible man’.

The wrong man as Christ-like martyr - The Lodger
The doubled self also links in with the ‘wrong man’ theme. If there is a wrong man then there must also be a right man, or a man who bears the genuine burden of guilt. Fred is the wrong man (or boy) in Leytonstone. But in a sense he is also the right man. his imprisonment is a premonitory punishment (akin to the delayed punishments meted out by the Jesuit teachers at the hour of the pupil’s choosing). The notion of overwhelming and all-pervasive personal guilt, prevalent also in his Catholic upbringing and schooling, almost invites action to provide a palpably solid basis for its nebulous presence, an identifiable source for its oppressive weight. Volk suggests a religious dimension to the wrong man theme (a dimension explicitly evident in Hitchcock’s I Confess) by having Fred ask of the Jesuit schoolfather ‘but Jesus was crucified as a criminal. For a crime he didn’t commit. What was the crime they though he committed?’ So Christ was, from a certain viewpoint, and example of the ‘wrong man’ – the lamb taken for a lion. Or of the right man, taking on the guilt and sins of others, something only possible by virtue of a shared humanity. The wrong man takes on the sins of the ‘villain’ with whom he becomes inextricably linked. The guilt is, to all appearances, removed from the ‘sinner’, for the time being anyway. What happens to that guilt? Does it correspond to something that was always present in the ‘wrong’ man? Of course, it’s the nature of the plot’s progression that he tries to return it to its original owner. The analogies with Christ only stretch so far. As Father Mullins, the Jesuit teacher, states, desperately trying to evade the issue, ‘it’s complicated’.

Of course, there has to be a Hitchcock blonde. The prototype here is a girl called Olga from the local convent school. Fred is fascinated by her coolness in the face of his friends’ base schoolboy pranks. His confusion over his feelings towards her leads to the dramatic tension at the heart of the second half of the novella. A tension which mirrors that of the first, but with Fred now putting himself in a position of power. Taking up the director’s chair. It provides a psychological basis for Hitch’s treatment of the ice blondes in his mid-period classics (Grace, Kim, Eva, Janet and Tippi) which is directly linked to his experience in the police cell. The production of exquisitely manufactured scenarios of suspense and release as a means of subsuming personal, inexpressible fears, art as a means of controlling that which eludes you in real life. It is also, as the parallel events of the story make clear, an indirect way of trying to connect with someone, to create an intimacy based on shared fear. This perverse melding of romance and terror would characterise many of his films. It also suggests that if Hitchcock has his doubles onscreen, the characters which truly express the secret spaces of his heart, then they are not the suavely collected Jimmy Stewarts, Cary Grants or Sean Conneries, but the fearful, haunted Tippi Hedrens, Kim Novaks and Eva Marie-Saints.

Volk takes a certain amount of license with the facts in Leytonstone. The police cell incident took place when Hitch was about 6, and that is Fred’s stated age in the story. He attends St Ignatius Jesuit School, although Hitchcock didn’t go here until 1910, when he was 11 years old, by which time the family had moved from Leytonstone to Stepney (via Poplar). His precocious 6 year old self is already familiar with the work of Edgar Allan Poe, whereas Hitch spoke in interviews about having discovered him when he was 16. There is also no mention of his older brother and sister, William jr. and Nellie, who would presumably have been living at home at this time. But this is mythography, not biography. Volk is creating a fictional portrait based on aspects of a well-known public persona and body of work, drawing on elements from a whole lifespan. Hitchock’s version of his own life was as much fiction as fact (the same could no doubt be said of us all). Volk’s story, with its compression and folding outward of time, its collision of the real with the invented, reflects on Hitch’s fundamental, Kane-like inscrutability.

There have been many attempts to psychoanalyse Hitchcock, generally undertaken in an amateurish and highly speculative manner. They seem to take their cues from the psychology for simpletons lecture at the end of Psycho. Hitch was a master of misdirection and manipulation, both in his films and as regarded his private life. It’s tempting to reach for facile simplifications when trying to penetrate his implacable exterior, to draw on particular events to neatly summarise the complex contradictions of his character. Donald Spoto’s controversial biography, whilst admirably frank and honest in some respects, is all to ready to reach instant psychological conclusions. Volk’s book is partly a response to these versions of Hitchcock, which have reached their apogee in two recent films (Hitchcock and The Girl) which cast him in a deeply unflattering light. By portraying Hitch as the young Fred, a frightened and confused boy, Volk is able to examine the roots of his art and its universal appeal from a neutral distance.

Hitch’s films have affected an enormous number of people over the year, attracting an audience way beyond the coterie of cinephiles who continue (in the wake of Truffaut and the Cahiers du Cinema boys) to revere him. Vertigo has now displaced Citizen Kane as the greatest film of all time in the weighty estimation of Sight and Sound readers and critics. Volk’s Hitchcock is ultimately a mystery to himself, just as his father is depicted as being. He’s not a monster. He remains that frightened boy, bewildered by the betrayals and machinations of the adult world; torn between adoration of his father, respect for his father’s authority and a rejection of both; and disconnected from the turbulent swell of his own emotions, and thereby from real communion with others. He is a tragic figure.

Reaching out for contact (see also the Anthony Perkins photo above)
Towards the end of the book, we encounter him in the form we know at the American Film Institute’s celebration of his life and work held in 1979, not long before his death the following year. The lost little boy is still there, unable to apprehend the love and professional respect being directed towards him. He remains adrift, the world never having truly made sense to him since that night in the police cells when he was confronted with such overwhelming fear and guilt arising from an unknown place, from no identifiable source. The films are phantom emanations, attempts to reach that emotion, to create a sense of commonality through fear and suspense. The adulatory response of the AFI audience is proof that he achieved that. The tragedy is that he is unable to share in that commonality. The depth of his films lies in the perception of the tragedy lying beneath their exciting colourful surfaces (and the nearness of that tragedy to the surface of Vertigo is perhaps why it is so critically revered). Hitch also persisted in asking the questions which Volk has his Jesuit teacher Father Mullins so definitively to answer. In a strange way, he was a religious director.

Volk’s book brilliantly and movingly gives an origin myth to bring light to the ambiguous depths and tragic dimensions of the films, and to restore to Hitchcock his humanity, the wounded and confused pain and compassion at the heart of his work. The critic and playwright David Rudkin wrote, in his TV play Artemis 81, of Hitchcock’s camera being a ‘consecrating eye’, detecting the sacred aspect of his work, the yearning for a transcendent sense of connection, of profound love. This sense of the sacred, of shared fears and desires, is at the heart of Hitchcock’s great post-war work. It’s what has earned him his immortality, and has made such a profound impact on so many people over the years. We can all empathise with these feelings at some level, learn to fall together and find release from our fears. Hitch, forever Fred deep inside, remains outside, watching us with an impassive, unreadable regard, that famous profile a serenely blank mask. Perhaps he’s Buddha after all.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Alan Garner on Televison: The Owl Service, Red Shift and The Keeper


There is a tension in Garner’s work between the intuitive consciousness, sensitive to time, place and feeling, and the rational, empirically ordered mindset, which seeks to make sense of the world and its existence within it through intensive learning and the application of rigorous intellectual analysis. The former is open to the forces inherent in the environment it inhabits and to any connection which might be forged with them. As such, it is both vulnerable to harm and capable of attaining a heightened state of awareness, an elevated perspective such as that gained from the top of Mow Cop, Bartholmey Church or the mountain at the head of the valley in The Owl Service. Those inclining towards the latter mindset are to an extent locked inside their own heads, monadic presences within a landscape they can only regard with a remote vision. This is particularly the case with Garner’s autodidactic working class intellectuals, who lack the ready peer group with whom they could exchange ideas and work towards a consensus viewpoint.

Peter keeps a rational record - The Keeper
It is an opposition between the mythological and the mechanical worldview, the ancient and modern, the timeless now and the fixed progression of present moments dying into the past to give birth to the future. In Red Shift, Tom surrounds himself with his books and charts in his cell-like bedroom space within the larger cell of the caravan. The map of the night sky constellations on the wall above him opens out onto wider, near infinite spaces which expand within his feverishly enquiring mind, leaving red shift traces in their wake. He can recount the histories attached to the landscapes he travels through with Jan without necessarily sensing their spirit, the layers of time and emotion which have accreted on their surfaces. John Fowler in the Barholmey of the Civil War period is also someone with great intelligence and learning – he is a batchelor of arts = who is out of touch with his environment and with the people living in it. The same could be said of the ‘civilised’ Romans deep in the heart of territory they consider primitive and barbaric. In The Keeper, Peter sets up his scientific equipment in the haunted cottage in an attempt to gain the measure of manifestations of a spirit for which he has no natural feeling. Evan after it has made itself very much apparent, he still desperately scrabbles around trying to get a record of it, to fix it and reduce it to readily quantifiable form. Gwyn in The Owl Service has his books too. He lends his copy of The Mabinogion to Alison, infecting her with the power of the story, the virus carried by the age old language translated into a modern idiom. He evidently values his education very highly, since his mother, Nancy, uses the threat of its withdrawal as the ultimate sanction to keep him in line. When she makes good on that threat, he attempts to run away, to pull free from the delimiting gravity of the valley. Learning is precious to him, and not something he is able to take for granted. The elocution records which he tells Alison about are another way to escape his environment, to transform himself by altering the nature of his language. This is his version of the transformations undergone by the characters in the Mabinogion story which he is fated to re-enact. Words and their usage have power.

Learning and education is a curse as much as a blessing for these characters. It expands their mental horizons, but makes them all the more aware of their immediate physical ones, and increasingly disconnected from their surroundings. It shows them how vast the world is, and the universe beyond, how deep the gulf of time, and then leaves them unanchored, adrift. By thinking themselves beyond locality and place, consciously cutting themselves off from ancestral territory, they come to realise the value of what they lost. To regain what was once an instinctive knowledge requires a studied effort, a process of relearning and connecting. They will always remain essentially outsiders, however, even if they do return. The divide has been established and can never be adequately bridged again.

John Fowler watches Thomas Rowley watching, seeing things he'll never see - Red Shift
The intellectuals in Garner’s stories, who may very well be refractions of his own persona, splintered autobiographical shadows, are contrasted and often paired with visionaries. These are characters who are sensitive to the continuum of time, place and emotion. In Red Shift, Thomas Rowley gazes out to Mow Cop with a far away look in his eye. He seems to see across expanses of time as well as space, picking up the echoes of his temporal twins (his fellow Toms) in the past and future at this resonant place. It’s the site where he and Madge will settle in their cottage, so his rapt focus on this spot suggests some kind of predestined outcome to which he is vaguely attuned. John Fowler, the educated intellectual of the village, recognises Thomas Rowley’s visionary insight, and is also aware that it is something which he wholly lacks. He ascribes religious significance to it, which suggests that he has a yearning for the spiritual and wishes to learn from Thomas; to gain knowledge of something which his intellect is unable to encompass. ‘That man sees God’, he states before Madge Thomas, recognising an unmediated awareness of an immanent presence in the world which is occluded from his analytical, bookish mind. ‘He already knows more than I could learn’ he confesses at another point. Madge refuses to acknowledge any divine connection, perhaps realising that John’s desire to tune into any such communication might prove harmful to her husband.

Gwyn in The Owl Service is highly intelligent and learned in the lore of the land. But it is a distanced learning, an attempt to understand the place of his origin from which he has become disconnected. Alison’s empathetic connection with the human elements of the Mabinogion tale are what brings it to alarming life. There is a difference between an abstracted, analytical reading and one which fully absorbs the feelings and universal meanings the words are trying to convey. Such a reading translates thought and emotion and opens a direct conduit to the writer and to the time and place in which they lived. Those emotions then bleed into the present via the sensitive reader. For Gwyn, however, they remain no more than dead ideas and symbols to be picked apart for historical and cultural insight; inert stories safely locked into a distant past which has no relevance to the modern world. It’s a past which betokens primitivism and an inability to adapt and change (this despite the transformations which abound in the Mabinogion).

Logan programming Macey for blue-silver rampage - Red Shift
In Red Shift there is a similar distinction between the ‘civilised’ Romans and the ‘barbaric’ natives. The Romans are characterised by their adherence to ideas of discipline and a rational ordering of the world; an understanding which allows them to exert control over it. Macey, the Romanised Celt, is the mystic in their midst. His visionary powers are controlled and exploited for their own ends. Logan, as the legionary commander, uses him to gain insight into the tribal mindset. He also draws from his subconscious wells of rage to transform him into a berserker, a rampaging human weapon which can be switched on and sent charging into the melee. The exploitation of the visionary, the attempt of male characters to induce and then control the possessed state is also seen in John Fowler’s interrogative probing of Thomas Rowley. It is also evident in The Owl Service. Alison’s possession seems to greatly please Huw, as if it fulfils the great plan he is constantly making portentous allusions to (‘she is come’). When Sally finally ‘sees’ the invisible watcher in The Keeper and goes into a trance state in which she divines its nature and purpose, Peter’s reaction is to frantically question her, trying to glean as much information as possible whilst its retains its hold. He is still trying to maintain a rational approach towards the ineffable, to translate visionary insight into recorded observations which can be empirically analysed at a later date.

Shattering the barrier of time - Red Shift
In Red Shift, Logan prompts Macey’s possessions, his berserking fits, with trigger words. He controls him through tapping into his anger, the unstable lava flow of rage bubbling beneath the surface. Language is the key (language and colour). Logan tells him ‘get your big words’, and talks about the blue and silver. Thomas Rowley is a man of few words, and his wife Madge warns John Fowler not to infect him with his learning – the virus of language and the abstract ideas it conveys. For these visionaries, language clouds mental clarity and allows for manipulation and control. For Tom, in the present day, the blockage of his linguistic flow, the brilliant but often facile oupouring of words, in a moment of intense emotion leads him to press his hands against the caravan window until it shatters. It’s this instant of red, inarticulate rage which communicates down the years to the Toms of the past, the emotion of place overcoming the barriers of time. The localised storms towards the end of The Owl Service and The Keeper are also blown in on emotional weather fronts.

Counter-possession - Logan's phantom charge in Red Shift
The attempt to control those possessed by visions, to treat them as if they were puppets, has its inherent dangers. Logan is poisoned by the corn goddess and in his delirious state is commanded by a tearful Macey. When he is ordered to ‘charge’ he does so, and leaps straight over the edge of the sheer rock face. It’s a symbolic killing of the father, a rejection of male power and influence in favour of female wisdom; a pre-Roman notion of the sacred. Similarly, Thomas Rowley turns from the command of John Fowler, with whom he has a fight on the roof of the church tower, and ends up cradled in the arms of Madge. Both Macey and Thomas are wounded or damaged visionaries. Logan tells Macey ‘you’re finished’ shortly before his own end. But they find salvation and healing through female power, persistence and wisdom.

Confronting the controlling mother - Red Shift
In the modern day, the pattern is reversed however. Tom is tormented by the prurience and oppressive control of his mother. His father is in her thrall, weakly acting as her mouthpiece. In The Owl Service too, Gwyn is controlled by his monstrous mother, Nancy. We never see Margaret, the mother of Alison and step-mother of Roger, but her influence is felt throughout, her off-stage power evident. Clive is another weak father, intent on appeasing Margaret and acting as her ambassador. This is particularly the case with Roger, his son, who rejects his new mother and is deeply unhappy with the promiscuous nature implied by her nickname, the Birmingham Belle. If the historical periods in Red Shift saw a turning away from the father, the modern day is characterised by an attempt to gain freedom from maternal influence.

Alison at home and at ease in The Owl Service
Class plays its corrosive part, too. The relationship between Gwyn, Roger and Alison is further complicated by their respective social status. Gwyn is effectively a servant in the house, and his subservient position makes him vulnerable. It is easy for the others to assert their superiority over him. This is explicitly voiced in the novel when Roger calmly explains to Alison, as if this observation were a given, ‘he’s not one of us, and he never will be. He’s a yob. An intelligent yob. That’s all there is to it’. And the barriers come down. In the TV adaptation, this is implicit in the way they both completely ignore him as they pass him crying on the stairs. When it is convenient, he simply becomes invisible.

Nancy remembers her moment of triumph - The Owl Service
The house belongs to Alison, who inherited it from her father. She’s from an upper class lineage, although her mother’s soubiquet ‘the Birmingham Belle’ suggests that she originates from a lower class. Indeed, the jibe may be so much viciousness directed at someone who married ‘above her class’ and is assumed to have used her wiles to gain social advancement. In this respect, there is a connection between her and Nancy. We learn that Nancy’s former lover Bertram was a previous owner of the house, but that ‘they’ arranged for him to be killed in a motorcycle accident. She has a feeling of being denied what was, in her mind, rightfully hers; the home which she might have come to live in as her own, as the lady of the house rather than as a domestic housekeeper. She takes delight in manufacturing a situation in which Clive is made to feel socially awkward, ‘making him look a fool’ by giving him the wrong utensil to eat a pear. It’s a twisted act of inverse snobbery which makes it clear that she believes her rightful position is sitting at the table, not serving it.

Furious Nancy - The Owl Service
Nancy is highly sensitive about her status, even (or perhaps especially) with her son. His precocious intelligence and progress at school strike her as a sign that he’s getting above his station. The education which might enable to break free from the limitations of his environment is seen by her as a betrayal, a rejection of his upbringing, his class and ultimately of her. ‘I’ll not be looked down by you’ she snaps when he gets too smart, and threatens to take him out of school so that he’ll have to work behind the local Co-op counter (another touch of inverse snobbery on her part). Gwyn is also deeply self-conscious about his social status. His ambition to be a scholar are connected with his desire to break free from his background. He associates the world he wishes to become a part of with middle class diction, and has therefore acquired a set of elocution records for himself. They’re a symbol of his sense of inferiority on both a personal and national level. The idea of making anything of himself whilst burdened with a working class Welsh accent seems simply impossible to him. Whe his ownership of the records is discovered by Roger, they become a means of ridiculing his pretensions to become someone other than who he is, to break through the barriers of class and race.

Where Gwyn’s mother threatens him with removal from school and a premature curtailment of his dreams of escaping through native intelligence, Alison’s mother controls her by threatening to suspend her membership of the tennis club and choir; privileges of class which are viewed as essential to belonging and maintaining her place amongst her social peers. She is compliant in the face of this potential disruption to the smoothly ordered surface of her life. It is this, in addition to the betrayal of his confidence regarding the elocution records, which makes Gwyn realise the gulf which lies between them, and the wholly provisional nature of any intimacy they might have shared.

In Red Shift, Tom is the son of working class parents, his father an army man in the lower ranks. Jan is the daughter of middle class parents, teachers of some sort, whom we never see. But we learn that they regularly have to move due to the nature of their work. Tom’s father has pretensions to middle class values, to ‘sophisticated’ tastes. He displays them in his ostentatiously expressed appreciation of wine. Jan offhandedly trumps him on this score by instantly identifying his mystery Moselle. It turns out she has spent a holiday on a German vineyard. When Tom learns that she has slept with the vineyard owner, it feels like a double betrayal. The older man, whom he sees with Jan in Euston station, has the easeful charm and seigneurial suavity which wealth and the stability of the privileged upbringing breed. To make things worse, Jan seems to have dressed up to meet him. He’s out of his class, and in his mind, there’s nothing he can do to compete.

John Fowler directs
In the Civil War period, John Fowler is at a remove from the villagers. He is the son of the pastor, and has also been raised up by his learning and academic qualification. When we first see him, he rides towards the church on a handsome white steed whilst others trudge along on foot, bent beneath the burden of their belongings. He takes on the direction of their defences with a natural assumption of power connected to his position in the village. In the Roman time, the class divisions are also national, as they are to an extent in The Owl Service. Romans over Romanised Celts and tribe against tribe. In the Civil War period, the villagers in Bartholmey are besieged by Irish Royalists. The massacre which follows is a slaughter made easier by the dehumanising us and them divisions hardened by national difference. In The Owl Service, the local Welsh villagers seem to act with a gestalt mind to prevent Gwyn and his mother from leaving the valley.

The origins of class are found in the initial period of invasion and occupation, and the divisions of land which ensue. Macey is adopted by Logan, but is seen as little more than a pet (a ‘boy’). He is kept as long as proves useful. But when it becomes clear that he will no longer function as a killing machine, Logan tells him that he’s finished. The tribal soldier, the village peasant or the modern servant is not granted individuality, but is seen only in terms of their functionality. Macey keeps saying that the killing is ‘not from me’ and that ‘I’m outside when Macey kills’. But this murderous possession is the only aspect of his self which is of interest to Logan and the Legion, the part which makes him a useful shock trooper, the wild joker in the ranks. There is a sense of depersonalisation at this level of society, a dull awareness that your feelings, your desires, your notion of your self are as nothing in the face of social, historical and even cosmic forces. Tom feels this helplessness when he learns of Jan’s brief holiday affair. Their relationship is subject to external forces, and a wealthy landowning aristocrat can take her away from him merely be showing due consideration and kindness. The rage which connects him to the forgotten footsoldiers and peasants of the past is the violence of emotional dispossession, the pain caused by the dislocation of self.

Delta Orionis as a constant body to orient by - Red Shift
Colour plays an important symbolic role in Red Shift and The Owl Service. We have already seen how Roger, Gwyn and Alison have their own colour motifs which correspond to the old wiring of a plug. In Red Shift, the polarity between blue and red, the colours at the opposite ends of the spectrum, is central. Red is the colour of blood, rage, violence and a martial outlook. It’s also the colour of passion, particularly when it has gone nova and tipped the balance of reason. Blue is the colour of calm, reflection, coolness and tranquillity. It’s also the colour most frequently associated with spirituality, depth and eternity, the colour of the heavens. Red is a correspondingly physical, material colour, shading into earth tones. The Virgin Mary’s mantle is usually represented as blue, painted with sumptuous and expensive lapis lazuli pigments in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It is the mantle of the sky, sometimes jewelled with stars; a befitting garment for a sky goddess. Stella Maris, star of the sea, is one of many manes given to the Virgin, a guide and protector for mariners in the night sky. Tom chooses a star to orient himself and Jan whilst they are apart. A distant, constant body (from their perspective) to unite them at a particular temporal instant. Perhaps significantly, he picks Delta Orionis, one of the stars in the belt of the martial male constellation of Orion the Hunter. He uses its dryly scientific designation rather than calling it by its Arabic name of Mintaka.

As a heavenly colour, blue can vary between shades of light and dark – from morning translucence to midnight opacity. Its moods shift accordingly, and remind us that blue is a colour also associated with depression and despondency (the blues, in a blue funk). It serves as an expression of Macey’s confusion and despair, a chromatic representation of the fragmentation of his personality. The blue-silver of Macey’s colour visions and the blue and white light of Thomas’ fugues clarifies the tone, bringing it into focus and placing it at the lighter end of the spectrum. Blue-silver is also suggestive of an alloy, a modern metallic shade. Having attained a state of calm equilibrium (the tranquil blue), Macey tells the corn goddess that he’ll continue to ‘watch blue silvers’ because ‘it might matter some day’. A cut to the modern day reveals an inter-city train with its blue and silvery white livery.

Kandinsky - Blue(1927)
The artist Wassily Kandinsky elucidated his own feelings about the symbolic associations contained within shades of blue in his 1912 work On the Spiritual in Art. ‘Blue is the typical heavenly colour’, he wrote. Blue unfolds in its lowest depths the element of tranquillity. As it deepens towards black, it assumes overtones of a superhuman sorrow. It becomes like an infinite self-absorption into that profound state of seriousness which has, and can have, no end. As it tends towards the bright (tones), to which blue is, however, less suited, it takes on a more indifferent character and appears to the spectator remote and impersonal, like the high, pale-blue sky. The brighter it becomes, the more it loses its sound, until it turns into silent stillness and becomes white.’ That remote brightness corresponds with the blue-silvers Macey perceives, the silent stillness the state he and Thomas attain after all the conflict and torment.

Blue and red (or sometimes yellow) have often been defined as male and female colours, with associated symbolic characteristics. The values change. Mondrian, for example, saw red as the feminine colour, partly because he regarded the intellectual and spiritual realm as male. Kandinsky initially regarded blue as a male colour, as did his fellow Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) artists. He later reversed his views, however, switching the spectral polarity of the genders. On balance, blue has been regarded as a female colour, red as male. Garner combines the cultural significance of colour, its emotional and spiritual resonance, with its scientific aspects. He thereby creates complex layers of metaphor which both bring together and contrast modern and pre-industrial worldviews.

Red shift is a piece of scientific terminology which refers to the effect experienced by a stationary observer when an object is moving away from them. In sonic terms, this is analogous to the Doppler shift from a higher to a lower tone when a train has passed by. The red shift is a phenomenon particularly associated with astronomy and cosmology, however. Observed in stars and galaxies, it can be used to deduce that the universe is expanding, astronomical bodies moving apart from one another (deductions made by Edwin Hubble in 1929). In terms of emotional metaphor, red is a lonely colour, the tone of parting, of isolation and loneliness. Blue, on the other hand, is the sound of the train approaching, the end of the spectrum betokening coming together, unification, communication. The ‘us’ with which the corn goddess blesses Macey at the end, holding out the promise of a future together. These scientific metaphors, applied on a human level, are reminiscent of the way in which entropy, an embodiment of the tendency towards running down within a closed system as delineated in the second law of thermodynamics, was used as a central motif in the British science fiction of the 60s emerging from New Worlds magazine under Michael Moorcock’s editorship.

Palm-pressed pane
From Tom’s rooted perspective, everything seems to be disintegrating, the shattered fragments falling away from him (a touch of personal entropy afflicting him, as if he had strayed into New Worlds territory). Jan is moving away, his relationship with his parents is becoming poisonously antagonistic and he is retreating further into himself to cope, isolating himself within his studies and his headphone mind. When we witness his moment of breakdown, his splintering of the caravan window into jagged fragments, we see the pink-red of his palms which become bloody as they slice through glass. When Thomas and Macey sense his presence, however, they associate it with blue. He is coming towards them from that moment of emotional crisis, approaching with a temporal blue shift. They feel his pain and rage, but there is no reciprocal emotional echo. He remains alone, a disconnected body in a cold universe. Thomas and Macey move in the end towards the blue end of the spectrum, away from the red, and away from Tom’s inchoate rage. They are both rejecting blood, violence and the dominance of the male perspective which gives rise to it. Both end up cradled in the arms of a woman who helps to heal their wounded minds and bodies. The reversal of the red shift signifies a psychological realignment, both on an individual and a historical and cultural level. A cessation of conflict and competition in favour of settling down and establishing a stable community.

Ground sun-setting - Red Shift
The Swiss psychologist Max Lüscher devised a colour psychology scale in the 1940s. John Gage outlines the system in his classic study Colour and Meaning: Art, Science and Symbolism. ‘Blue…is held to be concentric, passive, sensitive, unifying’, he writes, ‘and thus to express tranquillity, tenderness, and love and affection. Orange-red, however, is eccentric, active, offensive, aggressive, autonomous and competitive, and hence expressive of desire, domination and sexuality’. When Tom finds out about Jan’s fling with the man in white (a neutral non-colour) he rejects her embrace, pushing her violently away. There is none of the blue shift union which brings together Madge and Thomas, Macey and the corn-goddess. The reversal of perspective from red to blue is symbolised by the goddess’ turning of the milling wheel ‘sun-setting’ or anti-clockwise. The sun as male symbol is pushed beneath the horizon, occluded. The meal thus produced poisons Logan and his men. Logan goes insane, kills his men in a berserking fugue and is directed over the edge of Mow Cop by Macey, a terminal charge to attack phantom forces. Tom tries to reverse the red shift by turning partings with Jan at Crewe station into hellos. The blue-silvers of the inter-city trains seem to conspire in supporting this willed illusion. From a certain perspective, they are seen as a union. Macey sees them bathed in blue shift light, images travelling back through time to reach him. For the final parting, however, Tom leaves her with a tentative ‘see you’, as if no longer certain that they will meet again. She greets this with a smile, acknowledging a possible shift in perspective on his part; a more realistic, balanced outlook.

Red Axe

Blue Axe
Macey and Thomas both end up enveloped in the dark, crepuscular blue of evening. We cut from these final scenes of calm repose and see the blue-silvers slip away from Tom’s vision. As the camera focuses on the doors slamming shut, a blinking sequence of red flashes contrasts with the blue; the inside of the doors is orange-red. This is no longer a blue-shift hello-goodbye. The red shifting reality of parting is made apparent. Tom looks to the side, into the gloomy shadows beneath the station vaults. The light turns red and we dissolve to a shot of the axe head in its museum case. It’s suffused with a red glow, which fills the whole room. It’s as if the axe is once more coated with the blood which had been washed off with Macey’s healing, the exorcising of his violent alter ego (his other Tom) and the rebirth of his female soul. It has been denuded of its power, its physical embodiment of unity and domesticity, of violent rootlessness transformed by love and trust; the connection made through touch. Now it is a symbol of isolation, disconnection and distance. It has been correctly identified and labelled, but is no more than an inert historical artefact, its emotional and spiritual resonance locked away. As the camera zooms in on it, the red light fades away, however. We see the axe head in close up as a night-time blue-grey. We are taken back to the evening calm in which we left Macey and Thomas. The blue reminds of the axe’s symbolic guise as an object of union, love and domesticity. The end titles are superimposed on its flat edge: Red Shift on a blue background. It serves to underline what Tom has lost.

Tom red shift is partly an attempt to distance himself from his own inner turmoil. ‘I need a red shift’ he says after a fraught encounter with Jan in which his language has become fragmented and he seems on the verge of a breakdown. He wants to take refuge in a part of the mental spectrum where the frequency is less intense, wavelengths more widely spaced out. But it is also a turning away from intimacy and connection. It is characteristic of the male psychodramas at the heart of The Owl Service and Red Shift. The female characters are more or less refracted through the lenses of these crises, whether as objects of love and desire or as forces of control (the domineering mother). The possession to which Alison and Sally are subjected transforms them into archetypes rather than individuals. They become mysteries to be solved. The rational intellect of Garner’s self-contained autodidacts is incapable of parsing that mystery, or of dispelling the illusion of mystery and getting to the simple human heart of the matter.

Alison's agony - the final possession in The Owl Service
Tom recognises this when he tells Jan ‘my head knows. The rest of me will catch up. Heart and mind have become sundered, abstracted intellect having occluded emotional intelligence. The same is the case in The Owl Service. When Alison is going through her storm-wracked torments at the end, assailed by invisible owls which score her face and cascade her with feathers, Huw and Gwyn can only stand by, powerless or unwilling to help. As Huw laments to Gwyn, ‘you have only hate in you’. It is Roger who brings an end to her suffering through simple empathetic connection. He comforts her and shows her love and compassion, asking nothing in return. In a sudden moment of illumination, he offers the same to Gwyn, voicing a sympathetic awareness of his pain and the bitterness it gives rise to. Gwyn can only turn away with impotent shame. In the book, the frantic flurry of feathers is transformed into a soft shower of fragrant petals. Alison/ Blodeuedd becomes flowers, not owls. It’s a transformation which was anticipated in the flock of Alison’s folded paper owls which Roger discovered in the locked garage. From a distance, they looked like a field of flowers, gathered sprays of white meadowsweet.

The shock of recognition - Peter in The Keeper
In The Keeper, Peter distances himself from the protective embrace within which he and Sally have enfolded themselves during the spectral storm. He turns his back on her and returns to his charts and instruments, the safe world of measurable fact. It’s a reflexive retreat back into the self-contained rational mindset. When he is confonted with Sally in her possessed state, he is forced to look her directly in the eye, to tsee the fire burning in the dark centre of the pupil. ‘Who are you?’ he asks, a look of horror on his face. She, or the spirit of the guardian she is now possessed with, reflects the question back at him. His face slackens from its rictus of terror into a look of understanding and dull acceptance. ‘You’, he weakly replies. It’s a recognition of unity, the dissolving of separate personalities into an all-embracing commonality. This is a dissolution which entails the utter destruction of ego, the disappearance of the self. They are gone, absorbed into the spirit of the place. Part of the haunting they came to investigate.

The inner flame relit - The Keeper
In Red Shift, John Fowler asks a similar question of Thomas Rowley when he comes out of one of his visionary fugues. Thomas says of the figure he has seen ‘I know him’. John interrogates him, asking ‘do you see God?’, and then, as if it were a natural progression, ‘is it me?’ He sees himself as a completion of Thomas, the head which meets and unites with the visionary spirit. Madge is the heart. For John, they are fragmented shards of a whole. Madge and Thomas prove to be whole unto themselves, however. John is one of the fragmented selves scattered through time, symbolised by the shattered shards of glass smashed outwards by the angry tension of Tom’s pressing hands.

Mow Cop folly
Tom confronts Jan over her infidelity in the folly built on top of Mow Cop in 1754. It stands in contrast to the ruin of Thomas and Madge’s cottage in which they’d discovered the votive stone axe-head; the thunderstone which Thomas had built into the fireplace and the ‘bunty’ which Jan had fixed upon as a special object physically embodying the connection between her and Tom. In One Pair of Eyes, the 1972 biographical documentary about Garner included in the recently released BFI dvd of Red Shift, he describes the folly as ‘ridiculous’ and completely non-functional. It is a non-place, neither domestic nor wild. As such, it’s an ideal constricted circular arena in which to play out the tortuous drama of their relationship’s ending. Earlier, Tom had thrown out the quote ‘love is not love which alters when alteration finds’. He fails to observe its meaning, though. His lack of wisdom and self-knowledge is unconsciously elucidated in his follow-up quote: ‘more know Tom Fool than Tom Fool knows’ (both of these quotes taken from the book).

Tom has his words, his complex language. But in moment of emotional intensity he becomes completely inarticulate. John Fowler also finds himself speechless at the moment when all look to his leadership. When the Irish Royalists are at the door, he cannot think of what to do. His words fail to translate into action. When his is given the opportunity to reveal himself by the leader of the Royalist forces, to sacrifice himself for the villagers, the noble words once more fail to come to his lips. Jan explains Tom’s shattering of the window pane to his parents by observing ‘he ran out of words’. Or as his mother less kindly puts it, ‘what can’t speak can’t tell’. Rage fills the void left by loss of language.

Confining folly - Circling confrontation on Mow Cop
The illusion of idealised love is laid bare in the folly. It is revealed as being as fake as the fabricated ruin, built on similarly romantic foundations. Tom’s ideal of ‘perfection’ can’t withstand the complex tangle of real emotion. His language dries up and he is reduced to short, staccato phrases. Jan despairs that he is now ‘no talk, No fun. Just grab’. She has become an object, a body to be possessed. In this case, the possession is of a physical nature, rather than the spiritual possession of Sally and Alison (although there is a metaphorical dimension there, too). She voices her resentment at his objectification, bitterly spitting out ‘it would like to go now please. It feels sick’. Language, particularly when employed by a keen mind, can become a tool for creating and sustaining a self-delusory state. It can become a barrier against rather than a gateway to knowledge of the self. Thomas and Macey find peace through silence after the noise and hysteria of conflict and chaos. ‘Silence forgives’, the corn goddess tells Macey. Thomas has remained taciturn throughout, speaking only when necessary.

Disconnected headphone mind - Red Shift
In the end, Garner’s male protagonists are left isolated. They remain in the landscape to which they are anchored, but are at the same time disconnected from it. They are all Tom Fools, locked inside the prison of their own intellect. Self-contained bodies drifting out into the cold spaces of the expanding universe, red shift traces trailing behind them, marking their lonely voyage for any who might care to observe from the distant perspective of home.

PART ONE is here

PART TWO is here