Monday 30 January 2012

Nicol Williamson RIP

Nicol Williamson obituary
Actor whose unpredictability never undermined his electrifying talent

Michael Coveney
Thursday 26 January 2012

Nicol Williamson, whose death of oesophageal cancer at the age of 73 has been announced, was arguably the most electrifying actor of his generation, but one whose career flickered and faded like a faulty light fitting. Tall and wiry, with a rasping scowl of a voice, a battered baby face and a mop of unruly curls, he was the best modern Hamlet since John Gielgud, and certainly the angriest, though he scuppered his own performance at the Round House, north London, in 1969, by apologising to the audience and walking off the stage. The experience was recycled in a 1991 Broadway comedy called I Hate Hamlet, in which he proved his point and fell out badly with his co-star.

Williamson's greatest performance was as the dissolute and disintegrating lawyer Bill Maitland in John Osborne's Inadmissible Evidence at the Royal Court theatre in 1964. It was a role from which he never really escaped, reviving it on the stage and making the 1968 movie. The play was seen again last year at the Donmar Warehouse, with Douglas Hodge in the leading role.

After a couple of chaotic performances in his own one-man show, and as the equally wild and unreliable actor John Barrymore in A Night on the Town at the Criterion theatre in London in 1994, Williamson was last sighted on the stage at the Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold, Flintshire, as King Lear in 2001.

Its director, Terry Hands, a one-time colleague at the Royal Shakespeare Company, allowed him free rein to wander through the play, but many of the speeches were misplaced. Like Eric Morecambe playing the piano, he knew all the notes, but not necessarily in the right order. Still, the performance was fretted with moments of golddust and heartbreak, and you would not willingly have exchanged it for many a more competent or predictable performance.

Hands had taken the sensible precaution of cancelling the second-night performance as the first one was followed by the mother of all first-night parties, with Williamson banging out the jazz standards he loved to sing with a group of willing musicians, including the film critic Ian Christie.

Williamson's talent for acting and lust for life were brilliantly recorded in a 1972 essay by Kenneth Tynan for the New Yorker which charted his haphazard preparation for a concert at the White House for President Richard Nixon. When it was published, warts and all, Williamson was furious and never spoke to Tynan again.

He was born in Hamilton, near Glasgow, the son of Mary (nee Storrie) and Hugh Williamson. He trained for the stage at the Birmingham School of Speech and Drama and made his professional debut at the Dundee Rep in 1960. In the following year, he appeared as Flute in Richardson's Royal Court production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

He was at the Arts theatre in Women Beware Women and in Henry Livings's Nil Carborundum in 1962. With Page directing, he played Vladimir at the Court in the first major London revival of Beckett's Waiting for Godot, partnered by Alfred Lynch as Estragon.

He took his performance of Bill Maitland to New York in 1965, where he was nominated for a Tony award and came to blows with the producer, David Merrick. Although his reputation for unpredictability grew, his talent was recognised in Bafta best actor nominations for his film performances in Inadmissible Evidence, The Bofors Gun (1968) and a 1972 television film of Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

When Trevor Nunn presented a season of Shakespeare's "Roman" plays at Stratford-upon-Avon, and later at the Aldwych in London, in 1973, Williamson gave a coruscating performance as an unusually virulent and misanthropic Coriolanus. He returned to Stratford in 1974 as a sour-faced, vinegary Malvolio in Twelfth Night and a wolverine, prowling Macbeth in the studio theatre, the Other Place. Nunn had started that production (Helen Mirren was Lady Macbeth) on the main stage in London, but cut out the Gothic excess for Stratford in a journey with the play that took him to the defining chamber version of it soon afterwards with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench.

Williamson was never as much a part of the RSC as some of his leading contemporaries, but he did "muck in" with a small-scale production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya at the Other Place, with his wife, Jill Townsend, in 1975. He had married Townsend when she appeared as his daughter in the Broadway production of Inadmissible Evidence (they divorced in 1977).

His best-known film roles included Sherlock Holmes in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976, in which Watson, played by Robert Duvall, persuades Holmes to visit Sigmund Freud, played by Alan Arkin); and Merlin in John Boorman's Excalibur (1981, with Nigel Terry as Arthur and Helen Mirren as Morgana). "I enjoyed playing Merlin," Williamson told the Los Angeles Times. "I tried to make him a cross between my old English master and a space traveller, with a bit of Grand Guignol thrown in."

He had lived mostly in Amsterdam since 1970, but could sometimes be seen in various north London pubs, where he was quite happy to mind his own business and leave the pursuit of glamour and glory to other, less deserving performers. No one who saw him on stage will ever forget him, but it is difficult to see his career as anything but unfulfilled.

He is survived by his son, Luke.

Jack Gold writes: Friends made me fearful when they heard I was making my first feature film, The Bofors Gun, with Nicol Williamson. He had a reputation of a dangerous disposition combined with a staggering talent. The part of a near-psychotic squaddie was written by John McGrath with Nicol in mind. My fears were groundless. He was totally professional, exacting, volatile and provocative in his work, both with myself and with tremendous actors including David Warner, Ian Holm and John Thaw. His performance was justifiably acclaimed.

We worked together several more times, each one with a mixture of excitement and not a little trepidation on my part: The Reckoning in 1969 (he was Michael Marler, a protagonist red in tooth and claw from working-class Liverpool, succeeding in the City and Berkshire), The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, aka The Gangster Show (Brecht's comic, sinister take on Hitler), Macbeth (for the BBC, 1983) and Richard Nixon in a David Edgar version of the Watergate tapes, I Know What I Meant (1974); all strong, often dangerous, unlikeable characters.

Nicol never kowtowed to an audience or tried to charm them. Film crews adored him for his understanding and respect for their craft. He worked as strongly with other actors when he was off-camera as when on. His comic improvisations of the people around him were brilliant and often uncomfortable. He liked "stirring"; at the end of filming The Reckoning, we presented him with a 6ft wooden spoon.

Directing him was a constantly surprising process. He was quick to understand even a hint of a suggestion. There were rapid and subtle changes of expression, his antennae as finely tuned as his performances. He liked the challenges, the technicalities, the rigours of filming (Barry Jackson remembers Nicol filming repeated takes stripped to the waist during a freezing night shoot), but if ever there was a piano handy, he was immediately seated there, singing ballads, blues, rock, jazz. He loved the great musicians and improvisation. I think that, latterly, that is where his heart truly lay.

• Nicol Williamson, actor, born 14 September 1938; died 16 December 2011

What Can I Do For You?

Sunday 29 January 2012

Saturday 28 January 2012

The Complete Poems by Philip Larkin

The Complete Poems by Philip Larkin, edited by Archie Burnett - review
An exhaustive, awe-inspiring monument to Philip Larkin

John Banville
Wednesday 25 January 2012

A "Complete Poems" is a death certificate and memorial combined. After the Selected and the Collected, the Complete marks the poet's official demise and at the same time erects a carven monument designed to outlast the ages. In the case of this mighty volume of the all of Larkin, there is something too of the coroner's report. The Larkinesquely named Archie Burnett conducts a forensic examination of the poet's imaginative venture, and in the process leaves no headstone unturned. The result is awe-inspiring, exhaustive and faintly risible. Larkin himself would have made merciless fun of it, but the poet, and the librarian, in him would have been immensely pleased and proud.

Burnett, professor of English at Boston University and the editor of AE Housman's poems and letters, is a scholar to his pencil-tips; one suspects he was born with the word "definitive" stamped on his brow. A poet once Burnetted will stay Burnetted. In his introduction here he writes, managing to sound both defensive and well pleased with himself: "A major justification for a new edition is to provide, for the first time, a commentary on the poems. It covers: Larkin's many comments on his work; closely relevant historical contexts; persons and places; echoes and allusions; and linguistic usage."

Larkin is in what is probably the unique position of having two separate Collected Poems published after his death, one in 1988 and the second, for good or perhaps better measure, in 2003, both edited by Anthony Thwaite. The first time round Thwaite had come in for some stick from reviewers because of what they saw as his eccentric presentation of the poems, though all he had done was arrange them in chronological order of completion, thus mingling published and unpublished work and ignoring Larkin's own arrangements in the four slim volumes that he brought out in his lifetime. On the second go he sought to set all to rights. There are some of us who still prefer his original effort, eccentric or not.

Burnett in his acknowledgments pays rich tribute to Thwaite – "who over the years has done more than anyone for Larkin" – while taking, as he delicately puts it, "a different editorial view". The Burnett view is both panoptic and microscopic. The critical apparatus he erects approaches the shaky heights of Babel, yet the wealth and profusion of detail within it would purblind Larkin's own shivering sizar. There are moments too of unintentional mild comedy. Larkin, the most politically incorrect of poets, would have enjoyed, and snarled at, the citation Burnett offers from a fellow critic who, warning against a too literal linking of the poet's life and the poet's poems, "correctly insists that 'An April Sunday Brings the Snow' does not specify the sex of the 'you' addressed, the relationship of the speaker to that person, or indeed details of skin colour and ethnicity". True, of course, and a valid point, yet one finds it hard to resist the urge to respond as Larkin would have done in one of his outrageous letters to Kingsley Amis, by saying: "Bum".

However, we must settle down, here at the back of the class, and grant that The Complete Poems is an almost fanatically painstaking and altogether admirable piece of work. The publishers, though betraying a hint of desperation in their efforts to make the volume seem attractive to the common poetry reader – is there such a creature? – are right when they urge that "Archie Burnett's commentary establishes [Larkin] as a more complex and more literary poet than many readers have suspected." That it does, and much else besides.

Larkin had such an acute, anarchic and bleak sense of humour, or of the comic, at least – the comical and the humorous not being always synonymous – that we might be forgiven for taking him at his own face value. Although he produced some of the most delicately beautiful works of art of the 20th century, it amused him to present himself to the world as a cross between Colonel Blimp and The Archers' Walter Gabriel of old, and to adopt in his public utterances the baleful tones of an apoplectic stockbroker complaining about immigrants on the letters page of the Daily Telegraph. Self-depreciation was not second but first nature to him. Here he is in his rueful but not unfond Introduction to the 1966 Faber reissue of his first collection, The North Ship:

Looking back, I find in the poems not one abandoned self but several – the ex-schoolboy, for whom Auden was the only alternative to "old-fashioned" poetry; the undergraduate, whose work a friend affably characterised as "Dylan Thomas, but you've a sentimentality that's all your own"; and the immediately post-Oxford self, isolated in Shropshire with a complete Yeats stolen from the local girls' school.

That "local girls' school" is a quintessential Larkin detail, an interjection from his "Brunette Coleman" persona.

Yeats was one of Larkin's earliest and most compelling exemplars, thrust to his attention in a talk at Oxford by the poet Vernon Watkins – "impassioned and imperative, he swamped us with Yeats" – yet many other voices twitter in the backgrounds of his poems, early and late. For instance, what a soft surprise it is to come upon the Eliotian languishings of "Femmes Damnées" from 1943:

But the living room is ruby: there upon
Cushions from Harrods, strewn in tumbled heaps
Around the floor, smelling of smoke and wine,
Rosemary sits. Her hands are clasped. She weeps.

And who would have expected a little ode to, of all people and poets, Hart Crane – "At night / A thin mist blurred the Hudson, and he sought / Bell-bottomed sex, and the saloons like birds" – or a poem with a title in French, "(À un ami qui aime)"? And there are many other revelations. Indeed, the volume overall is one vast revelation.

Page-counting is always a vulgar and dispiriting exercise, but in this case the results are truly impressive. The book is divided roughly in half, into two large sections, "The Poems" and "Commentary", followed by a couple of brief appendices, the first devoted to Larkin's early collections that he made in 11 typescript booklets, the second to dates of composition. Of the 700-odd pages of text, a mere 90 accommodate the four volumes that Larkin published when he was alive – The North Ship (1945), The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974) – while nearly 300 are given to poems published but not collected, poems not published, and undated or approximately dated poems. As Burnett squarely declares: "This edition includes all of Larkin's poems whose texts are accessible," so that even "verses from letters, mainly short, and by turns sentimental, affectionate, satirical and scurrilous, are included." And yes, by the way, you will enjoy the satirical and scurrilous ones.

In the matter of publishing, Larkin was the most frugal of poets. One readily understands why he should wish to suppress or at least not display the bulk of his early work, in which, like so many (male) poets in their youth he spends so much of the time mirror-gazing. The pre-1945 poems throb with forced passion, as he struggles to give a metaphysical cast to his youthful lusts and longings for romance. But even after 1945, when he had discovered Hardy's poetry and forged his own voice, he left scores of wonderful poems undisclosed to public view.

At the same time, he made sure to preserve these pieces. Burnett quotes another Larkin scholar, James Booth, writing that "from 5 October 1944 to November 1980" – Larkin died in 1985, after five sadly fallow years – "he wrote (and carefully dated) virtually all his complete and incomplete drafts." From an early age, then, he was confidently looking forward to that "posthumous volume" that Thwaite, in his introduction to the 1988 Collected Poems, has him referring to often, even "if jocularly". As one goes through the uncollected and unpublished poems, one is confronted on every other page with first-rate work. Consider, for instance, the sonnet "And Now the Leaves Suddenly Lose Strength", a glorious evocation of autumn and one of Larkin's finest "death" poems. Only a major poet could have afforded to leave such a masterpiece unpublished. The Complete Poems reveals Larkin as a poet of great and rich abundance, and for this, and for so much else, we owe a debt of gratitude to his surely "definitive" editor.

Friday 27 January 2012

Porky Pig swears...

The Fountain of Youth...


Happy birthday, Ernest Borgnine : 95 this week!

Men of the Tyne - If It Wasn't For Me There'd Be No Ships

Another new song for the Men of the Tyne project
© 2012 Tom Kelly & Ian Ravenscroft

Thursday 26 January 2012

Last night's set list

At The Habit, York: -

Mellow My Mind
Everybody's Talkin'
Out On The Weekend
Too Far Gone
Unknown Legend

An enjoyable night with great songs from Mark Wynn & Colin Rowntree. Losts of post-gig discussions re politics, philosophy, blues music and Frank Zappa - plus a rather unsavoury story about Stevie Nicks.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Paul Schrader - Notes on Film Noir Part 3

This essay was originally written to accompany and support a short season, The Film Noir, at the First Los Angeles International Film Exposition and it was reprinted in Film Comment, Spring 1972). In the final part, Schrader discusses seven films shown at the Exposition.

The selection of the following seven films by the Los Angeles International Film Exposition reflects a desire to select not only the best noir films, but also some of the less well known.
Kiss Me Deadly. Made in 1955, Kiss Me Deadly comes at the end of the period and is the masterpiece of film noir. Its time delay gives it a sense of detachment and thoroughgoing seediness—it stands at the end of a long sleazy tradition.

The private eye hero, Mike Hammer, undergoes the final stages of degradation. He is a small-time “bedroom dick,” and makes no qualms about it because the world around him isn’t much better. Ralph Meeker, in his best performance, plays Hammer, a midget among dwarfs.

Robert Aldrich’s teasing direction carries noir to its sleaziest, and most perversely erotic. In search of an “eternal what’s-it” Hammer overturns the underworld, causing the death of his friend in the process, and when he finally finds it, it turns out to be—joke of jokes—an exploding atomic bomb. The cruelty to the individual is only a trivial matter in a world in which the Bomb has the final say. Hammer can be seen struggling to safety as the bomb ejaculates, but for all practical purposes the forties private eye tradition is defunct. Written by A. I. Bexerides. Photographed by Eenest Laszlo. Produced by Victor Saville. With Ralph Meeker, Maxine Cooper, Nick Dennis, Gaby Rodgers, Juano Hermandez, Paul Stewart, Albert Dekker, Cloris Leachman, Jack Elam.
Gun Crazy. An early Bonnie and Clyde variant, Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy incorporates both the black widow and on-the-run themes. John Dall and Peggy Cummins play a winsome couple spinning at a dizzyling rate into the exhilarating world of action, sex, love and mudder. Dall is confused, innocent and passive, Cummins is confused, vindictive and active; together they make an irresistably psychopathic pair. And their deadliness is sanctified by the fact that they know they are special people and will be given the right by the American ethic to act out their symbolic fantasies.

Gun Crazy’s lighting is not as noir as other films of the period, but its portrayal of criminal and sexual psychopathy very much is. There are no excuses for the gun craziness—it is just crazy.

Gun Crazy has three tour de force scenes: the brilliantly executed Armour robbery, the famous one-take Hampton heist, and the meeting at the carnival which is a ballet of sex and innuendo more subtle and teasing than the more famous sparing matches of Bogart and Bacall or Ladd and Lake. 1949. Written by MacKinlay Kantor and Millard Kaufman. Produced by the King Brothers. Photographed by Russell Harlan. With John Dall, Peggy Cummins, Barry Kroeger, Annabel Shaw, Harry Lewis, Nederick Young.
They Live By Night. Made in the same year as Gun Crazy, Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night is another Bonnie and Clyde/on-the-run film. Ray’s heroes, Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell, as the title implies, really do live by night, and the choreography is strictly noir.

Unlike Gun Crazy, Granger and O’Donnell are not psychopathic; rather, the society is, as it makes them into bigger and bigger criminals and finally connives to gun down the unsuspecting Granger. There’s an excellent bit by Ian Wolfe as a crooked Justice of the Peace, and Marie Bryant sings “Your Red Wagon” in the best noir tradition. Written by Charles Schnee.

Photographed by George E. Diskant. Produced by John Houseman. With Farley Granger, Cathy O’Donnell, Howard Da Silva, Jay C. Flippen, Helen Craig, Will Wright, Ian Wolfe, Harry Harvey.
White Heat. There was no director better suited to portray instability than Raoul Walsh, and no actor more potentially unstable than James Cagney. And when they joined forces in 1949 for White Heat, they produced one of the most exciting psychosexual crime films ever. Cagney plays an aging oedipal gangster who sits on his mother’s lap between bouts of pistol whipping cohorts, planning robberies and gunning down police.

In an exuberantly psychotic ending Cagney stands atop an exploding oil tanker yelling, “I made it Ma! Top of the World!” We’ve come a long way from Scarface where Paul Muni lies in the gutter as a neon sign ironically flashes, “Cook’s Tours. See the World.” Cagney, now the noir hero, is not so much interested in financial gain and power as he is in suicidal showmanship. Cagney tapped the same vein the following year when he produced and starred in Gordon Douglas’s Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, one of the best of late noir films. What Douglas lacked as a director, Cagney made up in just plain craziness. White Heat. 1949. Written by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts. Photographed by Sid Hickox. Produced by Louis Edelman. With James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmund O’Brien, Margaret Wycherly, Steve Cochran, John Archer.
Out of the Past. Jacques Tourner’s Out of the Past brilliantly utilizes the noir element of narration as well as the themes of black widow and on-the-run. A gangster (the young Kirk Douglas in one of his best roles) sends his best friend Robert Mitchum to retrieve his girlfriend, Jane Greer, who has run off with his money. Mitchum, of course, teams up with Greer and they hide from Douglas.

Mitchum narrates his story with such a pathetic relish that he obviously draws comfort from being love’s perennial fool. Tourner combines Mitchum’s narration, Jane Greer’s elusive beauty and a complex chronology in such a way that there is no hope for any future; one can only take pleasure from reliving a doomed past. 1947. Written by Geoffrey Homes. Produced by Warren Duff. With Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Rhonda Fleming, Steve Brodie.
Pickup on South Street. Sam Fuller’s 1953 film sacks in with an odd noir bedfellow—the red scare. The gangsters undergo a slight accent shift and become communist agents; no idealogical conversion necessary.

Richard Widmark, a characteristic noir actor who has never done as well outside the period as within it, plays a two-time loser who picks the purse of a “commie” messenger and ends up with a piece of microfilm. When the state department finally hunts him and begins the lecture, Widmark replies, “Don’t wave your flag at me.”

The scenes on the waterfront are in the best noir tradition, but a dynamic fight in the subway marks Fuller as a director who would be better suited to the action crime school of the middle fifties. Written by Samuel Fuller. Photographed by Joe MacDonald. Produced by Jules Schermer. With Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Murvyn Vye, Richard Kiley.
T-Men. Anthony Mann’s 1947 film was photographed by John Alton, the most characteristically noir artist of the period. Alton also photographed Joseph H. Lewis’ The Big Combo eight years later and the cinematography is so nearly identical that one has momentary doubts about the directorial difference between Mann and Lewis. In each film light only enters the scene in odd slants, jagged slices and vertical or horizontal strips.

T-Men is a bastard child of the post-war realistic school and purports to be the documented story of two treasury agents who break a ring of counterfeiters. Complications set in when the good guys don’t act any differently from the bad ones. In the end it doesn’t matter anyway, since they all die in the late night shoot-outs. 1948. Written by John Higgins. Photographed by John Alton. Produced by Edward Small and Aubrey Schneck. With Dennis O’Keefe, Alfred Ryder, Mary Meade, Wallace Ford, June Lockhart, Charles McGraw, Art Smith.

Monday 23 January 2012

Sunday 22 January 2012