REVIEW OF THE ARTS
Oh, what a lovely war
Dad's Army by Jimmy Perry and David Croft (Shaftesbury) Happy as a Sandbag by Ken Lee (Ambassadors) The Vortex by Noel Coward' (Greenwich) There is no aspect of British life that I find harder to comprehend than the national attitude towards fighting wars — at least as it is reflected in the theatre, a reflection I should regard as libellously distorted were it not that it is so approvingly, indeed enthusiastically, accepted as accurate by those theatregoers best qualified to know. The first world war, a period • of miserable and terrible carnage that I should have thought almost insupportably appalling, even in retrospect, to those who lived through it, survives most vividly on the stage in a play called Journey's End which, to the best of my recollection, features a group of officers In a Flanders dug-out who quote Alice in Wonderland at times of stress and who find it best to regard the war as a rather brutal extension of rugby football. Written some ten years after it was all over, the play was a huge success, presumably because, whether the war was actually like that or not, that was the way the people preferred to remember it.
The second world war would seem to have been, on the whole, even more fun, if I have correctly assessed the reactions of a couple of audiences in which I sat last week. Having missed Happy as a Sandbag at its London opening a month ago, I thought it appropriate to catch up with it before I saw Dad's Army, the stage version of a television series about the Home Guard. "If you liked Happy as a Sandbag," I thought I might be able to say, "you'll love Dad's Army," and in truth, so I can. Nearly everyone, in audiences in which tairly senior citizens predominated, was clearly having more fun than at anything since — well, since the war. I doubt whether this was Precisely because of the quality of the entertainments being offered on those stages — it did seem to me unlikely that quite so many people could be found to be simultaneous
ly bereft of discrimination and their critical faculties — but more probably because of the nostalgic memories they generated.
It is a sad and alarming thing that so many Britons seem to regard the war years as the happiest of their lives, a phenomenon that more or less eludes rational understanding and one which, in the teeth of the evidence, I cannot but find beyond belief. It is almost as though some great national brainwash has been secretly accomplished, so that — as a woman is said to forget the pain of one child-birth so as not to be fearful of the next — all the deaths and bereavements, the privation and destruction, the ruined lives and maimed bodies are made light of by the survivors, and eventually seem insignificant beside the memory of the girls they had or the men they had, the jolly camaraderie and the escape from the routine of factories and offices. These latter advantages are presumably what are brought back to mind by the jokes and songs and impersonations that make up Happy as a Sandbag and are rattled through with the rapidity, not to say the deadliness, of machine-gun fire.
The briskness of the performance may well be designed to allow little time to ponder its awfulness, a plan that falters only in the case of a protracted impersonation of Max Miller, which resembles him to the extent that Muhammed Ali resembles Jack Johnson in being the same colour: in their case black, in this case blue. The other impersonations — Chamberlain, Churchill, Montgomery, Rommel, George Formby, Tommy Handley, the Andrew Sisters — have the same bizarre lack of verisimilitude. Even one of the songs, 'Strip Polka', seemed to me to have the wrong tune (either they got it wrong, or Kay Kyser got it wrong on an old 78 recording I used to have lying around the house), but what is one among so many? The only one noticeably and tactfully .omitted is 'We're Going to Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line'.
It does crop up briefly, however, in Dad's Army, a haphazardly organised collection of what I took to be excerpts from television sketches demonstrating the droll inefficiency of an especially woebegone troop of the wartime Home Guard. It is fragmentarily amusing in its small-scale way and features some valiant and undeniably expert comedy performances, notably by Arthur Lowe, Sohn le Mesurier and Clive Dunn; but admirers of the television series may be dismayed to discover that the material to which they are accustomed has been augmented by 'production numbers' of grotesque irrelevance and petrifying ineptitude, and impersonations almost as dire as those in Happy as a Sandbag (in some instances of the same people). There are also curious suggestions that the spirit exemplified by Dad's Army is just what we need to pull us through today. My fellow auditors took no great exception to this lunatic sentiment, being doubtless lost in benign recollections of the good old days in the Nissen huts and the good old nights on firewatch.
At Greenwich, the revival of Noel Coward's The Vortex takes us back to an earlier day, to the flapper age of the early 'twenties and the `utterly' effete, 'frightfully' self-indulgent 'degeneracy' of its sybaritic middle class that Coward seems to have regarded with great moral primness. His principal character, a foolishly vain matron • whose offence is that she has her face lifted and is attracted to youthful lovers, earns his especial disapproval, if we are to take it that her son (originally played by Coward himself) is the author's spokesman. This youth goes so far, quaintly, as to attribute his own addiction to cocaine-sniffing to her sporty way of life, and the climax of the piece is an hysterically accusatory scene between the pair of them that makes the last act quite frightfully tiresome.
Although Coward, years later, was still able to think of it as "a good play" with which he felt "quite reasonably satisfied", he subsequently and wisely abandoned the overt moral stance he took in it, and never again (except in his patriotic works and perhaps in the disastrous Point Valaine) wrote with such fervent seriousness. Instead he developed his gift for flippancy and acerbic wit, which is generally evidenced here only in the first and tolerable act, and became immortal. His reputation will, of course, survive this cruel exposure, and so, probably, will that of Vivient Merchant who is called upon for histrionics beyond the range of her usual composure and to receive with a relatively straight face such lines as her son's "you're not going to be beautiful and successful ever again — you're going to be my mother," as the pair of them tearfully resolve to fight their way out of their vortex of, er, `beastliness'. I think was the word.
The Wild Party. Director: James Ivory stars: James Coco, Raquel Welch, Perry King 'AA' Astoria and Oden, Chelsea (90 mins).
I was very impressed by this film and then found out, afterwards, that I wasn't supposed to like it at all. The director, James Ivory, has written to critics saying it is no longer the work he intended it to be. His distributors, he says, have ruined it by re-assembling scenes, putting in some he had left out and throwing away others that are very much needed.
I'm glad I didn't read Mr. Ivory's letter until 1 had seen the picture. I don't really care how it was made because I found it unique. I came away thinking it was more an idea for a film about Hollywood in the 'thirties than a story about that period. And this is interesting because Mr. Ivory, as I discovered later, based it on a narrative poem written, in 1926, by Joseph Mon. cure March.
Whatever the distributors have done to the production, the poetry persists. I have a feeling that James Ivory made a better picture than he knew. Even after its adulteration it has the quality of a modern morality. As with a morality play, the characters sometimes seem mere puppets, representing virtues and vices. And then, quite suddenly, we are engrossed in what they are doing to each others' lives. Equally suddenly they become symbols of an era. More than that, they are symbols of the way we have been persuaded to imagine that era. For instance, while we are watching a mild orgy scene at a Hollywood party, thinking that life was never quite like that, the director produces a highly-stylised shot of bodies in evening dres's, lying about on the floor, as though massacred. He is saying not 'this is what it was like,' but 'this is the way you've always been told it was like.'
The frequent movement from reality to symbolism is more effective than a straighforward story would have been. It means you cannot be a passive viewer, waiting until afterwards to ask yourself what it was all about. You do, in fact, ask questions most of the time.
Basically the story is about a fat film actor (James Coco), who has made thirty successful silent films, but is trying to hang on to silent comedy at a time when talkies have begun. We come into the lives of this clown and his mistress (Raquel Welch) at a moment of crisis. After five years without making a picture the old star is staging a pre-view party in his home. The guests include a new talkie idol, who promptly gets to work on Queenie; an all-powerful critic, who nicely symbolises his whole mythical breed, and a promoter, looking more Teutonic, lecherous and philistine than most of the portrayals of his type we have seen before. In the middle of the private premiere, which falls flat with its dated Chaplinesque elements of comic miming and pathos, a young girl comes to the party wanting an audition. The scene in which she enchants the old clown, reminding him of his unfaithful mistress when young, has the same corny quality as his own silent picture we have just been looking at.
This is the cleverest thing about The Wild Party. Sometimes the heavily-mimed emotions of the film-within-the-film are echoed by the real characters. And the melodrama that the clown puts into his picture turns up in his own life. A few minutes from the end of the film there is an abruptly-staged bloodbath. As the mistress and the screen idol lie dead, after a magnificently stylised gun-fight, the would-be actress — the epitome of Chaplin's innocent young girls — creeps with wide eyes to the side of the scene. It is all very classical. And very corny. And very improbable. And very credible. All at the same time.
Whenever I see a film I really enjoy, I hate writing about it. If I like something and try to say exactly why I like it, the result often sounds like something out of Pseuds' Corner. For that reason I must not be tempted to say too much about the brilliant way the director has used sound. Let me recommend you not only to see this film, but also to listen to it carefully. To add to his effect of combining the world of Hollywood with the world of the films made there, James Ivory has often allowed voices to be swamped by music, making the people look as if they are in a silent movie. When the voices to be swamped by music, sometimes have the hollow sound of early recordings. And when there is a Gershwin pastiche on the screen, or a 'thirties piano duet, you might well be hearing old 78's. Except that the period music has been specially composed. In these days of 'Nostalgia' labels in the music shops, it was clever of someone to invent something brand-new to make us feel nostalgic about.