In good company

 

© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon

 

I read recently that a new academic study has been published about The Company of Wolves, the 1984 movie directed by Neil Jordan, based on fiction by Angela Carter and co-scripted by Jordan and Carter.  The study is the latest in a series of academic film-books called Devil’s Advocates, dedicated to classic horror movies and put into print by Auteur Publishing.  Devil’s Advocates: The Company of Wolves is the work of Northern Irishman James Gracey, who describes himself in his Twitter profile as a ‘library assistant’ and ‘occasional author of books about horror films’.  Its appearance has reminded me that The Company of Wolves is one of my favourite movies of the 1980s – of any genre, not just horror.

 

No doubt part of my fondness for the film stems from its source material, because I’m a big fan of the late Angela Carter and her sumptuous gothic prose.  (While I was doing an MA in 2008-2009 at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, where Carter had once taught creative writing, I was delighted one day when I got chatting with an elderly assistant at the campus bookshop and she reminisced about Carter and how she used to wander around “in a big billowy dress.”)  The Company of Wolves began life as a short story featured in her masterly 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber.  Considering how other stories in the book are adult, gothic reworkings of such fairy tales and myths as Beauty and the Beast (The Courtship of Mr Lyon), Snow White (The Snow Child) and Bluebeard (the title story), it’s no surprise that The Company of Wolves is a version of Little Red Riding Hood with, as its villain, not a big bad wolf but an even bigger and badder werewolf.

 

© ullstein bild / Getty Images

 

Carter’s Company of Wolves takes its time getting to its main plotline, though.  It begins by recounting several shorter tales and anecdotes that explore wolf and werewolf lore, and the Red Riding Hood character doesn’t set off into the forest to visit Grandmother’s house until halfway through its ten pages.  Additionally, The Company of Wolves is part of a triptych of werewolf-related stories in The Bloody Chamber – it’s sandwiched between ones called The Werewolf and Wolf-Alice (which as well as being an Angela Carter story is the name of a not-bad alternative rock / indie band).  Not only does Jordan’s movie copy the rambling, episodic and anecdotal structure of the fictional Company of Wolves, but it also borrows elements from its two hairy neighbours.

 

Translating into celluloid Carter’s ornate prose style – which, for example, has a midwinter forest containing “huddled mounds of birds, succumbed to the lethargy of the season, heaped on the creaking boughs and too forlorn to sing” and “bright frills of the winter fungi on the blotched trunks of the trees” and “a hare as lean as a rasher of bacon streaking across the path where the thin sunlight dapples the russet brakes of last year’s bracken” – was a job to which the Irish director and writer Neil Jordan was well suited.   His CV includes atmospheric and flamboyant supernatural movies like Interview with the Vampire (1994) and Byzantium (2012), plus the dark, twisted tragic-comic drama The Butcher Boy (1997); and many of his supposedly more realistic films like Angel (1982), Mona Lisa (1986) and The Crying Game (1992) are imbued with a strange, phantasmagorical quality too.

 

With The Company of Wolves, Jordan and his production team – take a bow, cinematographer Bryan Loftus, production designer Anton Furst and art director Stuart Rose – excel themselves in crafting a physical setting for Carter’s stories.  The movie mostly takes place in a pre-industrial village and a surrounding, huge Ruritanian forest.  It’s an environment that’s both quaint with thatched cottages, cobbled streets, mossy churchyards and humped stone bridges and lush with bright-coloured flowers, shaggy trees, trailing vines,  beds of fallen leaves and nests of speckled eggs (which, disconcertingly, hatch and release tiny homunculi).  Yet it’s also a claustrophobic place of misshapen branches, drifting fogs, deep snowbanks and, obviously, wolf-howls that pierce out of the dark recesses of the forest.  In other words, it’s part Romantic poem, part fevered dream and part Hammer horror.

 

© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon

 

If anything, the plotting in the film of The Company of Wolves is more disorientating than that in the original story.  The central structure is similar: we get a clutch of little stories about werewolves – here told to teenage heroine Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) by her grandmother (Angela Lansbury) and then, later, told by Rosaleen herself – before the film settles down to its main narrative, which is what happens one day when Rosaleen dons a red woollen shawl, leaves her village and takes a walk through the forest to her grandmother’s secluded cottage.

 

However, the film places this within a framing device that has Rosaleen as a modern-day girl who dreams about being in a fairy-tale village, in a fairy-tale forest, while she takes an afternoon nap in her bedroom.  (As we descend through Rosaleen’s subconscious to the main part of the dream, we also pass through a creepy transitional zone populated by human-sized versions of the dolls and toys in her bedroom, which calls to mind another Angela Carter work, the 1967 novel The Magic Toyshop.)  At the film’s end, this stories-told-within-a-dream framework collapses, for poor modern-day Rosaleen wakes from her dream to find real wolves crashing through the walls of her room.  None of which matters, of course.  The Company of Wolves isn’t a film to be processed logically.  It’s one to be simply experienced.

 

It hasn’t much character development, since the characters are archetypes rather than proper human beings, but it’s still well acted by a first-rate cast.  Sarah Patterson does what’s required of her as Rosaleen and German actor, dancer and choreographer Micha Bergese is appropriately lithe, flirtatious and, yes, predatory as the young hunstsman whom Rosaleen encounters on the way to her grandmother’s house.  (His eyebrows meet above his nose, which is a dead giveaway.)  Angela Lansbury makes a wonderfully spry and wily grandmother, so much so that I can forgive her for the subsequent dozen years that she spent clogging up my television screen with her dreary TV series Murder, She Wrote (1984-96).  The film also features the excellent trio of David Warner as Rosaleen’s father in both the dream world and the real one, Graham Crowden as the village’s amiable priest, and Brian Glover as the village’s resident Yorkshireman.  (At one point, Glover pontificates, “If you think wolves are big now, you should have seen them when I were a lad!”)

 

© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon

 

In the cast too are Terence Stamp and Jordan’s long-time collaborator Stephen Rea, both of whom appear in the first two stories narrated by Lansbury.  Stamp has a cameo as the Devil, selling a youth a magical balm that, once applied, has lycanthropic consequences.  Rea plays a man who mysteriously disappears on his wedding night and then equally mysteriously reappears seven years later, to discover that his wife has since remarried and sired a brood of children with her new husband.  In the film’s most gruesome sequence, Rea shows his displeasure by becoming a werewolf – a painful process because, to facilitate the transformation, he has to tear his own skin off.

 

With the young, virginal Rosaleen setting out on a journey and being waylaid by a literally beastly male, but then taking control of the situation and resolving it in her own unexpected fashion, there’s obviously a lot happening beneath the film’s surface.  However, I like the fact that while The Company of Wolves is concerned with themes of female empowerment and sexuality, it isn’t a polemic.  Yes, one of Lansbury’s tales ends with an instance of domestic violence, and one of Rosaleen’s tales deals with a wronged woman getting her revenge on the cad responsible.  But Rosaleen’s parents are depicted as having a loving and sharing relationship.  Despite coming to this film after villainous roles in Time After Time (1979), The Time Bandits (1981) and Tron (1982), Warner plays a gentle soul here; and Rosaleen’s mother (Tusse Silberg) points out to her that “if there’s a beast in man, it meets its match in women too.”  Meanwhile, a village boy (Shane Johnstone) who takes a shine to Rosaleen, while evidently a lustful scamp, seems good-hearted enough and demonstrates concern for her safety.

 

© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon

 

This nuance extends to the film’s portrayal of the church.  It’s hardly an institution of oppressive patriarchy.  Rosaleen’s final tale has Graham Crowden’s priest showing kindness to a feral wolf-girl (played by experimental 1980s singer-musician Danielle Dax).  “Are you God’s work or the Devil’s?” he asks her.  “Oh, what do I care whose work you are.  You poor, silent creature…”

 

You appreciate Jordan and Carter’s achievement with The Company of Wolves when you consider how many filmmakers since then have tried, and failed, to convert children’s fairy stories into darker, more adult and more gothic movies.  I’m thinking of Terry Gilliam’s disappointingly uneven Brothers Grimm (2005) or the blah Kristen Stewart vehicle Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) or crud like Red Riding Hood (2011) and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013).

 

Probably the best effort has been Matteo Garrone’s Italian / French / British movie Tale of Tales (2015) which, like The Company of Wolves, isn’t afraid to confound expectations and twist and distort logic.  Which, when you think about it, is what the original fairy and folk tales that inspired both films did anyway.

 

© Nomad Publishing

 

Cinematic heroes 5: Brian Glover

 

(c) Universal

 

The Wikipedia entry about Brian Glover begins with a quote from the great man that served both as a mission statement and as a career summary: “You play to your strengths in this game.  My strength is as a bald-headed, rough-looking Yorkshireman.”  For a quarter-century, Glover played characters that were shiny of pate, pugnacious of visage and flat of vowels in many a British movie, TV show and stage play.  In the process he made himself one of the most recognisable character actors in the country.

 

Born in Sheffield, brought up in Barnsley, the young Glover followed in the footsteps of his father, who was a professional wrestler and used ‘the Red Devil’ as his ring name.  Whilst attending the University of Sheffield, Glover found wrestling a useful way of funding his studies and he fought bouts under the moniker of ‘Leon Aris, the man from Paris’.  Glover was a good-enough wrestler to appear on television, during those Saturday-teatime wrestling slots shown on ITV’s World of Sport that 40 years ago turned such bruisers as Kendo Nagasaki, Giant Haystacks, Mick McManus, Jim Brakes and Big Daddy into legends among impressionable kids like myself.  He continued wrestling long after graduating and after settling into a respectable day job, which was teaching English and French at Barnsley Grammar School.  One of Glover’s colleagues there was Barry Hines, who’d written the novel A Kestrel for a Knave, which in 1968 was filmed as Kes by the incomparable Ken Loach.

 

Loach needed someone to play the puffed-up, preposterous and unwittingly loutish Mr Sugden, the PE teacher at the school attended by Kes’s young hero, Billy Casper; and Hines suggested Glover.  For his audition, and to test Glover’s believability as a teacher, Loach staged a playground brawl and got Glover to break it up – which obviously wasn’t difficult for him, being a teacher already and a wrestler.  Glover’s turn as Sugden, who organises a football match with his pupils, insists on taking part himself, and then fouls and flattens the kids while dashing at the goal and mouthing an imaginary commentary – he likens himself to “the fair-haired, slightly-balding Bobby Charlton” – provides a bleak film with its one shaft of comic sunshine.  (The 1998 Loach movie My Name is Joe, which has its own amusing footballing sequences, indicates that the beautiful game is the one thing guaranteed to make the famously anti-establishment director lighten up.  Small wonder that when he finally got around to directing a comedy, it was 2009’s Waiting for Eric with Eric Cantona.)

 

 

Glover spent another two years teaching before his next acting assignment, which was a role in the Terence Rattigan play Bequest to the Nation.  Thereafter, he swiftly became ubiquitous.  On television he appeared in Coronation Street, Dixon of Dock Green, The Sweeny, The Regiment, Quiller, Minder, Last of the Summer Wine, Bottom and Doctor Who – in that last show he got gunned down by a Cyberman.  He gave particularly memorable performances in two 1970s shows scripted by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who at the time wrote virtually the only British TV sitcoms set outside London and the middle-class Home Counties.  In a famous 1973 episode of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads he plays the devious Flint, who makes a bet with Geordie heroes Bob and Terry that they can’t get through the day in Newcastle-upon-Tyne without hearing the score of an important football match.  A year later, Glover joined the cast of Clement and La Frenais’ revered prison sitcom Porridge, playing the hapless, slow-witted convict Cyril Hislop, whose key line was: “I read a book once.  Green, it was.”

 

When not playing convicts, crooks and thugs, Glover could leaven his northern tones with a twinkling gentleness, which made him popular among advertisers.  As a result, when his face wasn’t popping up on TV shows, his voice was popping up on commercials between those shows.  Most notably, he voiced the TV advertisements for Allinson’s bread – “Bread with nowt taken out” – and for Tetley teabags.  In the latter ad, he played the leader of the Tetley Tea-Folk, an animated tribe of diminutive, white-coated and cloth-capped characters dedicated to giving each teabag its ‘2000 perforations’.

 

Meanwhile, during the 1970s, Glover became a regular in British movies – including Lindsay Anderson’s 1973 oddball epic O Lucky Man!, Michael Crichton’s 1979 period adventure The First Great Train Robbery and Terry Gilliam’s 1978 medieval comedy Jabberwocky, in which he played the foreman of an ironworks that’s reduced to chaos when Michael Palin blunders into it.  In Douglas Hickox’s 1975 London-set thriller Brannigan, he was a minor villain who got roughed up by John Wayne.  Brannigan features Wayne as a tough American cop who arrives in a London of bowler hats, brollies and historic landmarks that exists only in the imaginations of Hollywood scriptwriters; and who then causes mayhem as he behaves like a Wild West sheriff dealing with an unruly frontier town.  If you’re in the wrong mood, Brannigan is the worst film ever made.  If you’re in the right mood, it’s the best one.

 

(c) United Artists

 

In 1981, John Landis made his much-loved horror-comedy-romance-tragedy An American Werewolf in London, the opening scenes of which, set in a northern pub called the Slaughtered Lamb, called for a bald-headed, rough-looking Yorkshireman.  Obviously, there was only one man for the job.  Landis duly cast Glover and the resulting scene, wherein he entertains the Lamb’s patrons with his ‘Remember the Alamo!’ joke, is, along with Kes, his finest cinematic moment – both films show what a fine comic actor he was.  (Unfortunately, the jovial mood in the pub is then ruined when David Naughton and Griffin Dunn inquire about the strange five-pointed star painted on the wall.)  Three years later, Glover turned up in another classic werewolf movie, playing a villager in Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Angela Carter’s gothic short story, The Company of Wolves – he gets into a brawl with the previous subject of this Cinematic Heroes series, David Warner.

 

Glover had another monster, a slimy one rather than a hairy one, to deal with in 1992’s Alien 3, wherein he played the warden in charge of the stormy prison-planet where Sigourney Weaver crash-lands (unwittingly bringing with her a cargo of egg-laying alien face-huggers).  Directed by a young David Fincher, Alien 3 is a much-maligned film.  It can’t help but seem anti-climactic after the previous film in the Alien series, James Cameron’s barnstorming Aliens in 1986, and the fact that it begins by killing off most of the characters left alive at the end of Aliens didn’t endear it to long-term fans.  It’s got some wonderfully grungy set design, though, and there’s something heroic about the film’s uncompromising and un-Hollywood-like pessimism.  Even Weaver herself gets it at the end.  One of Alien 3’s biggest problems is that, due to incompetent scripting and editing, most of its interesting characters – Glover, Charles Dance, Paul McGann – vanish from the story halfway through.  (For British audiences, Glover brought a little too much baggage to his role in Alien 3.  When I saw the film in an Essex cinema, there were guffaws during a scene where Weaver confronts Glover in his office and the Voice of the Tetley Tea-Folk absent-mindedly dunks a teabag into a cup of boiling water.)

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

Glover must have got on well with Sigourney Weaver, for he subsequently turned up in 1997’s Snow White: a Tale of Terror, in which Weaver played the evil queen.  Another late role was in the endearingly off-the-wall 1993 comedy Leon the Pig Farmer, in which a young Jewish Londoner, played by Mark Frankel, discovers that he’s the result of an artificial-insemination mix-up and his father is actually a Yorkshire pig farmer – inevitably a bald-headed, rough-looking one played by Glover.  What makes Leon, which also starred Fawlty Towers’ Connie Booth and former Bond girl Maryam D’Abo, a little melancholy to watch now is the knowledge that lead actor Frankel died in a motorcycle accident a couple of years later.

 

Glover’s stage CV was as busy as his film and TV ones.  He appeared with the Royal Shakespearean Company in productions of As You Like It (playing, appropriately, Charles the Wrestler) and Romeo and Juliet, while other theatre work included Don Quixote, The Iceman Cometh, The Long Voyage Home, The Mysteries and Saint Joan.  Lindsay Anderson, a stage director as well as a film one, cast him in productions of the David Storey plays The Changing Room and Life Class and Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw.  Such was Glover’s fame by the time he appeared in a West End version of The Canterbury Tales that it was advertised with a slightly amended version of one of his catch-phrases: “Chaucer with nowt taken out.”

 

It’s often overlooked that Glover was a literary figure as well.  He was a prolific playwright and writer, responsible for over 20 plays and short films, and he also penned a column in a Yorkshire newspaper.  Asked to contribute a script to a 1976 TV drama anthology called Plays for Britain (which also featured writing by Stephen Poliakoff and Roger McGough), Glover found himself short of inspiration, so he paid a visit to a police station and inquired if they’d experienced anything unusual lately that he might be able to use as an idea.  While he was at the station, a woman trooped in to the front desk to report indignantly that someone had pinched her front door – and suddenly, Glover had his story.

 

Meanwhile, I remember seeing Glover on a TV arts programme, discussing – with Anthony Burgess, no less – Paul Theroux’s acerbic 1983 travel book about the British coastline, The Kingdom by the Sea.  Glover, who during his wrestling days had toured many of the towns Theroux wrote about, took particular exception to Theroux’s abusive comments about the people of Aberdeen: “the average Aberdonian is someone who would gladly pick a halfpenny out of a dunghill with his teeth.”

 

Alas, in 1996, Brian Glover met his own Alamo.  He underwent an operation for a brain tumour, although a fortnight later he was back at work, making what would be his final film – Up and Under, which was fittingly about the popular-in-the-north-of-England sport of rugby league football and was made by the dramatist John Godber, whose debut play Bouncers has become a much-performed classic.  (Glover was among the first people to go and see Bouncers when it premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 1977 and was quick to offer Godber words of encouragement.)  The tumour eventually killed him in July 1997 and he is buried in Brompton Cemetery in London, where a simple gravestone describes him as a ‘Wrestler – Actor – Writer’.  Not just a Yorkshireman, then, but a true Renaissance man.