Cinematic heroes 12: Freddie Jones

 

© Associated British Picture Company / Warner Pathé

 

A few nights ago, I discovered the 1970 psychological-horror thriller The Man Who Haunted Himself on YouTube and I persuaded my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, who hadn’t seen it before, to watch it with me.

 

The Man Who Haunted Himself offers a rare opportunity to see the late Sir Roger Moore in a non-smooth, non-bemused, non-eyebrow-hoisting role.  In fact, he plays a staid businessman who gradually becomes convinced he has an evil doppelganger, one plotting against him and trying to remove and replace him in his family, job and social circle.  Not surprisingly, poor Roger’s sanity crumbles as a result.

 

Unfortunately for my partner’s enjoyment of the film, the great British character actor Freddie Jones suddenly appears twenty minutes before the end, playing a psychiatrist to whom the unravelling Roger turns in desperation.  That meant that as the film neared its climax, and she was trying to concentrate on what was happening, I kept distracting and annoying her with exclamations of “Oh look, there’s Freddie again!” and “Just look at Freddie’s expression!” and “Ha-ha, Freddie’s putting on a Scottish accent!”  As you can gather, I’m always delighted when Freddie Jones pops up in a film or TV show.

 

Freddie Jones was born in 1927 in Stoke-on-Trent, an English town famous for its potteries.  Actually, Jones worked in this industry for a decade before becoming, in his thirties, a professional actor – he was originally a lab assistant at a ceramics factory, a job that according to his IMDb entry “came close to making him clinically insane”.  His cinematic breakthrough arrived in 1967 with roles in three well-regarded movies: Peter Brook’s Marat / Sade, Joseph Losey’s Accident and John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd.  By then, however, he was already established as a familiar face on 1960s British TV, appearing in major shows like Z Cars (1963), The Avengers (1967), The Baron (1967), The Saint (1968) and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (1969).

 

© MGM

 

In the early 1970s, Jones became one of the most deliciously eccentric presences in British cinema – by turns quirky, twitchy, sweaty, sinister, off-the-wall, over-the-top, downright bizarre and occasionally (perhaps a legacy of that ceramics-factory job) demented.  For instance, he gives a short but memorable performance in Douglas Hickox’s underrated crime thriller Sitting Target (1972) as McNeil, a creepy convict who allies himself with fellow inmates Oliver Reed and Ian McShane for an escape attempt.  Indeed, the tense sequence where Freddie, Ollie and Lovejoy bust out of prison is one of the movie’s highlights.  He’s also good in another underrated film, Richard Lester’s disaster movie Juggernaut (1974), as the shifty Sidney Buckland.  Buckland’s a bomb expert who falls under suspicion when a shipping company receives an anonymous call to say that six explosive devices have been placed on one of its cruise liners and will be detonated unless a ransom is paid.  Is Freddie really the big villain?  (Is the Pope a Catholic?  Do bears shit in woods?)

 

Jones’s persona made him a natural for horror movies and he worked a couple of times with Hammer Films, then the world’s most famous horror-movie studio.  In 1969’s Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, he plays the creature pieced together by the title character.  Hammer’s Frankenstein movies tend to focus on Baron Frankenstein himself – usually essayed by the impeccable Peter Cushing, and not the hapless character depicted in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel but an obsessed, ruthless scientist who’ll go to any length to realise his ambitions – and they aren’t terribly interested in the monsters produced by the Baron’s experiments.  That’s said, Jones’s creature in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is the most melancholic and sympathetic one of the series.  He’s not even very monstrous – he’s just a bloke with a ragged scar around his head, to show where the Baron transplanted his brain from another body.  This causes him much misery when he goes to visit his beloved wife and she doesn’t recognise him, because he looks nothing like the original person his soul had inhabited.

 

Even by his normal standards, Cushing’s Frankenstein is an utter shit in this film – stooping to murder, rape and blackmail to get his way – and there’s a satisfying climax where Jones’s despairing creature sets a trap for him inside a burning mansion.

 

© Hammer Studios / Warner Bros – Seven Arts

 

Less acclaimed, but still enjoyable, is The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973).  Set in present-day London, this has Jones at his most pathetic and unhinged.  He plays Dr Keeley, a scientist forced by a mysterious millionaire businessman – who proves to be, yes, Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) – to develop an apocalyptic strain of plague bacterium.  Confronted by Peter Cushing, playing a modern descendant of Dracula’s old nemesis Van Helsing, Jones gibbers: “Evil rules, you know.  It really does.  Evil and violence are the only two measures that hold any power.  Look at the world.  Chaos.  It is a preordained pattern.  Violence, greed, intolerance, sloth, jealousy…  The supreme being is the devil, Lorimer…   Nothing is too vile.  Nothing is too dreadful, too awful.  You need to know the terror, the horror, Lorimer.  You need to feel the threat of disgust, the beauty of obscenity.”

 

Actually, in the early-to-mid 1970s, Jones made three Dracula movies, though only one of these was produced by Hammer and was any good.  He appeared in the spoof Vampira (1974) with David Niven playing Dracula as an aging playboy; which, though painfully unfunny, looks like Citizen Kane compared to the same year’s Son of Dracula, another spoof but this time with added rock music courtesy of Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon, John Bonham and Peter Frampton.  In Son of Dracula, Jones plays Baron Frankenstein to Nilsson’s Dracula Jr and Ringo Starr’s Merlin the Magician – don’t even ask – and Jones’s sonorous performance only highlights the fact that Nilsson and Starr have the acting ability of a pair of talking elevators.  Oh well.  Some of the musical numbers are okay.

 

© Brooksfilms / Paramount Pictures

 

1980 saw Jones appear in the touching David Lynch-directed, Mel Brooks-produced The Elephant Man.  He plays the sadistic freakshow owner Bytes, from whose clutches the saintly Dr Treves (Anthony Hopkins) rescues John Merrick (John Hurt), the tragic Elephant Man of the title.  Jones doesn’t take this lying down and he and Hopkins become almost biblical in their good-versus-evil struggle over the possession of the poor, deformed Merrick.  Later, Jones manages to re-abduct Merrick and reincorporates him into his freakshow, but the show’s other exhibits, led by a kindly dwarf (played by the late Kenny Jones of Star Wars fame), help him to escape again.

 

David Lynch was evidently impressed by Jones for he cast him in two more films, his 1984 sci-fi epic Dune and his 1990 Palme d’Or-winning Wild at Heart.  The 1980s, in fact, saw Jones at the height of his international fame and he featured in several big (or biggish) budgeted movies: Peter Yates’s clodhopping sci-fi fantasy Krull (1983); Mark L. Lester’s 1984 version of Stephen King’s Firestarter, in which Jones plays the scientist responsible for the drug-experiments that give little Drew Barrymore the power to set things alight with her mind; Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes (1985); Terry Jones’s Erik the Viking; and Clint Eastwood’s Cold War thriller Firefox (1982).  Alas, although Clint-meets-Freddie sounds like a marriage made in heaven, Firefox was hellishly bad.  In 1983, he even got a leading role – admittedly speaking Italian – in Federico Fellini’s And the Ship Sails On, playing a journalist on a voyage to scatter the ashes of a legendary opera singer.

 

If I tried to recount Jones’s entire TV career, meanwhile, I’d been here all night.  Let’s just say he graced many TV shows I have fond memories of: Jason King (1971), The Goodies (1972), Thriller (1975), Space 1999 (1976), The Ghosts of Motley Hall (1976-78), Just William (1977), Van der Valk (1977), Target (1977) and so on.  He was still busy at the dawn of the new millennium, appearing in things like The League of Gentlemen (2000) and Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s reboot of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (2001) – supposedly, Jones and fellow character actor Dudley Sutton are the only people to have appeared in both the original and the remake of that last show.  For me, though, his finest TV moment was as Dai, the crazed and doomed poacher in the 1977 kids’ series Children of the Stones, now regarded as one of the scariest programmes British TV ever made for children – though with a story involving a megalithic stone circle, a druidic cult of brainwashed villagers, ‘time rifts’ and an attempt to harness the power of a black hole, Children was as trippy as it was scary.

 

© HTV West

 

In the late noughties, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen Jones in anything for a while – the last thing I’d spotted him in had been the 2005 Johnny Depp vehicle The Libertine – and I assumed that, now in his eighties, he’d given up acting.  Fair enough, I thought, he’d certainly earned his retirement.  Besides, the family tradition was being continued by his eldest son Toby Jones, who was now playing memorable character roles in films like Finding Neverland (2004), The Mist (2007), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), Berberian Sound Studio (2012), The Girl (2012) and Tale of Tales (2015).

 

Then one evening, while I was back in Scotland and staying at my sister’s house, I happened to notice an elderly and whiskery but very familiar face on the TV screen.  “Wow!” I exclaimed.  “Is that Freddie Jones?”

 

“No,” replied my sister, “that’s Sandy Thomas.  From Emmerdale!”  And I discovered that Jones had been playing widower and ex-sailor Sandy Thomas in the popular, rustic-set ITV soap opera since 2005.  Indeed, it was only in February this year that the now-90-year-old Jones decided to finally call it a day and bow out of Emmerdale.

 

While I’m thankful for the modern career of the very talented Toby Jones, I can’t help but hope we haven’t seen the last of his venerable dad onscreen, either.

 

© ITV Studios

 

Great unappreciated films: Juggernaut

 

(c) United Artists

 

At a loose end a few Sunday afternoons ago, I sat down on the sofa and on a satellite movie channel watched 1974’s The Towering Inferno for the first time in years.  For people my age, the 1970s were synonymous with big glossy disaster movies in which top Hollywood stars were threatened by (and often succumbed to) death by earthquake, avalanche, tidal wave, meteor or crashing airplane.  The Towering Inferno, in which 294 guests celebrating the opening of the world’s tallest building at a reception on its top-floor promenade room are endangered when a massive fire erupts 54 floors below them, is commonly seen as the daddy of all disaster movies.  For me and no doubt for millions of my contemporaries, the title of the film conjures up happy childhood memories of sitting in grubby 1970s cinemas, munching popcorn and enjoying the spectacle of Richard Chamberlain, Robert Wagner, Robert Vaughan, Jennifer Jones, etc. being incinerated or plunging 135 storeys to their doom.

 

Alas, seen in the cold light of 2014, The Towering Inferno doesn’t live up to those happy memories.  Steve McQueen and Paul Newman are great in it, just by being themselves, but otherwise it’s a big, absurd and rather dull soap opera.  The characters are mainly a bunch of obnoxious, ultra-rich bastards swanning around that promenade room in tuxedoes and evening gowns, getting their champagne poured by deferential waiters (probably working below the minimum wage and on zero-hour contracts), whilst listening to some musical flunky tinkling on the ivories of a grand piano and a chanteuse warbling We May Never Love Like This Again, the blandest power ballad in the history of the cinema.  You really want the flames to rush up the building and singe their smug arses.  And to make things worse, O.J. Simpson is in it.  And to make things even worse, George Kennedy isn’t in it.

 

Indeed, I suspect that, seen today, nearly all those big-budget 1970s disaster movies – Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure and so on – would seem like a load of tosh.  However, I can safely say that there’s one 1970s disaster movie that was great then and is still great now.  It made little impact at the time and has been unjustly neglected since, no doubt because it eschewed the big dumb spectacle of those aforementioned Hollywood epics in favour of such unsexy things as character development and claustrophobic tension.  However, those qualities are what make it seem so good now.  It’s a British movie, but one made by an immensely talented American director, Richard Lester.  It is… Juggernaut.

 

Released in 1974, the year of The Towering Inferno, the plot of Juggernaut is simple.  A cruise liner called SS Britannic is crossing the Atlantic with 1200 passengers on board when the shipping firm that owns it receives a telephone call from someone calling himself ‘Juggernaut’.  He informs them that a half-dozen bombs have been secretly stowed on board the Britannic and these will shortly explode unless a ransom is paid.  Unfortunately, the firm is heavily subsidised by the British government, which means they call the shots – and the political powers-that-be make it clear that no ransom will be paid because their policy is not to negotiate with terrorists.  Even more unfortunately, the Britannic is currently beset by stormy weather, which makes it impossible to evacuate the passengers and crew.

 

So you have a ship, filled with people who can’t be taken off it, and you also have a bunch of bombs on board that will very likely explode because the nutcase who planted them there isn’t going to receive his ransom money.  Who ya gonna call?

 

Richard Harris!

 

Richard Harris?  With all respect to Harris, the legendary Irish actor doesn’t immediately strike me as the actor you’d cast in the role of a bomb disposal expert who gets parachuted aboard a cruise liner to defuse six bombs while 1200 lives are at stake.  It’s fair to say that at the time Harris had a bit of a reputation as a booze-hound.  In fact, in the 1970s, he was putting away as much as two-and-a-half bottles of vodka a day, which would suggest he’s the very last person you’d want attempting to dismantle a large explosive device in your vicinity.

 

(c) United Artists 

 

Nonetheless, Harris it is.  He plays Lieutenant Commander Fallon, head of a Royal Navy team of bomb disposal men whom the government sends to the Britannic to foil the mad bomber’s plans.  Incidentally, Harris’s number two, Braddock, is played by 1960s heartthrob David Hemmings.  Harris and Hemmings had previously worked together in Camelot, the 1968 musical about King Arthur, and despite Harris punching Hemmings at a party and splitting his lip, the two of them became good mates.  Indeed, Hemmings once managed to dissuade an inebriated Harris from jumping off the balcony of his Hollywood Hills apartment into the swimming pool below by pointing out, tactfully, that the swimming pool didn’t have any water in it.

 

While Harris, Hemmings and their men grapple with the bombs on the Britannic, the police back in Britain try to identify Juggernaut by interviewing all the known bomb experts who have the technical ability to mount such an operation.  (I won’t say who plays Juggernaut, but anyone with a knowledge of shifty, twitchy and sweaty 1970s British character actors should be able to guess immediately who it is.)  Leading the investigation is Superintendent John McLeod, played by a disconcertingly young-looking Anthony Hopkins, who has a personal stake in its outcome – because his wife and children happen to be passengers on board the Britannic at the moment.

 

And that’s about it.  The film follows both the hunt for Juggernaut on dry land and the increasingly desperate attempts of Harris and his team on the ship to disarm the bombs – which have also been booby-trapped to deter attempts to tinker with them – and it focuses too on an array of passengers and crew-members as they try to deal with the crisis unfolding around them.  A couple of bombs explode prematurely, and certain people die, but the ship just about manages to stay afloat.  However, can the three Hs – Harris, Hemmings and Hopkins – thwart Juggernaut before the majority of the bombs go off and blow the Britannic out of the water?

 

It’s fair to say that by the mid-1970s director Richard Lester was at the height of his powers.  In the 1960s he’d achieved fame directing the Beatles movies and he’d also made 1969’s surreal, post-apocalyptic black comedy The Bed-Sitting Room, which is surely one of the weirdest things in the history of British cinema.  Just before Juggernaut he’d completed The Three and The Four Musketeers, a pair of films that are the wittiest, best-cast and most entertaining of the many cinematic versions of the novel by Alexandre Dumas père.  He was also starting work on a version of another popular and much-filmed tale, Robin Hood.  Released in 1976, Lester’s bitter-sweet film about an older and disillusioned Robin Hood, Robin and Marion, which starred Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn, got indifferent reviews at the time but is now seen as a minor classic.

 

Lester was drafted in as director of Juggernaut at short notice – two other directors, Bryan Forbes and Don Medford, had been involved in the project but had quit.  His participation was contingent on the script being rewritten.  From all accounts, the original script for Juggernaut, by writer / producer Richard Alan Simmons, was pretty generic disaster-movie stuff.  Luckily, the rewrite was done by the distinguished north-of-England playwright and screenwriter Alan Plater, who at that point was most famous for working on the BBC’s seminal police series Z-Cars and its spinoff Softly Softly.  No doubt Plater contributed much of the quirkiness, eccentricity, grim humour and general beleaguered, keep-calm-and-carry-on sense of Britishness that make Juggernaut so pleasantly distinctive.

 

(c) United Artists

 

Also distinctive were the conditions under which Lester shot the film.  A real 25,000-ton cruise ship was used, one that’d been owned by a German shipping company and called the TS Hamburg, but that’d recently been sold to the Soviet Union and renamed the SS Maxim Gorki.  To make some extra money, the Soviets rented it out to the filmmakers for two-and-a-half weeks just before it went into proper service again, carrying passengers.  Lester and his team set sail for the North Atlantic looking for the right weather conditions to go with the script – conditions so stormy that it’d be impossible to deploy lifeboats and evacuate the ship.  “We found only two days’ bad weather out of sixteen,” said Lester in an interview on the website www.parallax-view.org in 2002, “but we had our own cast, crew and extras all on board. We were served by lovely ladies from Odessa—endless supplies of vodka, seven-course meals—and we made the poor captain’s eyes water as we asked him to do things with his ship which I’m sure are against every code of ethics on the sea.”

 

Among those un-seamanlike things was the filming of a scene where an explosion blew off one of the ship’s funnels.  Aware that the Soviet captain would probably draw the line at that, Lester sneakily waited until the ship got back to port.  In an interview in the Guardian in 1999, Lester recalled, “You’re not allowed to bring dynamite aboard a commercial liner, but we did and we didn’t say anything.  On the last day of shooting, just as we were about to get back to Southampton, our producer got one of the world’s first digital watches and had it inscribed with, ‘To Captain Alexandrov Dondua with the grateful thanks from the cast and crew of Juggernaut’.  And we had a presentation ceremony, got all the senior (crew) on the bridge, and just as he was handing it over at precisely 10.00 a.m. – BOOM! – we blew up the funnel with four cameras on it and a helicopter up above.  By that time it was too late and we docked at 11.30.”

 

Considering the ingenuity Lester and his film crew had to deploy on board the Maxim Gorki, I feel churlish for pointing out that the storm scenes are not always convincing.  For example, during an early sequence where Harris’s team parachute into the sea around the liner and the sailors try to fish them out before they drown, the ship’s deck doesn’t seem to be pitching around as violently as the waves are rising and falling.  However, these inconsistencies in the film’s editing are easily overlooked because the viewer is so engaged with the characters and story.

 

And the characters are engaging.  Harris plays Fallon as a weary, dishevelled but lovable warrior-poet, musing philosophically while he pokes and probes at the bombs – my favourite utterance in Juggernaut is probably Harris’s despairing line, “Remember what the goldfish said?  ‘There must be a god!  I mean, who else changes the water?’”  However, he also isn’t averse to sinking a bottle of whisky when Things Go Wrong.  No doubt the brave, poetic and boozy persona Harris projects here is the persona he attempted to project in real life.

 

Also good is Roy Kinnear, the roly-poly English actor who was a regular in Richard Lester’s movies.  He plays the ship’s entertainment officer, who has the unenviable job of keeping the passengers’ spirits up when at any moment they could be blown up.  Kinnear isn’t very good at it – the fancy-dress party he organises sees one person appear dressed as the Grim Reaper and carrying a round black object with BOMB written on it.  Late on, however, in a generous moment in Plater’s script, a glamorous American passenger played by Shirley Knight thanks the harassed Kinnear for his efforts by inviting him onto the ship’s ballroom floor for a dance.

 

Even actor Clifton James – best-known for playing the loud, dumb, redneck Louisiana police officer Sheriff J.W. Pepper in two Roger Moore James Bond movies, Live and Let Die (1973) and The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) – plays someone who’s more interesting than you’d initially expect.  His character Corrigan, another passenger, seems set up to be a stereotypical gormless American tourist, but he gets some of the sharpest dialogue and shows there’s more to him than meets the eye.  Early on, when the ship’s crew are trying to keep the existence of the bombs a secret, he memorably tells the third officer: “Buddy, I am by profession a politician, the mayor of a rather large city as a matter of fact.  In my line of work, you have to be able to lie with remarkable precision.  You also have to know how to recognise a lie when it bites you in the ass…  And I have just been bitten.”  (Admirably straight-faced, the third officer replies, “I’ll convey your complaint to the captain, sir.”)

 

I also like how Lester and Plater populate the film with incidents, characters and half-seen story threads that don’t necessarily relate to the main plot but that suggest there really is a bigger world out there, beyond the perimeters of the film, getting on with its own business.  There are the kids who get shooed away from Hopkins’ police car and nonchalantly flick V-signs at him as they walk off; the minor character played by Ben Aris who’s seen pacing obsessively about the deck, though why he does so is never explained; the steward played by Roshan Seth (later to play Nehru in Richard Attenburgh’s 1982 Oscar-winner Gandhi), whose accent switches from clichéd Hollywood Indian when he’s with the passengers to broad Cockney when he isn’t; and the scenes involving the family of Nicholas Porter, played by another disconcertingly young-looking actor, Ian Holm, who runs the shipping company but has to do what the government tells him.

 

(c) United Artists

 

There are also glimpses of a brief, half-hearted and ultimately bitter affair that Knight has with the Britannic’s captain, who’s played by none other than the great Egyptian actor, Omar Sharif.  Near the end, while passengers and crew are preparing to enter a sea that most of them are unlikely to survive, Kinnear glumly tells Knight that it could be worse: “Well, there are no icebergs.”  Spying Sharif on the bridge, Knight replies, “Correction.”

 

At the same time, Juggernaut is nail-biting as a thriller and the scenes where Harris and Hemmings work on the bombs are as tense as anything else filmed in the 1970s.  The two men banter away affably, even though they know that at any moment they could be blown to pieces, which somehow makes the tension even more intolerable.  “May you inherit the earth,” says Harris beatifically at one point.  “Yeah,” replies Hemmings, “six feet of it, I think.”

 

Finally, there’s something undeniably melancholic about the film.  On one level, it feels like a paean to Britain in the twilight years of its history – and certainly by 1974, following the Oil Crisis, the era when the country had been a world power felt a long time ago indeed.  Britain, it seemed, had nothing left, save for its sense of humour and eccentricity (which of course are well represented in Juggernaut).  It’s easy to see the film’s setting as a metaphor for the state of the nation – here’s a ship called the Britannic, adrift at sea, threatened by dangers outside and inside.  And the bloke at the helm is actually an Arab…

 

Juggernaut is also sad in retrospect because it’s one of the last chances to see its three main actors at their youthful peak.  Afterwards, Hopkins’ career would be steady but unspectacular until, of course, he achieved Hollywood stardom with The Silence of the Lambs (1989) – not as a leading man, though, but as everyone’s favourite middle-aged cannibal, Hannibal Lector.  Hemmings became a director, of TV shows and minor films.  When he did make the occasional film appearance in later life, he looked shockingly bloated, with eyebrows that seemed the size of tarantulas.

 

And as for Harris – well, he’d eventually stage a comeback, in Jim Sheridan’s The Field (1990) and Clint Eastwood’s The Unforgiven (1992), and he returned to making big movies like Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (1999) and the first two Harry Potter films.  But for a decade-and-a-half after Juggernaut, his acting career would be in freefall, his movie CV blotted by some god-awful pieces of rubbish.  When I see him in the very last scene of Juggernaut, treating his psychic wounds with a big glass of whisky on the Britannic’s deck, I wonder if he suspected what was in store for him when he got back to dry land – The Cassandra Crossing (1976), Orca Killer Whale (1977), Golden Rendezvous (1977), Tarzan the Ape Man (1981).  From a film about bombs to a string of films that were bombs.