The dark mastery of Stephen Volk

 

© PS Publishing

 

Constructing a work of art around a real and well-known person who existed within living memory is a hazardous business.  You’re immediately open to criticism from those who disagree with your portrayal of that person or, indeed, who think it wrong to attempt a portrayal in the first place.  To give a recent example, I’ve seen both an author and an academic slam Quentin Tarantino’s new movie Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood on social media because, supposedly, (1) it depicts Bruce Lee unflatteringly, and (2) it depicts Charles Manson, who shouldn’t be depicted at all.  Neither author nor academic had actually seen the film so that they could make proper, evidence-based judgements about it.  But in true Mary Whitehouse fashion (i.e. acting on hearsay) they were happy to denounce it anyway.

 

Come to think of it, it isn’t just hazardous writing books or plays or making films about real people within living memory.  There’s plenty of folk in Scotland who’ll happily bend your ear about how William Shakespeare got it all wrong about Macbeth.

 

Someone who lately plunged into these dangerous waters is novelist and scriptwriter Stephen Volk, whose credits include the screenplay of the ground-breaking supernatural TV movie / pretend documentary-investigation Ghostwatch (1992), which according to IMDb “earned the dubious honour of being the first TV programme to be cited in the British Medical Journal as having caused Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome in children.”  Volk’s 2018 collection The Dark Masters Trilogy contains three novellas and features no less than four real-life figures who, in the 20th century, loomed large in the cultures of film, fiction and the esoteric.

 

The first novella, Whitstable, concerns the English horror-movie star Peter Cushing.  Although he passed away a quarter-century ago, and despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that his trademark gentlemanliness, good manners and charm seem utterly extinct in the bad-tempered, Brexit-coarsened Britain of 2019, Cushing still commands much affection among film-buffs of a certain age.  Indeed, he made the headlines in 2016 when the makers of the Star Wars spin-off Rogue One controversially used CGI technology to resurrect his Grand Moff Tarkin character from 1977’s original Star Wars movie.  (Objectors claimed it was disrespectful to Cushing’s memory and set worrying precedents, but I have to say I was just delighted to see the old boy back on the screen, even if it wasn’t really him being him.)

 

© Hammer Films / Warner Bros

 

The second novella in The Dark Masters Trilogy is called Leytonstone and describes a (mostly) imaginary episode from the London childhood of that great director of suspense movies, Alfred Hitchcock.  Incidentally, I recently read a 1967 interview with Orson Welles (conducted by Kenneth Tynan), where the stout bearded one said confidently of Hitchcock: “I honestly don’t believe that Hitchcock is a director whose pictures will be of any interest a hundred years from now.”  Well, Orson, we’re now in 2019 and people seem as fascinated by ‘Hitch’ as ever.  So you have 48 years left for your prediction to be proven right.

 

The final novella, Netherwood, offers an unlikely team-up.  It has the occultist Aleister Crowley, the notorious self-styled ‘Great Beast’ and ‘Wickedest Man in the World’ whose antics in the early 20th century terrified clean-living, God-fearing people who believed everything they read in the British popular press, joining forces with Dennis Wheatley, the one-time bestselling author of adventure and thriller novels, most notably black-magic potboilers such as 1934’s The Devil Rides Out, whose villain was supposedly inspired by Crowley.

 

All three are splendid, but the Cushing one is my favourite.  It’s set in 1971 during the darkest period of the actor’s life.  His beloved wife of 28 years, Helen, has just died of emphysema.  Devastated, he shuts himself away from the world in his home in Whitstable, the Kent seaside town of the title.  One day, however, he forces himself out for a walk along the beach and encounters a boy who’s daft about horror films but still slightly too young to distinguish fantasy from reality.  Having seen the 1958 Hammer version of Dracula, where Cushing plays the learned vampire-slayer Van Helsing, the boy assumes Cushing is Van Helsing and asks him for help.  He believes his mother’s boyfriend is a vampire because the boyfriend enters his bedroom at night and does things to him that leave him feeling physically and spiritually drained. “Afterwards, I feel bad,” he explains, “like I’m dead inside.”  Horrified by what he’s discovered, Cushing has to set his own emotional turmoil aside and figure out how to help the boy.

 

A story that pits someone like Cushing, a monster-hunter in the comfortable world of old gothic horror films, against a genuine monster who sexually abuses children could have been a disaster if it hadn’t been done properly.  But Volk achieves the appropriate tone, writes with delicacy and pulls the trick off.  Particularly good is the finale, where Cushing confronts the mother’s boyfriend in Whitstable’s cinema during a matinee showing of one of his recent horror epics, 1970’s The Vampire Lovers.  What’s happening on the screen contrasts ironically and memorably with what’s happening in the stalls.

 

Clearly, Volk has been meticulous in his research and doesn’t put a foot wrong in his portrayal of Cushing – his habits, idiosyncrasies and speech patterns, his deeply-felt Christianity and his love for his wife, whose death cast a shadow he never escaped from afterwards.  And there are enough knowledgeable references to his movies to keep fans happy.  Also spot-on are Volk’s descriptions of Whitstable and his evocation of the sights and sounds of a typical south-east England seaside town – pleasant (waves, seagulls, boats and the ramshackle, antiquated charm of the seafront) and unpleasant (small-town gossip, nosiness and parochialism, tourist tat and the often-neglected neighbourhoods set back from the areas frequented by holidaymakers).

 

From tvtropes.org    

 

Leytonstone begins with an incident from Alfred Hitchcock’s boyhood that the director himself mentioned in later life.  One day his father sent him to the local police station with a note instructing the policemen to lock him in a cell.  The policemen obliged, much to the lad’s horror and bewilderment since he didn’t know what he’d done wrong.  It transpired that his father merely  wanted to show him what happened ‘to naughty boys’.  As I remember the story, Hitchcock’s incarceration lasted only a few minutes.  In Leytonstone, however, it goes on for a whole night.

 

I’d assumed that the police-cell ordeal would form the bulk of Leytonstone, so I was surprised when it finished early on in the story.  Volk is more interested in what happens afterwards and spins a tale whereby the now screwed-up little Alfred does something horrible to a schoolgirl he’s become obsessed with (a blonde, obviously).  In turn, the consequences of his misdeed rebound on his doting mother and involve the scheming policeman who’d originally locked him up.

 

Leytonstone skilfully manipulates the readers’ emotions.  We feel sorry for the hapless, juvenile Hitchcock when he’s the victim of his father’s perverse ideas about instilling discipline.  Later, he becomes a little monster who deserves our contempt, but we still find ourselves rooting for him when his schoolmasters and the police start to close in on him.  This manipulation, of course, was characteristic of Hitchcock himself as a filmmaker.  Witness, for example, 1973’s Frenzy, where we start off believing that Jon Finch is an unpleasant loner and possibly a serial killer while Barry Foster is a likeable chirpy Cockney chappie who loves his mum; but then have to radically rearrange our sympathies when we discover that Finch is really the hero and Foster is the villain.

 

Lastly, Netherwood is set in post-World War II England and has the ailing Aleister Crowley enlisting Dennis Wheatley’s help to fight what he claims is a monstrously evil scheme involving the sacrifice of a child and the coming of a new demagogue on par with Hitler.  The pair invoke occult forces in an effort to thwart this and there’s an ambiguous conclusion that leaves Wheatley wondering just what’s happened.  Has the infamously slippery Crowley pulled a massive joke on him?  The story is engrossing and the interplay between the two men is delightful.  In lesser hands, Wheatley could have become a figure of fun, reacting priggishly to Crowley’s constant, gleeful provocations, but Volk makes him surprisingly sympathetic.  He’s tortured by feelings of class inferiority – he thinks he’s married ‘above himself’ – and by guilt that, middle-aged, he couldn’t physically fight for his country during the war.  (But I’ll say more about Wheatley’s sympathetic-ness in a minute.)  Crowley is engaging too.  Scoundrel though he is, he seems to be trying to do the right thing here.

 

From  en.wikipedia.org  

 

Quibbles?  Well, I felt the epilogue to Leytonstone, where we see the elderly Hitchcock looking back on a life of fame and fortune, was a tad unnecessary – the story made all the points it needed to make while Hitchcock was still a child.  And I suspect some readers will find the conclusion of Netherwood slightly disappointing after all the build-up.  I suppose Volk had to pull his punches.  If what Wheatley went through in the story had had more tangible results, I imagine he’d have written books very different from the ones he did write during the next three decades till his death in 1977.

 

Meanwhile, those familiar with Wheatley may raise an eyebrow at how Volk generally avoids referring to the man’s unpleasantly right-wing politics – which in 1947, with Clement Attlee’s Labour government busy setting up a cradle-to-grave welfare state, he’d have been spouting at every opportunity.  Indeed, according to his Wikipedia entry, he penned at this time a ‘letter to posterity’ wherein he denounced the government’s reforms as something ‘bound to undermine the vigour of the race’ and advocated the ‘ambushing and killing of unjust tyrannous officials.’  His reactionary views increasingly surfaced in his occult works, where the forces of Satan were found to be in league with things that Wheatley disapproved of, like trade unions, feminists, pop music and – least forgivably, in 1973’s Gateway to Hell – the black civil rights movement.

 

To be fair to Volk, today Wheatley is the least well-remembered of his ‘Dark Masters’.  He and his books seemed to disappear off the public’s radar the moment he died (something that’s cleverly foreshadowed at one point in Netherwood) and his persona is the least well-known.  Presumably Volk had to work on his character to make it sympathetic and interesting enough to draw the readers through the story, which meant smoothing off some rough edges.

 

Because of its focus, The Dark Masters Trilogy is somewhat restricted in its appeal.  You probably need to be my age or older to fully appreciate it.  I remember my boyhood as being an era when BBC1 showed Hitchcock seasons on Friday nights and BBC2 showed horror-movie double bills (often featuring Cushing) on Saturday nights; when buying Wheatley’s black-magic epics was something you did furtively because their 1970s covers, courtesy of Arrow Books, were illustrated with pictures of topless, big-breasted ladies dancing around flames; and when the bookshops where you bought your Wheatleys were crammed too with sensationalist books about the occult, esoteric and supernatural, cashing in on a fad for such subjects that’d been created in part by Crowley (who by 1967 had garnered enough street credibility to appear on the cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album).  I doubt if Volk’s heroes and anti-heroes figure much in the memories of people younger than me.

 

But if you’re in the target demographic and remember the above things fondly… Then you’ll love this book.

 

© Allan Warren / Creative Commons

 

Who is the Macbeth-est of them all?

 

(c) Studiocanal S.A. / Channel Four Television

 

In response to some big anniversary celebrations going on in the United Kingdom at the moment, I have just succumbed to the urge to watch a movie about regicide.

 

No, the celebrations that made me do this weren’t those marking Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday, which has predictably caused epic levels of shameless bowing and scraping, toadying, grovelling and brown-nosing in the British media.  To give just one of many examples, the Daily Mail’s Chris Deerin tweeted a photo of the Queen posing with various grandkids and great-grandkids accompanied by the message: “It’s all about a family.  That’s why it works.  It’s beautiful.”  Oh, pass the sick-bag.

 

I’m actually referring to the festivities marking the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death on April 23rd.  And the film I have just watched is the Justin Kurzel-directed version of Macbeth, released a year ago and starring Michael Fassbender as the king-stabbing, crown-grabbing title character.  It’s left me with mixed emotions.

 

On the negative side, the drama feels subdued at times, thanks to the amount of low-volume muttering and mumbling going on that rather takes the fire out of Shakespeare’s lines.  I suspect the reason why the cast, which includes Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth, David Thewlis as Duncan, Paddy Considine as Banquo, Sean Harris as Macduff and Jack Reynor as Malcolm, downplay things is because the main actors are Irish, French and English and they don’t feel terribly comfortable doing the required Scottish accents.  The film contains a couple of hardy old Scottish character actors as well, David Hayman and Maurice Roëves; but, playing Lennox and Menteith respectively, they’re well down the cast-list.

 

There’s also much that’s been chopped out of this version of the Scottish play.  It runs for an hour and fifty minutes, which is forty minutes less than the stage production scheduled for the Globe Theatre in London this summer.  Out goes the post-regicide comedy relief with the porter; and most of the “Double, double toil and trouble / Fire burn and cauldron bubble” hijinks with the witches.  There’s no murder scene in Macduff’s castle, which deprives us of the first murderer’s cry of “What, you egg!” followed by the pun, “Young fry of treachery!”  There’s no sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, though she gets to utter her “Out, damned spot” line elsewhere.   And I don’t recall hearing Macbeth intone Act 3 Scene 2’s “Light thickens and the crow / Makes wing to the rooky wood. / Good things of day begin to droop and drowse / Whiles night’s black agents to their prey do rouse,” though maybe it was just buried low in the mix.

 

On the other hand, the film looks lovely – and that’s in spite of the post-Braveheart quantities of dirt, mud, blood, woad, facial hair and scar tissue on view.  I’m sure Visit Scotland won’t complain about the free advertisement that this Macbeth provides for the Isle of Skye, where many of its outdoor scenes were shot.  Mind you, a good part of it was also filmed in England, at Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland and Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire.

 

(c) Studiocanal S.A. / Channel Four Television

 

And the final sequence, where Macbeth squares up to Macduff, is stunning.  Their swordfight takes place against an infernal and almost hallucinogenic orange-red backdrop while Birnam Wood burns off-screen.  For yes, the scriptwriters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso have cooked up – and ‘cook’ is the operative word – a novel way of bringing Birnam Wood to the castle on Dunsinane Hill.

 

One element that Kurzel and his writer add to this Macbeth, as opposed to cut out of it, creates an interesting motif.  They preface the drama with a scene where Macbeth and his wife bid adieu to their only child, whose body is laid out on a funeral pyre.  Their subsequent childlessness is contrasted with the situation of Banquo, who has a son, Fleance; and that of Macduff, who has a brood of kids.  (The little Macduffs aren’t put to the sword by anonymous assassins, as in the play, but are tied to stakes on a beach and set alight by Macbeth himself.)  Even the witches here have a couple of offspring — one of them is nursing a baby and there’s a little girl-witch who turns up to help Fleance escape when his father gets murdered.

 

Indeed, the childlessness / fecundity ironies come thick and fast.  We see Macbeth press a dagger against his wife’s womb at one point and inflict a nasty-looking crotch wound on Macduff at another.  And when Duncan fatefully arrives at the Macbeths’ place to stay for the night, his hosts lay on a choir of little children for his entertainment.  Though it has to be said that Duncan and his entourage watch the show with as much enthusiasm as parents having to sit through a primary-school nativity play.  No wonder Duncan’s bodyguards get so drunk afterwards.

 

(c) Caliban Films / Playboy Productions / Columbia Pictures

 

Maybe my real issue with Justin Kurzel’s new Macbeth is simply that I kept expecting Fassbender and Cotillard to suddenly disappear in a puff of smoke and be replaced by Jon Finch and Francesca Annis – who were the stars of Roman Polanski’s version of Macbeth back in 1970, a movie that made a big impression on me.  I was 16 when I saw it, so no doubt one reason why I took to it was because the film’s qualities – its simultaneous bleakness, bloodiness, bawdiness, gothic-ness, gorgeousness, rebelliousness and sophistication – mirrored the mix of emotions and hormones seething in my teenaged head and body at the time.  And also, at 16, I probably felt a connection with the film because Finch and Annis were both so young when they made it.  In fact, their youthfulness suggests they have little power to control their destinies.  They’re swept along with events, propelled by dark forces that are both political and supernatural.

 

Polanski’s Macbeth was disliked by many critics who were upset by its violence and were disturbed by the fact that Polanski’s recent past had been pretty violent too.  In August 1969, his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and four others were butchered at his home in Beverly Hills by followers of the hippie-cult lunatic Charles Manson.  Pauline Kael, the film critic for the New Yorker, even wondered if Polanski’s staging of the murders of Macduff’s family was an attempt to recreate the carnage that Manson had authored in his own life.  Famously, the film’s screenwriter, Kenneth Tynan, challenged Polanski about the amount of blood shown in this scene – to which the director retorted, “You should have seen my house last summer.”

 

One other cinematic Macbeth I know is the 1948 production directed by, and starring, Orson Welles.  I watched this on TV a long time ago and wasn’t impressed by its apparent staginess and melodramatics – by then I was in thrall to the Polanski version.  However, lately, I’ve watched a few parts of it on Youtube and revised my opinion of it somewhat.  Yes, it’s cheap.  Welles made it for Republic Pictures, a studio that normally specialised in low-budget westerns, had to shoot it on some of Republic’s leftover western sets and had only a 23-day shooting schedule.  But scenes like Act 3 Scene 4, where Banquo’s ghost shows up at the feast with ‘no speculation’ in his eyes and shaking his ‘gory locks’ at his killer, are surprisingly well-staged.  Though I suppose you’d expect that from Welles.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9BUg7WG2Z4

 

There are problems, however.  Though he was only 33 at the time, Welles was already getting portly and resembled Falstaff more than Macbeth; and it doesn’t help that he appears in an eccentric costume that, he grumbled later, made him look like the Statue of Liberty.

 

(c) Republic Pictures / Mercury Productions

 

And then there are the accents – dear God.  Welles’s American cast dial the fake twee Scottish-ness up to 11 and roll their ‘r’s for minutes at a time.  Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth gets shrill and hard to listen to and even Welles himself, during his more excitable moments, ends up sounding like Scottie in Star Trek.  Meanwhile, the witches’ accents are so piercing that they remind me of Molly Weir in those advertisements that she used to make for Flash, the household cleaning agent, back in the 1970s: “Flash cleans baths without scr-r-r-r-ratching.”

 

So all respect to Orson Welles and Justin Kurzel.  But at the end of the day, it’s Polanski’s Macbeth that’s the Macbeth for me.