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

 

I love you really, Roger!

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

I believe that as you get older, and if you possess even half of a conscience, you find yourself brooding more and more on the sins that you committed in your past.  You can never forget the cruel, spiteful and hurtful things that you’ve done over the years.  The memories of those things hang around, lurking in the recesses of your soul.  And as you move through life, and inexorably approach your final destination, they become ever-more restless and vocal – like ghosts moaning and rattling their chains and psychically knocking the furniture around with increasing volume, agitation and violence.  I’m sure there comes a point when, in your old age, your guilt tortures you to the point where you’re absolutely desperate to atone for those dark and distant misdeeds.

 

No doubt that’s the reason why, lately, I’ve found myself dwelling uncomfortably on a sin I’ve committed during the years that I’ve written this blog.  Yes, I’ve been beastly to Roger Moore.

 

If you’re familiar with this blog, you’ll know how it goes.  I write an entry about James Bond – of whom I’m a big fan, both in his literary incarnation written by Ian Fleming and in his cinematic incarnation masterminded by the Broccoli family – and something gives me reason to refer to the third actor to play 007 in the movies, from Live and Let Die in 1974 until A View to a Kill in 1985.  And then I make a comment likening Roger Moore’s acting ability to that of a plank, or a floorboard, or a block of wood, or a sheet of mahogany, or a slab of teak, or a lump of concrete, or a vat of dried cement, or an Easter Island statue, or one of the monoliths that were featured in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  Or, still on the subject of his acting ability, I give vent to an unkind pun about ‘Roger Mortis’.  Or I say something snarky about Roger’s left eyebrow being the most expressive part of his entire body.  Or I crack an ungentlemanly joke about James Bond getting ‘Roger-ed’ in the 1970s and 1980s.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Well, I have decided that the time has come to make amends.  I realise that my Crimes Against Roger are of such a magnitude that I can never fully cleanse myself of the bad, anti-Roger karma I’ve created, but I will at least have a go.  Here is a blog-entry dedicated to being positive about the crinkly, safari-suit-wearing, eyebrow-elevating James Bond Number Three.  Here is an account of all the good things that Roger has done over the years.

 

There are some good things…  I know there are some good things…  I just have to search around a bit to find them…  Oh yes!  Here they are.

 

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)

Cited by Moore as his favourite among the films he’s made – he agreed to star in it for much less than his usual fee – The Man Who Haunted Himself is a bizarre psychological-horror-cum-ghost-story.  It was also the final film directed by Basil Deardon, who’d worked on the legendary supernatural anthology movie Dead of Night back in 1945.

 

The Man Who Haunted Himself is a tale of a well-to-do businessman called Harold Pelham, played by Moore, who’s badly injured in a car crash and undergoes a weird incident during the subsequent emergency surgery – he briefly seems to die on the operating table and then two heartbeats appear on the monitoring machine rather than one.  Thereafter, the supposedly-recovered Pelham finds himself being stalked by a sinister doppelganger.  Pelham never encounters this doppelganger himself; but, behind his back, it ingratiates itself among his family, friends and colleagues and does things, like making important business decisions and having an affair, for which he gets the credit / blame.  Pelham is so unnerved by this that his behaviour becomes alarming to his friends, family and colleagues.  Indeed, he acts so out-of-character that they begin to wonder if he might be, you know, an imposter.

 

(c) EMI

 

I saw this movie on TV when I was a kid and was extremely freaked out by it – probably because by then I was accustomed to seeing Moore play suave and unflappable characters in TV shows like The Saint (1962-1969) and The Persuaders (1971-1972).  So I wasn’t ready to see him play someone who spends a film in a state of increasing mental disintegration and becomes a gibbering, possibly insane ruin by its end.  It got bad reviews and made little money at the time of its release, but it’s now regarded as a cult classic – championed, I suspect, by people my age who also first saw it as kids and also found the sight of Roger Moore cracking up seriously disturbing.  Its admirers, incidentally, include Pulp singer, cultural commentator and raconteur Jarvis Cocker.

 

The Persuaders (1971-1972)

Okay, I’m cheating a little when I cite The Persuaders as a good thing.  This comedy-action TV series Moore made for Lew Grade in the early 1970s, in which he and Tony Curtis played a pair of jet-setting playboys / adventurers who constantly get into and out of scrapes, is really pretty vacuous.  But what makes it unforgettable is its theme music – a marvellous composition by John Barry that’s mysterious, swirling and rather gothic.  Hearing it at the start of each episode, you’re led to expect a completely different type of TV show, a far darker and edgier one, from what you actually get.  I think the fact that no less a personage than Johnny Marr, the former guitarist with The Smiths, plays The Persuaders theme when he and his band come onstage these days is an indication of its quality.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t99QQIXez4M

 

John Barry, of course, would have much more to do with Roger Moore in the years ahead – for Barry was also James-Bond composer numero uno.  In fact, if I had to have some music played at my funeral, it would probably be a toss-up between the Persuaders theme and Barry’s instrumental from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1968).  Though knowing my luck, someone would probably hit the wrong track on the John Barry compilation CD, with the result that my remains were carted away to the sound of Lulu singing The Man with the Golden Gun.

 

(c) ITC

 

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

Say what you like about the quality of Roger Moore’s other James Bond films – and in my opinion they range from the underwhelming to the atrocious – but you can’t deny that The Spy Who Loved Me is the one that deserves its place in the premier league of great 007 movies.  On paper it looks as lazy as all the other Bond movies being made around that time – a car that travels underwater, a villain who kills people by dropping them into shark-pools, a giant henchman with steel teeth and a plot that’s been copied from 1967’s You Only Live Twice (only with stolen submarines instead of stolen spacecraft).  But it’s done with such style and élan that Moore, writers Christopher Wood and Richard Maibaum, producer Cubby Broccoli and so on get away with it.  And of course, the pre-titles sequence – the one that made it a rule that the opening scene of each new Bond film had to contain a big stunt – is a corker.

 

No wonder that in season two of I’m Alan Partridge (2002), Steve Coogan gets immensely upset when he discovers that Michael-the-Geordie has taped over his copy of The Spy Who Loved Me with an episode of America’s Strongest Man.  “Now you’ve got Norfolk’s maddest man!” he rages.  Quite.

 

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

 

(c) ITC

 

His humanitarian work

Moore has been a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, since 1991; and, sweetly, he once lent his voice to a UNICEF-sponsored cartoon called The Fly Who Loved Me (2004).  He has also been involved in the campaign by PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, against the gruesome practices used in the making of foie gras and he helped to persuade the department store Selfridges to stop stocking the stuff.

 

No other actor is capable of doing Roger-stuff

Yes, there are plenty of moments during Moore’s seven Bond movies when, as a serious fan of Ian Fleming’s superspy, I’ve wanted to hide behind the sofa in embarrassment.  But if I switch off my brain’s critical faculties, I have to admit there’s a certain, if facile, charm in seeing Roger Moore go through his paces – silly though the situations are.

 

And I doubt very much if the other actors who’ve played James Bond since the 1960s could go through the same escapades and emerge from them with their dignity intact, the way that Roger Moore – somehow – manages to do.  I suspect Timothy Dalton would look a bit of a dick if he performed a corkscrewing car-jumping stunt, accompanied by comedy noises and with Sheriff J.W. Pepper in the passenger’s seat – but Roger did just that in The Man with the Golden Gun (1975) and nobody thought less of him.  (They certainly thought less of the film, though.)  And I’m sure Daniel Craig would look a right fanny if he escaped from some villains in a gondola that turned into a speedboat and then turned into a hovercraft – but Roger did so in Moonraker (1979) and nobody accused him of being a fanny.

 

Why, even the mighty Sean would have difficulty keeping his poise and self-esteem if he had to dangle from a ladder on the back of a speeding fire engine (driven by Tanya Roberts).  But – you guessed it! – Roger did that in A View to a Kill (1985) and got away with it.  Just about.

 

Yes, when it comes to doing Roger-stuff, nobody does it better.

 

Glang!  Glang-a-lang, glang-a-lang, glang-a-lang…  Glang-a-lang!

 

(c) The Belfast Telegraph