This post is in a series: please start at Episode 1
Let my imagination go. Uhuh. Roger was very likeable and I was flattered by his view that the eccentric work of Lumiere & Son – or something like it – would be viable in the centricity of BBCTV. I would pull out all the stops on this one. I would go where I had not gone before. I had long been irritated – as suggested from time to time throughout Strength Weekly – by the received wisdoms of playwriting, especially those which asserted the primacy of well rounded character, credible dialogue and a good story. While, as a consumer, I was often content to savour the accomplishments of playwrights, screenwriters and novelists who had no axe to grind with regard to these matters, when it came to producing my own stuff I was hardcore and became increasingly so as the years went by.
I mused on the notion of just how much could be removed from performance before it vanished. Peter Brook, of course, had said “A man walks across an empty space, whilst someone else is watching him and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged” but it’s not really a night out, is it? Besides, I wasn’t a minimalist, I wanted busy, fast, imagistic theatre.
Then it came to me. One of the wisdoms I had received was that drama could not exist without conflict. Who said? And how dare they? I would write a (television) drama without conflict. I would open the screenplay with some characters facing an insurmountable problem which they would proceed to surmount without developing as characters. Having removed the plot engine about a quarter of the way in I would then guide the characters – the detectives Jean and Max and their client Anna – through a series of situations that delivered modest challenges which were almost immediately resolved for no reason connected either to the nature of the principals or their efforts or some mysterious yet beneficent quality of the phenomenal world. Shit, then, would just happen.
As I noted this down I began to realise that this was what Britain was waiting for: thanks to the perspicacity of Roger, a young 39 year old playwright would storm the small screens of the country with his moreish avant-gardism and quite quickly find a snug abode in the nation’s hearts. He (I) would become the Bleasdale of the New Bleak, the uncompromising author of works of hilarious sad violent beauty that eschewed irritating wisdoms.
Fortunately I have always been calm in the face of heck and was able, despite my dizzying prospects, to continue applying myself to the compositional task. I decided that not only would conflict be removed wheresoever it arose but that the characters would move backwards through time because, as everybody knows, the olden days were so much better in all ways except for medical science in particular anaesthetics. As scenes progressed, the characters’ costumes would regress through the styles of the centuries. Not only that, I decided, but – following my own insistent logic – the species would travel backwards to its origins in the Garden of Eden after which the women would disappear into the mens’ bodies via a wound appearing just below the site of their sixth rib.
Episode 4: The draft is borne into the world. It makes an impression on representatives of the BBC.
The over-rated ‘Atonement’ features a cumbersome episode on the beaches of Dunkirk. Had the episode been excised before shooting then the movie would immediately have become a low-budget costumer. As it was, a large proportion of the inhabitants of Redcar got to stand on the beach dressed as Tommies waiting for boats and Joe Wright, the director, was able to stage a complicated exercise in logistics that probably qualifies him and Seamus McGarvey, the Director of Photography, as safe pairs of Hollywood hands.
Directing a war scene is possibly as demanding as directing a battle but the hotels are better. On the basis of a long, ambitious, logistically challenging scene that makes its point in two minutes, Wright’s hotels can only get more splendid.
There’s much to be said about ‘Atonement’ – the woodenness of Knightley, the cleanliness of the costumes, the televisualness of the non-battle scenes – that I don’t want to get into. The battle scene, though, put me in mind of a very different film: ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’ (‘The Wanderer’, also ‘The Lost Domain’) made in 1967 by Jean-Gabriel Albicocco. Based on the eponymous Alain-Fournier novel (1913), it
follows the book’s account of 17 year old Augustin Meaulnes, a newcomer to a village school in the Sologne district in the Loire Valley. Big Meaulnes, much admired by his younger school fellows, goes missing for three nights. When he returns, he tells an extraordinary story.
Meaulnes had got lost in the countryside and wandered into the grounds of a mysterious country house where a grand and magical engagement party was being prepared. Passing himself off as a guest he met Yvonne de Galais, the sister of Frantz, for whom the party was being held. Meaulnes was transfixed by Yvonne’s beauty and when he returned home, vowed to see her again. Despite searching obsessively he was never able to find the house – the lost domain – and spent much of the rest of his life pining for the woman he had only met for a few minutes.
Albicocco’s cinematic rendition of the country house fete is extraordinary. Shot through heavily vaselined lenses, Meaulnes is seen weaving from one dreamlike setting to another, encountering rooms hung with lanterns and swathes of brocaded cloth, through which a gambolling Pierrot leads crowds of revellers in fancy dress. Compared to the drab flatlands in which Meaulnes lives, the place is almost unbearably exotic and comes to represent all that is unrecoverable about experience. The novel and the movie both set benchmarks for the melancholic, elegiac celebration of nostalgia and lost youth.
‘Le Grand Meaulnes’ counterpoints an expressionistic – albeit dated (a little vaseline goes quite a long way) – film style with the restrained, naturalistic palette used for the scenes of school life, searching and yearning. The film is, in fact, a masterpiece of yearning and manages to give this doomed and solitary practice a good name. The most talked about episode in ‘Atonement’, however – the epic Dunkirk beach scene – is, in addition to being almost superfluous to the film’s concerns, a covert vehicle for a far less attractive yearning.
The Dunkirk section is shot through with so much carnivalesque romance that it made me want to dash to the seaside in an itchy outfit and die among the ferris wheels, grand abandoned hotels, beached boats and battered bandstands. I would ride on the back of a long tracking shot through the superb carnage, dying frequently, waking up time and time again with my tragic Tommy muckers, hoisting foaming, pillaged tankards with blind and half-blind ordinary heroes, shooting stallions regretfully, howling, weeping and laughing at the sheer heck of it all and adjusting my scarf. Tapped on the shoulder by a curious passerby I would declare “Yes, this is what I have yearned for and only now have I found it!” “And what’s that, dear?” “What men want, old lady! A ferris wheel turning as my dreams of democracy collapse only to be revived by community singing! The nobility of having one leg! The admirable servility of the Cockney soldier towards his betters reduced only slightly yet quite understandably in times of extreme privation! In fact, yes – the closeness of men, the openness of wounds, the fun of hell, the hell of heck, the death of death, the picturesque, the picturesque!”