JABBERWOCKY (1977)

JABBERWOCKY

Michael Palin / Max Wall / Deborah Fallender / John LeMesurier / Harry H. Corbett / Warren Mitchell / Annette Badland / Bernard Bresslaw / John Bird / Rodney Bewes / Neil Innes / Terry Jones / Brian Glover /  Art Direction  Millie Burns  /  Costume Design  Charles Knode & Hazel Pethig  /  Cinematography  Terry Bedford  /  Production  Julian Doyle, John Goldstone & Sanford Lieberson  /  Screenplay  Charles Alverson & Terry Gilliam  /  Director  Terry Gilliam

Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky has never really known what it was supposed to be, which considering it was inspired by a Lewis Carroll nonsense poem (from ‘Alice, through the looking glass’) is all quite suitable. That said, it is certainly the most dysfunctional of all Gilliam’s forays into cinema, which is quite an achievement in itself, given the number of capsized projects to fall by the wayside, or  else battered by harsh studio edits. *Von Stroheim shakes a small fist at the heavens, and mutters something unintelligible in German..*

Prior to his present incarnation as Director and all round risk-taking auteur, Terry Gilliam was of course the American, animation guy in that bunch of mighty comic surrealists Monty Python. The Python collective mind (along with Mr.Gilliam comprising of John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Terry Jones & Eric Idle), was never truly versed in the poetic cinematic eyes and ears of the business, contented to stick to the tried and tested loose structure of linked sketches when tackling their big screen appearances. Both The Life of Brian & The Holy Grail are largely stitched together gags, that either rely upon one unifying character bounding from one scene to the next (Chapman tending to take to the lead) and an even coating of contextual or atmospheric detail, generally the contribution of Gilliam’s fevered imagination and madcap visual referencing.

To stride out from the comfy confines of Python was never going to be a simple task, especially when it necessitated borrowing fellow Pythons Palin & Terry Jones to keep the backers happy. Killing off Jones in the opening sequence helped provide a little distance, and silence any unwanted directorial influence (Jones not only Directed ‘Brian’, but also took the lion share of the Directors chair on ‘Holy Grail’).  Unfortunately Jabberwocky winds up being far closer to ‘Life of Brian’, than I’m sure Gilliam intended, even regurgitating the beggar scene, albeit with a wry twist (Palin looking on in abject horror at a beggar reduced to chopping off his own feet in improve public sympathies).

Where Jabberwocky truly excels is in it’s extraordinary ensemble cast of comedy royalty. Harry H. Corbett (Steptoe & Son) gives one of his last great performances, dodging the wrath of ‘Carry-on’ giant Bernard Bresslaw ,  Warren Mitchell (Alf Garnett) cooks up a delicious role as Mr.Fishfinger, whilst John LeMesurier (Dad’s Army) plays the hilariously camp Lord Chancellor to Max Wall’s blissfully, unstately King Bruno the Questionable.  Curiously what hinders ‘Jabberwocky’ is it’s preoccupation with cramming as much humour in as possible, but at the same time it is that humour which ultimately allows the Period setting to work quite as well as it does. Without the humour we would be left with a series of beautiful visuals, some nice costumes, and very little else.

Every other Gilliam project is characterized by it’s complexity. Jabberwocky is the complete opposite.. which in a way makes it quite fascinating, showing a bare-bones Gilliam, caught with his trouser’s down. er.. that sounds worse than intendid.

 

In purely cinematic terms, a certain distance, or modern standpoint is required, from which perspective we can observe and remain afloat throughout a realised piece, without losing our way and stewing in the mix. Admittedly we have Michael Palin’s central character attempting to impart a ‘Modern System of Economics’ upon the Mediaeval marketplace, as a sort of pre-cursor to the coming of the ‘so-called’ Age of Enlightenment and Modernity (to be so beautifully explored and despaired at in ‘Baron Munchausen’).. but the wonderful epiphany of equating the past with dreams, and blurring the distinction between fantasy and reality, is yet to take hold. This revelation finds it’s birth in Gilliam’s forthcoming ‘Time Bandits’, before taking full, glorious flight in his Walter Mitty nightmare ‘Brazil’. There is though, something oh, so very attractive about standing on the brink of greatness, and enjoying the birth of a new creative genius in the making. Jabberwocky is fun, crude and chock full of dangerous risks. If only all first directorial projects were as full of freshness and infectious vitality. If you peer over the cartoon horizon at the films end, you can just about make out the glorious shape of things to come.. 

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;

Long time the manxome foe he sought—

So rested he by the Tumtum tree,

And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

‘The Jabberwocky’ from ‘Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There’ (1872)

 by Lewis Carroll – Illustration by John Tenniel

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Poppy Shakespeare (2008)

Poppy Shakespeare

POPPY SHAKESPEARE

 Anna Maxwell Martin / Naiomie Harris / Jonathan Cullan / Adrian Scarborough / Claire Benedict / Cathy Murphy / Nicholas Beveney / Marie Critchley /  Darrell D’Silva / Janine Birkett / Michelle Dockery / Marie Critchley / Josef Altin / Based on the novel  ‘Poppy Shakespeare’  Clare Allan / Screenplay  Sarah Williams / Art Direction  Grant Armstrong / Cinematography  Danny Cohen / Directed  Benjamin Ross

N

‘Since prisons and madhouses exist, why somebody is bound to sit in them.’ 

ANTON CHEKHOV

Channel 4’s pledge to make modern, bold programming is exemplified in it’s adaptation of Clare Allan’s lyrical novel ‘Poppy Shakespeare’. While the BBC single-handedly keeps the period drama alive, Channel 4 feeds vital blood into the modern British film industry, putting some of that Big Brother cash to good use. Anna Maxwell Martin (‘Bleak House’ and star of the West End hit ‘Caberet’) plays ‘N’, the nameless veteran of a lifetime in mental healthcare, outpatient from the Dorothy Fish hospital. One of a number of fellow patients battling with the realisation that cutbacks and privatisation will gradually see each of them one by one cut loose to the despair of their own recogniscence. Despite her sorrowful demeaner (looking remarkably like Kenny from South Park in her highly zipped red jacket) and tragic childhood, it becomes gradually clear that ‘N’ is by far the sanest ‘dribbler’ on the block, Institutionalised yet savvy to how the system works. Enter Poppy Shakespeare, played by Naiomie Harris (you may remember her Jamaican accented harpy from Pirates of the Caribbean), admitted to the Dorothy Fish against her will.. aggressive, but seemingly quite sane. ‘N’ is given the job of showing Poppy the ropes, but the two quickly latch onto eachother in a rather intense relationship that sees a reversal of fortunes, personalities, and perceptions of reality.

Jonathan Cullen

Naomie Harris

Anna Maxwell Martin really is mezmerizing to watch (both here and in the achingly sad ‘Bleak House’), the only actor I can think of to compare her with is Timothy Spall, or perhaps Ralph Fiennes performance in the David Cronenberg film ‘Spider’..except Anna manages to exude far more natural charm. Although Anna dominates each and every scene, Naiome Harris does an admirable job, and there’s a wonderful collection of characters in the supporting cast. Adrian Scarborough (‘Gavin & Stacey’) heads up the ministry of madness in the guise of ‘Middle class Michael’, along with an assortment of notables including Cathy Murphy (‘Casualty 1906’) and a wonderfully sincere Claire Benedict (I seem to remember seeing her in ‘Grange Hill’ as one of the teachers?) amongst others. There’s a lovely little scene in a trapped lift with Nicholas Woodeson (Posca from ‘Rome’) delivering an eerie little speech, blurring the already smudged line between sanity & madness further. Darrell D’Silva’s state legitimized drug dealer dispenses his wares Trainspotting style with a dash of market salesmanship. There’s more than a hint of 60’s modernist nightmare ‘The Prisoner’ ( ‘but with N’ reversing No.6’s fight, in a bid to stay locked in) inmates reduced to the identity of their lettered chairs, and the shifting goalposts of control. ‘Along with Catch-22 twisted logic – ‘I know it sounds insane Poppy, but the reality is that you must be considered mad to be eligable for Mad-money, and you need the Mad-money to pay the legal fees involved in proving yourself sane.’  Edging into the territory of Terry Gilliam’s ‘surrealist nightmare ‘Brazil’.

Keeping yer head down

Catch-22

However good the acting in these pieces, there’s ever the danger that the depressive air surrounding issues of mental health will put most people off, but I really don’t think that’s the case here. There’s enough black comedy and stylish flourishes to the art direction to draw us in, and the charming way in which ‘N’ asides to the camera and looms close to lens holds our fixed attention to the last. On top of this we’re charmed by that catchy ‘Pilote’ music with it’s whistles & claps serving as N’s theme (‘The Turtle bonobo mix’ .. reminding me a little of ‘something from Luc Besson’s The Big Blue’ soundtrack) acting as an effective lure in adverts the week before Poppy aired. One mistake that Channel 4 managed to perpetrate though was in it’s advertising of one of those ‘Man with a tumour for a head’ type of documentaries (the ones that pretend to be sympathetic, but nevertheless come off as a shameless freakshow..usually hidden away on Channel 5) just prior to airing, rather damaging Poppy Shakespeare’s honest attempt to de-stigmatise disability. What’s next I wonder..’The boy who’s head keeps falling off?’

N-P

Performance

Rejection

Mirror, Mirror

Reflection

‘I thought you were..a nurse..Look, that thing I just said about not being a nutter, well..I’m sorry, I didn’t realise. I ain’t got a problem with mental illness..it’s just there’s nothing the matter with me.’

Poppy

One of us

Taking the edge off

Christmas cheer

‘Just like that..I can’t believe it..she wasn’t normal last night. God knows she was high as the sky last night! How could she be normal all of a sudden?’

Ministry of madness

Hidden cinema

Expulsion

Despair

‘I wouldn’t worry about that. You must be mad, or else you wouldn’t be here.’

Rebirth

POPPY SHAKESPEARE AUTHOR CLARE ALLAN

Clare Allan used her 10-year stint in the mental health system as inspiration for her acclaimed novel Poppy Shakespeare, which is now a Channel 4 feature film. She speaks to Kate Weinberg about her journey from inpatient to feted writer.

“I think people often feel a bit short-changed when they meet me,” says novelist and former psychiatric patient Clare Allan. “That I’m not doing the shuffling, dribbling thing. Or wielding an axe.”
She recounts the story of her first ever interview with a publisher. “This woman was looking a bit cheated by the rather-too-sane conversation we were having. Then I leant back to emphasise a point and fell off my chair. That seemed to cheer her up enormously.” We’ve just ordered a Salad Nicoise in Cecconi’s, an Italian restaurant in the heart of Mayfair frequented by Saville Row businessmen and the I’m-so-big-in-media-I-wear-jeans-crowd. I tell her that the lack of axe is not a terrible let down and that the waiters are probably quite pleased about the dribbling. But she’s right. At six foot, with short, dark hair and black velvet trousers she is more Geena Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight than Kathy Bates in Misery. Not being mad enough was what Clare remembers worrying about on the bus on the way to her first psychiatric hospital.

“I was terrified they wouldn’t let me in, because I knew how much I needed the help. Like a lot of people I relied on stereotypes. You know, straight-jacket, nervous tic, boiling rabbits….” She dispatches some anchovies onto her side plate and looks up, deadpan. “I did lose a rabbit when I was a kid. But I’m pretty sure he died of old age.” Hearing Clare talk about her experiences is a master class in trenches humour. She recalls one of her first days sitting in the common room of a psychiatric hospital in Archway, where they all chained smoked and drank endless cups of tea. “A patient was talking about the time she drove to Beachy Head to commit suicide. “Only she had to turn back because she couldn’t find anywhere to park the car.”

This marked the beginning of a ten-year stint in the mental health system. Shunted around various psychiatric hospitals in North London, Clare was variously diagnosed with paranoid psychosis, psychotic depression, developing schizophrenia, manic depression, major psychotic disorder and borderline personality – a list which she claims was “about as much use as covering a parcel with ‘fragile’ stickers.” So did they put her on medication? Clare gives me a look like an M & S employee who’s been asked whether they stock underpants. “Anti-psychotics, mood-stabilisers, sleeping tablets,” Clare checks the list off on her fingers. “Anti-depressants, tranquilisers… Oh, and did I mention, medication to counteract the effects of other medication.” Having spent five years in and out of “the system” Clare heard about the Creative Writing course at UEA, then taught by Poet Laureate Andrew Motion. She faxed an application through from the ward, making sure she blacked out the top of the headed paper so “no-one thought she was applying from the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

A few weeks later she was called up for interview. Glancing at her then rebelliously close-cropped hair, nose stud and eyebrow ring, Motion looked down at his notes (which she later surmised must have been headed “Allan, Clare”), before clearing his throat and venturing, “Alan?”

“A look of what I can only describe as pure panic shot across his face when he realised he’s got it wrong,” says Clare. “I could practically hear the sound of the Poet Laureate’s toes curling.” Allan, Clare got a place on the course. It was here she started writing Poppy Shakespeare, a novel that was highly critically acclaimed and has now been made into a Channel 4 feature film, which screened on Monday night. A take-no-patients satire of mental health treatment set on the fictional Dorothy Fish day hospital in North London, Poppy Shakespeare manages to evoke the stark realities of being mentally ill, while still being extremely funny. So how did she pull that one off?

“It was just a case of doing the patients justice. The longer I stayed there the more I realised how people use humour to cope with completely desperate situations,” says Clare, her face serious for once. Although Poppy Shakespeare has been a definite literary success, appearing on the short and long lists of major literary awards including the Orange prize, the subject matter has provoked some fierce debate. “Not surprisingly,” shrugs Clare. “It’s an issue people feel very strongly about.” In such emotive territory, it remains to be seen how people will react to rather more straight-faced approach of the Channel 4 film, in which Clare makes an appearance near the end as the grim-faced Dr. Clooty, wrestling the narrator, played by Anna Maxwell-Martin, to the floor.  So what if the film provokes further controversy? We have skipped desert and Clare is leaning back in the apple-green and black chairs, sipping a double espresso. “Winston Churchill, who suffered from severe depression had a maxim which I find helpful in most situations,” she says with a grin. “Keep buggering on.”

 THE TELEGRAPH

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ANNA MAXWELL MARTIN

      

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