Tag Archives: England

An English Comedy by John Schlesinger

Billy hamming it up.

Go back a couple of generations, to an era that has become legend to the technological age, and you will find the actor Tom Courtenay as Billy Fisher sitting at table with Mum and Dad, plus Grandma, enduring with good humor his family’s brooding disapproval. It is 1963, and at this typical Yorkshire, England kitchen table with frilly curtains, porcelain tea-pots, sugar bowls and all, sits a not so typical young man.

He tells lies with uncommon repose and has these indulgent fantasies of heroic grandeur; still, he seems most likely of all the young men in this small, Yorkshire town of Bradford, to one day escape its fishbowl mentality. Billy has the instinctive ability to shrug off the glowering looks aimed at him from the older generation, as well as from the many fiances he has acquired, with extraordinarily self-mollifying humor – at its best when his speech verges on a rather elegant brogue

The movie, Billy Liar, is early-John Schlesinger, with foretellings of the genius that became the Academy Award winning fame of Darling, (1965), and Midnight Cowboy, (1969). While Billy Fisher throws actual calendar pages at the wind, to Joe Buck’s symbolic ones, each of these 20th century heroes wants to escape the confines of his prosaic home-town for a more exciting and self-fulfilling life in the big city.

A lighter movie than Midnight Cowboy, Billy Fisher, like Joe Buck, struggles within two realms: that of life’s reality and the illusory world of dreams and fantasies. Billy Fisher wants to become a scriptwriter for a questionably famous comedian in London, and, not surprisingly, the would-be writer is funnier than the comic. Some of Billy’s most humorous material is practiced on his boss, Mr. Shadrack, who runs an undertaker firm. A hawkish, stolid man, played by the venerable Leonard Rossiter, he finds no humor in Billy whatsoever.

Liz and Billy above the dance hall.

Julie Christie, however, plays Liz, the beautiful, mercurial girl who drifts back and forth between London and Bradford – she won’t be tied down. Yet, she has an inkling for Billy; indeed, it becomes obvious they are kindred souls.

Why does Billy lie? Julie Christie is asked in the film commentary, and she sums it up well by pointing out that Billy was intensely creative, but “not a second of time was given” to him by anyone in his family, nor by his boss, who, like everyone else, mockingly waves-off Billy’s ambitions to be a scriptwriter. Moreover, Billy’s father is a real brute; and his mother, though she loves her son, takes no interest in what Billy is really all about. “So it is no wonder he lies about himself all the time,” Christie says.

Billy lives in a fantasy-world, to which only the audience is privy. He has all sorts fantastic, inner-imaginings – of soldiering, marching and shooting, which is such the vernacular, survivalist culture of England. He is always the wounded but celebrated hero of the war – marching through the dilapidated streets on the winning side; though, it is a little unclear whether he fancies himself on the English side, the German side or what-have-you. And Billy’s underlying anger manifests itself in these flash-fantasies of shooting people or blowing them up, namely his father, his boss, or his fiance – the bitchy one, whenever they go against him.

Billy and best friend, Arthur.

Tom Courtenay had been playing the understudy for Albert Finney in the stage version of this story, which was based on a novel by Keith Waterhouse. John Schlesinger chose Courtenay, as well as Billy’s mother and father and grandmother from the stage cast. Leonard Rossiter, Mr. Shadrack, was a well-established T.V. actor, but a number of the other characters were inexperienced, which was the way Schlesinger wanted it. He liked the germane, northern England quality they brought to the film.

As for Julie Christie: she was discovered by the Italian producer, Joseph Janni, acting in a dramatic production, at a time when she was studying language and drama in London. This was Christie’s first part in a film, and she has mentioned, somewhat wistful, that it was the best role she has ever played. This, even though her very next part, also with Schlesinger, in Darling, earned her an Academy Award for best actress!

Schlesinger’s great genius as a filmmaker becomes corporeal with Christie’s role as Liz, the girl who is spiritually characteristic of Billy – without the lies. She breezes into Bradford on the black and white, chiaroscuro light of Schlesinger’s film-art. The towering, ancient buildings of northern England that he renders as flying above like beautiful, gothic birds alongside the new buildings going up during England’s post-WWII industrial urbanization, define Schlesinger’s initial documentary style. Christie dances through the streets like a Londoner, to this snappy, piping flute-music accompanied by somber, jazzy, bass undertones which signifies the era at the inception of its time.

 

Billy grasping his calendars of good-will.

Billy grasping his calendars of good will.

 

 

Tessa Hadley’s “Silk Brocade”

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To American readers, there is something delightfully appealing, captivating and perhaps nostalgic in an English story. The lively dialects and slightly foreign expressions, even when unfamiliar, attract us. It is an old infatuation that remains fresh with each new encounter. Tessa Hadley, one of the best story-writers we have today, makes this reading experience all the more pleasurable, as she crafts the story of a young woman and builds these episodes over a period of time, so that as readers our sense of time changes and the tale ends much sooner than we’d like.

There is to be a June wedding and a dress needs to be made. Ann Gallagher is young and talented. She is an astute seamstress with a genius for style and fashion-design. Uniformly, Hadley stays true to the continuity of clothing, appearance, fabrics and textures throughout the tale, weaving in, as it were, a tactile setting of fluid lighting and palpable drapery, furnishings and landscape.

Now her scissors bit in with finality, growling against the

wood surface of the table, the cloth falling cleanly away from the blades.

The atmosphere of metaphor begins here and resurfaces in exquisite fragments indulging the reader with portent. At this point in the story, Ann is still young and single, a brilliant dressmaker on her way up with bright dreams of one day soon making it in London couture. Yet, the scissors growl a foreboding, even as the studio brims with light and promise:

Morning light waited, importantly empty, in the cheval glass. 

Ann’s business partner, Kit, dashes in and out with flair and sparkle, a joie de vivre. Though, she couldn’t design for toffee or cut a pattern, Kit had style and could sew well and work hard for the right clients. Kit was raised in Paris, not the English suburbs, like Ann. So, alas, Kit is a snob. Yet she is wild, untamable and chic, with mad exuberance. Kit is a loveable character, as frivolous, superficial characters often are.

Nola, for whom the wedding dress is being fashioned, is the complete antithesis of Ann and Kit. Nola did grow up in the suburbs like Ann, but, as appearances go, Ann is the one who broke from the mold of provincial Fishponds. Nola is a nurse, wearing the same set of clothes every day:

Nola Higgins stood with military straightness, shoulders squared; she was buttoned up into some sort of navy-blue uniform, unflatteringly tight over her heavy bust.

Ann invites Nola in for an impromptu fitting. “I’ll put some coffee on to perk.” It would seem that Ann finds Nola a bit austere and too plain, yet Nola turns out to be sweet with a soft disposition and quite malleable in the expert hands of Ann and Kit, whose attentions improve when they learn that Nola is to marry a wealthy, young man whose estate goes back many generations. Nola suddenly takes on a new significance, like a newly discovered treasure in an attic full of unwanted cast-off materials. Despite Nola’s simple, almost dowdy appearance, Ann has a personal philosophy:

Ann really was convinced that if you could only find the right clothes you could become whatever you wanted, you could transform yourself.

Ann applies her credo to Nola, who really did have lovely, matte pink skin, and Nola entrusts the dressmakers completely, as they tug and smooth the fabric around her large waistline.

And, the light falls in patches on Ann’s cutting table.

Whether Ann’s credo ultimately affects the desired outcome for her own life is a question. Yes, she has a magical way of transforming cloth into a beautiful garment, but for all of her capability and finesse, does she become what she wanted, after all? When Donny Ross is introduced into the story, the narrative is wary, as if the narrator is suggesting that Ann could have heeded these precautions. Donny Ross is apparently a jazz pianist. He is a medic with cavernous cheeks, and thin as a whip. He is mostly saturnine and judgmental. Indeed, most of the descriptions of Donny Ross are unflattering. So, why does an intelligent girl like Ann end up taking such a rude, arrogant and untalkative man for a husband? It seems there was an unexplainable attraction. Though Donny Ross comes prowling seductively into her life, he exhibits no interest in what’s important to her but withdraws into his own inner world, tapping out tunes on her sewing table and humming to himself.

And yet, Ann is unreasonably attracted: She carried on steadily, concentrating on her work, feeling as if some new excitement were waiting folded up inside her, not even tried on yet.

Donny’s pursuit of Ann is as intent and intense as a cat’s, when the three couples spend the afternoon at Nola’s fiancé’s estate in Thwait Park. Ann’s perspective on the day, with regards to Donny Ross, becomes shadowy and yet sparkling, as when she describes her impressions upon entering the Park.

A few skinny lambs scampered under the ancient oaks, where new leaves were just beginning to spring out, implausibly, from gray crusty limbs.

With Hadley, transformation takes place moment by moment. The spring newness of nature or of a great house is ultimately transient, the newness fading into the old, as it becomes ancient with mineral crusts and decayed, peeling wallpaper. Ann and Donny Ross lay side by side, close together but not touching, in the long grass under a tall ginkgo tree of this beautiful, old estate. They’re in a sultry liminal zone, where the future is open with hope and desire, yet Hadley shifts to the reality of fate, ominously.

The light faded in the sky to a deep turquoise and the peacocks came to roost in the tree above them, clotted lumps of darkness, with their long tails hanging down like bellpulls.

The final two columns of the story change perspective to that of Ann’s daughter Sally, years later. At sixteen, Sally Ross knows the story of the silk brocade meant to be used for a wedding that was never realized. This presumptive wedding becomes the perfect example of the ideal marriage, that is to say, a marriage that never actually happens but is only planned for, dreamed of, with genuine longing. The dream is immortal along with the love. Indeed, it is preferable to a marriage wherein the husband goes errant for an entire summer with another woman, as Donny Ross does.

Ann’s philosophy of renewing oneself may help her survive her marriage. She and Sally invent projects of transformation together: of makeovers, outings, dieting and redecorating, but ultimately these will never change the choices Ann made. Still, there is the hope of regeneration. Sally represents the present and also the future when she happens upon the old Thwait mansion wearing a jacket that Ann made from Nola’s silk brocade. Sally stands at the same spot where Nola stood when she was a hopeful bride, making egg sandwiches at the old Belfast sink. Now sally has the wide continuum of hopes and dreams before her.

The silk brocade jacket links the past, the present and the future. Tessa Hadley has a way of turning the usually mono-chronological thought of time sequence inside out, weaving in possibility, shedding light, and discarding with the old to reconstruct the new. After all, the past and the present are really simply jumbled together.

Tessa Hadley’s Silk Brocade appeared in The New Yorker, July 27, 2015.

Tessa Hadley’s “Silk Brocade”

The Romance and Comic Genius of Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens, 1812 – 1870

When Charles Dickens published Little Dorrit , the 826-page novel originally appeared in Dickens’ own, widely popular, monthly periodical in a series of installments, short pieces, or “teaspoons” as Dickens himself called them, from 1855 to 1856, including illustrations by Phiz.

A rags-to-riches tale, the first half of the book introduces the eccentric, intriguing Dorrit family, their heart-rending plight and a carnival of delightfully Dickensian characters – those dubious people who march through the life of the fallen William Dorrit inside the Marshalsea, the same debtors prison in which Dickens’ own father paid time for debt. The laggards, leeches and extortionists, the hapless, foolish, the large-hearted and everlastingly colorful characters are lovingly portrayed in the darkness and light of nineteenth-century London.

William Dorrit’s daughter, Amy, “Little Dorrit,” is the innocent but worldly girl who watches this pageant of people, loving some of them and fearing others. Soft-spoken and petite – indeed, so petite that she appears to be a child at first, Amy is hardly aggressive, though she is certainly industrious, in providing for herself and her father as a seamstress outside the prison, and assertive in her undying desire to comfort people, especially her father for whom she shows an extraordinary compassion and care; and in her benevolence for humankind in general and the deep love she feels for Aurthur. She does assert these interests but in a clearly humble way. Amy is utterly poetic.

As the tender relationship between Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit becomes the hoped-for, romantic denouement of the love-story portion of the novel, Dickens tantalizes us to the very end. It seems that they are meant for each other: Arthur’s childhood was one of harshness inside the dark house of his unaffectionate parents, while Amy was born in the Marshalsea Prison and grew up there never knowing any other kind of life until her father is able to claim his fortune, with the help of Arthur, as it turns out. Thus, Amy and Arthur are two tattered yet good-hearted souls isolated in a scheming world. Dickens has great fun devising numerous sub-plots that connect and interweave their story.

Amy writes a few bittersweet letters to Arthur when she is away with the Dorrit clan traveling the European continent where she sees, “misery and magnificence wrestling with each other;” these letters are forthcoming, poignant and touching, as they reveal Amy’s loneliness and ultimate difficulty in adjusting to the Dorrits’ new, opulent way of life – traveling through the sublime scenery of Venice and Rome; still, Arthur may never have known the exact nature of Amy’s love for him had it not been for a go-between, the devoted John Chivery, (Little John), who also serves as another supreme example of Dickens’ brilliant skills of characterization.

Fanny and Amy Dorrit, two sisters were never so un-alike.

Other exceptional characters become well known and fond personalities: Fanny Dorrit, Amy’s sister, a selfish and pretentious opportunist who can also be likeable if only for her entertaining dialog; Afry Flintwinch, Arthur’s childhood nurse who is continually throwing her apron over her face to save herself from witnessing the sordid things taking place in that infamous house; Flora Finching, the annoying but loveable young widow who has designs on Arthur and whose delightful monologues add high comedy; Monsieur Rigaud, that evil, ubiquitous presence who becomes the irresistible mystery of the tale, as continually, “his mustache went up under his nose, and his nose came down over his mustache;” and many others with curious and witty names; Mr. Tite Barnacle, Mr. Sparkler, John Baptist Cavalletto, Mr. Merdle, a white collar crook (not unlike Rupert Merdoch, the 21st century swindler), The Meagles, “Tip” and “Pet”.

Dickens’ descriptions and dialogs are profoundly hilarious, as is the Circumlocution Office, an impossible bureaucracy of tangled red tape, its only function being that of a satire on government and society.

But William Dorrit is the most humourous and tragic of characters. Dorrit was probably just as silly and pompous before he went into the prison as he was after coming out twenty years later a much wealthier man, just as his mental infirmness probably began inside the prison walls and became more and more apparent as he forced himself to adjust to his new way of life, which is really only a new kind of prison in which he and the false characters with whom he associates prance around in desperate displays of status.

It seems a wonder that William Dorrit produced such a loving and selfless daughter as Amy Dorrit, his one daughter who was born inside the Marshalsea. This father-daughter relationship, in part, resembles that of the mad King Lear and his best daughter, Cordelia, the daughter who really loved him most. Like Cordelia, Amy Dorrit is admonished, though lovingly, by her sister and ludicrously blamed by her own father simply because it isn’t in Amy to act the part of a privileged princess. Instead, Amy, in her genuine humbleness, only reminds her father of his past by being who she is.

‘Amy,’ he returned, turning shot upon her. ‘You-ha-habitually hurt me.’

‘Hurt you, father! I!’

‘There is a–hum-a topic,’ said Mr Dorrit, looking all about the ceiling of the room, and never at the attentive, uncomplainingly shocked face, ‘a painful topic, a series of events which I wish–ha-altogether to obliterate . This is understood by your sister, who has already remonstrated with you in my presence; it is understood by your brother; it is understood by-ha hum-by every one of delicacy and sensitiveness, except yourself-ha-I am sorry to say, except yourself. You, Amy-hum-you alone and only you-constantly revive the topic, though not in words.’

Thus Amy becomes the scapegoat for people of ambiguous morality and strictly guarded family secrets.

After reading Little Dorrit, the question lingers: in order for the world to produce a person as loving and selfless as Amy Dorrit, must she be raised in an oppressive environment where most of the creature-comforts in life are absent and she must create her own comfort and happiness based on the only natural love received in early childhood.

Charles Dickens: “A Letter From Little Dorrit” ~ from the novel, Little Dorrit

I hope you sometimes, in a quiet moment, have a thought for me… I have been afraid that you may think of me in a new light, or a new character. Don’t do that, I could not bear that – it would make me more unhappy than you can suppose. It would break my heart to believe that you thought of me in any way that would make me stranger to you, than I was when you were so good to me. What I have to pray and entreat of you is, that you will never think of me as the daughter of a rich person; that you will never think of me as dressing any better, or living any better, than when you first knew me. That you will remember me only as the little shabby girl you protected with so much tenderness, from whose threadbare dress you have kept away the rain, and whose wet feet you have dried at your fire. That you will think of me (when you think of me at all), and of my true affection and devoted gratitude, always, without change, as of
Your poor child,
Little Dorrit.