Friday, June 30, 2006

Guilty Pleasures

I have a terrible confession to make. I allowed the DVD rental people to send me the first two discs of the 1956-7 Adventures of Sir Lancelot TV series. And what is even worse, I rather liked them.

I assume that Sir Lancelot was a follow-up to the Richard Greene Adventures of Robin Hood. It does the same spinning round thing with the titles; and it has an annoyingly catchy theme song over the closing credits. "Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen..." became a chart hit. "Come listen to my story/come listen while I sing/of days of old in England/when Arthur was the King..." presumably didn't.

I rented the thing because I wanted to see William Russell in some role other than Ian Chesterton. But I was disappointed. Sir Lancelot is in all respects the same character as Ian. He has the same combination of self-effacing modesty and square-jawed resolution. His relationship with Merlin is precisely the same as Ian's relationship with the first Doctor. Lancelot is an endless fount of general knowledge. He not only knows the quote about doing as the Romans do while you are in Rome; he also remembers that it was St. Ambrose who said it.. When Merlin wants to preserve an ancient book by Archimedes, Lancelot is the only knight who has heard of him. When Merlin has the amazingly original idea of using pigeons to carry messages, it's Lancelot who points out that the same thing was tried by Solomon. He imparts this information in a self-effacing but resolute way. One might almost think that in a previous life he'd been some kind of school teacher . He certainly comes across on the jousting field as a patient but demanding cricket master. "It's not enough to be quite good in this game. You have to be very good indeed....". (He pronounces it all as one word, veddygoodindeed.) His relationship with his squire, Brian, also recalls Ian's relationship with Susan. Lancelot always knows best, and won't put up with any nonsense, but he's honest and upfront with the lad. ("Do knights really keep their vows? says Brian. "Some do, and some don't." replies Sir Ian. "You can beat them, can't you?" says Brian when Lancelot is about to fight some anachronistic gladiators. "I don't know Brian" says our hero "I just don't know.")

And as was so often the case in Doctor Who one feels that William Russell is an Actor with a capital A. It is often very obvious that he is "carrying" the rest of the cast. He delivers even the corniest lines with a light, naturalistic touch. He does his best not to upstage the drama-school hams he's surrounded by. But you get a sense he's wondering why he's on children's TV when he really wanted to be a matinee idol.

The world of Sir Lancelot is a world of strange accents and even stranger haircuts. The real star of the show is Sir Kay's false moustache. Squire Brian is introduced as a kitchen-lad; and for the first few episodes, he sometimes remembers to talk in mummerset, but he soon gives up and reverts to RADA posh. ("I shell try orfally hard to be brave" he says, before being dragged off to be tortured by Sir Someone-or-other.)

These are boys stories: about boys, for boys. The Knights of the Round Table are big boys; interested in boyish things like fighting, and – well, fighting, basically. The squires are smaller boys. Apart from Brian, they don't have names; and they go about in a group, rather as if they were the Round Table (Junior Division). The big boys are generally nice to the younger boys; even though they sometimes have to tell them off. When Merlin complains that Brian is playing pranks, Lancelot laughs that that is how boys are, and says that even Merlin must have been a boy once – but he backs Merlin in giving Brian extra chores. King Arthur is the only proper grown-up, and he says things like "I can see from your face that you have been punished enough." Merlin is very old and wise but the boys can go to him for advice. ("I don't mean to interrupt your work" says Lancelot. "Helping knights who are in trouble is part of my work" says Grandfather.) Clearly, Camelot is either a Scout camp or a public school. When William Russell takes a week's holiday and Brian gets a story to himself, the whole thing turns into Sir Thomas Brown's School-days. Another lad dares Brian to sneak into the girls dormitory and steal Matron's nightcap. ("It was only a lark, Sire.") Why there is a girls dorm at Camelot, we never find out.

There are grown up Ladies as well. They are there mainly for decoration. They get abducted by evil knights, in which case Sir Lancelot rescues them -- although they have a disconcerting tendency to admit that they actually quite like their captors. Sometimes, it's Sir Lancelot who gets captured by evil knights, in which case Ladies visit him in his cell and do him unexpected kindnesses, often involving keys. When Lancelot disagrees with Arthur (about one episode in three), Guinevere sometimes says "My Lord, perhaps Lancelot is in the right in this case." Uncouth knights often have gentle sisters who nevertheless love them and can appeal to their better natures. When foreign knights visit Camelot, Guinevere shows them round the castle. There are no nuns or witches. Even female peasants seem to be in rather short supply.

It's rather well staged; it looks like more time was spent in National Trust castles than in the studios. The costumes show signs of having been glanced at by an historical adviser. There are no battles -- it seems to be possible to besiege a castle with two knights and one catapult -- but there are enough extras for fairly impressive skirmishes. On foot, combat is desperately theatrical: swords clash above our heads and then below our waists, before Lancelot pushes Sir Nasty with his shoulder and orders him to yield. Spiral staircases, battlements, and rooms with lots of furniture in them are the best places for a sword-fight. If you lose your sword, you can generally make do with a candlestick; or if that fails, a piece of wood. Sir Lancelot seems to find mounting and dismounting his horse rather difficult, and can look a little awkward in mounted close ups...but as soon as he puts his visor down, he miraculously becomes a rather competent horseman. The jousting is really done very nicely indeed.

The theme song proclaims, a trifle ambitiously that Lancelot has fought a million battles and never lost a-one. This presents problems for the writers, but they show some ingenuity in coming up with plots which challenge Sir Invincible. On St. Stephen's Day, all the knights take a vow not to carry arms, and to do whatever their squires tell them, which is inconvenient, considering that that's the very day Sir Baddy steals Excalibur. Sir Wimp goes off to rescue his Lady's father on his own, although he is no match for Sir Villain; Lancelot must follow in secret and help Sir Wimp beat Sir Villain while keeping his honour. Sir Newbie is a skilled warrior but loses his nerve in actual fights; Lancelot must find a way to give him some self-confidence. And Arthur keeps finding that in the case of this particular urgent and crucial mission, it would make sense for a single knight to go alone.

Connections with any known Arthurian legend are few and far between. In episode 1, Lancelot and Guinevere exchange significant glances. Morgana le Fey gets name checked, but doesn't appear. All supernatural elements are resolutely debunked. Merlin lets the knights think he has magic powers but it's really done with pulleys, levers. semaphore, chemistry and carrier pigeons. Excalibur is nothing more than a symbol. Lancelot spins a yarn about finding his own sword in a lake, and some credulous folk take it seriously.

It is never camp or ironic; it never tries to be clever. It's a series of 25 minutes stories about knights-in-armour and you have to accept it for what it is. In 1955, cameras were clunkier and editing rooms less efficient: actors were presumably given their scripts on Monday and shot the episode on Friday. So there's no scope for visual trickery, no swift cuts or cinematic niceties. Scene follows scene with nothing but simple narrative to carry the day. Something surprising happens; which leads to another surprising thing; which leads to yet another surprising thing – and so on until Brian or Merlin but usually Lancelot comes up with a surprising stratagem to save the day. Arthur puts the crown jewels on display in Sir Someone's abbey. After he has gone, robbers emerge through a trap door and take the jewels! Merlin tells Brian to take his pigeons to Coventry as punishment for another prank. On the way, Brian hitches a lift on a wagon. The wagon is then hijacked by the jewel thieves! Brian finds the jewels, and uses the pigeon to send word to Merlin. The thieves catch Brian, and lock him up in their castle..... Sophisticated it is not, but I kept on watching because I wanted to know what happened next.

I don't know. Lack of sophistication is not automatically a virtue. Black and white photography does not excuse all narrative sins. (The series eventually goes to colour, which is a mistake. You mean Arthur dressed his men at arms in bright pink?) A regular diet of plot-plot-plot would become as indigestible as a regular 1950s diet of meat-and-two-veg. And it goes without saying that I think that Ladies can do things apart from look pretty. Some ladies, any way. Yet in world which sometimes feels 'tired with the weight of too much liberty', there is something very appealing about an age when TV thought that its main task was to tell a story which actually made sense. And there's something naively attractive about the unapologetic boyishness of the whole thing. (I think that "boyishness" is the word I am looking for: male, but in no sense laddish or macho. Finding a gay subtext, particularly in the Lancelot/Brian relationship, would be like shooting peasants in a barrel.) I don't really want to go back to a time when such TV shows were the norm; but then; I don't especially want to live in a world where you solved disputes by sitting on horses and hitting each other very hard with sharp metal objects. I never really enjoyed Scout Camp very much. But it's great fun to imagine that there was a mythical past where such things were so.

"In days of old...when knights were bold...this story's told...of Lancelot!"


Andrew Rilstone said...

I'll see your Bunuel and raise you a Wordsworth.

Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, unto which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, 'twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet's scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Well, it's about subjectivity in so far as liberty is subjective.

Wordsworth says that the difference between the cell of a monk and the cell of a prisoner is that the former choses to be there, and the latter does not. What makes you free, then, is your right to choose, not the choices which you in fact make. "The prison unto which we doom ourselves, no prison is." It's a state of mind. Well, you know; you'd better free your mind instead.

It seems to be almost obligatory for people who use the sonnet form to at some point write a sonnet about writing sonnets. (The villanelle about writing villanelles is an even worse literary menace.) The surface meaning of the poem is therefore something like "People sometimes ask me why I limit myself to writing 14 line stanzas with a rhyming scheme intended for a language where lots more words rhyme than they do in English. The answer is that it isn't a limitation if I impose it on myself: sonnet structure actually gives me great freedom to write about Milton, Cromwell, Westminster Bridge, hanging, etc. Free-verse is just as much a form as the sonnet is: and it can be an extremely limiting one."

However, he's pretty obviously also drawing a political analogy: the French Revolution was a good thing in itself -- bliss was it in that dawn, and all that -- but the revolutionary terror rather emphatically wasn't. Freedom is good, but freedom doesn't imply the abolition of all structure whatsoever.

That basic dilemma runs through pretty much all romantic writing: you want to be free of structure and limits, but if you get rid of all structure ad all limits, then you couldn't even write poetry, because language is in itself a limiting structure. If I catch the west wind, a nightingale or a skylark in my poem, then I've taken away the exact thing that I liked about them in the first place -- the fact that you can't capture them in a poem.

Obviously, all I was doing was drawing an analogy between what Wordsworth says about sonnet form and the equally severe form of a 25 minute adventure story.