Monday, May 22, 2006

No one is innocent

I found “See No Evil” -- ITV’s docu-drama based on the notorious Brady-Hindley murders -- very disturbing viewing. But possibly not for the reasons the filmmakers intended.

Before watching the film, I knew practically nothing about the case. Naturally, I was aware that Ian Brady and Myra Hindley had murdered several young children in the 1960s. I knew that Lord Longford believed that since Hindley had become a devout Catholic, she was a reformed character and should be considered for parole. I knew that the Sun thought that since she had peroxide hair, she was evil and should not be. But I didn’t really know who they had killed, under what circumstances, and why. This extremely gripping but curiously evasive three-hour drama didn’t leave me feeling much the wiser.

Dealing with this kind of material presents a writer with two problems. First, he has to stick to the facts. The film is proud of the fact that it has been made in close collaboration with the victims’ families, police officers and others closely associated with the case. The very first thing we are told is that “This is a true story”, and one gets the impression that no incident is put into the film which hasn’t been checked against two sources. In itself, this is a Good Thing: it would be quite unacceptable to take a real-life Orrible Murder and use it simply as a jumping off point for a work of fiction. But it creates an obvious difficulty. Hindley and Brady never made full confessions so their states of minds at the time of the murders is a matter of conjecture. Even the precise details of their crimes aren’t fully known or knowable. This leaves a gaping hole in the middle of any fact-based drama. Secondly the film wants to avoid being sensationalist, exploitative or ghoulish. So it has to adopt a “tell, don’t show” approach. We hear what the police say that Myra did; we hear what little she admitted to; but we actually see very little of it. A lot of the time, this approach makes perfectly good dramatic and documentary sense. The scene in which the police officers search the moor and dig up a child’s shoe is far more distressing than any Brady themed slasher-flick could have been. But sometimes it leads the filmmakers into unintentional surrealism. The evidence which damned Hindley and Brady was, of course, the discovery of a tape recording of a little girl being tortured. There is, thank goodness, no attempt to recreate this tape for the edification of TV audiences. Instead, as the horrified police play the recording on their old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape recorder, the TV audience listens to a child's voice singing "The Little Drummer Boy".

The solution to this structural conundrum -- a true crime movie which can't represent the actual crime -- is to take Maureen Hindley and her husband David Smith as viewpoint characters. For almost the whole of episode 1, nothing happens. Maureen and Dave spend time with sister Myra and her weird boyfriend Ian, and the film allows Dramatic Irony to create its own chilling effects. The audience knows what Myra is doing, even though the police and her family do not. Myra comforts Maureen over the death of her first baby: but we know that she is simultaneously plotting to murder other children. Myra let's slip that she knows what a dead body looks like, and quickly claims that she is talking about childhood friend who drowned. We know the real reason. Myra mentions in passing that her car is convenient for carrying bulky luggage... None of this is made explicit in the screenplay: we don’t “know” that Myra and Ian are murderers until the very end of episode 1. I wonder what a Martian, or come to that an American, who has never heard of the Moors murders would make of the film?

Meanwhile, some old-fashioned no-nonsense police officers - the type whose idea of detective work is to yell “You killed him, didn’t you!” at suspects - are investigating a string of missing children, only gradually spotting that the cases are connected. Inevitably, one of the coppers is Obsessed with the case of Keith Bennet, and has Started to Take it Personally. We even see him sitting in his office staring at the “Have you seen this child?” poster at one point. Even if this is what happened in real life, it's still a dreadful cliché.

So what we have is basically a high quality episode of Columbo. Not a "who dunnit" or a "why dunnit", more a “when and how will the police realise that that they dunnit.”

In the last ten minutes of episode 1, Dave goes to the Hindley/Brady residence and witnesses them committing a murder. We do get a glimpse of this killing, but only momentarily, and in flashback. The bloodstained Dave tells Maureen that "Brady has killed a man" -- and then we flash for a few brief seconds to a shot, lit heavily in red, of Brady frenziedly attacking Edward Evans with an axe while Hindley watches impassively. Nothing that comes beforehand in the story really prepares us for this scene and nothing which comes afterwards explains it. It’s presented as out-of-context, free-floating self-existent terror. As a Stephen King moment, it's quite brilliantly done: two demonic figures presiding over a literally hellish scene. The juxta-positioning of the banal and the horrible; the jump from the world of cop-show and soap opera into the world of gothic; the jump from "perfectly normal Myra" and "pretentious bragger Ian" to "Satanic child killers" certainly had the desired effect. My immediate reaction was "Is that what they did? I can see why people call them Evil."

And there’s the problem. Actress Maxine Peake offers us three separate characterisations of Myra Hindley. She spends the first episode playing her as an aggressively normal northern lass. We entirely understand and believe that Maureen never suspected anything bad about her sister. She spends most of episode two as a film noire villain -- sneering at the court, refusing to admit to her part in the killings -- very much the callous play-acting monster that we’ve come to know and love through 40 years of “evil-Myra” news-stories. And then, in a coda, we see a no-longer-peroxide Myra telling her sister that she has found God in prison and is truly sorry for what she did. The big question, narratively and philosophically is what connects these three women. Can someone be both normal and murderous? Can someone go from murderous to remorseful? Why did Myra become a murderess but Maureen turn out all right? No attempt is made to suggest, or even hint at an answer. Significantly, the explanation which Myra herself is shown offering is pathetically inadequate -- she thinks that she is “damaged” because her father beat her.

Brady is even more of a problem. He seems to be some kind of Nietzschean super-man; believing that if he is strong enough to commit murder, he will make himself superior to the common heard. He hasn’t been on screen for five minutes before he is asking whether or not animals have souls, and suggesting that if souls don’t exist then the whole idea of god and morality is “shite”. He implies that Dave isn't a proper man because he's never killed anyone; lends him copies of the Marquis de Sade and forces him to play Russian roulette as an initiation rite. (Brady may have been “grooming” Dave Smith as a second accomplice, but when Dave witnesses the murder, he goes straight to the police. Dave is still alive and presumably helped with the making of film, which bends over backwards to show that he didn‘t do anything seriously wrong.) Of course, as an explanation, this doesn’t go very far beyond “He murdered people because he was the kind of person who murdered people.”

At least since “Silence of the Lambs”, we have had a rather ambivalent attitude to mass murderers: they are to be feared and locked away, certainly, but we also find them rather attractive because of the energy they draw from their “evil”. I don’t know whether the real Brady expressed these kinds of views, or if he is slipping into the role of T.V serial killer, in the same way that Detective Mounsey slips into the role of TV cop. But this characterisation makes him a dangerously romantic, even heroic, figure. More than once, I caught myself thinking “This guy seems rather interesting; and of course, he is still alive: I'd sure like to read an interview with him" This was not, I imagine, what the writers had in mind.

So: the film proposes no reasons for the Moors murders. And popular wisdom has always said that there are no reasons. Hindley in particular is in a unique metaphysical category called Evil and nothing further can be said. To try to explain what happened -- in terms of damage to her personality, madness, addiction, manipulation by someone else, childhood abuse, even literal demonic possession -- is to make excuses for her and therefore lessen the evil of what she did. And to do that devalues the suffering of the people she murdered and their families -- who are, of course, at the absolute pinnacle of the modern cult of victim-worship. The film, due to its very structure, draws us into this tabloid worldview. While I was watching it, I felt myself starting to think like a Daily Express reader. I found that very disturbing indeed.

The film trips over its own feet trying to deal with the question of Myra’s eventual reform. Maureen believes that Myra is truly remorseful; but Dave rants that she is even more evil than Brady on the philosophically intriguing grounds that he is “just” a sex monster, but she is “still human”. (I fear that this means "You expect this kind of thing from a man, but when a woman does it, it's really bad.”) Despite the fact that the trial judge had (more or less) sentenced Brady to life without parole but Hindley to between twenty five years and life in prison, successive home secretaries refused to consider her for parole. David (spit) Blunkett said in so many words that she couldn’t be let out because ordinary people didn’t think she had reformed: that is, her sentence was decided by her image in the tabloids, an image which films like this tend to perpetuate. There is actually a more interesting movie to be made about what happened to Myra Hindley while she was behind bars: Lord Longford’s diaries, her own prison writings, and forty years of journalistic gossip, would surely provide a lot of documentary material for this. But it would have to explore the forbidden territory of "explanation".

Even at its best, TV is the most clichéd of media. Just as there is an etiquette for reporting a royal death or an election, so there is an established vocabulary out of which dramas about "real life tragedies" have to be constructed. From the first, inevitable establishing shots of the wind-swept moors we knew -- we just knew -- that the film would end with a caption saying "Keith Bennet's body was never found“. But, as the credits rolled in silence over images of the five real life murder victims, there was one significant break with established practice. The continuity announcer was somehow persuaded to keep his mouth shut.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Doctor Who - Season 2: Episodes 1 - 3

I think that I have worked out what’s wrong with Russell Davies' new 'Doctor Who'. It’s roughly the same thing that was wrong with Tony Blair’s new Labour.

Yes, I know I am being an ungrateful little asexual fanboy. I spent 14 years wanting 'Doctor Who' to return: surely now that it’s back on Saturday nights, it’s my duty to like it uncritically. And no, I’m not denying that a lot of the time the new series is very, very good. Each of the first three episodes of Season 2 has had a number of Great Moments. 'New Earth' had the scenes between the Doctor and the head-in-the-tank. It had the unexpected pay-off scene in which Cassandra dies in her own arms: a genuine coup to turn her from a comic villain to tragic heroine in the space of one episode. (But note: the 'time goes round in a circle' motif has already been used in both 'Father’s Day' and 'Parting of the Ways.' You might want to watch that, Russell.) 'Tooth and Claw' had some neat in-jokes ('Dr. James McCrimmon from the township of Balamory,' indeed.) It had some classic gothic atmosphere; and a really great scene between Rose and the werewolf in the dungeon. It had Queen Victoria. And as for 'School Reunion' -- well none of us asexual fanboys were ever going to be anything other than deliriously happy with a story that had both K-9 and Sarah Jane in it, along with more references to old stories than you can shake a sonic screwdriver at. The pre-cred sequence, in which the Doctor walks into a classroom and starts to teach a physics lesson made me laugh out loud.

So what’s the problem?

Before Russell Davies embarked on his Project, 'Doctor Who' had spent 14 years in the wilderness. Of course it had to be re-branded before it could get back on air: no one wanted or expected the new series to be a pastiche of the old. To be a viable TV programme, as opposed to a fossil, it had to look outside its natural constituency (the asexual community) and appeal to the mainstream. It had to become the sort of programme that your mother could watch. Naturally, certain sacred cows -- the TARDIS consol, the 25-minute format, cliff-hanger endings -- had to be slaughtered. We didn’t care. We had our baby back.

However, it has gradually become apparent that the main purpose of Season 1 was to get renewed for Season 2, and the main purpose of Season 2 is to get renewed for Season 4. (Season 3 is in the bag.) To achieve this, R.T.D needs there to be impressive gobbets that can be put into the trailers. He needs unexpected scenes which the tabloids can run spoilers for, as if 'This is the moment when the Doctor kisses Rose' was an important news item. He needs Comic Relief sketches, Christmas specials and Radio Times covers -- so that the series is in people’s minds even when it is off-air. He needs all the papers to run exclusive photo galleries of all this season's 'new monsters'. He needs people to be talking about the return of Sarah and K-9 six months before it actually happens. He needs people to know that the 'The Cybermen are coming back' even if they don't know what a Cyberman is; in much the same way that even of us who don't know anything about cricket can hardly avoid knowing that someone called Wayne Rooney has twisted his ankle. What he doesn’t necessarily need is coherent stories which actually make sense.

Davies conceives of episodes as simple, easily marketable high-concepts. His original pitch for Season 1 included a broad outline of what each story would be about -- first, one set in the far future involving the end of the world, then a ghost story featuring Charles Dickens, then, a big present-day alien invasion (1). It's been a standing joke for years that while asexual 'Doctor Who' fans refer to stories by their titles ('The Green Death', 'The City of Death'), everyone else uses a kind of shorthand -- 'the One with the maggots', 'the One in Paris.' Davies seems to conceive of stories as 'the one with Queen Victoria and a Werewolf' and not feel the need to elaborate the idea much further.

Davies puts it like this:

'Last year we did Charles Dickens and ghosts; this year we're doing Queen Victoria and a werewolf...There's a certain comfort zone in watching 'Doctor Who' and thinking 'Oh, they're doing this sort of an episode. It's what I call a celebrity historical. Shove a real famous person in there - one you will recognise at the drop of a hat. There's no point in doing Louis Pasteur, because what did he look like? With Queen Victoria or Charles Dickens you just recognise them immediately. It's almost like the Horrible History take on historical travel.'

I want to die.

By his own admission, he wants to treat 'Doctor Who' as a character piece in the mould of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer.' There is nothing particularly wrong with this: 'Doctor Who' has always swiped omnivorously from the TV hits of the day. In an episode of 'Buffy' the theoretical plot -- some new kind of vampire threatens the town -- is rarely more than the background against which the real storyline, about the relationships between the main characters and their supporting cast -- can emerge. In principal this transfers well enough to 'Doctor Who'. In 'New Earth', the science-fiction plot about cloned zombies in the hospital basement (which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever) is little more than a device to set up the comedy-romantic situation in which Cassandra steals Rose’s body, which also doesn’t make much sense, but is rather entertaining. The Doctor waves his magical deus ex machina at the zombies and they go away in about 30 seconds. We know quite well that he’s just going through the motions: our attention is meant to be directed at Cassandra, and her realisation that she can‘t prolong her own life at the cost of someone else‘s.

The trouble is that the writers are still under the impression that they are writing 'Doctor Who' stories. They come up with milieu that contain enough material for an old 100 or 150 minute story, and then try to cram the whole thing into 45. Very strong ideas -- anthropomorphic animals vivisecting humans; a Victorian werewolf who wants to found a steam-powered Galactic empire; the Doctor being offered the One Ring and being tempted to take it -- are introduced and thrown away in the space of half a scene.

(Interestingly, the BBC continues to market the programme as a 'spooky' and 'scary' monster show, and to promote it to kids, complete with 'Totally Doctor Who' in the 'Blue Peter' slot, and a comic that includes a free slitheen whoopee cushion with every copy. One wonders how long it will be before some latter day Michael Grade says 'Enough with the soap opera: give the kids more time with the monsters!')

Look at 'School Reunion': not so much a story, more an idea for a story. It’s the three-way relationship between Sarah Jane, Rose and the Doctor that we are supposed to be interested in, and this is handled fairly well. We are asked to picture the Doctor as a tragic, Peter Pan figure with an endless succession of Wendys -- a strikingly new conception of the character, but one that is implicit in everything that has gone before. 'You can stay with me for the rest of your life, Rose, but I can’t stay with you for the rest of mine' is a fine, genre re-defining line. The episode’s central question -- what does a 'companion' do when she stops travelling with the Doctor? -- is one which has never been asked before outside of asexual fan-fiction. However Davies and writer Toby Whithouse do not allow themselves sufficient space to elaborate this idea. Rose realises that she isn’t the Doctor’s first companion; Sarah is pleased to see the Doctor, then angry that he left her behind, then accepts that her time travelling days are over. Rose and Sarah are jealous of each other but become best friends. Even Mickey has an epiphany. That’s more like a novel than a single incident in a soap opera: certainly far to much character development to be squeezed into 45 minutes. One feels that Davies has had the idea of the Rose/Sarah relationship, but can’t quite be bothered to turn it into a story: it is raised and disposed of within a single scene. (2)

We have managed to survive for 43 years without thinking that the Doctor was more or less romantically involved with all of his previous companions, so I don’t really see why Davies feels compelled to re-write history. Yes, there were occasional moments of sexual tension in original TARDIS -- notably the curiously Oedipal relationship between Doctor Jon and Jo Grant. (Jo goes off and marries a scientist who is explicitly said to be like a younger version of the Doctor. The Doctor won’t go to the engagement party, but drives off in a sulk.) And of course Doctor Tom and Romana could easily have been read as an old married couple -- was that trip to Paris a honeymoon, or a dirty weekend? But in general, the relationship between the Doctor and his companion has been avuncular, fraternal or paternal. Doctor Bill once threatened to give Susan a jolly good smacked bottom, which is not something one can imagine Doctor Chris doing to Rose -- although, god knows, I’ve tried. Doctor Jon was Sarah’s eccentric old uncle, even her grandpa. Doctor Tom was younger, but he was too alien, too Other to be the sort of person you could think of taking on a date. Sarah and the Doctor were close, certainly, but there was never anything remotely flirtatious about their relationship.

The background story about the alien infested school, is completely unrelated to the Sarah Jane plot: it’s just a device to bring the Doctor and Rose, Mickey and Sarah together, and to keep them on the move. Any other threat-to-earth would have done as well. It‘s a pretty good idea, or it would be, if Davies would slow down long enough for us to have a look at it. 'There is a school where the teachers are child-eating shape-shifting aliens. The school dinners are made of Magic Alien Goo that keeps the kids pupils docile. While the kids are eating the poisoned school dinners, the teachers are eating the kids!' For an idea like this to feel spooky or scary, it needs to emerge gradually, and we need time to get to know the subsidiary characters. (In an old-style four part story, the fat school-boy who isn’t allowed any chips would have been the viewpoint character in episode 1: we would have followed him through his school day and been presented with a series of mysteries. The revelation that the Headmaster eats children would have been the cliffhanger ending to part 1.) The writer solves the problem of not having enough space to tell even this simple story properly by adding a second story and not telling that properly either. The Evil Child Eating Alien Bat Creatures aren’t merely feeding on the kids; they are using them as living components in a super-computer that will enable them to take over the universe. (The Evil Child Eating Alien Bat Creatures would have made total sense without the addition of the Demon Headmaster; the Demon Headmaster could have been using the kids in his Magic Computer Plot Device even if there hadn’t been any Evil Child Eating Alien Bat Creatures. It really does look as if two scripts had been spliced together; and the rumour that the Headmaster was originally going to turn out to be the Master seems horribly plausible.) A third underdeveloped plot thread in which the evil Headmaster tries to make a Faustian pact with the Doctor has to be dropped into the mix as well. So while lots of cool stuff happens on the screen -- people run around, things explode, villains talk apocalyptically about the end of the universe and we cut back to short intense character based interludes -- there’s no attempt to make it hang together as a story. One key piece of information is barked out so quickly by David Tennant that I had to rewind twice to work out what was supposed to be going on (3).

It’s a safe bet that RTD and his target audience don’t care. People will turn on 'Doctor Who' because Davies has successfully created a piece of Event Television. Many of them will watch it with their brain disengaged. Provided they are not actually bored they will turn on again next week -- more so, if next week’s episode is an Event as well. If they turn on it will get high ratings; if it gets high ratings, it will be back for a fourth, and a fifth season. Plot explanations, fleshed out minor characters; elaboration and exposition of ideas might risk seeming boring. Action and set pieces won't. And provided there is a programme called 'Doctor Who' on TV on Saturday nights, we asexual fans have nothing to complain about. Davies 'Doctor Who' exists primarily in order to be an advertisement for itself.

(1) Other writers are commissioned to write some of these stories, presumably in close collaboration with R.T.D. Compare this with the Olden Days, where story concepts and scripts were pitched to the producer by freelance writers, and then beaten into shape by a script editor. This meant that the old series had an 'anthology' feel: you couldn’t mistake a Robert Holmes script for a Terry Nation script. The new series is more homogenized -- whoever is actually writing it, you feel you are watching a Russell Davies script.

(2)One is reminded of 'Boom Town', the low-point of Series 1. Davies starts out with the (excellent) idea of the Doctor having to decide what to do with a defeated enemy; he turns this into the (excellent) idea of the Doctor and the Slitheen eating a meal together. The brief restaurant scene contains some (excellent) dialogue between the two characters. But it is embedded in a story that almost ostentatiously fails to make sense (nuclear power station in the middle of Cardiff, blowing up the earth in order to power a skateboard?) and is resolved by a more-than-usually silly deus ex machina. 'That was a good story' we are left thinking, 'I certainly hope they write it someday.'

(3) The shape shifting alien bats have shape shifted so many times that they are now allergic to their own Luminous Magic Alien Goo. Since you have to eat Luminous Magic Alien Goo in order to make a Take-Over-The-Universe-Super-Computer, they are feeding the Goo to human children who are not allergic to it. K-9 can defeat the aliens by blowing up barrels of Luminous Magic Alien Goo and splattering them with it.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

My computer exploded. Library only gives me 30 minutes unless I book in advance. "Doctor Who" is quite good. That is all.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Complete text of sensational new "gospel" that will radically re-define our understanding of Christianity

Jesus: Peter will deny me in just a few hours,
Three times will deny me -- and that's not all I see:
One of you here dining, one of my twelve chosen
Will leave to betray me!

Judas: Cut out the dramatics! You know very well who.

Jesus: Why don't you go do it?

Judas: You want me to do it!

Jesus: Hurry they're waiting.

Judas: If you knew why I do it...

Jesus: I don't care why you do it.

Judas: To think I admired you! For now I despise you.

Jesus: You liar -- you Judas!

Judas: You want me to do it. What if I just stayed here and ruined your amibtion? Christ you deserve it.

Jesus: Hurry you fool, hurry and go. Save me your speeches, I don't want to know.

from the apocryphal gospel of Andrew and Timothy, Act 1, Chapter 13

Saturday, April 01, 2006

"Enter Into Thy Closet"

A neglected aspect of the life and works of C.S Lewis

In 1917 C.S Lewis wrote in a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves:

"Cher ami, j'ai a confession to make. I have told thee a lie. A certain operation is NOT called going North at Malvern. I invented this phraze so that you & I might have some convenient & safe way of referring to that thing. It wd. be unpleasant to have to use the ugly expressions which slang has evolved and this one has the advantage of being quite meaningless to an outsider."

What on earth does he mean? Manners change, but surely a man of 19 doesn't need to invent a brand new euphemism for "toilet" to use in the company of his oldest and most intimate friend -- even when they are in danger of being overheard by strangers. Yet it's hard to know what other subject they could have needed to refer to conveniently and privately while out for a walk. (If they had found themselves discussing masturbation, as one does, they could presumably have called it "THAT", as they did in their letters to each other.)

A decade later, Lewis is telling his brother Warnie a funny story about how an eccentric old lady persuaded him to stay up all night in order to prevent another neighbour, Mrs Studer, from committing suicide. How standing in a street outside her house all night was supposed to help is never explained. Lewis tells his brother:

"My next step was to provide for calls of nature (no unimportant matter in an all night tete-a-tete with a fool of an elderly woman who has had nothing to do with men since her husband had the the good fortune to die several years ago) by observing that the striking of a match in that stillness would easily be heard in the Studer's house and that I wd tiptoe to the other end of the road to light my pipe. Having thus established my right to disappear into the darkness as often as I chose..."

What exactly is going on in Lewis's head? Was it really so unthinkable for him to say "I need to be excused?" in front of an old lady? And what has the fact that she's not been around men since her husband died got to do with anything? Does he think that old ladies don't go to the toilet? Or that they don't know that men go? Or is he assuming that there is a general rule (which Warnie knows but his neighbour doesn't) that men need to go more often than women?

Much later, during Joy Gresham's first visit to Oxford, Warnie offers his own take on the lavatorial theme:

"(She is) quite extraordinarily uninhibited. Our first meeting was lunch at Magdelen, where she turned to me in the presence of three or four men, and asked in the the most natural tone in the world "Is there anywhere in this monastic establishment where a lady can relieve herself?"

Why was this incident worth recording in a diary? Women visitors were sometimes entertained at Magadelen so it could hardly have been unheard of for one of them to want to go to the toilet. I imagine that Elizabeth Anscombe might have paid a quick visit to the Ladies before her famous debate with Lewis at the Socratic Club -- although since she wore trousers long before it was fashionable for women to do so, I suppose it is just possible that she used the Gents. But there must have been a socially acceptable way of asking where it was.

Is it possible that what we are dealing with here is simply a case of transatlantic miscommunication? Walter Hooper reports that, after sharing several strong cups of tea with Lewis at their first meeting at the Kilns in 1963, the young student from Kentucky asked the great English don if he could use "the bathroom". Lewis obediently showed him the bathroom, and even provided him with soap and towels -- but left Hooper none-the-wiser about the whereabouts of the toilet. Hooper wasn't to know that in most English houses at that time, the toilet and the bath were still in different rooms: so to English ears referring to "the toilet" as "the bathroom" sounded completely absurd, if not actually incomprehensible. (Presumably, an American, who expected all the plumbing to be behind a single door, would have been equally bemused by an Englishman asking for directions to "the smallest room.") (1)

A.N Wilson says -- typically without attribution -- that Warnie, being a gentleman, has "considerably toned down" what Joy said after lunch in Magdelen. One wonders whether Joy had already made several requests using some polite American expression which the Englishmen had entirely failed to understand, and had resorted to the unambiguous "Where can I take a piss?" our of sheer desperation.

But I think that what has really surprised Warnie is not that Joy used a plain word rather than a euphemism, but that she mentioned the subject in the company of males. The rule appears to be that men can under no circumstances refer to toilets in front of ladies, and that ladies should not do so in front of men. Of course, Joy had a reputation for plain speaking in other respects, a habit which Lewis found attractive but which embarrassed some of his male cronies. Wilson implies that she was quite foul-mouthed, but the quoted examples are relatively mild ("Who the hell are you?" "Damn it, Jack!") Perhaps the problem was not that she used foul language, but that she didn't understand the rule that men and women didn't say "damn" in front of each other. Or perhaps she was signaling that she wanted to be treated as one of the boys.

In a letter written when her cancer was in remission, Joy told a friend how much improved she was and mentioned in passing that she could now "use the john like the big folks" – which is exactly the sort of harmless, non descript semi-euphemism that normal adults use all the time. Unfortunately for scholarship, Walter Hooper doesn't tell us which word Lewis would have preferred him to use instead of "bathroom". Talking about his prep school in "Surprised by Joy" Lewis refers to "the sanitation"; and in a conversation with Charles Wrong in 1959 he allegedly referred to the "lavatories" at Malvern (also, incidentally, using the schoolboy slang "bumf" (bum-fodder) for "toilet paper".) But my guess would be that left to himself, Lewis would have referred to the "water closet" or the "W.C"

I say this because, in a letter to his brother when their father was seriously ill, Lewis makes the following remark:

"It was very alarming the night he was a little delirious. But (I cannot refrain from telling you) do you know the form it took? The watercloset element in his conversation rose from its usual 30% to something like 100%."

"Watercloset element"? I assume that Lewis must mean that his father "used a lot of scatological language" – not an aspect of his father's character that he mentions in "Surprised by Joy". (The only other interpretations that I can think of are "he was a hypochondriac about his bowels and bladder" and "he was worried about the plumbing in the house" which don't seem consistent with a man suffering from delirium. It's just possible that "watercloset element" means simply "bad language"- as someone might say "potty-mouth" – but this would, even for Lewis, be a curious circumlocution for "Dad swears a lot".) Lewis says that his father's bad habit of melodramatic emotionalism contributed to his own repression by making him fear emotions in general. If his father perpetually embarrassed him with inappropriate toilet-humour this could also have contributed to his extreme reticence about this subject. (2)

Lewis seems to have enjoyed a very close relationship with his bladder. His friend and biographer George Sayer mentions that even as a young man "Jack was in the habit of passing water far more often than most men." He apparently kept a chamber pot in the room adjacent to his study, and (to his students' surprise) would nip out and use it during a tutorial (while continuing to talk about courtly love in Spencer.) In "The Four Loves" he draws a rather donnish distinction between "need pleasures" and "appreciation pleasures". Listening to music doesn't cure our need to listen to music; smelling a rose doesn't stop us from enjoying the smell of roses: these are therefore appreciation pleasures. On the other hand:

"The scullery tap and the tumbler are very attractive indeed when we coming in parched from mowing the grass; six seconds later they are emptied of all interest. The smell of frying food is very different before and after breakfast. And, if you will forgive me for citing the most extreme instance of all, have there not for most of us been moments (in a strange town) when the site of the word GENTLEMEN over a door has roused a joy almost worthy of celebration in verse.", actually. Speaking for myself, there have not been. And if we are specifically talking about the word "GENTLEMEN" there have presumably not been for around 50% of his audience. Is he again slipping into the assumption that going to the toilet is something mainly done by men? But a very weak bladder would obviously have made tracking down public lavatories especially important for him. Again, does he assume that it is a general rule that all men, and no women, have this particular problem?

Some people might think that it is odd to refer quite gratuitously, and in the context of a series of lectures intended for American religious radio (3) to a subject which caused you so much embarrassment; to make such a song and dance about doing so ("you will have to forgive me") but to still be unable to say the actual word. But Lewis does this kind of thing all the time. He introduces a passage about sexual equality with "This calls for plain speaking.." and proceeds to speak so un-plainly as to leave most of us with no idea why too much equality will prevent women from enjoying intercourse. In his autobiography, he comes to an event in his life which he isn't at liberty to talk about, and spends several lines talking about the fact that he can't talk about it. In the essay "Prudery and Philology" he wonders why it is so much more acceptable for an artist to draw a picture of a a naked figure than for a writer to describe one. He decides that the problem is with the English language. Try to write a description of a naked person:

"When you come to describe those parts of the body which are not usually mentioned, you will find that you will have to make a choice of vocabulary: a nursery word, an archaism, a word from the gutter, or a scientific word. You will not find any ordinary neutral word comparable to "hand" or "nose."

As a generalization, this is simply false. There are a number of taboo areas of the human body; and a number of strongly taboo words which describe them. It was, after all, a vernacular reference to Lady Chatterley's buttocks which Mervyn Griffith-Jones didn't want his wife or his servant to read.(4) But if you want to write a description of a nude, you are quite free to use the neutral word "bottom" if you would rather not say "arse" or "gluteus maximus"; "breast" is a perfectly neutral alternative to "tit" or "booby". Lewis's rule actually only applies to one part of the body: "parts of the body which are not usually mentioned" is itself a euphemism for "genitals". But of course, he can't say this: even in an essay about what can and can't be talked about, he can't bring himself to talk about the thing which he's talking about not talking about. Surely, in 1955, the readers of "The Spectator" would not have been scandalized if he had simply said "There is no neutral English word for penis."

Lewis appears to be slightly less reticent about referring to his bowels that to his bladder. In describing a typical day to his brother he feels the need to mention that he "goes to the stool" at around 8.40 in the morning; later, during a very busy week, he asks jocularly whether saying ones prayers could be combined with moving one's bowels. And bottoms apparently do not fall into the category of "those parts of the body which are not usually mentioned". He is quite happy to quote the old joke about the girls-school production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" ("I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to see a female Bottom.") The extremely rude poem that he quotes with approval to Warnie is more anal than sexual ("I grabbed him by the hair of his head/And shoved it into a bucket of water/And I screwed his pistols up his arse/A damn sight harder than I screwed his daughter".) (5) And of course when he and Warnie were still toddlers, their nursemaid threatened to smack their "little piggy bottoms". This remark was so astonishingly funny that 60 years later, they were still referring to each other as "Big Piggybottom" and "Small Piggybottom". (6)

This could come from an old fashioned Victorian attitude to "regularity". Properly maintained Church of England bowels can be relied on to perform at roughly the same time every day: they are therefore simply a mundane fact of life, a chore. The bladder on the other hand makes more frequent and unpredictable demands on you: it is therefore embarrassing and even shameful. One also wonders whether Lewis regarded his weak bladder as self-inflicted. Hooper describes him drinking tea by the pint, and Tolkien reported that he regarded three pints of beer at lunchtime as "going short". So is it possible that Lewis regarded his frequent trips to the toilet as in some respects a sin; the result of too much self-indulgence; something to be ashamed of?

Since we have raised the subject of penises and bottoms, we probably at least ought to mention buggery. There were, of course, a lot of gay relationships between teenagers and younger boys at Lewis's second boarding school. Lewis insists that "the vice in question" was one of only two which he has never been tempted by. But he adds that he find it "opaque to the imagination". I have always thought that this was an odd turn of phrase. Maybe he doesn't mean anything more than "I really can't think why anyone would want to do that." But is it possible that he means it literally: "I've been told what they got up to; but when I try to form a mental picture of it, I simply can't."

So: we have a man with a very weak bladder, possibly the result of an undiagnosed medical condition. He has to be perpetually thinking about his next trip to the toilet; coming up with silly stories to excuse himself, inventing spurious euphemisms; looking out for public toilets in strange towns and even placing a chamber pot in the room next to his study. He thinks that this is a male phenomenon, one that all men but no women would understand. He also thinks that it is self-inflicted, even sinful, because of the amount of tea and beer which he drinks. But this sense of being controlled by unpredictable "calls of nature" fits in rather closely – and may actually inform – his dualistic theology, in which "the body" is sometimes an enemy one has to defeat and sometimes a beast one has to tame. His father, who he had a complicated relationship with, used to talk all the time about lavatories, which makes him almost afraid of any reference to them. And he is more than usually repressed about sexuality: he has spent years trying to resist the temptation to masturbate because of the violent fantasies which were associated with it; he finds the word "penis" unmentionable; and he finds it impossible to form a mental picture of a homosexual encounter between two men. So to say "Excuse me, I am just going upstairs for a second," in front of a woman is something which he is pathologically unable to do: because it would involve admitting the existence of his penis. Freud talks about the stages which infants go through before they understand the anatomical difference between men and women; and suggests that at an unconscious level, some people continue to "believe" in their infantile constructions (so a man may have a subconscious belief that women have penises; and that the ones he actually sees naked have been castrated for some reason.) Is there something childish in Lewis's unconscious which says "Urinating is a specifically male concept, since it is done with one's penis: women, not having penises, do not urinate." Some psychologists tell us that sex arouses feelings of shame is because of the proximity of the organs of procreation to the organs of excretion: we can't help feeling that sex is dirty. One wonders whether Lewis, (like the man who disapproved of sex because it might lead to dancing) was exceptionally disgusted by toilets because they forced him to admit the existence of sex.

In 1961, at the age of 63 C.S Lewis was diagnosed as having an enlarged prostate gland. He was initially fitted with a catheter, but this seems to have caused his kidneys to become infected, which in turn led to a heart problem which made it impossible to operate on him. He died two years later of kidney failure.

(1) Studies in words: A "toilet" was originally a place for ladies to "make their toilet" i.e wash and apply make-up. ("And now, unveiled, the toilet stands displayed/ Each silver vase in mystic order laid.") And a "lavatory" was originally a place to "lavare" i.e to wash. So both words do in fact mean more or less the same as "bathroom". The O.E.D claims that "lavatory" was first noted as a euphemism in 1924 -- seven years after Lewis apparently told Arthur that he needed to "go north". But Lewis appears to use "lavatory" in the older sense: when his is living with Mrs Moore he mentions in his diary that the plumbing has gone down, and that he has to go to college to use the lavatory: which must surely mean "to take a bath" rather than "to go to the toilet."

(2) Incidentally, this reticence appears to have been shared by Lewis's uncles. Lewis quotes one of them as having said: "Now Dick, you'd better go and take off your collar and wash yourself and that sort of thing and have a bit of a shave" (my emphasis.)

(3) It will be remembered that the station he had been commissioned by were so coy that they objected to the fact that he had "several times brought sex into his discussion of eros."

(4) ."Tha'rt not one o' them button-arsed lasses as should be lads, are ter! Tha's got a real soft sloping bottom on thee..." etc etc etc

(5) It is interesting that he finds this funny; that he admires the "Miller's Tale"; but that he is exceptionally disgusted by the idea of gay sex.

(6) The fact that Walter Hooper has made sure that we know about Lewis's interest in spanking may put a slightly different slant on these nicknames.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of Do Balrogs Have Wings?, which contains all my essays on Lewis and Tolkien, including some previously unpublished.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Double Dutch

I am not what you would call a purist. In the last two years, I have seen Siegmund pull Notung from between Sieglinde's legs; Siegfried on a skateboard wearing a cowboy hat; and a "Flying Dutchman" which seemed not to have an actual Dutchman in it. All of these productions earned at least a qualified "bravo!" from me. They made sense dramatically; they were theatrically interesting; and they explored ideas which are certainly present in the operas which they were responding to.

The Welsh National Opera's current staging of the "Flying Dutchman" is directed by someone called David Pountney. His programme notes explain that Space represents to the twenty-first century imagination very much what Sea did to that of the nineteenth: "the ultimate lonely, desolate place where someone might be condemned to wander aimlessly." Well, yes, which is why sci-fi appropriates sea-stories so shamelessly. There are probably half-a-dozen updatings of the "Dutchman" story in "Star Trek" alone. It's not hard to imagine a science-fictionalized staging of the opera. The helmsman falling asleep on an empty bridge as an ancient black starship appears on the viewscreen; the cursed Captain emerging from cryogenic storage and beaming aboard; holograms of his long-dead crew terrifying the living during their shore-leave; the final moment where Senta hurls herself out of an air-lock and the black ship dissolves into an Industrial Light and Magic explosion (followed by a brief hologram of the lovers against the stars.) Yes, Wagner's music is explicitly and un-subtly about the sea; but science fiction frequently appropriates nautical music, so there wouldn't be too much of a culture clash.

Instead, Mr Pountney offers us a Cube. A very nice Cube, certainly. Some critics thought it was an allusion to "2001: A Space Odyssey" which smacks of desperation. On to this Cube, all kinds of video-imagery is projected: it's that kind of production. The first thing we see may be the radar receiver on a submarine; although it could possibly have been a rotating sofa. (It's that kind of production.) We keep seeing film of what appear to be factories and industrial sites. The notes inform us that some of these are "the Soviet space training center in Kazakhastan" because "in its crumbling bureaucratic Soviet way it has something of the lonely, isolated world of the Flying Dutchman." Well, obviously.

Daland and the Steersman are discovered above the Cube, on metal scaffolding. In the Dress Circle, we had to crane our heads to actually see the singers, but we did have an excellent view of the Cube. (We had no chance of seeing the surtitles, though I doubt they would have helped very much.) The Steersman descends to stage level to sing his ballad. He is upstaged by the Cube. It turns out that the Cube is made of four separate panels. They are capable of sliding around the stage independently, and do so incessantly. Memo to producer: If you insist on using sliding panels; and if your stage machinery is apt to make scraping noises, then for goodness sake don't slide the panels during the quiet passage in the score. The Steersman falls asleep rather dramatically: if you didn't know, you'd have thought he was having a heart attack. (The programme notes claim "Solaris" as an influence. This would make sense if it was the kind of production where the Steersman is dreaming the whole thing. But nothing further seems to come of this.) As the music becomes sinister, we see huge, close up video images of someone's Eye. The sliding panels eventually part to reveal Bryn Terfel, initially in shadow. During the Dutchman's great monologue, we encounter Production Idea #2: a huge, black and white close up video of Bryn's face is projected on the Cube. (Not, however, live footage of him singing, because this would have been too "Brechtian.") The panels move around him while he sings.

When he was Wotan at Covent Garden, Bryn was required to share a stage with actual pyrotechnics. One wonders whether having to sing against Silly Production Ideas had anything to do with his decision to take a break from opera and spend more time with his recording contract?

Interestingly, Daland, the Steersman and the Dutchman have come dressed for a perfectly sane performance in generic gray trench coats and indistinct semi-period sailor's gear. Daland and the Dutchman act out their meeting in a perfectly naturalistic manner, as if no-one had told them about the production going on around them. The video imagery on the panels remains at crossed-purposes to the action. When the Dutchman explains to Daland that his ship is loaded with treasure we are given videos of a room full of telephones. Have we perhaps wandered into "A Night at the Opera" by mistake?

The Spinning Song is performed by a group of women who are, I guess, meant to be Soviet factory workers, with Mary as a matriarchal overseer. They are doing some sort of work on big, luminous tubes which dangle from the ceiling; these could possibly have been fiber optic cables? If so, does this mean that the Dutchman and his telephones represent an obsolete form of telecommunications? Instead of mooning over a painting of the Dutchman, Senta is obsessively drawing a gigantic eye which Mary keeps erasing.

The duet between Senta and the Dutchman is the only point where the production achieved any kind of coherence. The singers walk between the moving panels as if through a maze; the panels at all times separating the two lovers from each other. The singer's faces are again projected on them. Senta stands on the stage by herself, singing to an image of the Dutchman; then the Dutchman sings to an image of Senta. As the duet proceeds, they get closer together: at one point, they are on either side of panel, touching each other through it. Only at the end of the duet do they come face to face, and Daland binds their hands together. This makes an obvious, sub-Freudian kind of sense: Senta has been obsessed by a painting of the Dutchman; and the Dutchman has spent centuries dreaming of a woman like Senta. They are both in love with an image of the other. I'm far from sure that the music says that they experience disillusionment or transfer their love from the erotic ideal to the real person, but it worked okay as a stage-idea.

The climactic choral section was completely doo-lally. In the text, Daland's sailors and their women jocularly invite the Dutchman's ghost-sailors to join their party; when the ghosts awake, they are terrified, and there follows a sort of musical battle in which the sailor's jolly tune tries to drown out the ghost's spooky one. Here, there is no differentiation between the ghosts and the sailors (both parts seem to be sung by one chorus). As the ghost's dark music starts, the sailors, er, gang-rape the women. One tries in vain to make sense of this: the Dutchman is a force which possesses mortals and drives them crazy? There's not much moral difference between Daland's sale of his daughter and an actual rape? I give up.

And so we end with Senta's redemptive suicide, which is represented on the stage by the panels sliding back together into a cube, and video images of an astronaut, followed by images of a desolate landscape, possibly the Challenger pictures of Mars, but equally possible a desert where a cosmonaut might land. Representing the lovers coming back to earth and being redeemed; or going off to Mars and being redeemed, or something.

Producers seems to only be capable of having two ideas about Wagner.

#1: "Despite the mythological setting, this is really a very human drama about ordinary people, who quarrel, fall in love, steal, screw their sisters and commit suicide just like we all do every day. I will therefore make the cast wear boiler-suits".

#2 "Despite the mythological setting, this is really a study of Freudian psychology in which the characters act out various unconscious and spiritual journeys. I will therefore make the cast perform in front of black curtain."

Pountney's production seems to involve both ideas. His programme notes tell us that "the horror is the least convincing aspect" and "the whole redemption theme is not an important part of the whole piece", which seems rather close to saying that he decided to omit the plot of the "Flying Dutchman". On the other hand (referring to the scene two duet) he explains "All we are describing here is the difference between the materialistic and the spiritual view of the world. You can find both of these in Kensington -- you don't need to go to sea."

There is no obligation on a producer to follow the composer's stage directions. There is not even any obligation on a producer to follow the composer's general intentions: in the theater, and in music theater, anything goes. The producer is, however, obliged to be intelligible to the audience -- preferably, intelligible to an audience whose only previous knowledge of the work is the programme synopsis -- and, above all, he is obliged to be interesting. This staging failed on all accounts: it had nothing to say about the opera; it was opaque; it was dull. One really felt that one was watching a brilliantly sung concert performance, with some rather uninteresting but irrelevant special effects as a distraction.

According to the programme, Pountney's previous production used a an open-air stage which floated on a lake. It was, apparently, socio-political. Erik lived on an island inhabited by ducks and Senta saw a grand piano coming up out of the water. "The one thing that it was impossible to do on a lake was have anything to do with boats."

I guess we got off lightly.


Monday, March 20, 2006

It's the 'Daily Express' Gone Mad, I Tell You

On March 7th and 8th, the 'Daily Express' dedicated two front pages, two leading articles, two inside pages and some space in the letter column to a Very Important Story. It seems that children in a nursery school in Oxfordshire have been made to sing 'Baa-Baa, rainbow Sheep' rather than 'Baa-baa, black sheep', because the traditional version of the rhyme might offend minority groups.

The March 7th front page managed to include the two most important 'P.C Brigade' cliches in a single headline.

Political correctness goes mad at the nursery: NOW IT'S BAA BAA RAINBOW SHEEP

As we've seen, 'Now' is an important 'Daily Express' code word, translating as "It's even worse than you thought". And of course the words 'Political Correctness' can only be used in conjunction with the words 'gone mad'.

The first paragraph tells us various people's opinions, without troubling us with anything as old fashioned as an actual news story.

A nursery school was last night accused of 'ridiculous' political correctness after removing the word 'black' from a nursery rhyme. Teachers at the government-backed school were ordered to change the lyrics of the classic Baa-Baa Black Sheep.

"Was accused of..." Well, the article does contain quotes from a local councilor and an un-named parent, both of whom use the word 'ridiculous', so I suppose that this is literally true. We don't have a factual news item followed by a comment: the fact that someone has made a comment is the news item.

"Last night...." The accusation happened at particular point, sometime on Monday March 6th. The story would be quite different if the accusation had happened in the afternoon. We are being asked to imagine someone rushing into the office late last night, shouting "Hold the front page! We've just heard that a mother in Oxford thinks that her kids kindergarten teacher has done something silly!"

"Were ordered to...." We never quite find out who or what did the ordering.

"Removed" -- An active act of censorship. Positive action taken against the offending monosyllable. Someone with a blue pen going through the Official Text of children's rhymes and 'removing' the B-word.

The core of the story is a quote from a 'mother' who 'did not want to be named for fear of jeopardizing her daughter's place (at the school)'.

" 'Baa baa black sheep' has been one of the most well-known nursery rhymes for generations. For people to come along and fiddle with it is ridiculous. What on earth is a a rainbow sheep anyway?"

Note that Mrs. Anonymous does not tell us anything about what has or hasn't been happening at the school, or how she heard about it. She merely says that she thinks that changing the rhyme is ridiculous. We then get an attributed quote from the 'manager' of the school.

"Basically, we have taken the equal opportunities approach to everything we do. This is fairly standard across nurseries. We are following stringent equal opportunities rules. Not one should feel point out because of their race, gender or anything else."

But wait a minute – Mr Chamberlain has also failed to refer to any actual incident; indeed, to make any reference to sheep, black or otherwise. He's just made some general comments about the school's race policy. And why does he twice use the phrase 'equal opportunities' rather than, say, 'racially inclusive language'. (Surely, 'equal opportunities' refers to which teachers you employ and what kids you admit, not what books and poems you use?) The 'Express' says that the school censored the rhyme in order to 'avoid offending children', but nothing in the quote from Mr. Chamberlain implies this.

There is no news story here. No-one has published a book of censored poems; no-one has issued a press release or a diktat, and (presumably) no 'Daily Excess' hack has been inside the school to report on what goes on. Maybe the toddlers have been singing about rainbow sheep, and maybe they haven't, but there is no hint in the paper about how we know, who reported it, how the story came to light. All we have is a couple of quotes in which people react to having been informed (by whom?) that the words of the poem have been changed.

We have to wait to Day 2 of the story for an actual piece of information to make itself heard.

The 'Daily Express' revealed yesterday how the Sure Start Center in Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire, had changed the words of the nursery rhyme. Center manager Stuart Chamberlain had said equal opportunities justified that extraordinary decision.... At the center itself yesterday the staff were still trying in vain to justify their actions. Felicity Dick the nursery's project coordinator, said; "What is ridiculous is that we were actually singing black sheep, white sheep and occasionally rainbow sheep. But afterwards we had a useful discussion about it all. We haven't often sung rainbow sheep as that is not their actual colour of course. And I will say that the children hear have made both black sheep and white sheep to put on the wall.'"

So: we now have an actual fact. At this school, the line 'Baa-baa Rainbow Sheep' has been sung, at least once, in addition to, but not instead of, the line 'baa-baa black sheep'.

But hang on. Isn't that what you do when you are playing with very small children -- make up silly words to well-known songs? Aren't the popular children's jingles precisely the ones where Mummy or Teacher can make up an infinite number of equally irritating verses? After the wheels on the bus have gone round and round a few dozen times, the wipers on the bus can go swish swish swish and the farmer can think up a large number of equally unlikely things to do in his den. If your toddlers have an appetite for yet another round of songs about sheep, then you can just imagine Miss Dick looking up from her piano and saying 'What colour sheep are they this time, children.... Baa-baa-blue-sheep'. The original story, that an un-named Big Brother figure has 'ordered' the school to 'ban' the word 'black' is in ruins.

Very fascinatingly, Day 2 contains a quote from two more parents without names:

One couple whose daughter attends the group felt the nursery's stance had been 'absolutely laughable'. The father said yesterday: 'I think most of us only heard about it today, but it's absolutely ridiculous. But after all the publicity an once we made our views known, I am pleased to say today that they are again singing black sheep.'

"After all the publicity": Mr and Mrs Anonymous have found out about what goes on at school, not from their child or from the teachers, but by reading about it in the 'Daily Express'. We are reading a parent's reaction to a news item which itself consisted of nothing but other people's reactions to a supposed event.

I don't think it is too hard to imagine the way in which these kinds of stories are created.

1: Some school children sing 'Baa baa rainbow sheep' because some teacher thinks it is funny at the time.

2: One child repeats this to his mother.

3: His mother telephone the 'Daily Express', using the 'Do you have a story' number prominently displayed every day on page two, and tells them that she thinks that it is 'ridiculous.'

4: The 'Express' phones round for quotes. The head of the nursery, knowing nothing about what songs Miss Dick may or may not have been singing yesterday, makes a general comment about the school's equal opportunities policy. They ask various people 'What do you think about nurseries singing about amazingly technicolour dream-sheep' and the politicians says 'We think it is rather silly'

5: They publish an article almost entirely made up of comments from people who say it is very silly.

6: Other parents with children about the school, who knew nothing about it read the comments, and also say that it is very silly.

7: The nursery issues a partial rebuttal, saying, yes, we did sing the song with variant words, but no, we didn't have any kind of policy against the use of the word 'black'

8: The 'Express' prints a front page headline implying that this rebuttal represents a change of policy ('Daily Express' halts the rainbow sheep PC nonsense' 'Ewe turn' 'The big climbdown').

A non-news story is follow by a non-event represented as a huge victory. There is no World War II bomber on the moon after all.

All of which would be very funny, were it not being used as a pretext to talk about race issues in general. The Oxfordshire local politician who thinks that rainbow sheep are ridiculous informs the readers of the worlds-greatest-newspaper-and-proud-of-it that "this kind of thing is happening all the time", and we seamlessly segue into a story about a toy-shop owner who was asked to remove three gollywogs from his window. When he got a phone call from a police officer "'I assumed there had been a break in. It's political correctness gone mad." (Twice in one article.)

Now, it would indeed be ridiculous to prohibit the word 'black sheep', which is why no-one has ever done so, but selling dolls which are grotesque caricatures of Negroes -- particularly when the word 'wog' is commonly used as a racial slur – is a much less clear cut issue. And then the co-founder of the sinister sounding 'Campaign Against Political Correctness' asserts that "There are missives coming down from Government bodies about equal opportunities, so schools get into trouble like this." We are no longer talking about a single schools hyper-correct editing of a particular poem: the whole idea of 'equal opportunities' is the problem.

The March 8th article concludes, in a complete non-sequitur, by re-cycling a story about positive discrimination in the police force. A constabulary "caused outrage" by launching "a recruitment drive aimed at gays, lesbians, trans-sexuals and people from ethnic backgrounds" which apparently meant that applications from 'white, heterosexual men" were "torn up". The question of how you deal with the under-representation of minorities is a real one and this kind of affirmative action (if true) is in my opinion rather a blunt instrument for dealing with it. But the 'Daily Express' wants us to draw a connection between the two issues. Banning black sheep and gollywogs and thinking that there should be more black policemen are both examples of the thing called 'political correctness'. Political Correctness is shorthand for the belief that it's Us, white people, not Them, blacks and hoh moh sexuals who are subject to prejudice. Our traditional nursery rhymes are taken away and our job applications are torn up.

England prevails.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Life's Little Ironies

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe won an Oscar.

For best make up.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Civil Liberties and Human Rights Can Be Disregarded When You Are Very Cross: Official

"Well on the first, look I will be very clear with you, I have said why I think that Guantanamo is an anomaly and should come to an end. I have said all that. I also think however it is important we never forget the context in which this has happened, which is the context of the war in Afghanistan and the reason for that was the slaughter of 3,000 innocent people on 11 September. Now it is important, of course, that we pursue the action against terrorism, maintaining absolutely our commitment to proper civil liberties and human rights,


it is also important that we remember those people that died in that terrorist act, and have some understanding therefore of the huge amount of anger that there is in America of what happened there."

Downing Street Press Conference 23rd Feb 2006

maintaining absolutely our commitment to proper civil liberties and human rights, but

absolutely/ but
absolutely/ but
absolutely/ but
absolutely/ but
absolutely/ but
absolutely/ but
absolutely/ but
absolutely/ but
absolutely/ but
absolutely/ but

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Poetry Corner

This poem may be illegal under the Glorification of Terrorism bill.

This poem has no possible relevance to anything in last weeks news.


I am officially unemployed.

This "getting made redundant" business could become tedious after a while. I think this is the fifth time.

On the plus side, I get to move away from Macclesfield which is officially the most boring town in the western hemisphere, and go back to Bristol.

No flowers by request. Carry on talking among yourseves. Normal service will be resumed relatively shortly.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

....and it's good night from him

Mr Bean: Good evening. It's wonderful to be back with you again, isn't it Rowan?

The Archbishop of Canterbury: Indeed it is. And in a packed programme tonight, I'll be talking to a lady who likes Nicholas Parsons...

Mr Bean: ...and I'll be talking to parson who was arrested under the Religious Hatred bill for making lewd jokes about members of the clergy.

Archbishop: After that, I'll explore the limits of free speech in a multi-faith society.

Mr Bean: ...and I'll bang on and on about old "Not the Nine O'Clock News" gags involving the Ayotallah's contact lenses, which weren't very funny at the time.

Archbishop: Then I'll be interviewing a man who thinks that even if you despise what someone says, you should defend to the death their right to say it.

Mr Bean. ...and I'll be interviewing a man who thinks that even Voltaire would have regarded Nick Griffin as a special case.

Archbishop: But first, the news. There were widespread demonstrations throughout the Muslim world after a Danish newspaper printed a series of religiously offensive cartoons. Police say that it's hard to work out the difference between caricaturing the Prophet at a time of heightened racial tension and shouting "fire" in a crowded theater.

Mr Bean: One Muslim protester, photographed holding a banner with the slogan "Freedom Can Go To Hell" on it, said that this violation of the West's most sacred taboo was intended "ironically".

Archbishop: Across Europe, newspapers showed solidarity with Denmark by printing cartoons about pedophilia and essays by holocaust deniers.

Mr Bean: In order to show how strongly it believed in freedom of speech, the Daily Mail printed a double-page spread of nude male models with erect genitalia, and asked readers to select the biggest prick in the paper.

Archbishop: The readers unanimously voted for Nick Griffin.

Mr Bean: Nick Griffin had just been cleared by the high court of being a racist, on the grounds that he was very careful to use the word "Muslim" instead of "Paki" in his invective. One comedian argued that if you closed this legal loop hole, you'd also end up criminalising most religious jokes.

Archbishop: Which begs the question, which would give you the bigger laugh: Rowan playing silly vicars in bad Hugh Grant movies, or Nick Griffin banged up in a cell with a couple of big strong black convicts for company?

Mr. Bean: Tony Blair's flagship Religious Hatred bill -- that would have prevented comedians telling religious jokes, such as one that I made 20 years ago involving the Ayatollah's contact lenses....

Archbishop: ....get on with it, Rowan....

Mr Bean: ...was defeated by one vote in the House of Commons, not because free-speech advocates won the argument, but because the Prime Minister went home early. As the late, great Bob Monkhouse said "That was when I realised that God writes better jokes than I do."

Archbishop: And now a sketch about the President of the United States and the former President of Iraq. I play the crazed fundamentalist who approves of torture and sponsors terrorism.

Mr Bean: And I play Saddam Hussein.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

"I cannot say what he says, Oyarsa, in your language." - Out of the Silent Planet


I thought that "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" was a very good movie. It is pretty faithful to C.S Lewis's book and quite moving at times. Mr Tumnus's house, the Beavers' cottage and the White Witch's palace all looked very much like Pauline Baynes illustrations -- although I had my doubts about Cair Paravel. The talking animals were extremely convincing, although some of the monsters were less so. All the main characters should be nominated for Oscars, and Tilda Swinton should actually win one. The religious content was neither overlooked nor overplayed. Above all, it succeeded in making me feel that I was in Narnia. I enjoyed it very much indeed.



In Chapter 12 of C.S Lewis's "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" the Pevensie children meet Aslan for the first time. The Lion asks them what has happened to their brother Edmund. Mrs. Beaver tells him that he has betrayed them and joined the White Witch. "That was partly my fault, Aslan," says Peter. "I was angry with him, and I think that helped him to go wrong."

This is a good and generous act on Peter's part. It isn't Peter's fault that Edmund is a bully: Lucy thinks he was turned bad by a "horrid" school. It isn't Peter's fault that Edmund is bewitched by the magic Turkish delight; it isn't Peter's fault that Edmund decides to lie about having been in Narnia with Lucy. But when he discovers this lie, Peter calls his brother a "poisonous little beast". In Mr Tumnus's house, he shouts down Edmund's perfectly reasonable comment that there is not much that four children can do to rescue the Faun from the Witch. Had Peter not been angry, or if he had forgiven him sooner, then Edmund might not have sneaked out of the Beavers' house and gone to the Witch. Peter has told Aslan the exact truth -- his anger helped Edmund to go wrong, so he is partly responsible for the betrayal.

In Andrew Adamson's (1) movie version of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe", when Aslan learns that Edmund has betrayed his family, Peter says "That was my fault. I was too hard on him." Susan puts her hand on Peter's shoulder and says "We all were." For some reason, movie-Peter takes all the blame for Edmund's misconduct on himself.

In Chapter 16 of the book, Aslan arrives on the battlefield, along with the prisoners who he has freed from the Witch's castle. The Lion leaps onto the Witch and the freed prisoners charge her army. Lewis tells us that, once it is clear that the Witch is dead, all the bad creatures surrender or flee.

In the movie, the Lion tears out the Witch's throat with as much ferocity as is compatible with a P.G certificate and then says solemnly "It is finished." Adamson has spent the last month telling the media that there is no specific, unique or necessary "Christian" interpretation of the story: nevertheless, movie-Aslan adds an explicit religious gloss to a scene which, in C.S Lewis's book, doesn't have one.

Chapter 17 of the book, Edmund is mortally wounded from his battle with the White Witch. Lucy puts a few drops of her magic elixir into his mouth, and waits to see if he will recover.

"There are other people wounded" said Aslan....
"Yes, I know", said Lucy crossly. "Wait a minute."
"Daughter of Eve" said Aslan in a graver voice "Others are at the point of death. Must more people die for Edmund?"

In the movie version Lucy waits and sees Edmund come back from the point of death. His two sisters embrace him, and Peter says, with mock severity "Why can you never do what you are told?" This family reunion comes to an end when Lucy bounds off (without being prompted) to tend to the other wounded soldiers. In the book, Lucy is mildly reprimanded for caring more about her brother than about a group of strangers: in the film this is accepted without question.

So: Adamson's movie is quite astonishingly faithful to C.S Lewis's book. If it wasn't, I wouldn't be able to play this kind of game. (If you tried to put scenes from Tolkien alongside scenes from Jackson, your little head would explode.) It's a scene by scene, if not quite a line by line, translation of the story from book to movie. But fairy tales and disney-multiplex-franchise-movies speak a different language and inevitably in the course of the translation, something gets lost.


The problem with the movie doesn't come where I expected it to.

It wasn't the child-actors. Peter looked too much like Prince William, and Lucy said "actually" too often, but they were all pretty natural and convincing. I felt that I was watching 'real' kids, not drama school prima donnas.

It wasn't the character of Aslan. You can't put God on the screen and you can't make the audience feel that "some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music has just floated by" when they hear his name. But a larger-than-life Lion that sounds like Qui-Gon (Obi-Wan was unavailable) is a pretty good cinematic representation of numinous wisdom. Aslan's first entrance -- a gigantic paw emerging from a tent; all the various centaurs, cheetahs and rhinos falling to their knees; Peter, slightly awkwardly, saluting with his sword -- was one of of two unequivocally magical moments in the film. If we'd never heard of "CGI" I think that we'd have assumed that this was a real lion, borrowed from circus and bribed to do what the director told it to. But Aslan's movements are slower and more regal than a real animal's. That adds to his mystique; like a lion, and yet not quite like a lion. I do regret that we entirely lost the playful side of his character: he does let the girls ride on his back, but we don't see the "mad chase" round the hill, "such a romp as no-one has ever had except in Narnia."

The other genuinely magical moment, surprisingly, was the arrival of Father Christmas. Many people, including Tolkien and Roger Lancelyn Green thought that his appearance in the book was a great mistake.(2) The film navigates this fat jolly minefield by avoiding any stereotypical "coca-cola" imagery. Yes, he has a beard; yes, he is dressed in red, and yes he rides a sleigh ("I've been driving one of these longer than the Witch has!"). He even laughs, although he avoids saying "Ho-ho-ho". But until he produces his sack, you could easily not realise who he is. James Cosmo plays him absolutely straight, as if this is the first time anyone in the world has ever worn a Santa suit. As in the book, the incongruity of the scene is its real point. It's not strange that Father Christmas should be giving out gifts; it's not odd that the heroes should be given magical weapons; but it is very odd that the High King should get his sword as a present from Father Christmas....and this oddness somehow puts a new shine on the cliché.

Department of Polly Toynbee: The line "Battles are ugly when women fight" is changed to "Battles are ugly affairs."

The religious element was handled with a fairly light touch – not laid on with a Gibsonian trowel, but not ignored, either. The death of Aslan is genuinely horrifying, due less to the zoofull of CGI hags and minotaurs than to Tilda Swinton's lumininously evil White Witch. It would have been so easy to have camped up this part, turned her into someone's ugly sister. Instead, Swinton is a kind of female Iago; speaking softly and plausibly and only occasionally allowing the mask to slip. When she whispers "Did you think by all this to save the human child?" we feel Aslan's despair and humiliation. We don't see the knife pierce Aslan – in general, the film tones down the books slightly bloodthirsty atmosphere - but the film unflinchingly squeezes every last tear out of Susan and Lucy. The actors are excellent, convincingly fighting back tears rather than sobbing. Susan's first reaction is, in fact, a forced smile "He must have known what he was doing."

Department of Polly Toynbee: In neither the book nor the film is Aslan "thrashed" by the Witch's minions, although he is tied up and shaved. Perhaps our Polly was confusing Lewis with Gibson? An easy mistake to make.

So: the four children, the Witch, the death and resurrection of Aslan and even Father Christmas – the film handles them all with great confidence and style. And it all looks absolutely terrific; the first shot of Tumnus and his parcels and the lampost and Lucy just takes your breath away -- they've brought Narnia to life, how have they done that?

The problems start when Adamson has to make up stuff for the characters to say.


C.S Lewis is at his best when he is talking to his readers in his own voice: telling them, often in summary form, what happened next or how someone feels. When Aslan dies he writes:

I hope no-one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night; but if you have been -- if you've been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you -- you know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing was ever going to happen again.

--as good a description of grief as I think anyone has ever managed.

He is less good at dialogue, although in the more mythical sections of the story, his characters often get good lines. When Edmund arrives at the castle, the Wolf says "Welcome, fortunate favoured of the Queen, or perhaps not so fortunate." Many of these lines are carried over into the film: Lucy tells Tumnus that he's "the nicest Faun I've ever met"; Edmund tells the White Witch that his siblings are "nothing special." Adamson only rarely gives in to the Jacksonian urge to redistribute lines between characters. When he does so, it's usually for a clear reason. In the book, when the Witch demands Edmund's blood, a talking bull says "Come and take him!" In the film, the line is given to Peter, which fits in with his hero role, and shows that he really has forgiven his brother. (3) And it was a very good idea to give Mrs Beaver's lines about how Aslan will "always be coming and going" to Mr Tumnus: it means that the Narnian section of the film is neatly book-ended by conversations between him and Lucy.

But when the characters are engaged in ordinary conversation, Lewis's writing ranges between the bland and the positively bad. No modern actor could be expected to say "We've fallen on our feet and no mistake. This is all going to be perfectly splendid" to end sentences with "By Jove!" and "Great Scott!" or to describe things as "beastly". Although Lewis's characters talk a lot, most of what they say is concerned with pointing things out ("Look, there's a robin!") or explaining what they are going to do next. No real relationship or dynamic between them ever emerges. Edmund is treacherous; Peter is angry but forgives him; Lucy is good; Susan is...their sister – but except in so far as it drives the plot they have no real voices of their own.

This is not really a fault on Lewis's part, but a characterstic of the fairy tale form he is writing in. We experience Narnia more vividly because we see it through the eyes of a non-descript Everyboy and Everygirl. Either we imagine that we are in Narnia or we we imagine for ourselves what kinds of children Peter and Lucy must be. The Brother's Grimm don't tell us what Hansel and Gretel studied at school, or what Rapunzel did all day in the tower. But in a movie we are necessarily looking at four specific people represented by four specific actors: they have to be fleshed out as people. And you can't have a movie script where four people spend all their time agreeing with each other: Adamson has to give the group an internal dynamic. This gave me a sense that I was watching two movies simultaneously. In the background is Lewis's story, faithfully rendered; beautifully visualised; powerfully acted. But in the foreground is a "character driven" story about four wartime evacuees that Adamson has made up out of his head.

Just as the fairy tale genre imposes limits on Lewis, so the movie genre imposes limits on Adamson. Hollywood is founded on a Deep Magic that determines what kind of stories can exist. Everything must center on a single hero, who must be central to, or preferably initiate, the action. The hero must be faced with a choice between doing the Right thing and doing the Wrong thing. This choice must involve Personal Growth -- the hero at the end of the movie cannot be quite the same as he was at the beginning. For most movie heroes, from Rick Blain via Han Solo to Merry and Pippin, this Choice has usually been cast in the form "Should I stay or should I go?" Because movies are a democratic genre, the Right Thing is usually defined as a platitude: not Justice or Democracy, but a Good which literally everyone can agree on. It is good to keep promises; it is good to stick together as a family; it is good to help people who have helped you; the bond between Father and Son (and Mother and Daughter, but that's obviously less important) is sacred in an almost literally religious sense; it is good believe in yourself. And at some point in every movie the Deep Magic demands that someone should say "Why don't you try and get some rest?"

Adamson's tells the only story that the Rules of Movie allow him to tell. But it is at times hopelessly at crossed purposes to the story by C.S Lewis on which it is ostensibly based.


We begin with an air-raid during the blitz. The first image in the movie is of German aircraft over London.

This has a triple function:

1: The Deep Magic requires that something should go "bang" within the first five minutes of a movie, otherwise "it's boring"

2: It spells out the concept of "evacuation" for the benefit of any slow boys in the back row. (4)

3: It introduces the central theme of Adamson's invented plot, which which is the conflict between Peter and Edmund.

(It is also "kewl" to start a fantasy movie with a scene from a war film: do you remember how the Oscar Wilde biopic started out looking like, of all things, a Western?)

Since Peter (as opposed to Aslan) is the hero of Adamson's story, as much of the action as possible has to center on or be initiated by him. Adamson has seized on Peter's remark that Edmund's fall is partly his fault and made it the organising principle of the first half of the movie. Peter treats Edmund badly in order that Peter (the hero) can be completely (as opposed to partly) to blame for Edmund's fall. Edmund's repentance can thus be "about" Peter's self-recognition, keeping Peter in the central position. However, this strategy has the incidental effect of making Edmund a more sympathetic character. In the book he is merely spiteful; here, he is to some extent a victim of his ill-treatment. This, in turn, changes the meaning of Aslan's sacrifice. In the book, he is dying for a very nasty and spiteful little boy - giving the light for the darkness. In the film, he is dying to extricate someone from the results of bad choices for which they were not entirely to blame.

So, in this opening scene, we see Peter rushing back into the house (with doodlebugs falling all around him) to rescue Edmund. This establishes that he is a basically decent sort who loves his brother; and that Edmund is stupid and disobedient. Once they get to the bomb shelter, Peter calls Edmund an idiot and asks "Why can't you ever do what you are told?" This rather puts us on Edmund's side -- no-one wants to be told off by their big brother. And the reason Edmund returned to the house is to retrieve a photograph of his soldier Dad, for which we can hardly blame him. Edmund especially idolizes his absent father ("If Dad were here, he wouldn't send us away") and thus especially resents the fact that Peter tries to take on a fatherly role. Pretty much the whole of Adamson's plot has been established. Not quite Oedpus Rex, but still.

The next scene shows the children at the railway station, being evacuated to the country, and saying farewell to their mother (5). The main themes of Adamson's story are further established: Mrs. Pevensie explicitly puts Peter in loco parentis. Peter "promises" to take care of the others. Promises are important and unbreakable in Movies. (It will be remembered that in Jackson's parody of "Lord of the Rings", Sam's stated reason for leaving the fellowship and going to Mordor was neither loyalty nor love for his master, but "I made a promise to Mr. Gandalf. A promise.") "I promised Mum..." is going to become a refrain throughout the Adamson thread of this film. Peter immediately tries to behave like a father, and Edmund immediately resists it ("I know how to get on a train".)

The credits roll over the train-ride to the Professor's house. Before we have seen any wardrobes we have undergone a kind of magical journey: from the nasty urban reality of bombs, railway stations into a rural arcadia where people still travel by horse and cart. As the train puffed through the astonishingly unspoilt countryside and the silly new age theme tune played in the background, every single member of the audience simultaneously thought "Hogwarts Express!"

The first ten minutes or so in the Professor's house are an extremely well-characterised elaboration of Adamson's basic themes. Peter tries to take on the role of Father; Susan needles him for doing it inadequately ("Well, that was nicely handled") and Edmund sulks because Susan is trying to Mother him. ("Yes Mum"). Peter is far too willing to tell Edmund off, but very reluctant to do so to Lucy. This tends to put us on Edmund's side. By the time Edmund meets the White Witch we, like him, are losing patience with Peter. We can understand why Edmund likes the idea that when he is King of Narnia, Peter will be his servant. (In the book, the deal is that Edmund will be King and Peter and Lucy will be Dukes and Duchesses.) Edmund's betrayal is motivated by a wish to humiliate Peter. Peter thus is kept center-stage.

So, we have a positively Ibsenesque little family drama. A surrogate father being cut down to size by a wannabe surrogate mother; and a rebellious son who accepts neither of them due to his (admirable) fidelity to his absent father; and who has therefore become embroiled in a scheme to make his brother-father into his servant. Lewis's fairy tale is a much simpler conflict between three good children and one traitor.

In the book, when the children discover Tumnus's house wrecked by the White Witch, everybody but Edmund agrees that it is their duty to try to help him. Here, Lucy wants to help Tumnus, but Susan and Peter (like Han Solo, Merry, Pippin and those Cheese-Eating-Surrender-Monkeys) think that We Should Stay At Home and Not Get Involved. Susan thinks that This Is Not Our War; Peter's over-riding concern is to keep his brothers and sisters safe, because "I promised Mum." This remains their motivation right through their first meeting with Beavers, up to the point when Edmund consummates his treachery. Discovering that they are the subjects of an ancient prophecy doesn't make any difference. We may also detect the increasingly cancerous influence of Joesph Campbell at this point: the first stage of the journey of the Hero is the Refusal of the Quest. "We aren't heroes. We come from Finchley". (It's not that I like the Empire. I hate it. But there's nothing I can do about it right now. It's all such a long way from here.) It is only when they discover that Edmund has run off to join the Witch that Peter agrees to go and meet Aslan at the Stone Table. But Peter does this only in order to enlist Aslan's help in rescuing Edmund. Arguably, Aslan's sacrifice itself is made sub-ordinate to Peter's need to keep his promise.

In Lewis, the Pevensies accept the reality of Narnia almost immediately. When they step through the Wardrobe, they are transformed into characters in a fairy tale. They seem to know this and behave like fairy tale characters should. Adamson keeps his children anachronistically out of place in Narnia for as long a possible. Susan accepts the existence of magic wardrobes and fauns, but still affects to be surprised by talking beavers. They continue to make references to our world – Lucy boasts that she is the tallest girl in her class ("actually"); Edmund tells the Witch what Mum thinks about Peter. Even after they have met Aslan, Lucy and Susan are still wondering about whether they can take some Narnian dresses home to Mum in the England of rationing and clothes shortages.

But just as Lewis's characters go from being "real" children to fairy tale characters, so Adamson's go from being "real" children to Movie characters. The tipping point is the arrival of Father Christmas. Peter's acceptance of his sword is, in some sense, an acceptance of his role as Hero. Adamson celebrates this by plunging him into the stupidest scene in the movie – and the only one which has no basis in the book. In the land of Movie, the end of the long Winter represents, not the onset of Spring and the return of the true King, but a Hazard for the movie-hero to overcome. The frozen river they are trying to cross starts to melt. All pretense of being 1940s schoolchildren is abandoned. (Not that this pretense ever went much deeper than striped pajamas and a habit of calling everyone Sir.) They realise that they are Action Movie characters. Peter develops an Indiana Jones like ability to, er, surf on lumps of frozen ice. Sticking a sword into the ice would be a good thing to do in the middle of a frozen lake. Apparently. Susan drops out of her mumsy-big-sister role, and realises that she is the Spunky Side Kick of a Movie Hero. "Just because a man in a red suit gives you a sword, that doesn't make you a hero!" But it does, Sue, it does. That's the whole point.

The characters are, incidentally, a little confused about whether to speak British Movie or American Movie. They play cricket, but they say things like "We could all use the fresh air" and "I guess I could try". The Witch says "He turned you in -- for sweeties" as opposed to, say, "He grassed you up -- for candy."

Edmund's scenes in the Witch's castle arguably improve on the book. The idea that Edmund should meet Tumnus in the Witch's dungeon is inspired. It keeps Tumnus on stage – he rather disappears from the book after the first few chapters – and it allows Edmund to see the results of his pettiness. Adamson has already drawn a direct parallel between Tumnus and Edmund: both planned to hand Lucy over to the White Witch, but Tumnus changed his mind, explicitly because he was ashamed of letting down the memory of his solider father. ("We're not really very similar at all.") When Edmund arrives in the wreck of Tumnus's house, it's he that notices the picture of Tumnus Snr. on the floor – taking us right back to the first scene. Again, because we feel that Edmund has blundered into his situation, we feel sorry for him as he grasps the enormity of what he has done: when the Witch turns Tumnus to stone, we feel more sorry for Edmund, who caused it, then for Tumnus himself.

As we've seen, when Peter meets Aslan he takes all the blame for Edmund's treachery because he was "too hard on him." This is an interesting phrase. Edmund resents Peter for having tried to take the place of his father; but Peter sees that the problem is that he has been a bad father: demanding too much of his "son" and over-reacting when he does something bad. (In Movies, "Bad" means "Strict": we never see a Father suddenly realising that he has been too lenient with his son.) This is Peter's Moment of Personal Recognition on which everything else turns.

In the book, we are told that, after Edmund is rescued from the witch and forgiven by Aslan:

"Everyone wanted very hard to say something that would make it quite clear that they were all friends with him again -- something ordinary and natural -- and of course no-one could think of anything in the world to say." ..

Adamson, however, is able to think of something. Peter says "Try and get some rest" and then adds with a smile "And don't go wandering off." Adamson's family plot is effectively resolved at this point. Peter, by pretending to tell Edmund off, concedes that he has been a bad father; Edmund, by smiling, accepts Peter's paternal role and his own place in the pecking order. Susan, incidentally, stops trying to be motherly and starts fooling about in the river with her kid sister. Everything is now in the proper order. All that remains is for Peter, just before the battle, to experience Heroic Self-Doubt (Copyright Viggo Mortensen) and for Edmund to say "Aslan believed in you. And so do I."

Quite astonishingly, even after Aslan has appeared and Edmund has been rescued, Peter still keeps singing his should-I-stay-or-should-I-go song. Now that they have Edmund back, they have to go home "because I promised Mum". This is appallingly impoverished writing: we are being asked to entertain the notion that Being Asked to Become King by Jesus Christ or a Furry Analogy Thereof is trumped by I Made a Promise To My Mum. And we all know the main character can't miss the big climax, in any case. Granted, Peter's scheme is that he should stay and fight while the other three go home, but that only suggests that he hasn't been paying attention: the prophecy requires four human children to be monarchs.

No-one ought to be surprised that the battle, which takes place off-stage in the book, is played out in all its glory. As the ranks and ranks of monsters and animals lined up for the cavalry charge; as we see Peter and the White Witch facing each other across the valley and the gryphons dropping rocks on the enemy, and an honest to god phoenix lighting up the sky, everyone in the audience must have thought "Doesn't Peter Jackson do this kind of thing so much better?"

Putting the battle on screen has one unintended consequence: it means that we actually see Edmund realising that he should strike at the Witch's magic staff, rather than at the Witch herself. In the book, this occurs off-stage, and when Aslan arrives, the first thing Peter does is tell him that it was his brother's bravery and good sense that saved the day: a nice gesture of magnanimity and generosity which would have fitted in nicely with Adamson's invented story, but can't fit into a Movie which requires a climax in which Stuff Blows Up.

And so we are left with Susan giving Edmund the magic elixir, which, as we have seen, is given a very different spin from that in the book. In the book, the fact that Lucy has to go and tend the other soldiers first indicates that family is not the only important thing. This would utterly contradict Adamson's invented storyline, which is about how a dysfunctional set of siblings, running away from one war (in which they are helpless bystanders), establish healthy, functioning relationships by finding themselves in the middle of another (in which they are pivotal figures.) The idea that there is anything more important than family simply cannot be expressed in the language of Movie.

When the battle seemed to be turning against the good guys, Peter told Edmund to "take the girls and go home", so when Edmund is revived, Peter says "Why can't you do what you're told?" in a friendly, ironic manner. This is the same thing he said to him in anger in the bomb shelter. The fact that the line is said twice, but in a different context, establishes that there has been Character Growth: Peter is now longer "too hard" on Edmund, and Edmund now respects Peter. So the Deep Magic of Hollywood is satisfied, and we can all go home.


None of this really matters.

There is only one important question to ask about this film. "Did it, or did it not, put a lump in your throat during the key set-pieces?" According to this criteria, Adamson's "The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe" succeeds admirably. Lucy's first trip to Narnia; Father Christmas; the first appearance of Aslan; Edmund's rehabilitation; Lucy and Susan at the stone table – all these scenes must have had everyone apart from Polly Toynbee reaching for their pocket handkerchiefs.

So despite the Disneywood nonsense, the film actually remains pretty close to Lewis's intentions. The point of Aslan's death is not that it is a rather clumsy "allegory" of the Atonement; but that our reaction to it is emotionally congruent with what our reaction to the death of Jesus would be if we believed that story were true. Ten years from now, children who saw this film will not remember that the explanation of the Deep Magic was rather truncated or that there was some dross about Family and Doing the Right Thing. What they will remember is how sad they were when Aslan died, and how happy they were when he came alive again, and how the "real" Father Christmas is scary and holy as well as being kind and jolly. Poetry is lost in translation; but myth remains the same in any language.


(1) The director's name is, of course, an allegory. "Adamson" means "Son of Adam", so "Andrew Son-of-Adam" and "Peter Son-of-Adam" are symbolically brothers. In the Bible, the apostles Andrew and Peter are brothers. Just as Andrew brought Peter to Jesus, so Andrew Adamson brings Peter Adam's Son to Aslan. (The director's name is also a deliberate reference to the movie "Born Free", which is itself an allegory of the conversion of C.S Lewis. Joy Adamson made friends with a lion called Elsa, which is very nearly "Aslan" spelled backwards. This represents the fact that it was the experience of "Joy" which led Lewis to "befriend" Christ.)

(2) In fact, he is indispensable to the symbolism. In the story his arrival represents the beginning of the end of the White Witch's "always winter but never Christmas" spell. (The English "Father Christmas" is primarily the personification of the season although he acquired the habit of gift-giving from the Dutch-American "Santa Claus".) At a religious level, it's important that Aslan and Father Christmas arrive at the same time. But Lewis is also invoking a world where Father Christmas and Christ, the merry making and the holiness are inseparable parts of the same festival. He claims that one Easter Sunday he heard a toddler chanting "chocolate eggs and Jesus risen!" and commented "This seems to me, for his age, both admirable poetry and admirable theology."

(3) Peter drawing his sword to defend Edmund is an allegory of Peter drawing his sword to defend Jesus in Gethsemane. Santa giving Peter a sword is an allegory of Christ telling Peter to put away his sword.

(4) I think the film is confused about the nature of evacuation. The kids who were sent away from railway stations with name-tags round their necks were part of an organised programme, where whole schools were sent to the countryside and compulsorily billeted with strangers. The Pevensies know that they are going to meet Mrs McCreedy; and Mrs McCreedy evidently knows they are coming. So surely this a private arrangement between the Professor and Mrs Pevensie. Why the name tags?

(5) Lucy mentions that their mother is called "Helen". This suggests that Edmund and Peter are allegories of David and Douglas Gresham, who were taken by their mother Helen Joy Gresham to live in an old house that was owned by a learned Professor, who knew about secret worlds.

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