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Nigel Kneale on Quatermass and BBC TV production techniques in the 1950s

Nigel Kneale, interviewed in 1990

The great Nigel Kneale, interviewed about his career in 1990

In 1979, I interviewed Nigel Kneale, creator of the iconic and highly influential Quatermass stories.

A couple of days ago, I posted my original 1979 introduction.

This is the first half of the interview.


Rudolph Cartier was your producer on all three Quatermass serials in the 1950s and on the 1954 BBC TV production of 1984. How did you meet him?

Well he moved into the BBC at the same time I did. I realised he was a man who never took No for an answer – which is a great thing. All he needed to know was that it was practically impossible and he would immediately go off and do it. There was certainly no other director-producer who would ever have got those Quatermass things on the road.

The Quatermass Experiment monster inside Westminster Cathedral (it’s a glove puppet)

The Quatermass Experiment monster in Westminster Cathedral (a glove puppet)

In those days, television was live…

Yes. You had to have film inserts, of course, if you had an exterior scene, like someone walking through a park. The studio we shot that first Quatermass (The Quatermass Experiment) in was that old one at Alexandra Palace, where the cameras were literally the oldest electronic cameras in the world. They were the ones that were put into commission in 1936.

How did Quatermass start?

It was really an accident. They had a gap in the schedule and somebody said Oh! You must write something! So I wrote it (a six-part serial) as far as I could and it was being transmitted before I’d actually written the end of it. It was not a rave success. I dug up old notices recently and they’re quite funny because they say: This dreary programme started last night – it’s scientifically incorrect… and so on. Now, of course, it’s been transmuted into having been a great success.

Outrage was expressed in the House of Commons about the BBC’s version of 1984 with Peter Cushing & Donald Pleasance

Outrage was expressed in the House of Commons about the BBC’s version of 1984 with Peter Cushing & Donald Pleasance

You did 1984 after that.

I suppose they felt that, if we’d done one, we could do another. Technically, that was a very difficult one indeed – to get it into a studio live. (The rats scene was on film.) In a two-hour show like 1984, you would pre-film perhaps a quarter of an hour and the rest would be live, which was very heavy going.

The play caused a furore (in particular because of the horrific scene with the rats). Questions in the House of Commons.

Yes! It was a question of lying low after that one. Nothing like it had ever hit television before. They tended to use three-act stage plays and you got little intervals between the acts. Very well done and beautifully acted, but a little bit sedate. What you didn’t get was a purely television-type narrative, where you intercut in the middle of scenes: the thing that you do in any film script. That was new. And, I suppose, if one started writing in those terms, immediately the thing had far more impact.

You were interested in that technique.

I suppose I’d have liked to write films but, at that time, it was all locked up firmly in a closed shop. I could no more have got a (union) card to write film scripts than to fly. So I stuck to television.

You didn’t script the feature film version of the Quatermass Experiment?

No. There was the usual hurried deal by Hammer Pictures with some American people and they insisted on having an American actor and an American adaptor. So this chap came over who worked out some nonsense which turned my poor old Quatermass into a screaming, shouting person – probably like the last film producer he had worked for. It had no control over it at all. I still see that thing turn up and I hate it.

The feature film version of Quatermass II

The cut feature film version of Quatermass II

But you did co-script the movie of Quatermass II.

Well, there were some changes to the script – cuts – so it came out like it did.

Why the cuts?

The TV version was six half-hour episodes and they all over-ran by anything up to ten minutes. There was no way the BBC could stop us – except by taking us off the air – because we were live. We knew this and took a chance.

When you tried to compress those six episodes into a 90-minute film version, a lot had to go and too much went and the substitutions were not very clever. The characters are so cardboard you literally have to strain yourself to tell one from the other. It seems to me to be a lesson in how not to do it.

A special effects man applies titanium tetrachloride to make an actor smoke in the movie of Quatermass II

Special effects man applies titanium tetrachloride to make an actor smoke in the Quatermass II film

Quatermass II was about the evils of science…

No – not science. I’m not a bit anti-science, only occasionally some scientists. After all, old Quatermass himself is one: perhaps a bit more sensitive to his responsibilities than some. In the new serial (transmitted by Thames TV in 1979 simply as Quatermass), his main ally (Dr Joseph Kapp)  is also a research scientist. Even Kapp’s wife is a qualified archaeologist. The whole of the fourth Quatermass is about a last-ditch use of logic and dwindling technological resources, pitted against suicidal mysticism.

Quatermass II was about the evil of secrecy. It was a time when mysterious establishments were popping up: great radar establishments and nuclear establishments like Harwell and Porton Down for germ warfare. All the Quatermass things have been very much tied to their time.

Quatermass and The Pit was written at a time (1958) when there was a lot of building going on. So I thought, well, you dig down to an enormous depth and find a spaceship. Immediate recognition.

Quatermass and The Pit terrified me as a child

The BBC TV’s Quatermass and The Pit terrified me as a child

It absolutely terrified me when I saw it as a kid on television.

Well, we always really aimed at an adult audience for these things. And we hoped that the kiddies would be in bed. It was made very clear that this was not for children. I don’t mind frightening adults. They can take it. But not small children, simply because they haven’t the resources of fact in them to sort out what’s real and what’s unreal.

If a little six-year-old is confronted with some nightmare situation, that little creature is at the mercy of all your special effects, because he hasn’t really been in the world long enough to know what is real. And if he sees some dreadful thing – an apparition appearing out of the floor – he’s not to know that it’s been made by Jack Kine and Bernard Wilkie (of BBC Visual Effects). He thinks it may really happen to him and it may happen in his bedroom tonight. That’s not a thing to play with.

Do you find that Quatermass is an albatross around your neck?

Well, a little bit. It’s like an actor being in a series: you get stuck with the image. But I think the worst thing is what people expect things to be – the word ‘horror’. The Quatermasses were never meant to be ‘horror’ stories. There’s more humour than horror in them, I hope – certainly that applies to this new one.

The stars of Beasts - with a non-beast in the middle

Beasts – with (in middle) a non-beast

I liked your Beasts stories for ATV.

I liked them very much indeed.

There weren’t actually any beasts in them.

No! That was the trick! That you would never SEE a beast.

The series had very ordinary settings: a supermarket, a living room.

I always feel that the most interesting ‘strange’ thing has to have an ordinary setting. Once you have Dracula’s castle, it’s totally dead: you’ve just brought in a huge, tatty, cobweb-hung cliché. Whereas, if it just happens in somebody’s house, in a room like this, in my living room, then it can be very upsetting indeed.

The Thames TV production of the fourth Quatermass serial

Thames TV production of 1979 Quatermass serial aka The Quatermass Conclusion

There was a psychological strangeness in your play The Road.

Oh, it’s a favourite of mine. It’s only a little play, but it’s interesting. It’s set in the 18th century, but with a group of people doing what they imagine to be a scientific investigation – trying to bring rational minds to bear in The Age of Reason on what appears to be a haunting in a wood. Terrible noises are heard, which are extremely upsetting.

What they’re actually hearing is a motorway in our time on which a huge traffic jam has occurred, caused by people trying to escape from thermonuclear war. It ends with a nuclear blast which has actually blown itself back in time to the 18th century and produced a kind of back-reflection, a ripple. So these people have no conception of what they are hearing… The terrified voices on the motorway, people trying to escape… It’s all completely recognisable to us: it’s all in our terms. But they don’t know what it means.

… CONTINUED HERE

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Nigel Kneale: Manx writer of intelligent British Isles horror and science fiction

Nigel Kneale (1922-2006). So it goes.

Nigel Kneale, writer (1922-2006). So it goes. (Photograph by Mark Gudgeon)

When I recently chatted to writer Chris Lincé about science fiction and horror, inevitably the writer Nigel Kneale came up in conversation.

Chris is a fan of the movie Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) which I have never seen, largely because Nigel Kneale felt the producers had butchered his script. Chris thinks it remains a fascinating script (which has nothing whatever to do with the two previous Halloween films) because Nigel Kneale is such a fascinatingly original writer.

Yesterday I saw that, in London, the National Film Theatre’s October programme says they are screening both Nigel Kneale’s 1954 BBC TV version of George Orwell’s 1984 and the recently rediscovered (with 10 minutes missing) 1965 BBC TV version.

In 1979, I interviewed Nigel Kneale for Starburst magazine. I talked to him at his home. He was 57 at that time, slightly deaf and spinning off fantastically original plot ideas just in general conversation. He died in 2006, aged 84. So it goes.

This is the introduction to that 1979 interview.


Thomas Nigel Kneale was born in England by accident, but he’s really a Manxman. His father owned a newspaper on the Isle of Man and young Nigel was brought up on the inward-looking island which is part of, and yet apart from, the rest of the British Isles.

He tried being a lawyer on the island, then went to London’s RADA for a couple of years, followed by twelve months in Stratford as an actor. But he decided he was really a writer.

He had started writing in his early teens and, in 1950, his book Tomato Cain and Other Stories won the Somerset Maugham Award. However, it was as a screenwriter that he became famous.

He joined BBC TV in the early 1950s and worked initially on children’s programmes at a time when very little material was specially written for TV. He stayed on at the Corporation for about five years, working in a wide variety of departments – music, documentary, comedy and drama.

The Quatermass Xperiment was a Hammer horror

The Quatermass Xperiment was a Hammer horror in 1954

His big television breakthrough came in 1953 with a six-part story The Quatermass Experiment, which was filmed by Hammer Films the following year as The Quatermass Xperiment (US title: The Creeping Unknown).

More furore was caused, though, by his BBC TV adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, which resulted in an outcry over the horror of the ‘rat’ scene. That was in 1954.

He followed it in 1955 by Quatermass II, another six-part BBC TV serial filmed by Hammer in 1956 as Quatermass 2 (US title: Enemy From Space). Hammer also brought his 1956 television drama The Creature to the big screen in 1957 as The Abominable Snowman (US title: The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas), but it took them until 1967 to film his 1958 TV success Quatermass and The Pit.

By the late 1950s, Kneale was identified as a science fiction writer and so it was with relief that he broke this typecasting by writing the film version of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1959) and The Entertainer (1960). He continued to write extensively for both TV and films.

His film work as an adaptor included First Men in the Moon (1964) and, in 1966, The Witches (US title: The Devil’s Own) although in neither case did he have any control over the end result. His TV work included The Road (1963), The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968), Wine of India (1970) and The Stone Tape (1972), all for the BBC.

In 1973, the BBC planned to make his new story Quatermass IV, but the project collapsed. His excellent six-part series Beasts was made by ATV in 1976 but the next year the company dropped his 90-minute play about a Manx slave trader one week before the rehearsals began – because of rapidly escalating scenery costs, of all things.

Time Out’s representation of John Mills in Quatermass (1979)

John Mills starred in Quatermass IV (1979)

In 1978, Thames TV resurrected Quatermass IV and their film-making subsidiary Euston Films  turned it into a £1 million TV series/feature film The Quatermass Conclusion (transmitted as simply Quatermass aka Quatermass IV in 1979 and directed by Piers Haggard, a great-grand-nephew of writer Rider Haggard).

Kneale found the name Quatermass  by glancing through a telephone directory, but that is about the only random factor in the work of a writer whose highly-visual plots and ideas are tightly-controlled, constantly fascinating and always intelligent. Piers Haggard says: “Kneale is the best science fiction writer in Britain.”

… CONTINUED HERE

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How to make a horror film terrifying and the mystery of police horses in Soho

Chris Lincé was delayed by a bird in Soho

Chris Lincé was delayed by a bird in Soho

I first met Chris Lincé years ago when I wandered along with comedian Charlie Chuck to some project they were both involved in.

I met him again last week at Soho Theatre in London.

Chris was a few minutes late because a bird shat on his head when he was coming out of Chinatown.

Shit happens.

He now directs music videos, live shows, script edits, does lots. In Hollywood, they would call him a hyphenate.

“How would you describe yourself?” I asked. “A writer-director?”

“No,” he replied. “I’m a director who likes to get involved in the writing as early as possible, whether I’m writing it myself or – as is more often the case – working with a writer.”

He story-edited a British feature film which should be coming out next year – a superhero comedy called SuperBob, starring Catherine Tate, Brett Goldstein and Laura Haddock.

But, at the moment, he is concentrating on a crowdfunding campaign for The Exorcism of Danny Fontaine starring Danny Fontaine of rock band The Horns of Fury. There is a video for their song The Butcher (directed by Chris) on YouTube.

“The Horns of Fury had been going about eight years,” said Chris, “but they’ve recently disbanded. I did two music videos for Danny when the band was still together and now we’re working on this short 11-minute horror musical and there are plans further down the line to do longer and more extravagant things.”

Funding ends, appropriately, on Hallowe’en with filming due to start at the end of the year. The appeal is not just on Indiegogo but also on YouTube.

“Distribution?” I asked.

“It’s festivals and then internet,” said Chris. “There are probably more horror festivals than there are any other type of film festival. It’s a calling card and proof of concept showing you can have a horror musical sung through that is not what you think of when you think of musicals.”

“Sung through?” I asked.

“There are songs and no spoken dialogue. All the dialogue is sung.”

There must have been some, but neither of us could think of any other movie written originally for the screen (ignoring adaptations of stage musicals) which is wholly sung through.

“Is it comedic?” I asked.

“Not especially,” explained Chris, “other than the fact I’ll probably put some jokes in because I like jokes. It’s a proper 1970s-vibe rock opera – Phantom of the Paradise, Rocky Horror Show, that kind of feel.”

“So it’s camp?” I asked.

The upcoming horror musical

The upcoming musical – colourful not camp

“Not so much camp as vibrant,” said Chris. “The thing I’ve noticed in horror over the last ten years is that it’s gone greyer and greyer and greyer. There are a lot of dingy corridors and hand-held cameras. But I think that trend is changing. One of the trends at Frightfest in London this year was that colourful horror is starting to come back: a lot of highly-saturated lighting palates. There’s slightly more fun than there used to be. I think a lot of 1980s influences are starting to creep in.”

“The heyday of exorcism films was the 1970s, wasn’t it?” I asked.

“There’s still maybe one a year,” said Chris. “Immediately after The Exorcist came out in 1973, some of the knock-offs were extraordinary. There was a blaxploitation rip-off called Abby about a woman who was obsessed by a sex demon. The way her possession manifested itself was she left her husband and hung around in bars picking up guys… And then there’s an exorcism.”

“Of whom?” I asked.

“Her,” said Chris. “Women were not allowed to do that. Did you see The Manitou? It was a 1978 Tony Curtis film about a possessed tumour which I think I’m right in saying ends with them defeating the demon by throwing typewriters at it. They just chuck typewriters at it until it’s defeated.

The Manitou - killed by scriptwriting tools

The Manitou – killed by scriptwriters’ tools of the trade

“Films are scheduled and planned and written and everybody learns their stuff. But apparently at no point in the process did anyone say: Guys – Are we really ending this film with the mass typewriter throwing?”

“Maybe the scriptwriters were exorcising their own demons,” I suggested.

“What I particularly do like about horror,” said Chris, “is that it appeals to both extremes of human experience – base, gut-level, animalistic, instinctual fears… but you can also have intellectual conversations about morality and how do you behave in extreme situations. When you get both of those playing alongside each other, it doesn’t get any richer than that.”

“Surely,” I said, “science fiction films are the ones that often examine moral and intellectual subjects?”

“Yes,” said Chris, “but there’s something more immediate about horror. Sometimes science fiction can be a little bit detached, a little bit cold. And the stakes in science fiction tend to be lower. In horror, you’re normally running away from a problem or tied to a problem or the problem’s being cut off you while you worry about it. Horror can tap into a fear that you can’t intellectualise your way out of.

“(Horror film director) Dario Argento said that, when he wanted people killed in his films, he would try to find a way that the audience had some experience of. He didn’t want to shoot people, because most people have not been shot; they don’t know what it feels like. You DO know what it’s like to cut ourself; You DO know what it’s like to burn yourself.

Director Dario Argento (Wikipedia photo by Brian Eeles)

Director Argento took the ordinary to extremes (Wikipedia photo by Brian Eeles)

“He would find something which most people had done and then take it to an extreme – which did result in killers finding very peculiar ways of killing people. But scalding someone to death makes it relatable in a way that being shot or vaporised does not. If I see someone being vaporised in a science fiction film… I have never been vaporised… I assume it is bad, but I don’t know what it feels like. There’s nothing that affects me on a gut level.

“Whereas a paper cut I can understand. If you imagine a piece of paper slipped under your fingernail, pushing its way into your finger, you can imagine feeling that far more than someone being vaporised.”

“There is research,” I said, “that, when people watch violence on screen, they watch not the action but the re-action. If someone is punched in the stomach, they don’t watch the fist hit the stomach; they watch the reaction on the face of the person being hit.”

“Probably the most reaction you can get,” said Chris, “is going for the eye or mouth. Have you seen the Dario Argento film Opera?

Dario Argento’s eye-opening horror film

Dario Argento’s eye-opening horror film

“There is a scene where the killer wants a woman to watch the killing he is about to do. So he Sellotapes needles to her eyes so that, if she closes her eyes, they will stick in her. A close-up of an eye with needles attached to it is far more horrifying than the actual act of violence which Argento then shows – somebody being cut in the neck – because you are just that much closer to something you can relate to.

“Last night, we were having long discussions into the night about the best way of killing somebody in our film. Long, dry discussions along the lines of Yeah, but if we cut him across the belly, it’s bloody but it’s not as interesting as cutting the face. Conversations about maximum impact and maximum reaction.”

“I guess,” I said, “in cinema, punching someone on the nose feels more violent that stabbing someone in the stomach with a knife because it has more of a visible effect. Attacks on the face are more frightening.”

“It’s where we view everything from,” said Chris.

“I suppose,” I said, “that horror is the most constantly violent genre, along with westerns.”

“Westerns,” said Chris, “are one of the few genres I don’t get on with and I don’t really know why. It might be the hats.”

At this point, as Chris and I sat in the Soho Theatre Bar, we saw two policemen ride slowly up Dean Street on horses.

“There is something I don’t know about police on horseback,” said Chris. “If you are a policeman on horseback and you see some criminal activity – like you see someone running down the street with a stolen television – are you allowed to gallop after them?”

“I guess so,” I said.

Chris had a hairy time when we met in Soho...

Chris had a hairy time when we met in Soho…

“I just want to see that,” said Chris. “It seems dangerous.”

“Though,” I said, “even if they gallop, it would be easy enough for a man on foot to escape from a pursuing horse in the West End.”

“It just seems futile having horses in Soho,” said Chris.

“I had better take a photo of you before you go,” I said.

“I really do have dry bird shit in my hair,” said Chris.

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‘Hated’ comic Alexander Bennett has an interest in serial killers’ lives & the link between comedy and horror punches

Alexander Bennett yesterday in London’s Chinatown

Alexander yesterday in London’s Chinatown

By paragraph 11 of this blog, I stare in open-eyed amazement at comedian Alexander Bennett and say WHAAAAAAAATTT????

Alexander first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011.

Next Monday in London, he will be performing a version of Alexander Bennett’s Afraid of The Dark, his 2013 Edinburgh Fringe show about a girl called Amy who started to hear voices in her head and then went missing. Alexander found her diary and the show involves him enacting her diary. Except neither Amy nor the diary is real. Alexander made them up.

“You’d be surprised what people think,” Alexander told me at Bar Italia in Soho yesterday.

“What do they think?” I asked.

“That it’s real, despite the fact there are obviously constructed jokes in the diary. At the end of the Edinburgh show, I had people come up to me saying Do you know what happened to her? – Yes I do, I told them. Happily ever after. She’s fictional. She got hit by a truck. There you go. I can change what happened to her.

“Why did you think of doing that show?” I asked.

“Because I’ve been doing comedy for a while and…”

“How long a while?” I asked.

“Well,” replied Alexander, “I’m 21 now and I…”

WHAAAAAAAATTT????” I said, shocked.

Alexander faces up to old age as a young man

Alexander really doesn’t look this young in the flesh

“Yes, I know,” said Alexander. “I look much, much older. When I was 18 and gigging in Manchester, an audience member guessed I was 35 and I was so depressed the gig went downhill from there on. A lot of my life has been women telling me they hate me.

“They come up to me and go Your hair’s great; do you mind if I touch it? – No, go ahead – And you don’t do anything to it? – No, I just wash it – It’s really good quality. I HATE you. That’s one reaction.

“The other one is 30-year-old women who are flirting with me who ask How old are you? When I say 21, they are initially annoyed and then they say You’re going to look like that for the rest of your life and then they are even more annoyed with me.”

“You are annoyingly young,” I said. “So you started performing comedy when you were 18?”

“No,” said Alexander. “When I was 15.”

“So,” I said, “you decided when you were 15 that you wanted to be a comedian?”

“No,” said Alexander. “I was younger than that. I loved cartoons – The Simpsons and Wallace & Gromit and all the Aardman Studios stuff. At first, I thought it was because they were cartoons. But then my dad showed me some Ronnie Barker shows and I realised Ah! The reason I like these shows is because they are funny! Then, from the age of 8 or so, I wanted to be Ronnie Barker. And I was watching John Cleese at around the same time.

Tall, aloof but older-looking John Cleese

Tall, aloof but older-looking John Cleese

“I can identify with John Cleese because I’m not a kind of smiley-happy comedian. I come across more authoritarian than loose. I can identify with Cleese because there’s a similar sort of aloofness. The first thing I ever wrote as a kid of 13 was about trying to bury someone who’s not dead.”

“You were writing at 13?” I asked. “I think I may be starting to hate you.”

“Yes,” said Alexander. “That always happens. When I was 16, I made a feature film that cost about £250 and had a crew of three people. It was a comedy horror called Love: A Mental Illness and it is about a stalker. The girl he’s stalking becomes very upset and he realises the reason she is upset is because all of her friends are horrible. So he goes through the process of getting rid of all these friends who are making her life a misery.”

“You did this aged 16?” I asked.

“Yes, that is why I don’t usually tell people my age,” said Alexander. “Because they will hate me. I am young in a way that irritates people.”

“I think I hate you,” I said. “Also, if you are 21, why aren’t you at university?”

“I am,” said Alexander.

“I think research before you meet people for a chat” I said, “is much over-rated.”

“I’m finishing a degree in film & television production.” explained Alexander, “which is a 90% practical course.”

“And you are particularly interested in….?” I prompted.

“My dissertation was on The British Identity in The Horror Film,” he replied.

“Not a lot of laughs in that,” I said.

“One of the greatest comedy films ever made”?

Rape, ultra-violence and “one of the greatest comedy films ever made”?

Clockwork Orange is one of the greatest comedy films ever made,” said Alexander. “That is 100% true. When I first watched it, I didn’t realise it was a comedy. The second time I watched it, I did. Clockwork Orange is hilarious; there are loads and loads of jokes all the way through it.”

“Well,” I said. “There is some vague connection between comedy and horror and I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if maybe laughter and fear release some of the same chemicals into to the body or something like that.”

“I think a lot of comedy has a horrific element to it,” said Alexander. “They say there’s a fine line between comedy and tragedy. Well, if you push that a little bit further…”

“I do think,” I said, that a lot of the great comedies which have lasted have been set in tragic situations. Hancock…”

“I completely agree,” said Alexander. “Steptoe and Son, Porridge. The idea of being trapped, which is central to all good sitcoms is essential to a lot of horror as well. Steptoe and Son are trapped in a relationship.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “And in One Foot in The Grave they’re trapped. A lot of their situations, if they actually happened, would be horrendous. Good comedy is when things go slightly wrong with reality and..”

“Comedy is a break in reality,” said Alexander, “and horror is kind of the same thing, really. The kind of punch in the stomach that can come with something that’s very tragic is very similar to the punch in the stomach that comes with that Ooohhh! of comedy. The ending of Planes, Trains and Automobiles… It’s a very tragic twist to the end of a comedy film.

“Another thing that horror does which comedy also does is it puts people in pressured spaces. All good horror films have a small group of characters who the film puts pressure on until all the relationships break down. And that is a very good description of any sitcom that works.”

“You like dark comedy…” I suggested.

The Mighty Boosh showing their textures

BBC TV’s Mighty Boosh showing some of their many textures

The League of Gentlemen, I think, is the best sketch show I’ve ever seen. The Mighty Boosh, as a television programme, is fantastic because there are so many textures. And Spaced had a very distinct visual grammar that serves what they’re doing very well.”

“You told me off-microphone,” I said, “that you are interested in serial killers.”

“I run a first-Tuesday-of-the-month comedy club called This Is Not a Cult and the basic structure of the show is I give people new rules to live their lives by. At my January night, I said to the audience: Name any serial killer and I will tell you when they lived and how many people they killed, because I have enough of a working knowledge of that sort of thing to be able to respond. Later on during the same show, I tried to flirt with a girl, having forgotten I’d revealed this aspect of myself. It’s not a great chat-up technique, is it?”

“Any comedy heroes?” I asked.

“My real heroes,” said Alexander, “are Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel and early Woody Allen. They all directed, performed and wrote. Stan Laurel ended up virtually directing all the Laurel & Hardy stuff.”

“So you like auteurs,” I said. “And you’ll have a new show at the Edinburgh Fringe in August?”

“Yes. Alexander Bennett: Follow Me. It’s about the people who are looked-up-to in society and I will prove why I’m better than all of them and convert the audience to my cause.”

“Which is?”

“That I’m brilliant. My stand-up persona is a man who thinks he knows how to run the world. I think my act is more a persona than a character. My life feeds into it and it’s presented in a way that is not necessarily me but is born of me. So it’s a persona not a character. I just take the worst aspects of my personality.”

“Which are?” I asked.

“Ego. I do think I’m brilliant, but I know that’s ridiculous. I do kind of think the world would run so much smoother if everybody would shut up and listen to me. But the guy on stage says things I don’t agree with. It’s a persona.”

There is a clip on YouTube of Alexander performing at the 2013 Chortle Student Comedy Awards.

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David McGillivray: from cheap sex films to horror movies, art and panto scripts

David McGillivray accosted yesterday by Halloween ghoul

David McGillivray (left) yesterday with a Halloween ghoul

David McGillivray is only a few years old than me, but I first became aware of him when I was in my late teens or early twenties and he was writing excellent film reviews for the British Film Institute’s Monthly Film Bulletin.

He quickly got involved in the 1970s British sex film industry, writing such epics as I’m Not Feeling Myself Tonight and The Hot Girls, then shifting into horror scripts for quickie film directors Norman J.Warren and Pete Walker and, later still, writing and producing his own films.

“I used to love being scared when I was a child,” he told me yesterday – Halloween – in Soho, “and I greatly enjoy frightening other people. I’ve only really ever been interested in sensation.”

“What was your best film?”

“Shorts or long?”

“Both.”

“Of the shorts, I’m very fond of one called Mrs Davenport’s Throat, which I made in Lisbon in 2005. It’s got a surprise ending that I don’t think anyone’s ever guessed.”

“You wrote and produced that?”

“Yes. It was inspired by those people at airports who stand holding cards with people’s names on. In my film, the eponymous Mrs Davenport goes up to a chauffeur who is holding a sign saying MRS DAVENPORT and goes off with him and we find out what happens to her. It’s not a pretty sight.”

“You said that with a smile.”

“It’s good fun.”

“And your favourite feature film?”

Exactly the sort of film young David wanted to write

Exactly the sort of film young David McGillivray had always wanted to write

“I never watch any of my films apart from House of Whipcord. That was my first big one for Pete Walker. I saw it again at a horror festival in Edinburgh about two years ago and thought it stood up quite well.

“I was a very young writer – I was 25. I read an outline of the story and it was exactly the sort of film I had always wanted to write and Pete Walker got together a marvellous cast. It was terrifically exciting for me. Suddenly here I was part of the film business that I’d always been so fond of.

“I think House of Whipcord is Pete Walker’s best film, though some people prefer Frightmare.”

“He seemed to suddenly disappear off the radar,” I said.

“He just decided to stop working,” explained David, “and nobody really knows why. He had the money to continue and he could have gone on making films. He didn’t completely disappear: he ran a chain of provincial cinemas called Picturedrome for a while but now, as far as I know, he really is completely retired. I haven’t seen him since 1992.”

“Is he worthy of rediscovery?” I asked. “Or are his films just tacky?”

“I have said,” David told me, “that he was Britain’s most talented exploitation director. As soon as a Pete Walker film starts, you know instantly it’s his. He had a very distinct style. He was a talented storyteller. He knew how to include the exploitation elements. I think it’s a great shame he isn’t still working. He just decided he didn’t want to do it any more. He didn’t need to make money; he was very rich.”

“Rich from the films?” I asked,. “Or rich independently?”

“Rich from property,” said David. “He made a lot of money from his early films: little 8mm ‘glamour’ loops sold either by mail order or in newsagents, often under-the-counter.”

“Soft-core?” I asked.

Not as successful as the sex films

Not as successful as Pete Walker’s sex films?

“Oh yes, all very soft core. They were basically striptease films. He made a lot of money from those and then his early full-length sex films made money. There were several people in the same market – Harrison Marks and Stanley Long were two rivals. Pete’s early sex films were very successful. Then he started making his so-called ‘terror’ films, which were less popular. All of those people made a fair amount of money out of nudie and sex films.”

“When you were young,” I asked, “did you want to make art films?”

“No,” said David firmly. “I never wanted to do anything arty and I never have done. I’ve got no ability, I’ve got no taste, no style. I’m a hack.”

David’s current film production company is called Pathetique Films. It uses the slogan Curiouser and Curiouser.

“But you appreciate arty movies, so you have taste,” I told him.

“I’ve got no ability. I really haven’t,” he replied.

“But,” I said, “you can write and you’ve seen enough movies to know what images need to be edited together to have an effect, so you can work backwards and know what material has to be shot to create the end result you want.”

“This is like a conversation I was having yesterday, about the difference between art and design,” David said, holding up a teaspoon. “What is this? It has been designed to look good, but is it art or is it just design?… It is design.

“My films are not art. They’re just product designed to give people a bit of a thrill in whatever way is possible.”

“But what you’re describing,” I argued, “is a Shakespeare play – a commercial product that’s aimed at a specific audience – almost lowest-common-denominator. Shakespeare was creating something to give the plebs in the pit a laugh. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are there to give people a laugh in Hamlet; there’s blood all over the place in Macbeth; there are things flying around and thunderstorms and a shipwreck (or is it two?) in The Tempest. I’m sure if I went in a time machine and watched Shakespeare plays as seen by the original audience, it would be like watching a down-market farce or an exploitation movie.”

“Well, yes,” David agreed. “Shakespeare’s plays were aimed at ‘the ordinary folk’ and wouldn’t have been considered Art in their day. Maybe one day, long after we’re dead and gone, the public will decide that my films are Art.”

“But the public didn’t decide Shakespeare is art,” I said, “It was people who wrote books about him. Critics decide. Critics would say The Tempest is art and the movie Forbidden Planet is a commercial Hollywood science fiction product, but the film is based on the play.”

“Well,” said David, “I would call Forbidden Planet art, because it’s a wonderful creation and it works and it scared the living daylights out of me when I was 7 or 8. When the footprints appear in the sand, made by the invisible monster, I was so frightened I remember distinctly I couldn’t look at the screen and I hid my face in my school cap. That film had an enormous effect on me and it’s a very artistic endeavour indeed.”

“But looked at objectively,” I said, “Shakespeare  is basically lowest common denominator sex, violence and comedy – much like The Bible in that respect. Reviewers thought Hitchcock’s Psycho was unforgivably down-market, repulsive and sadistic when it was released, yet people would probably think Psycho was a work of art now.”

“Definitely,” agreed David, “Well, any film by Hitchcock.”

“Or Michael Powell’s film Peeping Tom,” I said. “It was said at the time to be obscenely sadistic and it destroyed his entire career. But now it’s Art. I avoided seeing it for years because Time Out said it was a simile for the voyeurism of the cinema-going experience – It sounded unbearably arty and a load of wank. But, when I saw it, it IS a great film and, arguably, Time Out was right.”

“It’s not bad, is it…” said David.

“You must want to write Art,” I told him, “You want to create things and you want to create the best possible thing you can and that is Art and, if it has a big effect on a big audience like Harry Potter, then all the better, surely?”

“This is a very vexed issue,” replied David, “and goes back to what is and isn’t Art. I’ve really only ever wanted to create something that is going to have some sort of an effect on people. I don’t want to create something that’s going to be ignored, that’s going to sit on a shelf and not be seen. I don’t particularly mind what the critics say. I don’t care if they hate my stuff – and a lot of them do. All I want in years to come is for people to watch my films and enjoy them in the same way I enjoy the most rubbishy, churned-out second features. If I can create anything like Night of the Demon or, indeed, Night of the Eagle, I’d be very, very happy.”

“Well,” I said, “everyone’s making B films now – the Star Wars movies, the Indiana Jones movies, Quentin Tarantino’s movies. They’re all basically making crappy low-budget B films on a big budget – Crap becoming Art.”

“Yes,” agreed David, “they’re making wheat out of chaff.”

“They’ve making wheat out of chaff for chavs,” I suggested. “What are you making next?”

David McGillivray yesterday, by a rubbish bin in London - He suggested the bin

David McGillivray yesterday, by a rubbish bin in London’s West End  – He suggested the bin

“It’s panto time,” said David. “It’s a very busy time. This year I’ve contributed to four. I don’t write them, I only re-write them depending on who’s in them. My regular employer is Julian Clary – I’ve re-written his pantos for several years and, through him, I’ve met other people like Nigel Havers. I’m just finishing re-writing Robin Hood, which is in Plymouth this year. And I’ve re-written part of Snow White for Gok Wan in Birmingham. I love panto. I think that’s my true forte.”

“You knew Julian Clary before the pantos?”

“Yes, I’ve worked with him for 31 years. I’ve never written an entire show. He’s known for his improvisation. He Julianises what I put together as, indeed, do other comedians I’ve worked for.”

“Such as?”

“Paul O’Grady, Greg Proops, Angus Deayton…”

At this point, a man dressed in a white Halloween costume and wearing a Scream movie mask came into the restaurant where we were sitting.

“That is an example of the opposite of what we were talking about,” said David. “That is Art turned into crap… Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream now turned into one of the worst franchises in horror movie history…”

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How a US comedian and Jewish blogger ended up in a Japanese designer suit being stalked by a cannibalistic baby

One of Larry Cohen’s quirky masterpieces

One of Larry Cohen’s quirky masterpieces

I recently mentioned on Facebook my admiration for the talents of movie writer-director Larry Cohen who, among many other things, was ‘murder consultant’ on the TV series Columbo. I am particularly keen on the quirky God Told Me To (a very odd film about random killings in which the title actually IS the story) and Q – The Winged Serpent (about a South American flying lizard god which lives atop the Chrysler Building in New York).

It turned out that my Facebook Friend comedian Steven Alan Green had – among his many other careers as writer, producer, performer and currently radio show host and comedy blogger for the Jewish Journal… actually appeared in a Larry Cohen movie – as a stand-up comic in the horror film sequel It’s Alive III: Island of The Alive.

Radio host and podcaster SAG

Radio host, podcaster, comic, producer, actor SAG (Photograph by Dan Dion)

How did that happen?

“I was working at The Comedy Store in Hollywood as a comedian, but also answering the phones,” says Steven Alan Green, “and Larry Cohen calls on a Sunday and asks for ‘the talent department’ to get a comedian to come down that night and play a comedian in his film.

“I told him there was only me on the phone and he asked me. So I called the talent coordinator at home and he told me to take the job.

They met at Santa Monica pier...

After they met at Santa Monica pier…

“So, I got down to the Santa Monica pier and was hired as ‘an extra’. But, since I had lines (improvising a stand-up act) I asked Larry about ‘Taft Hartley-ing’ me – meaning, since I was speaking in a Screen Actors’ Guild union production, he could do the paperwork to get me into the union.

“He agreed to do this if I would come in and ‘loop’ – recording my dialogue in a studio another day – which I did.”

“How long did the filming take?” I asked Steven Alan Green.

“Just one afternoon and into the night,” he told me. “They didn’t mic me during the film shoot, except when I talked with the stand-up comedy mic on set.

“So, I end up in this recording studio in Hollywood, looping my stand-up set, just saying whatever comes to mind. Larry just said to wing it, then to get him a coffee. One of the things I said was So, here’s my impression of Steven Alan Green…. and Larry left that line in the final film.

“So, if you go to this clip on YouTube and get to the scene that starts about the 4min 11sec mark and turn up the volume, there are two comedians on stage… I’m the one closest to the camera who says to Michael Moriarty: You got an act to go with that suit, sir?”

“How would you describe the movie?” I asked.

“Ah,” replied Steven Alan Green. “A horror film with Apocalyptic implications predicated on the notion that Youth are always dangerous.”

“Was Larry normal?” I asked.

“What’s normal?” said Steven Alan Green. “He was a little too normal for the type of films he makes. Friendly, hands-on. I mean, he was the one who called the Comedy Store looking for a stand-up comedian for his film. What director does that?”

“Did you,” I asked Steven Alan Green, “make any good contacts during the filming or was there any follow-up from appearing in the movie?”

“One of the cannibalistic babies started stalking me,” replied Steven Alan Green.

“Anything you want to plug?” I asked.

Jerry Lewis is considered a comic genius in France

Jerry Lewis considered comic genius in France

“My new radio show and live podcast Stage Time with Steven Alan Green… and The Laughter Foundation, which has a big benefit planned for the Spring in San Francisco… and my blog for the Jewish Journal… and I Eat People For You Like Breakfast! my famed and infamous one-man show about my bringing Jerry Lewis to the London Palladium. I’m doing that show at The Marsh in San Francisco next Wednesday and on December 4th…”

“What does being blog writer for the Jewish Journal involve?” I asked.

“I write what I want and they publish it,” said Steven Alan Green. “My blog is called Enjoy the Veal and I review live stand-up as an art form and write open letters to Jerry Lewis. I try to review comedians’ shows in the ideal – somewhere between what they were trying to achieve and why they didn’t.”

“In the Larry Cohen movie,” I ventured, “did you choose your own costume?”

“What are you saying?” Steven Alan Green shot back. “That was my comedy outfit! A 3-piece Japanese designer with trainers. I mean, Doh!”

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Critic Kate Copstick attacked in Kenya

I have received a reaction to yesterday’s blog, in which I wrote about the frustration of trying to enter a London Evening Standard competition to take a flight into space, about a woman standing next to a Post Office pillar box, about comedian Bob Slayer in his underpants and about an excellent performance in London by Red Bastard, the talk of the recent Edinburgh Fringe.

Today, I am off to Leamington Spa for one of the occasional ‘Auction of Horrors’ run at The Old Elephant House in that most refined of towns. On the auction list today are 367 items including an animatronic alley cat, a vampire killing kit, a painting of the Kray Twins, letters from the Titanic, a human kneebone walking stick and Wasp Boy’s swallowed sword from the Circus of Horrors. The Old Elephant House bills itself as, among other things, “exclusive sellers of stage-used Circus of Horrors props, costumes and memorabilia”.

Circus of Horrors poster in the auction

A very non-PC Circus of Horrors poster – It is in the auction

Fantasy and quirkiness are entertaining.

I have to leave early to drive up to Leamington Spa which leaves little time to write this blog.

Fortunately, a message arrived from Kenya which I think is worth printing.

It was from comedy critic Kate Copstick, who oft-times pops up in this blog and who runs a Kenyan charity called Mama Biashara. As well as health care projects, Mama Biashara helps poor people (especially women) set up their own small businesses which may give them a lift to a better life. Copstick spends a large percentage of her time (unpaid) working for the charity in London and Kenya, where she has been for the past few weeks.

Mama Biashara’s Kate Copstick

Critic Kate Copstick in Kenya

The message from Copstick is complimentary. Normally that would preclude it from appearing. But what she says is:

Thank you for the blogs. They are keeping me sane here. Been robbed while I slept by a thief who hid in the house where I was staying, had to flee armed robbers waiting outside a workshop to get me, had mothers with sick children being threatened that of they let the Mzungu (white person) help them there will be ‘consequences’ and last night I was gang mugged by about 15 young guys while an entire traffic jam of people looked on. Not my best visit. Will tell all exclusively to you as soon as I stop having flashbacks.

This perhaps puts my jolly trip to Leamington Spa today for the ‘Auction of Horrors’ into a more realistic perspective of inconsequential superficiality.

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