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The Robin Hood Effect

Boys of my age (mid-60s)—and many girls as well, I’m sure—will have very happy memories of those dramas shown regularly (endlessly!) on ITV in the children’s slot in the 1950s and early 60s. Before the rise of SF with Gerry Anderson and Dr Who, we pre-teens were all immersed in historical dramas: Sir Francis Drake, The Adventures of Robin Hood, the Buccaneers, William Tell, Sword of Freedom, and many others.

Now, thanks to the marvel that is Talking Pictures TV, we’ve got a wonderful opportunity to revisit some of those seminal series, and to see how the reality lives up to our rose-tinted memories.  And the result, I have to say, is surprising.

Just looking at the titles, you might have thought that these series would play into a ‘loss of Empire/Englishism/proto-Brexit’ agenda, like the earlier Boy’s Own Paper and the novels of John Buchan and G A Henty.  And inevitably, any historical dramas made at that time can’t wholly escape such elements. But there was something much more interesting, much more subversive, going on.

Almost all the series I’ve named above were produced by the same company, or by people who had worked with that company: Sapphire Films. And Sapphire Films was created by a very remarkable woman: Hannah Weinstein (who seems to be no relation to the other cinematic Weinsteins).  This is where fact becomes stranger than fiction: Hannah Weinstein set the company up with funds from the Hollywood branch of the American Communist Party (and you thought the Coen’s ‘Hail Caesar’ was a fantasy….), and created ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ specifically to make work for no less than 22 left-wing writers blacklisted by the House Committee on Unamerican Activities. One can only assume that arch-media capitalist Lew Grade had no idea of this background when he agreed to back the series! Especially as all the writers (who included some of Hollywood’s biggest names, like Ring Lardner Jr, who would go on to write the original ‘Mash’ movie) were either anonymous or pseudonymous.

Robin Hood is of course the perfect vehicle for communitarian/anti-authoritarian/anti-capitalist views, but several of the other series also embody similar values.  William Tell, with its much more serious tone of jeopardy and echoes of wartime Resistance movements, is even more explicitly rebellious. In its first few episodes The Buccaneers did a 180 degree about-turn, from being about the historical King’s representative, come to bring the buccaneers back to the flag, to focusing on free-wheeling, devil-may-care Buccaneer captain, Dan Tempest, played by the wonderful Robert Shaw.  Even Sir Francis Drake is about a man prepared to go against authority and break the rules for what he believes in, a man his enemies consider a mere pirate.

There’s another fascinating aspect that several of these series have in common: very strong female role models.  Queen Elizabeth is played (brilliantly, by Jean Kent) as a powerful and commanding figure easily able to dominate the courtiers jostling for her favours and undaunted by the threats of (male) enemies.  Maid Marian can match Robin in archery and horse riding and is often shown as more emotionally mature than the overgrown public schoolboy that Richard Greene portrays.  And William Tell’s wife Helga similarly can take just as many physical risks as Tell himself, and often ends up having to save him from the consequences of his own rashness.

These three series, as well, are surprisingly rich in historical detail.  Though playing fast and loose with chronology, Sir Francis Drake has episodes about merchant venturers, the disastrous Roanoke colony, the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots and her Catholicism, and much more. William Tell has a lot to say about the power politics of the Holy Roman Empire. Robin Hood explores quite serious themes about witchcraft hysteria, an oppressive aristocracy, and corrupt officials. Compared with the a-historical nonsense produced in recent years for adults—the Tudors, Great, all those Roman epics—these Sapphire Films and their offshoots did quite a good job of giving their young audiences a grounding in history.

Above all, they don’t condescend to those young audiences. Of course, there’s no sex, though some of the violence (especially in William Tell) can still be surprising. And there are touches of farcical humour that help to keep younger viewers entertained.  But they tell strong stories efficiently (in less than 25 minutes an episode, leaving time for the adverts) and don’t shy away from themes that would normally play out in ‘grown up’ dramas.  I found the same, recently, when rewatching another favourite of my childhood, the BBC adaptation of the Further Adventures of the Three Musketeers, with the peerless Joss Ackland. This gripping drama immersed itself in the power politics of the infant Louis XIV, Cardinal Mazarin, and the Fronde insurrection, with few concessions to the youth of its target audience.

And, now that I’ve had the chance to relive these childhood influences, what effect do I think they had?  Did it matter that I was—as some might say—being fed left-wing propaganda? Well, for my entire working life I’ve relished leading small, distinctive and somewhat off-the-wall teams, made up of strong and characterful individuals.  I’ve shied away from working for large, bureaucratic organisations, and when I’ve done so, have tried to recreate that team ethos within them.  Though no radical, I’m a natural non-conformist, equally sceptical of authority and crowds, and unwilling to accept orthodoxies.  And I married a very strong woman who has been a wonderful life partner (and I do have a beard that resembles that of Sir Francis Drake…). So, thank you, Hannah Weinstein, you laid the foundations for a pretty good life, and it’s time we recognised and honoured your achievement.

A Man’s Gotta Do….

Canyon Passage 1956 poster

Canyon Passage 1956 poster

Do you like Westerns? Back in the 60s, when I was a kid, you didn’t have much choice in the matter. The schedules of the only two TV channels were dominated by long running Western series, from ‘Davy Crockett’ and ‘Wyatt Earp’ for children, to the more mature ‘dramas’ of ‘Wagon Train’ or ‘Bonanza’. Westerns then were even more ubiquitous than US cops shows today, and at least as pervasive of UK culture—especially if you were a boy under 10.

Of course, in the movies, the Western genre has led to many great peaks, and the first film I was allowed up to watch all the way through, on our black and white TV, was John Ford’s masterpiece ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’. It was a formative influence, though I was an adult before I realised the original film was in colour. And Ford’s achievement was matched by directors like Howard Hawks (‘Red River’, ‘Rio Bravo’) and Anthony Mann (the series of 50s Westerns with James Stewart, such as ‘The Man from Laramie’ and ‘The Far Country’).

But those pinnacles were atop a mountain of other Western movies, stretching all the way back to ‘The Great Train Robbery’ in 1903. And a lot of those Westerns were ‘B’ movies. We all know what a ‘B’ Western looks like, don’t we? The good guys wear white hats and the villains black. There’s a saloon with a honky tonk piano and a good time girl with a heart of gold. There’s a dipsomaniac doctor who patches up the gunshot wounds (usually, conveniently, in the shoulder). Oh, and ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian’. And the whole thing would have been filmed on the studio lot or, at best, in the nearby Hollywood hills. Well, if you think that, then you saw too many episodes of ‘Gusmoke’ as a nipper. The truth is both richer and stranger.

In recent weeks I’ve been exploring the more distant reaches of the Freeview schedules, and have come across a range of little known Westerns, none of which I have any memory of seeing before (not even on a wet Sunday afternoon), and all of which depart from the usual stereotypes in almost every respect. They range from just after the Second War until the late 60s, when the influence of spaghetti westerns was beginning to be felt in Hollywood.

The first is ‘Canyon Passage’ from 1946, starring Dana Andrews, and directed by the great (and still undervalued) Jacques Tourneur, just after his collaboration with producer Val Lewton on the great run of horror films that included ‘Cat People’ and ‘I Walked with a Zombie’. ‘Canyon Passage’ is immediately unusual in opening in a downpour. This is because it’s set in Oregon, among the mining community, and Andrews plays a very untypical Western hero, a man trying to make his fortune in business, through running mule trains of supplies from the coast up to the miners. It has a detailed sense of realism. Men stick their guns in their trouser belts, rather than in tailor-made holsters. There’s a fantastic sequence of a house-raising that must have influenced both ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’, and ‘Witness’. And the characters are complicated and uncliched, with no straightforward heroes, and only one outright villain, whose actions place him beyond the bounds of this emerging ‘civilisation’. It’s as rich as a novel, and the use of the unusual locations, in saturated Technicolor, is outstanding.

Coincidentally, my next example is the last film produced by Tourneur’s collaborator Val Lewton, before his early death. If, with its generous running time and big stars, ‘Canyon Passage’ is perhaps not truly a ‘B’ movie, ‘Apache Drums’ is the real deal.  No big names (the lead is Stephen McNally, good enough to deserve being better known), and a taut running time of just 75 minutes. But there’s the same unusual choice of location, this time among a Welsh (!) mining community in New Mexico, so all the buildings are made of a rich orange adobe, which positively glowed in the good print that was screened. The bulk of the film tells how, after an Indian attack, the survivors of the town, and of a cavalry patrol, are besieged overnight in the adobe church by marauding Apaches. It is a genuinely original, chilling and tense half hour of screen time, which must surely have been a big influence on John Carpenter’s seminal ‘Assault on Precinct 13’, not to mention ‘Zulu’. In fact there’s one sequence, which I won’t spoil, that makes the ‘Zulu’ link certain.

‘The Last Frontier’  is from just four years later, 1955, and is one of the astonishing long run of Westerns directed by Anthony Mann that began with ‘Winchester ‘73’ in 1950 and ended with ‘Cimarron’ in 1960, just before he switched to epics and made the greatest of them all, ‘El Cid’. Mann’s Westerns are often called ‘psychological’ because the drama so often turns on flaws and quirks of character, rather than external plot devices. ‘The Last Frontier’, probably the least known of the set, is very much in this vein. Victor Mature gives a career-best performance (yes, really!) as a scout who’s been brought up as a ‘child of nature’, and Robert Preston is the career-driven Army officer who leads his command to destruction. Oregon is again the location, far from most of the normal Western stereotypes, and Mann uses the landscape as imaginatively as his namesake Michael Mann (no relation) would do on ‘The Last of the Mohicans’, a film surely indebted to this older Western

My last movie is a much later example. On the face of it, ‘Day of the Evil Gun’, (1968)  starring those two Western stalwarts Glenn Ford and Arthur Kennedy, shouldn’t really be considered a ‘B’, but the director, Jerry Thorpe, mostly worked in TV and will never be called an ‘auteur’. The film shows the influence of Sergio Leone’s then popular movies in being set in Mexico, and the high body count certainly mirrors that of the average spaghetti western. But something odd is going on: Ford, ostracised by the community as a former gunslinger, never actually shoots anyone in the course of the film. Instead the film traces the descent of Kennedy’s character, from ‘man of peace’ to ruthless killer, with pitiless detachment.

For all their differences, and the time range of over 20 years, these films have a surprising amount in common. I’ve already alluded to the unusual settings, and the complexity of the characterisation. But the biggest contradiction to the stereotypes of such films lies in the treatment of Native Americans. In all four films the ‘Indians’ are shown as being brave and resourceful, with a rich culture, a strict honour code, and legitimate (and often very explicit) grievances against the ‘white man’ . Even in ‘Day of the Evil Gun’, where the plot requires them to be both renegade and dangerous, there’s a remarkable sequence where the Apaches are shown carefully collecting their dead after a shoot-out, whereas their white opponents walk off, leaving their dead companions where they fell.

The female characters, too, are often strong, individual, and self-motivated—no mere props for the male heroes. The community in which each film is set, from mining town to cavalry fort, is lovingly realised, with a wealth of ‘bit part’ characters of real individuality. Fight scenes are often surprisingly realistic in their clumsiness, brutality, and ultimate failure to resolve anything. And all four films, short or long, tell their stories with great economy and subtlety, relying heavily on visual narrative, or on dialogue that is spare and distinctive.

If we want to find a present day equivalent to films of such richness and depth, we have to look to TV, to ‘Games of Thrones’ perhaps, or the revisionist Western series ‘Deadwood’. In Hollywood, the studio system that produced these little gems is now locked into blockbusters, sequels and franchises. So my recommendation is, study your Radio Times carefully—with a magnifying glass, if need be—as there are treasures to be found at 9.30 on the morning on 5USA, or 3.00 in the afternoon on FilmFour. And if, as I do, you record them, they make a great distraction while doing the ironing!


The 70s, Part 2: Coarse Acting

Marking forty years since my first paid job in the arts (Evening Times music critic), this is the second in an occasional series of retrospective (aka nostalgic) blogs, looking at ‘then and now’:

Dundee Rep, 1978

Dundee Rep, 1978

This month, September, it’s thirty years since I took up the post of Director at the Crawford Arts Centre in the University of St Andrews.  One of the peculiarities of St Andrews then (and probably now) was that it had a hugely active student drama scene, precisely because, it seemed, it did not have a Drama department.  Somehow student drama could be more inclusive if there was no division between those who were ‘doing’ drama and those who just wanted to tread the boards.  But the absence of a formal academic qualification hasn’t stopped many of those St Andrews students from going on to successful careers in the performing arts.  One, who also became a good friend, is Philip Howard, so there’s a pleasing circularity that this month also sees the start of his tenure as co-director of Dundee Rep.   Scotland being a very small country, I also have a link with Dundee Rep, but a much more humble one. Having acquired a provisional Equity card through my BBC contract (see Part 1 in this series), when that contract came to an end, I went to the Rep as an Assistant Stage Manager, in September 1977.

Dundee Repertory Theatre had been founded in 1939, and it had had an honourable and sometimes starry past. Cast lists from the 1960s included early appearances by the likes of Lynn Redgrave, James Bolam and Michael York, and Scottish actors of the calibre of Brian Cox and Hannah Gordon had started out there.  But in 1963 its home of almost 25 years had burned down, and the company had moved into temporary quarters in a disused church. Fourteen years later, I found them still there.

Wardrobe, Dundee Rep, 1978

Wardrobe, Dundee Rep, 1978

It’s hard to exaggerate the sheer squalor in which the company was working after existing for so long as theatrical refugees.  Fortunately I’ve still got the photographs I took at the time to remind me. Backstage was no more than a bare passage (christened the anus terribilis), the two communal dressing rooms were simply converted landings on the stairs to the gallery, and the only way to the control box was through the female dressing room and up through a hatch. Oh, and the only shower in the entire building was a single cold tap set at a height of six feet.  To cap it all, some years earlier a misguided Job Creation team had painted the entire theatre—foyer, auditorium and bar—in the same revolting shade of what I believe was technically called ‘thistle’ but looked like maroon on an off-day.

Dundee Rep, 2006

Dundee Rep, 2006

Since 1982 Dundee Rep has been housed in a handsome and well-equipped custom-built theatre, and in recent years it has rightly received considerable critical acclaim for the work it has achieved with the only fulltime company of actors based in a Scottish theatre. Just let that sink in: the only theatre which is able to employ the same company of actors, not just throughout a full season but also from season to season.  In the 70s, it was the norm to engage a company for at least a full season, with a few guests appearing for individual productions. And these were not small companies.  That season of 1977-78, Dundee Rep tackled, among other things, a full-scale Shakespeare (Taming of the Shrew) Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy, which needs a cast of nine, and Philip King’s hoary farce See How They Run, which needs eight.  All told, the theatre mounted ten new full productions that season, plus two late-night one-acters, all produced entirely in-house. Nowadays, the unique in-house Ensemble at Dundee mounts barely half that number of productions in a year, the rest of the season being made up with visiting companies.

However, with the thrilling experience of the Edinburgh Fringe only just behind me, I was in for a shock.  Like much in the Dundee of the 70s, the Rep seemed locked in a time warp.  In a year in which London audiences saw the premieres of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, David Edgar’s Destiny, and Mary O’Malley’s Once a Catholic, Dundee Rep was opening its season with Who was that Lady?, a Victorian musical.  It was not even a real Victorian musical, but a ghastly pastiche which was neither accurate enough to be interesting nor outrageous enough to be funny. But clearly someone felt that Dundee audiences had an insatiable appetite for such fare, for the season would end with an equally dubious recreation of a Victorian Music Hall programme.

Victorian Music Hall performers, Dundee Rep, 1978, including that excellent pianist John Scrimgeour

Victorian Music Hall performers, Dundee Rep, 1978, including that excellent pianist John Scrimgeour

It will be apparent that the productions at Dundee that season did not fill me with enthusiasm. Indeed, with hindsight, it’s hard to believe that the funding bodies, especially the Scottish Arts Council, tolerated such consistently low standards.  While some of the blame must lie with the near-slum conditions in which the company had to work, in the end the choice of programme, and the poor quality of many of the productions, can only be laid at the door of the Theatre Director.  This was Robert Robertson, who would later achieve some fame as the pathologist in the long-running Glasgow cop series Taggart.  He was very much an actor-manager of the old school, a big bearded man with a booming voice, slightly resembling—in character as well—James Robertson Justice in his most famous role as Sir Lancelot Spratt in the Doctor films.

Another facet of the Dundee company, which would now seem surprising, was how many of the actors were not Scottish. This particularly applied to guest artists, joining the company to take the lead for a single play.  The best production of the season—the work of a guest director—was Neil Simon’s The Gingerbread Lady, a sharp New York comedy which had recently been a West End hit for Elaine Stritch. In Dundee that part was taken by Carole Boyd, best known, then as now, as Lynda Snell in The Archers.  Carole gave a marvellous performance, and was a lovely actor to work with, but she is no more American than I am, and there must surely have been more than one Scottish actor around then who was equally capable of impersonating a New Yorker. But that rather summed up how Dundee Rep felt: aspiring to be a middle class theatre lifted from some English provincial town and dropped in the middle of largely working class Dundee. It seems somehow fitting that the largest single group booking of the season was from Dundee’s Dental Association.

Today, Alasdair Gray would probably label the choice of Philip, a Yorkshireman, to be co-Director of Dundee Rep as another example of a ‘Scotophobic appointment’.  But the theatre that Philip heads has opened with the Scottish premiere of David Greig’s epic Victoria, the Rep ensemble company members and associates are almost entirely Scottish, and the visiting programme is largely made up of interesting work by Scottish touring companies. Contrast that with the cultural cringe of the 70s Rep, under a Scottish director, and you’ll see that it’s not that simple.  This is not to say, though, that the approach is parochial: Philip’s first season includes Frank McGuiness’s version of Euripides’ Hecuba and the Christmas show will be an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG.

It’s an intriguing paradox: today’s Dundee Rep may not have the means to mount as many productions as its 70s predecessor, and it may be now the only Scottish theatre with a resident company but, at the Rep as at other theatres, standards are immeasurably higher (of audience comfort as well as of artistic achievement), and Scottish writers and performers are far more prominent.  Gains, it seems to me, far outweigh losses.

© Robert Livingston

The 70s, Part 1: Fringe Benefits

Rowan Atkinson

Rowan Atkinson

It’s almost exactly forty years since I got my first paying job in the arts, when, as a second year undergraduate, and by a complicated route, I had the great good fortune to fall into the post of classical music critic for the Glasgow Evening Times. So I think I’m justified in indulging in a bit of ‘now and then’ comparisons. Anyone with a strong aversion to nostalgia can skip this strand in the blogs. This week: how I covered the Edinburgh Fringe. All of it.

Getting that job at the Evening Times probably helped a lot three years later when, in 1976, as a new graduate, I applied, successfully, for a one year traineeship with BBC Radio, based in Edinburgh. At that time Scottish radio programmes were an opt-out from the Radio 4 UK schedules, and my primary job was as Research Assistant to a daily magazine programme, ‘Twelve Noon’ (guess when it was broadcast) which was the Scottish replacement for the then fledgling ‘You and Yours’. The last weeks of my contract coincided with the Edinburgh Festival. Now, while the ‘official’ Festival was covered by a weekly review programme, in that rather more ad hoc and informal environment the BBC Edinburgh team had no set formula for covering the Fringe, but decided that year that it should feature as a daily insert to ‘Twelve Noon’.

So, as a still wet behind the ears trainee, I was given a studio, a team of reviewers and a technician–all older and vastly more experienced than me–and told to provide ten minutes a day on the Fringe. I was editor, producer, scriptwriter, presenter, interviewer, and recorder of ‘live’ extracts, and there was no time for anyone more senior to check what I put together—the newly edited tape would simply be slipped into the programme’s running order just minutes before it was due to be aired. It was possibly the best fun I’ve ever had and been paid for.

And that year, 1977, proved to be a vintage Fringe for new talent. We got a tip that the Oxford Revue was going to be worth checking out as, most unusually, it was a one man show. But then, that one man was a gangly, odd-looking young fellow whose memorably sardonic tone of voice constantly caught his audience off guard. His name was Rowan Atkinson. And he was unforgettable. That show we heard about just after it opened, but I also managed to get in and record an extract from what would be that year’s biggest hit, before it actually opened. Three of the actors from 7:84’s famous The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil –Bill Paterson, John Bett and Alex Norton—were reuniting to stage the first play by the artist who had created the memorable ‘pop-up book’ set for the Cheviot. The artist was John Byrne, the play was Writer’s Cramp, and the rest is history. By a happy coincidence,  the play is being revived for the first time in many years for the Lennoxlove Book Festival in November.

Another of the hits of that 1977 Fringe was revived at last year’s Fringe. Glasvegas – a comedy musical and nothing to do with the indie band of the same name—launched the careers of its creators, writer and director Morag Fullerton, and composer and sometime actor, Pat Doyle, who, by another coincidence, would go on the following year to play Hector in John Byrne’s next play, The Slab Boys. In the 80s, as Patrick Doyle, he would become house composer for Kenneth Branagh’s Renaissance Theatre Company, and via Branagh’s film of Henry V, go on to become one of Hollywood’s most talented and successful film composers.

Both last year and this, the media, online and in print, have been full of op-eds about whether the Fringe has become too big, and also too expensive both for participants and for ticket-buyers. Certainly, I’d be very interested to know if anyone has any views on whether new talent like John Byrne, Morag Fullerton and Patrick Doyle would get spotted in today’s Fringe, without the benefit of the media interest that inevitably attaches, for example, to new acts coming out of Oxford or Cambridge.

I’m pretty sure that it would be very hard, if not impossible, to do now what I went on to do in 1980, which was to put together a company of student and aspiring actors for that year’s Fringe. We were facing a number of obvious disadvantages: I had chosen to stage the English language premiere of a play by the ‘Spanish Shakespeare’, Calderon de la Barca: The House with Two Doors. At that time, prior to high profile productions at the National and the RSC, Calderon’s name was barely known outside academic circles. But I had a good friend, John Clifford, who was a Spanish Golden Age specialist and very interested in translating Calderon for the stage. Our venue wasn’t the most prominent: a school hall near the Art College, some distance from the gravitational centres that were already emerging among Fringe venues. And of course the actors were all complete unknowns. My only ‘name’ was the composer and Whistlebinkie Eddie McGuire–I had got a Scottish Arts Council grant (yes, a grant!) to commission him to write the incidental music.


The House with Two Doors

Yet over a two week run we averaged around 30 paying customers a night, got two decent reviews (one in the Scotsman), and the whole venture only cost me £200—say two thousand in today’s terms . Worth every penny. John (now Jo) Clifford went on, of course, to become one of Scotland’s most prolific and internationally-recognised playwrights. Several of the cast became professional performers, one later joining the BBC Radio Repertory Company. Our make-up artist has gone on to have a successful career in TV and Film make-up. And as for the builder of the eponymous doors—Reader, I married her.

© Robert Livingston