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Romans in Britain. The BBC Cymbeline. Nope. Doesn’t sort out how I feel about Cymbeline.


I’ve never known how to feel about Cymbeline.  Whenever I watch it or re-read it I keep wondering if the play will cohere for me.  And it never does.  It is multi-nodal.  It is implausible.  But does it fully commit to insanity?  It reminds me, like The Winter’s Tale, of those strange “tragedies” of Euripides that end happily. Ion.  Iphiginia in Tauris.

There’s the problem of focus of course, and the titular character.  Of course, it is arguable that Julius Caesar is not the main character in his own titular drama – but the play is still about him – about the  implications of destroying such a man.  Henrys IV and VI are not the main focus of the plays bearing their name – but the plays are really about their reigns rather than about them.  Perhaps this play is about the reign of Cymbeline in something like the same sense, but the play doesn’t really have that kind of historical excuse.  This story is  set during a dubious pseudo-historical (largely mythological) Celtic resistance to the emperor Augustus.  It’s not a slice of history, but a dream of a national half-remembering which works best when smudged.

Director Elijah Moshinsky does like his seventeenth-century Dutch interiors.  He uses them to great effect in All’s Well That Ends Well, and like that (more successful) staging, you feel like you are wandering through Vermeer paintings for much of the time.  To my mind, the detail and precision of this world sorts ill with the peculiar poetry of the play,  as well as the sudden dramatic reversals the play forces us to entertain.   This production is far more successful when it gets outside, and offers wild Welsh weather as a backdrop to its magic and madness.

I should give up trying to make sense of Cymbeline, because it’s at its most successful when most insane, when poor humans really are just the playthings of the gods.  Or of Michael Hordern, in this instance.  I must remember to look up which actor appeared in the most BBC Shakespeares.  It’s either Michael Hordern or Robert Lindsay.  Anyhow – they’re both in this.  Also spot the wonderful Patricia Hayes and the majestic Marius Goring in tiny roles.  Ah me.

Lindsay’s Iachimo I can’t help but find one of the least successful of his contributions to the series.  We first meet him in a topless bar, staffed by male waiters where he plays chess while verbally duelling with  Michael Pennington’s Posthumus.  Secreted in Imogen’s chamber he appears to be naked (though the camera stays north of the equator).  There’s a kind of sweaty desperation to this Iachimo that almost serves him as an excuse.  A more cold-blooded and meditative villainy would have scared me more.

The speed with which Posthumus credits Iachimo has always been a problem in staging.  Pennington himself succeeds best when craziest, tattered and torn on the battlefield and then close prisoner awaiting death.  His madness is more credible than his sanity and the ghosts and deities seem more plausible than the tailored lords and ladies of the earlier scenes.

Oh and of course, there’s Helen Mirren.  Wonderful in desperation in her second cross-dressing BBC Shakespeare role.   Mind you, it’s still difficult to understand how Cymbeline (Richard Johnson) doesn’t recognise her just ‘cos she’s wearing trousers and the well lit indoor intimacy of the staging only makes his stupidity more annoying.  Mirren’s best scene – perhaps the scene with the hapless Pisanio (the real hero of the play?) where she declares…

Prithee, dispatch:
The lamb entreats the butcher: where’s thy knife?
Thou art too slow to do thy master’s bidding,
When I desire it too.

There’s a deal of music in the play – as perhaps there needs to be – though some of it is a bit too “appropriate” for my liking.  All of it is of unusually high quality though.  Did I well up during the “Fear no more the heat of the sun” song?  Did I ever.

Rude Boy (1980). The Clash!… and their mate Ray Gange.


Describing this old film reminds me of Samuel Johnson trying describe John Milton’s religion… it’s much easier to say what Rude Boy is not.  Rude Boy is not really a drama.  Nor is it a documentary.  Nor is it a mockumentary.  Nor is it a musical, or a concert movie.

I read an interview with Ray Gange recently.  He seems much happier that he was as a twenty year old and has a lively interest in painting.  His photo illustrates a cheerful bald man in his late fifties.  The years have been kinder to him than you might think.

Armstrong and Miller used to have a cop-show sketch called “Parsons & Lampkin…and Lampkin’s mate Steve”, which was an eloquent meditation on the fact that once someone is established as a “mate”, you are sort of stuck with them, no matter how professionally inconvenient they might be. Ray Gange is the kind of “mate” that a band more ruthlessly committed to global super-stardom on conventional terms would have shed within the first ten minutes of the film.  He does of course, become increasingly estranged from the band’s rise to glory, but the astonishing thing is not that he starts to lose access, but that he retains it for so long.  Mick Jones tells Gange that “I’m  watching you”,  as Gange’s capacity for drunken vandalism becomes clear – in a chilling sequence.   The unfailingly charming Joe Strummer continues to listen to Gange, though.   Even when Gange is drunkenly suggesting that The Clash have become too political, rather than argue, Strummer continues to tinkle the ivories and smile.  It is as though Gange is exactly the sort of person that Strummer is morally as well as politically obligated never to give up on.  It is as though the whole purpose of The Clash is to retain some point of contact with someone like Gange.

If so,  the film really is about tragic failure, as what passes for  a “story” illustrates how The Clash connect and fail to connect at one and the same time.  The face of Gange as he puzzles over the lyrical content and purpose of “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” is a sad sight to behold.

Directed by Jack Hazan and David Mingay, filmed in 1978 and 1979, released in 1980 and repudiated by The Clash instantly, Rude Boy is a difficult film to watch all the way through.  The concert footage is wonderful of course and the reason you keep going.  The Victoria Park Rock against Racism performance is incandescence and it’s an education to see the people in the crowd that day.  You keep thinking you’re going to spot Jeremy Corbyn.  It’s also a shock, of course, to see quite how much hair Mick Jones has in 1978.   He could have plausibly earned extra money as Brian May’s stunt double.

Gange’s story has no beginning and no end.  His only claim to fame is a personal connection with members of The Clash, and a brief clueless stint as their roadie.  His daily life is awful to watch, especially when there’s no music in the background.  Gange needs The Clash as much as we do, and/or, we need The Clash as much as he does and when they play, it’s a blessed relief from the shabby imbecility of Gangeland.

Gange (in this movie) is not so much right wing as anti-left wing (unlike his skinhead friend).   He never actually joins the National Front (who are chillingly exhibited in the film).   The Front are horribly canny in the way they thank the police, their politeness serving to enlist the Met as allies.   Meanwhile, a black kid from Brixton is brutally arrested in a dawn raid and railroaded by the criminal justice system.  In the final frames, Thatcher becomes prime minister.  We’re not told how Gange voted, if he bothered to vote… but his stubborn refusal to be politicised by Strummer or to reject the NF with a scintilla of energy, point to 1980s casual Toryism, a Toryism based on how easy it has become to buy stuff.  The world will belong to “Gange” rather than to The Clash, because Gange is someone with a dogged and determined refusal to absorb any kind of macroeconomic narrative, a refusal to relate his own life to anybody else’s life, to see himself as part of anything bigger than himself.  It’s a refusal (as he tells more than one hapless girlfriend) to love.

Gange doesn’t really have enough depth to be a tragic figure.  The loneliest and saddest “character” in the film is, perhaps “Strummer”, the Strummer who is edited together by Hazan and Mingay.   Strummer, you suspect,  regrets Gange’s condition more than Gange does.   And the most lonely moment in the film is Strummer in the recording studio wearing headphones, laying down vocal tracks for the unhappy Give ‘Em Enough Rope album.  (It’s a great album, of course, just known for the frustrations of the context of its own production.)

Here is Strummer shouting into the void.  What he’s doing is no fun but needs to be done, and nobody but he can do it.   And nothing is more silent and scary than the recording studio with him alone in it,counting down bars till it’s his turn to shout and sing.

Happy 501st Birthday Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary, Bloodied Mary, Muddy Mary.


Here’s the Horrible Histories tribute to Mary Tudor who is 501 years old today.  You’ll notice that they thought it would be funny if Mary Tudor was also Kate Bush.   I don’t have a problem with that.

Well, well, well.  Five hundred and one years old today.  How time flies!  And she’s still stuck with the whole “Bloody” prefix.  For the past two hundred years or so, various historians have tried to put the whole protestant-burning thing in context.  There was, after all, a great deal of this sort of thing about in sixteenth (and seventeenth) century Europe.  And let’s not forget that her sister killed her fair share of Catholics.  Perhaps Elizabeth’s victims were spaced out better.  But then Elizabeth had rather more time to kill her quota, whereas Mary always felt she was in a hurry.

Many of those in authority in the sixteenth-century seemed to have…

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Martyrs to Science Day?



On this day in 1600, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome for asserting the plurality of worlds in defiance of official church teaching.  Perhaps he’s as clear a case of a martyr to the cause of science as you could imagine?  Although the definition of “Science Martyr” is interesting and problematic and worthy of some entertaining if melancholy discussion.

Some people are even a bit sceptical of Bruno’s claims – suggesting that although he believed in things we now agree are “true” – he got there improperly – and was too invested in hermetic scholarship to be a proper empirical scientist.  He got to the truth “the wrong way” in other words.  This seems very harsh – and in any case assumes a standard of methodological rectitude which many famous scientists might fall short of in any case.  Time to re-read Thomas Kuhn I think.  Who really “thinks…

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Don Letts’ “The Clash: Westway to the World” (2000).


An exaggerated attempt is being made here to give a story a beginning, a middle and an end.  Which is fine.   That’s what  story-tellers do. Cruel and misleading excisions are the essence of narrative.

The story, therefore, runs from 1976 to 1983, ignoring the post-Jones incarnation of the band and the Cut the Crap (1985) album that produced it.  Instead, we are left with the idea of a band that lasted for as long as it needed to last, which sprang from specific circumstances to conquer the world and, having conquered it, knew it had to leave the stage. The End.

In addition to priceless archive footage, we are provided with extended interviews with the band.  Letts himself neither appears nor narrates, but the intimacy and centrality of his presence is evoked through the ease with which people talk.   There is a strange tranquility to the film, a contentment that Letts manages to elicit, and a neat (too neat?) sense of a job well done.  Sometime it seems impossible to reconcile these people in the darkened interview room with the figures you see cavorting on stage in the archive footage.  Like the best punk-era film, the raggedy and blurry quality only adds to a sense of urgency.  Just as the best punk bands played with a sense that The Fuzz were about to burst in and beat everyone up, so the best filmed punk is suggestive of the threat of having all the filmed ripped out of the camera and destroyed at any moment.

But if, as Wordsworth argued,  “Poetry… takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility” then this film is poetry.

All four of the core Clash seem, in this film at least, like remarkably nice people.  It’s a full on charm offensive.   Three quarters of them seem healthy and well preserved (sorry Topper).  Nobody would imagine, watching this film, that Joe Strummer had just two years left to live.  He is, of course, by far the most articulate of interviewees, as well as the most charming (or treacherous if you read some hostile accounts).  The way he explains the circumstances of the sackings of Jones and Headon (“maybe you can play the saxophone on heroin but you can’t play drums”), seems reasonable you can even imagine Jones and Headon nodding their rueful assent while he talks.

But what’s best about this film, from a purely selfish perspective (and is there, at the end of the day, any other perspective?) is that it makes no real effort to explain or develop its title.  As someone who is currently trying to write something about The Clash and who is fascinated by The Westway itself – this is perfect for me – establishing the centrality of this concrete behemoth while refusing to interpret it.  Thank you Don Letts.  You were exactly what I needed.

Laurel and Hardy in “Sailors Beware” ! (1927) the world’s first Eisenstein parody?


This is a busy little film, packed with ideas and never dull.

It is still not a Laurel and Hardy film but a Stan Laurel film with Oliver Hardy in an important supporting role.  A liner (The Miramar) full of Millionaires is crossing the Atlantic in order to get to Monte Carlo.  Stan plays a cab driver who is accidentally winched aboard and is subsequently treated as a stowaway by the wholly unreasonable purser (Hardy) and captain.  He is forced to become a steward to pay his way (and avoid being thrown overboard).  Stan, being Stan, respects no manifestation of hierarchy or chain of command, and stands up to the Captain right up until the moment when he seems to be about to be hurled into the ocean.

The remainder of the plot involves the thwarting of a husband and wife criminal partnership, disguised, disturbingly, as a mother and child.

The villainous leading lady (Madame Ritz) is played by Anita Garvin as a vampish criminal utterly unlike the innocent girlfriend of Why Girls Love Sailors, made only a few months earlier.  You rub your eyes to believe you’re watching the same performer.  The husband/baby meanwhile is played by Harry “Doll” Earles, one of four German born dwarf siblings, all of whom got to appear in Wizard of Oz.  This tiny adult, dressed as a baby, gets to cheat Stan with crooked dice, and also helps with the signalling in a crooked card game.  There is something profoundly disturbing about this man child.  In the final frame we see that Earles has beaten up Oliver Hardy somehow, and is leering in victory even as he’s about to be clapped in tiny irons.

And so it comes to pass that two thirds of the way through this two reelers, just a year or two after Eisenstein’s famous Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin, we get to see a “baby” pushed down a flight of steps in a wholly comic context.  We know that there’s no baby in the pram but rather a very sinister adult, but it’s still a deliciously callous little gesture – even though the flight of steps (on board a ship) us rather briefer than the steps in Odessa.

I’ve given the idea of babies in prams rolling down steps in cinema some thought.

See below…

Oliver Hardy owns the first minute of this film, with some of the most exquisite comic acting you’ll ever see in your life. Just watch him as he alternately welcomes male and female passengers on board ship and I defy you not to at least smile.  Perhaps there is nothing on earth quite so comically satisfying as watching Oliver Hardy in the presence of an attractive woman.  It’s not merely the twinkle in his eye, it’s the way a kind of flirtatious southern gentility infuses every fibre of his body and turns every slight gesture into a kind of flourish.

More Malthus



Thinking about Malthus’ birthday yesterday, I suddenly remembered the strangest conference speech experience I’ve so far undergone.

We were in Boston and the year was 1998 – the bicentenary of the first publication of Malthus’ Essay on Population.  It was decided that we would hold the Annual General Meeting of Whatever the Hell Society It Was that I had to join just to give a paper at its meeting concurrently with the banquet, to be immediately followed by the main plenary conference lecture.

It was December and it was Boston and it was very very cold.  Our venue was some soulless conference centre that was partitioned and rented out.  The two of us were jet-lagged and giggly.  But not so jetlagged and giggly to consider the paradox of stuffing your face with food while listening to a lecture on Malthus.  But this paradox had not occurred to the conference…

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Thomas Malthus, the most destructive Englishman who ever lived?



I suppose words like “destructive” or “evil” are necessarily contested terms.  Jack the Ripper is supposed to have killed five people – maybe a few more.  Thomas Malthus may have been more remotely responsible for the deaths of many millions.  But if you were to meet Thomas Malthus in a narrow deserted street on a dark night, he wouldn’t hurt you -whereas Jack the Ripper probably would.

If they were assembling a list of the top ten most destructive Englishmen who ever lived (assuming they haven’t already – they assemble top ten lists of everything else), I would personally do my darndest to ensure that Thomas Malthus’ name appeared upon it.  The most destructive humans all kill with pens rather than swords, and Malthus’ Essay on Population (1798) is destructive because it has reconciled powerful people to the mass destruction of their fellow creatures.   Widely discredited, it remains credited…

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Happy Birthday Abe Lincoln (oh and also Chas Darwin)



Yes, Abe Lincoln has a birthday today.  In a few week’s time, we’ll note the sorry anniversary of his removal from this sphere by means of a shabby piece of melodrama.

Abe’s most astonishing achievement, in many ways, was to define a version of “doable” idealism.

Like most politicians of his age,  Abe was a trimmer and a compromiser.  He was not the most anti-racist or the most anti-slavery elected politician of his age.  (That was Charles Sumner.)  The difference between Abe and the other mid-century politicos trying to thrash out a compromise was that Abe recognised that “middle ground” was a mobile concept.  Unlike Buchanan and Pierce and Douglas etc. etc.  – Abe could see that public opinion needs a gentle push – or rather a push of exactly the correct measure of force.  He never wanted to get too far ahead of “public opinion”, but (in hockey parlance)…

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Farewell Britannicus – we hardly knew ye. February 11th, 55BCE


Today, back in the first century, poor young Britannicus bit the dust.  Son of the emperor Claudius, his fate was sealed as soon as his father’s was.


Here is is as played by Graham Seed in the final episode of I Claudius in 1976.  A proud teenager, rejecting Claudius’ plan to hide in Britain while planning the restoration of the Republic.  Seed played Britannicus as an over-earnest youth with an over-developed sense of honour and an underdeveloped sense of pervasive evil.  He didn’t show up until episode thirteen, and he had clearly neglected to watch the previous twelve episodes.

Now it’s impossible to prove that Claudius was actually murdered.  There’s no way of analyzing those mushrooms nearly 2000 years on.  The tradition that the Emperor’s fourth wife and niece Agrippina (well, if you really want to copper-fasten the Julian and Claudian halves of a dynasty you end up violating a few…

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