I recently attended, in Nottingham, a special showing of a new film by Pablo Behrens, called ‘Adrift in Soho’ an adaptation of an early novel by Colin Wilson. Colin Stanley, who many years ago published a short book of mine on Wilson, introduced the film. Colin Stanley, who has produced various works on Colin Wilson and has created an archive on the writer at Nottingham University, was an advisor on the film, an associate producer and general wrangler for the parts of the film shot in Nottingham and also has a short cameo in the film. I chatted before and after the film to Colin, but because I had to leave soon after the screening, I thought I’d just put in this blog how much I enjoyed the film. I have a little experience of the strains and stresses involved in independent filmmaking and Behrens cast and crew on ‘Adrift’ have overcome these produced a very watchable and unique film which I hope at some point gets wider distribution. As Colin said to me, the film is darker than the original novel, but along with several other elements, this is certainly not ‘a travesty’ or unwarranted distortion of the original novel. Behrens is certainly true to the spirit of the novel, and the film is rather rich and beautiful in its colours, with some very poetical shots that never overwhelm the narrative or get to ‘artsy’. The Soho of the 1950s has been brilliantly recreated on the streets of present-day Nottingham, and rather aptly, Colin pointed out one of the locations, a local pub, just down the street from the Broadway Cinema where we had just viewed the film. Behrens, who discussed this with Wilson himself, has expanded the scope of the novel and contextualized (with historical hindsight) key features of the novel, which was a perceptive ‘slice of life’ that has now passed. What has been added to the story is the element of what was called ‘Free Cinema’ an early fifties documentary movement, which prefigured the better known British New Wave films of directors such as Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson. This is a very neat and clever trick, on Behrens part, because it allows him to do three things at once: use the ‘Free Cinema’ documentary techniques to actually shoot his film (which helps when you’re on a low budget movie), ‘beef up’ the narrative in a historical manner adding and illuminating the social context and hinting what was to come (i.e. ‘the swinging sixties’) and in a way neatly telescope the story of ‘Free Cinema’ itself into his film. Wilson himself had had some contact with the filmmakers involved in ‘Free Cinema’ and indeed was featured alongside Lindsay Anderson and others in ‘Declaration’, a book by Tom Maschler, which attempted to capture the ‘Angry Young Man’ spirit of the times. As Behrens writes in his ‘programme notes’ for the film, ‘[Wilson’s] characters and their lifestyles were, unbeknownst to everybody, providing the platform for the next generation. The one that would pick up from where from where they left and change the world to what we know today as “modernity”.’ The way in which Behrens negotiates between the ‘Free Cinema’ elements of his story - he actually partially recreates three of the movements documentaries ‘Nice Time’ (Goretta and Tanner), ‘Momma Don’t Allow (Reisz and Richardson) and the more famous ‘March to Aldermaston’ (Anderson and Reisz) – and Wilson’s original narrative is seamless and I think, rather like Paul Schrader’s version of Ian McEwan’s ‘The Comfort of Strangers’, adds to rather than detracts from the original. The difference between the two, as Colin Stanley noted, is that Wilson’s narrative maintains a lighter more positive tone throughout. Harry Preston, Wilson’s lead (and most autobiographical) character in the novel, is here overshadowed by the ultimately destructive but always charismatic, James Compton-Street. Compton-Street is the Soho-ite, who leads Preston, literally and metaphorically, through the streets, alleys, pubs, clubs and cafés of Soho, which is almost a character in itself (especially as it’s powerfully rendered in the film). The two male leads, inevitably, given the period and Wilson’s own bias towards male characters, take up most of the viewer’s attention, though both Caitlin Harris (as Doreen) and especially Emily Seale-Jones (as Jo) as the male characters counterparts, give feisty and reasonably nuanced performances. Seale-Jones’ character has more of an arc and allows her more room to play than Harris’ Doreen who predictably but a little formulaically falls for Preston in the end. Harry Preston, the reserved, watchful and naive character (the novel is a Bildungsroman) is well played by Owen Drake. He’s a good foil to Compton-Street, and it’s often easy to overlook the skill an actor employs playing such characters. He certainly does Preston justice and is very watchable as the viewer’s observer of other people. If I’m being picky, I’d say there’s an occasionally odd cadence to his speech (he was born in California) but when I was watching I couldn’t place it, and it didn’t affect my ‘buying into’ his character whose origins are never explained anyway. My greatest praise, however, would have to be for Chris Wellington, who gets the extremes of his character just right. Compton-Street has to be attractive, charismatic, dangerous, melancholic, a rake and a philosopher, and Wellington gets all of that dead right. One of the unusual features of the film, is the discussion between the character of the Count (played in a beautifully down-at-heel manner by William Chubb) and Harry Preston, of Lautreamont’s ‘Les Chants de Maldoror’ (which later has a disastrous effect on Compton-Street). Wilson was obviously taken with the book at the time he wrote ‘Adrift in Soho’ but I’m pretty sure he would have later rejected most of its violence and negativity (It contains some of the most extreme and ugly events that I’ve ever come across in a Penguin classic that’s for sure – think ‘Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom’ by Pasolini, and you’re on the right track). I don’t think I’ve heard or seen Lautreamont quoted on film before and that is the kind of thing independent cinema is and should be about, bringing to our attention the less often seen or heard. Behrens film, has a few anachronisms in its mise en scène (of which I’m sure he’s conscious), due I suspect, to having been shot on a shoestring (the odd piece of railing or wall fitting is not period) but this is more than made up for with the general exuberance of the film and attractive editing (some of the crossfades etc.: blood in the sink merging with Wellington’s face, golden cobblestones alongside rippling water and so on are very striking). Generally speaking though, it carries you through a lost world which is both memorable and unusual. Like ‘Free Cinema’ itself this film wants you to look with fresh eyes, it also to a degree get across Colin Wilson’s positive philosophy. It doesn’t quite succeed in the later but mostly because the original novel didn’t. Wilson was a young novelist and an extremely productive writer, who, I think, rather ‘threw off’ this novel at speed. Just to end, I’d say it’s always fun to see someone you know in a film and so well done Colin Stanley on his one line, well delivered! It was also great to see the film and be a part of that particular audience (many of whom were involved in the film) because I’d just seen the premiere of an independent film I’d acted in, Linda Dunscombe’s ‘King of Crime’ (see my previous blog) and had one line too! So, I felt very empathetic to the makers of this film, because if you can make a watchable film, which this most definitely is, on a small budget, you have climbed more mountains than the average punter is aware of, so well done to all involved in the making of ‘Adrift in Soho’.
In the Hulton Archive, there exists an old, black and white photograph from July 1955 of a deceptively innocent looking street corner in Sarajevo. In fact, it’s of a crossroads, and it could be said it was on this crossroads that, along with the Austro-Hungarian empire of the Hapsburgs, the four great empires of Europe: Britain, France, Germany, and Russia had the misfortune to come crashing together. In the foreground, by the curb-side of this benign looking picture, are two footprints. Turn your head as you place your feet on those footprints and you can still see a sombre plaque saying that it was from this point on the 28th June 1914 that Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia Choteck von Chotkova were assassinated by the teenager Gavrilo Princip. Gavrilo, a pallid, tubercular youth, perhaps felt the hand of destiny touch him, as he sat despondently eating a sandwich at a café on that corner. An open-topped Phaeton car passed by but the driver, having taken a wrong turn, put the brakes on and slowly reversed to within feet of the café. Through a crowd, Gavrilo saw that in the back seat of the Phaeton was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Earlier that day, a bomb thrown by Nedjelko Cabrinovic, a fellow Serb nationalist and friend of Gavrilo, had bounced off the bonnet of the Phaeton and exploded under the wheels of another car in the Archduke’s motorcade. This botched assassination attempt by the so-called ‘Black Hand’ had left two of Ferdinand’s entourage seriously wounded and injured a dozen spectators. It was, in fact, these injured that the Archduke insisted on visiting in hospital and the reason his driver, Leopold Lojka, was unfamiliar with the route he was taking. As if it were a scene from Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent, Gavrilo was unable, due to the crowds, to pull out the small bomb he’d been issued with. He quickly reverted to his Browning pistol and managed to fire two fatal shots. He confessed later, ‘Where I aimed I do not know... I even turned my head as I shot’. For the fatalistically minded, Lojka’s unintended detour was literally the turning point in the history of the 20th century. There are, traditionally, a number of uncontested factors that made this assassination the tipping point that led to the Great War. Amongst these was the rise of the Pan-Slavic and Nationalist independence movements in the Balkans, which had begun as early as 1829 with Greek independence and culminated in the shooting. The eventual consequences of which, whilst welcomed by some, were unintended. Gavrilo’s generation wanted a Greater Serbia, no longer under the yoke of the Hapsburgs. His statement after his arrest was simple and limited, ‘I am a Yugo-slav nationalist, aiming for the unification of all Yugo-slavs and I do not care what form of state [we achieve] but it must be free from Austria’. Archduke Ferdinand was a reformer of an Empire with fifteen different nationalities, who, it was feared by the revolutionaries, planned to devolve power regionally, federalise and thus dilute aspirations for Slavic independence. Another factor was a complex of treaties, conventions, and ententes that existed between the European empires and led to a ‘domino effect’. One event, almost mechanically setting off another in the post-assassination period now called ‘the July Crisis’. The dominoes fell like this: To begin with, the Dual Alliance Treaty (1879) between Germany and the Austro-Hungarians (made because Otto von Bismarck almost obsessively feared attack on two fronts) said that they would, as allies, declare war if Russia or France mobilised to attack either Empire. In a similar vein, the Franco-Russian Military Convention of 1892 promised each signatory assistance in the event of attack. Ferdinand’s assassination provided the Austro-Hungarians with an excuse to effectively initiate a war between themselves and the Kingdom of Serbia. They assumed or gambled that the Russians would not involve themselves in this small ‘domestic’ war. The Russians however, with ethnic and power interests of their own in the region, mobilised their army. In 1905, the Germans had created the Schlieffen Plan. This plan was based on the premise that, if Russia mobilised and went to war, France would soon follow. Germany would then be faced with Bismarck’s nightmare, war on two fronts. However, the giant Russian army would take several weeks to mobilise. In this breathing space, Germany could attack France, not on their mutual border, heavily defended by French forts but via neutral Belgium. The Germans with this surprise attack felt they could, as it were, ‘Be in Paris by the weekend’. Unfortunately for the world there existed yet another dusty, old treaty of seventy-five years standing. This was the Treaty of London (1839) in which Britain undertook to defend the neutrality of Belgium. Additionally, the ‘Entente Cordiale’ of 1904 between Britain and France, had effectively ended a thousand years of bellicose attitudes between the two neighbours. This cordial agreement was a colonial ‘carve-up’ on a host of matters, such as France staying out of Egypt if the British kept their nose out of Morocco. Given these conditions, if Germany invaded Belgium, Britain, the largest empire in the world, would be forced to make a decision as to whether to initiate a global conflict. Thus becoming the final ‘domino’ to fall. This is often where opinion between historians begins to divide. One distinction of this war is the mountain of documentation associated with it. No historian can hope to read all the relevant literature which includes multi-volume editions of official diplomatic papers and literally tens of thousands of books. Almost any polemic on the origins of the conflict can produce some material basis for its defence. Therefore, the general reader would be wise to note any historian’s ideological predisposition (as well as their own). The independence movements, the alliances, the built-in militarism and propaganda of the Imperial powers, provide necessary but perhaps not sufficient causes for the war. Two contemporary but very opposed historians, who attempt to find such sufficient causes are Max Hastings and Niall Ferguson. Hastings, whom one might caricature as ‘old school’, vehemently argues that one essentially distorts the history if one ignores the ‘moral culpability’ of the combatants. No one nation was fully responsible but the German Empire, he asserts, was the principal aggressor, particularly barbarous and as such provides the looked for sufficient cause. Germany had a record of committing genocides in South West Africa (of the Hereo and Namaqua, 1904-7) and then, when it invaded Belgium, human rights atrocities (the execution of over 6,000 Belgians). It is also through this prism he believes that one should view the genocides of the Second World War. Obversely, Ferguson feels nothing was inevitable on the Sunday afternoon that the British officials met to decide for or against war. The German policy and war objectives indicate that they wanted a continental war between nations but not a world war between empires. Going into the meeting, the majority of participants would probably have said they were against war with Germany. We are taught Britain came into the war because of the threat to Belgian neutrality. However, Ferguson says, if you examine the sources, these Liberal politicians were rather cynical about the matter, it merely provided a good pretext for war. The motivating reason behind the decision was, suggests Ferguson, more ‘frivolous’ but no less sufficient. Many were unemployed in Britain, and the Liberals feared defeat in an election. A popular war was a way of avoiding such humiliation. A significant minority forced the issue. The Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, threatened to resign if Britain didn’t declare war and a young, belligerent Winston Churchill, then in the Admiralty, suggested what soon became common parlance, that, ‘it would all be over by Christmas’. In 1965, Powell and Pressburger released a film (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), the eponymous hero of which knew his Clausewitz, dressed in feather-plumed, gaudy uniforms and happily obeyed the rituals of war. This fictional character, Colonel Blimp, appears out-dated, but replace his cinematic image with that of a marine portrayed in contemporary recruitment adverts, and it’s clear that war is still often projected as a kind of elevated costume drama. In a post-modern world, the appeal and power of such imagery, especially to the young, is often derided. Yet, with the continued popularity of war, it seems true to say that, the old Horacian appeal, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country) is not yet seen as a lie by most. Nineteenth-century Imperialism was at the heart of the causes of the First World War, the background to which were such avaricious enterprises as the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and ‘The Great Game’ (between the British and Russians in northern India). Powerful elites wanted economic supremacy and on the surface at least, not unlike modern Liberal-Democracies, justified war on the grounds of: the need to defend nation states, progress, enlightenment and universal humanity. Twenty million people were killed in the war. Such ‘justifications’ are like the apparently innocent, 1955 black and white photograph of a crossroads from the Hulton Archive. Deceptive. This is from my book ‘Orwell, Two Guinea Pigs, A Cat and A Goat’.
At the beginning of my work on a feature film called ‘King of Crime’, back in 2016, I wrote a number of blogs about the experience. Now the film has been released, a DVD is on its way, and its cinema run is over, I can post the series of blogs I wrote at the time as a kind of journal. Whilst some of the journal entries will have their original dates at the start, I have extensively rewritten some of the material. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but also at the time you don’t always realise what will stay with you most. So each entry is a bit of a mix, written at the time but with a gloss of what happened later. 18th October 2016 Had a lovely day recently, on the film set of ‘Milk and Honey: The Movie’, (the working title of what became ‘King of Crime’), starring Mark Wingett from ‘The Bill’ and Claire King from ‘Emmerdale’, written by the talented Linda Dunscombe, who is also producer on this one and has done a fantastic job of getting a great cast together. I somehow missed the auditions but was brought on board, in a minor capacity, for a day’s shoot by the equally talented Sally Luff. The location, when I arrived early, was already busy with crew and actors and extras in various states of preparedness. After coffee and a chat with Sally, I went to make-up where Clare Nixon and Laura Henry, her assistant, were busy with numerous actors. I also saw, in passing, Richard Summers-Calvert, who I know slightly, looking extremely busy. He was there, that day, in his capacity as the third assistant director but he also plays the character Dexter in the film. I remember Mark Wingett arriving, at some point, and being struck by how calm, friendly and self-assured he seemed, which is just what a lead actor needs to be, it really helps everybody feel happy and confident about the job in hand. Linda and Peter Dunscombe were both there (it’s really their baby this film) not only making everyone feel welcome but on the phone, answering constant questions and doing dozens of jobs whilst overseeing the whole project. Also, in a corner, was a quiet and concentrated, Hainsley Lloyd Bennett (‘Tully’), another of the lead actors. Having put on my rather dapper three-piece suit, and been made up, I was ready for action. I was pleasantly surprised and happy to find out I was to get to use some real firearms. That sounds a bit morbid, but it’s not something I’ve done before, and I thought it would be good experience for any future film work. The day was picking up and I’d not even got in front of a camera yet! In the end, I got to fire three types of handgun, which, as I say, was a first, and I have to confess to really enjoying it! Nicholas David Lean (who I later learned was the First Assistant Director, Second Unit Director and Action choreographer, hey it’s a small indie film!) went through the firearms training with me and was very insistent, rightly, that I take it seriously. He spoke of the injuries, and even a few fatalities, that blank rounds had caused on sets over the years (the empty bullet shells fly out at some force). It certainly helped to concentrate the mind and made me focus on all his instructions about how to handle the firearms correctly. In the event, the reason I ended up firing three guns, was that the first two jammed after a few shots. In a way this helped me, because it gave me more time to get used to being on set, the camera set-up, and what was expected of me and my fellow ‘shooter’, a big shaven-headed guy (who I never did get the name of) who I have to say looked a lot tougher than me! The set, created by Hayden Otton, in an office block in Milton Keynes, (where a number of the interiors were amazingly quickly, erected and struck, sometimes overnight) was a mock-up of an illegal den for computing scamming. The walls were an oppressive green-greyish colour, and my partner in crime and I, were to be framed in a single shot at the entrance to the room, which was accentuated nicely by small lights, set in the wall around the door, as you might get in a seedy nightclub. Framed with the lights glowing gently off and on, behind us, Tom Anderson, the cinematographer, and Matt Gambell, the Director, were out in front, behind the camera, giving us various instructions. The lighting was more or less set when we walked on set but still need some adjustment. We spent some time getting positioned right, making sure our eye-lines were correct and going over when to bring the guns into shot and shoot. My partner had a shotgun, but it was a ‘dummy’ in the sense that it didn’t fire blanks and to begin with I had a very large silver hand gun (something like a magnum but don’t really know, having never picked up a gun before in my life). I got a couple of rounds off with that first gun and was truly surprised at the kick a gun firing blanks has. This gun soon jammed, and Nick quickly replaced it, with another quite impressive but smaller black automatic gun. The same thing happened, it jammed and Nick, increasingly frustrated, after safely putting the other guns away, handed me the last gun they had and the smallest of the lot, a pistol. If this hadn’t of worked, I expect, that I would just have had to pretend to shoot and in post-production (as they did with the shotgun) they’d have put in a digital effect of gunfire. As it was, the pistol worked best out of the lot, giving off a very large flame from its muzzle, which made it a very real sensation to shoot. Two things I didn’t know on the day were, firstly, that this first day of mine would end up in the trailer for the film and secondly who I was actually ‘shooting’. All we’d been told was that we were gunning down half a dozen people at computer terminals, but none of them were actually there when we were filming (hence the need to get the eye-line right). It turned out, that a prominent victim of our gunshots was one of the characters in the film called Lazy River Boy, played by Benji Dotan. When I finally saw the sequence, at the premiere, this made me really smile. Benji and I had worked together for a couple of years, in a small scale touring theatre company, have the same agent, and occasionally bump into each other at various arts events. He was on set that day, and we did have a brief chat early on, which was nice and helped make me feel more at home on set. Film sets can be intimidating places, so a friendly face is always helpful for one’s confidence. Anyway, I was thrilled to have had the day and had thoroughly enjoyed myself, and after thanking Sally Luff for having contacted me, I got out of my suit and was one the stairwell about to leave. It was at this point I heard someone talking about the need to get further ‘heavies’ for the film. I think at that point I turned around and went back to have a word with Sally. She suggested I talk to Richard, the third AD. What I said to Richard was basically that I was free to come back over the next few weeks if they needed me to play a ‘heavy’ on another day. Richard thought that might be a good idea, went back in and came back a few minutes later having had a word with Linda. Linda had agreed that it would work in terms of continuity, that is that Marcus King could well surround himself with regular bodyguards and I could be one of them, it also got rid of the headache of finding new ‘heavies’ every few days. So, overhearing a conversation by chance, a quick chat, where I suggested I was available, a nod from the writer-producer and I was on board. After that point, I became I guess ‘Bodyguard to Marcus King’ rather than just a ‘heavy’ and I had at that point an unspecified number of call-sheets coming my way (the call-sheet tells you where and when you’re needed and any necessary details for day’s filming) The whole day was a great experience, and I’d had a ball messing about with the guns as a gangster for the day. I’d found the whole cast and crew really friendly co-operative, hardworking and helpful. The young director, Matt Gambell, seems to be doing a great job (and I’m looking forward to seeing the finished film already). I have a few more days, at least, on the film, now as one of Mark Wingett’s bodyguards, and may even have more guns to fire! I couldn’t have asked for a better day and was walking on air when I finally exited the building
Note: To any cast and crew members reading this, if there’s anything wildly inaccurate or that you dislike in the above, do let me know.