Thursday, 26 February 2015

One Brief Shining Moment....

Vanessa drips snot

I will always remember seeing Camelot for the first time – on TV one Saturday afternoon after playing rugby – and being amazed at one of the later scenes when Vanessa Redgrave is so emotional that her nose drips snot.

I’d never seen an actor seemingly so “in the moment” before. It made Guenevere’s trauma seem raw, real and true – and I followed Vanessa Redgrave’s career thereafter, both on screen and, whenever I could, on stage. Her kind of deeply-felt acting in Camelot sometimes feels at odds with film musical conventions - at least in the 1960s. But the emotion is NOT at odds with the source material, TH White's glorious Once and Future King.
Vanessa Redgrave, as an emotionally exposed Guenevere

Lerner and Loewe

In The Once and Future King, the whimsical mingles with the tragic in an unsettling and often teasing fashion. Although a musical comedy in form, the content of Camelot is not at all like Lerner and Loewe’s other major works: Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, My Fair Lady or Gigi. Lyric writer Alan Jay Lerner managed, I think, to pull off the weird mix of comedy and tragedy that TH White created in his 5 volumes of The Once and Future King.

Serious themes need serious performers

Although there are joyous (and bonkers) showstoppers (The Lusty Month of May or What Do The Simple Folk Do?) and comedy characters, like Lionel Jefferies as King Pellinore, many characters are about to die in battle as Camelot ends, the main relationships are doomed, the dialogue and lyrics contain discussions of Justice, War, Gender, Class and Society. (Thinking about Class in My Fair Lady or Gender in Gigi, I suppose all the best musicals are riddled with issues.) The themes of Camelot certainly require actors with serious credentials – Richard Harris, David Hemmings, Laurence Naismith, Franco Nero and Vanessa Redgrave were not known when they made the film for being song-and-dance performers.

Franco Nero as Lancelot with knife to David Hemmings’s Mordred

Guenevere and Lancelot eventually married….

Later “real-life” events, of course, proved that the potent sparks between Vanessa Redgrave’s Guenevere and Franco Nero’s Lancelot led to a lifelong friendship and love, as well as a son, Carlo. Vanessa and Franco eventually married in 2006, nearly 40 years after they first met on the set of Camelot. Meryl Streep speaks very eloquently about one of my all-time heroes in this link here.

Eventually wed, nearly 40 years later, Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero
Poignant lyrics from I Loved You Once In Silence

I’m sure it was lyrics like the following that drew Vanessa Redgrave to star as Guenevere, lyrics that are simple but perfect for catching in your throat and cracking with emotion:
And now there's twice as much grief,
Twice the strain for us;
Twice the despair,
Twice the pain for us
As we had known before.

And after all had been said,
Here we are, my love,
Silent once more,
And not far, my love,
From where we were before.
Franco Nero as Lancelot and Vanessa Redgrave as Guenevere

From tender lyrics to Beano violence in Then You May Take Me To The Fair

Alan Jay Lerner had a very playful style with lyrics, most famously in My Fair Lady and the following example from Camelot is a good contrast to the above extract from I Loved You Once In Silence:

SIR LIONEL: Your majesty, let me tilt with him and smite him!
       Don't refuse me so abruptly, I implore!
       Oh, give me the opportunity to fight him
       And Gaul will be divided once more!
GUENEVERE: You'll bash and thrash him?
SIR LIONEL: I'll smash and mash him.
GUENEVERE: You'll give him trouble?
SIR LIONEL: He will be rubble.
GUENEVERE: A mighty whack?
SIR LIONEL: His skull will crack.

The jousting scene given emotional credibility by the actors

The two filmed Camelots

I wonder whether Camelot will be more admired in generations to come and its over-wrought acting (with an abundance of disconcerting closeups) might be seen as psychologically penetrating. There is a 1982 made-for-TV filmed stage-version, which captures the SCORE of Camelot better than the film, but it does not beat the 1967 version for ART and DESIGN.
The Great Hall at Camelot, part of the Oscar-winning design

Award-winning elements despite its flaws

I recommend watching Camelot. The film received 5 well-deserved Oscar nominations and won 3 for Music, Costume Design and Art/Set Decoration (other nominations were for Sound and Cinematography.) The film also received 6 Golden Globe nominations and won 3: Richard Harris as Actor, Frederick Loewe for Score and also with Alan Jay Lerner for the Song for If Ever I Would Leave You. The orchestration, the textures, the colours, the lighting - especially if you see a brightly-projected version or a restored DVD verson - are ravishing in conjuring a faux-medieval world.  Director Joshua Logan stages some moments to linger long in the memory, for example the candlelit wedding, the early scenes in the snow and the aftermath of the jousting scene. There are unfortunately a few clumsy visuals, for example, when Arthur is soliloquizing after he first suspects his wife of being unfaithful, a shadow across his face looks like an erect penis…. A mischievous editor or cinematographer I wonder?
Don’t let it be forgot….

Each evening, from December to December,
Before you drift to sleep upon your cot,
Think back on all the tales that you remember
Of Camelot.
Ask ev'ry person if he's heard the story,
And tell it strong and clear if he has not,
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory
Called Camelot.
Where once it never rained till after sundown,
By eight a.m. the morning fog had flown.
Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known
As Camelot.

The Round Table: Right is Might, Justice for All

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The Once And Future King

Consistently in my Top Ten books, read at a formative age!

The Sum of the Parts

Like many Great Works (all of Shakespeare’s plays, for example) a modern editor could improve on individual sections of The Once And Future King, not least of which would be better scenes for the women in the stories. But the achievement of the entire work definitely fulfils Aristotle’s notion that the Whole is Greater than the Sum of the Parts. Why did it strike such a chord with me when I first read it? In The Sword in the Stone Wart’s surprising destiny taps into the common childhood fantasy that you are fated for greater things. Then along comes a great teacher to release innate qualities inside you, as Merlyn does for Wart or, in other famous fantasy books, Dumbledore does for Harry Potter at Hogwarts and Aslan the Lion does for the Pevensey children in Narnia.
Every parentless child in literature needs a "teacher figure"

The "Evil Austrian"

After the whimsical comedy of The Sword in the Stone, subsequent books see the deeper exploration of White’s bigger purpose – a plea for Right over Might. White was alarmed by the rise of Nazism during the composition of the novels and an "evil Austrian" is clearly referenced at one point; in context it is obvious White is thinking of Hitler. TH White had expressed to his friends that he thought the Matter of Britain (the Arthurian cycle) was the British version of the Greek Oresteia, a mythological tragedy that could capture the spirit of the nation. Thus jousting is equated with cricket, for example. The whole of The Once and Future King is an “antidote to war” (White’s own words) and a plea for fair government. Fair government! Now, THAT’S an idea!
Poster for John Boorman's film and Morgan Le Fey

The Queen of Air and Darkness

In Book Two, the Round Table is formed, King Pellinore goes in search of the Questing Beast and Arthur grows into his kingship. Most chapters take place in Orkney where Morgause, the Orkney Queen referenced in the book’s title, brings up her four sons: Gawain, Gaheris, Agravaine and Gareth.
Plenty of domestic wrangling, rough-and-tumble behaviour and derring-do takes place between the four brothers and, inevitably, being the youngest of four brothers myself, these four characters kept me turning pages to find out what they got up to next. In fact, their different personalities and their fates affect the rest of the work profoundly. It was easy to become hooked on an epic read with four brothers vying for their mother’s attention. I found The Queen of Air and Darkness very easy to identify with, not that my brothers and I ever beheaded a unicorn!

The Ill-Made Knight

And just when you thought you knew everything about the Arthurian tales, White’s third book provides a portrait of Sir Lancelot that defies all expectation.  He is ugly and tortured, yet becomes lovable and beloved, partly because of his critical self-awareness and partly because of his aspirations to be the best that he can be, in all things, despite his hideous appearance.  He is a relentless perfectionist.  Gareth, the youngest Orkney brother – me, in my imagination – remains loyal to Lancelot even when it is clear Lancelot’s love for Guinevere and his relationship with Elaine are causing painful complications and repercussions.
Lancelot, Guenevere and Arthur, the archetypal love triangle

Sir Galahad

Lancelot’s and Elaine’s pure son, Galahad, emerges as different to his father, not so much a perfectionist but an impossibly fine white-hot-blue-ice god-on-earth. Galahad is eye-hurtingly dazzling and annoying in his sheer uncompromising goodness. Lancelot never fulfills his own quest to be the best knight in the land because he cannot control his heart (and balls), but his illegitimate son, Galahad, attains physical and spiritual perfection.
The pure Sir Galahad and Santiago Cabrera as Sir Lancelot from the BBC TV series Merin

The Candle in the Wind

Before Elton John’s song was ever conceived, the phrase The Candle in the Wind was the title of White’s originally-published finale to The Once and Future King – the unravelling of the painfully sad outcomes for the legendary characters. The book ends with a poignant and witty encounter between Arthur and “Tom of Warwick,” the future Sir Thomas Malory, who is commissioned to write an account of all that has befallen – the book that becomes Le Morte d’Arthur.
King Arthur and "Tom of Warwick" in the musical Camelot

The Book of Merlyn

Published posthumously (1977) this additional volume of The Once and Future King is White’s explicit exploration of his anti-war sentiments.  Merlyn returns to Arthur on the battlefield and presents more evidence of the Laws of the Natural World (animals are harmonious and productive; humans are primitive and destructive.) The Circle of Life, in Merlin’s philosophy, is superior to the Ravages of War. Boyhood should beat American Sniper. Right should always beat Might and Mankind is doomed until he learns the lesson.

Themes and a warning

So what is The Once and Future King about beneath its Epic Narrative, its Giddy Satire, its Domestic Melodrama?  The Tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table? Themes include War, Peace, Justice, Chivalry, Love, Marriage, Families, Adultery, Incest, Friendship, Loyalty, Betrayal, Education, Ignorance, History, Fate, Self-determination, Courage, Cowardice, Magic and Time itself; one of TH White’s funniest conceits is that Merlyn lives his life backwards through Time.
Right is, or should be, Might.  Might should not rule Right.

Sleeping under a hill…. In Glastonbury, maybe?

The Once and Future King seems to mark the end of the Dark and Medieval Ages and bring the reader into Modern Times and it also seems to be warning, in the same vein as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, that if the Holocaust and the Atomic Bomb are amongst us then we are no further forward than we were in the Dark Ages. Right is not yet Might everywhere. Might often still prevails. Somewhere though, on the island of Avalon, King Arthur sleeps with his Knights of the Round Table, ready to emerge when Britain needs them most and re-establish a metaphorical Camelot for our time.
The Round Table hanging in Winchester Great Hall

Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Sword in the Stone and Arthurian Romance

Arthurian Romance

Where did my interest in the Myths and Legends of King Arthur come from? I know I’m not alone in being a little bit obsessive about seeking out adaptations of the different tales. King Arthur as a character has appeared in over 30 feature films and countless books; I’m even looking forward to Guy Ritchie’s version, scheduled for cinemas in 2017 according to, starring Charlie Hunnam as King Arthur and David Beckham as “Blackleg leader” ….!? Charlie Hunnam joins a list of distinguished screen Arthurs over the years; in the picture below Charlie relaxes (with Excalibur I imagine) in a boat alongside an Arthur-fest of other actors: Clive Owen, Sean Connery, Nigel Terry, Liam Garrigan, Jamie Campbell Bower, Graham Chapman, Brian Aherne and Bradley James.

Arthur at the BBC

I felt the BBC TV series Merlin was strongly-designed and acted with involving relationships. I also thoroughly enjoyed the BBC Radio 4 adaptation of The Once and Future King with David Warner as Merlyn. I have no doubt there will be many future variations, additions and perversions of the Arthurian stories. All the elements have been recycled many times: the boy with a destiny, the noble leader, the magical weapon, the love triangle, the adventures and spiritual quests, the friendships and betrayals, the battles and the tragic end.
Disney's Sword in the Stone, Harry Potter, the Narnia series and Terry Pratchett novels borrow Arthurian elements

The Sword in the Stone

After reading The Goshawk by TH White in my teenage years I thought it would be entertaining to read The Sword in the Stone and I bought a paperback copy at Wakefield market. I had not read anything like it before – the knowing asides to the reader, the anachronistic references to the 20th century in a medieval narrative, the exquisite descriptions of English landscapes.

It was easy to identify with the Wart (to rhyme with Art) – a runt of a boy (misunderstood and bullied.) The other main characters are also vivid:
  • the charismatic wizardly teacher, Merlyn
  • the talking owl, Archimedes
  • the affable but clumsy Kay
  • the comical but brave King Pellinore
  • the gruff but kindly Sir Ector. 
Disney’s whimsical film captures much of the plot of The Sword in the Stone but misses out the underlying philosophy and satirical politics.
Merlyn and Archimedes

Arthur pulls the sword






Mixing Fact and Fiction

Following my enjoyment of The Sword in the Stone I scoured references to potential historical figures on whom Arthur could have been based: Artorius, Artúr, Agitius, Ambrosius Aurelianus, Lucius Artorius Castus and Riothamus. Celtic, Briton, Roman or a mix of all three? I read Tennyson’s poetic version Idylls of the King, Enid Blyton’s children’s version of the stories, Rosemary Sutcliff’s retelling, Tristan tales in comic books, John Steinbeck’s skilful adaptation and Mary Stewart’s trilogy about Merlin. I looked up encyclopaedia entries about Tintagel, Glastonbury, Winchester, Cadbury Castle and many other sites around Britain laying claim to fragments of the legendary characters and ideas. I devoured (several times) Alan Garner’s superb tales of Alderley Edge: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence of five books, starting with the unsettling Over Sea, Under Stone.

Academic Module

At university I took an optional course in Arthurian romance when I learned about Gildas, Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, Wace, Chrétien de Troyes (who introduced the Lancelot/Guenevere love triangle and the Holy Grail), Eschenbach’s Parzival, the Song of Roland, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, the Mabinogion and Spenser’s Faerie Queen. It became obvious that there was no such thing as a definitive Tales of King Arthur originating from a single narrative foundation but a collection of elements from a variety of sources, cultures and traditions. Arthurian Romance is a miscellaneous ragbag of bits and bobs, all the more marvellous for their open-ended possibilities. Alan Garner explains his idea about riffing on old ideas in the afterword to the Alderley Tales: “Originality is the personal colouring of existing themes.”
Films by Robert Bresson and John Boorman

Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur – a major landmark

There is probably one book, though, that is the nearest thing to a lodestone for fans of Arthurian Romance. Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur from 1485 is the book that seems to combine the most potent stories and ideas into as coherent a whole as currently exist and this mighty tome was the meat of the course at university. It was the work that was used for the beautiful-to-watch and eminently worthy (but in my opinion strangely dull) production at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2010 directed by one of my favourite directors, Greg Doran, and starring two of my favourite actors, Sam Troughton and Jonjo O’Neill. I’m not sure why that production didn’t light my fire since it brought together two of my favourite obsessions: the Arthurian legends and the RSC. William Goldman’s famous opening to Adventures in the Screen Trade is the only explanation I can come up with: in the entertainment industry he authoritatively stated: “Nobody knows anything.”
RSC's Morte d'Arthur with Jonjo O'Neill as Lancelot and James Howard as the Grail Angel

“Whoever pulls this sword out of this stone and anvil is born to be the rightful king of all England.”

Before getting to the academic study at university there were two other works that DID light my fire – one set of books and one film musical. The musical was based on the books and the books were based on Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. It was a series of books that, it is fair to say, have haunted me since I read them aged 15: the sequels to (or continuation of) The Sword in the Stone – The Once and Future King.
Ioan Gruffudd as Lancelot in Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur