Monday, 30 January 2012

Age of Consent (1969)

Mr Mason is relaxed and amiable, Mr MacGowran is mildly funny, and Miss Mirren is attractive to watch, but some of the minor roles are played very unconvincingly indeed. There is, however, a dog called Godfrey who turns in a good performance as a likeable dog. (Daily Express, November 1969)
History has not been kind to Age of Consent. I have a sort of affection for it, but the critic in me knows that it’s a bit of a dog’s breakfast – Godfrey’s breakfast, if you will – a film of career beginnings and endings. As well as providing Helen Mirren with her first starring role on film, it was the last feature to be made by director Michael Powell (1905-1990). In collaboration with Emeric Pressburger, Powell had been a formidable presence in British cinema of the Forties and Fifties, with classics like The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death to his name. But his reputation took a nosedive when Peeping Tom (1960), a gritty thriller about a voyeuristic killer, was panned as ‘pornographic’. Like several filmmakers of his generation, he struggled to come to terms with the new freedoms allowed him in the 1960s – I detect the same hesitancy in Hitchcock’s final films – and although Peeping Tom was later resurrected by Martin Scorsese and hailed as a risk-taking masterpiece, Powell never found his form again.

Risk-taking in Age of Consent is confined to what Powell coyly called ‘a painter’s nudity’. Australian artist Bradley Morahan (James Mason), bereft of inspiration in his adopted home of New York, returns to an island off the Queensland coast in search of solitude. There he encounters Cora, a teenage child of nature (Mirren), who engages in petty thievery to finance her dream of escaping to Brisbane to train as a hairdresser. She becomes Bradley’s model, his muse, and (we are left to assume) finally his lover. There’s comic relief from veteran Irish actor Jack MacGowran playing Bradley’s irritating pal Nat Tate who seeks refuge from an alimony suit by battening on his old friend, and some cute tricks from Bradley’s faithful pooch, one of a great line of canine leads that runs from Rin Tin Tin to Uggie. With erratic intrusions of darker material (an attempted rape, a sudden death), the film never quite finds a persuasive, unitary tone. But it boasts some classy underwater photography, and the Great Barrier Reef (even without the added ornament of Mirren scuba-diving in her birthday suit) looks superb.

James Mason’s performance is indeed ‘relaxed and amiable’, as the reviewer said. You feel he could do this sort of thing in his sleep. As the feral Cora, Mirren has a lot more to prove, needing to cast off some of the baggage of the ‘classical’ actress (as well as her clothes). It wasn’t an easy experience for her, as she told Mason’s biographer:
I’d only been working for about a year, and this was the first film I’d ever done [sic]; James had seen me in a National Youth Theatre season and he and Powell decided I’d be right for the role, but once we got started Powell kept having vociferous fits of anger on the set, and James was just always there for me, very gently guiding and teaching as we went along. Having survived that brutal Hollywood world he was hugely experienced on the set, and tremendously generous to me.
I find hers an engaging performance, suggestive of a young person beginning to understand their own power to influence others. As she looks at Bradley’s painting of her, Cora becomes conscious of her body. Returning to the squalor of her bedroom, she begins to examine it in a cracked mirror, until interrupted by her grandmother who attempts to beat her for her ‘sinfulness’. Cora breaks the old woman’s cane and pushes her away, shouting that she is not to be treated like a child anymore. It’s nicely played, but I’m still not convinced Mirren ever ‘found’ the character. (That’s always assuming that there’s more to be found here than a succubus of the male imagination.)

Powell, as he tells the story, had spotted Mirren when casting for Sebastian, a 1968 spy spoof and Dirk Bogarde-vehicle which Powell produced:
Helen… had come with dozens of other girls to audition for [Mr] Sebastian, and David Greene, who directed the tests, thought she should have played the lead part. He asked her to read a difficult scene two different ways, an old trick but a good one, and she passed it with ease and humour. She moved smoothly and easily from one character to the other. She was no prodigy. She admitted later on that she had been scared to death, but that didn’t stop her doing a good job on both girls.
(Million-Dollar Movie, pp509-10)
That part went instead to Susannah York. But when setting up his next project and in need of an actress who had ‘humour, a glint in her eye, a jaw that showed character’, he knew who he wanted:
Helen Mirren had just signed a three-year contract with the Stratford-on-Avon Shakespeare company. It was the start of a splendid classical stage career. But at the time all we could think of was how to get her out of it. Her prospective legitimate employers were naturally not pleased, but finally it occurred to somebody that if a girl they already had under contract was going to play opposite James Mason in a film, there might be something in it for Stratford.
With time to kill in the CUP Bookshop one day, I stumbled across The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film. Looking up ‘Mirren, Helen’ in the index, I expected to find something about Peter Hall’s 1968 Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which she played Hermia, or Celestino Coronada’s bizarre Hamlet (1976) where she doubled up as Gertrude and Ophelia, or even the Hamlet-derived Prince of Jutland (1994). In fact, the only reference occurs in a section on refashionings of The Tempest, where Tony Howard finds a connection between Age of Consent, a ‘menopausal male fantasy of sexual/artistic renewal’, and Shakespeare’s last play. It’s an ingenious reading, I grant, but perhaps a little far-fetched. Mason is the isolated magus, Mirren a composite Miranda-Ariel. In this filmic variation, the witch Sycorax (who appears only as a name in Shakespeare’s play) is made visible; she is the drunken old harridan, grandmother to Mirren’s character, who constrains Cora’s natural exuberance and frustrates her efforts to leave the island by confiscating the girl’s savings.

Yet there is a connection somewhere, if only by way of a thought-experiment. Michael Powell had been attempting for many years to set up a film version of The Tempest. The original plan involved John Gielgud and Moira Shearer. That came to nothing. But after working with Mason on Age of Consent, Powell believed he had found his Prospero. The two discussed the project seriously in the early Seventies, by which time Powell had added an opening scene of his own that bracketed Prospero with Galileo as fellows in scientific enterprise. A pair of Greek financiers offered to put up half the money if Powell would shoot the film in Greece. When the golden couple of Mia Farrow and André Previn relocated to London, Powell signed up Farrow as Ariel, with Previn to compose and conduct the score. Topol (!) was engaged as Caliban and Michael York as Ferdinand. Frankie Howerd and Malcolm McDowell were also on board, according to a confident interview Powell gave to The Guardian in 1975, when he still expected to start shooting ‘in the autumn’. Nowhere in what’s written about this intriguing might-have-been of film history do we learn whom Powell had in mind to play Miranda. Three decades later, director Julie Taymor had more success with backers. For her film adaptation of The Tempest (2010) she rewrote the male lead as a female, casting Helen Mirren (now in her sixties) as ‘Prospera’, duchess of Milan. Watching Felicity Jones’s Miranda running barefoot over the volcanic rocks of Hawaii in Taymor’s film, I was reminded of Cora in Age of Consent. A young Mirren as Miranda in a film of The Tempest: now there’s a thought…

Raymond Gardner, interview with Michael Powell, Guardian, 7 May 1975
Clive Hirschhorn, The Films of James Mason (1975)
Tony Howard, ‘Shakespeare’s cinematic offshoots’, in Russell Jackson, ed, The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film (2007)
Sheridan Morley, James Mason: Odd Man Out (1989)
Michael Powell, Million-Dollar Movie: The Second Volume of His Life in Movies (1992)

Monday, 16 January 2012

The Bed Before Yesterday (1975)

(Helen Mirren, Ben Travers, Joan Plowright, 1975. Photo by Zoe Dominic)
By Ben Travers (1975)
First performance: Lyric Theatre, London, 9 December 1975

The other play in the Lyric Theatre repertory in 1975-6 was a country mile away from Chekhov’s pre-Revolutionary Russia. Its author had no time for the melancholy satire of provincial dreamers sunk in passivity:
I know I am a pitiable, unashamed Philistine, worthy to be lynched and to have my remnants thrown into the Thames or Volga, but I simply cannot abide the plays of Anton Chekhov… Many of the characters spend their times sitting with their chins in their waistcoats, deliberating at great length whether or not they will commit suicide. Anyone can tell them the right answer, but they ought to have arrived at it themselves before they came on.
(Travers, A-sitting on a Gate, p150)
Ben Travers (1886-1980) had enjoyed great success in the 1920s and ’30s as the author of ‘Aldwych farces’ but had fallen on hard times after the War as the Angry Young Men of British theatre swept all before them. In the 1970s he made an extraordinary comeback. One of his early successes, A Cuckoo in the Nest, was revived to acclaim at the Royal Court Theatre. Emboldened, the octogenarian playwright turned out an entirely new play, taking advantage of the freedoms allowed him now that his old adversary, the Lord Chamberlain, no longer exercised the right to blue-pencil anything remotely ‘off-colour’ in his scripts. He approached the relaxation of censorship cautiously, as he told The Times: ‘Don’t get the idea that I suddenly said: “Hey, let’s write a load of dirt!” It was nothing like that. But it does give me the chance to write about people speaking as they really do speak.’ The new play was set in 1930, the era of Travers’s greatest successes, the era of his youth, and its dialogue perfectly captures the period (albeit fruitier than we’re used to in Noël Coward). But the plot would never have passed muster in 1930:
I hit on the idea of a woman of young middle-age and ample means, who had been brought up in the aftermath of the Victorian age, uninitiated in the secrets of sinful sex. In this state of ignorance she was to fall victim to a rotter (period term) outraged and agonised on her bridal night (exit the rotter) and thereafter avoiding and abhorring the very thought of sexual intercourse until she becomes lured into giving it one further try-out many years later; when, discovering and revelling in the delights of the orgasm, she is driven to the verge of nymphomania.
The lead role of Alma was a gift for the accomplished comedienne in Joan Plowright, and so The Bed Before Yesterday joined The Seagull in repertory. Irving Wardle hailed the new arrival as ‘an extremely funny play written in deadly earnest. One cannot help contrasting the vigour and emotional generosity of this piece with the cold premature senility of authors half his age. It treats with kindness a figure who is usually the target of derisive sniggers.’ For Harold Hobson, The Bed Before Yesterday called ‘not so much for a review as for a cry of ecstasy. Rabelais would have revelled in it. Wycherley would have been green with envy.’

It wasn’t obvious territory for Lindsay Anderson as director, but, as Travers recalled, they ‘got on splendidly from the first’. Anderson respected a well-made play when he found one, and Travers delighted in the way the director’s ‘assertiveness’ and ‘remorseless candour’ in the rehearsal room would suddenly give way to a ‘Puckish sense of humour’. Anderson’s supreme talent lay in ‘his appreciation or rather judgement, of values – the value of an inflection, of a pause, of the movement or reaction of the character at the right moment’.

Helen Mirren played Ella, a penniless movie ‘extra’ and a typical ‘fast girl’ of the era. She saw Anderson’s admiration for the old-school Travers as another example of the ‘flip side of Lindsay the rebel’, and threw herself into the part. ‘Mirren is stirringly voluptuous as the Harlowesque good-time girl,’ Michael Billington enthused. Her insistence on wearing a platinum wig for the role rather disappointed the elderly playwright, who would have preferred to see her in her own hair. In his memoirs, Travers paints an intriguing portrait of how the then 30-year-old Mirren came across to a thespian of a much earlier generation:
She had just reached the stage of having become a notoriety, welcome to the theatre-gossip columns, which, while acknowledging her acting abilities, presented her as a good-time girl with a special and rather unpredictable good-time nature of her own. Where they went wrong was in presuming that the good time came first; she is above all a gifted and versatile and conscientious actress. I don’t know much about her private affairs (well, I do know a bit because she and I used to exchange confidences sometimes during rehearsals) but it is her stage job that comes first with her and although her performances are liable to vary she is always the first to say so and to repent a lapse.
For his eighty-ninth birthday Mirren gave him what he describes as ‘a bright red pullover with green sleeves and a picture of a beatnik couple in a tango attitude on the chest’. He wore it to every subsequent rehearsal, under his dinner-suit shirt on first night and, well displayed, in an appearance on the Parkinson show. He delighted in the fact that no one on the production treated him as ‘a venerable old has-been to be polite to’. It’s one of the therapeutic virtues of the arts that old age can be perpetually reinvigorated by youth. In a sense, that is the theme of his play, which Travers himself was acting out in the Indian summer of his career. In The Bed Before Yesterday, it is the young Ella who first plants in middle-aged Alma’s mind the determination to make up for lost time:
ELLA: There are heaps of other girls like me, you know.
ALMA: I do not know and I don’t want to.
ELLA: I think most unmarried girls will soon be doing it as a matter of course, like men do.
ALMA: I keep telling you I’m not interested. (She sits on the sofa)
ELLA: (sincerely baffled) Honestly, you’re awfully different from everybody else about it. (Sitting on the sofa) I mean, for instance, look at my grandmother.
ALMA: Why should I look at your grandmother?
ELLA: She had a boyfriend in Bordighera, an Italian boy, a gigolo. She used to spend every winter out there with him in Bordighera. Right up to the time she was seventy.
ALMA: (incredulously) Seventy?
ELLA: Over seventy.
ALMA: Poor thing. She must have had a particularly nauseating type of aberration.
ELLA: I don’t think she was a poor thing at all. I think she got the best out of life. I only hope I live to be seventy.
Needless to say, when Alma impulsively takes a foreign trip between scenes in Act Two, it is to Bordighera that she bends her steps.

If things had turned out differently, this production (which, alas, I didn’t see) or something close to it might have been preserved on film. In 1976 Joan Plowright’s husband, Laurence Olivier, finally overcoming his aversion to the small screen, began Olivier Presents on TV. At the launch press conference it was announced that both The Seagull and The Bed Before Yesterday would be televised as part of this series. It wasn’t to be, although Mirren appeared (with Olivier) in a play that did make it into the series, Pinter’s The Collection. According to Ivan Waterman, The Bed had other, perhaps less happy, consequences for the arts. When Tinto Brass was in London setting up the infamous Caligula project, Malcolm McDowell took him to see Mirren in the Travers farce. ‘Brass was enthralled. They chatted backstage, by which time Brass was in a trance.’ He had found his Caesonia.*

* I am uncertain how much credence to give to anything in Waterman’s biography. He gives no sources for anything, other than his own interviewees, and the one paragraph he devotes to describing The Bed Before Yesterday (p62) is spectacularly wrong.


Michael Billington, review, Guardian, 10 December 1975
Harold Hobson, review, Sunday Times, 14 December 1975
Ben Travers, A-sitting on a Gate: Autobiography (1978)
Ben Travers, Five Plays (1977)
Irving Wardle, review, The Times, 10 December 1975
Ivan Waterman, Helen Mirren: The Biography (2003)
‘Diary: Ben Travers liberated at 89’, The Times, 12 November 1975
‘Lord Olivier takes on TV roles’, The Times, 21 May 1976