Books: North Face of Soho — 3. Enter the Master Swordsman |
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North Face of Soho — 3. Enter the Master Swordsman


What happened next is quickly told: almost nothing. After half a century of dealing with maniacs in the film industry, Cardiff soon spotted that his fellow Lord’s Taverners had no idea of what they were doing. A stocky, self-contained figure in his suede car-coat and leather hat, he was not one for any signs of disgust beyond a wry smile and a raised eyebrow, but only the men who had got him into this balls-up could have believed that he was pleased. The camera they had hired for him had last been used by Alfred Hitchcock before he left England in the early 1930s. It took three men to lift it. Nobody had realized that extra lighting would be necessary to film the show inside the Arts Theatre. The Lord’s Taverner who went off to hire some lights never returned. The only revue number we got on film was an exterior action sequence. Our jocund young company ran spontaneously along the riverbank above the Mill while a couple of us fell spontaneously out of a punt. Off to one side, a thin crowd of townspeople spontaneously yelled abuse. We would have been better off capturing the abuse, but the camera needed a locomotive to turn it around. Despite the manifest hopelessness of all this, Cardiff was sufficiently impressed with my verbal skills to suggest that I might help him with a screenplay he had in mind. His long career as a cinematographer, for which he had won two Oscars and countless other awards, had eventually earned him the chance to become a director. His first film as a director, Sons and Lovers, had done well: the script had already been prepared before he was brought on board, but he was justly praised for the thoughtful handling of actors in a lustrous black and white ambience. More recently, however, and from a script developed by his own hand, he had directed Girl on a Motorcycle, which had been a critical disaster. With a big heart to go with his experienced head, Cardiff was slow to blame the young Marian Faithfull’s difficulties in staying on the motorcycle, although the filming had taken place during a phase of her life when she was having difficulties staying on a chair. The phrase he used was ‘script problems’. Eager to avoid script problems on his next project, he thought I might be just the man he needed.

How wrong he was, but there was no reason for either of us to think that at first. I, indeed, had every reason to believe my family finances would be transformed. For the preliminary script conference in Switzerland, not only would an airline ticket be provided each way, but I would live at Cardiff’s expense for a whole week as a guest in his apartment, with an actual fee on top of the largesse. Beyond that, there was the prospect of big rewards when the film went into production. My wife, who could have been an agent in another incarnation, pointed out that the initial fee specified amounted to no more than what I would have received for journalism in the same period, and that I was meanwhile, with winter coming on, running myself ragged hitting the deadlines before I caught the plane. I assured her that my ashen face would benefit from the change of air. The implication that Switzerland had a Caribbean climate was not very convincing, but I was already in the sky and heading for Zurich.

Cardiff picked me up at the airport in his big Mercedes and drove me to his apartment in Vevey, at that time a redoubt for film-world tax exiles: Charlie Chaplin lived on the same hill. Cardiff’s apartment occupied the top floor of an ordinary-looking block of offices. Opening out endlessly from a modest vestibule, the apartment was lavishly appointed, especially when it came to works of art. The first thing you saw when you entered the enormous living room was an astonishing pair of Renoirs. One of them, however, though sensitive and accomplished, was patently an exact copy of the other, and not by Renoir himself. When Cardiff challenged me to pick the original, I instantly realized that he himself had painted the copy. Diplomatically, or perhaps hypocritically, I pretended to dither, but finally I summoned up enough integrity to point to the right one. Only mildly disappointed, he explained to me that painting had become the passion of his later years. From further evidence — every Monet and Corot had its eerie twin — I deduced that his concept of painting consisted entirely of reproducing masterpieces already in existence. For him, the look of the thing was everything. Individual expression was not among his motives. He had left school at the age of about twelve and had been hard at work with practicalities ever since. As one of the first colour cinematographers — in the days when the Technicolor camera exposed three separate strips of film and was as big as a small house — he had personally helped to invent the look of modern movies. Female film stars had fallen in love with him one after the other because he not only had the guardianship of their beauty, he was a nice bloke: a cuddly bear in a business populated mainly by hyenas. But he was an interpretative artist, not a creative one, and the raw stuff of movies — the script — depended on a mystery he was not equipped to penetrate. An intelligent man denied a higher education, he was a living demonstration, by negative example, of what a higher education can do even for the stupid: put them at their ease with the written word. For Jack (I should call him by his first name from now on, because he became dear to me and I owe him a lot) the written word was magic. Sometimes the written word is indeed magic, but only when written by a magician. Jack thought words, any words, had a numinous status simply because they had been written down. Reverently he produced for me the cherished book that he wanted to adapt. Stuck together with Sellotape after being read to pieces, it was The Jade of Destiny, by Jeffrey Farnol.

I dimly recognized Farnol’s name as one that could be seen on the spines of countless historical novels helping to form the warped and dusty stock of the kind of second-hand bookshop that will soon go out of business. But Jack handled the faded volume as if it were a sacred text. He asked me to open it at any page and recite to him a random sample of what he called ‘the marvellous dialogue’. The first word of the marvellous dialogue I saw was ‘Gadzooks!’ It was followed by the sentence: ‘Fain would I not face thy glittering blade, Dinwiddie.’ I told Jack, with some truth, that I was not enough of an actor to do it justice. So Jack took over. He didn’t need the text to tell the story. Over the course of the next hour, he acted the story out. It concerned Dinwiddie, master swordsman of Elizabethan England, a sort of anglicized version of d’Artagnan, with overtones of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Jack moved energetically about, repelling with his phantom rapier a swarm of attackers. As he did so, he described what the camera would see: the close-ups of Dinwiddie’s face, the dolly shots as his opponents were driven backward to the balcony and fell into the garden, the ecstatic cry of Lady Rosalind Wedgwood Fitzcastle (‘Touché, Dinwiddie, for it is my heart, too, that you have pierced’) as she swooned into his arms. It was obvious that Jack had the whole visual aspect of the thing already worked out. What he needed, he said, in order to persuade Richard Burton to play Dinwiddie, was a ten-page treatment that would outline the story while including plenty of the marvellous dialogue. I thought my heart was already in my boots, but actually it must have been only at about the level of my knees, because I felt it sink further when I began to suspect that Jack thought Jeffrey Farnol had not been an over-productive early twentieth-century hack, but an actual Elizabethan writer. (I should hasten to say that I could have been wrong about what Jack thought. He was not without knowledge of the period. After all, his opinion that Shakespeare’s plays had been written by Queen Elizabeth herself had no lack of learned endorsement, although the scholars who supported that thesis tended to gibber and run in small circles when aroused.)

I could do the actual writing, Jack told me, when I got back to England. While I was there in Vevey he wanted me to come along and visit various people who might be interested in having a stake in the movie or even appearing in it. Next day we went to visit the one-time leading man Brian Aherne, who lived about a hundred yards away in a magnificent house full of art and books. At his place, the Monets and Gaugins appeared one at a time. Possessed of features so finely chiselled that he appeared to be in profile even when viewed from front on, Aherne was very well preserved. Wealth can do that for you. In the Hollywood of the late 1930s and early 1940s he had put most of his large salary into citrus groves, some of which turned out to have oil under them, and his share of the take had never stopped flowing, because he put the earnings into downtown real estate on the principle that one day there would be no such thing as cheap land in Los Angeles. There had never been such a thing as cheap land beside Lake Geneva, but he could afford the tab. I had read The Jade of Destiny during the night and was able to supply some of the storyline verbally while Jack, employing me as full-time commentator and occasional stand-in for the minor roles, showed Aherne how the sword fights worked and what Dinwiddie looked like when swirling his cape. I was surprised that Aherne seemed quite interested. Then, during a pause, I noticed, because of its unusually vivid green and white jacket, that one of the books on his well-stocked shelves was Julian Maclaren-Ross’s recently published Memoirs of the Forties. A literary drifter who lived on reviewing books, writing for radio and taking small advances for projects never completed and rarely even begun, Maclaren-Ross, though a notorious bore in real life, had yet wielded a gift for evoking his era in pungent vignettes. I told Aherne, because I thought he might not know, that my friend Charles Osborne, working at the time for the London Magazine, had extracted the book’s manuscript from Maclaren-Ross by advancing him, after the delivery of each chapter, enough to live on while he wrote the next. Instantly the panic in Aherne’s eyes told me that he not only did not know this, he knew nothing about the book at all, or about any other book on his crowded shelves. They had all been supplied by a sophisticated dealership as an extension of the facade that began with his brushed silver hair and strangely perfect teeth. I have to say, though, that his manners were immaculate. A long friendship with Jack was not enough to account for his failure to pick up the phone and have the both of us arrested. He even waved goodbye as we backed away up the drive, still thrusting and parrying as we faded into the distance.

It went on like that for several days: a total fantasy. We visited old stars whom I had thought dead, and after being with them for a while I realized I had been right. They had time available because nothing else was going on. I suppose that in Los Angeles the same sort of thing happens, only worse, because everybody involved is still on this side of the hill, with real money at stake. Our evenings, however, were the real education, and I still recall them with gratitude. Jack was going through a rough patch in his marriage at the time, and tended towards melancholy. To suit the mood, he played me his cherished collection of Shirley Bassey records while he told me stories of old Hollywood. He was fascinating about why it was ten times harder to light a beautiful woman’s face in colour than in black and white. There weren’t many of the great beauties that he hadn’t seen through his viewfinder. He didn’t talk out of school. It was from other sources that I later learned how Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, Leslie Caron and Sophia Loren had all adored him. But I needed no secondary source to tell me how he had adored them. He spoke of them all with a respect verging on reverence, even when he was telling me how difficult some of them could be. He was the cameraman on The Prince and the Showgirl, by which time Marilyn Monroe was becoming harder to handle than plutonium. But he called her ill, not insane, and it was easy to deduce that she must have found his fond patience a valuable refuge. (Jack told me something about Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller that I have never seen written anywhere: according to her, it was at Miller’s insistence that she wore those low-cut dresses to the premieres — the playwright wanted to show off his prize.)

Without giving anything away, Jack said that there was always an emotional relationship between the actress and the cameraman, even if they didn’t sleep together. It was like a troubled patient falling for her psychiatrist. When I asked him whether it was because the power was in his hands to make her look lovely or otherwise, he said it wasn’t just that: it was the intimacy. The cameraman can see a long way into her face. He can tell from the whites of her eyes whether she is having a period. And she knows he can tell. It was clear that he was grateful for his wealth of experience, and I was grateful for the way he told me of it. The way he spoke about those women was a lesson for me. He had seen them subjected to punishing regimes of dominance and rejection, and on their behalf he had hated every minute of it. He pronounced the name of one famous director with something as close to loathing as his soft voice could manage. It was because the director had ruled his leading lady by playing on her fears. I could see then one of the key reasons why Jack had wanted to become a director himself: so that he would never again have to be complicit in such conduct. When I said that the life of an actress must be hard, he paused before saying: ‘The life of any woman.’ We rarely know, at the time, that a casual conversation will become something we will remember all our lives, but I think I knew right then that I wouldn’t soon forget what he said. I wouldn’t want to claim for myself too much sensitivity on the subject. Marriage to a beauty had done nothing to blind me to the beauty of all the women I had not married: far from it. If my libido could have been given a face, it would have been the face of Robbie Williams singing a one-night date at a training camp for cheerleaders. All the more reason, however, for registering how Jack’s mellow flow of reminiscence got to me. I had rarely been impressed so much by a man’s range and depth of sympathy. But the mature example he had set was daunting, because it demanded that I have sympathy for him as I grappled with the question of what on earth I was going to do about Dinwiddie, master swordsman of the Elizabethan age. At the airport, when I looked back to catch my trusting employer’s eye, he dropped into a crouch and lunged. I clutched my stomach and threw him a reassuring smile.

Back in London, I drafted and typed a monthly radio column for the Listener that managed to disguise how at least a week’s programmes had not been listened to. Then I went to ground in Cambridge while I plunged into the world of the master swordsman. There was a baby on the way whose future might partly depend on the viability of this project. Winter was setting in by now. In those days we were still living in the first-floor flat of an annexe to New Hall, my wife’s college, so if I wanted to pace about I had to go downstairs into the garden. The garden wasn’t big enough for the kind of pacing I needed to do, so I went down the lane, turned left and right, and paced along the Backs of the colleges. One of the courtyards of Trinity was especially good for pacing, because it looked like an appropriate setting for Dinwiddie in action. I could see him leaping through an archway in the cloisters, rapier extended.

What I couldn’t do was hear him saying, ‘Gadzooks!’ I couldn’t quote that marvellous dialogue. I knew just enough about how to write a screen treatment to know that it should have a few sample scenes in it, complete with speech. I could have learned a lot more about how to write a screen treatment, and it was arrogant of me not to do so. There were already several handbooks that laid out the principles. (Nowadays there are hundreds of such handbooks, because so many writers who have failed at writing screenplays have compensated by telling others how to succeed.) But even if I had known what I was doing, I would still not have known what to do about the speeches. I knew Jack wanted the marvellous dialogue put in, but I kept on finding ways of leaving it out. I gave paraphrases of speeches: a sure-fire formula for boredom. Today, a few decades too late, I realize that I missed an opportunity. I should have told Jack that the story was cobblers as a drama, but that it might have stood a chance as a lampoon. Like The Crimson Pirate, the tale of Dinwiddie could have gone for the laughs. Taking that course, I could have tried putting in a bit of marvellous dialogue of my own. Much later on, William Goldman wrote a screenplay for The Princess Bride that was a heady cocktail of camp sword-play and real romance. But I wasn’t William Goldman, there was no studio executive to weigh the possibilities, and Jack, jealous owner of a dramatic project, would scarcely have been likely to see the virtues of converting it into a comedy. That, I would like to think, was the real reason why it didn’t occur to me to try persuading him.

But I’m afraid the truth is that it just didn’t occur to me. Deficient both in imagination and in candour, I had put myself, and my mentor along with me, in the worst possible position: a slave to the material, with no authority over its purpose, I was engaged in dressing the corpse of a dead duck. The text of Emperor Hirohito’s surrender broadcast had been composed with a lighter heart. After about a fortnight’s slow work, with little attention paid to the radio, I had a fistful of manuscript to be taken to London and put through the typewriter. There I paid no attention to the radio at all while I glumly typed away, fitfully embellishing paragraphs already stiff beyond redemption, each new page feeling like a fresh betrayal. I ended up with twenty typed quarto pages of pertly phrased dross. It sounded better than Jeffrey Farnol, but only because there was no ‘Gadzooks!’ It lacked, in other words, the very thing that Jack had most urgently specified. Or rather, it had that thing, but in other words. Instead of merely quoting Dinwiddie as saying ‘Gadzooks!’ I would say that he uttered a contemporary Elizabethan expletive. Try filming that. I mailed the finished treatment to Switzerland and heard nothing. A few weeks later Jack came to London on other business, met me in the bar of Claridge’s and handed me two hundred pounds as a quitting fee. The two hundred was in ten-pound notes: the first such things I had ever handled more than one at a time. Jack looked more puzzled than angry. He said: ‘You didn’t put in any of the marvellous dialogue.’