Lou Grant: s04 e15 – Venice


One of these people will provide the clue

It’s reached the point where I no longer expect to see intelligent, well-written and acted and moving epoisodes of Lou Grant anymore, which is precisely why I found this episode to be such a surprise.

There were two strands to it, one of them negligible and uninteresting. this was the one about someone having obtained possession of a list of salaries at the Trib and threatening to publish it unless he got paid $1,000. An uproar is expected but fails to materialise, the culprit is uninteresting and so is the story.

Of far more moment was the larger story that for once centred upon the Trib’s comic relief photographer, Dennis ‘Animal’ Price. It began on a Sunday afternoon at Venice, California, a beach resort full of sand, sea, shoreline and plenty of relaxed, feelgood, let-yourself-go. Animal is wandering around, taking photos for a Sunday feature. It all looked good, a not-quite hedonistic energy, the feel of people free to just enjoy themselves.

The scene is interrupted by the arrival of an ambulance. An attractive young woman has drowned, an apparent suicide, the overkill of pills and drowning. Animal takes photos, but also has his curiosity lit up. Who was this woman? What did she do? Why did someone so pretty, so good a worker, so friendly a person that everyone praised and mourned kill herself? Did she kill herself?

Animal wants to know, to understand. From the moment he discovers Lesley Ellison was a keen photograher and, despite her reservations about herself, a talented one, his eagerness becomes not just obsession but more. Animal has fallen in love with a dead girl, wishing he had met her in life and might have averted this.

The episode was a sympathetic, gentle exploration of loss, as everyone missed Lesley like crazy. The baglady to whom he always spoke, asking after her welfare, the grieving but possessive father who blamed her death on her being here among these ‘freaks’ instead of being home in Chicago where she ‘belonged’, the gang leader who respected her and was ready to deal with someone who may have killed her (Trinidad Silva in a performance that could have been a rehearsal for Jesus Martinez in Hill Street Blues) and the sister who opened the door to an answer as to why Lesley’s suicide was not such a surprise, revealing a psychological history of loss and fear of rejection that I could empathise with.

Throughout, and especially when Animal had developed the last reel of film from Lesley’s camera, I feared the episode would blow it by coming up with a killer after all, but it held straight and true. These last photos, from the afternoon she killed herself, led to the revelation that Lesley, after a lifetime of failures with men, had believed herself in love with her childhood best friend, Carol. Carol’s response had been the final rejection, the one that left only one door out.

So it was all explained, no mystery, just a portrait of an unhappy woman who had lost her mother far too young and left with a father incapable of dealing with her loss, who grew up twisted into a pattern that led directly to her death. It explained but didn’t satisfy. And the show’s most poignant feature was the skillfully underplayed sense it left you that if Animal had met her a month before, it might all have been different, withut that suggestion seeming like sentimental slop.

Sometimes it really is about the right person.

Lou Grant: s03 e14 – Brushfire


The first Lou Grant episode of the Nineteen Eighties (broadcast on 7 January) was an unusual amalgam of elements, lacking the show’s usual ‘agenda’-based storytelling. It started at night, in the heat, the dry Southern California summer, the Santa Anna winds drying things out and a fire reported in a canyon that expands rapidly and almost uncontrollably until seven fires are burning, home are being evacuated and burned down, people are losing everything, 2,000 acres alight. In view of the current Australian fires, this became an oddly topical story.

Into this scenario, of panic and desperation, the show introduced several elements, the major aspects of which was the coverage of the ever-developing fires. Rossi and Animal on the scene, Billie doing re-writes at the paper despite her father Paul Newman being in Town to see her (cue for a few jokes there), Lou and Donovan managing calls and a substantial role for Mrs Pynchon for once, caught in the middle of things at her niece’s riding school, rescuing a forgotten horse and pitching in as a volunteer with that uncmplaining sense of duty that’s much derided but nonetheless heartfelt.

Also in the middle of this was Charlie Hume and his wife Marion. Their marriage is in difficulties, they’ve been growing apart since the kids moved out, Marion wants a job, to feel independent, Charlie’s crusty enough to resent that: they’re selling the house, they’re separating, they will end up getting a divorce.

But the house they’re selling is in a canyon, and the fire spreads. Charlie panics, grabs a bundle of stuff to take with them and flee. This includes one specific dress of Marion’s. They’re supposed to evacuate but Charlie’s gone nuts, refuses to give up the house, dowses the roof continually with water. Marion won’t leave without him.

It’s a sharp contrast to a guy named Bergman that Animal meets, who’s lost his home, though thankfully not his partner. Bergman’s sanguine about the house: it’s only a house after all. But like Animal he’s a photographer, and he has lost a lifetime’s negatives, irreplacable photos, irrecioverable memories. Yet he bounces back, borrowing a camera from Animal, gifted several rolls of film. Bergman can start again with just the clothes on his back.

Charlie can’t or won’t. Adam Wilson loses his house to the fires but Charlie fights to keep his and succeeds. He and Marion are full of adrenalin at the outcome, too many good things happened in that house, Charlie says, to not fight for it. The metaphor is obvious but not plastered in your face, and Marion is more impressed by the dress Charlie chose to save, because he always thought she looked great in it.

Yes, it’s a bit of a cliche, the stress that pushes a failing couple back into each other’s arms, the adrenalin solution. Forty years later, a series like Lou Grant would make that into an ongoing strand, explored over several weeks, to see if there’s a lasting effect. Forty years ago, a happy endng was taken for granted, and for once why not?

The episode was at its weakest in hinting at a firebug as the cause of the disaster, but redeemed itself with a neat twist. Animal has been quick on the scene to several fires recently and the Fire Department suspect him. They’ve been following him for the last sixty days. Animal knows – he may look and act goofy but young Mr Price is no fool – and has taken several shots of his shadow. Except that his Fire Department shadow is played by Tony Perez, who I remember for a substantial recurring role in Hill Street Blues, and this is a completely different guy: Animal has been snapping the firebug.

A good, professional, well-made episode that highlighted the paper’s working in a time of developing news, and which used its other themes wisely and not too obtrusively. This is why i like Lou Grant. Edward Asner’s a large part of it too.

 

Lou Grant: s03 e12 – Hollywood


Forties sob-sister journalist

After demonstrating how well it could tell a story over two episodes, Lou Grant went back to single episode mode and showed just how good it could be in its basic style. The show gave itself a stylistic twist, with voiceovers from Lou himself, and stylish, if somewhat overmixed soundtrack combining to create an atmospheric story that went back thirty years, leading to an ending that left you still caught in the haze of the past, without a glib response.

It began with an old, abandoned Mexican food restaurant, Baby Duarte’s Cantina. Lou discovers it by chance, doing a favour, taking a Diner meal across to its owner, the reclusive Mrs Polk (Nina Foch). She never leaves the place, she never sees anybody. Inside, the Cantina is exactly as it was when it was shut, just dust.

Baby Duarte used to be an LA name, a Filipino boxer, a local success and, afterwards, such a sweet guy. His place was popular with the Hollywood crowd until, one night, Baby was murdered, in a back booth. The murder was never solved, though the suspects were Hollywood folk, racey actress Laura Sinclair, her two agents (and reputed lovers) Lee Wittenberg and Ken Holmes, and Director ‘Wild Man’ Moran.

Laura. who reputedly also had a mobster lover, kissed Baby in front of her two Agents.moran, already drunk, was refused a drink by Baby, who he provoked into beating his down. Mrs Polk, widow of Baby’s co-owner, discovered him at 3.45am, shot dead.

It’s an old murder of a forgotten name. At first, the Trib does a picture series on the Cantina. Then the team get involved in the old story. They interview the surviving players, Holmes and Moran. They interview Thea Kaft (Margaret Hamilton), the hard-boiled reporter who covered the story in the Forties, who supplies cuttings. Slowly, the story enlarges. Animal befriends Mrs Polk, a lonely woman trapped in a past that has captured her and refuses to let her leave. She’s a woman of her times, of her raising, a note the show slips in unobtrusively.

Can Billie or Rossi or Lou solve the crime after all these years? Billie discovers that Laura Sinclair, who supposedly cracked up a few months later and died in a Sanatorium in Indiana, is neither dead nor insane: she got out of the business, gew her hair. put on her glasses annd married a Doctor, becoming a fat, placid, contented mother.

I was beginning to think this was going to stay unsolved, because the atmosphere, the sense of times past and irrecoverable, so gracefully captured, was the main point of this episode, but there was a sting to the tale, a sting that left  you sad and helpless to its pointlessness.

Animal interviewed Mrs Polk, softly, gently, sympathetic. And out of that sympathy he understood what had happened. Mrs Polk had loved Baby, been in love with him. To us, and to him, there seemed no obstacle: he was single, she was widowed. But there was an obstacle, an insuperable obstacle. Baby was ‘coloured’. He came from Manilla, he wasn’t white. Mrs Polk wasn’t raised that way. It was against the Law (the look in her eyeswhen Animal told her, very gently, that that Law was changed, twenty-five years ago versus her soft comment that it was a good Law). Baby had a dream, of owning a chicken farm. he wanted a wife, he wanted to go back to the Phillipines. Mrs Polk loved him so much.

There was no heat to it, not now, not thirty years later. Just a hopeless sweetness, and the human heart in conflict with itself. Good Law? No. Yet it was not the Law but Mrs Polk’s upbringing that killed Baby Duarte, forgotten name of Los Angeles.

It waas, after all, so long ago. but without leaving 1979, the episode had spent its life there, and it was hard to emerge from it.

Lou Grant: s03 e10 – Andrew Part 1 – Premonition


Ellen Regan and Jack Bannon

At almost the halfway point of its existence, Lou Grant produced its first and only two-part story, and what a difference it made. By giving the story, which was tough and complex, room to develop, the show gave it the chance of the tough and complex treatment it demanded and which, in the first half at least, it got.

The Andrew of the title was Andrew Raines, Art Donovan’s cousin, played to great effect by Bruce Davison. Andrew used to be a great kid, a great friend, but at the age of 32 he’s a sullen loner, driven by reaction against people’s expetations of him. He’s been in and out of state hospitals with no apparent success, and his mother Edna (Barbara Barrie), is worried about him. She’s afraid he’ll do something violent.

The case attracts Billie’s attention and she starts to write an abstract version of it. It’s meant to be balanced, an objective review of where the line has to be drawn between the rights of people who have not done anything but may, and the rights of the community to be protected against that maybeness.

Disappointingly enough, the show leans perceptibly towards the scare angle. The professionals, like the psychiatrist who blithely speaks of much success and some problems, and the Police refusing to commit resources to the arrest of someone who hasn’t done anything yet, are made to look weak, with only a token acknowledgement of the dangers of imprisonment by accusation only that, quite frankly, ought have been made much stronger.

Instead, the episode chose to pad its time out with Rossi tied into ghost-writing a prominent film citic’s memoirs in the form of a cheezy soft porn novel (not that I know what a cheezy soft porn novel is like, of course), only to have the critic (Nita Talbot hamming it up outrageously in full-on Joan Collins mode) at how tame it is. Sigh, silly.

But the decision not to go hell for leather to wrap things up in one allowed Andrew more time to demonstrate both the pathos of his situation and the creepiness of his manner. Everyone just felt awkward about him, except for one woman, Terry Mills, his mother’s neighbour and friend, a bright, solid, natural and lively performance by Ellen Regan.

Though what was to follow was obvious, for once I didn’t see it as such. We saw Andrew talking with his psychiatrist, complaining about women and their lack of morals, and how he wanted to respect them but couldn’t, and it was obviously their fault. We saw his drastic change of demeanour when, after pleasant reminiscing with Art about teenage holidays, he goes cold and distant the moment Art mentions picking up three girls, we saw his paranoic anger at his mother for mentioning that an old female class-mate had aked after him. This is a man with a serious hang-up about sex.

Then we see him talking with Terri as she finishes a project. She’s the only woman who isn’t disturbed by him. She’s fresh, bright, pretty, self-confident, almost asexual in her acceptance off him. And then she gets Andrew to fob off a persistent unwanted suitor.

The next, and last thing for this first part was the Police arresting Andrew. For murdering her. Violence, yes, an attack, yes, hospitalisation, these were the things I anticipated. But because it had room, the show had the chance and the courage not to fudge. and it has room for much more next week.

Here’s hoping they don’t fumble it.

Lou Grant: s03 e09 – Kidnap


We’re nearly halfway through this Lou Grant rewatch, so perhaps an element of fatigue is creeping in, but I ended up far less impressed by this week’s episode than I anticipated at the outset.

Whilst I’m generally in tune with the show’s liberal ethos, I welcomed an episode that seemed to have nothing more to it than a good, potentially thrilling story. a charter plane carrying the State Championship winning members of a High School Basketball team is missing, overdue, possibly crashed. Billie and Animal are sent to cover the story.

Of course, the episode title gives it away. The plane’s been hijacked, hidden on a disused airforce base, somewhere in the great nowhere, and a ransom of half a million dollars is demanded (to which 2019’s response was “cheap”.)

The set-up is there and there’s lots that can be done with it. But the boys are from Todesca, a desert town of 4,000 inhabitants, a nothing place out in nowhere, and their sheriff may be the traditional little town type in looks, but he’s neither stupid nor pig-headed, which makes for a pleasant change but cuts down on your dramatic posibilities.

And then the episode bogs itself down with cutesy humour, a rivalry between Billie and Rossi over who covers what parts of the story, the ‘naval’ dress their down-at-home hostess buys Billie, and a background story, introduced neatly from the A story, about the Trib being bought out by the McFarlane chain.

Everything gets further and further away fromm the kidnapping. I don’t know if it was a budgetary thing, or whether it was the series trying to encompass the notion within their self-set parameters, but everything pertaining to the real drama, the investigatio, the arrest and the rescue took place a very long way offscreen, whilst an overstrong contingent from the Trib futzed around on camera on worthless and nowhere near funny enough trivialities.

As I said so many time when watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, this is an object lesson in the changes to series-writing betwen then and now. The show should never have tackled this subject when it couldn’t bring tension, concern and, above all, a presence to the subject. It made a decent start, with the poignancy of an early scene, using mainly pictures not words, of a town set-up to welcome its conquering heroes, its kids, its boyfriends, left with banners and flags that looked hollow in the suspicion of loss, and then it forgot entirely that these were a generation of youth in a 4,000 person town in favour of cheap silliness. A bad job.

Lou Grant: s03 e07 – Gambling


Gambling only pays when you’re winning

All the Lou Grant episode titles are one-worders, though they are often somewhat oblique in their reference to the subject of the episode. ‘Gambling’ is flat and prosaic, and so, unfortunately, was the episode.

That starting point is the Turner-Landis Proposition, a California State Government proposal to legalise gambling, not merely in the form of betting on the horses, but also casinos, the proceeds of the tax to go to Education. Ok, decent topic, lot of meat in there (though as there seemed to already be a well-established betting industry, including the Trib’s ‘in-house’ bookie, for playing sports, there was a subtlety to the question that, not being an American in 1979, I’m completely missing).

What crippled the episode from the beginning was its refusal to take a stance. It should have been a straightforward Gambling is Bad to have a moral centre (Gambling is Good, or Gambling is Neither One Thing Nor Another doesn’t make for a story). Instead, it thoroughly confused the issue by splitting the episode between Mort Farber and Mac McIvor.

Mort was the story’s gem. An elderly man, played by Charles Lane, a lifelong track follower who spent every day of his life studying horses, their trainers, owners and vets, Mort is the expert of experts. He’s also gruff, irascible and completely unconcerned about whatever other people think. He’s befriended by Lou after he gets into Lou’s car to snatch a ride towards the racetrack, not only as an expert on the gambling question, but as a guy you just had to like.

And you liked Mort. He had devoted himself to one area of study, he was eccentric but clued-up and whilst you had to admit he was an addict, he was an addict who was in control, who would not bet for the sake of betting, but only on his own, highly accurate perceptions.

At the end, bedridden with near-pneumonia, Mort gets Lou to place a total of $1,500 at his direction on the unfancied Vespi, a 40-1 shot, who goes on to win. Only afterwards does Mort reveal the scam he’d recognised; Vespi was a different horse, a worldbeater, running under the wrong name.

Yes, Mort was smart, he was memorable and he was a winner, so any anti-gambling viewpoint was down in flames. Nevertheless, that’s what the show tried to dom, and spectacularly failed at, with Mac.

Mac, played by Michael Shannon, is a financial reporter at the Trib. More importantly, he’s holding hands with Billie Newman. Mac comes from a rich family, though in his case the spigot has been turned off. He’s the gambler with the problem, the opposite of Mort, because Mac loses. What happens to people who lose more than they have to pay was hinted at but in vague terms that left the audience filling in a pretty substantial gap.

So Mac goes and borrows $2,000 from Billie, on a sob-story about his mother needing money for an urgent operation. She’s not certain about it until Rossi advises her not to and then she hands him a cheque (sigh: complete silliness). Then Charlie inadvertently lets slip about Mac’s family, Billie feels let down and, even though Mac repayshalf the loan dead on time, she breaks up with him and is sad, and so are we because the ‘twist’  in this tale makes gambling look bad because it’s made poor, sweet Billie nearly cry, instead of something a lot more solid.

Cue closing ‘ironic’ gag. Animal has no interest in gambling, completely lacks the urge, is utterly confused by it, but now he’s bet on to football teams and won $25, and is going to invest half his winnings on another two games: “This is fun,” he twees whilst Lou and Billie share ironic looks and the bell goes to end this formless mish-mash.

Lack of conviction dogs the entire episode. Where is that immaculate liberal stance? A bit of polemic was what was missing and the result is dullness. Try again next week.

Lou Grant: s03 e02 – Expose


A good woman doomed

Due to the nature of the story that introduced Lou Grant season 3 last week, it wasn’t really possible to bring in the new credits and theme music this year, without making an even more awkward segue than usual, but I can lead with that for this episode as the subject played a part in setting up the story.

Between seasons, the LA Trib has undergone an upgrade. Out have gone the typewriters, in have come the first computers, although they’re more likely to be word-processors, and not everyone is taking to them easily. As a consequence, the credit sequence has been completely reshot, with everybody playing the same role but from different angles, and different takes (all except Dennis ‘Animal’ Price, who has been given a more serious introduction, developing films in the dark room instead of goofing around with flashes). And the theme music has been reearranged to closer to the season 1 sound, elimination most but not quite all of that annoying guitar overlay.

I can bring this up because this upgrade helped spur one of the two stories this week that seemed to be of no relevance to each other, and which mde it hard to get an angle on which way the episode was going.

First in appearance was Rossi’s pursuit of Bonita Worth (Louise Troy), a very effective and down-to-earth County Supervisor with a substantial future ahead of her. Mrs Worth was straight-talking, a successful businesswoman, honest and open, in short a public asset. Rossi, constitutionally incapable of believing a public official can be all of those things, is worrying away looking for something that plainly didn’t exist. So Billie was brought in to interview Bonita, and produce a genuinely admiring piece. But in a cleverly unforced irony it was Billie who found Bonia’s achilles heel, her husband Mark (William Schallert).

Mark Worth ended up being the story, costing Bonita Worth her public career. Mark was a lush, a business failure, a racist and a fool. He was an albatross whose exposure in public and a drunk, and as openly unfaithful to his wife, left her te impossible choice of abandoning him and showing wifely disloyalty (a powerful thing, forty years ago) or abandoning her career. No wins either way: Bonita fell on her sword and resigned. A good public servant was lost.

You could look at Mark and find him a complete idiot, even despicable in some lights, and I wouldn’t argue with you. But Schallert took on a difficult role and, with the aid of some inspired scripting, rose to the challenge of making you see him in a different light. A clearly bombed Worth invades the Trib’s budget meeting to insult and carp at the way he has been made a public fool. It’s simultaneously embarrassing and painful, for Worth is a failure at all things, unable to do more than mouth empty threats, but worse, he is aware of this, and his bluster falls apart under his understanding of his own ineffectiveness, rage at the unfairness of being made a laughing stock in the Press and the unfirness of being unable to do anything aboout it. He ends in tears at his own humiliation, asking the question, “Why me? What did I ever do to you to pick on me?”

And the answer is the painful truth that everything written about him is true, but he is only news for how he may, and does, drag down the career of the woman he’s married to, a woman in a position of authority. The sexism inherent in this is alluded to but not rubbed in our faces, and could indeed have done with being a bit more openly expressed.

All this would have its parallel, in completely different form in the other half of the episode, which took a very long time to show its hand. It began with an argument between Lou and Mike Norvette (Richard Berstoff) over a line that wasn’t acceptable. Norvette was an asshole, seeing Lou as dictatorial, conservative, an obstacle to reporters like him, rewriting the rules, sticking opinions in unburdened by real facts. Lou was threatened by the every existence of Norvette, overturning every hidebound precept of his life and career.

So, when Mrs Pynchon was forced to trim staff to get the loan needed for all this new technology, Norvette was let go. He took it well. No, he didn’t, actually: the Norvettes of this world do not take anything like this as anything but personal, which it was in a way. Lou didn’t like him, but he fired him for not being a good enough reporter.

Which Norvette proved by immediately joined Pacific Magazine, a trashy, sensationlist magazine. We already knew about Pacific Magazine through the attractive, vivacious Barbara Benedict (Julie Cob), who thought Lou was ‘cute’, and had lunch with him, all attention and big eyes. The set-up led you to believe she was after a job at the Trib: it was a job alright but not the one you thought it was. The lovely Barbara was Rossi’s heavy date, she was having a meal with Donovan, had had a coffee with Charlie.

And everyone had talked, including Billie to Norvette, telling the stories you tell, the funny ones you share with colleagues. Except that the episode finally came into clear focus when everyone joined the dots of Barbara’s attentions and realised that Pacific Magazine was building up an expose on the Trib. When it arrived, everyone was in denial about saying what was quoted of them, and it took Animal too point out that they had said what they said, not as shaped here, in cold print. But the words were the same.

It took Mrs Pynchon to draw the two stories together. The hatchet job Pacific Magazine had done on the Trib was not far enough removed from what theTrib and others had done on Mark Worth. Lou and Charlie disagreed, and this viewer did too, but also saw the side of the coin that Mrs Pynchon was seeing: what was done to Mark Worth, hoever true, was going to bring down Bonita Worth, whose only crime was to have fallen in love with and married a weak man, years ago, and stayed loyal to him.

No, her crime was to be a woman in authority, and the show let you see that for yourself. It’s still not different enough forty years on. It would not take much adaptation to put that side of the episode into production in 2019. A superior episode with very strong guest performances.

Film 2019: A Canterbury Tale


Amongst Powell and Pressburger films, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death will always be my two favourites, but each time I watch A Canterbury Tale, it sets me to rethinking that preference. Opinions may always change, and I can foresee a day when this minor-key film, made in black and whie in 1944, between those two films, may slip between them in my preference and estimation.

Despite coming after the controversial Colonel Blimp film, A Canterbury Tale aroused no ill-feelings and enjoyed the full co-operation of all those required to make it, including the British Army. It’s a long, and in some ways sprawling experience, deliberately taken at a gentle pace in keeping with the Kent countryside in which 90% of the film is set. After the War, like Colonel Blimp, the film was cut savagely, and for America The Archers were forced to replace narrator Esmond Knight with Raymond Massey, and add bookends featuring Kim Hunter (both were then filming A Matter of Life and Death) that, ironically given the subsequent treatment of Colonel Blimp, turned the film into one massive flashback.

The film can be described in deceptively simple terms as a detective story, though the mystery is given away at the beginning. The detective story – who is the Glueman and why is he pouring glue on the hair of young women? – is non-existent as a whodunnit, and almost mystical as a whydunnit, and is used solely to provide a narrative spine for the film’s other and primary concerns. The film is in truth a love story, not a human love story, although three such relationships underlie it, but a love story to the Kent countryside of Michael Powell’s childhood, married to a mystical sense of the unity of time and place that derives from the Canterbury pilgrims of time past, bound on the Pilgrim’s Way to Canterbury Cathedral.

Three of the film’s stars were unknowns at the time of filming, each in their first role. Two, Dennis Price and Sylvia Sims, went on to substantial careers but the third, US Army Sgt. John Sweet, was the true amateur and in many ways the most important figure in the film. The part was originally conceived for Burgess Meredith but the producers opted for a complete unknown, to glorious effect.

Three strangers get off a train on a dark Friday night at Chillingbourne Station, ten minutes from Canterbury. Two ave been posted there, the third leaves the train in error. British Sergeant Peter Gibbs, a cinema organist in civvy street, is posted to the Army camp, Alison Smith, a former shopgirl, is posted as a Land Girl to a Mr Thomas Culpepper, and US Army Sgt. Bob Johnson is on the 72 hour furlough, first in Canterbury, then London, and misunderstands the call for ‘Canterbury next station’ (the station master is a minor role for Charles Hawtrey).

Walking up to the Town Hall to register their presence, Alison is attacked by the Glueman. The trio chase her assailnt into the Town Hall, wherein he ‘disappears’. No effort is made to doubt the instant suspicion that he is the local Magistrate, Mr Culpepper (Eric Portman): magistrate, gentleman farmer, enthusiast for local history, and a kind of quasi-squire to the village. He’s also a classic women-hater, though hate is too strong for his actions. He dismisses the idea of Alison working for him on his farm (she is taken on by a woman farmer with far less prejudice), as he dismisses the idea of women – his mother excepted – as being worth botthering with.

Culpepper’s motives can be discerned by his concern, indeed overwhelming enthusiasm, for sharing his local knowledge and love of his place on Earth by lectures to the soldiers: he is pouring knowledge into their heads. There’s an interlocking off-key logic to his antics as the Glueman. He is warning off the local girls from going on dates with soldiers when ‘their’ men are in the Services, overseas, and he is diverting the soldiers to his lectures by cutting off their ability to get dates. When confronted, as the film enters its final and extraordinary sequence, Culpepper acknowledges his guilt on Earth but is unrepentent of his actions by reference the the greater good that he sees.

He’s got away with it so far mainly because he is Mr Culpepper. He is a part of the Village, almost of the land itself and as such cannot be suspected. It takes three strangers to suspect and, with simplicity, obtain the evidence no-one else would look for.

What Culpepper doesn’t suspect, despite his rootedness in the Pilgrim’s own land, is thatPeter, Alison and Bob are themselves pilgrims, bound for Canterbury to receive blessings that all need in this ongoing War. Alison, despite her self-confident forthrightness, is a lost soul. Once she spent thirteen days in a caravan outside Chillingbourne with her geologist fiancee. They couldn’t marry because his father opposed it, thinking a shopgirl beneath his son. Alison has the caravan, in storage in Canterbury, but Jeffrey was a pilot who was  shot down.

Bob too is a lost soul. He’s a conscript to a War in a country far away, a chance visitor to aland far different from his own in Oregon, but in which he, the outsider, the observer, sees far more correspondences than he could ever imagine. He and the wheelwright are both men of wood, talking the same language, both gently surprised that their practices 5,000 miles apart, are identical. He receives an invitation to lunch as if he was an old friend. But Bob, like Alison, has no future. He has a girl, back home, a blonde about whom he says little because Bob Johnson doesn’t talk that way, but what he says reveals the depth of his feelings: a walk in the woods, silent for two hours and hen both saying the same thing at the same time. The one you can be silent with in comfort is the one, but she no longer writes to him. The War has taken his future away too.

Peter, the cyncical, over-bright, slightly sneering one, is different. Alison and Bob are lost but they have kept their souls: Peter has lost his. A classically trained organist with dreams of becoming a church organist, he has settled for playing in a cinema. An easy life, on good money, nothing to do, nothing to be for, he regards action and achievement as ridiculous. Peter is the empty man and its no coincidence that, despite his growing liking for Culpepper – all three grow to like him as they investigate him further – he is the most determined to see him face justice. Peter has lost touch with that part of him that could create and has become creation’s other face, destruction.

What of Culpepper himself? Throughout the film, until that final sequence, he isimpervious, giving up nothing of himself, only showing his humanity in his  thirst to preach his land. He is a misogynist, and it’s not hard to see him as a repressed homosexual (Portman himself was gay). His automatic response to Alison is dismisssal, coupled with disdain for her being female. Yet as the film progresses, he has to make adjustments, and you can see each stage in his face.

First, she attends his lecture (later, when he is explaining his motives as the Glueman, she simply siggests he might have invited the girls to his lectures too). He’s supercilious with her until she identifies herself as the fiancee of the geologist who discovered Belgian coins on the Pilgrim’s Way, coins that found there way into no Museum: Alison admits she has them.

Then when she disturbs him on Sunday afternoon, on the Way, lying in the long grass, looking at the clouds, the fact Alison shares the same imaginative sympathy he possesses, that she can hear the horse, the harness, the conversation of the pilgrims of the past, sees him open up in genuine interest in her. It’s a brief moment of harmony, shattered by the passing of Bob and Peter, unaware anyone is present, confirming that the three have identified Culpepper as the Glueman.

Pilgrims made their way to Canterbury to receive blessings or to do penance. To reach whatever end there is, they must arrive in Canterbury. All three Pilgrims, and Culpepper, share a carriage on the same train on Monday morning, he to the Bench, they to the aims that will separate their brief alliance forever. Despite Culpepper’s admission of his motives, Peter is determined to bring Justice and punishment down on his head. Alison is on her way to the Agricultural Commission, Bob to meet his buddy Micky Roczinski.

What follows is a glorious and shamelessly emotional ending. Bob meets Micky outside the Cathedral that has awed him, awed him enough that he has needed to keep his feet on the floor by remembering that his grandfather, his line, built the first Baptist Chapel in Three Sisters Falls, in wood, ‘and that was a good job too’. Micky’s a cliche American, big, boisterous, loud-mouthed, but he is an instrument of Heaven in his way. He is carrying letters, from Sidney, Australia, from Bob’s girl: she has joined the WACs. Micky Roczinski gives Bob Johnson his future back.

Alison finds her way to the yard where the caravan is stored. It’s immobilised, its tyres requisitioned, but worse still it is lifeless, dark, dusty, full of moths eating its curtains, Jeffrey’s greatcoat. Almost bizarrely, Culpepper has followed her.  He is  clumsy and awkward, beginning by gently castigating any importance a caravan has, a transient thing that one time or another, has to move, a thing that never becomes part of anything. He’s clearly abut to offer Alison somehing more permanent, established, in a place he knows she loves. What Culpepper cannot see is that whilst Alison loves Chilingbourne and the Pilgrim’s Way, she loves it throughh Jeffrey, and whilst he may not be here to share it with her again, she loves it through, of and because of him.

But pilgrim’s come to Canterbury to receive blessings. The yard owner steps up, with news he has had to hold, not knowing where Miss Alison is, only that she’s coming to Canterbury. Mr Jeffrey’s father is here, wanting to see her. He’s waited two weeks. His business with her is important. He has news: Mr Jeffrey is in Gibraltar. Alison sways a moment as her future is given back to her then, a typical English girl, she rushes into re-airing the caravan. It will be needed again, it will be shared. Culpepper has gone, unable to share her good fortune. His penance has begun. It is  Jeffrey’s father who escorts Alison into the Cathedral, who touches her shoulder, who smiles on her, reconciled and caring only that they two have a blessing to be shared.

And Peter? Before he parts from Bob and Alison he lets slip that this is the day, his lot are off. Canterbury is seeing them off, with a march through the town and a special serviceat the Cathedral. Peter still has no thought but pursuit and vengeance. But Superintendent Hall is that the Cathedral, more concerned with the day than any petty reports. Peter pursues him. But inside the Cathedral, gazing up at its vast, stern, majestic interior, his soul is restored to him. The elderly church organist climbs to the organ loft. Peter follows him, restoring a lost page of music. He gazes at the organ in awe. The cynical, crusty old man recognises a fellow musician. He played the organ in a circus. He does not disapprove of Peter’s choice of career, but he completes the blessing by inviting Peter to play the organ: first, for his own pleasure and redemption Bach’s Toccatta  and Fugue, then, for the men he will serve beside, and to Bob and Alison who do not know it is their partner, Onward Christian Soldiers.

Last time I wrote about this film, I speculated about what happened afterwards to Bob and Alison and Peter. For Bob and Alison I foresaw, I still foresee, marriages, peace-time contentment, long lives. But for Peter I still see nothing but a death in battle. Bob and Alison were given back their futures, but Peter was given back his past, his soul. There is a darkness about him that I cannot see alleviated. His blessing is to reach his future in a state of grace.

There is so much else that I love about A Canterbury Tale, so many simple lines, momentary descriptions, the unhurried depiction of life in wartime that nevertheless has not broken the bond between people and place. Culpepper is an extreme example of this and, in comparison, a strident version. Everyone else is simply living what he longs to express. Not for nothing is the final shot the boy’s armies, local kids all, great-grandfathers now if they have lived this long, playing with the football Bob buys them, as reward for their alliance.

And US Army Sgt. John Sweet, in later life a teacher. That he is an amateur is self-evident, alongside the rest of the cast. But it is that stiltedness, that awkwardness that brings a truth and an honesty to his remarks. Bob is the stranger, the alien, but the one most ready to absorb, and be absorbed into his surroundings, to see what is diferent and what is nevertheless the same about this oddball place. You can tell he loves Three Sisters Falls, that he will never leave there once duty returns him, but he will never forget.

A minor film? No, not at all.

 

The Archers: A Matter of Film and Glory – no. 3: A Canterbury Tale


Three Pilgrims in the usual light of night

A Canterbury Tale has all the makings of a minor film: shot in black and white, during the Second World War, in essence a love story about Kent. It would be easy to assume that its major interests lie in the historical shots of bomb-ravaged Canterbury, which come at the end of a two hour stretch of film that, until its last quarter hour, has confined itself to the (fictional) village of Chillingbourne, ten minutes journey from Canterbury by train, over a sun-drenched summer weekend.
But do not underestimate The Archers. A Canterbury Tale may have been a commercial failure, and may have been available for years only in a crudely edited version that cut out many evocative scenes that were inessential to the film’s vestigial plot, but it has been restored and is recognised as another subtle and beautiful production by Powell and Pressburger.
The film stars Dennis Price, Sylvia Sims and US Army Sergeant John Sweet, with Eric Portman in a major supporting role, though the posters reverse things and make Portman the star and the other three his support. Price and Sweet play Army Sergeants, British and American respectively, Sims a shopgirl turned Land Girl and Portman the local magistrate and gentleman. Burgess Meredith was originally considered for Sweet’s role but the latter, an amateur, was preferred, and is superb, a brilliant choice by that very amateurism.
The trio are pilgrims on a modern day pilgrimage, not that they are aware of this, and in only one case consciously, until the film’s conclusion. That the film involves pilgrimages is made explicit by its introduction, referencing and set in the time of the Canterbury Tales.
There is a bravura leap into the Twentieth Century, executing a cinematic trip that no doubt inspired Stanley Kubrick in 2001 – A Space Odyssey. A gaily adorned courtier releases a hawk from his wrist, which flies away across a shallow valley until, at peak distance from the camera, it cuts into a Spitfire, diving back across the valley and passing over the head of the same man: on guard duty in battledress.
So our pilgrims meet, all three getting off the train in the blackout of Friday evening at Chillingbourne Station. Price is Peter Dawson, returning to camp outside the Village. Sims is Alison Smith, arriving to take up duties as a Land Girl working for the principal landowner, Mr Colpeper, and Sweet is Sgt. Bob Johnson, bound for Canterbury on a 48-hour pass, who mishears the Conductor’s call of “Canterbury next station” and decants himself from the train, only to find he is stranded for the night.
As the trio walk towards the village in the dark, a shadowy figure accosts Alison, pouring glue into her hair. He escapes, seeming to enter the Village Hall under pursuit from Peter and Bob, though the local police, despite being in the Town Hall itself, are far from quick at taking this assault up.
It’s not the first: Alison is the eleventh local girl attacked in this manner by an assailant they have taken to calling the Glueman. The following morning, still enraged by what has happened, she commandeers Bob, and later Peter, persuading the former to remain in Chillingbourne to help her solve the case.
So the film is to be a Detective Story, although it’s not really a detective story at all: the Archers make very little effort to conceal that Colpeper, who has no time for women, is the Glueman, though over the weekend that ensues, the unexpected trio gather enough conventional evidence to prove the case to sufficient a level to take to the Police.
Though Colpeper is of that breed, more recognisable in olden times, of women-haters, without necessarily any sexual/homosexual component, and refuses to accept Alison as a Land Girl (she moves elsewhere to a farm worked by a female owner who is only interested in competence), his motivation for his glue-pourings is by no means simple nor, necessarily, dishonourable.
In his own way, he is targeting girls who he sees as betraying their beaus who are in active service overseas, effectively warning them to stay true. On another, metaphysical level, he is a lover of his county, eager to impress its history, its beauty and its values into any minds he can meet: metaphorically, he is seeking to pour knowledge into their heads, deflecting the women from impure thoughts.
Though the gradual detection of Colpeper’s activities forms a narrative spine for the central section of A Canterbury Tale, it is the least important and, ultimately, interesting element of the film.
As they progress through this idyllic English summer weekend, we learn about the pilgrims. Peter is a classically trained organist, but he is wasting his talent, playing for easy money in night clubs, jobs that demand only a fraction of his ability. Though it is Alison who instigates the investigation, in the end it will be Peter who is hottest in his pursuit of Colpeper, and most determined to involve the Police to bring the Magistrate to Justice.
Indeed, it is Peter who, as the pilgrims approach Canterbury sharing a railway carriage with Colpeper, who becomes overtly self-righteous, as if he, not Alison, is the victim of the Glueman’s depredations His is the deepest emptiness of our pilgrims, the one that will require the greatest blessing to fill.
Of the pilgrims, only Alison knows Chillingbourne from before the War: She and her architect boyfriend spent a fortnight in a caravan on the Pilgrim’s Way, above the village. Though very much in love, they were unable to marry, facing determined disapproval from Geoffrey’s father over her lowly status as a shop assistant. Now all Alison has is the caravan: Geoffrey was shot down over the Mediterranean.
And Bob, the wondering eye who is our eye into this corner of England, he is of a woodworking family. Though a stranger to England, he and the local wood-dealer speak the same language, understand the same things: he is invited to dinner. But he too has a sorrow: his girlfriend back home has not replied to his letters for six months, and he sees a future of emptiness.
Through all their eyes, and especially Bob’s, we see life in wartime in this corner of England. Midway through the film, there is a splendid boy’s game, a river attack in glorious Swallows and Amazons style (one of the sections deleted for many years).
Interestingly, though he is aware that Alison suspects him, Colpeper softens towards her over the weekend, coming close to an admission and an explanation of his motives, though the moment is spoiled by the appearance of Peter and Bob, the former of whom is now personally, indeed aggressively committed to exposing Colpeper.
In contemporary terms the last twenty minutes of the film would probably be regarded as out-and-out sentimentality. Both film-makers and audience have together grown too cynical in the intervening years to be comfortable with the idea of happy endings, even if the film is, underneath all, a tale of Pilgrimage. And Pilgrims who travel to Canterbury must hope for blessings.
They gather on Monday morning, under the sun, to catch the train into Canterbury. Bob’s leave is almost over: he will meet Micky Rozinski at the Cathedral, which he has promised his mother he will visit. Alison is going to the Agricultural Commission, but plans a side-trip to the yard where Geoffrey’s caravan in in store. And Peter is bound for the Police Station, for an interview with Superintendent Hall, where he will present their evidence against Colpeper.
But their companion on the ten minute train journey is Colpeper himself, making his Monday morning trip to sit on the Magistrate’s Bench. Their confined carriage is like a court in itself, with Colpeper on one side and his accusers in a row facing him.
Colpeper doesn’t seek to defend himself. Alison and Bob are hesitant, but Peter is accusatory, determined to see the Glueman brought to justice. Colpeper explains himself by reference to his lectures: once the British Army Camp was established outside Chillingbourne, he had sought to educate, to open the eyes of the soldiers, but his lectures went unattended because off-duty the soldiers preferred to spend time with the village girls.
So Colpeper attacked the girls, to frighten them away, pouring glue into their hair just as he sought to pour knowledge into the men’s heads. Alison cannot resist suggesting that he should have included the ladies from the outset.
On arrival at Canterbury, our pilgrims separate. Before they leave each other, Peter intimates that this is a special day: it is the eve of D-Day, and the Army is going to cross the Channel. There is to be a special service at the Cathedral.
Peter goes to the Police Station, but the Superintendent is not present. As well as the service, there is to be a parade through the Town and this is occupying his thoughts. Peter is still hot for justice, and heads for the cathedral, where the Superintendent may be found. Once inside, looking for someone who can direct him, he approaches an elderly, acerbic man who is the Cathedral organist, and who pays him scant notice. Drawn to the organ, Peter follows the organist, returning to him a page of music that he had dropped.
In the organ loft, his evident admiration of the Church Organ, and his admission of his own training and current status softens the old man’s attitude to him. After all, the elder once played organ in a circus, for 22 shillings a week. He invites Peter to play: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue rolls out through the cathedral.
Alison has, with difficulty, found her way to the yard where the caravan is stored. It is in an area of town that has been badly damaged by bombs, but the yard still stands and the caravan is still laid up. But its tyres are missing, commandeered for the war effort. It is dank and dark, full of moths, deteriorating horribly.
Colpeper has followed Alison here. Awkwardly and ineffectually, he tries to console her, by running down the caravan as an impermanent thing, but his clumsy attempt at wooing her ends abruptly when the yard owner bustles up, berating Miss Alison for failing to leave an address. Mr Geoffrey’s father was there a fortnight earlier, is still in Canterbury. Alison panics, fearing that he is trying to claim the caravan, which is hers, is all she has left of Geoffrey. But this is not the case. Mr Geoffrey’s father has been looking for Alison, has stayed to find her. He has news: Mr Geoffrey is in Gibraltar.
For a moment, Alison’s vision (and that of the camera) blurs and sways, but as the implication sinks in, she rushes to the caravan, throws open its windows, begins to air it. Her future has been given back to her. She turns to Colpeper in excitement, but he has left without a word.
As for Bob, he is impressed by the size and splendour of the Cathedral, and whilst there is no comparison, he is also filled with pride that it was his grandfather who built the first Baptist Chapel in Three Sisters Falls, with good wood. He locates Micky Rozinski, using a cine camera outside, and gets dragged off into a local cafe to drink tea. Whilst Micky boasts of his time in London, Bob brings up the Pilgrim’s Way and his weekend in Chillingbourne, but expresses regret that Pilgrims to Canterbury no longer receive blessings.
Gleefully, Micky corrects him, producing from his pocket a bundle of letters, seven weeks worth. Their stamps are unfamiliar: they are from Australia: Bob’s girl has joined the WAACS.
Two of our Pilgrims have now received blessings, blessings that restore to them futures that they had thought lost. The military parade and its band have reached the Cathedral, and everyone files inside. Alison, with Geoffrey’s father, passes Colpeper in the doorway: the Glueman lowers his eyes and will not look up until they have passed. In the organ loft, the organist points out Superintendent Hall to Peter, who has no use for him now. At a signal, he launches into the opening hymn, ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’.
The churchgoers sing lustily, until the Cathedral bells drown them out. For a moment, we look from the bell-tower to the spires of the Cathedral, the shot seen in the film’s opening moments. The credits begin to run. The final background shot shifts back to Chillingbourne, as the gangs play a kick and rush game of football with the ball bought with Bob’s money.
The more I watch A Canterbury Tale, the more I think upon the future of our Pilgrims. After all, the film ends on the eve of D-Day, the invasion of Europe, an invasion on a scale greater than any in any War in history. Two of our Pilgrims are servicemen, the third the fiancée of another serviceman. What lay ahead for them?
For Alison, I see the future she hoped for: marriage, children, a long life with the young man who she has loved for so long and who she thought was dead. The blessing she receives is, in its way, the reversal of death, and within the logic of a universe in which blessings occur, that cannot be given with one hand and snatched away with the other.
Bob, our Holy Innocent, is to me equally destined to live. He has feared and doubted, and his doubts have been refuted. The unnamed blonde is the right girl for him – the reference to walking in silence in the woods for ours and then both saying the same thing is of great personal significance to me – and the path ahead for this couple is equally clear. Bob will live, will return to Three Sisters Falls, will marry, will build the lumber business carefully and solidly. In thirty years time, he and his wife will tour England, and he will take her to Chillingbourne, tracing that strange weekend he spent there, during the War.
But Peter. I cannot foresee such things for the British Army Sergeant. Peter’s absence hasn’t been in love, in a caring, sharing partner. He’s been the outsider among our Pilgrims, dragged away by his duty at first, only joining the detectives long after they had begun their enquiries, and yet the most vigorous, most determined of the pursuers. Peter’s been full of an aggression, an anger that hasn’t affected either of the others, as if he personally has been the victim, and of something more serious.
What Peter has lost, and which has been restored to him in the Cathedral, is his soul. Instead of the music he loved from childhood, Peter has diverted himself into comfort, indulgence, sterility and it has reflected back on his personality. The Cathedral organ allows him to recapture that part of his soul, but inside, my intuition tells me that it is only a temporary reprieve. I have the strongest feeling that Peter Gibbs does not return from Western Europe.
Only Colpeper is left unfulfilled. The pilgrims have come to Canterbury and received their blessings. Ahead lies the invasion of Europe that will succeed in winning the war. For the moment, a service, and the Canterbury Bells, give thanks to God. Even for an atheist like myself, it’s an extraordinary outpouring of joy, an extremely moving finale. No, this film is not minor, not minor at all.