Film 2018: Time Bandits

I’d originally planned to start Terry Gilliam’s ‘Trilogy of Imagination’ next week, what with today supposed to be a working Sunday. But what with other, larger changes elsewhere, that obligation’s been lifted, and here we are.

Like several films in this series, my first introduction to Time Bandits came through Barry Norman and Film 81. It was also highly rated in NME, which I was still taking weekly, and I approached it expecting good things, and Gilliam provided these in bulk.

The film’s credits list its copious stars, famous folk throughout, though Katherine Helmond might need a bit of explaining to contemporary audiences (she had starred in the massively popular US spoof-soap, Soap). But almost without exception, these are cameo roles, stars of their own scenes through which the title characters plummet headlong. These are Kevin, an 11 year old boy, played by Craig Warnock, and six dwarves, Randall, Wally, Vermin, Strutter, Fidget and Og.

Time Bandits, written by Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin, is a brilliant romp through time and space. It’s an expansively ambitious film made on a shoestring budget that makes maximum use of imagination to cover the gaps in he budget for the kind of heavy-duty SFX/CGI you’d get today. Without ever looking cheap, the direction spurs the audience into using its own imagination to help complete the illusions the film has to suggest rather than rub in your face.

Kevin’s an 11 year old boy at that stage of eager enthusiasm for knowledge. He’s an information sponge, anxious for more, fired by everything he reads, whereas his parents are pure materialists, interested only in newer ‘labour-saving’ gadgets. It’s all very mundane, until a horse ridden by a knight in armour gallops through his wardrobe door, jumps his bed and races off down a tree-lined country lane that turns out to be a photo on his bedroom wall. After that, mundanity doesn’t get a shout.

The next things to emerge from Kevin’s wardrobe are six dwarves, dressed in various sets of ragged clothing, bearing a map of creation. Sorry, Creation. They’re supposed to be filling in the holes but have decided to exploit them by robbing all of history. When the Supreme Being (‘you mean God?’ ‘well, we don’t know him that well…’) as a disembodied head and voice comes in pursuit, they push Kevin’s bedroom wall about a hundred yards down a hitherto unsuspected hallway until it falls off and, with a terrified Kevin tearing after them, fall into a timehole.

Here is where the fun starts, Gilliam wisely goes for fun and crisp cameos over the first half of the film, with the Bandits flipping back and forth in time, robbing as they go. Ian Holm plays a Napoleon self-conscious of his height who loves Punch & Judy shows for the ‘leetle creatures hitting each other’, John Cleese is a decidedly upper-class Robin Hood, in Prince-Charles-visiting-a-factory mode, amongst dirty, slovenly, brutish Men whose Merriness is decidedly dubious, and Sean Connery plays a gorgeously straight role as King Agamemnon, whose adopts the abandoned Kevin as his son before Randall & Co steal him back.

(I recall an interview many years ago about Connery’s participation in the film, in which the Producers sent him a copy of the script to read, confessing to not having the budget to pay him: Connery loved it so much, he said he’d do it for whatever they could afford. And he was right.)

There’s also recurring cameos for co-writer Palin and Shelley Duval as unfortunate lovers, Vincent and Pansy, which are mini-delights.

Now the film could keep doing this as long as it wanted, and the budget lasted, as far as I was concerned, butthere’s no ending with that, so Gilliam introduces Evil, played with characteristic cartoon nastiness by David Warner. Evil wants to get hold of the map so he can overwrite Creation: after all, he’s got a better idea ofwwhat to do with it that the Supreme Being, none of this 43 different kinds of parrot, it’s going to be lasers, 8.00am Monday morning.

So Evil starts bending things towards leading the Bandits into the Time of Legends, via the Titanic, of course. Which is where things start to get seriously goofy. Peter Vaughan and Katherine Helmond cameo as ogres on a sailing ship that turns out to be the hat of a bulky giant walking underwater, who leads them into a desert with an invisible wall that, in my favourite effect of the film, shatters when a skull is thrown against it, as if the filmscreen itself is shattering. Behind it is the mega-gigantic Fortress of Ultimate Darkness which, sorry Peter Jackson, from the first instant I saw it was my personal vision of the Barad-Dur.

And Gilliam piles on visual excitement after visual excitement as Evil confronts the Dwarves in a ghastly gameshow parody above a humungous walltop maze, the dwarves escape from a locked cage swinging above a massive emptiness and return with historical reinforcements – knights, cowboys, spaceships, archers, a tank, all of which prove spectacularly ineffective against Evil.

It’s a glorious compendium of toys turned real: a sharp eye can detect every single thing that appears in the film among the toys in Kevin’s bedroom. The pure, unfettered imagination of a kid, something Gilliam’s always been superb at conjuring up, is what drives this film.

And then, somewhat bathetically, Evil turns into a carbon statue, is knocked over and destroyed, by the Supreme Being, only this time it’s Ralph Richardson in a suit, giving a acerbically disdainful, Superior-than-thou performance. He’s pleased at the test he’s given his Creation, especially Evil. But now, back to work.

The incredulous Kevin does challenge God on why so many people have had to be killed to test his creation, but that’s a deeply-loaded theological question and 11 year old Kevin is just the latest to get a determinedly deaf ear turned to it by the Supreme Being. Then he’s left behind, with an overlooked bit of Evil starting to smoke, sulphurously.

Which turns into his house on fire and his bedroom door being smashed down in a deliberate echo of the beginning of the film, and rescued by a fireman who turns out to be Agamemnon. And Kevin finds all his polaroids of his trip in his satchel, proving it to have been real. The fire’s been started by something left in the microwave all night, something black and carbonised: the last piece of Evil. And despite, or more likely because of his horrified shout not to touch it, his Mum and Dad touch it. And they explode.

The fireman drive off. Kevin is left outside his burned out house, his parents now two wisps of smoke curling upwards from their scorched slippers. It’s a weirdly downbeat, even frightening ending, showing Kevin losing everything real, yet excluded from Time and Creation.holy Grail

I now understand that at one point, Gilliam planned a sequel. He certainly left himself a solid base on which to build one but his plans were abandoned after the loss of David Rappaport (Randall), who committed suicide, and Jack Purvis (Wally), who was paralysed after being crushed against a wall by his own car.

Time Bandits was Gilliam’s third film as a Director, after Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Jabberwocky. It was, as I said, the first in a ‘Trilogy of Imagination’. This was the vhild’s imagination, and it was great and flowing. Next week, we’ll have the second film, which is even better.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus

You could possibly say that I had a deprived childhood. There was this programme on BBC TV, late on Sunday evenings, with a weird title, that made me curious. All I had to go on was the name in the TV schedules: what on Earth could it be about? When I mentioned it to my parents, said I’d like to see it to see what it was about, they said it was rubbish. Well, they would, wouldn’t they?

That wasn’t much by itself. It was at school where it got serious. By this time, the programme had moved to Thursday evenings, I think (I could look all this up, but when you’re in the shadowy areas of distant memory, it’s best not to let facts taint anything). And Friday morning would come round and I’d arrive at school and it was like a nightmare. Spam? Spam? Why’s everybody going round saying spam all the time? And what’s this sudden fascination with being a Lumberjack?

I had no idea what it was all about, and my status at school was sufficiently shaky as to deter me from asking questions. I was already so far behind everybody when it came to knowing things about the outside world that being confessedly outside this… this… hell, I had no idea what it was but it was obviously so massively popular that I didn’t dare ask what the thing was.

Well, eventually, I came to know that these Friday morning mystery obsessions were sketches – long long since classics – from the oddly named Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Not that I still ever got to see these things for myself, since my parents still thought it was rubbish and wouldn’t have it on. They’d been pretty hip about Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In but this was another order of things.

But it means that, seemingly alone among all my contemporaries, I was immune to the fascination and hilarity of one of the seminal comedy programmes of all time. I missed the whole thing when it was there to be experienced, I was further ostracised through ignorance and, when I did finally get to see these programmes and sketches and insanity for myself, I couldn’t relax into just watching and laughing. I was self-conscious about my massive gap in knowledge, and I couldn’t just take in any sketch when I was constantly going, ‘oh, so that’s what they were talking about’.

If I’d watched Monty Python in the ordinary way, probably I’d have been in hysterics at what I was seeing. I was already developing an antic sense of humour that took delight in anarchy and improbability, and I had a burgeoning loyalty towards the even more seminal comedy that inspired the Pythons themselves, The Goon Show.

To the best of my recollection, I’d actually only heard one Goon Show by that time, a Saturday night repeat that included a gag that I remember to this day which had me rolling on the floor laughing. But I’d been introduced to the Goons through the wonderfully silly puppet version, The Telegoons, and its comic strip version in TV Comic.

I wouldn’t properly get into the Goons in their serious form until the Seventies and, truth to tell, they hold the place in my funny bone that those of my generation reserve for Monty Python. That chance was missed, and it can’t be created retrospectively.

The only Monty Python I did see when it came out was the fifth and final John Cleese-less series, which everyone agrees wasn’t up to their standards. I’ve seen the films, two of them in the cinema, I heard the Live at the Hollywood Bowl album innumerable times (the fact that I relatively quickly got bored with shrieks of ‘Albatross!’ suggests that I might not have been the ideal receptive audience after all), and I’ve seen most if not all of the programmes.

I’ve even seen all the unwiped episodes of the two series that fed into Python, the BBC’s At Last the 1948 Show and ITV’s Do Not Adjust Your Set, the later of which I’d watched and loved when it came out.

That one featured Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones. And Terry Jones is why I’m rummaging through these memories today. Terry Jones, a very funny man, a very intelligent man, a very likeable man, whose family yesterday disclosed that he is suferring from progressive primary aphasia, a form of dementia.

Why do these things happen to the best and the brightest? Though the tide seems to have rolled back in recent months, this has been a devastating year for the loss of the immensely talented, and it is as bad to hear of someone like Terry Jones being affected in this manner as it would be to hear of his death. There are those who would say that dignity and being a Python are things that should never be placed in the same sentence, and they’re not only those who, like my parents, found nothing of what the Pythons did to be funny. But dammit, I may not have the attachment to Terry and the gang that my generation owns, but he doesn’t deserve this.

Nobody does. But some don’t deserve it more than others.

Memories die. Times fade. I will always remember the sheer, hopeless bemusement of those Friday mornings as Terry and the Pythons moved the world away from me on a weekly basis.


The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation As We Know It

John Cleese is famous the world over for his part in Monty Python’s Flying Circus and for co-creating and starring in Fawlty Towers, which is testament to his comedic genius.
But he’s also been involved in less well-known ventures that haven’t gone down anything like as well as those two stupendous achievements, and some of those projects have been written out of most accounts of his career.
One such is The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation As We Know It. This was a one-off ITV programme, 55 minutes in length, broadcast on New Year’s Day, 1977, a Sunday evening if I recall correctly. It appeared midway between the two Fawlty Towers series and, like the first of these on first transmission, was not well received.
Unlike Fawlty Towers, it was never reconsidered, and disappeared without trace. It was never re-broadcast, and didn’t appear on DVD for thirty years, in a cheap format transferred directly from an imperfect video copy. Currently, it’s only available on an equally cheap three disc set, The John Cleese Comedy Collection, together with the excellent and poignant Romance with a Double Bass, and a pre-Python series of skits under the heading How to Irritate People.
I watched it on broadcast, laughed myself silly, and was surprised at the negative reaction. In lieu of the likelihood of seeing the film again, I bought the cheap paperback script book, which I read a dozen times, trying to fill in the voices as best as I could recollect.
Strange Case was co-written by Cleese in collaboration with Jack Hobbs and Joseph McGrath, from an idea by the latter two. It stars Cleese as Arthur Sherlock Holmes, grandson of the original, Arthur Lowe as Dr Watson, the partly-bionic (nose and legs) grandson of the original and Cleese’s then wife Connie Booth as Mrs Hudson, granddaughter of someone, but not necessarily that original.
The programme also features a handful of well-known actors in Ron Moody, Joss Ackland and Denholm Elliott, plus Stratford Johns as the Commissioner of Police, in supporting roles.
Watching Strange Case again, years on, the critics were absolutely right.
Which is not to say that the programme isn’t without its merits. Cleese’s performance is enjoyable, and Booth’s transformation at the end into the villain, dressed in leather jacket, impossibly tight black hot-pants, black tights and knee-length boots makes you weep for the horrible picture quality: my God, the woman is gorgeous! But the absolute star is Lowe, as the bumbling Watson, all little gruff gasps of ‘Good Lord,’ and ‘Amazing’.
From the outside, Lowe’s casting seems unusual: he is a much older comedy actor, indelibly associated with a far different comedic tradition, but his seriousness incarnates the part of an improbably dumb sidekick, he beautifully judges the downplaying of the innate pompousness of his ‘natural’ character, and the highlight is a scene in which he plays two identical Dr Watson’s: seriously, you would not think it possible to repeat the words ‘Good Lord’ so many times with so many different inflections.
The rest of the programme is very different to speak of. The plot, such as it is, is perfunctory, and in its detail and its performance is firmly rooted in its time. It begins with Dr Gropinger (i.e., Henry Kissinger), in the midst of his famous shuttleboat diplomacy, having his diary stolen from him so that he lands at an Arab airport where, having no idea which country he’s in, he greets the audience with cries of ‘Shalom!’ and ‘Mussel tov!’, provoking them into shooting him dead.
There follows a scene in which a bumbling President gets into endless confusion over what his CIA agents are trying to tell him whilst knocking things over, i.e., it’s the famously uncoordinated and misspeaking Gerald Ford (though I was astonished to discover an on-line review in which the Americans involved are completely unaware – and openly disbelieving – of Ford’s contemporaneous reputation). Apparently, the last descendent of Professor Moriarty (hi, Connie!) intends to destroy civilisation as we know it in five days time.
One Agent goes on to a meeting in London of the Police of Five Continents. At this time, Cleese still hasn’t appeared onscreen, and the script takes a discomfiting turn into national stereotyping and cheap racism. The Chinese delegate is played by Burt Kwouk of course, he being the only Chinese-appearing actor based in England (or so you’d think: incidentally, he was born in Warrington), whilst the African delegate is simply a hideous embarrassment: thankfully, the ‘bonzer cobber’ Australian is shot by a sniper pretty quickly. Horrific.
At last Holmes is brought in, courtesy of a visit by Stratford Johns, better known for his long running role as Chief Inspector Barlow (Z-Cars, Softly Softly). There are some genuinely funny moments in this sequence, most notably when the Commissioner is stabbed in the back: Watson pulls out the knife to make him feel more comfortable, only for Mrs Hudson to admonish him because this now allows the haemorrhaging to start: Watson tries to put the knife back exactly as he found it only to push it in too far and kill the Commissioner.
Holmes, re-entering the room, diagnoses the events brilliantly, to Watson’s perpetual astonishment. ‘How did you know that?’ he asks: ‘I was watching you!’ shrieks the frustrated Holmes.
We shall pass by the delivery of the Commissioner’s body, wrapped in brown paper to avoid payment on the bus, involving as it does another racist performance by Derek Griffiths as a West Indian Bus Conductor (1977: sigh), and switch to another meeting of the Delegates, this time with Holmes.
This is marginally better than the first scene, being less racist, and it does reach the heights of modest farce as the security windows keep going up and down, allowing the sniper to kill everyone but Holmes and the English delegate (seriously: the tea lady gets it). Holmes then produces his big idea: to hold a Detectives Convention. The concentration of so many adversaries will be so tempting that Moriarty won’t be able to resist attacking.
Unfortunately, this only results in a parade of unfunny mild parodies of the TV cops of the mid-Seventies that will be meaningless to anybody born later than 1965. The cops are bumped off by the fake Watson whilst the real Watson is helped to solve the Times crossword by Holmes (a neat little scene where all the answers are puns on ‘Elementary’).
Then Watson meets Watson and the fake is exposed as Mrs Hudson, or rather Francine Moriarty, out to destroy the entire Holmes line (destroying civilisation as we know it is just family tradition). Francine shoots down Watson before pumping something like two dozen bullets into Holmes (the vast majority of which seem to be aimed into Cleese’s groin, leading to unavoidable speculation over the extent to which art imitates life, given that he and Booth were soon to divorce, amicably at any rate).
But Holmes shrugs these off. He’s known Mrs Hudson was Francine since 1964 and so he told Watson to replace the bullets with blanks last night. Holmes continues in his triumphalist vein until an apologetic Watson finally manages to interrupt him long enough to admit that he forgot. Collapse of Holmes.
Francine strides off to end civilisation as we know it. Holmes throws one last dice, setting Watson into action, only for the over-eager partly-Bionic man (this is so 1977) to leap too high, hit his head on the ceiling and collapse unconscious. A final stirring readover from the announcer questioning whether Moriarty can succeed is answered by a brief, squeaking yes, and the screen goes back: it’s all over.
No, Strange Case does rather deserve to be forgotten. It’s awkward and inadequately plotted, too much wedded to its time, an implausible spoof whose highlights come mostly from the performances of its three stars, who are fighting an uphill battle against stiff material. The story credits suggest to me that this was a script derived entirely from Hobbs and McGrath that was in search of a star to lend it credibility: Cleese’s name as third scripter suggests that he probably added better jokes to his sequences, and it’s very noticeable that there are very few laughs when Cleese, Lowe and Booth are offscreen.
It’s slow, cheaply made, with an abrupt ending that tries to borrow off the Python habit of ending sketches that didn’t have a real ending, which might work after six minutes but flops after fifty-five.
And it’s biggest flaw of all is it’s crippling slowness. At least with the script book, I could inject some much needed pace – and energy – into scenes that lack motion and conviction. What I saw in it, I cannot now recall, and unless you’re a Cleese completist, I wouldn’t recommend hunting it out, other than for Arthur Lowe’s brilliant performance, oh, and Connie Booth’s legs.