Film 2018: Stardust


Stardust wasn’t my first choice for this week’s film, rather a last minute replacement when I decided that bright sun on an early Sunday morning wasn’t the best conditions for my original choice.

It’s a film that comes shrouded in memories that will always affect me. When it was first released, we went to see it twice in as many weeks, we being my wife and I  in the first instance and two of her children in the second. We chose the film for one of our rare nights out: a meal in Stockport followed by a visit to the now defunct Grand Central Cinema. The meal overran and we missed the start of the film. But we both loved it, and we knew the boys would like it too so, to give them the treat, and allow ourselves to see what we’d missed, we took them next week. It turned out we’d only missed about thirty seconds, which made us both laugh but so what? It was a joy to watch again, even so soon.

Stardust is adapted from Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name, originally published in four installments, illustrated beautifully by Charles Vess, by DC Comics. The film follows the substance of the story in its narrative, although Captain Shakespeare and the Lightning catching Pirates is a complete invention, but takes a completely different approach to what was intended as an adult fairy-tale. Director Matthew Vaughan, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jane Goodman, turns the story – with Gaiman’s blessing – into a whimsical comedy, filling it with a modern, sceptical comedy that has one foot firmly entrenched in cynicism but which leaves the other foot free to dance. Like The Princess Bride it can successfully poke fun at the tropes of which it is made precisely because it is made by people who love and respect what they are playing off.

The story glories in its fairy-tale elements, even though it attracted a wider demographic who, instead of seeing it as fantasy, enjoyed it as a romantic adventure with magical elements. Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox, then unknown) lives in the village of Wall, so named for the Wall that separates it from the magical kingdom of Stormhold. Tristan, the product of a brief affair between his father, Dunstan, and a then-nameless slave girl in Stormhold, eighteen years before at the start of the film.

Tristran loves the beautiful but spoilt Victoria (Sienna Miller), who is more interested in the more upmarket Humphrey (Henry Cavill, though his is only a bit part). Humphrey’s going to go all the way to Ipswich for a ring for Victoria, but Tristran will go through the wall to bring back a fallen star for her, to prove his love.

The star (Claire Danes), whose name is Yvaine, has been knocked from the sky by a diamond hurled there by the dying King of Stormhold (an impressive cameo from Peter O’Toole). Whichever of his sons can find it – there were seven, but they’ve been whittled down to three: poor show, really, the Stormhold tradition is for only one surviving brother when the King dies – will be King.

Meanwhile, three incredibly aged witches are also after the star, since to cut out and eat the still-beating heart of a fallen star grants youth and near-immortality. The eldest sister, Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer, still decidedly woo hoo, once the aged make-up comes off), goes to get the heart.

So: Yvaine’s got three different forces after her, that’s if you call Tristran a force, which he isn’t to begin with but becomes, in a very likeable manner, during the course of the film.

There’s some conventional structures in there: two sources for a chase thriller, one with elements of a Quest, combined with the picaresque journey during which two initially hostile enforced companions gradually start to like and then love each other, which goes back at least as far as the Alfred Hitchcock version of The Thirty-Nine Steps. It’s highly entertaining in itself, thanks to the lightness Vaughan and Goodman bring to everything, no matter how serious it may be – one strand involves mass-fratricide and it’s even funnier than Kind Hearts and Coronets – and that’s amplified by the fantastic setting, which combines some very effective CGI with location filming in the kind of scenery that made me want to climb through the screen and go climbing mountains in the background. Much of the outdoor scenes were filmed in Scotland, with other parts in Iceland. The contrast is obvious, but not distracting.

There’s a primarily English cast: Rupert Everett, David Walliams and Julian Rhind-Tutt are among the bit parts, Melanie Hill, Joanna Scanlan and Sarah Alexander are witches, and Mark Wiliams is brilliantly loopy as a goat turned into an innkeeper. The two big American stars make the most of their parts: Pfeiffer is a major protagonist, but de Niro’s role is a primarily comic one. He’s supposed to be a rough, tough, notoriously evil pirate but he’s actually a softie who’s had to keep his father’s business going.

Captain Shakespeare is there to given Tristran and Yvaine safe haven for a time, to transform Tristran from provincial boy operating on dumb luck to sophisticated and capable man who can handle problems. It’s only a supporting role, and de Niro combines flamboyance and underplaying with the confidence of a  great actor enjoying himself. Apparently, the other possible star for the role was Jack Nicholson, who I doubt could have played this role anything like as effectively.

Ultimately, though, the film belongs to Cox and Daines. He’s innocent in the best sense throughout, an overgrown boy taking on manhood before our eyes, whilst retaining a boyish delight throughout. He has to undergo this adventure to become worthy of his role, because his mother, slave to a caravan witch, Ditchwater Sal (Hill) is really Una, daughter to the King, and after the last son, Septimus (Mark Strong) is killed by Lamia, Tristran becomes the Heir to Stormhold. But he also has to undergo this adventure to discover his real true love and to become worthy – both in person and in the heart – of the love of Yvaine the star.

And Daines is simply wonderful, not to mention unconventionally beautiful. Her face is always mobile, initially in a hunted, indeed neurotic manner, and her anxieties never wholly disappear until she saves the day by Shining, but the longer the film goes on, and the closer she comes to falling in love with Tristran, the more that mobility is just evidence of an underlying energy, the force of love unable to be contained yet unable to be expressed.

I’ve left so much out, so many little details that demonstrate the comprehensive vision that Vaughan had for this film. It’s another of those where the casting is ideal – Olivia Grant was cast in the minor role of the female version of Bernard (don’t ask) literally weeks out of Acting School and, without any lines, makes a wonderfully comic cameo – and whilst there are those who regret that the tone was not more faithful to the original story, they don’t include Gaiman, who was happier with an artistically satisfactory comedy than a serious film that would have failed: like me with so many other versions, he thinks of this as the Earth-2 Stardust.

That’s not to say the film’s perfect. It was released in 2007 and includes a minor role for Ricky Gervaise as Ferdy the Fence (behind a door marked ‘Ferdy’s Office’). It hasn’t worn well, rather like Gervaise’s star since those halcyon days. Gervaise isn’t convincing in his acting, but then he’s playing against Robert de Niro soo that’s a more than adequate excuse. It’s just that it’s David Brent, with an Andy Millman catch-phrase, out of context and in 2018 it no longer works.

But I’ve no other complaints about Stardust, not even the Take That song, ‘Rule the World’ in the credits. My wife was a major league Take That fan, but even I loved this song from the first moment I heard it, then and now.

I love Stardust. Like Gregory’s Girl, last week, it’s one of my ten favourite films, for itself and without the memories I have attached to it. Other adaptations of Neil Gaiman’s work have been far more faithful to the source than this, and I am very glad of it.

Still Open All Hours – but why?


Arkwright or Granville?

To everything there is a a season – several, if it’s good enough. But, unlike the Biblical injunction, the truth of television is that seasons are not cyclical: harvest does not return each year: once the yield is taken, the time is gone and, like our corporeal bodies, does not return.

That doesn’t stop people from attempting to revive things, in the hope that they can be as good as they were remembered to be. Only today there is a piece in the Guardian arguing for the revival of Top of the Pops, in the face of the fact that none of the reasons for its cancellation have gone away, that the worlds of television and music and their respective audiences bear no resemblance to the conditions which saw the programme thrive and that in order to give any revival a chance of succeeding, it would be necessary to destroy absolutely everything about the programme that is recognisable as Top of the Pops.

Bringing back something once popular has been shown, time and time again, to be disastrous. The problem lies in the essential dichotomy between capturing the elements that made the show appealling to begin with – requiring stasis – and the need to present its characters as they are after a period of time – requiring progress. It’s an impossible burden by its very nature, especially if members of the original cast are involved: they have aged, visibly, and in doing so have changed, therefore their characters must have changed also, in the intervening years, yet what is demanded of them is being what they were.

The only truly successful revival (and I discount Doctor Who because, by its very nature, it could reinterpret itself with a wholly new cast) was Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais’s 1972 sitcom revival, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? This was so complete a success because the writers chose to make the five years since the last episode of The Likely Lads into the driving force of the series. Instead of being about the recreation of the beer, booze and birds obsessions of two Sixties’ lads out to enjoy life, the series focussed on the changes in the characters during a five year spell apart, expertly contrasting Bob Ferris’s middle-class absorption into the young executive early Seventies, with Terry Collier’s suspension in time due to his Army service, and his thwarted intent to pick up where he last was, in a world that no longer existed.

And yes, for those who are not familiar with this programme, it was a comedy, and still is very funny indeed.

It was not an approach that was factored into the BBC’s one-off revival of the Ronnie Barker/Roy Clarke sitcom, Open All Hours.

I used to love that programme, and the occasional repeats of it still make me laugh out loud. It tends to be overlooked a little when people discuss the great sitcoms of the past because both its star and its writer were involved in contemporaneous shows that were more popular: Barker as Fletch, in the immortal Porridge, Clarke as creator and sole writer of Last of the Summer Wine (which would go on to become the world’s longest-running sitcom ever).

The show was a quirky three-hander, featuring Barker as Arkwright, the tight-fisted, grasping yet richly-comic small-town corner shop grocer, David Jason, in his first starring role as errand boy Granville, frustrated at all turns, nephew to Arkwright with a dubious father, and Lynda Barron as District Nurse Gladys Emmanuel, living opposite and nominally Arkwright’s fiancee.

Like most of Clarke’s sitcoms, the show developed its own absurd world, revolving primaily around Arkwright and Granville, but punctuated by the regular customers who were the basis of what were virtually mini-sketches as they came and went. The humour primarily in the dialogue, with occasional slapstick, usually relating to Granville on the shop-bike, or Barker with the finger-trapping till, was deftly played. Each episode took place in a day, starting from the opening of the shop before dawn, and Granville’s perenially frustrated attempts to build a relationship with the milkwoman (Barbara Flynn, looking delightful as ever, even if swaddled in coat and woolly hat). It would end with a monologue from Arkwright, nominally about the events of the day, as he brought in the displays from outside.

Open All Hours first appeared as a one-off in the 1973 series, Seven of One, a variation on the BBC’s old Comedy Playhouse format (in which six different comedy pilots would be broadcast, as an audition for series) in that all seven episodes starred Ronnie Barker. Porridge was the ‘winner’ from that run, but in 1976, Barker and Clarke followed up the Arkwright pilot with the first of four series between then and 1985. I believe it was David Jason’s idea, initially, to do a revival as a Christmas special, but that Clarke is very happy to write a full series if this goes down well.

So, how was the revival handled? Well, it certainly wasn’t the worst of such things that I’ve seen. It was even mildly amusing at times, and it certainly attracted the likes of Johnny Vegas and Mark Williams into cameo roles (and Barry of the Chuckle Brothers but let’s say no more about that). What it was, basically, was pointless.

Clarke, Jason and the BBC have chosen not to make any changes whatsoever. Apart, that is, from the most central and inescapable change, namely that the great Ronnie Barker is no longer with us (and would probably have had nothing to do with this if he had been). The show gets around this by turning Granville into Arkwright, a virtual carbon copy. It gets around having to have Jason play Barker by introducing newcomer James Baxter to play Jason: he is introduced as Leroy, Granville’s son, abandoned by his mother as a baby and brought up by his Dad, and all the local women.

Actually, Leroy is not a Granville-clone: not entirely. He has the same worries about who his Dad might have been, but as these are directed at the man who has been his Dad in terms of raising him, and who believes himself to be biologically the father, this introduces a note of psychological depth which is not only alien to the show but also unnecessarily cruel. On the positive side, he’s more popular with the girls than Granville ever was.

Apart from that, it’s all the same. The shop is a bit cleaner and lighter, the sign repainted, the pavement display more extensive, but they’ve still got the till. Former Nurse Gladys Emmanuel still lives opposite (Arkwright never did get round to marrying her). Stephanie Cole reprises her role as Mrs Featherstone, the ‘Black Widow’, looking virtually unchanged (a testament to how well she ‘aged up’ thirty years ago) and Maggie Ollerenshaw returns as the indecisive Mavis, still nursing a mutual crush on Granville but steered even further away from any decision by her widowed sister Madge (played by Brigit Forsyth, the former Thelma of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? who really hasn’t aged well at all.)

No Barbara Flynn though. Sigh. And as for the new characters, apart from the introduction of a couple of Pakistani customers, as a gesture to the changing social background of the Doncaster in which the shop is set, not a one of them couldn’t have come out of a thirty year old episode, in word or thought.

But that’s really all there is. Juggle Granville into a near replica Arkwright, introduce a Granville-substitute with nearly all the same hang-ups and don’t change anything from thirty years ago. It gets a mild, nostalgic chuckle, based on the wish that there’d been a few more of them then, in the same way that the debut of NYPD Blue, a vastly inferior copy of Hill Street Blues, immediately reminded you of the absence of anything with the qualities of Hill Street Blues. The outcome could be achieved more effectively, and more economically, by repeating an old episode of Open All Hours.

Still Open All Hours gives its game away in its title. It is firmly rooted in its season which, like all others, has passed, and should be left to be remembered. A series would be a grave mistake.