Sunday, 25 August 2013

Tower of London (1939)

Tower of London is near-contemporaneous with the setting subject of my last post here, Edward & Mrs Simpson, but is set at over four hundred years' distance rather than forty. Nevertheless, the scroll which opens the narrative would have left filmgoers in little doubt that they were watching a film with contemporary relevance. There were many ruthless men determined to leave dark stains upon the pages of history in 1939, and the failure of the Munich agreement showed that tomorrow's enemies were already here. Like the film's Henry Tudor from France, many residents of the United States watched from over the sea as their ancestral homelands fell subject to what many would explain as self-interested misgovernment.

Director Rowland V. Lee seems to have used as many British actors as possible, at least where the male characters are concerned. Miles Mander, younger brother of a British Liberal anti-appeasement MP, Geoffrey Mander, plays Henry VI as a confused old man overtaken by events; with his white hair, moustache and beard, Mander's Henry looks more like a ragged version of his brother's target Neville Chamberlain than the pious clean-shaven Henry of the portraits. His enemy Edward IV is embodied in jovial brutality by Ian Hunter, a less powerful but comparable grandperformance to Keith Michell's Henry VIII in BBC Television's The Six Wives of Henry VIII thirty years later. The working classes are represented by a self-promoting and exploitative but ultimately dependable chimney-sweep, Tom Clink, played by Ernest Cossart, younger brother of Gustav Holst.

John Sutton, playing the film's ostensible romantic hero John Wyatt, was from British India and his character is a cut-price version of the kind of role played by his fellow member of the imperial diaspora, Errol Flynn, in whose support he had been previously cast in The Dawn Patrol and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. He carries some physical action but is mainly a symbol of hope, of marriage (and 'normal life') deferred for the people of England as embodied in the virtuous but passionate and plucky Lady Anne Barton (played by Texan actress Nan Grey). Both Wyatt and his lady are fictitious but at least one detail of Wyatt's storyline, his imprisonment in the Tower, seems to be derived from the legends which accrued around Henry Wyatt, father of the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt.

The stars, though, are unquestionably Basil Rathbone as Richard of Gloucester, and Boris Karloff as his enforcer Mord. There's a cold charm to Rathbone's Richard which is so precise as to be disarming. Indeed, his private miniature tableau of naively-crafted figurines, whittled down to one over years as Richard disposes of successive family members, is endearing in its simplicity. We can believe that his nephew Richard of York would include "I like Uncle Richard" in his last prayer. Richard is playful and death is his game. Indeed, he does away with his elder brother the duke of Clarence (Vincent Price, visibly much younger than Basil Rathbone despite the best efforts of Rathbone's make-up) by tempting him with the entire Warwick inheritance if he wins a drinking contest, leaving him drunk enough to meet his vinicultured fate. The reason the film shows very little of Richard as king is that there is no-one important enough for him left to murder before Henry Tudor arrives to slay him at Bosworth, both in terms of the film's plot and for Richard as a character.

Mord is the film's invention, a club-footed, bald grotesque whose ears adhere more closely than is usual to his skull. He's a physically deformed and embittered lower-orders counterpart to Richard. He's another opportunity for Universal to present Karloff beneath 'monster' make-up, but also exhibit his talent for physical performance. There's something of the class warrior about Mord, taking revenge on the nobility through beheadings, stabbings and (last but definitely not least) drowning in Malmsey wine, on behalf of the masses. Yet a more urgent compulsion for Mord is the need to be recognised as human, as a man, as a warrior. He begs that Richard let him come to fight at Tewkesbury, but Richard refuses, preferring that Mord plot on his behalf from the shadows rather than take up arms for the wider Yorkist cause. The depiction of Mord's dejection as Karloff takes him back through a Tower gateway, dragging his foot behind him, framed in silhouette, is skilfully done. Mord's devotion to his fellow-sufferer, the crookbacked Richard, is encouraged and exploited by Richard, but nowhere does it appear that Richard's infirmity holds him back. Mord lacks self-belief, but he does believe in Richard. At the end, he fights bravely and well until he sees his master killed; any sympathy the audience might feel for him is challenged when he attempts to fly the field. He is eventually defeated in single combat, but it takes a nobleman to do it.

The opening roller referred to the pages of History, as if it were a foreign land. Though the architecture of the real Tower of London is closely honoured in the long (model? or photographic?) shots, the general shape of the sets owes much to Universal's Mitteleuropa of its earlier horror cycle, though augmented with the appropriate English royal arms for the period. However, the mingling of British and various American accents (including a very southern accent for the five-year-old Richard, duke of York, in his wedding scene) suggests that this is a film made for a United States which very much still saw English history as the main root of its traditions. Richard III might pose as a man of the people, but appeals to the mob (it's tempting to see parallels with Hitler's use of the plebiscite) are no substitute for the rule of law and respect for the wishes of the individual. It's only the advent of Henry VII which allows John and Anne to marry.

Tower of London presents an abbreviated storybook history which concentrates on the villainy of one prince and his henchman. Character suffers: Anne Neville is introduced as the loving wife of Edward, prince of Wales (G.P. Huntley, cast only as sword fodder) but disappears once she is married. The mature leading female role is Queen Elyzabeth (the only name to suffer a cod medievalisation) who suffers from a vocal delivery, gestures and facial expression which suggests Barbara O'Neil was playing to the back of the stalls. Unlike a more recent treatment of this historical period - the BBC adaptation of Philippa Gregory's The White Queen and its sequels - the emphasis is on the fate of a people rather than on the careers of individuals, magic is absent, God is taken for granted (and mocked by Richard as Mord does away with Henry VI) and while liberties are taken with chronology, no-one lives who shouldn't (though some, such as Hastings, just disappear). However, Tower of London works well as a catalogue of grand villainy and the degradation of a people, with the promise of redemption through the intervention of an overseas ally. Physical horror happens mostly just off screen, aside from the bloodied heads in the battle scenes, too real to be made sardonic joke of like stabbings and drunken drownings. Richard survives for so long because Edward IV keeps postponing the cause of right for the benefit of exigencies; his sons (dressed straight out of Millais) pay the price, much as populations were being sacrificed to the rule of Hitler as a result of appeasement. Neither Richard nor Mord is a Hitler, for they are drawn too broadly and their villainies are too specific, but the appeal to the American audience to look at events across the Atlantic is clear.

Poster image courtesy of

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Edward & Mrs Simpson (1978)

The latest addition to my collection of portrayals of royalty on television is Edward & Mrs Simpson, produced by Thames Television for ITV in 1978. Like ATV's Edward the Seventh three years before, it took a biography as its source and liberally drew on quotations from correspondence, reported speech and authorial commentary for setting and dialogue. The biography was Edward VIII, published in 1974. Its author, Frances Donaldson, was credited as series adviser. The screenwriter was Simon Raven, much of whose writing had concerned the upper and upper-middle classes of English society. This included both his novel sequences and his television work, including his responsibility for the BBC's epic Anthony Trollope adaptation The Pallisers (1974). Raven's social persona reportedly left those he knew debating whether he was cad, angel, or both - something that might have been said of Edward VIII himself.

There's a self-awareness to the casting which tempts the informed viewer to see Edward &Mrs Simpson as something of an inside job, an emanation from the slightly raffish side of the British establishment, paying its way by commercial breaks. Edward Fox, playing Edward VIII, was the nephew of Frances Donaldson. His first wife was the granddaughter of Freda Dudley Ward, the most enduring of Edward's mistresses when he was prince of Wales, infamously dismissed with the words from the palace switchboard "I'm sorry, but I have orders not to put you through."

Appropriately for a drama leading up to an event which interrupted and accelerated hereditary succession, Edward & Mrs Simpson draws on a wider sense of theatrical genealogy. Several of the older historical figures are personified by actors whose careers were already well under way when Edward VIII left the throne in December 1936. Peggy Ashcroft plays Queen Mary; Jessie Matthews, Wallis's aunt Bessie Merriman; Maurice Denham, Cosmo Gordon Lang, archbishop of Canterbury; Marius Goring, a fatalistic George V. Sibyl Colefax[1] is played by 1920s and 30s comedienne Elsie Randolph. Andrew Ray, as the Duke of York, was the son of 1930s radio comedian Ted Ray. These decisions make Edward & Mrs Simpson not a detached historicisation of events or fictionalised reinterpretation like many more recent television dramas, but an extension of the dance suggested by the title song, Ron Grainer's arrangement of Herbert Farjeon's I've danced with a man, who's danced with a girl, who's danced with the Prince of Wales.[2] Many of the key participants in events were very much alive in 1978, with Mrs Simpson herself, the Duchess of Windsor, a haunting presence not that near the back of the minds of the royal family and household, however fragile she seemed in her house in the Bois de Boulogne.

No conclusive psychological portrait is drawn of the eponymous subjects. At best, both lie outright to those closest to them, but neither are clear what their goals are or can admit as much to themselves. Perhaps Simon Raven was as baffled as Stanley Baldwin professed to be by the king's decision. Much depends, for the viewer, on observation of carefully rehearsed body language and facial expression. Early in the first episode Edward, still Prince of Wales, is the focus of a round of For he's a jolly good fellow in a regimental sergeants' mess. Edward Fox's face is that of a man who doesn't believe it's possible that he can be jolly good. Edward's self-doubt is ignored by his parents and managed by his two mistresses, responsible big sister Freda Dudley Ward and naughty little sister Thelma Furness. Both Kika Markham and Cherie Lunghi endear in these roles - it is their subjects who might grate - and it's a pity, though absolutely necessary to the storytelling, that we never see either of them after the first episode. Though the script and Cynthia Harris's performance suggest that the audience is at first expected to warm to Wallis in episode one, after she shows no enthusiasm for Thelma's safari tales (which follow extended film sequences of animals being slaughtered for fun by Edward and Thelma in East Africa), her appropriation of a vulnerable man is gauche and based upon partial misreadings.

Drama which draws on non-fiction while still being drama is prone to rearrange matters. The stammering but resolute Duke of York tells his wife that "I'm only a naval officer," and not (as historically) his cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten. The impression is left that Edward meets Wallis for the first time in London and not in Melton Mowbray, more fitting perhaps for a man who sought refuge in a metropolitan smart set.

Director Waris Hussein was by this point extremely adept at realising pasts recent and remote both on film and video and he makes use of the mixed media television drama format well. Wallis's jewellery sparkles in the grey reality of studio-London flats and Suffolk beaches; the yellows of Fort Belvedere suggest a golden fantasy from which Edward could never quite be awakened. There is a particular shot, in soft focus, of Edward and Wallis walking through a field, romantically framed through flowers, which then crashes back into the hardness of politics: studio lights, video cameras, portrait shots of visibly ageing men talking. There's a desolation to the final shot of Edward and Wallis being driven away from their wedding across a sterile gravel road: how much energy has been expended for an unproductive future.

Edward & Mrs Simpson is available on DVD in the UK from Network.While my secondhand copy looks like the image above, the release has since been rejacketed as right.

[1] Colefax's inclusion in the narrative is cunning: the socialite and decorator was a niece of Walter Bagehot, who famously defined the powers of the British monarch as the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn.

[2] The song was mentioned on camera by the Duchess of Windsor herself in A King's Story (1968). Thanks to Jim Smith for this reference.