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Monday 28 December 2020

STAGECOACH - The BFI Classics book


This 95-page appraisal of the classic 1939 John Wayne/John Ford film (published in 1992) is written by Edward Buscombe, who is also the editor of The BFI Companion to the Western.

Seven of producer Walter Wanger’s pictures for United Artists hadn’t made a profit. So Wanger was told to rein back his budgets. Ford’s project to film ‘Stage to Lordsburg’ appealed: ‘a talented, tested and prestigious director, relatively unknown and therefore inexpensive stars and a type of story which, even if Westerns were not fashionable, was nevertheless of proven appeal.’ (p17).

The filming lasted about two months. But due to Wanger’s financial situation, UA wouldn’t agree to filming in colour, which was a great shame, considering the spectacular vistas presented by Monument Valley. At that time colour added about 30% to production costs. The film came in under budget, costing about $531,000. The salaries of some of the picture’s stars were Claire Trevor, $15,000; Andy Devine, $10,000; Thomas Mitchell, $12,000 (and he won an Oscar for the part too!); John Wayne, $3,700, considerably less than four other travellers in the stagecoach! (p18)

Essentially there are two narrative strands to the plot: first, a journey through dangerous terrain, echoing The Odyssey; second, revenge, which is as ancient as the Greek myth. The latter is ‘driven by the hero’s sense of personal honour, an inner compulsion rather than an external threat.’ (p25) And the theme emphasises that good prevails over evil.

One of the reasons for the film being a classic is the canny juxtaposition of the nine travellers in the stagecoach, and how they rub against each other, revealing their characters. The driver Buck, the whiskey drummer, Peacock, meek in character and temperament (played by Donald Meek), the Southern gambler Hatfield who is not quite the gentleman he likes to think he is, the disdainful and felonious banker Gatewood who is anxious to abscond, the wan wilting flower of womanhood, Lucy, keen to join her cavalry officer husband, well-oiled Doc Boone, evicted from the town for drunkenness and not paying his rent, escaped jailbird Ringo Kid, joining the coach a short way outside town, shotgun rider Sheriff Wilcox (who promptly arrests Ringo), and Dallas (who ‘is never actually named as a prostitute, but only the young and innocent Ringo does not instantly recognise her profession’[p37]).  

Between the lines, Ford reveals that ‘respectability and morality are very far from being the same thing.’ (p37)

Needless to say, screenwriter Dudley Nichols had to considerably enlarge upon the original short story. Lucy, the army wife, is not pregnant in the story; Nichols’s injection of her gravid state and the subsequent birth seem ‘expressly designed to give the film appeal to a more mixed audience.’ (p54)

Due recognition is also given to stuntman Yakima Canutt: ‘his contribution to the film was considerable,’ with examples. (p67)

Interestingly, Orson Welles confessed he learned to be a director by watching John Ford’s films: ‘John Ford was my teacher. My own style has nothing to do with his, but Stagecoach was my movie text-book. I ran it over forty times.’ (p58)

The book concludes with details about the press releases, the film’s overwhelmingly positive reception, and John Ford’s subsequent career and status. Throughout, the pages are interspersed with black-and-white stills.

An excellent insight into a piece of cinematic history.

There are many other BFI Classic books available; check them out on Amazon – search for ‘BFI Classics’


* BFI = British Film Institute

Monday 30 November 2020

Downton Abbey - The complete scripts - Season Two

Published 2013.

This book follows the same format as the first season scripts, offering asides and insights from the author Julian Fellowes, plus text that had to be cut for various reasons, usually overrunning time.

These pages are very useful for budding writers of fiction, students of film, and  the many fans of the TV series itself. This series, then, as Fellowes states in his Foreword, ‘sees our characters face the ultimate test of war. Some are strengthened by the ordeal, a couple are defeated, but all of them are changed.’

In one of the footnotes Fellowes reveals that he borrows ‘my friends’ names relentlessly.’  The intended of Matthew is Lavinia Swire, for example. He used a Northamptonshire friend’s name Lavinia in her memory. The surname Swire is filched from his friend Hugo, MP, whose wife recently gained notoriety from her memoires!

So many of the footnotes hark to Fellowes’s memories of family and friends, for example his great-aunt Isie commented at the end of the war ‘Sometimes it feels as if all the men I ever danced with are dead.’ A poignant vignette (p21).

On reading the scripts it is evident that all of the actors involved add richness and depth to Fellowes’s script. And he is unstinting in praise in several footnotes. And it’s not only the main actors, either. ‘The hall boys and those maids who have no lines take their contribution very seriously and we are lucky that they do. In fact they do a superb job. These parts may not have much in the way of lines, but they are very important to the show.’ (p452) In one case he was sorry that a hall boy’s line had to be cut.

As mentioned in my review of Season One’s scripts, the footnotes also cover historical and sociological issues, all of them of interest. An aside regarding the use of the Marcel waver, regarding long hair being ‘a sign of bondage’ – a statement of femininity but also impracticality: ‘in the Forties so many women were imitating Veronica Lake’s hairstyle and their hair was getting caught up in machines. So ‘she cut off her long seductive locks and with them, I’m afraid, her career.’  (p144)

There’s an amusing aside about working with dogs and children. Not because they will steal the scene. The actor has to be perfect in each take, in the hope that in one of them the dog or child will perform correctly, and only that take will be used. (p163) Another instance is that it is ‘bred into an actor’s bones that when some potential employer asks you if you can do something, you must always say yes and then go off and try to learn to do it…’ (p239)

What is also fascinating is how Fellowes views his characters, ascribing motivation: ‘I don’t blame Mary for failing to see that straight away.’ (p207)

There are a great number of sad scenes, and again some are inspired by the tales from Fellowes’s relatives. One poignant story is about a female relative being coerced into a marriage with a shell-shocked survivor, doing the honourable thing,, and in effect tragically wasting her life. (p285)

When writing about the Titanic incident (which actually started the first season), Fellowes is critical of the trendy modern perspective of viewing the past through the distorted prism of today’s sensitivities: saying of the people on the ‘unsinkable ship’, ‘they were so unbelievably brave. The modern historian is usually a miserabilist and is only happy when reporting how badly everyone behaved, but if he tries this with the Titanic he will be disappointed. I’m not saying nobody behaved badly, but very few did. And in all three classes there were so many examples of staggering courage.’ (p329)

Inevitably, Fellowes regrets some cuts that had to be made. Yet, to be fair, which he always is, he can also appreciate that in many cases they were valid: ‘I think I was wrong and they were right.’ (p359)

The Spanish ‘flu epidemic of 1918-19 tragically figures in the storyline. Bearing in mind this was written in 2012/2013, Fellowes says: that epidemic is ‘almost forgotten today.’ (p435) How times change; since Covid-19 was unleashed from China in 2019 there have been dozens of articles and TV programmes about its more serious precursor!

What shines through these scripts is the author’s empathy for all the characters. Sometimes people are petty, but then they surprise with an act of kindness; others are generous with their time; while some rail against change but have to face its inevitability. And virtually all of these character drawings are conveyed through dialogue (enlivened by flesh and blood actors).  These scripts are a masterclass in drama – and history, in fact.

Again, there are stills from this season (in black and white) and cast and production lists.

Highly recommended.

Monday 9 November 2020

The Thursday Murder Club - Book review


Richard Osman’s debut novel (published 2020) is a delight. Most of the action takes place in a peaceful retirement village Coopers Chase in the heart of the Kentish Weald of present-day England. As we know, many developers don’t go in for apostrophes, so this one is no exception. The land, which once belonged to a convent, was purchased from the Catholic Church; the convent is now Willows, a nursing home for the village. Nearby is the graveyard, crammed with interred nuns.

A variety of clubs have been formed by the residents. Among them is the Thursday Murder Club set up by Elizabeth and Penny: here they discuss cold cases. Penny had been an inspector in the Kent Police and acquired the old files before retiring. ‘After a certain age, you can pretty much do whatever takes your fancy. No one tells you off, except for your doctors and your children’ (p18). [This was written before Covid-19 lunacy, of course. Now it seems police are quite content to handcuff septuagenarians for the slightest of reasons.] Other Murder Club members are Ibrahim, a psychiatrist who hails from Egypt; Ron, a trades union official who ‘never believes a single word anyone ever tells him’ (p19); and Joyce, the newcomer, an ex-nurse who has taken Penny’s place since the latter was now in Willows.

However, a brutal murder occurs – a bludgeoning – that warrants this quartet’s involvement. Much to the initial chagrin of DCI Chris Hudson and PC Donna De Freitas, they begin to uncover salient clues… Before long there is a second murder, and a baffling cold case becomes a bone of contention also.

The character of each club member is distinct, and all have something useful to add to the case. Elizabeth is the natural leader; she was something important in secret intelligence during the Cold War and has many useful contacts, reminding me a little of  Mrs Pargeter.

There are plenty of red herrings and some clever misdirection, none of it seeming contrived.  The over-riding feeling on reading this is one of quiet pleasure. There are moments of poignancy, as you’d perhaps expect in this kind of environment, but also humour and even farce.  One of the quotations the publishers used is ‘Robert Galbraith meets Tom Sharpe,’ which is absurd. The humour is gentle, witty and kindly meant. If I had to reference comparable writers, I’d opt for Henry Cecil, Richard Gordon and Simon Brett (the Mrs Pargeter novels), though Mr Osman’s style and wit are definitely his own.

Among the many potential quotations that give a flavour of a sense of heartfelt kindness that flows throughout, I’ll simply offer two:

‘Many years ago, everybody here would wake early because there was a lot to do and only so many hours in the day. Now they wake early because there is a lot to do and only so many days left.’ (p42)

As Joyce says, ‘In life you have to learn to count the good days. You have to tuck them in your pocket and carry them around with you.’ (p88)

The book is written in the third person present tense from an omniscient point of view, interspersed with first person diary entries by Joyce. And it works exceedingly well.

A sequel is already planned for publication for next autumn.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday 3 November 2020

Book of the film - LAST STAND AT SABER RIVER


Written by Elmore Leonard in 1959, my copy is published 2005. Leonard is famous for both his crime novels (Get Shorty, Mr Majestyk, Glitz, and Out of Sight) and also westerns (3:10 to Yuma, Hombre, Valdez is Coming, Joes Kidd, and The Bounty Hunters) and many of his books have been filmed.

Last Stand at Saber River took almost forty years to be filmed, as a TV movie starring Tom Selleck, Suzy Amis, Haley Joel Osment, Keith Carradine, David Carradine and David Dukes.

The film and the book differ mainly in the beginning and end sequences.

The film starts earlier than the book, filling in background that is flashbacked in the book. The Civil War still rages. Reported killed in action, Paul Cable is a Confederate veteran returning home to surprise his wife Martha and two children (they lost a third to disease while he was away fighting; though in the book the child is alive [economising on young actors]). His family has been staying with her parents but now he is going to take them to their homestead in Arizona, which they left during his absence. However, in the book it begins with them arriving at the trading post which is near to their homestead. But the owner has passed away and it is now part owned by Janroe who lost a hand in the war.

Cable soon learns that a Union-sympathising family has assumed control of Cable’s homestead and land. This is the Kidston family: Vern, his brother Duane and his daughter Lorraine. Some of the Kidston cowhands are staying at the homestead. Cable chases them off. Thus begins an ongoing feud between the two families. In the book Cable suffers two brutal beatings at the hands of the Kidston crew and Duane (the film doesn’t impose this on Selleck, he is tougher and not averse to killing in self defence).

Janroe harbours a powerful hate for the Union and all who supported the North. He is intent on engineering further conflict between the two families, even while both Vern and Lorraine are about to talk rather than fight with Cable and Martha.

It is all brought to a head in the final pages and is taut and tense, as one is accustomed when reading any Elmore Leonard book.

However, the film moves beyond the book, stretching out the suspense, determined on inserting more action and conflict.

Both endings work for their different media.

If you like the actor Tom Selleck, then you should enjoy this film. If you like a novel with conflict, strong characterisation and a moral core, then you’ll enjoy the book.

Thursday 22 October 2020

V2 - Book review


 Robert Harris


Bestselling author Robert Harris meticulously relates in this novel events that take place over five days at the end of November 1944, involving both British and German protagonists in the Second World War.

On the German side is rocket engineer Rudi Graf, friend and associate of Wernher von Braun, working on the new V2 rockets that can break the sound barrier and are unstoppable, unlike the earlier V1s. Like von Braun, Graf dreamed of building spaceships that could reach the moon, but the only way to finance that dream was to engage with the army. Hitler was won over by von Braun and development was well under way by November 1944. They were firing several per day at London with devastating effect.

On the British side is Kay Caton-Walsh, an officer in the WAAF, who experiences first-hand the explosive effects of a V2 when in London conducting an affair with a married senior officer. Shortly after her close shave with death, she is recruited to join a select group on a mission in Mechelen, in newly liberated Belgium. Their task is to track the parabolic course of launched V2s, aided by radar reports and information of the coordinates of the actual hit, working backwards armed with slide rules and mathematical calculations to identify the launch sites for RAF bomb attacks.

As you’d expect from an accomplished writer, you’re speedily involved in the lives of these two characters and the realistic detail and characterisation of everyone puts you there.  There is added tension as you follow the track of a deadly V2 on more than one occasion.  Also, the forced labour by prisoners is duly acknowledged; some 20,000 slave labourers died in the manufacture of V2 rockets. Yet at no point did I feel that the story was spoiled by being swamped with technical detail.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday 21 October 2020





Creator and writer Julian Fellowes has produced the full shooting scripts of the first three seasons of the phenomenally successful TV series. 

This is the book of the first season.

In addition he has added scenes which had to be cut plus countless footnotes commenting on many aspects of the show.

Even if you haven’t seen the series, if you're a writer you could glean a great deal from reading this book’s 396 pages. Laid bare are how dramatists set scenes, cut to new scenes, define character through dialogue and create conflict.

If you’ve seen the show, then this book enriches your experience. You can hear the actors speaking the lines. And while a show is nothing without the writer, credit must be given to all the cast who bring their characters to life, endowing the words with depth and emotion.

Fellowes’s footnotes are very interesting from a social science and historical aspect, as well as being highly entertaining, enlightening and often humorous.

This Season One book contains scripts for Episodes 1 to 7 plus eight colour pages of stills, a cast list, and production credits.

I’m currently watching Season Two and then reading the second book in tandem.

Tuesday 20 October 2020

EMMA - Book review



Jane Austen’s longest novel was completed in 1815 and thanks to the self-willed and very self-satisfied character of Emma Woodhouse, it is a firm favourite.

Austen’s characters are indeed fascinating, whether that’s the loquacious Miss Bates (‘I am rather a talker’ [p274]), the insufferable Augusta Elton, Emma’s hypochondriac father, the secretive rich Frank Churchill, the poorly done-by Jane Fairfax and the long-suffering Mr Knightley.

Emma began match-making, finding a suitable husband for her governess Miss Taylor, and felt so satisfied with this happy outcome she determined to seek a suitor for her new friend, docile pliable Harriet. However, it all goes embarrassingly wrong, with confusion piling upon misunderstanding.

Austen’s wit and humour shines through, even after all these years. Her phrase: ‘She could fancy such a man’ (p253) could have sprung from countless modern novels, even.

On beginning Emma, she declared: ‘I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.’  At the outset it appears Emma is conceited, self-opinionated, even snobbish and quite bossy; however, she is also beautiful, intelligent, quite lively, strong-willed (‘Emma denied none of it aloud, and agreed to none of it in private’ [p279]), dutiful to her father. And she hides most of the time her sensitivity. A complex character.

My edition (1969) has an introduction and notes by Arthur Calder-Marshall.

Minor editorial comments:

From a modern standpoint, stylistically, there’s an over-emphasis of exclamation marks and em-dashes, but this may be typical of the period.

Many paragraphs are far too long.

I’d hope that later editions of mine have corrected the typo on p355 – ‘… and return it into the purple and gold ridicule by her side…’ when ‘ridicule’ should have been ‘reticule’.