Brian McFarlane

Anyone who remembers Julie Taymor’s 1999 version of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s first published play, will not be expecting a reverential treatment of what is reputedly his last, but Taymor’s new film does move more or less inexorably to the play’s final wisdom: ‘The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance.’ The Tempest is a d ...

Having cut my narrative teeth on Dad and Dave and Martin’s Corner (and my critical molars on the Listener-In), I had high expectations of this book. Night after childhood night, I would wait agog for Wrigley’s Chewing Gum and a burst of rowdy music to usher in the outback doings of Dad and his hayseed family. Martin’s Corner, on the other hand, was brought to our living room by Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, which, we were assured, would ‘provide the essential bulk or roughage your system needs to keep it functioning healthily and regularly’. I didn’t know what this meant, but, such was the persuasive power of commercial radio, I believed it. Just as I believed from Sunday-night listening to the Lux Radio Theatre that ‘nine out of ten Hollywood stars used Lux for their daily active lather facials’, though I did wonder about the arid pores of that misguided ‘tenth’ star. The ABC was there for the news, but it was 3LK for entertainment, including such taxing intellectual games as Quiz Kids and Bob Dyer’s Pick-a-Box.

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Michael Winterbottom by Brian McFarlane and Deane Williams

by
February 2010, no. 318

I approached this readable and well-informed study expecting a middling book on a middling filmmaker. Michael Winterbottom is obviously a talented man by the standards of modern British commercial cinema, but I have always associated his work with a routine blend of fashionable technique and pious liberal sentiment. Nor did Brian McFarlane and Deane Williams raise my hopes with their introduction, in which they praise Winterbottom’s business sense and his avoidance of ‘high-flown accounts of what he is up to’. Above all, they seem impressed by the sheer industry of a director who has averaged one feature a year for the past decade and a half; however you judge him, ‘he does keep getting his films made’.

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‘It wasn’t like that in the book’ is one of the commonest and most irritating responses to film versions of famous novels. Adaptation of literature to film seems to be a topic of enduring interest at every level, from foyer gossip to the most learned exegesis. Sometimes, it must be said, the former is the more entertaining, but this is no place for such frivolity.

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It used to be said in decades gone by that overseas acting luminaries only came to Australia when their stars were in decline. This was never true in the case of Sybil Thorndike, who was critically acclaimed here, and widely admired as a person. She was not one of those who was past her prime – or, like some, never had one. She remained in her prime until she died in 1976. It is indeed hard to imagine her contemplating any other approach.

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‘I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that had made it, used it, protected it. I wanted it to be a gripping narrative, even suspenseful.’ So says Hanna Heath, protagonist of Geraldine Brooks’s latest novel, about her search through time and place for the history of ‘the Sarajevo Haggadah’, the ‘Book’ of the title ...

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Graham Swift’s fine novel Last Orders (1996) is propelled by the motif of a group of middle-aged men, with a shared past, brought together again by a single goal. In their case, it is the matter of casting the ashes of a dead friend into the sea. The narrative dips into the characters’ past to acquaint us with the nature of the ties that bind – have bound – them to each other and to the dead man.

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Theatregoers with long memories may well hug to themselves the ‘golden years’ of the Melbourne Theatre Company’s tenancy of the Russell Street Theatre in the 1960s, a time in which plays as varied as Hochhuth’s The Representative, Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear, Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s infallible matinee version of Henry James’s The Heiress, and many others jostled for attention. It was the time when an actor called Clive Winmill stepped on stage in the swinging London comedy The Knack and, instead of saying his lines, treated the audience to a passionate anti-Vietnam involvement speech. It was a time when the provocative new and the venerated classic made equal claims on a theatrical ensemble which achieved real importance in Melbourne’s cultural life.

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By chance the other day, watching British director Herbert Wilcox’s toe-curling ‘Scottish’ whimsy, Trouble in the Glen (1954), one of Orson Welles’s worst films (one of anybody’s worst films), I was struck anew by the fact that even when Welles could not save a film, he was always sure to be remembered in it. Here he plays a Scottish laird, long absent in South America, who returns to take up the castle he has inherited and, failing to bring a castful of theatrically canny Scots to heel, admits his errors and ends by presiding – benignly, but still presiding – in a kilt, yet. A romantic liaison and an appalling little girl taking her first post-illness steps may be intended to warm our soured hearts, but it is the massive figure avoiding the worst punishments for hubris that grabs what is left of our attention.

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Anyone who remembers the amiable host of the ABC’s television show Backchat, which he compèred for eight years from 1986, will not be surprised to learn that Tim Bowden has written a breezily readable memoir. Its pages seem to turn of their own volition. In the foreword, Maeve Binchy daringly asks: ‘Who are the right people to do a memoir?’ Actually, it’s probably not so daring, as Binchy had no doubt read Bowden’s chronicle and knew he qualified as one of the ‘right people’. Two criteria leap to mind. The writer needs to exhibit a character and personality you’d be happy to keep company with for 300 or so pages. In addition, the reader – this one, anyway – wants a complementary sense of the times of the life in the foreground.

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