Movies

Charles Dickens’ characters fall into two main categories: the memorable and the totally unforgettable. I can think of no other author who has created fictional characters the equal of vivid Victorians such as (in no particular order): The Artful Dodger, Smike, Joe Gargery, Fagin, Scrooge, Wilkins Micawber, Sam Weller, Daniel Quilp, Mr Dick, Bill Sykes, Magwitch, Frederick Dorrit, Mr Merdle, Mrs Gamp, and, of course, all the title characters. And that’s just from memory, if I had a crib-sheet in front of me, the list would run to dozens, if not hundreds, of names.

I was halfway through a post about Racism in Football (hopefully following not too far behind…) when I spotted a reminder that today (February 7th) is the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth. How could I possibly let that pass? I have been enchanted by his work ever since I first watched those atmospheric black and white Sunday teatime adaptations on the BBC, back in the monochrome 1960s. Although I’ve nothing against full colour broadcasting, there is something about black & white telly that sprinkles even more magic dust over Dickens’ characters and storylines. The same goes for those hugely atmospheric David Lean film adaptations of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist of the 1940s. For some reason we didn’t touch Dickens for our school exams – no shortage of Chaucer and Shakespeare, though – and I had to discover Dickens’ writing because I wanted to, not because I had to.

For the past couple of months, the British media has been on Dickens overload. Every celebrity from Armando Iannucci and Sue Perkins to Mariella Frostrup and Aled Jones have offered up their praise and opinions on the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. There’s a genuine risk of over-kill and a sad realisation that in a year’s time there’ll probably be no Dickens at all.

That’s the way media people think. No one has ever given me a realistic explanation as to why newspapers, magazines, radio and TV don’t “do” something unless they have an event to “hang it on”. I’d find Charles Dicken just as interesting 199-and-a-half years after his birth as exactly 200, but maybe I’m odd.

There’s a theory that suggests that Charles Dickens’ characters and brilliant – if occasionally over-convoluted – plots were so well-crafted because he had to write them in instalments. The theory falls down when you realise that many other authors wrote to the same constraints and (sadly, perhaps) their work has grown ivy and perished over the years. I think we just have to admit that Dickens’s survived is because they were so extraordinary to start with. Take this extract from Little Dorrit:

An old brick house, so dingy as to be all but black, standing by itself within a gateway. Before it, a square court-yard where a shrub or two and a patch of grass were as rank (which is saying much) as the iron railings enclosing them were rusty; behind it, a jumble of roots. It was a double house, with long, narrow, heavily-framed windows. Many years ago, it had had it in its mind to slide down sideways; it had been propped up, however, and was leaning on some half-dozen gigantic crutches: which gymnasium for the neighbouring cats, weather-stained, smoke-blackened, and overgrown with weeds, appeared in these latter days to be no very sure reliance.

‘Nothing changed,’ said the traveller, stopping to look round. ‘Dark and miserable as ever. A light in my mother’s window, which seems never to have been extinguished since I came home twice a year from school, and dragged my box over this pavement. Well, well, well!’

He went up to the door, which had a projecting canopy in carved work of festooned jack-towels and children’s heads with water on the brain, designed after a once-popular monumental pattern, and knocked. A shuffling step was soon heard on the stone floor of the hall, and the door was opened by an old man, bent and dried, but with keen eyes.

He had a candle in his hand, and he held it up for a moment to assist his keen eyes. ‘Ah, Mr Arthur?’ he said, without any emotion, ‘you are come at last? Step in.’

Mr Arthur stepped in and shut the door.

There’s no room here to offer a Charles Dickens biography, but enough space not to ignore the basic facts.

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Landport, Hampshire on February 7th, 1812. It was a memorable year all round: poet Robert Browning and the architect Augustus Pugin shared the same birth-year; the metric system was first adopted in France; Napoleon invaded Russia (later commemorated by Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture); and Britain went to war with the United States. By the time of his death, 58 years, four months and two days later, Dickens had written 15-and-a-half novels, 6 novellas and numerous shorter pieces.

The biggest selling of all his novels is A Tale of Two Cities. Don’t ask me why. The book with the most adaptations is A Christmas Carol, possible because Christmas does come around once every year…

The BBC’s Big Read survey of Britain’s favourite novels, undertaken in 2003, contained five from Dickens in the Top 100. They were: Great Expectations (17), David Copperfield (34), A Christmas Carol (47), A Tale of Two Cities (63) and Bleak House (79). Dickens and Terry Pratchett shared the distinction of having the most works in the first 100. (I wonder if that would be repeated in even 20 years from now.) For me, the big surprises were that Bleak House did so well (a clear two years before the ground-breaking BBC adaptation with Gillian Anderson and Charles Dance), and that Oliver Twist did so badly – only managing to scrape in at number 182.

You would have thought that with all the adaptations, in particular Lionel Bart’s spirited musical would have propelled Oliver Twist into the top 150 at the very least. It’s not as if the storyline – including the memorable line: “Please sir, I want some more!” – isn’t well known or that Charles Dickens’ characters in Oliver Twist are not up to standard. My theory is that we prefer our Dickens a little darker… preferably in black and white.

Unlikely as it may sound, psychiatrists recognise a condition called “John Wayne Syndrome”. Although the Duke’s ailment has since become synonymous with battle fatigue, it was originally coined to describe someone who could not come to terms with their own perceived lack of heroism.

When he wasn’t campaigning in favour of guns or against Socialism, Wayne was tormented by the realisation that the tough, macho figure he portrayed on the screen was entirely fictional. In his own eyes he was a “fag actor”. Though not likely to have engaged in oral or anal sex with men himself, the characters Wayne portrayed would have regarded actors as “fags” and in his own twisted reality, that’s how he sometimes thought of himself.

Leaving aside the negative aspects of being given a girl’s name, the young Marion Morrison was rejected by the U.S. Naval Academy and later was accused of purposely avoiding enlistment after Pearl Harbour in December, 1941. In his defence, it is said he did his best to sign-up but was rejected due to an old football injury. It has also been said that the U.S. Government was keen that famous actors stayed home to make propaganda films and boost morale.

The truth is that Wayne only made his name in John Ford’s 1939 western Stagecoach. By December 1941, he had yet to become a big enough draw to be given the star treatment. Equally or better known Hollywood names who were allowed to enlist include James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Clark Gable. With them out of the way, Wayne became much bigger during the war and the years immediately following it.

By sticking around in Hollywood, in 1943, he was able to help found the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, together with Mickey Mouse creator Walt Disney, and movie directors Leo “Duck Soup” McCarey and Sam “A Night At The Opera, A Day At The Races” Wood. (What is it with these Marx Brothers directors?) Wayne was elected president of the snappily-titled M.P.A.P.A.I. in 1947; fellow members included frequent co-star Ward Bond, and pals Gary Cooper and Ronald Reagan. Its statement of principles includes the line: “In our special field of motion pictures, we resent the growing impression that this industry is made of, and dominated by, Communists, radicals, and crackpots.” Just so.

Wayne was an ardent anti-Communist, and prominent supporter of the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1951, he made the appalling movie Big Jim McLain, in which he and James Arness play H.U.A.C. investigators battling commies in Hawaii. Wayne openly boasted of being instrumental in having Carl Foreman blacklisted from Hollywood after the release of the anti-McCarthy High Noon. The 1959 movie, Rio Bravo, was intended by Wayne and director Howard Hawks as a right-wing response.

His rabid anti-Communism made the “Duke” a loud and proud supporter of the Vietnam War, and 1969’s The Green Berets  which he starred in, produced and co-directed – is the only vaguely big budget movie in its defence. Funny that. Odd too that all the main Vietnamese characters in the movie are played by Japanese-American actors.

Movie-mad Stalin was so pissed off with Wayne’s anti-Communist views, he ordered his assassination. Luckily for all concerned, the Great Dictator died before the order could be implemented and Kruschev boasted to Wayne in 1958 that he recalled the hit squad before it could put the plan into operation.

An individual is never all bad and John Wayne is certainly no exception. He had tremendous charisma as an actor and his on-screen presence was immense. The John Ford- and Howard Hawks-directed westerns of the 1940s and 1950s produced some classic Wayne performances. His 1956 movie, The Searchers, is possibly the finest and most complex ever made in the genre (sorry, Clint). Only director John Ford could ever have persuaded Wayne to play Ethan Edwards, the racist Civil War veteran who hates practically everyone, but Indians in particular. Wayne was famous for turning down roles that didn’t show him in heroic light, but he could see the potential of the movie and how it furthered his view that Native Americans had received a bad deal at the white invader’s hand.

Yes, the Duke was pro-Indian. Even more surprising is that he occasionally voiced the opinion that Black America was getting a pretty rough deal, too. All three of his wives were of Hispanic origin and, just before he died, he gave support to the free Patty Hearst Campaign. Go figure.

Above all, Wayne was a “character”. Larger than life and a star in the true sense of the word. There is the famous story of how British film critic Barry Norman and Wayne almost came to blows on a promotional train journey to promote True Grit in 1969. At 11.30am,  Norman was presented to Wayne, who by this time, had already disposed of seventeen miniature bottles of bourbon. The subject of the Vietnam war came up and Wayne declared that he could put a stop to hostilities at a stroke, simply by phoning Kosygin and threatening to bomb Moscow. Norman laughed. “He got up, literally growling,” recounted Norman, “obviously intent on smiting me, and he was a very big man.” Fortunately for one or both of the prospective combatants, Wayne was restrained by a posse of Paramount publicity people.

Big Jessie indeed.