The Marat/Sade

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The Marat/Sade (1967).

Good to find this Peter Brook film on YouTube (for the time being…) as I’d been watching Ian Richardson in a couple of things recently and wanted to remind myself of how he fares here. He’s excellent, of course, as the serious foil to Patrick Magee’s equally serious Marquis de Sade. Brook’s film is a recording of his stage presentation of Peter Weiss’s play, and the two actors embody the poles of a dialogue about the perennially knotty problems of revolution, freedom, and the interests of the individual in the face of political abstractions. What fascinates most about the play is the Brechtian nature of the drama: structured as a play-within-a-play (we’re watching the inmates of an asylum performing a fictional Sade drama), and with a proxy audience regarding the performance through iron bars, the staging is as far away from dry theorising as you can get. Brief moments of debate between Sade and the asylum inmate portraying Marat act as punctuations between scurrilous chorus songs and frequent scenes of outright chaos which erupt when the demands of performance become too much for the inmates. It’s loud, sardonic, cynical, and often riveting. One of the more miserable features of drama from the 1960s and 70s is the recurrence of ham-fisted political didacticism which, however well-intentioned, makes for a dismal viewing experience. Weiss’s play shows how well you can deliver political rhetoric when the staging doesn’t ignore the presence of a possibly sceptical audience who might also like to be entertained.

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Peter Brook has had a peculiar career as a film director, most of his films being screen adaptations of his stage productions, or odd one-offs such as his documentary-like (and somewhat superfluous) film of Lord of the Flies, and the bizarre Meetings with Remarkable Men. (More about that later.) Brook’s Royal Shakespeare Company staging of the Weiss play was performed to great acclaim in 1965 so we’re fortunate that it’s captured so well here. The cast includes many first-rate actors, not only Richardson and Magee but Glenda Jackson as the inmate given the task of portraying Charlotte Corday, Michael Williams as the Herald, and (easy to miss among the clown-faced chorus) Freddie Jones. A low-grade YouTube copy does little for David Watkin’s superb photography which gives the film a very different look to other films of the 1960s. Studios films of the era tended to be horribly over-lit so it’s refreshing to find a film such as this using only the available light to illuminate the action. Searching around for DVDs reveals a single Spanish edition which I’m tempted to buy if I could be sure it was widescreen and with the English soundtrack intact. As for the play itself, the concerns may be typical of the period but many of the sentiments have lost none of their relevance. Highly recommended.

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Children of the Stones

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“Pretty phantasmagorical!” says precocious teenager Matthew when he and his father drive into the fictional village of Milbury in the opening scene of Children of the Stones. Matthew’s father is a scientist whose work requires a three-month stay in a village built in the centre of a series of ancient ramparts and stone circles. Once settled they find many of the villagers to be blandly cheerful, while Matthew discovers that his maths skills at the local school pale beside younger children who can solve complex equations with ease. Omnipresent characters in the village are Hendrick, a retired astronomer who owns the local manor house and acts as village squire, Margaret, a newly-arrived archaeologist who knows the history of the stones, and Dai, a vagrant poacher who lives outside the circle, and who seems eager to remain free of the Stepford-like happiness afflicting his neighbours.

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Matthew (Peter Demin).

Matthew’s “phantasmagorical” epithet is directed at the neolithic mound outside the village but could easily apply to the whole of this seven-part serial which I watched again recently. It was an HTV production first broadcast in early 1977 and I’d not seen any of it since that time. A mystery serial for children involving pagan history, folk rituals and an undercurrent of science fiction wasn’t such a surprising thing in the 1970s, this was a decade when a popular interest in the occult and the paranormal was more prevalent than at any time before or since. Children’s television reflected adult trends which is why we got to see an adaptation of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, the occult adventure series Ace of Wands (with its hero named “Tarot”), The Tomorrow People (which occasionally strayed from science fiction to science fantasy) and others (see an earlier post, Occultism for kids). Children of the Stones was the most complex of all of these, a well-crafted drama with similarities to Nigel Kneale’s TV plays, The Wicker Man and The Prisoner. With a slight change of emphasis it would have worked just as well as a serial for adults. The best children’s serials of the period were usually adaptations of novels; Children of the Stones was an original work for television, written by Jeremy Burnham & Trevor Ray, and directed by Peter Graham Scott.

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Adam (Gareth Thomas), Margaret (Veronica Strong) and Hendrick (Iain Cuthbertson).

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