by Allan Fish
(UK 1995 152m) DVD1/2
A nation of babbling backseat cab drivers
p Mike Bluett d Tony Palmer w John Osborne, Charles Wood ph Nic Knowland m Henry Purcell md John Eliot Gardiner art Nigel Talano cos John Gibbs
Michael Ball (Henry Purcell), Simon Callow (Charles II), Lucy Speed (Nell Gwyn), Robert Stephens (Sir John Dryden), John Shrapnel (Samuel Pepys), Rebecca Front (Mary II), Corin Redgrave (William III), Letitia Dean (Portsmouth), Terence Rigby (Capt Cooke), Murray Melvin (Shaftesbury), John Fortune (Edward Hyde),
When I first saw Tony Palmer’s film of Henry Purcell’s life it was in its maiden TV broadcast, Christmas Day 1995. If nudged into thinking what Purcell meant to me then, it would have probably been as the composer of the piece reworked electronically for the opening to Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, a film I still was yet to see due to its withdrawal by the director. But I’d seen clips, I’d got the CD score. I was enamoured.
I could be forgiven for my ignorance, in part because of my youth but largely because so little is known of him, except that he wrote nearly a piece a week for the last fourteen years of his life and died at the same meagre age as Mozart a century later. When John Osborne, the great playwright of the fifties and sixties, came to write his piece in Purcell he was approaching his own end, and what he created would amount to three requiems in one. A requiem not only to himself and his first love, the theatre, not only to Purcell and his too long neglected genius, but to England itself.
He presents us with two stories running parallel; in the mid 1960s of CND marches a group of actors are performing Shaw’s play ‘In Good King Charles’ Golden Days’ and are told that they only have a week or so left, due to low box office. Through basic necessity as much as through inquiry, the leading actor seeks out to research and write a play on Purcell to take its place. A play not just about Purcell’s life, but the age of Dryden, Pepys, the plague, the Great Fire of 1666 immortalised in that painting by Verschuier, the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution. In the actor/writer’s mind he imagines the play and the historical events taking place, his actors step into the present both in and out of character and he tries, in so doing, to compare the loss of what was English in the late 1600s with the loss of national identity in the 1960s.
What made the play so wordy to my immature 22 year old head then now makes the piece seem like prophecy. There are references in the conversations between the writer and his much younger co-star and on-off lover which look ahead to the Common Market and also to the later European Union and, writing in January 2012, with so many European countries on the verge of bankruptcy, the potency cuts to the quick. To Osborne, his country had become like an “old tramp shuffling around for a pair of boots at the tradesmen’s entrance of Europe”, its people given over to opinion polls and phone-in talk shows for the “semi-literate, the bigoted and the barmy” and creating “a generation for whom honour is a forgotten meaningless currency…may God rot the tyranny of equality, streamlining, classlessness and, above all, absurd irrelevant (political) correctness.”
In a final attack, there’s a word for a TV which had, to Osborne, lost its vitality in the days between the film’s setting and the present. A play about a great composer, but in a time where such things were becoming a thing of the past, owing something both to the BBC plays of Ken Russell (The Debussy Film especially) and the less accessible treatises of Straub and Huillet. Palmer’s love for his subject and his music, and of his author and those of the time, creating a piece which is at once a resigned last gasp of breath and a plea for oxygen. And while Ball may be curious casting and Speed and Dean lightweight (Emma Pierson would be a better Nell in 2003), Callow is magnificent in and out of Charles’ character and Shrapnel is superb as Pepys. But overshadowing all, the great Robert Stephens, an actor so long misused on the screen, himself dying at the time of filming, who imbues Dryden’s words with a poetry and a melancholy that brings tears to the eyes. It’s one of the great films about music and a nation that has lost its soul.