Sunday, December 16, 2007

All friends betrayed

To the NFT last night for their annual Missing Believed Wiped night, a hotch potch collection of roughly snipped snippets of dodgy old telly, none of them known to exist just 12 months ago. It’s only a very recent idea that telly should be kept and if not cherished at least out on DVD. For decades it was as ephemeral as live theatre, repeats fleeting and rare.

I’ve been to these kinds of evenings before, and love my Lost in Time DVD. The tantalising glimpses of missing episodes of Doctor Who – scenes cut by foreign censors, frames captured on super-8, trailers and alternate takes – are probably far more exciting than the complete programmes ever were.

There was, sadly, no Droo in the haul this year, so last night was more about rather common TV. There were comedy sketches from pre-Python Pythons and pre-The Two Ronnies two Ronnies. There was some terrifically bad acting from Cliff Richard as a cat burglar in a 1968 drama, A Matter of Diamonds. We gaped at Lonny Donegan ‘dancing’ on a 1970 episode of It’s Lulu, in the manner of an electrocuted eel. Yes, I was taking tips. The same episode featured two enthralling live performances from Aretha Franklin.

Rupert the Bear took a trip in a flying hat, an episode introduced by its director, Mary Turner (late of directing the Thunderbirds). It was one of a whole bag of episodes she’d had gathering dust in her greenhouse. We sat in rapt silence watching nth generation video (from regular 8 filming) of the BBC’s coverage of the moon landings. The footage of Neil Armstrong strolling about was a grainy blur and we’ve all seen it in better quality. What thrilled us was the BBC’s simulations of rockets, the captions that used the same typefaces as in Doctor Who, the voice of Patrick Moore in the gaps between the astronauts and mission control…

Not entirely unrelatedly, there was then the whole pilot episode from 1956 of Douglas Fairbanks Junior presenting Bulldog Drummond. London’s most famous daring-do fascist was played by Robert Beatty (he of Tenth Planet and 2001).

The Other Man on the cover of TV Times
Yet the highlight was the extant 81 minutes of ITV’s 1964 drama, The Other Man. Where else could you see Michael Caine, John Thaw and John Noakes – yes, him from Blue Peter! – all in the same scene? We got the first 45 minutes and then a skip to the end.

It’s a striking Hitler Wins story by Giles Cooper, directed with great verve by Gordon Flemyng (him of the two Dalek movies and Quatermass’s dad). It’s surprising how much it strives to overcome the limits of telly of the time. There’s a huge cast, plenty of quick scenes across a whole range of locations, and a hell of a lot of stuff filmed on location. Yes, the same paltry backdrop of mountains is meant to show both India and Bavaria, but it’s the range of ambition of the script as well as the direction that convinces us of huge scale. This is bold and clever writing, enthralling and full of moral complexity.

George Grant (Caine) is a British officer at the end of the Second World War. That is, in 1941, after Churchill has been assassinated. The British slowly come to terms with the Nazis, and we follow the uncomfortable compromises as the two armies and societies link up. Grant is not keen to join the Germans, yet his constant attention to the good of the regiment means making some tough and nasty choices…

There’s an early conflict about whether its appropriate to toast the f├╝hrer at the same time as toasting the king. The script artfully underplays the real dilemma for the Nazis in the scene, that the British soldier who’ll be making the toast is Jewish.

Grant and his brother officers fail – or decline – to notice the singling out their Jewish colleagues, who are all sent off to ‘promotion’ in Dover. Dennis Chinnery is brilliant as David Lewin, meekly following orders to his doom. Suddenly a whole section of the regiment has gone, we think never to be seen again. And then Grant’s coming back from a jolly honeymoon in Paris and dares to look out of the window… Lewin is one of the beaten, wraith-like creatures working on the line.

It’s moments like this that leave us waiting for the worm to turn. Caine’s charm and screen presence mean we’re constantly surprised and appalled by Grant’s compliance in the new regime.

There’s a sizeable chunk missing from the middle of the piece, which seems to include Grant having to denounce and execute his best man (Thaw). As a result, he’s increasingly estranged from his own countrymen and his wife (Sian Phillips), who succumbs to booze. (The fantastic cast also includes Carol Cleveland, Kenneth Colley, George Layton, Vladek Sheybal and Brian Cant – although he’s in a bit that’s still missing.)

Yet no matter how much Grant gives his Nazi masters, it is never quite enough. In the last section, when he’s about to meet Hitler in reward for all his hard graft, Grant is interrogated by a Gestapo officer (a terrifying depiction of banal evil from David Graham) who seem to need him to incriminate anybody else. The Jews have been dealt with, so they’re now looking for Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, the Irish… Anyone will do.

With yet another of his friends betrayed, Grant finally starts to crack. He numbly lets himself be led to the officers-only brothel, and confesses his doubts and regrets to a whore who’s got a microphone. Grant’s subsequent suicide attempt is interrupted by enemy attack, his confession lost when he orders bombing of his own base camp.

The mangled hand protruding from the wreckage could have been the end. Grant then takes the only option left to him, the same one as his wife’s first (Jewish) husband, who shot himself rather than be sent to Dover.

But The Other Man then has Grant wake up in hospital a whole year later, alive thanks to brilliant Nazi advances in medicine. They’re keen to reconcile him with his wife and send the couple back to England as exemplars of the new regime. But Mrs Grant does not recognise her husband, and it emerges he’s really not the man he was.

Six men have died to provide Grant with his replacement limbs and eye, the Ukrainian prisoners he can see from his hospital window racially pure while remaining inferior. All along, Grant has stayed just inside the ever closing circle of Nazi privilege, and doing so by sacrificing those around him. Even at the end he is unmoved when the doctor tells him that, his wife having rejected him, it will be more convenient if he’s widowed.

The assimilation has come in small steps, each betrayal and revelation more appalling than the last. But the script also dares suggest there’s little else that Grant can do – anyone else who cracks jokes, expresses doubt, even takes part in acts of petty disobedience is swiftly, harshly dealt with.

This is not, then, the story of a man left with no way of fighting back, as it would have been had it ended on his death. Rather, like 1984, we watch the regime batter the individual to monstrous conformity.

As with Philip K Dick's Hugo award-winning Hitler Wins novel, The Man in the High Castle, the final section flashes to some new reality where things have played out differently again. The Other Man ends with Caine in ‘our’ world (we only see it briefly but it seems to be ours). He’s still a hero, still called upon to lecture and inspire the next generation of soldiers. The real horror of The Other Man is not how divorced from our world Grant becomes, but how close we still could come.
“In its inexorable action, its unempathic exactitude of human observation, and its fearsome demonstration of how men are changed by what they choose to do, this is far more than a superior piece of Grand Guignol. And although the specific evil it attacks is as dead as St George’s dragon it asks questions about the value of professional duty and personal ambition which are still too close for comfort.”

The Times, 12 September 1964 (quoted from BFI screening notes).


Rob Stradling said...

You'd think I'd be weary of "Hitler wins" stories by now. "The Man In The High Castle", "SS-GB", "An Englishman's Castle", "Fatherland", "The Philadelphia Experiment 2"... err... "Exodus".

But it seems no. "The Other Man" sounds great; I've never heard of it, and I'm jealous as Hell!

Unknown said...

Not forgetting "It Happened Here". That does sound fab. Makes me wonder what other gems have been forgotten. I do hope one day someone digs up a copy of "The Road" by Nigel Kneale. That's the best TV show I've never seen.

0tralala said...

Yes, I'd love to see The Road too (it's the one that's a bit like a nuclear-holocaust version of The Others, yes?).

And discerning readers may also wish to read Mr Andrews's comments on 1990.