Sunday, March 01, 2020

The Painted Banquet, by Jocelyn Rickards

Subtitled "My Life and Loves", this gossipy autobiography by costume designer Jocelyn Rickards is great fun. From an early age, crises never get in the way of her having a good time. She tells us on page 9 that the sight of her as a baby stopped her father killing himself after being declared bankrupt.
"What to this day I don't understand is how, when we were in severe financial straits, I had a nanny until I was three and I was in no way aware at any time that the quality of life was less than carefree; nor do I know why, from the very beginning, I was allowed to go to only expensive private schools, which must have been a severe financial strain."
If there's no sense of the sacrifice and effort from her parents in getting her that education, we see the result of it: having joined an artsy, well-off set in her native Australia, Jocelyn follows them to London on a one-way ticket, and rather strolls into a world of connections with leading artists and directors. She takes pride in how few of them can trace Australian in her accent. She glides through love affairs, parties, digs, picking up plum jobs painting and designing for the great and good. She almost gets into the movies by accident.

Jocelyn is snobbish - "For the first time ever I was in an hotel where I didn't have to hide something from sight" she says on page 148 - and often bitchy (she herself refers to having "bitched" on p. 158), and there's a sense that she skims over her own bad behaviour. There are passionate affairs and friendships here, but also bitter rivalries - which she seems to relish.
"Oscar Lewinstein, talking to Evangeline Harrison, announced quite simply that I was the 'wickedest woman in the world,' a view shared with Renee Ayer and Stuart Hampshire. I can't think of three more desirable enemies." (p. 93)
There's lots of what X said about Y, or how Z was indiscreet, and times Jocelyn said or was heard to have said something mean. She rubs a lot of people up the wrong way without ever quite saying why. Of course, the chief appeal is what she can reveal about the famous names she courted and worked alongside. For example, she worked with Marilyn Monroe on The Prince and the Showgirl:
"God knows whether she herself wished to project an image of such blazing sexuality. But I do remember Bumble [Beatrice Dawson] bringing armfuls of wool jersey dresses for her to try on, all the right size, which Marilyn then changed to two sizes smaller." (p. 52)
Or there's the glamour of making a Bond film. In Istanbul on location for From Russia With Love, Jocelyn and director Terence Young had,
"two plates each of exquisite trip soup before separating - he to search for locations in a small boat, and I to do the same by car with the art department. It's difficult to say which of us had the worse afternoon - Terence, dragging his bare arse through the Bosphorous, or me without a blade of grass behind which I could conceal myself at all too regular intervals, as the tripe soup made its logical progress from entrance to exit." (p. 82) 
And there's what now feels extraordinary, in the midst of production on Blow-Up:
"the dark green corduroy jacket which David Hemmings had worn throughout the film had been stolen by some light-fingered passer-by. To anyone not used to working on movies such a loss would seem merely an irritation. But with four months of film shot in which the star was dressed in this particular jacket, it was a disaster; and we had only until eight o'clock the following morning to come up with another exactly the same. I rang Bermans, and told the man who'd been with me when I first found the jacket, at the Shaftesbury Avenue Cecil Gee, that I'd send him a car and would he please scour London. For four hours Rebecca Breed, the wardrobe mistress, as I waited in a state of depressing inertia. Then our misery was relieved, at least partly. The colour of the jacket we were given when the car got back was a perfect match; the pocket details were all different, however. Rebecca didn't think we'd get away with it. But a little subtle stitching of the pockets so that they didn't gape made it fairly unlikely that anyone would notice. They didn't. Of such minuscule details are the crises of film-making made up." (p. 101)
Today, a lead actor in a movie would have multiple sets of the same costume on standby. But Blow-Up wasn't alone - I know from my work on Doctor Who Figurine Collection that, for instance, the Second Doctor had only one version of his outfit - all of it second-hand and unique. Even by 1975, Tom Baker's first outfit as Doctor Who was a one-off. (As far as I can tell, the first time they had a spare set of his costume was when they needed a duplicate of him in The Android Invasion, by which time he'd been in the role for more than a year.)

The book ends with Jocelyn's marriage to director Clive Donner - though earlier chapters deal with filming on Sunday, Bloody Sunday, which took place several years later. The sense in closing is that she's no longer so restless, and no longer so keen on working in film. There's nothing on the 17 years between that moment and the time she wrote the book. Her 2005 obituary in the Guardian is culled  from details in her book, as if little of note came afterward. So there's the feeling that, even for her, this is an account of a bygone age: elegant, wild and carefree - even in a crisis.

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