Posts Tagged ‘Terry Gilliam’

Radio 4 Programme on Science in the Dark Ages

November 15, 2017

Radio 4 are also broadcasting a programme next week, which intends to challenge the view that the Dark Ages were a period of intellectual decline with very little interest in science. The new series of Science Stories kicks off next Wednesday, 22nd November 2017, with ‘A Wold, a Goat and a Cabbage’. The blurb for this in the Radio Times on page 135 reads

Philip Ball looks at how the Dark Ages was a far more intellectually vibrant era than is often perceived-and the monk who was the prsumed author of mathematical puzzles.

I’ve written several pieces on this blog about how the Middle Ages in the West were a period of scientific and mathematical invention and discovery, far more so than is generally recognised. Scientists have been rediscovering and re-evaluating scientific progress in the Middle Ages science Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine. The previous view, which most people of my age were brought up with, that the Middle Ages were intellectually backward until the Humanists appeared in the Renaissance, has now been overturned.

James Hannam, a scientist of Christian faith, did a Ph.D. on medieval science about ten years ago, and his book, God’s Philosophers, shows how the ‘natural philosophers’ of the Middle Ages laid the foundations of modern Western science. These writers, who were largely Christian clergy, were very much aware of the faults of Aristotelian science. While they did not break with it, they did try to modify it so that it conformed more to what actually existed in nature, or offered a more intellectually plausible cause.

And rather than creating modern science, the Renaissance Humanists were actually a threat to its emergence. The Humanists insisted on a far more faithful return to the ideas as well as literary style of the great classical authors. Which meant a far more literal and dogmatic approach to Aristotle. In his Dialogue on the Two World Systems, Galileo spoofed the Humanists by making the character, who represented them, appear as stupid as possible. In one episode, a physician invites the Humanist to come to his house one evening and see him dissect a body. The physician intends to show him that it must be the brain, not the heart, that is the seat of intelligence. Pointing to the dissected corpse, the physician shows the far greater number of nerves passing into the brain, in contrast to the single, thin nerve running to the heart. This, he says, shows that the brain must be the centre of thought and reason. The Humanist replies that he would believe him, if the great Aristotle also agreed.

The Christian medieval authors were also aware of the debt they owed to the Arab and Muslim world for editions of classical works that had previously been lost to the West. One medieval poem describes how scholars headed to Toledo and other areas in Spain to consult the Arab scholars, who were masters of these new intellectual frontiers. One of the French chroniclers of the Crusades, either Joinville or Froissart, described how, during negotiations between King Louis and one of the Arab potentates, one of Louis’ nobles trod on his foot under the table. It was intended as a secret warning. The negotiations involved maths in some way, and the nobleman wanted to warn his liege to beware, as the ‘saracens’ were much better calculators than they were.

As for the reliability of science, the poem I quoted above also remarked of one scientific phenomenon, that its existence couldn’t be doubted as ‘it was proved by SCIENCE’.

Clearly, science and the investigation of the natural world was very much in its infancy in the Middle Ages, and ideas were subject to censorship if they conflicted with Christian dogma. But the Middle Ages were also a period of scientific investigation and were far more rationalistic than is often believed. For example, the theologian William of Auvergne, described the supposed appearance of a great of demons in one of the French monasteries. These devils proceeded down the corridor, until they disappeared into the privies, from which came a horrible stench. William was not surprised. He put visions like this down to poor digestion interfering with proper sleep. After too full a meal, the stomach hung heavy on the nerves, preventing the proper circulation of the humours and nervous fluids, and so creating nightmarish visions like the one above. Other writers seriously doubted the abilities of cunningmen and scryers to find lost or stolen objects. When they did claim that an article had been stolen by a particular person, it was far more likely that the individual was a known thief than that they had been shown it by the spirits.

I’ve been annoyed before now at the way the media has continued to present the Middle Ages as a period of dark superstition, with a few notable exceptions. One of these was Terry Gilliam and his TV series, Medieval Lives, which has appeared as a book, and his radio series, The Anti-Renaissance Show, both of which were broadcast by the Beeb. Now it seems that the Corporation is once more showing the other side of intellectual life in the Middle Ages.

The Influence of Metal Hurlant on Science Fiction Cinema

April 25, 2017

Yesterday I put up a piece I found on YouTube about the influence French Science Fiction comics had on Star Wars. This short video by the same poster, Abstract Looper, explores the profound influence the artists of the French adult SF comic, Metal Hurlant, known to the Anglophone world as Heavy Metal, has had on modern Science Fiction cinema. Metal Hurlant was founded in 1974 by Les Humanoides Associees Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, Dionnet and Philippe Druillet. The video shows the striking visual similarities between scenes and designs in the comic’s various strips, and the films Mad Max, Alien, Blade Runner, Nausicaa – Valley of the Wind, Avatar, the original 70s Battlestar Galactica TV series, Hellboy, Prometheus and the Matrix. There’s a clip of Ridley Scott saying that when he made Alien, he was influenced by the visual material produced by Moebius and the French magazine. Guillermo del Toro also confessed that he was influenced by Richard Corben, another of the magazine’s artists. Terry Gilliam also states that the magazine was an influence on him. As does James Cameron. Rutgar Hauer, who played Roy Batty in Blade Runner also appears, telling how the producers visualised the future as already old. In fact, the producers of Blade Runner based their vision of Los Angeles on the towering cityscapes of Philippe Druillet. As well as Druillet, Dionnet, Corben and Moebius, another of the comic’s creators, the Franco-Yugoslavian artist Enki Bilal, was also influential. Also making the point are the similarities between the comics’ art and the concept drawings produced for the Alien and Matrix movies.

You could also add the Judge Dredd movies to this list as well. 2000 AD’s creator, Pat Mills, hates superhero comics. When he launched the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic way back in the 1970s, he was influenced by the French SF comics. Which naturally includes Metal Hurlant. Judge Dredd’s look was created by Carlos Ezquerra, a Spanish artist living in London, who has an artistic style very similar to Moebius.

As an aside, I was also pleased that the interview with Ridley Scott also had Russian subtitles. This shows how much the world has changed since I was at school. This was the years of the new Cold War, created by Thatcher and Reagan, when there were real fears of nuclear Armageddon. I felt profoundly optimistic when the Berlin Wall fell, along with Communism. There seemed at last a real possibility of a genuine, lasting peace between eastern and western Europe. I believe very strongly that it has been a massive improvement in world affairs that the peoples of the former eastern bloc can come to Britain to live, work and raise families.

And I am appalled and angry that Trump and the Democrats are pushing a new Cold War with Putin, and thus endangering the world all over again.

Warning: Heavy Metal was an ‘adult’ comic, which means that there’s some cartoon nudity. This was the magazine that was filmed as The Heavy Metal Movie, and which became notorious for the female nudity of the ‘Taarna’ sequence, which in turn inspired the episode ‘Major B***age’ in South Park. This may have changed, however. In an interview in the comics press a few years ago, its British editor stated that the magazine was dropping the nudity, because it was irrelevant given the amount of real nudity on the Web. He promised that the magazine would still be sexy, however.

Brexit and the British Film Industry

June 2, 2016

I’m not sure that this piece will count as one of those identified as part of Project Fear, which is putting voters off the whole debate. Nevertheless, I think it’s another factor that needs to be taken into consideration. About a year or so now, a European initiative was launched with the intention of creating closer ties and commercial connections between the various national film companies in France, Germany and possibly Britain. One of the leaders of this initiative was the French Canal Plus. The goal was to create a film combine strong enough for Europe to become an effective rival to Hollywood. I think it’s an excellent idea.

Don’t get me wrong – I like Hollywood movies the same as the next guy. I just want to preserve my own film industry as well, as uniting with the French, Germans and so on seems the best way to do it. Film and television are very expensive media. I can remember being told way back at a Dr Who convention in the mid-1990s that a day’s outdoor film cost something like £40,000. The only way some films are able to get made is through multi-country financing. And this has allowed some excellent, alternative films to be made. For example, Terry Gilliam’s Zero Theorem, about a mad computer scientist in a corporate dystopian future trying to prove mathematically that the world is pointless, was a joint production between, I think, Britain, France and Romania. And in recent years, there have been a number of really excellent films made on the continent. Amelie was the art house favourite a few years ago, but far more to my taste was The Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, about the adventures of French female Indiana Jones-type archaeologist, as she attempts to stop a rampaging pterodactyl and return ancient Egyptian physicians from the day so that they can cure her sister, who is in a persistent vegetative state following a bizarre hatpin accident.

My fear is that if we leave Europe, we will also lose access to the EU’s arts funding, including financial and other support for our film industry, as well as easy access to the rest of the continent’s cinema chains. France does operate a system of protectionism, intended to preserve their domestic film industry against Hollywood competition, and we could be similarly penalised, if and when the British film industry proves once again there’s life somewhere.

Simon Pegg and SF and Comic Book Infantilism

May 23, 2015

I was on holiday last week, which was why I haven’t put anything up for a few days. Never mind – I’m back now, and ready to pour more scorn, criticism and bile on the Tory government and the establishment sycophants and global corporate exploiters that support it.

But before I do, I’d like to tackle one issue that’s been bothering me, ever since I read about it in the papers and Radio Times last week. Simon Pegg got in the news for claiming that contemporary culture was being infantilised through Science Fiction, comic books, and the movies that were based on them.

As Pegg himself admitted, this is deeply ironic comic from him. He’s made his name as an SF and comic book nerd. In Spaced, the comedy he co-wrote, he played a struggling comic book artist/writer, who worked behind the counter at his local SF and comic shop. As well as the zombie rom-com, Shaun of the Dead, he also wrote Paul, his homage to science fiction geekdom, in which he and Nick Frost play a pair of SF geeks, who stumble upon the real alien that the US government has kept secret ever since the Roswell crash. The interview in the Radio Times, in which he made the comments, begins with a discussion of his role as Scotty and one of the writers on the new Star Trek movie.

Pegg made his comments about the infantilising effects of comics and SF when talking about how he was trying to smarten up and not be a ‘slobby husband’ for his wife, Maureen. As part of which, he had stopped drinking, turned to living a healthier life style, and stopped dressing as a teenager. The Radio Times then went to state how this new, adult perspective had changed his view of Science Fiction and comics. It said

This new grown-up perspective chimes with Pegg’s views on the culture in which he made his name and plies his trade. As Mark Gatiss said in Radio Times last month, “The geeks have indeed inherited the Earth.” On the other hand, this empowers the fanboy who wrote an autobiography called Nerd Do Well.

But on the other… “Before Star Wars, the films that were box-office hits were The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Bonnie and Clyde and The French Connection – gritty, amoral art movies. Then suddenly the onus switched over to spectacle and everything changed.

Now, I don’t know if that is a good thing. Obviously I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science-fiction and genre cinema. But part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. Now we’re essentially all consuming very childish things comic books, superheroes … Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously!

It is a kind of dumbing down in a way, “he continues. “Because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about … whatever. Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.”

Now Pegg hasn’t said anything that a multitude of other, SF writers haven’t said before. Ray Bradbury, the author of The Martian Chronicles, famously said that the ‘Golden Age’ of Science Fiction was thirteen. Brian Aldiss, who amongst his various works wrote the short story, Supertoys Last All Summer Long, on which the Kubrick/ Spielberg film A.I. was based, was highly unimpressed by Star Wars. In his history of Science Fiction, The Trillion Year Spree, he made the sneering observation of its massive fan popularity that ‘a thousand throats thirsting for escapism must be slaked (if not cut)’. Many SF authors moved away from writing SF over their careers, such as Christopher Priest. Priest denies that he was ever an SF writer, but does not despise the genre or its fans. He’s said that he still has affection for the genre. Michael Moorcock, the editor of the SF magazine, New Worlds, leader of the SF ‘New Wave’, and author of the cult Elric novels, in the edition of the 1979 series on SF writers, Time Out of Mind, also stated that Science Fiction was essentially an immature form of literature. Moorcock then considered that the reason why so many SF writers had stopped and gone on to other forms of literature was simply that they’d grown up.

The great Polish writer, Stanislaus Lem, made pretty much the same point from his own personal experience in his book on Science Fiction, Microworlds. Lem’s an extremely highbrow Polish writer, who amongst his various works wrote Solaris, which was later filmed by the Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky. Lem has been very strongly influenced by the South American ‘magic realist’ writer, Borges, and was deeply impressed by Philip K. Dick. In Microworlds, he talks about the ‘transformation of trash’, in which the shop-worn props of Science Fiction – robots, aliens, mutants and spaceships – were transformed into a new kind of serious literature by Dick. He hoped, through his own writing and literary criticism, to make a similar contribution and raise the literary standards of the genre so that it could take its place as serious literature. He abandoned this, and the genre itself, as impossible.

Moorcock also began his career keen to raise the literary standard of Science Fiction. He was keen to import the experimental styles explored by William S. Burroughs and other, contemporary, literary writers. Again, in Time Out Of Mind, he talks about how he find his attempts to do so rejected and condemned by the SF old guard, particularly Frederick Pohl.

Now it’s fair to say that much Science Fiction is escapist fantasy, as is much literature generally. Nevertheless, much Science Fiction literature and cinema has tried to tackle serious issues. SF at times has been the ‘literature of warning’, exploring the terrible consequences that could arise if a particular political, social or technological course is pursued now. It’s also been used to critique and criticise existing society. This was particularly true of SF in the former Soviet Union, where writers like the Strugatsky brothers wrote in the ‘Aesopian mode’, to present Science Fictional fables to say obliquely observations about the true state of Soviet society, that could not be said openly.

It’s possible to draw up a list of Science Fiction novels, films and short stories, that have made serious points about human existence and the state of society. Most fans of the genre undoubtedly have their own favourites, or can think of others, that also do this. This is just happens to be the list I’ve drawn up at the moment.

1. War of the Worlds.

H.G. Wells’ novel of the devastation of Earth by Martian invaders had its origins in a discussion between Wells and his brother about the destruction of indigenous, primitive societies, by European colonialism. Wells wondered what it would be like, if a similarly technologically superior invader came and did the same to Great Britain, the leading imperialist power of the late 19th century.

The book remains relevant to contemporary society even today, more than a century after its publication. Stanislas Lem has praised the book for its depiction of the nature of total war, and what it feels like to be the victim of an invader determined to wipe you out utterly. Lem lived through the Nazi invasion and occupation of his home country. Apart from their aim of exterminating the Jews in the Holocaust, the Nazis also saw Poles, along with Russians, Ukrainians and the other Slavic peoples as ‘subhuman’, who were to be worked to death as slave labour. Their treatment of the Poles was similarly brutal. Lem felt that Wells’ novel of alien invasion gave a far better depiction of what the Nazi occupation was actually like, than many purely factual accounts of this dark period in his country’s history, to the point where he got annoyed with them and discarded them.

2. Brave New World.

Aldous Huxley’s classic dystopian novel of the dehumanising effects of biotechnology, in which humans are artificially gestated in hatcheries. In this technocratic, hedonistic society, real culture has withered away and society itself grown static because of the concentration on the purely sensual.

3. Rossum’s Universal Robots.

Karel Capek’s stage play introduced the word ‘robot’ into the English language. It was one of the very first to explore the possibility that humans could one day be overthrown by their mechanical creations. The robots in the play aren’t mechanical so much as artificially created humans, very much like the Replicants in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Capek was writing at the time working class, radical Socialist and Communist revolutions had broken out in central and eastern Europe, and the play can also be read as a parable about their threat to the bourgeois European order.

If anything, the book has become even more relevant today, as scientists and social activists have become increasingly alarmed at the threat that robots might shortly do exactly as described in the book. Kevin Warwick, the Reader in Cybernetics at Reading University and former cyborg, begins his pop-science book on robots, March of the Machines, with a chilling depiction of the world of 2050. In this world, the machines have very definitely taken over. The mass of humanity have been exterminated, with those few remaining either living wild, if lucky, or enslaved as domesticated animals by their mechanical masters.

Some international agencies share this alarm. There is a pressure group actively campaigning against the construction of killer robots. A few years ago the international authorities were so alarmed that they actively forbade the use of such robots on the battlefield after one country made the suggestion that such machines should be used today, based on existing technology.

4. Silent Running

After working on 2001, Doug Trumbull wanted to produce a less coldly-intellectual, more emotional SF film than Stanley Kubrick’s epic. This was film is one of the first with a ‘green’ message, about humanity’s destruction of the environment. It’s about one astronaut’s quest to save the last green spaces from Earth, now preserved on spaceships, from destruction. He disobeys the command to scupper his ship and return to Earth, and takes them to safety in the rings of Saturn.

Other films exploring similar themses include Zero Population Growth and Soylent Green. In Zero Population Growth, the world is massively overpopulated to the point where most animal and plant species, including domestic pets, have become extinct. The government therefore mandates a total cessation of reproduction for a generation. The film tells the story of a couple’s attempts to preserve the life of their child after the wife finds out she’s pregnant. The husband and father is played by Oliver Reed, who was a brilliant actor as well as notorious drunk.

Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston, and based on Harry Harrison’s book, Make Room! Make Room!, was the first SF book to explore the possible consequences of the global population explosion and mass starvation.

5. Solaris

Based on Lem’s novel of the same name, Tarkovsky’s novel explores the problem of communicating with a genuinely alien intelligence, and what this would say in turn about human nature. The story follows the attempt of an astronaut to find out just what is happening aboard a space station orbiting the eponymous world. The planet itself is one vast organism, which creates replicas drawn from the human explorers’ own minds to try and work out what they are. One of these replicas takes the form of the hero’s ex-lover, with whom he begins a second, doomed romance.

Among its comments on space and humanity’s place in the universe are the lines ‘There are only a few billion of us. A mere handful. We don’t need spaceships. What man needs is man.’

The film was remade about a decade or so ago by Steven Soderbergh. His version is shorter, but apart from adding a sex scene and making Snow, the physicist, a Black woman rather than White man, there really isn’t much difference between the two, to the point where in some places they’re shot for shot the same. I prefer Tarkovsky’s original version, but you may feel differently.

6. Stalker

This is another movie by Tarkovsky, based on the novel by the Strugatsky brothers. The stalker of the title is an outlaw, who makes his money taking people into, and retrieving objects from, a mysterious, forbidden zone. In the book, the normal laws of nature do not apply within the zone, and its hinted that it is due to the crash of an extraterrestrial spacecraft. In Tarkovsky’s version, the zone is result of some kind of disaster. Tarkovsky’s film explores the nature of guilty and responsibility as the various characters attempt to venture further into the zone. The highly polluted, dangerous environment has a destructive effect on the biology of those entering into it. The Stalker himself has a disabled daughter, Monkey. Some hope for humanity is indicated by the fact that, although she cannot walk, Monkey nevertheless has developed psychokinesis.

Although this is another classic of Soviet, and indeed SF cinema generally, I think it’s seriously flawed. Tarkovsky cut out most of the special effects sequences from the books on which Stalker and Solaris were based, in order to concentrate on the human characters. As a result, the film suffers from a lack of genuine, shown menace, and instead is verbose and actually rather boring. Also, the central character in the book is far nastier. In the final scene in the novel, he wilfully sacrifices his accomplice to one of the Zone’s traps, so that he can retrieve the central, alien object coveted by everyone venturing into the zone – a golden ball that grants wishes. This is a film, which in my view does need to be remade by a director like Ridley Scott.

7. Blade Runner.

Apart from its sheer immense style, and the beauty of some of the scenes, this is another film that attempts to explore human nature through the mirror of its artificial, bio-mechanical opposite. Although it’s told from Deckard’s perspective, in many ways he’s actually the villain. The Replicants he hunts are bio-engineered slaves, who have escaped their bondage and come to Earth in the hope of extending their extremely short, artificial lifespans. They can’t, but in the process grow and develop in psychological depth and as moral beings. To the point where they are morally superior to their human creators. The penultimate scene where Batty saves Deckard from falling shows that he has passed the Voight-Comp test, which judges a subject’s a humanity according to their empathy and desire to save a trapped, struggling animal. It also has one of the most quoted poems in SF cinema – I have seen things you people wouldn’t believe, ships on fire off the shores of Orion…’

8. They Live.

This alien invasion drama is also a sharp satire on modern, global capitalism. A homeless construction worker discovers that the world is secretly dominated and exploited by skeletal aliens, who are at the heart of global capitalism. While it’s a low-budget action piece, Carpenter has said in interviews that he intended to give it an extra element by using it to criticise contemporary politics and economics. In the film, humanity’s exploitation by the interplanetary corporate business elite and their human shills and partners is responsibility for mass poverty, unemployment and homelessness – all to boost profits. If you cut out the aliens, this is pretty much what the bankers and global corporate elite have done and are still doing today. And it’s got the classic line, ‘I’ve come to do two things: kick ass and chew gum. And I’m all out of gum.’

9. V For Vendetta

This is another film, which has been denounced by the author of the work on which it’s based, in this case the SF strip of the same name by Alan Moore, which first appeared in the British anthology comic, Warrior before being published by DC in their Vertigo imprint. The strip was very much a product of its time – Thatcher’s Britain, and the new Cold War with the former Soviet Union. The strip envisaged the emergence of a Fascist Britain following a nuclear war between the US and the Eastern bloc. Moore has said in interviews that the strip attempted to explore the moral ambiguities of violence, whether it can be justified against innocents as part of a wider campaign against an unjust system. He also wanted to make the point that many of the supporters of the Fascist regime could be considered otherwise good people, just as many otherwise decent Germans supported the horrific Nazi regime.

It’s a superhero movie, which does nevertheless accurately show the realities of life in a Fascist dictatorship – the mass internment of political prisoners, arbitrary censorship, and experimentation on those considered subhuman or ‘dysgenic’ – in the language of eugenics – by the authorities. It lacks the contemporary relevance of the original strip, as Margaret Thatcher and the Tories did have strong links to the far right. Thatcher was an admirer of Pinochet, for example. The strip explored many of the issues thrown up by contemporary stories of corruption in the political, social and religious establishment, like paedophile clergy. Despite Moore’s rejection of the movie, it’s still a piece of genre, comic book cinema that does try to make an extremely serious point about Fascism and intolerance by placing it in modern, 21st century Britain.

10. Children of Men

Based on the book by P.D. James, and starring Clive Owen and Thandie Newton, this is another dystopian yarn. This time it takes a completely different view of the future and its perils from Soylent Green and Z.P.G. In this future, humanity has been afflicted with mass sterility. No children have been born for 18 years. Owen plays a policeman, charged with protecting an immigrant woman – Newton – who carries the only child to be conceived for over a decade. As a consequence of the sterility, society in volatile and unstable. Only Britain has a relatively stable system thanks to the establishment of a Fascist-style dictatorship.

Although fiction, James’ book nevertheless explores a genuine social issue. Globally, populations are falling, to the extent that some demographers have predicted a population crash sometime in the middle of this century. In Britain and much of Europe, they’re below population replacement level. This is particularly acute in Japan, and is one of the causes of that country’s massive investment in the development of robot workers. Much of the fall in birth rates is due simply to people limiting the number of children they have in order raise their quality of life. There is, however, the additional problem in that the sperm counts of western men is falling, to the point that during this century a significant number will be considered medically sterile. Children of Men is another dystopian work that is chillingly plausible.

It’s possible to go on, and add further works of serious SF cinema, such as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and The Zero Theorem and Gattaca, with its depiction of a stratified society ruled by the genetically enhanced. Now I have to say that I agree with Pegg that an awful lot of SF films since Star Wars has been escapist fantasy, and can see his point about some of it having an infantilising effect. This is by no means true of all of it, as I’ve attempted to show.

Even films like Star Wars that are pure, or mostly spectacle can be worth serious discussion and consideration, if they’re done well. For all its escapism, Star Wars was astonishing because it showed a detailed, convincingly realised series of alien worlds, machines and space craft. Moreover, the second movie – The Empire Strikes Back – did present Luke Skywalker with a genuine moral dilemma. His friends Han Solo, Leia, Chewbacca and the droids have been captured and are being tortured by Vader and the imperials. Skywalker is faced with the choice of trying to help them, and in so doing losing his soul, or preserving his moral integrity by letting them suffer and die. His confrontation with Vader present him further with another, particularly acute moral dilemma. Vader reveals himself to be his father, and so if he kills him, he commits parricide, a particularly abhorrent crime. This also has literary antecedents. In one of the medieval Romances, the hero is faced with the revelation that the leader of the foreign army devastating his lord’s realm is his father, and so he is confronted with the terrible dilemma of having to kill him.

Now I don’t think that the potential of Science Fiction to explore mature issues and genuinely relevant problems has been fully explored in the cinema. One of the solutions to the problem is for fans of genre cinema to try and support the more intelligent SF movies that are released, such as Moon, which came out a few years ago. This would show producers and directors that there’s a ready audience for genuine, thought-provoking, intelligent SF as well as the gung-ho, action escapism.

Warwick Davis’ Big Little Theatre Company

February 7, 2015

"The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" New York City Premiere - Arrivals

Warwick Davis and Wife, Sam.

Thursday night the Beeb screened one of the few programmes that show the Corporation can still make documentaries worth showing. Modern Times followed Warwick Davis as he attempted to set up his Reduced Height Theatre Company. Davis and his wife, Sam, and their children are afflicted with dwarfism. Davis himself has had a long career in film and television, playing the mythological type of dwarf, and other creatures of legend, fantasy and Science Fiction. He’s appeared in the fantasy film, Willow, the Leprechaun series of horror flicks and, of course, Harry Potter. Star Wars aficionados will also remember him as the Ewok, Widget, who joins Luke, Han, Leia, Chewbacca and Lando to overthrow the Empire in Return of the Jedi.

FWRO

Davis in his best-known role.

More recently he has appeared on TV with Ricky Gervaise, as a telekinetic dwarf in Psychoville, and as the Emperor of the Galaxy helping Matt Smith’s Doctor battle the Cybermen.

Davis isn’t content merely to continue playing in this restricted repertoire. He pointed out that many small people like him actually want to play the same roles played by people of normal height. And so he set up the Reduced Height Theatre Company to allow them to do just that. The intention was for the small actors to perform on a set that was scaled for people of their stature. This would create the illusion for the audience that they were actually watching normal-sized actors, so that within five minutes they would have forgotten they were watching dwarves.

See How They Run

The show followed Davis as he and his normal-sized director and producers auditioned the aspiring actors, and supervised the construction of the set. The play they chose to perform was the farce, See How They Run, written in 1942, whose cast includes seven vicars and an escaped German POW. It’s a classic British farce, of the type viewers used to be informed was playing at a theatre somewhere at the end of TV programmes in the 1970s. As the credits rolled, a voice would announce that the actors in the programme were now appearing in show X at the Odeon, Bognor, or somewhere. The cast Davis settled on were extremely talented, and from what was shown it was astonishing that they had never performed professionally before. A few, including one young lady, were drama or performing arts students. The girl was shown in her class performing the type of dance routine that way back in the 1970s was hailed as ‘movement’.

Health Problems

The show also interviewed the cast members themselves. One of the girls, and a bald guy of somewhat hippy-ish attire, spoke of their pain at being dwarves, how they hated being their height, until they finally came to terms with it, and realised those were the bodies they had. The bald bloke was a swimmer, and made the point that in the pool he was as good as anybody. Which I think was proved most definitely by the speed at which some of the disabled swimmers, including Britain’s female dwarf athlete, moved through the pool during the Paralympics.

Along with the lack of height, the disorder can bring other, far more serious problems. The condition may include problems with the spine, the hips and the legs. One of the girls recalled being told that she would eventually end up in a wheelchair by a certain age. This made her determined to live her life as she had it now. The bald fellow also described his problems with the condition.

These problems had, sadly, struck at Davis’ wife, Sam. She had suffered period where she lost sensation in her legs. The bones in her spine had fused to press on her spinal cord. If this was left untreated, she would eventually lose the use of her legs. The problem had become increasingly acute, until she needed to be taken into hospital for an operation, which would correct this and give her back some kind of normal function. If it failed, she would be confined to a wheelchair.

Panto and Financing

Davis had put his own money into setting the project up, and stated that if it failed, his house was on the line. There was added pressure from his having to perform in Panto at the same time as his wife was to have the operation. And in amongst all this, he was also unhappy with the set. The director had purchased a normal-sized set, which was nevertheless sufficiently small for it to be suitable for people of the performers’ size. Nonetheless, it was still too large, and Davis reluctantly decided on taking it to a set construction company. After examining it, they decided that it would have to be rebuilt smaller.

Success

Despite all these problems, the show was a success. Davis took it to 90 different theatres up and down Britain, including Plymouth. The theatre there had a particularly large stage, and it was feared that if they scaled down the set it would leave plenty of unused space on the stage, which would destroy the illusion of normality. The actors were shown laughing at their lines and performances as they rehearsed, with the director pushing them to get the best performance from them in the few weeks before they trod the boards for real. Sam’s operation, although it did not result in her being able to get on her feet as quickly as expected, nevertheless appeared to be a success. Her surgeon assured her that it sounded like she was well on the way to recovery.

I think the Reduced Height Theatre Company is a splendid idea. There have been other, similar specialist theatre companies for others with different types of disability. Nabil Shaban, who played the villainous Sil in the Colin Baker Dr Who stories ‘Vengeance on Varos’ and ‘Mindwarp’, suffered from brittle bone syndrome. He was a member of a disabled theatre troupe, which staged Ben Jonson’s Volpone. One of the greatest dwarf actors was David Rappoport, who starred as the leader of the time travelling dwarf gang in Terry Gilliam’s 1980s fantasy, Time Bandits. Rappoport went on to do other film and TV work. He appeared as an uptight British businessman, who gradually began to unwind through discovering rock ‘n’ roll in America in a TV series on Channel 4 in the 1990s. He brought style and swagger to his roles, but sadly committed suicide just before he was due to appear as the villain in the Star Trek TNG episode ‘The Most Toys’. Watching this, I was left wondering whether he’d still be with us, if something like the Reduced Height Theatre company had existed when he was performing.

In all of this, it inevitably raises the issue of ‘separatism’ versus ‘integration’, and it could be said that the Company acts as a kind of ghetto for people with dwarfism. They may perform the same roles as people of normal height, but they are still separate. I think it’s still great that the theatre is providing people with their disability to perform normal roles, roles which they would otherwise not get. My guess is that it will in time challenge stereotypes, and show producers that actors of this height can be realistically cast in roles other than ‘stage dwarf’.

Support Your Local Disabled Talent, Support the NHS

As so many of the actors with this condition have related health problems, the NHS also has a role in supporting this talent. At one point Davis said that he was amazed when people ask him what it’s like to be in hospital, as they’ve never been. He and his family were in there three times a week. The Tories and UKIP would love to privatise the NHS and replace it with an insurance-based service. One fifth – 20 per cent – of Americans can no longer afford medical care, and Republicans like the Koch brothers would like to end medicare/ Medicaid, the state safety net for those unable to pay. The Tories over here despise the disabled anyway, as do the Kippers. If they get in, the support currently given, if meagrely and extremely grudgingly, to the poor, sick and disabled will vanish. And that will inevitably damage Britain’s ability to nurture talented disabled artists and performers.

If we want Britain to continue produce world class performers, and initiatives that challenge and stretch audiences’ limits and expectations, this cannot go unchallenged. The artists, actors and athletes of the future deserve the support of the welfare state and NHS, along with us normal types.

As for the Reduced Theatre Company, I wish them every success and look forward to their future performances. I hope this time they come somewhere near me, and perform in Bristol or Cheltenham.