Logged 16 September 2019
A witty American said once that he could never tell if actors talked like Englishmen, or if Englishmen talked like actors. That’s an adventurous thing for an American to say when he’s been bought up with a language that has its roots in Elizabethan English and all of the elastic rules that implies. I think he had a point, though, at least in relation to films from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. It was a land where actors could sound very strange indeed. By coincidence they were also condemned to say the most ridiculous things in equally ridiculous voices. For example an early British talkie had a scene where a man had been discovered rifling through someone else’s cabin on a ship. Instead of being arrested he was instructed rudely to “Make an account of yourself!” The spasm of over-acting that vented those words onto the sound stage was like listening to someone sitting on a “whoopie” cushion.
Actors have a harder time with language than just about anyone else because so many of the words they have to use in their professional capacity are someone else’s. There are times when I struggle to make myself clear even with my hand leading the script. If I were compelled to use a script by the hand of another there’s no telling what I’d say. Actors for the most part don’t get much choice – especially (I’m told) on all of the many permutations of Star Trek: Next Gen, where creative deviations from the script are frowned upon with considerable ire.
Old films, with all of their quirks of language, are actually portals into a lost age. The age they’re closest to is ancient Egypt because of a still and dusty sense of preservation about them. One aspect of this is especially noticeable in 60s and 70s television plays. The world passed at a much slower rate of spin then, and the pacing of drama was matched accordingly. It wasn’t unusual for a television play to be a lot like watching paint drying, albeit quite intelligent paint. In defence of these plays I should add that what they lacked in action they more than made up in Pinteresque dialogue.
Harold Pinter, for anyone who isn’t old enough to remember him (which obviously includes almost everyone below pension age today), was a famous playwright with a reputation for squeezing the subtlest nuances out of a script. Like most successful writers, his style was copied reflexively without any sense of shame, and sometimes without any sense of knowing when to stop. The dialogue that grew from those plays was tagged as “Pinteresque”, often unjustly in that it just combined the repetitive aspects of subtlety and nuance but lacked the innate talent of the master.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s it was commonplace for earnest writers to fill TV scripts with agonisingly long scenes where actors stared open-mouthed at each other to the accompaniment of a dubbed-in ticking clock (probably to give the audience a metronome sound to hold on to, or think they’d slipped into a coma). There was usually a moment in the script where one actor would “surprise” another by appearing “unexpectedly”. After the requisite minute or so of silence while they goggled at each other and/or examined ornaments within arm’s reach, one of them would make a verb-based statement:
“I’m going out for an hour.”
The shock of breaking the silence was like a voice from a table top seance:
“Yes……..going out…….for an hour.”
“Yes…..just for an hour.”
“Ah….just for an hour then.”
“Yes….going out….for a walk…….for an hour.”
“You won’t be going far.”
“If you’re only going out for an hour………you won’t be long…..on your walk….your walk for an hour. You can’t walk far and back in an hour.”
“No…..I’ll only be out walking for an hour.”
“Just an hour?”
“Yes….just an hour.”
“Well then you can’t walk far and back…….if it’s only an hour.”
“No, it won’t be far. I’ll only be an hour. I have to get back in an hour.”
“See you later then.”
Some of those plays were 90 minutes long, though obviously it seemed like 90 days. It’s a lost embalmer’s art.
While playwrights and scriptwriters were indulging themselves by trying to be Harold Pinter, actors (well…..some actors) were indulging themselves in quite another way. A film called “Georgie Girl” is a perfect example. In it, James Mason confined his statesman-like indulgence to a brusque “no-nonsense” northern accent. Lynne Redgrave was content with re-inventing herself as Joyce Grenfell’s younger sister (there just isn’t space for me to explain who Joyce Grenfell was – sorry). Alan Bates, however, was where the fun veered off the tracks. He personified what would happen if a four-year-old had been allowed an adult’s power and free access to stimulants. In fairness, that aspect of his performances were the same regardless of what he appeared in. For good or ill it nudged the red line for me in Georgie Girl.
Alan Bates passed through Georgie Girl like a blast of air from a window that had just crashed open in a storm. Whenever he had some dialogue his voice, eyebrows, and nose all elevated at the same moment in a twitchy preliminary filled with the sort of tension that precedes a steam pipe about to blow. After a moment of insane hyena-like grinning he strikes an abrupt pose and says, in a very cheerful, fake-posh voice, something like “I say………have you met my father-in-law? He’s awfully grand.” Alan Bates is what would happen if William Shatner’s DNA were exposed to the same radiation that created The Hulk.