Until Star Wars, I thought people went to the cinema to weep. It did strike me as an odd thing to do but so did a lot of the other, apparently normal, things that normal people did. Normally.
The first film I was taken to see at the pictures was ‘Snoopy Come Home’ at Hull Screen, which was in a room at Hull Central Library. My dad took me, as was almost always the case, except for one momentous occasion, which I’ll come to.
‘Snoopy Come Home’ isn’t one of the most widely loved of the ‘Peanuts’ canon and with good reason. Well, sort of a good reason.
I love ‘Peanuts‘ because, although it can be a bit trite, I think it pretty much perfectly encapsulates relationships. I think it’s perfect because it’s so, so sad. When I say ‘sad’, I mean it in the traditional way. I know that the merchandise related to Peanuts tends to be pretty cutesy and schlocky, but that’s not what I get from the comic strips.
‘Peanuts’, to my mind is almost entirely about unrequited love. Everybody in Peanuts loves somebody who doesn’t give a fuck about them. We know about Charlie Brown and the little red haired girl, but it goes for everybody: Marcie loves Peppermint Pattie who doesn’t give a toss because she loves Charlie Brown who doesn’t care because of the red haired girl. Snoopy loves Lucy, who loathes him because she loves Schroeder who can’t stand her, and on it goes. Charlie Brown doesn’t ever get to kick the football because Lucy will never let him. Nobody ever gets what they want.
I don’t find that many people get any of that from ‘Peanuts’ though, and the reason for that is because it’s charming and cutesy on the surface. And the other films are pretty much charming all the way through. And it’s not often that you can find normal people enjoying jazz music – it’s ace, Snoopy music.
Diversion – Snoopy Music
It’s not just the music from the TV series and films, the odd pop record has a definite sense of the Snoops about it.
Vince Guaraldi Trio – Linus & Lucy
The Left Banke – She May Call You up Tonight
End of Diversion
‘Snoopy Come Home’ isn’t any of those things. It’s explicit in the sense that it just comes right out and tells you what a pile of shit everything is, always has been and, even if it’s not in future, the stains and wounds of the shitty past aren’t going anywhere, so don’t get excited, eh?
I won’t go into details but the plot is more or less this: Charlie Brown wasn’t Snoopy’s first owner. Oh no. Snoopy’s first owner was a little girl who got so ill that she couldn’t look after him anymore, so Charlie Brown got him. Then she got really ill and Snoopy had to go and see her – and dogs weren’t allowed anywhere so it was hard going – and felt he couldn’t leave her, but Charlie Brown just howled about it and Snoopy came home and pissed everybody off.
That’s what I got from it anyway. I cried. Not because it was dark, but because it was so terribly sad.
We didn’t go to the pictures very often, but I remember being taken to see ‘Tarka The Otter’, ‘Ring Of Bright Water’, ‘The Water Babies’, ‘Kes’, ‘Dumbo’ and ‘Bambi’. I wept throughout all of them, which presumably lead me to the opinion I started with.
In the period of time between the early 1970s and now, there have been a lot of words used in discussing how there was a period of time in which it was evidently decided that children shouldn’t be patronised and they should be shown the true nature of the brutality that we would inevitably face as adults. I appreciate that it might have been a bit much because it wasn’t just at the cinema that misery was seen as the norm.
On television, the public information films consisted of regular drownings, burnings, blindings, impalings, traffic accidents, electrocutions, gassings – you name it, we were going to die of it if we weren’t careful.
And then, one day, something happened that changed all of that.
My mother took me to see Star Wars.
Star Wars was such a big deal in 1977 that old cinemas which had been closed down for years reopened to help cope with the demand. I went to see it at The Dorchester cinema, which had one enormous screen. It was next door to fancy department store Carmichaels, where the carpet was so thick, it creaked as you walked on it. I was terrified of Carmichaels because it looked so easy to knock delicate shiny things from shelves and then have to pay for them for the rest of your life. Anyway, before watching Star Wars, I’d mentally prepared myself for tears as I always did now, having learned why people went to the pictures, even if I didn’t really understand why they wanted that.
As the film progressed, it slowly began to dawn on me that I wasn’t going to have to cry. Probably at all. I expected Chewbacca to die nobly at the end, being the closest thing to cute and furry in the film. But no. This was a different world entirely. One that seemed more enticing than the world in which everybody and everything you have every known and loved will die miserably in front of you without your being able to help in even the smallest of ways.
When we went home, I told my dad about this amazing experience I’d had at the pictures with my mum. Pleasingly, he announced that he needed to see Star Wars, so a couple of days later, I got taken again and I didn’t cry again.
I don’t know for sure, I’m only going on my personal, anecdotal experience, but I think that this is one of the reasons why Star Wars took off like it did.
The idea that we shouldn’t sugar coat the miseries of everyday life had been building for some time. There’d always been brutal representations of suffering, not least in terms of fairy stories aimed at children and, similarly, there have always been dissenting voices asking if someone will please think of the children.
I’m no cinema historian, although it seems to me that the Italian and French new wave cinema of the fifties and, particularly, sixties was hugely influential to British film makers. The kitchen sink genre of the early sixties (A Taste of Honey; Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner, Room At The Top, Poor Cow, Billy Liar, Cathy Come Home – even things like Charlie Bubbles) was notable in terms of not framing traditional stories and heroes in fantastical scenarios. This was, like the French and Italian new wave, steeped in ultra-realism. And they were a big deal, at least in terms of British films. Of course, the likes of David Lean weren’t about to start shooting black and white vignettes about mixed race marriages in Salford in the 1950s: Lean and co were throwbacks to the big Hollywood spectacles that had been in vogue since the early days of movie making. This was new (wave).
I suspect that, as William Goldman (American screenwriter: Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, The Stepford Wives, etc) said of Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything.” What that means is that Hollywood needs success, which means that they need to make films that will appeal to large quantities of people and the problem that Hollywood has is that it doesn’t really have any idea what it is that people want. When a film really takes off, that’s when Hollywood thinks it knows something, which is (for instance) ‘They like Star Wars!’ Let’s make a load of space movies because that’s what people want.
And, following the immense critical and financial success that the kitchen sink reality films of the sixties brought, I suspect that the obvious next step was to apply the same logic to children’s entertainment.
This was the era of Mary, Mungo & Midge, who lived in a block of flats and didn’t really do anything because their lives were boring – like life is. The era of Joe, who lived in a motorway cafe and whose mum was continually disappointed in him. I’ve mentioned public information films which were consistent in their misery and scare tactics.
In short, I think it was just fashion, really.
Watership Down is often held up as being the zenith – or possibly nadir – of the miserable children’s film, and that came out in 1978, after Star Wars, although as an animated feature, it was begun in 1975, prior to Star Wars, so we can forgive the non-linear element in this instance. I was taken to see that too and, inevitably, I wept most of the way through it too because I already had plenty of experience of crying at the pictures, so I was well primed for the astonishing levels of misery that it furnished us with.
In those pre-video recorder days, old films were re-released back to the pictures if one genre had done particularly well recently. You know, like William Goldman said earlier, “Nobody knows anything,” so in addition to crud like Battlestar Galactica and Flash Gordon being made and put out in the hope of snaring Star Wars fans’ spare change, old Sci-Fi films were reissued too.
I was taken, in 1978, to a reissue of 2001: A Space Odyssey because I’d enjoyed Star Wars so much.
Those were the days in which there was always a supporting feature and you could stay in all day if you wanted. I remember the supporting feature was about a black knight and a red knight who’d fallen out and knocked the crap out of each other in a forest. I enjoyed that one.
2001 didn’t grab my parents in the same way that Star Wars had: they fucking hated it. In their defence, they weren’t the only ones. They never had much truck with the abstract in general but, as a kid to whom most things – including real, figurative (?) things – seemed pretty abstract, I was abnormally well prepared for what was to come.
Talking about it later with my old man, he told me he’d enjoyed the first part with the apes and thought everything that followed was a big pile of shit. My mother didn’t even like the apes.
Me? I loved all of it. My parents didn’t believe me when I told them how much I’d enjoyed it and asked me questions that I wasn’t capable of answering. Question such as: “But why did you enjoy it?”, “But you didn’t know what was going on, did you?”, and “If you don’t understand the plot, how can you enjoy it?” Reasonable questions. Well, reasonable they may have been, but I couldn’t answer any of them with anything better than, “I don’t know, but I did,”
The result was that my parents chose to believe that I hadn’t enjoyed it at all and my rapt attention was nothing to do with my enjoying it and everything to do with how well they’d brought me up in terms of shutting the fuck up and not being a pain in the arse in public.
Maybe I just enjoyed it because I didn’t spend the entire film bawling, I don’t know, but I don’t think it was that.
I enjoyed some quite boring things about it: the trays from which the spacemen ate their dinner; HAL’s voice and Rigsby appearing in it.
Diversion – Leonard Rossiter
As a pretty confused kid, I spent a couple of years labouring under the misapprehension that Leonard Rossiter might have been my father. I don’t mean that I thought the person I called ‘Dad’ wasn’t actually my dad, I mean I thought he was living a double life because my old man didn’t half look like Leonard Rossiter.
I’d seen Rising Damp and The Fall & Rise of Reginald Perrin and the Martini adverts with Joan Collins, who I’d never heard of – and it seemed pretty clear to me, especially as his impression of the characters played by him were so spot on. He had the hair and the face. It was pretty clear to me.
I never asked him about it in the same way that you don’t ask about Father Christmas once you’ve had your doubts as a kid – you might have a pretty good idea it’s not really true, but just in case, you keep your mouth shut for a couple of years, eh?
Anyway, fortunately for me, Leonard Rossiter died when I was 13 and my old man showed no signs of being sympathetically or otherwise dead and I was able to move on.
End of Diversion.
The trippy bit, in which I had the vague idea that Dave was going somewhere, somehow but not much else, I sat back and enjoyed. I mean look at it. It’s fucking ace. You don’t need a story when the shapes and colours look like that.
It was slow, which was my mother’s prime complaint about it, but I didn’t mind that. Yeah, it went on a bit, but as I wasn’t crying about anything, what was the problem?
Diversion – Pink Floyd and Prog.
There’s a thing – a sort of conspiracy thing – that you can do if you’ve got a copy of 2001 and ‘Meddle’ by Pink Floyd. If you turn the sound off the film and start ‘Echoes’, the side long track on side two when the planets line up – just before the trippy bit – then they sort of synchronise with each other. It works as far as I’m concerned, but I don’t think it was planned or anything. It’s on youTube now, so you don’t even need to own either 2001 or Meddle now.
The problem I had for years was that, while I had a video of 2001, I didn’t have any Pink Floyd records because I was scared of Pink Floyd.
The reason I was scared of Pink Floyd was because I’d heard that they were ‘Prog rock’ and I was scared of Prog Rock.
I knew a kid who lived near me – Matthew – in the early eighties and we both had Spectrum computers which we used exclusively to play games on. Matthew’s older brother had one too, but he was also into what he described as “Progressive Rock”. It was just a name to me, but when you heard his music blaring through his bedroom door, it put me off. I don’t know what he was playing, but it was bad. He had posters of Rush, Yes and Pink Floyd on his wall, so all of those were marked down in my brain as “Things worth avoiding in future,” So I did.
Eventually, someone played “Tales From Topographic Oceans” by Yes at a party and it was the shittiest load of shit I’d ever heard in my life. Honestly, it’s horrific, like spaceship doors opening and closing for about four hours. Anyway, due to Matthew’s older brother’s posters, I assumed that it would all be much of a muchness. How wrong I was.
If anything, Rush are even worse than Yes, being influenced as they were by well known Nazi encourager Ayn Rand. I was still tarring Pink Floyd with the Yes/Rush brush until I found out that Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd weren’t that bad. Pretty psychedelic, even.
I got “Relics” from WH Smiths for 50p, thinking that even if I hated the music, I quite enjoyed the sleeve, so it wouldn’t be all bad. I found that I liked Arnold Layne, See Emily Play, bits of Interstellar Overdrive and Julia Dream, so it wasn’t all bad. I was still scared of what happened when Syd left, although I’d still not heard any of it. I tell a lie, I’d heard “Another Brick In The Wall (pt.2)” because it had been number one in the pop charts. I didn’t mind it, but I thought it was a bit of a gimmick, what with all the cockney kids chanting about teachers, even though I sympathised to a limited extent.
Prior to hearing about the 2001/Echoes thing, there was The Wizard of Oz/Dark Side of The Moon thing. I couldn’t do that one because I didn’t have The Wizard of Oz or Dark Side of The Moon. My mate Dave did though and we sync’d it up and watched the first forty minutes of with Pink Floyd playing. There was the odd bit of ‘action’ that seemed to work, but not really. The odd word in the script was illustrated by a lyric, apparently. I say ‘apparently’ because I’d never heard Dark Side of The Moon and what I mainly learned was that The Wizard of Oz turned colour after the first ten or fifteen minutes – I’d never got that far into it when I’d tried to watch it on telly before.
What else I learned was that Dark Side of The Moon wasn’t as bad as Yes or Rush. Those were the days when everybody was getting rid of all their records and replacing them with compact discs that cost three times the price of a new record. Due to the glut of second hand vinyl finding its way into the shops in the late 80s, it was dirt cheap. I was lucky enough to get hold of perfect original Beatles albums in mono for less than a fiver apiece. I wasn’t a mono purist, you understand, I had the Red and Blue albums and, when I taped them to listen to on the bus, I found that the stereo separation was really annoying. I bought the albums in mono because I thought they’d just have the same sounds coming out of either headphone – which they do – and would be less annoying – which they were. I got lucky again, I suppose.
Anyway, the same went for Pink Floyd, so I got Dark Side of The Moon, Meddle, Wish You Were Here and the soundtrack to “More”, which I’d not seen. I can’t say I love it all because I don’t, but I needn’t have been so scared of them. They did some lovely records, even if Dave Gilmour reminded me of nothing so much as an angry, sweating pig.
End of Diversion
I don’t know if I could say for sure that being taken to see 2001: A Space Odyssey was the point at which I realised that I liked things that my parents didn’t, but I think it might have set a couple of bells ringing in my tiny mind. I didn’t think I was superior by any stretch of the imagination – I thought I was inferior because my parents’ taste was beyond question. If I asked questions, I didn’t know enough to follow them up with anything incisive. It was mainly just opinion that I could offer, without having the mental capacity to offer any reasons as to why I thought what I did. Not with something like 2001 anyway.
What happened was this: after realising that my tastes might not be entirely in line with my parents’ – which worried me because they were clever and practical and I was an idiot – I actively sought out things that they expressed disdain for. Not to rebel, but to find things I could watch that didn’t reduce me to tears, which is what my parents had tended to direct me towards, except Star Wars, which is about as mainstream as you get. My parents’ taste is relatively – relatively – populist.
The problem was that I didn’t have anybody to ask what else there was out there for idiots like me. The best I could manage was to look over Channel 4’s schedules and find stuff that sounded a bit weird. That was how I found a fair few oddities, but it wasn’t until I met Clare that I found someone who actually knew about foreign film and the sort of things that might stir my interest. The films she knew about and guided me towards didn’t often make me cry, like the cinema of my childhood had, but she did. Maybe the more things change, the more they stay the same.
How the hell would I know?