Saturday, 3 July 2010

The Exorcist: bless that Captain Howdy

Ah, The Exorcist... What frightful pleasure it's given down the years in the many and varied forms it’s taken (thus following the fashion of Satan himself, with his legion of names and faces.) I must have been 10 or 11 when some schoolmates and I discovered William Peter Blatty’s bestselling shocker of a novel: we passed it round, taking gleeful turns to read aloud the grossest, most horrendous bits (not all of which I quite ‘understood.’) William Friedkin’s extremely frightening movie version wasn’t nearly so accessible at that time, but I had definitely seen it by the late 1980s, when my brother was studying at Georgetown University and, in the course of a stroll through the neighbourhood, pointed out to me those infamous ‘Exorcist steps.’
Ten years later, in my editorial chair at Faber and Faber, I prepared an edition of Blatty’s screenplay for publication and had a number of chats with Bill Blatty himself, a highly affable and courteous man who always addressed me as ‘Rich’ and seemed very pleased that I was interested in the fortunes of the Georgetown Hoyas college teams. A few years after that, I oversaw a revised edition of Kevin Jackson’s marvellous book of interviews with Paul Schrader, at the point where Paul was putting the final touches on Exorcist: The Beginning, the third official sequel (actually a prequel) to Friedkin’s movie. You may know what happened next: Schrader was removed from his post after screening the film for his studio financier, and Renny Harlin was hired to shoot from scratch a less cerebral, tackier and more effects-heavy version. I confess I still haven’t managed to see Paul’s cut, though it looks terrific, but the Harlin was on telly last week and the low calculation of it was there for all to see.
That said, it's hard to blame the suits for finally trying to do what some Exorcist sequel surely had to do if it was seriously looking for a place in the market: namely, to resurrect the Linda Blair model of the foul-looking, foul-mouthed female demon: as I call her in Ten Bad Dates, ‘a vile goblin who masturbates with a crucifix, knows all your dirty secrets, vomits forth obscene insults like bile, and also vomits forth a good deal of bile.’
The other obvious move was to get more of that Captain Howdy stuff going. Howdy (pictured) is of course the name little Regan MacNeil gives to her ‘imaginary friend’ in the early stages of her possession, and the name Exorcist fans gave cheerfully to the demonic face glimpsed in subliminal flashes during the movie. Warners certainly didn't stint on Howdy in the trailer below for Friedkin's 1973 original, a trailer that apparently had to be suppressed for being too disturbing, to which one could fairly say, too bloody right.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Bookhugger column #4: On Christopher Hitchens

My column for Bookhugger this month is about Christopher Hitchens and his memoir Hitch-22; or at least about one aspect of the book and of Hitchens' life, which is the making and unmaking of friends as a consequence of one's political convictions. There are many other aspects of the book I would have happily addressed too, but then I hope one day I may find myself down the pub with someone else who's read it...
This photo from 1990 of Hitchens and his second wife Carol Blue is by Annie Liebovitz. Enough said.

David Miliband: Make Mine Music

I’m almost sure that some ostensibly hip and politically active writer for the NME or maybe The Face circa 1983/4 availed himself of the view that what Labour needed for its leadership was ‘a funky politician’ – presumably meaning some Brother or Sister whose record collection ran from Nile Rodgers through to Gil Scott-Heron. What Labour got that year was Neil Kinnock cameoing in a Tracy Ullman video. But the prescription was wrong anyway: politicians shouldn’t be funky, there’s always far too much for them to be getting on with. What they need is to be able to unwind at the close of the day with a loved one and some nice Easy Listening. That’s what David Miliband does, presumably, no funky politician he – there’s can hardly be any other excuse for his selection of 'Desert Island Discs' as requested by Labour Uncut, which are:
Sting – Englishman in New York
Elvis Costello – Oliver’s Army
Fritz Kreisler – Liebeslied
Sibelius – Violin Concerto
Shostakovich – Symphony No.10
James Taylor – How sweet it is (to be loved by you)
Elton John – Your Song
The Beatles – All you need is love
Still, mark you some meanings, intended or otherwise. He picks the symphony that Shostakovich unveiled in safety once Stalin was finally six feet under, and the Costello track in which the great man waxed sardonic on ‘visions of mercenaries and imperial armies around the world...’

Alan Plater 1935-2010

Goodnight Alan Plater, son of Jarrow. Hard to think of a more distinguished writing career in British television, alongside a contribution to British theatre that showed a way forward. The obituaries have been good, Mark Lawson especially respectful, but personally I hope someone will yet write more about Plater's Close The Coalhouse Door, made for the stage from the stories of Sid Chaplin in collaboration with the singer-songwriter Alex Glasgow, a show that enjoyed an opening night in Newcastle in 1968 with a cast of ten plus a complete colliery band...
In 2007 Plater discussed the play and its first production during a terrific interview with Kate Harris for a British Library Theatre Archive Project in association with the University of Sheffield.
KH: I wanted to ask… whether you have a particular theatrical memory, or a particular piece of theatre that you were involved in, that has been a highlight for you? […]
AP: Oh
Coalhouse, I think… because I became aware that we’d struck a chord with an audience on Tyneside. Peggy [Ramsay] came up to the first night, and five minutes in she grasped my hand and said, ‘My God darling, this is revolutionary.’ And the atmosphere was absolutely electrifying… There was a great explosion of joy and saying… ‘We will win in the end.’ And I think… if there is a kind of underlying theme that seems to run through life, we all… we will win in the end. And not only had we uncovered something in the audience, I think that we had uncovered something in ourselves as play-makers. I think Alex and I and Sid thought ‘Jesus! This is… almost scary you know?’… I mean, every seat was sold... the word of mouth… And there were stories of exiles coming up to Newcastle to see a football match, on Saturday afternoon. Went to the theatre, say, ‘We’ll go to the match this afternoon, have you got any tickets tonight?’ ‘No we’ve only got tickets for the matinĂ©e.’ So they went to see the play, they went to the matinĂ©e instead of going to the match! I mean… from Geordies, this is… So from that whole period I think that was the Damascus moment...