At last! A film about a duchess or something

When did things start being 'about' other things?

By which I mean, when in everyday speech did things first become routinely described as 'about' things, and just as importantly 'not about' other things, as in "it's not about you, it's about me!" or "this isn't about your career, it's about our marriage"?
My memory puts it not much earlier than 1990 or so, round about the same time that "she said" mutated into "she was, like", the origins of both probably to be found in the weird, quasi-naturalistic scripts of the tv programme Eastenders. If I'm right, it must qualify as the most ubiquitous anachronism in modern film and drama. No period is too distant, no speaker too formal, for things or situations to be about or not about other things or situations.

Now we have Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire doing it. But then, so much currency has been made of this film's parallels with more recent experience that it could be deliberate. Other common anachronisms in which this film likewise indulges most certainly are.

It is obvious that certain everyday aspects of distant history are now so remote from common experience that they have to be ignored by modern dramatists simply so as to make sense to modern viewers. But it is less widely acknowledged, but just as clear, that certain aspects of the contemporary worldview are deemed so essential to our basic sense of ourselves as humans that they must be grafted on to all historical narratives, willingly sacrificing verisimilitude to avoid the hoots of derision that would arise from characters not conforming to them. Shouting at each other in public is an example of this, and all other manifestations of the inability to control emotions, impulses or desires, and keep thoughts and opinions private. Ditto sexual promiscuity, the free granting of sexual access at the initial stages of courtship and swearing.
We know from old television that even as recently as the 1950's the middle classes spoke with the kind of cut glass precision that would now be laughed off the screen even if uttered by, say, a Victorian aristocrat. Joanna Lumley is about as posh as even the poshest historical characters are now allowed to sound.

Something else we insist upon is conformity to contemporary standards of physical attractiveness, not in women so much as men. The oily-quiffed Roman centurions of the Tony Curtis era may strike us as hilarious now, but still we insist on having 18th century characters ripping off their shirts to reveal the kind of absurdly deformed bodies that speak of many a long and narcissistic hour in those temples of Hitlerian perfectionism known euphemistically as 'health clubs', as if the basically sedentary life of the average Whig aristocrat, massive banquets and long days of attending to business interspersed with the occasional mannered dance and stag hunt, could possibly leave him with the pectoral definition of an Action Man doll.

The Duchess is basically the usual sort of thing.
It's not much better or worse than the others, barring one brilliantly directed scene in which Keira Knightley's hair catches alight at a party. But I still lost interest fairly quickly: it's basically the usual story of idiots ruining their own lives and the lives of others in an ever-widening circle of selfishness and emotional incontinence. Such twerps were comparatively rare in the eighteenth century, that greatest of all centuries, but rest assured: if any existed at all, we of the twenty-first will find them and make celebratory movies about the messes they made.

The other thing you have to quickly come to terms with about this film is that it's about Whigs, whom years of reading Johnson have conditioned me to view as essentially comic figures, like Jehovah's Witnesses. No doubt there were greater and lesser ones as there are in all clubs, but still I hear the Doctor snapping impatiently at my magnanimity: "They are vile Whigs, and there's an end on't!"
The earlier parts are interesting, and there are some very good chilly meal scenes, filmed in longshot with the characters at either ends of an absurdly long table. But it all got pretty silly by the end, with the characters yelling at each other in public and staggering about weeping. No doubt the sequence of events is historically accurate, but as to the character motivation: I just don't believe it.

But still, it's Keira.
Some say her best performance yet, and quite possibly so. Who cares, really? It's Keira. Let her give any kind of performance she wants, I say. Have her come on reading her lines off sheets of paper; see if I care.

"The quickest way to bond with another woman is to ask them what they think of Keira Knightley."
I heard two women saying this as they walked past me in Muswell Hill the other day. I didn't get to hear what the adhesive opinion would inevitably be, but from the tone of voice I'm guessing it's not favourable. The review of this film in The Spectator takes issue with "her distracting quirks, like the pout, and the way her nose pinches in at the end when she is about to cry."
Who does it remind you of? This talk of mannerisms and affectations, coupled paradoxically with boundless fascination in the print media, endless close-ups on screen, and the general ability to open just about any film purely on the strength of what Variety used to call 'the femme ticket'?
It's Bette Davis. Keira is not Bette Davis, of course. But then, who is? So she'll do while we're waiting.

Arthur Askey: He showed symptoms of being able to amuse

Arthur Askey's autobiography reproduces the following review of an early stage appearance:

Mr Arthur Askey is a very short man with red hair and a pair of very large horn-rimmed spectacles... He showed symptoms of being able to amuse in a way of his own... He did not dance, but looks as if he could.

Not the most auspicious critical hurrah ever penned perhaps, but there have certainly been worse, and it's more or less right in its essentials: he was a very short man with red hair and glasses, he could dance, after a fashion, and those symptoms of being able to amuse would soon develop into a full-blown case of delighting several generations.
Physically, Big-Hearted Arthur Askey is a quite amazing specimen: five foot two, with slicked-back hair that falls in lanky curtains when the comedy gets physical and round glasses set in slightly abnormal, undeveloped features; he looks pale and misshapen, covered in liver spots and freckles.
But when he’s in flight, your eyes never leave him; he knows how to play the imagined cinema audience as surely as he commanded a live one.

Today, I suppose, he is most famous for being the man who sings “The Bee Song”, and other less instantly hummable comic numbers. (Of all his comic songs, my favourite is “All To Specification”, an ode to jerry-built housing:

Our bathroom’s rather small but really all that we require,
The plughole’s always bunged up so I poke it with a wire,
We’ve got two taps marked HOT and COLD but one of them’s a liar
But it’s all to spe-ci-fi-ca-tion!
The gable-end fell down today and messed things up a bit,
The builder he came round and said, I knows the cause of it,
The bricks ain’t had no mortar on, they stuck them on with spit
But it’s all to spe-ci-fi-ca-tion!)

After success in concert parties and variety, his big break came with the BBC radio series Band Waggon, the most popular and anarchic comedy show of the thirties, performed with the impeccable assistance of the great Richard “Stinker” Murdoch, a beautifully stylish performer, later co-writer and star of the impossibly perfect Much Binding In The Marsh.

Purporting to be an account of how the radio series first came to the air, Band Waggon the movie (1939) is a joy because it is basically a revue; like the Crazy Gang’s Okay For Sound it eschews plot and just threads together set pieces and turns from stacks of top, middle and lower variety acts of the time, headed by Jack Hylton and his orchestra. The great Pat Kirkwood (who died on Christmas Day last year) joins Big and Stinker in a splendid number called “The Only One Who’s Difficult Is You” and leads the chorus in a joyous rendition of “the rage of two continents – that crazy number “Boomps-a-Daisy”.”
It’s a totally successful translation of the radio show to the screen, full of the kind of energy and sarky confidence typical of performers who know damned well they’re the hottest thing around just now.
Askey’s unfamiliarity with the process of making movies – in his autobiography he recalls how he turned up for the first day’s shooting having learned only the first few pages of script on the assumption that films were shot in sequence – has no visible effect on his performance, which hums with confidence and energy. And as it is a British comedy film made in 1939, there’s also a haunted castle and Moore Marriott. And an exploding goat.

Askey inherited both Marriott and Graham Moffat from Will Hay, and makes sound use of both, but you always notice when Murdoch’s not around. All three enliven Charley’s (Big-Hearted) Aunt (1940), one of those great hybrid titles like Alf’s Button Afloat, and not a straight adaptation of the play but a kind of riff on it. (That’s Phyllis Calvert, no less, doing the high class clowning as Stinker’s girlfriend – Askey even gets to kiss her full on the lips in drag.)

It was a brave try to launch Askey as a full-fledged movie star, but it was the next, The Ghost Train (1941), that struck gold: it remains Askey’s masterpiece. Odd, because there was really nothing new about it at all: Arnold Ridley’s famous play had already been adapted twice for the screen under its real name, as well as serving as obvious inspiration for two consecutive Hay-Moffat-Marriott films, Oh, Mr Porter! and Ask a Policeman.
It’s not a faithful adaptation by any means: the villains are predictably now fifth columnists, and Ridley’s main character has been split in two to accommodate Askey and Murdoch. But it remains the best version, as well as the spookiest of all the baddies-pretending-to-be-ghosts comedies, thanks to great sets and real atmosphere. The moment when the ghost train rushes through the deserted station rivals anything in The Cat and the Canary, aided by the intense performance of that great British actress Linden Travers.
Some of the best of all British comedy has relied on the surefire formula of one irritating comic stuck in a confined space with an assortment of irritable people: think Hancock in The Railway Journey or its unacknowledged remake The Lift, or Norman Wisdom on the train in One Good Turn. But both are amateurs alongside Askey here: he mercilessly pummels his victims with crass observations, end-of-the-pier gags and groundless good cheer.
The joke is partly that Askey’s faith in his likeability never falters now matter how often his efforts are repulsed, but mainly the fun of the attack itself: Askey’s barrage of quips, impersonations and inane suggestions for passing the time versus the undentable contempt of his fellow travellers, at least one of whom teeters constantly on the brink of doing him serious physical harm. The one song in the film, Askey’s delightful performance of “The Seaside Band” ends halfway through when the gramophone he is using for accompaniment is thrown on to the line. It is one of the supreme comic performances of British films.

Let’s hope Ridley had a sense of humour because Back Room Boy (1942) remade the story yet again, this time in a lighthouse (the surprise high-class cheesecake coming courtesy of a thin-gowned and soaking wet Googie Withers: British low comedy was an invaluable opportunity for posh leading ladies to kick off their corsets).
But in between came I Thank You (1941), easily the most graceful and satisfying of the Askey vehicles created expressly for him.
It’s a pot-pourri again; basically a sitcom but with several breaks for revue turns from the supporting bill. (Lily Morris, who plays a stuffy aristocrat all through the film steps out of character at the end for a lap of honour rendition of “Waiting At the Church”.) It fudges the decision of what Arthur the film character actually does by making him a theatrical; many of the later films falter in their efforts to account for this essentially impossible personality in reasonable narrative terms. No such trouble here, though: this is – for the last time, really – Askey at the height of his powers.
The first scene, with Askey waking up in Bond Street tube station and singing “Hello To The Sun” must have had an incredible impact at the time – and not even Formby could have pulled it off quite so infectiously. (A fascinating weird joke, too, as Arthur spots a dead ringer for Hitler among those sleeping, and is visibly relieved to discover he has a copy of the Jewish Chronicle.)
It’s also the best-proportioned use of Askey, Murdoch, Moffat and Marriott as a four-man team. There are some good lines for all of them, but more importantly, this is the film in which they really spark visually. They look like a team, not least in a large-scale slapstick scene, strong in both idea and execution, involving tins of brown paint and several dogs.
All this and the sheer joy of Askey and Murdoch singing together at the piano:

I’d share my last penny with you,
I’d split my last farthing in two.
We’ll go fifty-fifty on all I’ve got,
Half of everything is yours.

Then just when you think it can’t get more enchanting, they both tap dance. (Stinker’s really good.)
The film ends with a tube station full of air raid shelterers vigorously joining in with a vicious, incongruously jaunty singalong that goes:

Let’s get hold of Hitler,
String him up on high.
Anyone in favour?
Aye, Aye, Aye!

Part of Askey's appeal through the war years is attributable to the fact that his distinctive comic persona – the inveterate perfomer, irrepressible and irreverent even when circumstances demand sobriety – seemed to symbolise the preferred British attitude to adversity.

As already noted, it was back on the ghost train for Back Room Boy, with Moffat and Marriott but no Stinker, and you do miss him, especially when Askey inadvertently draws attention to the loss by conversing with himself. At last the writers have taken the plunge and made Askey a real man in a real world, with things to strive for and a girl to get: the only way from here is pathos, as nervously tried in King Arthur Was a Gentleman (1942).
It's not too bad, but it's not vintage either, with Arthur as a weakling soldier who finds heroic reserves of bravery when he wields a sword he believes to be Exclibur. He eventually discovers what we knew all along - that the sword was a prank engineered by his fellow soldiers and his courage was all his own - but in an ending so funny and so right that nobody bothered to point out it totally undermines the entire film, he flings it into a lake, whereupon it is caught elegantly by a woman's arm.

Askey's film decline was inevitable in a sense: he was a revue comic with no business in movies, and we should be grateful that such was the professional excellence of British comedy cinema at this time we have even as much imperishable Askey celluloid as we do. From here, however, there was only one way to go, exacerbated by a foolish desire to launch him internationally, resulting in a pair of garish, pseudo-American odities: Miss London Ltd (1943) and Bees in Paradise (1944), with musical guests aping Glenn Miller and the Andrews Sisters, and poor Arthur forced to crack wise in painfully obvious imimtation of Hope and Crosby.

Wisely, he hurried back to the stage, and then to television, where he triumphed in several series of Before Your Very Eyes in the early to mid fifties. The shows were deliberately under-rehearsed so as to conveny an infectious sense of fun, and Askey later claimed they pioneered the now standard television techniques of addressing the home audience, acknowleding the presence of cameras, walking on and off the set, and retaining fluffed lines and corpsing.
The programme's other great innovation was Sabrina (real name: Norma Sykes), a protegee of Askey's with platinum blonde hair, a cute, giggly personality and a pair of breasts that even today retain the capacity to startle and transfix audiences encountering them unawares or for the first time.
Endearingly unprofessional, Askey claimed she was deliberately chosen because "she had a lovely face and figure but could not act, sing, dance or even walk properly."

Stage success in a farce called The Love Match led to the chance to appear in a film version in 1954: though relentlessly frenetic it was a big hit, and led to another round of movies, alongside uninterrupted popularity in stage and tv.
His last film appearance (in the British sex comedy Rosie Dixon - Night Nurse) came in 1978, and he was still doing the Royal Variety Show in 1980 (at the age of 80). He published his autobiography Before Your Very Eyes in 1975. Entirely unghosted, it mixes the expected fascinating theatrical detail with some surprising revelations and deviations. There's an anecdote about Enoch Powell sending Askey a letter apologising for not knowing who he was when they met at a function, a rant about hooliganism at sporting events, a moving chapter about his late wife’s losing battle with senile dementia, and this about his hatred of horse racing:

I loathe owners, trainers, jockeys, bookies, commentators, punters, betting shops – anything at all to do with racing, except the horses themselves. Having seen the Grand National, it was always my ambition to throw a saddle over Mrs Mirabelle Topham and ride her over the appalling Aintree fences. I think that racing attracts the layabouts from every strata of society and if I were a dictator, I would stop racing of every kind. There is only one motive for the racegoer, and that is how to make money without working for it.

But fate at its cruellest eventually levelled him, and Askey died in 1982.
Since then, his popularity has fallen away, and his reputation is now sport for the ignorant. You may remember the Arthur Atkinson sketches in The Fast Show. Your grandchildren won't: a key difference between it and he.

Horrors enough

The Strangers based, it claims happily, on a true story, is about a yuppie-ish couple who are tied up, tortured and, for a grand finale, stabbed to buggery by teenagers in grotesque masks. (The tagline is "Because You Were Home...")
Eden Lake pits a totally different yuppie-ish couple against a totally different pack of ferals (including that obnoxious tyke Thomas Turgoose); totally different torture, slashings, severed tongues and burnings alive ensue.
Donkey Punch is light relief: a pack of morons turn psycho when one of them accidentally kills some tart by walloping the back of her neck during sex on a yacht; savage killings ensue.

Urban violence is the new thing in horror; a strange amalgam of the traditional slasher film, the serial killer thriller and that popular hybrid known jovially as torture porn.
Aside from identikit plots and identikit best-horror-film-I've-seen-in-ages-type reviews, these films have this in common: their collective presence at the moment when their genre abandoned the last pitiful vestiges of what we can now see was only ever a cynical and opportunist reliance on fantasy, and the pretence of ultimately siding with the angels.

No longer is lip service paid to the threat being countered at the end, no longer are the monsters different from the rest of us, no longer is there any effort to pretend that mere sadism is insufficient as content, and should not be offered explicitly for the delectation of other sadists. Now, torture and thuggery are indispensable ingredients in horror.
This is a huge milestone moment in the history of horror movies akin to the debuts of Psycho or Night of the Living Dead or Texas Chainsaw.

Think back to the last mini-milestone that was Scream. How cosy does that look, already? These are fast-paced times, folks: look out.
It took just ten years to get from The Curse of Frankenstein to Corruption, a mere twelve from Psycho to Last House on the Left, a piffling fifteen from Silence of the Lambs to Hostel. The last journey may be the most interesting of all, not just because it takes in so many unbelievably bad films along the way - Copycat, The Bone Collector, In Dreams, The Cell, Kiss the Girls, Natural Born Killers - but also because it shows how quickly walls tumble once breached.
The official line on Lambs was that it was an important film, not cheap exploitation, so we all dutifully took it seriously and pretended it was serious drama with serious things to say, and we trooped off seriously to see it and went in with serious faces and came out with serious faces. Watching it, we had a lot of fun. How long before we were just allowed to have fun with this stuff? Fifteen years. And look where we are now, and how commonplace it all is now, and how Hostel barely raised an eyebrow.

And still we talk of films 'influencing' people, and argue the toss about it, as if the people who make the films aren't influenced every bit as much as those watching them! As if this clear progression from the shocking to the commonplace, despite the constant upping of the dose of sadism and degradation and masturbatory clinical detail, does not tell its own obvious story of a culture and a product coarsening each other as they march together. 
The code word is 'realism', the excuse that audiences have 'seen it all before' and need the cattle prod cranked up to a higher and higher voltage every time, just so they can feel anything at all.
Merrily we go, from the the fear of death to the threat of death to the enactment of death to the merciless savouring of death, and the torment of hopelessness. The more real the better: the more it should make us think - hang on, this could be happening to me - the less we seem to.
And the ride never stops, though every generation seems quaintly to assume that it will, that there is a height from which the bar cannot again be raised. That height of course is always: just where they want it. Which to the next generation means: just where those squares left it.

Even when Psycho made it okay for ordinary human killers to be fun-scary, the iconography remained resolutely other-worldly. As late in the game as Halloween and the Friday the 13th series, the threat is always overtly monstrous, bordering on supernatural, the killer signposted as fundamentally different from those around him, not least by the adoption of a signature mask that seems somehow more his real face than whatever lies beneath. Chucky and Freddy were the most the previous generation had to worry about: one a sort of ghost, one a doll, neither likely to be hanging around the back of your local supermarket.
Even the masks are being let go now; true, the killers of The Strangers adopt such disguises, but only to be scary. Like the killers of the Scream series they use horror masks not because they are an outward manifestation of their psyches but because that's what killers wear in the movies. The arrival of films like Wolf Creek and the Hostel and Saw series shows that art now imitates life imitating art imitating life.

I'm aware of the difficulties in addressing this issue. Honestly I am.
I realise that all horror films, even those that now seem the mildest, were all offensive to some in their day, and all pushed at their generation's generally agreed lines of taste and decency. Whale's Frankenstein with its ghoulish imagery of violated graves and post-mortem surgery certainly did.
Of course, we can look back and say ah, but there is no explicit detail, and no sadistic killings, and order is restored at the end - and all of this would be true, and would point undeniably to a worrying regression in public taste... but it still wouldn't face up to the fact that horror has always stood outside of mainstream consensus, and that perhaps that is its job.
The Raven, with Lugosi getting obvious sexual pleasure from torturing the woman who spurned him, was felt to be horribly sadistic, and was. The trappings and acting style all distance us from it today, and lessen any serious potential it might hold to shock or disturb, but it would disingenuous to say it was always and intentionally thus.
And yet, irrationally perhaps, I find myself thinking that horror films are a luxury for a people that can afford them, a harmless escape valve for ordered, decent societies that have a strong sense of themselves and a shared certainty as to what ultimate values are being violated on screen.
In a flabby society of relative values, weak justice, increasing fear and disorder, such films serve a different and darker purpose.
The time has perhaps come, then, to tighten our belts and be done with them. Lugosi does it all a million times better anyway. Watch The Devil Bat instead. See the killer bat swoop on its victims, the ones Lugosi has cunningly doused in the after shave lotion that drives it into a killing frenzy, watch Lugosi explain his cunning plot to a large fake bat hanging upside down from a coat hanger.
You'll find you don't need to watch people get tied to chairs and disembowelled.

Richard Mansfield, the American actor who was appearing in a London stage adaptation of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde during the time of the Jack the Ripper murders closed his own production down when newspaper gossip linked the play to the mood of the times, and suggested it might even influence the killer.
He made one last performance, donating the proceeds to charity, and afterwards thanked his audience for their patronage and took his leave, explaining "There are horrors enough outside."

Lugosi is all the horror I need at the moment; of the other sort, there is enough outside.

Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?

Ah, yes: Anthony Newley. And ah, yes but even more so: Hieronymus Merkin. How small can a minority be before you have to find a new word to describe them?
An experiment: Take everyone in Britain and say 'Anthony Newley' to them. The majority, I suspect, will not know who you are talking about.
Then take the minority who do, and ask them for an opinion. The majority, I suspect, will not have one.
Then take the minority who do, and ask them what it is. The majority, I suspect, will express more than typical distaste.
Then take the minority who like him, whittle that down to the extreme minority who love him, and ask them what they think of Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969).
The majority, I suspect, will say it's terrible.

That leaves perhaps the smallest minority of all time.
But nice to meet you, all the same.

I've had a thing for Newley ever since I saw him as a guest star in the tv series Fame and instantly recognised an entity utterly different from his surroundings. I asked my mother who he was and learned he was an old singing star with a spectacularly false performing style. I was hooked from then on.
We who love him understand why others find him so grating, yet are transfixed by the very qualities that others find so repellent. (People who like Barbra Streisand must be in the grip of something similar.) With his massive eyebrows, gurning facial expressions and flapping hands, his is one of the most uninhibitedly weird stage presences ever. Ditto his tremulous voice, alternately howling and confiding, with Hollywood schmaltz suddenly giving way to glass-cracking cockney. The songs, many of which he wrote, are odd mixes of old-style crooning, obscure jokes and gloomy introspection. He did movies, Broadway and Las Vegas. There was nothing he could not do, and all he did he did uniquely. I saw him live only once, as Scrooge in the Bricusse musical: no performer on any stage has ever impressed me as much.

For years I dreamed of this notorious film, an alternately self-worshipping and self-excoriating autobiographical art house musical extravaganza, starring the great man, written by the great man, produced and directed and scored by the great man, with his wife playing his wife, his kids playing his kids and Milton Berle playing the devil, in a wild and overblown mix of allegorical fantasy, X-rated sex scenes and rousing musical numbers. It was after a decade and more of imagining it that I finally got my hands on a copy - how could it not disappoint? The answer: somehow. For against all the odds it did not. It is everything they say, and more, more, more.

Hieronymus Merkin is undoubtedly the most controversial project with which Newley was ever associated. Slated or dismissed out of hand even by his staunch supporters and, to the rest, one of the great, bona fide disasters of film history, for Newley fans it is frequently criticised as pretentious, overblown, cynical and tasteless.
Yet it is also, inarguably, a work into which Newley poured an awful lot of himself, not just in terms of the level of commitment required of an actor-writer-songwriter-director but also in the often searingly revealing autobiographical elements of the screenplay. If you like the guy you simply have to accept that, whatever reservations you have about it, it is clearly a magnum opus, one of the most serious, revealing and personal works Newley ever created.

Parts of it are indeed naïve, and others try too hard to impress; nonetheless it's a remarkably ambitious and confident leap into yet another field of creativity for Newley.
It's essential viewing for anyone who wishes to understand the man behind the music, and it's unlike any other film Hollywood has ever made. What on earth did Universal make of it when he showed it to them? On what pretext did he get the gig in the first place? Hollywood really was flailing in the late sixties: it is a mark of just how much Easy Rider had walloped the place that projects like this and Myra Breckinridge and The Last Movie and Zabriskie Point and The Seven Minutes even got a hearing, still more a green light. Yet even in such company, it is Newley's film that emerges, triumphantly, as the weirdest, least fathomable, most preposterous. It's fantastic, in every sense.

And it’s got terrific music. The songs in Merkin are as great as any he ever wrote and performed, mixing serious autobiographical lyrics with tunes to set you whistling for days as only he could. From ‘Oh What a Son of a Bitch I Am’ (a jaunty confession of indiscretions past and predicted, with Newley merrily hailing himself as outsinning Dracula and Jack the Ripper), to the simple and incredibly poignant ‘Lullaby’, and from the haunting, indeed disturbing ‘Sweet Love Child’ to the raucous ‘On the Boards’, the film displays something like its creator’s full range of mood and expression in the medium of popular song.
When Newley the director finds visuals to match the music the film can be stunning: witness Merkin at the top of a mountain bellowing ‘I’m All I Need’.

A man is alone from the day he's born
To the day that they close his eyes.
And if anyone tells you anything else,
He's telling you a pack of lies.
I need no God, I believe no dreams,
And it seems that I've always known
That we laugh and cry,
That we hope and sigh
And we live and we die

The song, like most in this collection, exists in a variety of versions, and while the expression of atheism in the soundtrack version is clear enough other recordings go even further (‘There is no God, and if any poor clod thinks otherwise he’s a fool…’).

As with Newley’s theatre work these songs of great immediacy and appeal are inserted into an audacious allegorical framework, which here takes the form of the recollections of an entertainer undergoing a mid-life crisis.
This many-layered structure begins with Newley/Merkin telling the story of his life to his family on a beach next to an enormous pile of ephemera relating to events in his life. This then leads into reconstructions, songs, fantasies and deviations, frequently interrupted by other sequences that fictitiously depict the film itself being shot, argued over and changed even as we watch it. The result is a mess of bizarre imagery and strange ideas, shot through with autobiographical reminiscences of Newley’s/Merkin’s marriages, career, fantasies, fears and even specific events such as the death of his first child.
This is not to say that Newley was altogether happy about the film being viewed in this way; in promotional interviews he went out of his way to stress that it was not an autobiography, merely a personal fantasy informed inevitably by what he called the flotsam and jetsam of his life. Such protestations must ultimately ring hollow in the light of the work itself, however, and in particular the film’s take on what was at the time his ongoing marriage to Joan Collins would on its own have given him ample reason to want to distance himself from the film’s naked honesty. (Joan Collins has cited the film as contributing to their break-up.)
It is hard, also, not to detect at least as much self-doubt as hubris in Newley’s delightfully bizarre attempt to describe the film to a BBC interviewer in 1969:

It is not an autobiography… I guess it’s more like a poem, really, in as much that a lot of it is pantomime and visual. And don’t be put off by the ‘pantomime’; I can’t think of any other word to describe the sort of thing that Charlie Chaplin did, which was just pictures. It’s a musical too; it has music to it. It’s a story with music is what it is but that’s so dry. But that’s what I’d like people to call it.

But a later suggestion in the same interview showed how thoroughly Newley viewed the techniques of European art cinema as a means of unfettered personal expression:

I think the movie is moving into a much more personal area…I’d like to be part of that brigade of men who create pieces for the cinema, and direct them and sometimes appear in them, that are very personal things. You probably couldn’t have made them twenty years ago.

Parts of the film seem almost too honest, too painful, too cruel. The occasional excesses of style and lapses of taste also suggest inexperience, unchecked by any collaborator with the talent and influence to hold him back. The film is deliberately confusing and bizarre, and in sequences such as that in which Merkin confesses to his love of underage girls (and again in the number, cheerfully described as utterly irrelevant within the film itself, about a princess who falls in love with a donkey) the lack of a more sober collaborator is especially apparent.

But what the film occasionally lacks in discipline it more than atones for in sheer invention and idiosyncrasy. As always with Newley, it is his total confidence that strikes you first. After all, it’s not like he’d directed a film before, and here, suddenly given total control over a project as writer-director-star, he has done anything but play safe.
His influences are obvious, often embarrassingly so, but he never tried to keep them a secret, admitting freely at the time that the film was his bid to join the pantheon of European auteurs that included Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and – a reflection of the times - Claude Lelouch (whose reputation for total autonomy Newley especially envied). Taking Fellini’s love of theatrical fantasy, Antonioni’s moody chops and Bergman’s poetic symbolism, Newley blends all three and adds dashes of his own gifts: good jokes, great songs and a sense of genuine melancholy; a kind of painful nostalgia.

The film’s biggest fault – for audiences other than those who simply don’t like Anthony Newley and for whom the experience of watching it will be one akin to that of physical torture – is that it is impossible to achieve a clear understanding of what kind of film it is unless you’ve lived exactly the life Newley himself did. The allusions to and recreations of British music hall and variety would have meant very little in America, and the reflections on the Hollywood showbiz scene would have had similarly little resonance in Britain. As for the bit with him watching a clockwork doll of himself getting it on with a Playboy centrefold... it's a toss-up as to who would understand that least.
It's a film for an audience that didn’t exist, or if they did existed in such small numbers as to make the film a suicidal proposition at the box office. Not only that, but most people simply don’t like Anthony Newley, and wouldn't have turned out no matter what he'd come up with. Pitched in part to the kind of people who like musicals, in part to the Easy Rider counterculture, in part to those who like foreign art films it satisfied none but those who like exactly what Newley likes: arty images and old show tunes, heavy sentimentality and deft irony, experimentalism and old-fashioned showbiz, music hall jokes and meditations on the meaning of life.
That's Newley himself, and me; anybody else?