Thursday 14 September 2017

Favourites in Five: Jason Figgis


I started a brand new series of blogs a couple of weeks ago, asking some of my favourite people to write in about the five most important influences on their lives from the world of theatre, film and television. You can read Sarah Miller Walters' wonderful blog here , actress Judy Matheson's super piece is here and blogger, author and Sid James fan Stuart Ball's blog is here

Today it's the turn of film director, Jason Figgis.


Robert Mitchum was a towering figure in Hollywood and I don’t just mean his 6’2” frame carrying a 48 inch chest. He was feared by movie moguls and loved by women, as well as men. His loose style was effortless and even gave him pause to answer a reporter who enquired of his acting style with the humorous retort : “With and without a horse”. Mitchum was a tough guy onscreen but off, an intellectual - his need to be the consummate professional powering his approach to his roles that saw him look for meaning in everything he did. He joked that he would be happy to paint houses if they paid him the same crazy money but Mitchum was merely making light of a profession he was passionate about. Legend has it that he was so upset by the mogul Howard Hughes insistence on reshooting a feature film three times that he roughed up two security guards; locked himself into the set and proceeded to tear the entire construction apart; watched on the sidelines by a bewildered and highly amused cast and crew. Such was his talent as an actor that while shooting the superb Cape Fear for Gregory Peck’s production company, Peck himself sidled up to Mitchum to assure him that he was not in the least bit upset that his co-star was stealing every scene out from under him. Peck knew that in Mitchum he had cast the most charismatic actor to play the most charismatic and terrifying antagonist opposite his genial lawyer. The film was a smash critical hit for Mitchum and Co. and continued a career trajectory that had begun in the 1940s with film noir and would reach further critical heights with such powerful thrillers as The Yakuza and The Friends of Eddie Coyle. For me Robert Mitchum was the consummate actor. He was a physical powerhouse with a face that was etched with deep insight into the human condition. He believed that he had three expressions; looking right, looking left and looking straight ahead but Mitchum was in fact one of the most underrated actors of the 20th century. 



One of my earliest memories of film (and one of the most influential) was witnessing Jenny Agutter carry her onscreen brother (in fact Nicolas Roeg’s own son) across the broiling sands of the Australian bush. This was memorable for two reasons: My older brother Danny had starred with Agutter in a “Troubles” story set in Belfast called A War of Children and secondly, the power of Roeg’s scope as a visionary director. The film was, of course, Walkabout - a highly controversial tale of child abandonment and awakening (not least because of the teenage Agutter’s many scenes of sometimes full frontal nudity). Agutter went on to star, weeks later, in the children’s classic The Railway Children for actor/ director Lionel Jefferies. She was so tanned from her months in Australia, that she needed to be constantly “paled” down for her scenes set in a cold Yorkshire landscape. The dialogue in Walkabout was sparse but the imagery was rich and full of beautiful and terrifying things. To cap it all, one of John Barry’s most haunting scores was utilised to great effect. I looked for more of Roeg’s work and discovered his sublime cinematography for John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd and his next great work, Don’t Look Now which starred Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in two tour de force performances that garnered much critical acclaim. Everything that Roeg has touched is tuned to such artistic perfection that no matter what the genre, he has made it his own. 



When Kubrick released a feature film - it was an event, not only in Hollywood, but in my house. Like Roeg, Kubrick was the consummate artist and even though others produced his work, he held such a powerful grip on every area of creativity within the filmmaking process, that he can, without doubt, be considered an auteur. He attacked a new genre each time he made a picture and in doing so, seemed to have the uncanny ability to redefine that genre. He was also obsessed with perfection of performance. One of my favourite anecdotes concerned Tom Cruise on the set of the excellent Eyes Wide Shut. Cruise had walked through a door approximately 50 times and when he questioned Kubrick’s rationale, the great master responded: “But, don’t you want to get it right”. That pretty much summed up Stanley Kubrick’s obsession; he always wanted to get it right and, he always did.



I had the good fortune to spend a few nights alone at Ian Fleming’s former home near Reading and was struck with the awesome grandeur of the surroundings. One particular room, with walls adorned with photographs of Fleming with many other famous faces, I found to be a very eerie place. It was if Mr. Fleming was still present and was curious about I, the unknown interloper. When Michael Caine stood before his spy-ring boss in the superb The Ipcress File, thanking him for a much needed raise as he could now afford the latest grill that he had been looking at, Caine redefined Ian Fleming’s idea of what a spy should be. Harry Palmer (as portrayed by Michael Caine) was practically the antithesis of Fleming’s Bond. He was an intellectual first and much more interested in cooking than breaking apart the latest nest of potential national security threats. The film proved to be a success as both types of physical and intellectual alphas were accepted by the film-going public. It certainly didn’t harm the success of the film that Caine was an unconventionally beautiful, blonde, 6’2” presence. Something that set Caine apart from his contemporary leading men though was his ability to inhabit any role that he was cast in. He could play the intellectual spy, the philandering Eastend boy, the Nazi soldier, the upperclass English officer or even, the thug. He was also one of the first of the English New Wave to realise that less was more. He allowed his hooded eyes to do the talking and they spoke volumes. With a single tear misting one of those peepers, a nation of women and men gulped back their own begrudging emotion. They weren’t expecting how so little could produce so much. Even though Caine has continued his great successes in Hollywood, I believe the 60’s and 70’s in British film were his defining decades with such films as Zulu, Alfie, The Italian Job and of course, what I consider his best film, Mike Hodges’ Get Carter. The latter I watch at least twice a year, relishing such lines as “You’re a big man, but you’re out of shape. With me, it’s a full time job” (I paraphrase as best I can but ... you get the message). 


The English ghost story in its present short form can be attributed to the realist terrors that flowed from the fountain pen of the erudite scholar Montague Rhodes James. He wrote ghost stories to entertain his fellows and students across the dark hours of a winter’s evening as Christmas approached and soon found a much broader audience - and indeed a publisher, who was more than happy to promote the safe terrors of the Victorian/Edwardian ghost story. What set James apart from his contemporaries was his ability to interweave realist scholarly narrative with the more salacious elements of the paranormal. We believed the journey that our hero was on, we believed his quest and his translations of ancient Latin texts, so that when the horror was visited upon him, we believed that too. My introduction to his work was courtesy of the BBC and Lawrence Gordon Clark’s exemplary adaptations of his stories for a season of Ghost Stories for Christmas, throughout the 1970s. It was a bigger thrill for me and my brothers than the prospect of Santa Claus, as we huddled with pillows on a cold Dublin Christmas Eve, while the very austere BBC announcer introduced us to yet another spine tingling adaptation of the master’s work. Since then, I have of course read all of his works, and their impression has never been even slightly lessened by the regular revisits to his landscapes of the macabre. If you haven’t picked up a collection as of yet, I urge you to hold off no longer. 

Thank you so much to Jason for taking the time to write such a thoughtful, fascinating piece for the blog. You can follow Jason on Twitter and find out more about his career in film here

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan on Facebook and on Instagram

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