The Great McGonagall: Spike Milligan’s Lost Masterpiece - Part Two

by Matthew Coniam and Richard Larcombe

mcgon62The film’s theatrical style and subject are perfectly complemented by McGrath and Milligan’s audacious decision to shoot the entire production within the walls of one building.

Wilton’s Music Hall, situated in a narrow alley a short walk from Tower Bridge, was one of the first and most popular music halls in London. It closed in 1885 and after use as a mission and then a rag warehouse it was abandoned and left empty and decaying. A campaign in 1964 saved it from demolition, but by that time it had fallen into serious disrepair, and ten years later remained derelict and facing an uncertain future. It is hard to imagine this crumbling, dirty (and surprisingly small) building proving adequate as a feature film location at all, yet Milligan and McGrath decided to shoot every scene there, with the stage, wings, stalls and corridors doubling as Dundee’s Theatre Royal, pubs, courtrooms, prison cells, schools, Balmoral and (a deliberately artificial) Africa. It was a decision to which a large part of the film’s unique and puzzling atmosphere can be attributed.

In one incredibly beautiful sequence a simple corridor is used as a seedy back-alley and is at once poetically ‘unrealistic’ and yet totally convincing, due almost solely to the economical but expert use of backlighting and a little dripping water. In reality, this corridor looks nothing like a street and everything like a corridor.

Similarly, the drab, crumbling walls of McGonagall’s house are really the drab, crumbling walls of the once-renowned “Mahogany Bar”, just inside the theatre’s main doors. The despairing claustrophobia of this convincingly created Victorian hovel is emphasised by occasional glimpses out of the “front door” into a street even more tightly enclosed than the poet’s house. It is in fact a narrow backstage corridor: the set dressing, lighting and photography are truly masterful.

On repeated viewings, the true nature of the surroundings becomes apparent, recalling the deliberately underdressed sets that were such a trademark of Q. But to McGrath’s credit this is far from obvious on one’s first encounter with the film. The use of only three different spaces for virtually the entire production is constantly inventive, and lends the film an almost eerily authentic period atmosphere, as if a condemned Victorian theatre has been prised open to reveal a condemned Victorian world still operating within.

VICTOR SPINETTI: It has a tremendously Victorian feel. If you thought of the crumbling Empire and all the rest of it, it caught it absolutely. It came across as if it could have been filmed in Victorian times. To me it looks like a film found in the archives… shot in a theatre with these actors doing a tribute to a Victorian poet. That’s exactly what we did.

The theatrical atmosphere was further underlined by the decision to use the cast in multiple roles, giving the film the feel of an amateur stage production. (The spontaneity and ensemble style reminded Spinetti of his work at Stratford East with Joan Littlewood’s company, particularly Oh, What A Lovely War!) We are introduced to the cast in the title sequence, which shows each in turn being made-up in one of the theatre’s dressing rooms. (Ever vigilant against the notion of a moment making too much sense, Milligan is shown being made up (by Sellers) with a gag in his mouth, a Hitler moustache and his hands tied behind his back.)

MCGRATH: My idea was: it’s a group of actors just getting together to make a film on McGonagall… In the opening titles they’re getting made up, and you can see the extras all come in and sit down. You can hear me direct them and say “Action”. 

mcgon51The sense that the film generates of being the work of a troupe of players putting on a show is therefore quite deliberately contrived. Of the film’s nine speaking players, only three - Milligan as McGonagall, Sellers as Queen Victoria and Julia Foster (a popular film and TV actress of the time) in an entirely straight performance as McGonagall’s wife – play a single role. Virtually all of the remaining cast members had previously worked with McGrath, Milligan or both, creating a palpably friendly rep-like atmosphere. These include dwarf actor and frequent Milligan co-star Charlie Atom, Clifton Jones (a replacement for the originally-cast Ray Ellington, famous as regular musical guest on The Goon Show) and Julian Chagrin. Chagrin, a noted mime artist (and one of the tennis-payers in Antonioni’s Blow Up) had appeared in McGrath’s Thirty Is A Dangerous Age, Cynthia and, the year before McGonagall, in Milligan’s tv programme The Last Turkey In The Shop. (He was also the ‘secret lemonade drinker’ in the famous tv commercial directed by McGrath.)

All aspects of the theatrical atmosphere for which the film strives – the ensemble playing, the artificiality and the inability to disguise or repair accidental errors – come together most strikingly in what plays as the film’s most enigmatic scene. This is the moment in which a fairly complicated plot-led sequence (in which McGonagall is being deceived into thinking that the Queen has invited him to Balmoral) suddenly breaks down into confusion, with McGrath appearing on screen to supervise retakes, then calling lunch.

What ostensibly grinds the scene to a halt is Milligan’s inability to remember, or seemingly to understand, a punchline he is obliged to deliver. Unfortunately this simple reading of the scene is confounded by the fact that the joke in question is so obvious, and so typical of the man failing to deliver it. Victor Spinetti, arranging the spurious appointment with Victoria, says: “Shall we say Balmoral Castle, next Thursday at four pm?” whereupon Milligan is supposed to do just that (say ‘Balmoral Castle, next Thursday at four pm’). Instead, he stops the performance to inquire of McGrath what it is he is supposed to say. There follows a series of attempts to complete the sequence, with Spinetti giggling and enjoying the confusion, McGrath plainly eager to finish the scene in one take and Milligan, in no mood for levity whatsoever, grumbling that his performance was “over the top” and that he wants to start again. It is as if he is trying deliberately to spoil a take (by pretending to be confused by an obvious joke) so as to force a reshoot of a scene he was not happy with. (This, according to McGrath, was a tactic often employed by Peter Sellers.) When the line is finally (and reticently) delivered, McGrath calls lunch with the scene still incomplete, whereupon we watch the cast eating outside the building next to a shabby caravan, while a lush song on the soundtrack ironically praises the magic of ‘Showbiz’.

The mysteriousness of the scene is compounded by the fact that McGrath, Bluthal and Spinetti all remember it differently. McGrath recalls it as typical Milligan high spirits:

MCGRATH:That just happened by accident because Spike on the take actually said “I think we should go to lunch” and I said “Okay, lunch!” and… we went to lunch and then all came back in and started again. And Spike loves things like that. He hated the discipline of big films. So did Sellers.

But it is McGrath, not Milligan, who calls lunch, and Bluthal accordingly sees the scene as typical of McGrath’s approach to the discipline of film-making:

JOHN BLUTHAL: He’s a very good director, he did some very good films… He was very serious with his work, but of course very funny. I mean, that scene when he said “Oh, it’s alright, love, let’s do it again”: that was just totally Joe! It was part of that aura of theatricalism that Joe loves. I don’t think he was ever an actor but he loves actors. He loves the business of saying “alright, darling, don’t worry, we’ll do it again – okay, lunch now!”

What both versions cannot explain is why Milligan appears to be in such low spirits. This is acknowledged by Victor Spinetti:

SPINETTI: It started truthfully: “What do I say next?“… And then he just kept doing it – typical Spike. He’s brilliant because you don’t know whether he was (putting it on) or not. But he was really getting more and more incensed and more and more angry. He knew what he was saying. It started off that he really did dry, and then I think we just kept going.

mcgon1Which reading is correct? The matter was only solved by the timely location of McGrath’s original shooting script, heavily annotated on-set by Milligan and himself. This reveals, amazingly, that the entire episode was planned, and is acted. It deviates substantially from the original text (in which the director’s voice was to be heard off-screen asking Milligan to repeat the line more clearly) but nonetheless shows that the film was intended to break down on that specific line, and that its completion should then result in the actors going to lunch. (In this original version, rather than a song, the lunch scene was to be accompanied by the actors talking as themselves.)

This revelation at once clears up a mystery and creates several new ones. Why did neither McGrath, Spinetti nor Bluthal, all raising the subject themselves and fresh from a viewing of the film, remember it as spurious? Why is Milligan opting to appear truculent rather than enjoying a good corpsing session (a regular feature of Q)? And most of all, capable players though all present so undoubtedly are, how was such an extraordinary level of authenticity achieved? There is something so genuine about the behaviour of everybody present, not just the skilled professional actors like Bluthal and Spinetti, but also Milligan and McGrath, who speak in fractured, spontaneous sentences with incredible believability. Is it possible that this moment was a private decision of Milligan’s and McGrath’s, not included in the other cast members’ scripts? This would explain the convincing attitudes of Bluthal, Spinetti and Julia Foster (who can be heard trying to assist Milligan out of shot), and also the actors’ inability to remember the moment as faked. But it still would not account for the amazing verisimilitude of McGrath and Milligan themselves. Whatever the ultimate truth, this compelling sequence remains bizarre, fascinating and (like so much else in the film) way ahead of its time.

This is n extract from an article which appeared in Kettering 1.

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