19 Oct 2018

Notes on the Brodie Set

The Brodie Set: the crème de la crème of 
Marcia Blaine School 

Although reduced in number in Ronald Neame's film adaptation of Muriel Spark's novel, the composite characters who make up the cinematic version of the Brodie Set remain the crème de la crème ...

I. Jenny: the Sexy One

Jenny - played by Diane Grayson - is the natural beauty of the group; a Rose by any other name. She possesses instinct, but no insight and is, according to Miss Brodie, like a heroine in a novel by Mr. D. H. Lawrence, with a profile of deceptive purity and a willingness to cartwheel on command, primitive and free.

Thus it is that Jenny will one day be famous for sex; destined - in Miss Brodie's mind - to become Teddy Lloyd's lover and not merely his model. But Jenny is of no real interest to the randy art master and Miss Brodie's fantasy of her erotic value and Nietzschean potential to rise above the common moral code is woefully mistaken.

Jenny is, in fact, just an ordinary girl; more a pint of semi-skimmed milk than crème de la crème. She wants to be happy, like her parents; people who have sexual intercourse in the marital bed, lights off but nightclothes on, and don't have primes like Miss Brodie.    

II. Monica: the Plain One

Monica - played by Shirley Steedman - was good at maths and quick of temper. And although a rather histrionic child, easily moved to tears by poetry and tales of lost love, Miss Brodie ultimately thought her to possess very little soul. It is also Monica whom she initially suspects of betraying her.

Personally, however, I like Monica very much: she seems to me the sort of girl one might have a lot of fun with; always happy to go places and to do things. 

III. Mary McGregor: that Silly, Stupid Girl

Ah, Mary McGregor - played by Jane Carr - is the most malleable of the four girls, thus her attraction for Miss Brodie. Slow-witted and stuttering, she is bullied by one and all, meekly bearing the blame for everything that goes wrong. Sadly, as Sandy rather cruelly says: She died a fool.

IV. Sandy: the Clever Little Cat 

Sandy - played by Pamela Franklin (with such brilliance that she won a BAFTA for her performance) - is Miss Brodie's confidante. And thus, of course, best able to put a stop to her ... 

Miss Brodie thinks Sandy dependable, but far from her prime: it's a fatal misjudgement. For by the age of seventeen, Sandy has developed into a young woman of great insight and sexual precocity; something that Teddy Lloyd is quick to recognise and exploit, happily taking her as his mistress.

Miss Brodie also thinks Sandy would make a great spy. But Sandy is ultimately an assassin who regards her former mentor as a ridiculous woman. She also comes to understand the Brodie Set as an essentially micro-fascist formation; faithful to their leader and expected to serve, suffer and sacrifice.

Sandy clearly loves Miss Brodie and was closer to her than any of the other girls. But that's why she has to one day go too far and betray her; for we reward our great teachers not with loyalty, but by losing them so that we can at last become ourselves.

Judas was the greatest of disciples. And Sandy was the greatest member of the Brodie Set: the clever little cat that got the cream and learned how to kill without concern.   

Read: Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, (Macmillan, 1961).

Watch: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), dir. Ronald Neame, written by Jay Presson Allen, starring Maggie Smith in her Academy Award winning prime.

To view the original trailer for the above film, click here.

17 Oct 2018

Please Sir!

There are numerous British films set in schools, many of which I strongly dislike - particularly those that are issue-based and offer viewers a grim and sanctimonious lesson on class, race, or teen delinquency. Sentimental bullshit masquerading as social realism always gets my goat. 

Ironically, however, one of my favourite school films - Please Sir! (1971) - is said to have been inspired by just such a movie; James Clavell's To Sir, With Love (1967). Well, technically, it was the ITV sitcom of that title, created by the scriptwriting duo Esmonde and Larbey, that ran for over fifty episodes between 1968 and 1972, which took its inspiration from the latter.

Although it's difficult to see much of a resemblance between John Alderton's Mr. Hedges and Sidney Poitier's Mr. Thackeray, it might be noted that both young teachers manage to win the affection of their often unruly pupils by treating them with fairness and respect. 

Like many successful sitcoms of the period, a big screen version was released to cash in on its popularity. Unlike most of these, however, this film works as a film and isn't merely an extended episode.

Indeed, Please Sir! has much to recommend it, not least of all the presence of Joan Sanderson as the formidable deputy headmistress Miss Ewel and the very lovely Jill Kerman as Penny Wheeler. Richard Davies' performance as the Welsh science teacher, Mr. Price, is also a joy to watch.  
And if La La La Lu (I Love You), featured on the film's soundtrack and sung by Cilla Black, isn't the greatest pop song ever written, I prefer it to Lulu's To Sir With Love. Readers can decide on the merits of each track for themselves by clicking on the links provided.

And to watch the UK trailer for Please Sir! (dir. Mark Stuart, 1971), click here.

5C Class Photo - Fenn Street School

16 Oct 2018

Why I Love Carry On Teacher

Print by artandhue.com 
based on the original film poster

Carry On Teacher (dir. Gerald Thomas, 1959) is the third in the long-running Carry On series of film comedies and one of my favourite movies set in the classroom (as it is one of Morrissey's) ...

It features Ted Ray, who does a sterling job in this, his only Carry On role, alongside the usual suspects. Leslie Philips also puts in another ding-dong performance in what, sadly, will be his final Carry On until the much mistaken last entry in the series, Carry On Columbus (1992), once voted the worst British film ever made.    

Fans of classic seventies sitcom Man About the House, will also note the presence of a young Richard O'Sullivan as one of the Maudlin Street pupils (coincidentally, he's even named Robin).

And finally, since we're discussing the cast, special mention should also be made of the very wonderful Rosalind Knight, as the severe (but sexy) Ministry of Education Inspector, Miss Wheeler: that hair! that face! those clothes! 

But, apart from the actors, what is it that I love about this film so much?

It's the fact that, like all of the early Carry On movies written by Norman Hudis, it has a warmheartedness and a gentle good humour that's hard to resist; a quality that was lost over the years and films that followed as sentiment was increasingly sacrificed for sauciness and character gave way to caricature. 

Of course, there's nothing wrong with bawdiness and some of Talbot Rothwell's scripts have elements of genius. But one increasingly finds the sight of Bab's bursting out of her bikini top less amusing than that of Miss Allcock ripping her shorts. 


To watch the Carry On Teacher trailer on Vimeo, click here

For a sister post to this one - Why I Love Carry On Cruising - click here

14 Oct 2018

Clan Mackie (Or How We Can All Play Identity Politics If We Want To)

Elizabeth Jane Hall née Mackie 
(my maternal grandmother)

As a rule, I don't like to play identity politics or think in terms of blood and soil; ethnonationalism and a tedious obsession with ancestral roots always seems to have ugly (often fatal) consequences.

However, it may interest some readers to know that I can trace my own history to a Lowland family who were part of the now armigerous clan Mackie; i.e., a clan presently lacking official status or standing under Scots law, failing as it does to have a chief recognised by the Lord Lyon, King of Arms.

The name - familiar to many as the makers of ice cream - is the Anglicised form of the Gaelic MacAoidh, meaning 'Son of Fire'. One might have assumed that the clan coat of arms would therefore have a flame on it, or perhaps a phoenix rising, but it actually has a couple of dead ravens (shot through with an arrow) and a lion.

I don't mind that, but have to admit to finding the clan motto - labora - rather disappointing. It seems to me that sons of fire are sent to set the world ablaze, not to toil.

Equally disappointing is to discover that the clan Mackie doesn't have its own registered tartan, that they (we) are obliged to borrow one of the tartans belonging to the Mackays (of whom the Mackies are but a sept).

Still, it doesn't really matter ... I feel as if I belong more to the punk clan McLaren than to the Mackies, to be honest.

And that's the point: it's our cultural affiliations, our ideas and tastes, that make us who we are and friends and strangers ultimately mean far more to me than kith and kin. For whilst blood is thicker than water, I know which I prefer to see flowing ...     


For an earlier post which also addresses this question of blood and water, click here

For more info on the clan Mackie, click here.

13 Oct 2018

Sid Vicious: My Way

Sleeve art for the 7" single release (Virgin Records, 1978) 
from the album The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle (Virgin Records, 1979)  

For many people, the most memorable scene in The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle is the one in which Sid Vicious gives his own unique interpretation of that sentimental slice of cheese made famous by Sinatra: My Way.  

Whatever one might think of him, there's no denying that the 20 year-old Sex Pistol gives an astonishing performance and embodies a look and a moment of punk perfection on stage at the Olympia, Paris.

Indeed, even Paul Anka, who wrote the song - adapted from on an earlier release by Claude François and Jacques Revaux - conceded in an interview thirty years later that whilst he had been somewhat destabilized by Sid's version, he nevertheless admired the sincerity of the performance.

And French pop's greatest poet and pervert, Serge Gainsbourg, who witnessed Sid's finest few minutes on stage, was so smitten that - according to Malcolm - he thereafter kept a picture of him on his piano, alongside that of Chopin.

Whether that's true or not, I don't know. And whether Sid ever did anything his way is, of course, highly debatable; philosophically speaking, the very idea of free will determining an individual's actions seems dubious.

One suspects that had it been his decision, Sid would have covered a Ramones track and that the choice of this particular number was therefore McLaren's. Still, it was a good choice - and a fateful choice; for Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, the end really was near ... 

See: The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, dir. Julien Temple, 1980: click here to watch Sid's magnificent performance of 'My Way'. 

Note: Sid's firing of a gun blindly into the audience at the end of the song is a nod towards André Breton's idea of what constitutes the simplest act of Surrealism and is evidence of how the artistic and philosophical roots of the Sex Pistols lay in Paris as much as London and New York. 

For a related post to this one on Sid's Parisian adventures in 1978 as a kind of punk flâneur, click here         

12 Oct 2018

A Sex Pistol in Paris

One of the more amusing scenes in The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle features Sid Vicious wandering the streets of Paris in the spring of '78, confronting locals including a policeman, a prostitute, and a young female fan working in a pâtisserie.

One is tempted to describe it as a provocative form of punk dérive - a mode of experimental behavior, theorised by Guy Debord, in which individuals aimlessly stroll through the city and allow themselves to be seduced by the attractions of urban society and random encounters with strangers. 

I'm not saying that Sid gave a shit about psychogeography - or that he needed lessons from anyone on emotional disorientation - but, as a Sex Pistol, he was well-versed by Malcolm in the art of creating situations that challenge the predictable and monotonous character of everyday life and he cuts an undeniably unique figure as a spiky-haired flâneur, beer bottle in hand, and wearing his favourite swastika emblazoned red t-shirt ...

See: The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, dir. Julien Temple, 1980: click here to watch the scenes of Sid drifting round Paris as discussed above. 

For a related post to this one on Sid's performance of 'My Way', click here

11 Oct 2018

On Courage and Cowardice (with Reference to the Case of Sir Craig Mackey)

Sir Craig Mackey with the white feather he should receive 
when stripped of his knighthood
Image: Press Association

I. Courage

Courage - be it bravery in the face of physical danger or hardship, or the determination to do the right thing even in the teeth of popular opposition - is one of those ancient virtues that still resonates today. One is even tempted to suggest it's a universal human value.

Certainly in the Western philosophical tradition, courage is right up there; Socrates and his followers may have subjected it to questioning and been unable to ever quite arrive at a satisfactory definition of what it is, but they never doubted its importance. The man who would be master of himself must be able to control his fear and endure suffering. And wisdom alone, as Cicero knew, isn't enough here; it also requires the heart's strength. 

Even Christian thinkers in the medieval period admired courage - often thought of in terms of fortitude - and listed it as one of the cardinal virtues. Indeed, it was also said to be one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. That said, Aquinas and company tend to see courage in purely reactive terms, as a form of perseverance, rather than as something active, such as bravery in battle.

Later, in the modern era, Hobbes thought of courage as a natural virtue belonging to the individual that assists in his survival. Hume also identified courage as a natural virtue and suggested that it was the one of the sources of human pride and wellbeing. For whilst excessive courage can, perhaps, result in recklessness, it brings the individual the admiration of his fellows (and of posterity) and plays a protective role within society - whereas cowardice, on the other hand, lays us open to attack.   

For the existentialists, courage is the affirmation of being in the face of the void and life's absurd cruelty; a way for man to exhibit faith in themselves and grace under pressure, as Hemingway once put it.  

II. Cowardice

Etymologically, the word coward enters into English from the Old French term coart and implies having a tail - as in an individual who turns tail and runs whenever danger threatens, or one who places his tail between his legs like a submissive dog.   

Essentially, cowardice is the opposite of courage; a condition wherein fear and/or excessive self-concern stops one from taking decisive action or speaking up and saying the right thing. It is both a failure of nerve and of character and is looked down on as universally as courage is respected. Indeed, it is often not only stigmatized, but severely punished; particularly within a military context that demands every man do his duty and be brave under fire.  

III. The Case of Sir Craig Mackey

And so to the case of Sir Craig Mackey, Deputy Commissioner of the Met ... A man now condemned and widely mocked by colleagues, journalists, and members of the public as a coward, after it was revealed that during the Westminster terror attack last March, in which PC Keith Palmer was fatally stabbed, he drove off, sharpish, having first locked the windows of his car.

To be fair, he was unarmed and had no protective equipment; he also had the safety of his passengers to consider. So maybe he was simply following police protocol. But, having said that, this story is profoundy dispiriting; one expects more from a British Bobby and a knight of the realm (or indeed any Englishman worth his salt).

9 Oct 2018

Let the People See (Reflections on the Open Casket Controversy)

Dana Schutz: Open Casket (2016) 
Oil on canvas (99 x 135 cm)


There are of course several famous portraits of black boys painted by white artists. One might think, for example, of the mid-19th century picture of a youngster who, having crossed the Atlantic as a stowaway, found himself in Liverpool and an object of aesthetic interest to the Pre-Raphaelite William Windus.  

But perhaps none have been as controversial or caused as much fuss around issues concerning race and representation, as the recent portrait by Dana Schutz of Emmett Till - a black teenager who was brutally murdered by two white men in Mississippi in 1955 ...


Entitled Open Casket, the work was displayed at the 2017 Whitney Biennial in New York. Campaigners, led by the British conceptual artist and author Hannah Black, called for the removal - and, indeed, destruction - of the picture on the grounds that it transmuted black suffering into profit and pleasure (which, in a sense, I suppose it does).

There was also a small-scale protest at the museum, organised by African-American artist and activist Parker Bright, who described the exhibiting of the work as a black death spectacle (which, in  a sense, I suppose it is).  

Ironically, however, Schutz was attempting to signal her own bleeding-heart liberalism. For the work - based in part on a famous photograph of Till's disfigured and mutilated corpse lying in an open casket (this at the request of his mother, so that everyone might view the violent reality of American racism) - was created in response to the media coverage of recent shootings involving young black men and white police officers.  

Schutz responded to the criticisms of her picture by pointing out that whilst she may not know what it's like to be black in America, she does know what it's like to be a mother and to experience pain; that the importance of art, for her, lay in its power to open up a space of empathy and bring people together. Acknowledging otherness and the pathos of distance that exists between individuals, Schutz nevertheless - perhaps naively - insists that we still share a common humanity.

Some of those coming to her defence tried to frame this issue in terms not of racial identity and the imperial white gaze, but freedom of expression. But Hannah Black doesn't have much time for this line of argument: not when, in her view, white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded upon the silencing and constraint of others and the contemporary art scene remains a fundamentally white supremacist institution, despite all the nice people working within it.

Again, this may or may not be true - and I don't really care one way or the other to be honest - but Black's last line, dripping with contempt, is one that made me smile. As Nietzsche said, it's merely Christian to forgive one's enemies; you must also learn how to hate your friends (even when these people are your dealers, curators, or publishers).

8 Oct 2018

On Goya's Red Boy

Goya: Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zúñiga (1787-88)
Commonly referred to as Goya's Red Boy

Commissioned by an aristocratic banker to produce a series of family portraits, including one of his youngest son, Manuel, Goya produced one of the most charming - if creepiest - pictures in modern art. 

The whey-faced child is dressed in a rather splendid red outfit. In his right hand, he holds a string attached to his pet magpie; the bird has Goya's calling card in its beak and is watched intently by three wide-eyed cats. On Manuel's left, sits a cage full of finches.

Whilst portraits of children and animals have a long and popular history in Spanish art, Goya seems to pervert this tradition by using the beasts to add an element of menace rather than delight to the work. To suggest, for example, that even the innocent world of childhood contains cruelty and is threatened by the forces of evil: Manuel, sadly, would die a few short years later, aged eight. 

His death is surely coincidental; child mortality was simply a fact of life in 18th century Europe (Goya saw only one of his own children reach adulthood). But there's something uncanny in this work which seems to anticipate such a fate. Little Manuel, despite his finery and the presence of his animal companions, looks like a lost soul.  

Still, he's achieved a level of fame and immortality far beyond that of his siblings who survived him; even Andy Warhol would one day sit at his feet. 


Readers interested in viewing the Red Boy can find the work displayed at The Met Fifth Avenue (Gallery 633). 

For a fascinating essay on the painting and its extraordinary popularity, see Reva Wolf, 'Goya's "Red Boy": The Making of a Celebrity': click here to read online. 

See also The Andy Warhol Diaries, ed. Pat Hackett, (Penguin Books, 2010). In the entry dated Friday, December 31, 1976, Warhol writes about a party at Kitty Miller's apartment: "And after dinner, I sat underneath Goya's 'Red Boy'. Kitty has this most famous painting right there in her house, it's unbelievable."    

6 Oct 2018

The Blue Boy Will Never Die: On Fear, Fashion and Immortality

Gainsborough: The Blue Boy (c.1770)

According to D. H. Lawrence, the northern consciousness is gripped by a fear - almost a horror - of the body, especially in its sexual implications. This naturally has a detrimental effect on the plastic arts which "depend entirely on the representation of substantial bodies, and on the intuitional perception of the reality of substantial bodies". 

Thus, whilst English painters are very good at painting people hidden away inside their clothes, they daren't handle the living flesh that lies beneath; the social persona becomes more important than the actual man or woman.      

This may of course contain an element of truth. But isn't it also possible, as Cioran suggests, that what really terrifies is not the body in its erotico-libidinal aspect, but the body as an object prone to disease, ageing and death; that, ultimately, clothes don't serve to get between us and life in all its naked beauty, but us and nothingness ...    

"Look at your body in a mirror: you will realise you are mortal; run your fingers over your ribs [...] and you will see how close you are to the grave." 

Maybe that's why Hogarth, Reynolds, Gainsborough et al cared so much about painting subjects in all their finery; not simply because they were bourgeois - and not in order to deny the "gleam of the warm procreative body" - but because it's only when he has his glad rags on that man is able to entertain ideas of immortality: how can we die when we wear a pair of blue satin knee-breeches?  


D. H. Lawrence, 'Introduction to Paintings', Late Essays and Articles, ed. James T. Boulton, (Cambridge University Press, 2004). Lawrence knows that it's not the sexual body so much as the diseased body that scares the pants on people, which is why he spends most of this essay discussing the cultural and psychological consequences of syphilis [click here for a discussion of this elsewhere on this blog]. He also knows the importance of clothes, even if, as here, he likes to think flesh as more important than fashion and imply that human nakedness has greater authenticity than our sartorial splendour.  

E. M. Cioran, A Short History of Decay, trans. Richard Howard, (Penguin Books, 2018). See the section entitled 'Sartorial Philosophy' in chapter 6, 'Abdications'. 

Gainsborough's Blue Boy is quite clearly a costume study as well as a portrait; the shimmering blue satin of the clothes is rendered in a spectrum of cleverly calibrated tints and applied with a complexity of fine brush strokes. It's a picture in which Jonathan Buttall, the son a wealthy merchant, achieves his immortality. The work now hangs in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.