Posts Tagged ‘Peter Pan’

The brains behind Jackboots

April 30, 2010

Last week I went to an advance screening of Jackboots on Whitehall, an epic stop-motion film about what might have happened if the Nazis had invaded.

It’s a completely utterly wonderfully mindblowingly brilliant film. And it’s beautiful – epic sweeps across pastoral English countryside, great shots of London, old intricate maps, and fantastic models. The one of Goebbels is particularly impressive, with skin a pale shade of sickly green and jaw always awkwardly gawping open. In fact, with such an impressive sidekick, I thought the model of Hitler would have to be a disappointment, but that problem was overcome by Hitler’s dramatic entrance in frilly overblown drag.

I laughed almost all the way through Jackboots, except for one bit when a tear almost leaked out, just before the final battle at Hadrian’s Wall when everyone sings Jerusalem.

But what was so particularly endearing, and so eye-opening, and so flabberghastingly impressive, is that Jackboots was made by a good friend of mine and his younger brother. In fact they have already made cameo appearances elsewhere in this blog …

For the past few years, they’ve put their all into writing and directing this film. I’ve heard about it on many an occasion, from the thrill of doing the voice recordings with such a star-studded cast (including Rosamund Pike, Ewan McGregor, Richard E. Grant and Alan Cumming), to the excited exhaustion of non-stop filming for six weeks, even to the difficulty of finding the right corduroy for the main character’s trousers.

It was quite odd to watch Jackboots knowing who had written it. It was such a fascinating glimpse into my friends’ rather peculiar minds.

At the beginning, Goebbels and Goering and some other lead Nazis are in a Zeppelin flying over a pastoral scene. They decide to drop a bomb, and look through their viewfinder for the perfect target. Various characters fill the frame – a vicar, some pretty milkmaids, an arrogant soldier, but the final target is a baby’s pram. I was surprised (and, dare I say, rather unnerved) by such dark humour. And how on earth did the two of them come up with the idea of the main character’s vital trait – his big hands? And the American guy who’s convinced the Nazis are all actually Communists? Or the great little gag when the Nazis rechristen The Ritz, ‘The Fritz’?

‘So this is how their brains work,’ I kept thinking, ‘that is so exactly what they would make happen next …’ Watching the film was like watching the two of them in some kind of ultimate conversation – in which every gag is spot on, every sound effect on cue, and with a host of actors to do all the different voices. Although I kept listening out for friends in the cameo roles.

It’s a dangerous game to try and find out how writers’ brains work from what they’ve written. Most of A-Level English was spent being told, ‘the narrator is NOT the author’ and it’s generally seen as pretty reductive to spot their friends/lovers/enemies among the main characters. Of course it can be informative to bring biographical information to a reading of a text, but the text supposedly lives free of the author and, according to Barthes, the reader is the author too – bringing their own wealth of experience and associations to the text. Now I’m actually trying to write a novel, I have to say I think the reader definitely gets the easier ride of authorship.

As it so happens, I’m reading Nancy Mitford’s Wigs on the Green at the moment. It’s a delicious slice of the thirties a la P.G. Wodehouse – lots of posh young people larking around a village and falling in love with each other, although, of course, in the wrong combinations.

But this is a book in which biographical information is absolutely vital. It is really a very thinly veiled satire of Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts (or ‘Union Jacksuits’ in the book). Indeed Wigs caused such a rift between Nancy and her sister Diana – who became Oswald’s second wife – that she never allowed it to be reprinted during her lifetime. Originally published in 1935, it’s only just come back into print.

This charming novel about silly posh people gains a whole new dimension when one knows about the Mitford sisters and Mosley and the falling out. Eugenia Malmains, for instance, described as Britain’s largest heiress, is a thinly veiled Unity Mitford – famed for being six foot one, very large indeed.

Of course most writers don’t make such direct satires – probably from fear of libel as much as anything else – but it can be fun to try and think of how particular friends, enemies or neuroses come out in their text. For instance, having discovered that Hook went to Eton, on rereading Peter Pan after seeing Enron, I felt more than a pang of disappointment when I found out that J.M. Barrie didn’t go to Harrow. I wonder why his quintessential villain was an Etonian then? Perhaps he couldn’t stand all the posh public schoolboys he met at Edinburgh University.

But going back to Jackboots on Whitehall, and this funny squint into my friends’ brains, I realised quite how bonkers they both were, quite how much they loved mad Scots, and that when faced with danger they will always be able to twist it into a joke and laugh their way out of it. So next time we all play Germans in the Dark I needn’t be quite so scared.

Enron and Peter Pan

January 31, 2010

I went to see Enron the other night at its new West End venue. There can’t have been such excitement, more energy, buzzing around the Noel Coward Theatre since its opening in 1903. Enron is a play that thrives off energy. A play in which the actors don’t stand around talking, but jump, dance, sing, play with lightsabers, sprint on imaginary running machines. The electricity rippled through the audience, who were all entranced, gawping at the display of power, longing to be part of it.

And yet, I was bored. I felt completely disconnected from the charade that was taking place in front of me.

I could see that it was a very slick production. And well acted. Sam West was fantastic as Enron’s president Jeff Skilling – transforming himself from an overweight geek to a magnetically arrogant, glisteningly intelligent stud. But I simply wasn’t interested.

It wasn’t that it was inaccessible. Indeed, I felt like I’d been given a remarkably lucid crash course in accountancy and financial lingo, from ‘black box’ companies to ‘mark to market’. But I didn’t really care.

I couldn’t understand why I was giving up three hours of my life to watch people pretending to be corporate whores, prancing around a trading floor, throwing wads of money in the air, backlit by the fluorescent glare of increasing share prices. I nearly left in the interval, but decided that would be churlish. Besides, I usually enjoy the second half of plays more than the first.

And I’m pleased that I stayed, because that’s when I had a minor epiphany.

Apologies to those of you who are reading this from the City, to whom this next bit might seem terribly obvious. It became clearer and clearer in the second half that what mattered, for Enron, was for people to believe in it, to believe in whatever Jeff Skilling told them. I was astonished that Enron’s share price kept on rising purely because of this belief, because Jeff Skilling went around saying naf catchphrases like, ‘we’re not just an energy company, we’re a powerhouse for ideas’. Enron wasn’t making money; it had mountains of debt. Skilling and his sidekick, Fastow, realised they needed to keep people believing in Enron. They proceeded to hide the toxic debt in a pretend company – a ‘black box’ – which did nothing except leech all the poisonous debt away from squeaky-clean Enron. And then, when a journalist begins to unpick the corporation’s façade, and panic begins to set in, all that matters to Skilling is keeping up the pretence, trying as hard as he can to stop people from losing their belief.

My epiphany, during the second half, was that I was really watching Peter Pan. Where else is make-believe so all-consumingly important?

When I then sat down to re-read the children’s classic, it became clear, by page 2, that Peter Pan warrants a post-financial-collapse reading.

First of all Barrie introduces us to the Darlings – Mr and Mrs, Wendy, John and Michael. And, of course, their lovable dog/nurse, Nana. But, what I’d forgotten, is that Mr Darling is defined as someone who:

was one of those deep ones who know about stocks and shares. Of course no one really knows, but he quite seemed to know, and he often said stocks were up and shares were down in a way that would have made any woman respect him.

Straight away we are told that ‘deep’ men know about stocks and shares, only to have this negated by the admission that ‘no one really knows’ about them. This important, manly, characteristic of understanding the stock market is just pretence. If a man plays that game correctly, he wins respect from women.

So money is in the male domain, from when Mr Darling does ridiculous sums to work out if they can afford to have another baby, to when one of the lost boys, Nibs, says, ‘All I remember about my mother … is that she often said to my father, “Oh how I wish I had a cheque-book of my own.” ’ Without wanting to be too feminist, what is implied is that when a boy has to do the dreaded thing and grow up, he will become in charge of the money, allowed to play this grown-up game of pretence about stocks and shares.

But let’s not think about grown-ups for a little while. After all, not wanting to grow up is Peter’s most memorable characteristic; this is what the more recent versions of Peter Pan seem to focus on. But what becomes more of a defining feature, when re-reading the original, is how hideously arrogant he is. As soon as Wendy sows his shadow back on to his foot, Peter assumes he has done it himself: ‘ “How clever I am,” he crowed rapturously, “oh, the cleverness of me!” ’ Barrie really spells it out: ‘To put it with brutal frankness, there never was a cockier boy.’ Throughout the book, Peter’s arrogance is highlighted, such as the many times when he ‘crows’ like a cock. It is this conceitedness that so drives Hook’s hatred of him. When Hook comes across Peter, asleep and defenceless, Barrie states that he would have turned away, he ‘was not wholly evil’, but ‘what stayed him was Peter’s impertinent appearance as he slept’, that his posture, even when asleep, was ‘such a personification of cockiness’. It is this which makes Hook poison Peter’s medicine bottle.

Peter Pan may be arrogant but he is also brave and intelligent. Coming up with the plan to pretend to be the ticking crocodile is a stroke of genius. And he is a leader; the Lost Boys unquestioningly obey his commands and so do the Redskins, once he’s rescued Tiger Lilly.

Another of Peter’s key traits is his love of make-believe. When it comes to food, ‘you never exactly knew whether there would be a real meal or just a make-believe, it all depended upon Peter’s whim … Make-believe was so real to him that during a meal of it you could see him getting rounder.’

Barrie goes along with this make-believe. The Neverland is a space where pretending, under Peter’s command, rules. He sets up Peter, Wendy and the Lost Boys as a pretend family. Wendy is referred to as ‘Mother’, Peter as ‘Father’, and the boys are their children. Michael even has to pretend to be the baby and sleeps in a basket. This pretence is so effective that when the Darling children do eventually return home, Michael, confused as to why John and Wendy have cried out ‘Mother’ on seeing Mrs Darling, asks his sister, ‘Then you’re not really our mother, Wendy?’

Is Barrie asking us to draw parallels between the two ‘families’ in the book? Wendy happily fits into her role as mother/house-wife: mending, cooking, administering medicine, insisting on bedtime – just like Mrs Darling. But what about Peter Pan and Mr Darling? I’m certain Peter would hate to admit to having anything in common with a grown-up. However, they are both arrogant – think of Mr Darling’s insisting on putting Nana in a kennel outside and refusing to admit his mistake until it’s too late. And, more importantly, they are both good at make-believe. Peter’s realm of make-believe is the Neverland; Mr Darling’s is stocks and shares.

Towards the end of the book, we are invited to imagine what would happen to Peter Pan, if he were to grow up. We are privy to the fate of the Lost Boys, adopted by the Darlings: ‘You may see the twins and Nibs and Curly any day going to an office, each carrying a little bag and an umbrella …’ But what about Peter? What if he were to accept Mrs Darling’s invitation to adopt him?

‘Would you send me to a school?’ he inquired craftily.

‘Yes.’

‘And then to an office?’

‘I suppose so.’

‘Soon I should be a man?’

‘Very soon.’

Of course, he doesn’t stay in ‘the Mainland’. He returns to the Neverland and is a boy forever. But, what if? What if he’d agreed to stay behind? Would Peter Pan grow up to be an, admittedly more successful, version of Mr Darling? Like the twins and Nibs and Curly? Surely Peter would excel at the stocks and shares game of make-believe?

To bring us back to Enron, doesn’t Jeff Skilling, with his arrogance, intelligence, leadership qualities and remarkable aptitude for making people believe, really have very similar characteristics to those of Peter Pan? Perhaps all those boys who wanted to be Peter Pan cultivated those characteristics, and then, when they did inevitably grow up, they became very successful in the City. For arrogance, intelligence, leadership, and pretending – convincingly – to know about stocks and shares is a winning combination.

But Enron shows that make-believe doesn’t work as well outside the Neverland. There, you just have to believe in fairies and clap your hands for Tinker Bell to be saved from death; everyone can gorge on enormous make-believe feasts. But that is in the Neverland. In the City, however glitzily it is portrayed, excelling at make-believe isn’t quite good enough. The truth will out, and then Skilling, Enron, and all its investors and shareholders, come crashing down. And if the make-believe goes far enough, the global economy comes crashing down too.

So why is it that now we see bankers going to work, clapping their hands with glee at their bonuses, thinking, ‘yes, I believe’? Belief isn’t enough here. They are not in the Neverland; they grew up. And, as is clear in Enron, playing games of make-believe with stocks and shares doesn’t really work. And Peter Pan is also terribly forgetful. It would be awfully sad if bankers were already forgetting the horrific crash, the enormous wave of redundancy, the crippling consequences of corporate greed.