On Burton and Jarman

Last weekend, we had a Richard Burton fest in our household: two perhaps lesser-known films in his cinematic oeuvre: The Medusa Touch (1978) and Villain (1971).

In the former he plays a telekinetic whose powers he cannot stop from causing disasters on vast scales. He looked terrible – by then drink had rendered his face fatter and pocked – but the familiar Burton ability to dominate the screen still shone through. He was ably supported by the then go-to female lead in films of its type, Lee Remick, who two years before had played the mother of the Anti-Christ in The Omen, and, more curiously, by the Italian actor Lino Ventura affecting a French accent no more convincing than Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. Villain, written by the great comedy-writing duo Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, prefigures Get Carter and The Sweeney in its unsentimental take on professional criminals. Burton’s character Vic Dakin oozes menace and, in his penchant for using violence as foreplay to sex with Ian McShane’s character, appears to be loosely modelled on Ronnie Kray. (Incidentally, I wonder if Alan Bennett’s naming of one of his eponymous History Boys as Dakin was a nod to the film.) The film even has an oily, corruptible MP, well played by Donald Sinden. Burton again dominates the screen, even when he’s out of shot. The script is fairly predictable, though, and doesn’t live up to its reputation. Surprisingly given its writers, has little intentional comedy. The Slipper of the Yard type character is played in the same brisk manner as his character in The Ipcress File by Nigel Davenport and his military moustache reminiscent of Graham Chapman’s parodies of army officers.

Watching Burton’s performances, and thinking of his other late-ish turns, like the priest in the neglected classic Absolution, I got to considering the parallels between acting and writing poetry: the actor has to take on a new role but invariably their own character and modulation pokes through, even when they take on a different voice, like Burton’s variable south London accent in Villain, in the way that a poet absorbs influences from the poets s/he reads but still has her/his own voice. It’s very difficult to hear one’s own, distinctive ‘voice’ in one’s poetry; nonetheless one presumes it’s there and making itself heard.

Last night, I went to Tate Britain for an event to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Derek Jarman. Dominic Johnson, Olivia Laing and Neil Bartlett discussed some of Jarman’s achievements, though an hour and a half was hardly sufficient to do that in more than a cursory way. What came through more than anything, not that anyone needed reminding, was just how fearless and brave he was, and how creative he was right up to the end. I read Modern Nature recently and I’m sure it will come to be regarded as one of the great literary/artistic texts of the late Twentieth Century. I must get round to watching the films of his that I’ve never seen.

On the poetry front, among the books I’ve read lately are Heaney’s District and Circle, which includes the beautiful sonnet about birds’ eggs ‘On the Spot’, Keith Hutson’s debut collection Baldwin’s Catholic Geese, Tim Dooley’s Weemoed and Sasha Dugdale’s Joy, all of which were fabulous in their own ways. I’ve also been re-reading for the next instalment of the Poetry Business writing School: Sarah Maguire’s magnificent Split Milk, which remains one of my ‘Desert Island’ books; Denise Riley’s Say Something Back and Sharon Olds’s Stag’s Leap, plus various Roy Fisher books, as I have to do a turn as him in a couple of weeks’ time when I’m at the Writing School residential in Grasmere.

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