Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion: The Long Harm of the Law
By Evan Calder Williams
Nashville: America Singing
By Molly Haskell
The following piece by Sunday Bloody Sunday screenwriter Penelope Gilliatt originally appeared as the introduction to the 1971 U.S. publication of the script.
A friend of mine who had started scrubbing at fourteen and went on to be a barmaid had forty years of filmgoing behind her by the time I knew her. She went to the flicks in London three times a week, sitting in the cheap seats for a double feature. She knew films backward, and often muttered the lines ahead of the actors when we were watching a revival on television. “That Clark Gable is the most gracious in his talk,” she would say. Or “Barbara Stanwyck gives you the tongue of America, doesn’t she.” Or “Leslie Howard has the mark of a gentleman whenever he talks about music.” Or “You know, they sometimes have to do a shot two or three times, dear. I often wonder where they get the time for their writing.” There lay the only mistake she ever made: she was quite convinced that actors wrote their own lines. “Sir Laurence Oliver” definitely wrote Henry V. Sir Laurence was always “Oliver” and always admired.
Perhaps she was not so far off, for it was seldom in her days that scriptwriters wrote the script. The front office did, the producer, the producer’s wife. “An original script,” or what is piously called “an original,” as in the “hand-done oil paintings” that are sold in bad art shops in London, remains hard to find in American or English filmmaking. It is said not to be “bankable.” A bankable script in the English-speaking cinema is still, by and large, an adaptation of a stage hit or a best-selling novel.
In the late sixties, I was asked to write an original script for John Schlesinger and the man who often produced his films, Joe Janni. The offer came through my indispensable young English agent, Clive Goodwin, when I was film critic of the Observer in London.
Clive died only a little later because of Hollywood: after lunching with a producer, he was sick on the red carpet of his Beverly Hills hotel, carted off in a squad car because a desk clerk thought he was drunk, and died of a brain tumor in a night cell. Terrible things are engendered by the panicky amorality of Hollywood; typical that the place with deaths such as Clive’s on its hushed-up conscience should have thought that “disaster” films had to be fictionalized.
Clive was a friend and he thought this film offer held something. I said yes to the invitation. We drove to see John on location in Dorset. John was shooting Far from the Madding Crowd in an ocean of mud. We had a late dinner, the four of us, in the cottage where Joe and John were temporarily housed. I remember that Joe said, “It’s beginning to seem like home.” John said firmly, “No, it isn’t.” I think that he particularly was reminded of public school. Crack-of-dawn rises, mud, long evenings of prep in the form of rushes (dailies). But he and Joe were spirited, considering the vexatious mixture of crisis and delay that is the mark of filmmaking for the director and any working producer.
John had what he apologized for as the germ of an idea. He expressed it in about three sentences. It happened, for me, to kick off a straight progression from a novel of mine that had lately come out, A State of Change. As we talked, the film would have three principals, like my novel: they became, for me, a professional young woman (Alex), a professional man (Daniel), whom John wanted to be Jewish, and a bisexual go-between called Bob with whom both were in love. The Pandarus character, as I saw him, was both more flip and more lost than either of the others found him. The male lead became a doctor in my head as Clive and I were driving back to London, more and more oddly a direct extension of the one I had written about in A State of Change. It had seemed, in Dorset, immediately easy to say yes; daunting, demanding, a rare chance to make a packed and grown-up film about compromises, piercing breakups, decisions both impossible and necessary. Neither John nor I ever really believed that we were embarking on a picture that would be recognizable to more than two and a half people.
I wrote the full draft in three months. A good three-quarters of that was taken up with note-making and working on the structure. The energy seemed to me to spring backward from the end, which I wrote first. The last scene—Daniel learning Italian by gramophone record, ready for a holiday with his Bob that will never come to fruition—evolves from obedient repetitions of the tourist infantilisms droned by the record to a rebellious speech made straight to camera about the grown-ups who tell him that he is well rid of Bob. No, Daniel says to the camera, or us: half a loaf is better than no bread. I wrote the scene on a train in Switzerland. I was going to see Nabokov to write a piece about him. I knew that Daniel’s decision was going to be the opposite of Alex’s, though it has the same effect: she was going to quit her half life with Bob rather than settle for short shrift and fake happiness on the run. There was plenty of time to think. It was a long journey from Montreux to the grand hotel in the mountains where Nabokov was hunting butterflies. Eight hours, as I remember.
From then on I wrote as usually recommended, from the start. (Though the usual doesn’t always work best. E. M. Forster once said something about the importance for a writer of knowing “the weight in the end of the tale.” Perhaps he meant “tail.” That final speech, which is sitting in front of me now in the original black leather notebook, surrounded by notes about Nabokov and his card indexes, was certainly a thrashing fish tail.) Alex and Daniel are deliberately seen against the background of their parents as the film goes on, and they are rootedly English. Bob is parentless as we see him in the film, and a citizen of the mid-Atlantic. His attachments are fugitive, like his here-today pop art. He is on the make because his random world has so far declined to be the making of him. He is as binational as he is bisexual, a charmer without conscience; he provides the other two with fun and lightness, and plagues them with his undependability. His promises are seldom kept, and “duty” is fatuous. The other two remember the Second World War with a vividness that grows as they grow older; he is not a great deal younger, but he thinks that any dwelling on the past is a waste of time. No reader he, no music lover. Hope lies in smash-and-grab chances, in possible first-option contracts, not in yellowing old opera scores. Daniel plays, thematically, Così fan tutte, recognizing the grief lying in this unequaled Restoration comedy of music. Alex, like Daniel, views the go-getter present with sad contempt and, being like him again, does something about it. She has a job finding new careers for businessmen made redundant, and she is sick at heart with the way our society throws valuable people on the rubbish heap because they are nearing retirement age. Bob is after SPQR: not in the Latin sense but “small profits, quick returns.” The others want things to last; Bob believes in the disposable, in gags and gadgets that can be swiftly marketed.
Glenda Jackson was the obvious choice for Alex. Anyone who had seen her work with [director] Peter Brook at LAMDA [the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art], or her Ophelia, could have been in no doubt. I once wrote about her that she was the only Ophelia I had ever seen who was capable of playing Hamlet. Peter Finch, who had worked with John before, played Daniel. I believe it to have been the part of his career. He had to come into rehearsals later, but he made up for lost time at the studios at Bray, wandering around the soundstages with a script in his hand. We had known each other for a long time. He had a reputation as a hell-raiser, but not when he was working. One morning, when he was not on call till the afternoon, we sat on the nibbled-looking grass at Bray Studios and went through the script for the umpteenth time. He wanted to talk about the shifts in style and went through the last scene. He saw that it moved toward techniques now often held to be the theater’s unique prerogative; but in the early days of cinema, in today’s France and Japan and anywhere but our hidebound studios, moviemaking and movie acting have been free to draw on any sources they wanted. His training was in the theater, mostly in the classics, and he leapt to the idea of adding to film acting’s possibilities the stage’s right to soliloquies and asides and speeches addressed directly to the audience. He had seen a lot of Godard’s work for just that reason. The early directors of cinema used the full vocabulary of theater and camera technique; why lose it? Peter was a rare actor. He is keenly missed.
The part of Bob was most hard to cast. John and Joe had long since generously cottoned on to the fact that I could be useful to our work in parts of filmmaking that are often roped off from the writer. Together the three of us had to reject name after name that came up in our minds. In the end I put together a test scene that was not in the film; to use anything in the script itself always fixes things inflexibly for the chosen actor later. John tested three actors. Two of them were skillful professionals, but they were both without the quality we wanted, a quality of being strange to the established world. The Bob we needed had to seem a being dropped out of nowhere. Our secret vote about the tests was unanimous: for Murray Head, who had been in the London production of Hair. Essentially a performer and not, I think, eager to learn to act, he was to give John a lot of directing difficulties, and not all of them technical. One day he turned up with a burn on the side of his nose. He explained cheerfully that his girlfriend had stubbed out a joint the night before on the nose profile that John and Billy Williams, the cameraman, needed for close-ups. Shooting schedules were thrown into chaos.
Most of the final and shooting scripts were planned and finished at my house in London. It has a drawing room big enough for three people to roam and ponder, and for any number of people to be seen for casting rehearsals. I worked overnight on my anchor of a typewriter, called portable but denied as that by many a gallant man when I have moved around the world with it and help has been offered at airports. As John and Joe left, work began. Neither of them is a writer. Both, interestingly, found the script to be telling themselves something about themselves. It is biographical or autobiographical about no one, but no writer would find it anything but natural if readers or listeners to fiction found it close to home. A Latin American may find a truth about himself in Dostoyevsky. Any decent writer will have letters from anywhere, always moving, saying, “How did you know this about me?” We spoke a lot of extra scenes but nearly all of them were scrapped. Joe has a remarkable sense of structure and contributed a great deal where most producers subtract. When he got excitable he spoke English with such a heavy Italian accent that he sometimes seemed to be speaking Latin. There is one scene where Daniel, hearing that Bob has wangled some extra time for them to be together, says, “What a bonus.” Joe spoke for many days about “the bonnus scene” before John or I was sure what he meant. We planned a scene in a sculpture gallery, epitomizing something about Daniel’s search for anything that will last, and then junked it. It seemed redundant. John tried to edge out a reference by Peggy Ashcroft, as Alex’s mother, to the General Strike because he said that no one would understand what she was talking about; but in the end, after I had been working on the scene overnight, he read it and said (it was a phrase characteristic of him after some gale of director’s worries had blown itself out), “I take your point.”
We rehearsed the scene, an end-of-dinner scene, in Dame Peggy’s house. She knew her lines from the beginning, and concentrated on experimenting with her moves around the seated Alex, alone with her: when to stand behind her, when to lift the weight off her by some family normality with an after-dinner chocolate. With the precision of this great actress, she found the exactness that was needed. Her attention to Alex, and her confidences, are the character’s way of helping her divorced and unhappy daughter to hold herself together. Alex is thinking of quitting the Bob she loves because “there are times when nothing has to be better than something.” She thinks she is quite alone, and has always believed her parents to be content with each other.
I had given the mother a sudden confidence to Alex that makes her see that she is not alone at all: a shock about a political split between the couple in the Depression that made her mother leave her father for a while. The decision Alex is contemplating suddenly turns out to be in direct line from her mother’s own judgment that there are times when decks must be cleared, for all it may cost. Dame Peggy asked careful questions about the scene and its context, talked the lines through to herself, minutely rehearsed the moves she found crucial. Her mind—and therefore her diction, which always ends cleanly at a full stop, much as a good Bach performer plays without rubato—brings solitary perplexities into the clear air of older and unsuspected allies’ understanding of their own pasts. The scene carried Alex through her ending of a love she cleaves to but knows to be not enough, not enough at all.
We rehearsed in an offshoot of some dingy restaurant near the Tottenham Court Road. John was always ahead of time, like everyone else, apart from the actor we soon replaced with Peter Finch. He is too gifted to name but he was too anxious about this part to play it. He was nervous of it, nervous of John, nervous of the rest of the cast. The car we shared to rehearsal—he picked me up—arrived more and more unpunctually. Alarm clocks hadn’t gone off, his housekeeper hadn’t woken him. Having to replace an actor is a sorry business all around.
At rehearsal, the actors sat at a table to work on the scenes between principals. John stood behind them, near the continuity girl. The costume designer—Jocelyn Rickards—was off in a corner making piles of clothes that were to be auditioned in one of the never-existing gaps. Glenda had her own look and kept to it. She turned her hair chestnut and was at her best in longish skirts and leather tunics over them. In rehearsing the one-to-one scenes, we would begin without notes, with me crouching beside one or the other actor and listening to the lines. Sometimes I could hear a difficulty for Glenda that she had been brooding about overnight, and with a nod from John we would get up and play the scene through with moves, sometimes improvising an extra line, sometimes cutting. This was the way we worked on the fuse scene. Glenda needs to be on the move when she is thinking out a scene. She has a sense of the whole that is remarkable for an actor. Many actors read only their own lines and have no idea how they will play in context. Glenda sees a scene whole. By working together she saw how to make the energy of the fight that starts in the basement carry her through yell after yell to Bob from floor after floor, leading straight from a flaming spat and her furious “Perhaps you’re spreading yourself too thin” to her “Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry” in another set, shot close in, arms around him.
Peter, starting later in rehearsal time, never needed a change. He bent himself to the text. With Murray, I could often make things better for him by breaking up a sentence into parts that seemed haphazard in a way characteristic of Bob’s temperament, which continually picks things up and puts them down again to go on to something else. His life is a bedroom of emotions abandoned like half-finished socks knitted for some forgotten war.
The main work that can be done on the filmmaking itself by a writer is during the rehearsal and editing times. It is to John’s and Joe’s credit that they knew this. They are fine working filmmakers both, unlike a lot. A Hollywood producer with loads of Monaco money has just rung me (reverse charge) as I write, to say that he just loves my new film script, what is its name, remind me, remind me. Seriousness unflagging, I supplied the name. He said, “I can’t hear, it’s a terrible line, know what I mean?” and then came through hot and strong with “It’s wonderful, it’s an English surrogate myth for Manhattan, sibling myth, gentle, know what I mean? I’ll back it if you’ll put in a car crash, hear what I’m saying?” I said that I thought I had, adding “Sorry” for no good reason.
When John was shooting and when I was in America working, he once rang up in desperation and asked for a couple of lines to get a character across a gallery in Alex’s studio. It was easily done—ninety seconds—and all credit to John to have rung. He recognizes the sound of an original voice and, being musical, and good enough to believe that he is not a writer himself, he made the transatlantic call. I was soon back, because we were editing. The film was running a good twenty-five minutes longer than it should. From the last rough cut I saw, it had been obvious that we could shave at least eight minutes out of it. Billy Williams, a great and modest cameraman who typically dislikes the ornate description “cinematographer” that others insist on, shoots with a rare ear for the characters’ dialogue and a rare eye for gestures and pauses. Together we found a good many scenes where Glenda had the punch line and didn’t need it. Her strength of character and force of expression did it. We would cut the line and keep the camera on her face, with the punch line coming from the unseen character. The way had grown clear in rehearsal: I would slip round to Annie Skinner, the continuity girl, and she would “fix” (make firm) my cuts in the master. Annie is a remarkable woman, trusted by John—not everyone is—and much valued by all of us. John would absently run his fingers through her long blonde hair in a pause when we were all thinking. She deserves to be a producer; people of her caliber are much needed for the job that is more often characterized by a craven sort of despotism.
With the concern about the number of minutes that we had to cut, I was back in the viewing room. John, Joe, Billy, and Annie were there, and the editor, Richard Marden. I looked at John after we had seen the rough cut and said I had thought of a possible big section to lose. He made a hapless gesture, this usually assured man who likes to wear a jaunty spotted handkerchief round his throat. I went back into the projection room, and the editor and I worked over the Moviola; then I asked him if he’d try cutting from here to here. The here-to-here was a deliberately prolonged set of jumped scenes: lapses in the time flinging by as Alex gets later and later, in shots and time jumps that stutter about the forgery ahead. Friends of hers and Bob’s (“We should have feared false friends / When we did feast”: Timon) have set up for them a mock parental weekend to care for their gang of ruefully liberated children. The friends live in Hampstead, a well-off left-wing part of London. They, too, are free spirits with a vengeance. Like many cult leftists, they are dead keen on convention and feel sure that Alex and Bob will see the glory of family life and be married by Monday. Famine relief posters hang in the richly appointed kitchen. The fridge is full of enlightened foods that no child in its right mind would touch. The eldest of the children, Lucy, uses as a moral butler or bodyguard a dog called Kenyatta. The real mother, well-intentioned and ill-tuned, is having an awkward affair with an African, with such woodland joy that her husband is not allowed to be wounded.
So, into this situation Alex and Bob are plunged. The fakery of it makes them falter about each other all the more. But I suddenly saw that the faltering is demonstrated the minute they meet. In the projection booth, we cut a lot of the prelude of endless postponements by Alex, her telephoned apologies about getting later and later. The cuts worked because the well-meant, heedless hoax of the “family weekend” was laid in already. I hope someone will one day find those cut scenes in some flea market and think the cuts right. Neither John nor Joe nor anyone else could quite believe that a writer would cut her own work so drastically. Of all the overwrought arguments about the auteur theory of cinema, this alone makes me believe that there are no arguments: they boil down to the people involved bending to what they see on the screen, which is always subtly different from the script. “To hold in the mind two opposed opinions at once,” wrote Dostoyevsky, as best it can be translated: in this case, the idea of the script and the idea of the way it can best be carried out. Both notions carry, and eventually the realization commands the plan. I would never have seen the self-evident scissor jobs needed if I hadn’t been away from the rough cut for a time. Filmmaking is intensely interesting for writers if directors and producers are good enough to let them use their heads.
The title. It had always been Bloody Sunday, Sunday nearly always being bloody in the minds of English children: the day of stasis; of grown-ups going to sleep after too heavy a lunch; of mothers in hats straight from church cooking roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes and brussels sprouts; of desperate people come for the weekend afflicted with the same childish fidgety legs as even grown-ups have in other people’s houses on Sundays, escaping with the household Labradors to “walk off” the lunch; of rows about the quality of the washing-up, done by the children at high speed (no soap; too little soap; too much soap; not enough rinsing, so that great-uncle’s glass of port produces bubbly champagne and a soap taste that, to children, is no more disgusting than alcohol).
But Bloody Sunday suddenly presented problems. Some eager young beaver working as a researcher at ten dollars an hour went to the New York Public Library and said didn’t I know there was a famous Irish Bloody Sunday? Yes, I said, it is famous. In England, sped by a Eumenides of innocent knowledgeability, an English researcher paid at five pounds an hour had been to the British Museum and telephoned me in America, where I then was two days later, to say didn’t I know about the Russian Bloody Sunday? Yes, I said. But it still wasn’t the English bloody Sunday. She agreed, with sweetness, having got the point in the first place herself, but glad of a job. The total bloodiness of Sundays from childhood to death is due, I think, to the enslaving legend we have made for ourselves, with the help of the enslaving Old Testament, that time off is fun and work is at the behest of others. On the contrary, diligence is native to the species, as one only has to watch a three-year-old to know, when it is pottering about on its self-invented projects of collecting stones, or making the sounds it likes on a broken plumbing pipe in the order it likes, or getting the blotting paper out of school inkwells, or numbering books. It is to break no holy rule to pursue things seven days a week. If there is any communal god, apart from the jealous deities that dictators have invented for their own warlike purposes, and if he takes one day in seven off, he or she or it should use it to repair the bungles of inadequate imaginings on the other six. A mischievous and motley lot, these idols that mankind has dreamt up for itself. As the research girls in their different ways agreed, Sundays are bloody indeed. Wars break out on Sundays.
But the word bloody continued to worry the American front-office people. To them, bloody was still as much of a swear word as it was in Shaw’s day. Anyway, they said to England on the transatlantic telephone, the English word was bleeding. England waited. The telephone went every now and again from many other parts of the world where cross-collateralized films were being shot. Apex was suggested forcefully. So was Triangle. So was Every Day of the Week.
After a fortnight or so, the telephone went again and a well-known voice with a glottal stop of wealth said, “I’ve got it. Sunday Bloody Sunday.” But no comma.
Reprinted courtesy of and copyright the estate of Penelope Gilliatt.