Notes On Lean’s Twist

Tuesday last: to Birkbeck’s own Cinema to see David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948). My first time in the cinema, and the first time I’ve seen – gotten around to, rather – the film.

(after a certain age, there’s an awful lot of getting around to things in one’s life… Have to remember that life is more than just a long To Do list – that implies one knows exactly what one wants from life, which is never true…)

The Birkbeck Cinema is really a 70-seat screening room used by various film societies, rather than a popcorn or arthouse venue with a regular daily programme (the smallest single-screen cinema in Central London proper is the Aubin, Shoreditch, as I found out last year). But a lot of the Birkbeck screenings are open to the public – and free, too. Currently there’s a programme of Dickens On Screen, hence the Lean Oliver Twist this week. Others in the programme are listed here, including a 1913 silent version of David Copperfield. 

The cinema is tucked inside Birkbeck’s Gordon Square campus, a row of knocked-through houses that were once home to Virginia Woolf and co. But what’s unexpected is that the architecture around the cinema suddenly transforms from nondescript white Victorian corridors into a riot of multi-coloured 21st century geometrical shapes:

A little research reveals that the cinema was designed by Surface Architects, opened in 2007, and won a RIBA award.

The highlight of the David Lean Oliver Twist for me is the opening five minutes. The film opens on a desolate moor at night, with the horizon framed at a sharp geometric angle (much like the Birkbeck Cinema decor). Nothing for a few seconds, then a figure appears in the distance. Close up – it’s a pregnant young woman, alone, possibly lost, walking uncertainly along a muddy track. She sees a light in a building far off, smiles in relief and walks more quickly. Then a terrifying thunderstorm breaks, she’s caught in the rain, clings to a tree, and her face is contorted in pain as the lightning flashes:

But she struggles on towards the light, makes it to the building’s front gate and is let in by someone from inside, carrying a lantern. As she disappears within, the camera pans up the building to reveal a sign in the wrought iron… “PARISH WORKHOUSE”.

It’s such a perfect opening. And this whole sequence is entirely wordless. It’s not in the novel, strictly speaking, based instead on a suggestion by Lean’s wife Kay Welsh (who plays Nancy in the film). But Dickens would surely approve. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was writing a story that would become not just a classic, but a myth, so a big mythical opening is called for. In fact, any version of Oliver Twist that begins with Oliver’s mother-to-be staggering to get to safety is taking its cue from Lean. It also has echoes of Yeats’s line about something ‘slouching toward Bethlehem to be born’.

(Actually, the beginning of the 2009 Star Trek movie has Captain Kirk’s mother in a similar situation, except in space…)

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File Under Other

I’m the guest DJ at the indiepop & vintage soul club How Does It Feel To Be Loved this weekend.

Date: Saturday Jan 21st
Venue: Downstairs at The Phoenix
37 Cavendish Square, London W1G 0PP.
Time: 9pm-3am. I’m ‘on’ from about 10.30 to midnight.

Further info here.  I also highly recommend the club’s podcast.

Always a pleasure to be asked. Thinking of playing McCarthy’s ‘Red Sleeping Beauty’, what with all the talk about Mrs Thatcher that The Iron Lady has inspired lately.


Catching up… Last week has mainly been about college: Woolf’s Room Of One’s Own, Chaucer’s House Of Fame (with talking eagle) and Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1. Just been reading how it was unusual for Shakespeare to not write a comedy set in the London of his day – from 1599 virtually all his fellow playwrights were doing it. Instead he chose to smuggle the city into his histories, particularly Henry IV, to give it a genre-bending mix of power-plots and battles alongside comic London pub scenes.

Learned today: Dickens was such an admirer of Falstaff that he not only bought the Gadshill house in Kent because of its association with Falstaff’s robbery scene in Henry IV, but put up a plaque in honour of the play as soon as he moved in. The more one realises the influence of Falstaff on Dickens, the more it makes perfect sense; the colourful name, the larger-than-life-ness, the mix of humour with pathos, the instant mass appeal.


Last Saturday was a day out to Suffolk to see my parents;  first trip to the house I grew up in since I turned 40. I took the little rural branch line from Marks Tey to Sudbury; a single carriage train that runs on diesel rather than overhead electric lines. Think the first time I used it was in the late 80s, when I went straight from school near Sudbury up to London, in order to see REM and Throwing Muses at Wembley Arena. I’m now rather less of a concert-goer and rather more interested in picturesque train journeys for their own sake.

Stumbled upon the new Adnams shop in Store St, Bloomsbury this week. An unexpected little piece of Suffolk tourism in London – specifically Southwold. With added free gin tasting, as the brewery now does spirits. They also sell mugs depicting the now famous Southwold beach huts. Turns out there’s a branch of Adnams in Spitalfields too.


Discovered that I’ve been the subject of someone’s 100 picture icons (or avatars), those little square images that people use to identify themselves online. Often the image isn’t of the person themselves, but a favourite picture of a cat or Doctor Who or Sherlock Holmes or the like. So it’s very flattering indeed. They have me filed under ‘other’.


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Lawrence, Movie Star

Postscript to yesterday’s thoughts on Julian Barnes and ebooks: I also wrote an email to the Evening Standard making roughly the same points, and they printed it.

Actually, I only wrote it because the Standard asked me to, on Twitter, after I Tweeted about the subject. I obliged, partly because I thought what I had to say re ebooks helping dyslexics needed to be spread to counteract a lot of knee-jerk negativity, but also because I just like to be helpful. I don’t know if this is how letters pages now work, with staff actively soliciting contributions, but at least it was my own words. There’s a sense that people are satisfied Having Their Say all over the internet – Twitter, Facebook, comments boxes, forums – and the idea of writing such comments in an email to a newspaper now seems curiously redundant.


Today: to the NFT, or the BFI Southbank as it’s now rebranded, even though the actual screens are still called NFT1, NFT2 and so on. I pay my first visit to its Mediatheque, a wonderful drop-in area where one can book a session at a booth with headphones and watch a rare film or programme from the BFI’s archive. I choose a superb Angela Carter ‘Omnibus’ documentary from the early 90s, and a bit of  Inappropriate Behaviour, an intriguing 80s TV film by Andrew Davies, with Charlotte Coleman as a troubled lesbian horserider (of course). The BFI’s Mediatheque is absolutely free – no membership or deposit required.

Then: to the afternoon screening of Lawrence Of Belgravia, the full length documentary about the eccentric, surname-less frontman of the bands Felt, Denim and Go-Kart Mozart. Beautifully made, if rather sad. The central theme is his lack of commercial success and life on benefits in a council flat (when he’s not being evicted), despite decades of critical acclaim and endorsement by The Smiths, St Etienne, Belle & Sebastian, Pulp and so on. The film itself, however, has already done well: its three screenings at the London Film Festival have sold out, with a fourth added due to demand. The festival’s programmer introduces the film, and it turns out he’s a serious fan of Lawrence’s music. A woman in front of me confesses that she had no idea who Lawrence was, but saw the film in the festival brochure and was interested enough to buy a ticket.

It certainly has the Captain Scott factor – the British love a tale of failure (or of success tinged with sadness, eg Kenneth Williams), added, perhaps, to the Syd Barrett factor – the image of a crazy old cult rock icon moping around the shops.

As one of the interviewers in the film says, maybe the film will finally make Lawrence a proper star. Or at least get him off the dole.

I say hello to Bob Stanley (and tell him that my degree course is studying the St Etienne film Finisterre), Tim from Baxendale and Harvey Williams, who says he saw my brother playing in Roddy Frame’s band.

Lawrence still refuses to do the most obvious thing of these reunion-saturated times – reform the now much-revered Felt and perform all the old songs – even though it would make a lot of people happy and – surely – would finally enable him to make a living from his talent.  Still, I admire his defiance, and make a note to buy the new Go Kart Mozart album when it comes out. Jan 2012 apparently.


Evening – lecture on Oliver Twist at Birkbeck, followed by workshop on literary research – at UCL’s medical lecture hall, for some reason. Large painting of what looks like a Victorian vivisection class on the wall. Also: at one side of the blackboard is a working dentist’s chair.

Memo to self: always eat before a lecture. Rumbling stomachs take on an embarrassing level of amplification in a big room with only one person speaking. Particularly ironic during a talk on the little boy who asked for more.

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