The Final Programme & Michael Moorcock Q&A
Yes, it’s SF completest time again, just like my viewing of The Terminal Man a couple of years back I have finally managed to track down a film I have been wanting to see for years, in any format – DVD, VHS, Laserdisc, Betamax – I don’t care, I just wanted to see the damn thing in true collector mode and cross off one of those elusive UK SF movies which never seemed to crop up on TV back in my youth and never had much of a small screen release, although copies of The Final Programme have been floating around on e-bay and Amazon I wasn’t particularly inspired to shell out £100 or more for some questionable copy from some shady retailer. When I saw that a print had been unearthed and scrubbed up for this years Edinburgh film festival I seriously thought about going up there to see it, as usual work interfered but my patience has brought dividends as not only did I get to enjoy a screening of the film – it’s actually pretty awful in that sort of cult movie way – at the NFT this week they also brought on stage source material writer Michael Moorcock for an illuminating Q&A after the screening. Along with the likes of Bradbury, PKD, Tolkien, Helprin, King and Gibson, Moorcock was one of my favourite speculative fiction writers as a wee nipper so this was quite a coup, a two for one deal if you will. But first the movie;
Imagine, if you will, a UK version of Barbarella made by the incompetents behind the Confessions films being fired halfway through production and replaced by Mario Bava during his Danger Diabolik period, or if its easier just visualise a 1973 film with a lot of Theremin use on the soundtrack. Jerry Cornelius is a near future metaphysical James Bond, a multi-dimensional agent who veers more to Oscar Wilde than Ian Fleming, a polysexual dandy who roams the actinoid levels of reality to foil plots and promote chaos. Against the backdrop of a pop-art inspired end of the world, an era replete with rumours of the Americans nuking Amsterdam, against a car choked Trafalgar Square our hero becomes embroiled in some undisciplined stratagem concerning his opiate addicted sister and their lunatic brother, a conspiracy to build some supercomputer from the blueprints of his dead father’s estate and commence ‘The Final Programme’ that should usher in a new epoch and strata of human development. Accompanying and thwarting Jerry on his quest is the sexually adventurous Miss Brunner whom with the assistance of her own mainframe system and three mysterious scientists may just have sinister plans of their own….
Well, this was a pretty bad film when taken at face value and personally speaking I got pretty bored about an hour in – thank god I didn’t opt for that £100 extravagance eh? I’ve got nothing against free flowing, psychedelically charged lunacy but if you’re going to evoke the likes of Jodorowsky then you at least need to make it so bizarre and fresh that you can have a laugh at the sheer insanity, the sheer illogical incoherence of it all. All the jokes and set-pieces fall flat, what is trying to be a kind of metaphysical Withnail & I a decade before its time is more of a LSD tweaked On The Buses, there is a faint sort of louche, post-sixties comedown aura to the film, a sense of sexual abandon and narcotic indulgence that lurks in the background, but these qualities evaporate quite swiftly as you wait for a genuinely interesting and amusing scene or shard of dialogue, its all a bit of a chore I’m afraid. It’s a real cult movie, and by that I mean it’s cult would be very narrow and restricted to someone who very specifically has a passion for Seventies derived, British science fiction, someone who could reel off alternate credits for the likes of Hugh Griffith or Graham Crowden, someone who would smirk when the likes of Sandra Dickinson cropped up as a waitress in a restaurant near the end of the universe, that of course making obvious comparisons to the likes of this. That said it was quite odd and fun to see the likes of Sterling Hayden as some alternate world inversion of Jack D. Ripper – he’s an Ankh sporting, hippie general in The Final Programme – but for really drilling down into fan-boy territory in the vein of this article by John Paterson it was pleasing to see the exuberant Patrick Magee in action, you may remember him as the writer A Clockwork Orange or the Chevalier de Balibari in Barry Lyndon, he’s a face that also cropped up in plenty of other Seventies fare including a few Hammer pictures and he excels in delivering those slightly exaggerated, slightly hysterical performances that can brighten up even the most moribund of projects. It’s also the only other film I think I’ve ever seen with the Nazi goon Toht in it, playing a professional assassin, like many of the films appearances he only lasts for a single scene but a little digging around has just unearthed the revelation that Klaus Kinski was offered his role in Raiders and turned it down – crikey.
As I said I was a huge Michael Moorcock fan as a teenager, amongst that slightly canted Science Fantasy genre he was one of the pioneering writers, the creation of his own idiosyncratic multiverse where his various anti-heroes would embark on their perilous, occasionally misguided quests – be they Hawkmoon, or Corum, whether they were the Dancers at The End of Time or fan favourite Elric of Melnibone* – would occasionally cross paths in a manner similar to the Marvel Universe, as we all know that sort of intertextuality is a sweet, sweet elixir to the fan-boy crowd, myself included. Whilst he’s been enormously prolific over the past five decades – he has the discipline to get up in the morning, have a spot of breakfast and write for seven or eight hours before retiring for the evening – I’ve not read much of his stuff since my misbegotten youth, the odd short story collection or the likes of Mother London (one of the best ‘London’ books I’ve read by the way) here and there but I still, to this day, have never got round to actually reading the Cornelius novels, despite owning a couple of them later in the series I was and am still sufficiently anal to only read or watch material in its specified order – its just the way I’m made. It was therefore a treat to see Moorcock in the flesh after the screening, he’s another one of those eccentric, English wordsmiths like Jonathan Swift, Milton, William Blake, J.G Ballard or the similarly Rhododendron bearded Alan Moore, one of those imaginative colonists who weaved political and cultural satire into their fantastical tales. He was also in Hawkwind for a while, psychedelic rock fans, or at least I think he wrote some lyrics and hung out with them as part of the whole late Sixties, West London Notting Hill hippy scene….
Much of the interview revolved around how much Moorcock loathed the film due to just how divorced from his novel it was, apparently the director was one of the self important ‘I’m an Auteur’ types who rejected the novels themes and structure in favour what he felt needed to be said, in this case with thoroughly disastrous consequences. Moorcock explained that he is one of those authors who does feel some sense of duty to defend the integrity of his characters on behalf of the fans – he’s not a take the money and run type – and consequently he has not sanctioned any of his characters or series for adaptation since, such was his depression at the butchering of one of his most personally loved creations. I admire that commitment (although as he joked his agent doesn’t share this opinion), that sense of the characters you have conjured up being worthy of protection, of preserving the integrity of your imagination in the face of economic enticements. The inevitable Elric movie question was raised and I’m sorry to report that the project is pretty much dead, although given what those guys did with Pullman I can’t say I’m shedding a tear – I’m not a huge Pullman fan but their effort was one of the worst fantasy film adaptions of recent years. Whilst the project had progressed quite smoothly over the past decade and although Universal were keen to push forward a couple of flops earlier in the decade – Van Helsing and The Chronicles of Riddick – soured the top brass who were now uncertain of what to do with another ‘anti-hero’ story, the film has languished in development hell ever since. Moorcock cryptically revealed that one director whom he admired and whom remained nameless was keen to do it and had a great concept for visualising the tales with a respect for the source material, I genuinely wonder who that might be. He also revealed that he had recently finished a ‘Arthur C Clarke influenced Dr. Who story written in the style of P.G Woodhouse’ – make of that what you will but I think I’ll give it a miss Mike, I don’t really care for Dr. Who I’m afraid. So that’s that, another fine NFT event, I have couple of other things to look forward to over the next few weeks including a Q&A with a bona-fide British screen legend – should be fun eh??
* Don’t you just love web 1.0 design? No, me neither, but included for amusement value……