Doctor Who meets Samuel Beckett (part one)

No, no, not this one.

Sam-dr-sam-beckett-31211598-766-535

Not that I have anything against Quantum Leap. There’s plenty of scope for a Who / Leap collaboration – fan-fiction certainly points to that possibility, and I also found a titles mashup that is produced, at least in its first half, exactly the way I would have done it, and which is worth watching if only so you can see who gets to play Al.

But that’s not the Samuel Beckett I was talking about. I’m talking about this chap.

Beckett

That face is wonderfully chiselled, isn’t it? It hides a wealth of character, and the way in which the eyes stare at you – sternly, but with a hint of melancholy – basically sum up everything he stood for. The fact that he’s wearing a black polo neck against a black background gives the head the curious visual appearance of being disembodied, which is something else the man did quite a bit in his plays (That Time shows only a head, while Not I doesn’t get further than the mouth).

I first encountered Beckett in the late 1990s when I was in the final year of an English degree at Reading University. Reading, if you didn’t know, is the place to study Beckett – the resources are wonderful (I’m told; I was a do-it-on-the-fly student who never looked) and some of the most authoritative scholars in the world are there. One of these is John Pilling, who took our Beckett module, and whom I gather is still around. He was scholarly and authoritative but always patient and understanding when it came to indulging the fanciful readings of inarticulate twenty-somethings. He will not remember me, but I remember him.

Actually, looking back at it I wasn’t impressed at all. It didn’t help that the Beckett seminars were run back to back with a Pinter module, and of the two of them Pinter has long been my favourite. I took more from Pinter’s pregnant pauses and arguments about cheese rolls than I ever got from Beckett’s ramblings. He was, I remained convinced, a pretentious existentialist nihilist. Oh, I enjoyed some of it. Ohio Impromptu, with its lingering sense of finality, is quite wonderful, particularly in the Beckett on Film adaptation that casts an Jeremy Irons in the dual role of both listener and speaker. But I couldn’t get on with Endgame, in which a blind middle-aged man rambles on about god knows what and keeps his parents in the dustbin. Even the supposedly astounding Waiting For Godot, with its verbal tennis matches and lengthy monologues, left me cold – although this, when it first did the rounds, was quite funny.

Scene: a ROAD running DSL to DSR, with exits. Upstage Centre, ONE WHITE TREE.Two men, FARAMIR and ARAGORN are sitting by the TREE.

FARAMIR: So, can we go now ?

ARAGORN: No, not yet.

FARAMIR: Why not ?

ARAGORN: Because we’re waiting for Frodo …

Continue in like style for 1200 pages of text, three films, a radio series, innumerable spinoffs …

It was some years later that I realised what I had. It was thanks largely to an old friend who sat across the office from me in my first publishing gig, and with whom I would while away the hours talking about the merits of Father Ted, the logistical problems in producing The Straight Story: On Ice, and the most inappropriate choices to play the next Doctor (this was 2001, you understand, when it was still just a pipe dream – and in case you were wondering, John Inman emerged as a clear winner). Jon it was who convinced me that there was far more to Beckett than the labels of ‘pretentious wank’ that I’d previously foisted upon him, and to cut a long story short, when the opportunity arose some time later to purchase the reasonably expensive Beckett on Film collection, I took it. I went back to Beckett, fetching down the hefty Complete Dramatic Works that still sits on the bookshelf in my study, and realising that the man was a lyrical genius, and that the apparent opacity of his work was easily breached if you knew the way in.

Beckett on Film, by the way, is brilliant. A jointly funded Channel Four / Irish Film board enterprise, it collects nineteen stage plays and features a star-studded cast and a host of notable directors. Alan Rickman appears from the top of an urn at the beginning of Play, while Penelope Wilton’s Rockaby is both moving and unsettling. Krapp’s Last Tape, in particular, is a revelation: an elderly man wheezing around the stage, reflecting on all that he has lost as his younger self ruminates on an archived recording: “Perhaps my best days are gone…but I wouldn’t want them back”. It’s the epitome of self-denial, and Krapp’s inherent loneliness is such that he can make the act of eating a banana both downright hilarious and utterly tragic.

And here’s said banana, being consumed (in an eerie foreshadowing of the Bananas Are Good meme that would follow some years later) by none other than John Hurt.

Beckett

Anyway, my recent foray back into video production saw me revisit an idea I’d been germinating for some while. But we’ve gone on far too long, so more on that next time. In the meantime, here’s a little Damien Hirst. Because you know you want to.

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