Criterion Reflections: Tales of Beatrix Potter (1971), dir. Reginald Mills

For episode 56 of the podcast Criterion Reflections, going through the films in the Criterion Collection year by year of their original release, I joined David Blakeslee to discuss the earliest Beatrix Potter adaptation – a part of the collection for streaming on the Criterion Channel. It’s an episode that helped me remember these books and locations I grew up with; even recently I couldn’t help but notice a stone ornament of Jemima Puddleduck in a garden centre! (My previous efforts of podcasting can be accessed on Soundcloud.) However, as always happens even when notes have been written and with only so long a conversation can progress through until it reaches its natural conclusion, I didn’t cover everything that I researched and observed about the film, so I compiled a companion thread on Twitter with additional thoughts and information. This post will serve to organise this all into one place as a supplement to the episode. I’d recommend listening to the episode first for our thoughts, but perhaps the information presented here will encourage some more listeners?

The episode can also be accessed through Apple Podcasts.

Beatrix Potter’s life and books

One of the aspects we discuss on the episode are the darker elements of the film and of Potter’s work. For those that know her from more recent adaptations and the painted cover/interior illustrations, it might be a grisly surprise that:

Beatrix was happy in time to put down any little creature who fell ill, skin it, and boil the carcass to extract the skeleton for drawing.

Potter was engaged to her publisher, Norman Warne (who was younger than her), before his untimely death of leukaemia in 1905. Considering the state of the publishing industry and the size of Penguin Random House today, it’s pretty mindblowing to learn that the Tale of Peter Rabbit was turned down by commercial publishers before initially being self-published in a run of 250. The public domain status of her books in the UK means that a lot of her books come up with horrific Kindle/Createspace covers!

The film

One of the most beautiful parts of the film is where it approaches Beatrix Potter’s creative process and see her animals become reproduced as sketches, including the transformation of her mouse in a cage. Indeed, Beatrix Potter seems to exist in the same universe as her fictional creations! The film’s use of scale – including human sized animals, the doll’s house, mice with massive surroundings, a cat through the floorboards – reminded me of the trickery of The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), with massive everyday items contrasted against human actors.

I’m still terrified by the prospect of where the feathers in the doll’s house’s pillows came from, considering the other animals we see in the film. Can Jeremy Fisher eat the Cadbury’s milk chocolate advertised in the newspaper he reads?

Despite not being successful in the US and internationally, Richard Goodwin reveals in Laurent Bouzereau’s making of documentary for Murder on the Orient Express (1974), produced for the Paramount DVD release, that the film was successful in the UK and Russia, and that Agatha Christie saw and liked the film and its faithfulness to the books – encouraging her to trust in the adaptation of Orient Express. Speaking in the newly produced interview for StudioCanal’s 2017 Blu-ray, Goodwin discloses that the US distributor, MGM, presented the film in a double bill with Shaft!

Roger Ebert was always a wonderful source for his writing, even if I don’t agree with all of his verdicts. His conclusion in a four star Chicago Sun-Times review for this film’s power in interesting different audiences was rather moving:

I still would have testified it was too highbrow for kids, though, because as a kid it would have been too highbrow for me. […] I took along three kids who hadn’t been told they didn’t like ballet and therefore didn’t know that they were supposed to have a bad time.

Ebert also complains about the film’s limited distribution outside of affluent, middle-class theaters, concluding:

It could be that the kids of the [Chicago] urban core (black and white) could use a little whimsical fantasy once in a while, wouldn’t you think? I mean, a kid’s a kid, right?

EMI produced quite a few children’s films around the same time as Tales of Beatrix Potter, including The Railway Children (1970), Mr. Forbush and the Penguins (1971) and Swallows and Amazons (1974). The Go-Between, certified AA on release (14 or over), deals with more mature themes around innocence, the loss of childhood and memory, but was partially shot in my hometown of Norwich! EMI themselves have many Criterion connections, being headed by Bryan Forbes (The League of Gentlemen, Seance on a Wet Afternoon). EMI worked on titles that were released on laserdisc (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), unreleased on laserdisc (The Elephant Man), with an additional DVD title, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, that would have been funded by EMI before the film helped form George Harrison’s HandMade Films. Originally a part of the record label, for a year, EMI’s library was owned by the Cannon Group before now being under StudioCanal in the UK. An additional Criterion connection can be found in Maggie Unsworth, who worked in the role of Continuity, worked on the films of David Lean, Powell & Pressburger; The Browning Version (1951) and The Ruling Class (1972), and was the wife of cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (A Night to Remember, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tess).

Other adaptations

The short story of The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903) has some differences – the elision of time, omitting the 6 days of returning to Owl Island with mice (!), a mole, minnows, beetles, honey and an egg; it uses no dialogue but does uses nursery rhymes – Humpty Dumpty and Arthur O’Bower. However, Humpty Dumpty is an older version of the rhyme published by scholar James Orchard Halliwell-Phillips, before the modern version of the rhyme became more popular.

Another filmed version of her work was the ITV/Thames Christmas special The Tailor of Gloucester (1989).

I don’t remember if I ever went to the Lake District’s World of Beatrix Potter, although I probably did, I have a very distinct memory of going to the Wind in the Willows experience in Derbyshire in 2003 (its last year of operation) – run by the same people as World of Beatrix Potter!

Observations on Network (1976)

originally posted on Letterboxd, but I wanted to see how a rougher format works at conveying my ideas on his blog. read my previous thoughts here. I’ve revisited other films from the list since like The Last Detail

the foreshadowing of the film’s conclusion by the circular crosshairs design of the stained glass window. there’s also a lot of symbolism to coinciding the “mad as hell” speech with a storm

the film’s most iconic scene/s with Howard Beale occur within the first hour

whatever happened to UBS? did they die a quick/slow, painful death? did they get swallowed up by a conglomerate or the Saudis or the Arabs? do they even exist anymore? was it telecommunications, the online sector, news publishing company or drinks company that ate them up? could they survive into the online news cycle? the establishing shots frame them as an equal to NBC (Comcast/Universal), ABC (Disney) and CBS (Viacom/Paramount), although not the autonomous and donation driven PBS. what radical changes did they have to initiate their survival? was a retrospective YouTube video about the reasons for the company’s death produced by Bright Sun Films or Defunctland?

the commodification of mental instability as ratings, shares driven entertainment, something we still see today in tabloid, gossip driven news conversations around the struggles of celebrities – whether alcohol, drug related, depression, suicide etc.; a widely shared article reporting on a study out of Columbus, OH’s Nationwide Children’s Hospital analysing CDC data suggested a correlation in the criticised and triggering series 13 Reasons Why’s premiere and a spike in suicide rates – but this is selective data at best that doesn’t tell the whole story – however I do think there’s something to how these issues are sensationalised – with applause and music rather than support. reality TV programmes do the same thing in commodifying both mental disorder and spiritual belief/practices. in the studio, Beale’s talk of threats to his own life are completely overlooked by chattering technicians

on my previous viewing back in 2016, I found network programmer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) and news division president Max Schumacher (William Holden) conflicted attachment and the film’s interpersonal relationships as one of the weakest parts – but it’s the strongest, providing a contrast to the sensationalism of the media to real life – where the borders of the newsroom or screens don’t quite go away, but love and infatuation is still alluring. (these blurred lines are emphasised by Holden’s talk of next week’s show)

assassinations broadcast on colour news television television may seem novel, beyond the news suicide of Christine that inspired the film’s concept dramatised in Christine and Kate Plays Christine (2016), or the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald by a nightclub owner in the Dallas Police Headquarters captured by camera crews (re-dramatised on a television screen in Jackie). the Kennedy assassinations weren’t live: the 8mm Zapruder film, reproduced in stills in Life; news crews captured only the aftermath and the events preceding RFK’s assassination. Malcolm X and MLK’s assassination’s weren’t filmed. YouTube and Facebook Live broadcasts are now a part of the white supremacist shooting in Christchurch, or the (filmed accountability) of the murder of black men like Philando Castile by police officers; deaths were broadcast from Vietnam, but the coverage of (live) cameras has only increased. who doesn’t get their death broadcast on live TV in 2019?

conglomerates seem to be having an even larger resurgence, thanks to the inaction of the FCC and the House. the idea that the engagement of Howard Beale to get people to write to the White House and congressmen to shoot down a buyout of a corporation by a larger corporation with less investment and affect change is truly laughable; there’s no way it wouldn’t pass, even when Beale recognises this is a one time deal.

the crediting of Paddy Chayefsky over Sidney Lumet follows the conventions of writer-driven (over director driven) broadcast television. it’s fitting for a film about television, especially with the importance of showrunners and writer’s rooms (although prestige directors seem just as important!). we remain in a television set throughout: not only with the overlapping, overwhelming television displays in the opening, but in the closing credits as the television narration and music – and the screen in the corner – continues on. the narration in the film creates a retrospective sense of the film as a reportage of events packaged into a programme

a pit of despair and a hole in everyone’s life – not just Beale’s; I’m sure Chayefsky could relate when infusing this into the narrative

a globalised, capitalist world without nations? news as a division of entertainment? accurate

Warner Bros, the US rightsholder to the film from Ted Turner’s acquisition and sale of MGM’s pre-1986 library – is already alluded to in the film thanks to the references (and warnings against) to AT&T – another major corporation, not interested in the company as a whole – the restructuring of Turner Broadcasting within WarnerMedia (we wouldn’t see the film released today by Warner Bros without Turner or TCM), the shutting down of FilmStruck (where this film was programmed and contextualised)

Doctor Who: Shada (1992), dir. Pennant Roberts & Shada (2003), dir. Nicholas Pegg

Shada (1992), dir. Pennant Roberts

The 1992 VHS ‘compilation’ of Douglas Adams’ unfinished and untransmitted Shada (shot on location on 16mm film in Cambridge in 1979) comes across increasingly worse with age. It’s been maybe a decade since I watched a rip of the VHS uploaded to YouTube, long before any sign of an official DVD release. During frequent trips to Cambridge, I’d wonder whether I’d ever encounter a copy of the VHS tape in charity shops. This version retains the episodic structure from the scripted episodes and production intent and is characteristic of the series, unlike the ‘omnibus’ format adopted by the definitive 2017 version, incorporating newly filmed model shots by Mike Tucker, inserts, props, costumes, animation by Anne Marie Walsh (designed by Martin Geraghty and Adrian Salmon), voice acting by the original cast and a new ending under producer/director Charles Norton, derived from rehearsal scripts, floor plans and set designs. As Norton noted to Doctor Who Magazine #520, he adopted the philosophy that it was “December 1979 and Pennant Roberts is ill and we got called in to finish the production”, allowing the freedom to edit and excise sequences.

However, the episodic choice is problematic given the nature of this version. With Tom Baker’s linking material, the serial is unevenly paced between episodes, with the later three episodes particularly affected thanks to the incomplete material shot in Television Centre (most of the completed material was within Professor Chronotis’ study) with absences especially in scenes on Skagra’s spaceship. The extant production material comprised five days of location material and two days in Television Centre.

The narration Tom Baker was supplied with is particularly ineffective in conveying the events of the story, even as it clings to the first person narration Baker was also burdened with the same year for the linking narration of the audio cassette tape of The Evil of the Daleks (released on the same day as Shada in July 1992). Despite the best efforts in culling together rushes, the editing is mediocre, with a reliance upon stills to fill in some of the unfilmed sequences alongside Baker’s narration. The hideous capabilities of early 90s video effects are ruined even further through badly rendered CSO (Colour Separation Overlay), without adjusting the contrast of the shots filmed in 1979 to match against grainy stills chosen as the background for the CSO shots.

The worst aspect of the entire effort is Keff McCulloch’s score. Although never reaching the heights of Dominic Glynn and Mark Ayres, I’m an apologist for the synths he supplied to the soundscapes of the Sylvester McCoy era. Although Mark Ayres’ score for the 2017 reconstruction, composed with an EMS VCS3, a Roland synthesiser, percussion and clarinets, relies too heavily on emulating Ayres’ friend, the late Dudley Simpson, McCulloch’s terrible score doesn’t even begin to help represent the uneasy transition between Graham Williams and John Nathan-Turner’s (himself the producer behind the VHS release) tenures as producer and the late 1970s and early 1980s eras of the programme. McCulloch diffuses the comedic potential of Douglas Adams, destroying dramatic beats, with many moments deserving a score lacking what it needs. Despite the original 1992 VHS release being packaged with each episode of Douglas Adams’ teleplays, imagining every viewer in 1992 would pause the tape and compliment their viewing experience by visualising scenes within their heads seems a tall order, losing the story of any momentum.

Shada (2003), dir. Nicholas Pegg

2003 CD artwork for Big Finish’s release of the audio drama

Shada was ‘completed’ properly in 2003 as a Flash animated webcast, still available with compatible browsers on the archived (pre-2005) Doctor Who website, produced by Big Finish, adapted by producer Gary Russell, illustrated by Lee Sullivan and animated by James Goss. Shada was transmitted between May and June 2003 as part of the BBC Cult online strand in an era of webseries prior to the emergence of YouTube as a platform and the investment by networks and studios in streaming television. Perhaps one of the most glorious aspects to emerge from the entire animation is this music video to Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head (2001), and is worth enabling and redownloading Flash – no matter the security concerns – for this express purpose.

This version is rather special to me. Circa Christmas 2005 or 2006, I stayed up late at night as an omnibus of the audio version played on BBC Radio 7, staring at the black screen on the 4:3 image of the silver television. Almost midnight, the lights were dark; the sound kept to a minimum. My mum came in midway through to drag me, reluctantly, to bed. It was my introduction to Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor (before I bought the DVD of The TV Movie the following year from the closing down Norwich BBC Shop, subsequently The Television and Movie Store), but also my introduction to Romana (Lalla Ward), K9 (John Leeson) and perhaps the classic era as a whole. Significantly, it was my introduction to Big Finish: across 2006 and 2007, I recorded the adventures of the Eighth Doctor, Charley and Lucie onto cumbersome DVD-Rs, inspiring my own pursuit of writing and performing my own audio dramas in the late 2000s, and has since desecrated my wallet through continual sales.

So maybe it’s hard to approach this objectively. But it’s so joyous both Shada and Scream of the Shalka are available on disc, with a high quality soundtrack beyond the capabilities of early 2000s internet (unfortunately there is some, but not much, pixellation in a few shots). Flash animation is unfortunately a lost art that created my formative years of playing Flash games, making Flash animations in school lessons, or the complexities and imagination of web design not engineered for compatibility with touchscreen devices which didn’t yet exist. No matter the understandable security concerns, the death of support for Flash is a blow against the history of online culture, in particular through gaming and animation sites like Newgrounds, as much as the drowning of Yahoo!’s Geocities was to the infrastructure of decades of websites.

The animation is simplistic, dragging and enlarging illustrations across the frame without much ‘animation’ as such – more a colour storyboard with additional motion elements. But there’s a charm to seeing the basic elements of a new medium develop as much can be felt watching the early silent shorts of the 1890s through 1910s. Shada improved upon the still images of Death Comes to Time (2001) and Real Time (2002), before reaching the apex of more complex fluid, solid and professional animation with Cosgrove Hall’s Scream of the Shalka the same anniversary year. Though the more complex animation of Scream of the Shalka wasn’t necessarily better (as recounted in the DVD documentary Interweb of Fear), putting a strain on dial-up with long loading times between scenes. Doctor Who’s three decade relationship with analogue videotape had ended with Dimensions in Time (1993) and The Curse of Fatal Death (1999); its relationship that began in the 1960s with photochemical film ended with the TV movie. Shada and BBCi’s other productions are the first shift – beyond the Restoration Team’s DVD masters – of the series into a widescreen digital workflow before the returning series made this standard. 

The coproduction with Big Finish (who later collaborated again with the BBC on The Davros Collection DVD boxset and the animated reconstruction of The Reign of Terror) lends a highly effective component: Gareth Jenkins’ sound design and Russell Stone’s score are the most important, developed elements, where performances and effects come first; the animation is complimentary more than anything else. Despite both characters’ curly brown hair (one of which is a painful wig), Tom Baker and Paul McGann are two highly different actors: McGann doesn’t have the same comedic energy Tom Baker brought to his incarnation, but it’s still wonderful to hear him making these lines his own, adapting where appropriate but still keeping Douglas Adams’ script. As ever, his voice creates a Doctor with a joie de vivre, and with only the TV movie and The Night of the Doctor (2013) as televised stories, more audiovisual material with this incarnation is always precious. The changes to this version make the prospect of the 2017 completion worthwhile: the Eighth Doctor carries the shoulders of every other Doctor, an interim Doctor without a defining broadcast series, dealing with his own timestream in the novels The Eight Doctors andconspiracy theories in War of the Daleks (1997), and the constant return of numerous villains and his granddaughter Susan in comics, novels and audio dramas. Cubicle7’s sourcebook for the Eighth Doctor for their RPG Adventures in Time and Space conceives of a campaign for the incarnation transported from the Time War across the adventures of his past and future incarnations, including the adventures of Battlefield (1989), without his own era to rely upon.

The prospect of a Shada that never happened as proposed by Gary Russell’s prologue on Gallifrey with the Eighth Doctor and Romana – the Fourth Doctor and Romana were taken out of time using archival footage from the story in The Five Doctors (1983), an element adjusted to facilitate the VHS release with the 1995 special edition – makes a certain meta sense, but it’s equally destroyed by the series’ own narrative rules (and the 2012 novelisation by Gareth Roberts); an excuse to explain away the absence of Tom Baker. My heart goes out to Lalla Ward and John Leeson for performing the story so many times, across the rehearsals and mounting in 1979, the webcast and audio drama, Ian Levine’s 2011 animation, the 2012 unabridged audiobook and the 2017 version.

That said, it provides this version’s greatest strength: it can honour the recently and unexpectedly departed Adams, who had himself become involved in the digital space through Starship Titanic (1998) and the H2G2 encyclopaedia website (this animation is dedicated to his memory), but also the ability to do its own thing with his script within the medium’s limitations and strengths. The change in voice cast allows not only a shift in character design, but also a change in era specific effects and locations (the TARDIS’ exterior and console room in particular) and the imagination of expansive animated sets: this is Shada for 2003, not 1980. Noticeably, the bicycle chase is noticeably condensed given the complexity of more visual scenes. Rather than definitive, the webcast a fun alternative just as the (incompatible with continuity) Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966), with their own individual strengths and detractors compared to their televised counterparts. I’m so glad this version exists.