Monday 7 August 2017

We Don't Go Back #57: The Green Man (1990)

The 9pm watershed was a hard limit during my childhood. And then, at a stroke, it wasn’t, and I could watch everything, and did. And I began to watch everything I could that was on the TV that was even vaguely genre, and that’s why, aged 15 and never having heard of Kingsley Amis, I taped all three episodes of The Green Man. It was a ghost story, a supernatural drama, except it wasn’t; the supernatural elements were not the heart of the thing.

It occurred to me that The Green Man was about something. I wasn’t really up on what it was about. But it was definitely about something.

But then, it was the first tip-off for me that maybe they were all about something.
The only time I don't feel awful is when I'm drunk.
It had a BBC4 broadcast some years ago, and I caught it again then, and I still liked it, so this is my second revisitation. Let's see if it still sparkles.

Maurice Allington (Albert Finney) is a hotelier, the proprietor of The Green Man, a fancy rural hostelry not far from Cambridge. He’s charming, popular with the guests, is a prodigious drinker and an accomplished raconteur. Maurice is an easy man to like and an impossible man to love. His teenage daughter Amy (Natalie Morse) and his elderly father (Michael Hordern) clearly do love him, but are exasperated with him nonetheless, and when Gramps has a stroke and dies, apparently having seen a ghost, Maurice, a still just-about functioning alcoholic, staring his own mortality hard in the face, enters into a classic mid-life crisis.
Maurice: The only I time I don't feel awful is when I'm drunk.
Although he is not unhappy with his wife Joyce (Linda Marlowe), he embarks on an affair with Diana (Sarah Berger), wife of local GP and friend Jack (Nicky Henson). And then he gets it into his head that really what would be amazing would be a threesome with Joyce and Diana.
I will show you the true shape of your desires.
The inn boasts another inhabitant: the ghost of Dr. Underhill (Michael Culver), a 17th century cleric, magician and lecher, who appears to Maurice and tells him that he will show him “The true shape of your desires.” Underhill, Maurice discovers, had a habit of finding young women, and conjuring up “rare shapes, some consorting carnally,” before having his pleasure with them.

The eternally sozzled Maurice doesn’t even think before agreeing to do the ghostly magus’s bidding. He takes as his confidant Lucy (Josie Lawrence), his new-agey daughter-in-law.
Lucy: Sprouts, cabbages, garden peas, they each have a different karma. I'm not sure about pickled gherkins, though. 
Lucy believes him, and eggs him on, but Maurice doesn’t tell her everything about Underhill. At Underhill’s bidding, Maurice exhumes the man’s body and retrieves a silver effigy of some pagan fertility god (the Green Man after whom the inn was originally named), in which the magician’s power was invested. The local vicar, Rev. Sonnenschein (Nickolas Grace) isn’t going to be much help, he’s the living stereotype of the trendy liberal vicar who doesn’t even appear to believe in the afterlife. When challenged with the suggestion that there might be proof of life after death, Sonnenschein’s only response is, “I’m sorry, I don’t deal with the paranormal. I’m a priest.”

Fortunately, in Christian theology, the rite of exorcism works for anyone consecrated, regardless of what they believe, which is just as well.
Does that mean you want to talk?
Neither of Maurice’s two plans to satisfy his appetites work out quite as Maurice wants or expects. Were Maurice a good man, he wouldn’t get into the colossal mess he does; were he a worse man, he’d probably excel at what he’s doing. But Maurice is just a self-centred man with small, bourgeois horizons, and a catastrophic inability to notice what’s going on with people. He’s surprised when Diana tells him she hates her husband; later, he comments on this to Joyce, and Joyce says that of course she does, she’s known this since the first time she met Diana and she says to Maurice, “You observe, but you don’t see.”

A more perceptive man would probably work out that if you tell your wife her best friend (your mistress) wants a threesome, and you tell your mistress that your wife wants a threesome, they might talk with each other about it. And Maurice should probably have worked out that the ghost of a famously evil man (a “bad lad” as Maurice puts it) with a penchant for ensorcelling — and raping — teenaged girls might have some motive beyond simply getting Maurice laid more.
I'm not sure about pickled gherkins, though.
I keep saying this: because of folk horror’s status as a sort of half-genre, it tends to hide itself in other genres. Art film, exploitation horror, giallo, political play. Here, it’s seamlessly meshed with what’s probably one of my least favourite literary genres, the Rich Guy Problems Novel. There’s a certain sort of literary novel that has I suppose always been a thing, where essentially everything is based around the midlife crisis of a wealthy, successful (and needless to say white) guy. The world revolves around him, and his problems (which, let’s face it, are problems a lot of people only wish they had) are treated as profoundly important.

I do not have much patience with this sort of fiction and I find it infuriating that it’s given the weight it is. But, even so, I still enjoyed the adaptation. While Kingsley Amis’s original novel assumes you’ll find Maurice a loveable old rogue (rather than the insufferably selfish, bougie old creep he is), Malcolm Bradbury’s adapted script, being visual, and showing rather than telling, allows you to make up your own mind, and gives you the chance to see for yourself that Maurice probably deserves worse than he gets.

Everything here is framed with a sort of impartiality, and I suppose it's the apparent impartiality of the visual that often makes a film more bearable than its print original (one of the reasons I like Midwinter of the Spirit better on the screen, for example, is that on TV I don't have to get through Phil Rickman's prose style, which Did Not Agree With Me, oh dear me no).

And of course, the TV version of The Green Man allows for Maurice to be Albert Finney, who is one of the few actors of his generation who could make a character like Maurice likeable or convince you that a younger woman might want to sleep with him.

The serial plays like a theatre play, largely, and it’s a bit dated in places. Characters describe themselves as “Terribly randy” and the women wear frightening shoulderpads. People smoke in hotel rooms. But Finney is excellent: charismatic, self-centred, charming, funny. He's a terrible person. You like him.
Maurice wants to get in the middle. But we don't want him in the middle.
And while Maurice is profoundly selfish, controlled by his dick, and horribly imperceptive, he’s also charming, and to some extent honest with himself, even when he tries to deceive people he probably shouldn’t deceive. Confronted for his lies and hypocrisy by Jack, Maurice cops to it. When Diana and Joyce inevitably humiliate him, he takes his medicine.
Joyce: I don’t know what you think about people, Maurice, you don’t say, but you go on as if they’re all in the way. Except for sex, and that’s just to get them out of the way for a bit.
But, nonetheless, Maurice’s actions with respect to Underhill are important on a cosmic level in The Green Man, so much so that he even receives a supernatural Visitor (Philip Franks), an ambivalent figure who might just as easily be God or the Devil (yes, the Visitor gives Maurice a cross, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the Adversary). Yes, he takes steps to end the supernatural visitation after something terrible happens (but before something truly terrible), but it’s Maurice’s mess in the first place.

In The Green Man, evil lurks in the land. Underhill is a pagan, whose talisman is a pagan god, who makes the trees and the earth do his bidding. Even his name suggests a man of the earth. A green man.
Our little silver friend.
Maurice can’t be the new green man because he’s neither good nor bad enough to take on the role. The very first thing we see him doing is wake up from a nightmare of blood and wood, having dozed in the bath, and then shrug and drink some scotch. And that's basically his arc. Yeah, he learns something about living, about mortality, but it’s pretty clear as the story ends that he’s not learned a whole lot. Perhaps Maurice’s moral mediocrity is the solution to folk horror’s conundrum of escape. He’s not pure enough to be sacrificed, nor is he committed enough to evil to see through the crimes he is being encouraged to commit. Only the exceptional have the eye of fate.

A bougie old drunk with a roving eye is perhaps too banal to really suffer at the hands of destiny.