Roger Lewis is easily the most accomplished critical biographer in living memory – if not (who can say?) ever. Critical biography is a fascinating genre. Straight-up biography is hard enough – almost by definition, famous people tend to leave behind a mountain of material that must be sifted through to determine a more-or-less objective notion of “the facts” of their life story. The biographer then builds on this to arrive at more subjective assessments as to character and virtue (or lack thereof).
The critical biographer has to make good on both those fronts but must also engage on a third: an artist’s output. And of course the added twist here is that the potential audience for a work of critical biography has often formed an affection for its subject thanks largely to their appreciation of the artist’s best work.
In other words, in a critical biography, the potential for upsetting readers is magnified many times over. If the subject is a screen star, you face an even more troublesome task because our film and television industries are absolutely riddled with shits, bastards and C-words. And nobody really cares to talk about that very much.
That’s one of the ways in which Roger Lewis is exceptional: he rarely flinches from telling it like it is. My favourite Lewis book is The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, published in 1994. Sellars was a right piece of work, rare in the show-business world in that he ticked all three boxes – he was a shit, a bastard and a complete and utter C-word.
Lewis gives us chapter and verse; but he’s also lyrically generous about the best of Sellars’ work. Here he is, reminding us of the charms of The Smallest Show on Earth.
As the story of a crumbling pleasure palace, the Bijou Kinema, its fate and its inhabitants, The Smallest Show on Earth neatly encapsulates the themes of stopped clocks and revenants that I’ve been running off at the mouth about in this chapter. Sellars plays Percy Quill, the projectionist, and he’s one-of-three alongside the veteran Bernard Miles, as Old Tom, the commissionaire, and Margaret Rutherford, as Mrs Fazackalee, the pit pianist during the silent movie days, and now the lady in the box office. The plot, in which Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers inherit the fleapit from an unseen shag called Great Uncle Simon, and do their best to flog it to developers who’ll pull it down and build a car park, need not detain us long…
Luckily, we can look behind and beyond… to take in the true star of the film – the Bijou itself. Whether or not the original audiences, back in the Fifties, were meant to agree that it’s a derelict and worthless place, that’s not how it comes across now. It is a tiny, lost Edwardian paradise, tucked under a railway arch, wreathed in smoke and brimstone from the passing trains. The cinema, a domed and ornate Moorish temple, with barley sugar pillars and gloomy framed pictures of forgotten idols from the infancy of the flicks, seems cut out by scissors from the shadows and black air. “It was a theatre way back; then a music hall; then an electric theatre,” Mr Quill and his cohorts explain; and they are the resident spooks.
The cinema is an architectural fantasia, like Mrs Wilberforce’s villa in The Ladykillers. The mouldering rooms and out-of-kilter staircases, the horn gramophones and fancy gasoliers, the chipped tracery and plaster cherubs falling off the sloping ceilings, link up with [the near-contemporary Ealing comedy] The Titfield Thunderbolt. The puff-puffs, in The Titfield Thunderbolt, are also vehicles of nostalgia; the branch line, threatened with closure by British Rail, is an enclave of whimsy and vanishing Englishness. The ancient locomotives, rattling across the countryside, are large versions of a child’s toy train set, or Rowland Emett’s cartoons sprung to life. In The Smallest Show on Earth, Mr Quill’s projection booth is the footplate of a choo-choo or the bridge of a ferry boat. As he gets increasingly crotchety over the capricious levers and knobs, popping light bulbs and clanking magic lanterns, Sellers’ character feels the need to take sustaining nips from a whisky bottle. The cracked lenses, mis-matched canisters of film and lost spools are the little cinema’s equivalent of a senior citizen’s decrepitude, hearing impairment and dimming eyes; Quill adores his equipment as he would if nursing his own dotard of a relative. He is the only person in the world who can keep this junk going. He is married to it…
In The Smallest Show on Earth, Quill, Fazackalee and Old Tom don’t walk in and out of their scenes and cubby holes; they seem to shimmer, disembodied, from the other side of mottled mirrors; they are at one with the dust and flecks of paint and shadowy alcoves… When the Express whistles across the viaduct, Quill’s apparatus has a seizure; he has to hang on to the flapping projector and humour life back into the dials and gauges. The celluloid snaps and what patrons there are left in the stalls go home in disgust. Quill puts on a record of the national anthem and stands to attention, quite alone. On his way back to his digs, he does a little skip in the street – a silly, perfect detail. Late at night, on another occasion, the three old eccentrics, having the place [almost] to themselves, watch a silent movie, Cecil Hepworth’s Comin’ Through the Rye, of 1916. Margaret Rutherford strums Chopin at the piano, Bernard Miles, on his own in the stalls, strokes the Bijou’s cat and Sellers, transfixed, moves out of the darkness to explain what’s afoot to [a] young couple, who realise they’ve blundered in on magic – “classics, you might say,” says Quill, with tears in his eyes. The caption on the screen in front of him says: When you return this rye will be harvested, and this field as empty as your heart.