No Harm in Trying

I had the oddest craving the other day. I did not find myself suddenly and magically with child, like a West Country Mary Magdalene. I found myself sorely in need of a reminder and craved the resolution this reminder would bring. I know of two films that can help with this. So I watched them both. The first – a 1950 classic starring James Stewart (you’d think I’d be running out of his films by now) (nope) and a giant rabbit. The second, a 2008 Mike Leigh semi-improvised comedy with Sally Hawkins, a lass steadily working her way up to becoming one of my favourite modern actresses.

You see, I needed reminding to be happy. Sometimes I find this difficult. My default state is one of anxiety and I find that two meddling little imps called Hopelessness and Gloom can be my all too constant companions. But – and I stress this after years of treatment in many different guises – I find that the most successful warrior against The Black Dog is instilling in yourself a sense of optimism. Even if it doesn’t come naturally.

Harvey is the tale of Elwood P. Dowd, (Stewart) a gentle, kindly man who spends his days in his local drinking joint with his best friend Harvey. Harvey: a 6ft 3.5″ tall invisible white rabbit. His sister, Veta (an Academy Award winning turn from Josephine Hull) believes him to be mad and the film follows her attempts to have him committed. Happy-Go-Lucky follows Poppy (Hawkins) a relentlessly cheerful primary school teacher who takes driving lessons with the embittered Scott (an ever excellent Eddie Marsan), a man teetering on the edge of a breakdown.

These films have one vital link. Both protagonists are clearly smart and negate the naivety that often – it is assumed – accompanies a blithely happy soul. They have deliberately chosen to make the most of every day, to be kind to everyone they meet and to see the beauty in each moment. Elwood offers friendship (and his card) to everybody he comes across, showing interest in their life and enjoying every minute. He states, quite simply“I always have a wonderful time, wherever I am, whomever I’m with.” He hints later that he has not always been of this disposition – of a darker time before Harvey the Pooka (a magical creature of celtic mythology who takes the form of an animal) makes an appearance. But he has made the choice to live his life in such a manner. “I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.”

Poppy is clearly intelligent and a wonderful teacher. She helps uncover a pupil’s abuse at the hands of his stepfather and guides her young charges with warmth and knowledge. When her bike is stolen, she grins and sighs “I didn’t get to say goodbye.” She befriends a tramp, talks exuberantly to strangers and grabs each experience she can – trampolining, flamenco, learning to drive. And in a line that echoes Elwood’s own, Poppy picks out a self-help book near the beginning of the film and muses “The Road to Reality? Don’t wanna be going there!” Her friend and flatmate Zoe gently chides her “You can’t make everyone happy, Poppy” to which Poppy responds “No harm in trying, is there?”

Both of these two joyful creatures experience negativity and wariness at the hands of others. Elwood is dragged into an institution, hit, grabbed by the neck and generally avoided by most. Poppy is derided and hated by an increasingly combative Scott. “I can’t believe you are a teacher.You are arrogant, you are disruptive and you celebrate chaos.” She laughs and replies “I slipped through the net, didn’t I?” But why? Are those that are unhappy so threatened by those who choose to see life through rose-tinted glasses? Why the need to drag the smiling down? As Elwood says “That’s envy, my dear. There’s a little bit of envy in the best of us.”

I’ve watched these films and I’m reminded how short and sweet life is. I don’t choose to listen to the voice in my head that tells me I’m useless, that things are too tough. I choose to be nice to people, to see a Good Thing in every situation, no matter how dark it seems. I realise I can bug people when I do this. But never mind. I think they should do it, too. I (thank God and touch wood) have never yet experienced a life altering personal tragedy. Who knows? When I do, I may find my little ethos fails me. It must be impossible to find the beauty sometimes.Sometimes I do fail and for that I have wonderful friends and family who lend a shoulder and a cuddle. Sometimes some wine and chocolate. I hope I offer the same service when they find themselves at a low point. Nobody should suffer alone.

To sum up ~ to conclude, if you will ~ too much thought and time in one’s own head is the danger. Focus on others; focus on what you see, hear, touch. Live for this very moment, so fleeting and precious. Be kind.

In the words of Mr. Dowd himself “In this world, you can be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant. For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”

I believe I just have.


“I don’t want to be worshipped. I want to be loved.”

Whilst on tour in Ireland this month, we were blessed with several days off. Rather pleasant, to find oneself on a sort of holiday with good friends, especially a holiday in a secluded cottage with a stunning view of the sun setting each evening; burnt orange flooding the endless sky.

Being ever the traditionalist, one Wednesday morning ~ seeing a fire lit and tea poured ~ I decided to settle under the duvet (for that, read hog the sofa to the sighs of castmates) and watch an Old Film. I had brought The Philadelphia Story with me, the George Cukor classic, based on Philip Barry’s play. Katharine Hepburn had starred in said production and did the same in the film version. It ultimately saved her career, following her unfortunate moniker of ‘box office poison.’ We meet Tracy Lord (Hepburn) on the eve of her wedding to newly monied business magnate George Kittredge. She was previously married to CK Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) but their tempestuous partnership resulted in divorce when her “disregard for human frailty” exacerbates his drinking problem. This new union excites the American media and they send over reporter Macaulay ‘Mike’ Connor (James Stewart; him again – incidentally he won an Oscar for his performance. He plays an hilarious drunk and manages to make Cary Grant corpse) and photographer Liz Imbrie to cover the wedding. Dexter, helping them to gain access to the family, accompanies them. Over the course of the day, Tracy finds herself caught between three men – her fiancee, her ex-husband and an increasingly smitten Mike. Who will she wind up with?

The three men treat Tracy utterly differently. Mike, the cynical poet, sees her as an earthy intellectual with a spark that matches his own “There’s a magnificence in you, Tracy. A magnificence that comes out of your eyes, in your voice… you’re lit from within. You’ve got fires banked down in you, hearth-fires and holocausts.”  George sees her as a far off Goddess, to be worshipped. “You’re like some marvellous, distant queen. You’re so cool and fine and always so much your own. There’s a kind of beautiful purity about you, like a statue.” However, just like a 20th Century Angel Clare, once Tracy’s own frailty is uncovered and his view of her purity dispelled, he promptly loses interest. So who does Tracy end up marrying? The man who knows her faults and loves her anyway. The man who sees her as a human being. CK Dexter Haven. As Tracy herself says, she doesn’t want to be worshipped. She wants to be loved.

This, unsurprisingly, set me to thinking. Many of my friends – and indeed my own – relationships have ended because one party believes the other is not the person they fell in love with. But what if they are? What if it is simply a case of falling off a pedestal once frailty is uncovered? They begin as a deity; lofty perfection to be worshipped. Then soon, they find themselves scrambling in the dust like other mere mortals. Seemingly no middle ground. Simply to be adored or to be dumped. While in some relationships people can change to the detriment of a coupling, in others it is simply the beholder that sees their partner differently.

I have been in relationships where I have been properly adored at the beginning. Not going to lie, there is something lovely about someone viewing you as an angel, but goodness me, it’s hard to live up to. And doesn’t the halo lose it’s shine quickly? Seemingly overnight, I dropped from the pedestal from which I’d been placed onto the muddy ground below and I was never sure why. Is it because of my selfishness? My horrible ability to cry easily? Am I just plain annoying? Veiled insults begin, eyes rolling at every word I say, running me down in front of friends under the guise of banter ‘Why are you being so sensitive? It’s just a joke.’ Gone was the girl who warranted love notes, hushed work time phone calls and adoration. I didn’t think I’d changed at all and it baffled me. Like Desdemona “What shall I do to win my lord again? … I know not how I lost him” none of us who have ever experienced this will know what we can do. But we will try to placate and work our way back up to that pedestal if it takes all of our self respect. Shutting up about our job if it bores you, not nagging, keeping opinions to ourselves. But the pedestal cannot be reached, no matter how hard we try. Once knocked off, it’s a no go area. But is this us genuinely turning into co-dependent shadows of our former selves, or is it that we are no longer the untouchable bronze statue to be admired from afar? I have seen vibrant, brilliant friends – both male and female – reduced to quivering wrecks trying to live up to the impossible bar their partner has set for them. I should mention here, in my past matches, I don’t place the blame completely at the other person’s door. I know I was not perfect. I just wish I knew what the trigger was, so I could fix it.

I must admit, these experiences have made me wary of relationships and I think go part of a way to explain my current single status. If someone is to nice to me, I don’t trust it ‘oh yes, you like me now – but how long before you discover how annoying I am?’ And I am far too sensitive about gentle mocking of me – ‘oh, it’s begun again, has it?’ I never wanted to be someone who loved warily, but I fear that is inevitable for most of us who have the baggage of previous relationships.

Perhaps – like Tracy and Dexter – the best match for us all is our best friend. No worshipping, no pedestal, just entering into a union with a clear knowledge of the other’s frailty and loving them for that as much as their shining qualities. Tracy may be an “unholy mess of a girl” and Dexter a recovering alcoholic, but they know each other inside out. And they are human.

Annex - Hepburn, Katharine (Philadelphia Story, The)_06



Hitchcock Blonde

She must be sporty. He must be fun. She must have red hair. He should be a blonde. She must know how to cook Italian food. He should have a good job. She must want to give up her job to look after the children. He must be creative. She must have an accent. She must have enough money to live, but not enough that it emasculates me.   

As I have got older, I have found that so many people I know have a picture of the Perfect Person in their heads. The one that would complete them and fit into their lives like a missing puzzle piece. If we find somebody that differs from this slightly, well that’s OK – as long as we offer chances at ‘improvement,’ right? Gym classes, haircuts, film suggestions?

But some of the happiest couples I see around me went completely against their usual sort. A girl who I expected to end up with an older, tortured, multilingual, patches-on-elbow professor, has just married a city banker, three years younger than herself. When I asked what made her step out with him in the first place, she replied ‘I thought it was time to start saying yes.’ 

I do find myself saying ‘no’ a lot, although I don’t really have a type. Funny, kind and intelligent. As long as those three attributes are present, I am breezy. Although he must be taller than me. Creative. Generous. Likes old films, obviously. Arrogance is a particular turn off. So, humble. Dark eyes, maybe? A soft accent is always preferable. Nice arms. A sense of romance. Optimistic by nature. Gentle sarcasm is attractive. Must like the country. And the pub. And dogs. But I reiterate, I don’t have a type at all.

One man who definitely had a type was Alfred Hitchcock. His preference for blonde, classy willows is of legend. They appear throughout his films: Tippi Hedren, Eva Marie Saint, Grace Kelly – these untouchable glass beauties clad in Chanel and Edith Head. Stories have surfaced recently of his amorous attentions on these leading actresses. How these ladies feared a decline in their career if they denied him.

Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) is almost an allegory of his fascination with this woman; a tale of obsessive love. Based on the novel D’entre les morts, it tells the tale of John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart… told you he’d make several appearances on here), a former detective suffering from a crippling fear of heights owing to an accident on duty. Scottie is hired by an old friend – Gavin Elster – to tail his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) after she begins to act oddly. After watching the disturbed young woman from afar, Scottie falls in love with her. Thus begins his downfall.

I refuse to give anything away of this film ~ the beauty of the twist and the denouement is too good to give away if you haven’t already seen it. The image of Madeleine is an iconic one; chances are you’ve already seen it, even if you weren’t aware. A beautiful woman in a grey suit, nude make up, platinum hair swept back, green light surrounding her like a ghostly halo. But there is a scene that I must mention, without revealing too much of its place in the film. 
Madeleine is no longer around. Scottie, having suffered a breakdown, finds a young woman who bears a resemblance to her. Judy Barton is brunette, brassy and untroubled ~ the complete antithesis of Madeleine. She is clearly desperately in love with him. He clearly cannot get Madeleine out of his mind and starts to mould Judy into a copy of her, like a 1950s Galatea. She resists at first, “Couldn’t you like me, just me the way I am?” but gives in under his staunch insistence. “If I let you change me, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, will you love me?”  She dyes her hair blonde and pins it back. She wears the grey suit he picks out for her. She changes her make up. She walks out of the bathroom to Bernard Herrmann’s stunning theme (have a listen here, the music for this film is unparalleled in its brilliance:, a carbon copy of his lost love. He cannot believe Madeleine has come back to him. 
If you’ve seen the film, you know this does not end well. I shan’t say anymore. But what if Scottie had decided to accept the advances of the lovely (but decidedly not Madeleine-esque) Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) instead?
It is easy to have in our mind’s eye the type of person we should be with. This is either based on former partners – the one that got away- film stars, Austen heroes (I am particularly guilty of the latter. Northanger Abbey’s Henry Tilney has a lot to answer for) or just simply an ideal. But is true happiness only possible once we let go of these prerequisites? And once we find ourselves in a relationship, why do we try to change our partners? Surely the point of being with somebody is that you love them for them, right? 
(I still think buying clothes for your other half is a Good Thing. Moulding them into something they’re not is bad. Improving their dress sense… well, that’s just kindness, isn’t it?) 
I’m joking. A bit.