Sunday, 15 February 2015

An Edna O'Brien slice of Dublin

Film stills all from "Girl With Green Eyes" - apart from the above one, which is from "Smashing Time"

I'm a huge fan of Edna O'Brien. She is a giant of Irish literature, and was a very brave writer during the darker times of cultural clampdown in Ireland. In her own country her books were censored and burned, and she was denounced from the pulpit. Is it any wonder that, like Joyce and Beckett before her, she got out of the place?

As she once said in an interview, "Writing is like carrying a foetus." The quote seemed to take on an extra frisson of meaning after the Dáil debates last Tuesday.

So maximum respect, though she has been involved in a right few turkeys over the years, particularly on screen.

For example, you can give her 1981 TV adaptation for the BBC of her short story Mrs Reinhardt a miss. Unfortunately I didn't. Helen Mirren takes the title role, but it's still not enough to save it. As the New York Times put it,

"The ingredients, in other words, are quite promising. The result, however, is only disconcerting, if not downright irritating."

Mind you, the NYT continues, "the travelogue aspects" of the Brittany scenery are "first-rate".

Girl With Green Eyes

Here's another example: O'Brien's 1964 film adaptation of her novel Girl With Green Eyes. It was on our telly last night. Not for the first time, but the first time in a very long time.

It's part of her groundbreaking "Country Girls" trilogy, and the book itself is a magnificent slice of writing, with superb narrative, characters and dialogue. Besides being great literature, it's an explosive radical feminist critique of priest-ridden 1950s Ireland.

The film, though, has some dodgy central casting, forgettable music and truly terrible attempts at Irish accents by several of the English actors. Yet I can't stop watching it.

It's mostly set and shot in Ireland. But as was - and so often still is - the norm, the English thesps got all the juicy main roles. Such was the earlier history of Irish cinema and Ireland on film.

Even so, look out for the little cameos by the locals in the cast, including a brief appearance by David Kelly as a ticket collector, an exceedingly youthful Eamonn Morrissey in a nightclub (even then, you can begin to detect the Flann O'Brien influences), Joe Lynch (later of Glenroe, Bracken and Corrie fame), and Marie Kean, for whom the word "indomitable" was invented.

The film is classified as a "British" or "UK" drama by all the usual suspects such as or Wikipedia. It's from a quintessentially Sixties British company called Woodfall Film Productions (their first film was Look Back in Anger); its director is English - Desmond Davis - and the look is what I guess would have been called British (or even French) "new wave" at the time. It still looks good after all these years.

Its luscious black-and-white cinematography was all the vogue, somewhere between early Truffaut - Jules et Jim - or Goddard's Breathless and A Hard Day's Night, with plenty of tracking cameras and location work instead of shaky, lifeless studio sets.

Those Dublin locations - both exteriors and interiors - include:
  • Bewleys Café (I reckon it's the back room in the Westmoreland Street one rather than Grafton Street) with its wooden chairs and pews and marble-topped tables, as the two young heroines measure out their lives in coffee cups and sticky buns (and a lot of ciggies)
  • The Pepper Canister Church that I've mentioned before, near the Grand Canal
  • The Four Provinces Ballroom in Harcourt Street (or "4 Provinces" or "4PS" as it used to say in the posters), which later became the TV Club. Harcourt Street may look orderly and trendy today, but by the 1970s it was terribly shabby and falling down. The TV Club was demolished in 1990 for the new garda offices, then in June 2004 the Luas line was opened on the street
  • And - what I'd completely forgotten until last night - the Royal Hibernian Hotel in Dawson Street; once Ireland's poshest hotel, it closed in 1982 to make way for a shopping mall, The Hibernian Way. Yes indeed, that's our Hibernian old way with outstanding architecture alright.

Above all there's the lingering presence of the River Liffey, right out to the docks where few boats dock any more, and the north quays just by the Custom House where the sea ferry used to depart.

It's these amazing location shots of Dublin that kept us watching. I find it a compulsive pleasure, this fascination with disappeared or disappearing chunks of your own city, these black-and-white memories and reminders.

The bookshop

Literature itself often comes to the fore in O'Brien's work. Books and bookshops, reading and writing are recurring themes in the film too, with one location in particular standing out.

It's Greene's Bookshop on Clare Street - the continuation of Nassau Street near Lincoln Place - with its trestles of books outside and its almost Dickensian interior, including a winding staircase lined with old books. The shop was a landmark for more than a century and a half, but closed down in 2007. It's now an upmarket gents' outfitters.

I was wondering what bookshop(s) a scene in one of my 'Moss Reid' stories might have in today's Dublin. Despite the rise of the eBook there are still plenty of bricks-and-mortar premises to choose from. 

Books Upstairs is one obvious candidate, though it too has been undergoing changes lately. Last week it moved house from the corner of College Green to a splendid new shop on D'Olier Street, including a cafe.

Greene's bookshop in Clare Street in 1971. Picture from the Dublin City Library Archive

Baba Brennan

Yet for all its faults the old 1964 film does have its moments.

A small confession: in both the book and the film, I much preferred Lynn Redgrave's character Baba to Rita Tushingham's less caricatured Kate (or Cait / Caithleen in the book). Kate is more emotionally sensitive and almost verging on the dim, while Baba is far more fun, despite the wojus accent. Terrible, amn't I?

Baba Brennan is OTT, studenty, irrepressible, mischievous. Or "mischievious" with that extra vowel as Dubliners sometimes say - such as the late Gerry Ryan.

I always wondered what happened to that Baba character after (major spoiler alert) the two young women took the boat to London at the end of the film.

* * *

Postscript, 14 September 2017: The Country Girls trilogy is being published in a new edition by Faber & Faber. I'll probably have to have it too, because it has a new introduction by Eimear McBride.

And another postscript, 23 October 2018: someone called Peter has dropped me a line pointing out that the top pic has nothing to do with Edna O'Brien, and it doesn't. It comes from a 1967 film that brought Tushingham and Redgrave together again, as two young women who arrive in London from the north of England. I've amended the caption...