First off, a caveat: the title of this latest post is a bit misleading, I’m afraid – but so was the poster to Soldier Blue. There’s very little in the way of drugs, unless you are partial to potassium chloride, in which case you’re not reading this because you are dead. There’s very little rock and roll either, unless you count Tricky, but I can at least promise you docs (medical) and docks (the floating harbour) and even one documentary, Naked and Famous.
So, very few films made IN Bristol are actually ABOUT Bristol, with the honourable exception of Radio On (perhaps the greatest British movie ever made) and – to some extent – Eight Minutes Idle, Some People, and Shank. No, most films made in Bristol – apart from being shit – pretend that it is all taking place somewhere else, in a nameless movieland where everybody lives on Royal York Crescent and walks across the Suspension Bridge for no apparent reason (they never, for example, go for a walk in Ashton Court or Leigh Woods). Think Truly, Madly, Deeply. Think Starter For Ten and The Truth About Love. Better still, DON’T think about those films. They are truly, madly awful.
Me, I’m waiting for the film of Ed Trewavas’ novel Shawnie (drugs, prostitution, casual violence, incest… just your average day in Knowle West). Mark Kidel’s 1997 Tricky documentary Naked and Famous goes some way towards meeting my requirements (it’s got drugs, they talk about violence, it’s filmed in Knowle West) but it falls down badly on the incest and prostitution.
Thankfully, I now have another film to add to the list of proudly Bristolian films, Paper Mask. It was made in 1990, and it’s taken me this long to get round to watching it because a) it has Paul McGann in it and b) I always suspected it was a bit shit (it is) but hey, when you’re trying to watch every “Bristol” film ever made, you get to kiss a lot of frogs.
McGann was on a downward career trajectory from the early high of Withnail and I (high in more ways than one). Here he plays a hospital porter called Matthew Harris, who has dreams of being a doctor. One evening, he witnesses a fatal car accident, and learns that the dead man (Simon Hennessey) was a doctor who has just applied for a job at a hospital in… Bristol!
Hooray! For once, a film that actually acknowledges the fact, instead of being mere window dressing, a kind of Georgian London on the cheap. But wait… they can’t resist a few picture postcard shots of the Floating Harbour, Clifton, and the Suspension Bridge at night. Well, why not? How would we know it’s Bristol otherwise? Harris assumes the dead doc’s identity and settles into his new home (rather like McGann, who moved from Liverpool, by way of London) where he is assigned to a busy A&E department (Casualty!) Despite his lack of experience, Harris gets through the first few days without too much trouble, largely due to the help of a friendly nurse (is that a tautology?) played by Amanda Donohoe. Then the wife of the chief medic dies under Harris’ care, and he is charged with negligence, but Donohoe takes the flak for him, getting suspended as a result.
Harris bumps into an old friend and fellow porter (Moran) who has also moved to Bristol (it’s 1990 – Aardman is starting a trend, the BBC are moving operations westwards, and apparently the NHS is following suit). Harris whisks his mate off to Cheddar Gorge, as one does with visitors. The unsuspecting Moran thinks he’s going for a drink in a nice country pub but Harris pushes him off a cliff. You can’t help thinking to yourself, this is all faintly preposterous, but isn’t Cheddar Gorge lovely, and rather underused as a location? When was the last time anyone filmed here? Back in 1967, if I’m not mistaken, when Peter Nichols wrote a teleplay called The Gorge, and it’s all too easy to imagine the perennially bitter Nichols pushing his more successful fellow playwright Charles Wood off a cliff: it’s certainly a lot easier than trying to understand why Mathew Harris kills patients and friends left, right and centre, or why, when his superior Tom Wilkinson smells a Cheddar Gorge-sized rat, he doesn’t, like, do something about it. I mean, he has enough evidence of ignorance to call in Donald Rumsfeld. But Paper Mask was written (“with flair”, says Time Out) by a REAL LIVE doctor, John Collee, who presumably knows what he’s talking about, so that’s okay. Come to think of it, doctors do get away with quite a lot, even murder (the ones who failed to pick up the sepsis which killed my neighbour certainly did). The mistake Collee and his main character make – the behavioural flaw which renders the film utterly implausible – is that Harris doesn’t even TRY to appear competent. He knows as much about medicine as I do, which is to say almost nothing, and it shows. Doesn’t he know that the first rule of medicine is never to doubt yourself, at least publicly – that you must convey the impression of utmost confidence and authority, of never being wrong, even when you ARE wrong, and people like my neighbour Rachel die as a result?
I can’t help thinking of Douglas Sirk’s no more far-fetched and melodramatic Magnificent Obsession, in which playboy Rock Hudson runs over Jane Wyman, leaving her blind, and then trains to become an eye surgeon, so that he can – anonymously – restore her sight. At least Rock Hudson acts out of altruism, and he doesn’t push anyone off a cliff.
Luckily, Moran survives the fall and is brought to casualty for treatment. Unfortunately for him, he is treated by his former friend Harris, who gives him a mixture of blood (good for you) and potassium chloride (very bad for you) which finishes him off, as surely as the cider in the Somerset pub would have done. Meanwhile, Amanda Donohoe’s on suspension in London and comes across the grave of the real Dr Hennessey in a cemetery (as you do, graves generally being found in cemeteries). The penny finally drops, and she confronts Harris, then forgives him, on condition that he stop pretending to be a doctor and move back to London with her, but Harris changes his mind and takes up a new job in Salisbury instead (will you women never learn?)
Collee adapted his own novel for the screen, and was neither the first nor the last doctor to try his hand at writing. I mean, you’ve got Chekhov, Keats, Conan Doyle, Somerset Maugham, and at the same time as Collee, John Hodge was about to break into the industry with the equally macabre Shallow Grave. There’s also Michael Crichton, writer of such under-rated med-fi classics as The Andromeda Strain and (less credibly) Jurassic Krap – but he dropped out of medical school (Harvard no less) pretty sharpish, so perhaps he doesn’t count. He did, however, direct two of my teenage faves, the original movie version of Westworld starring Yul Brynner (“he cannot die!”) and the Genevieve Bujold vehicle Coma, made back when Genevieve Bujold could carry a movie, and penned by Robin Cook, who, unlike Crichton, actually is a practising physician/medical writer… (that’s enough unnecessary trivia now – Dai the Llama).