At the risk of sounding like the sort of prick who keeps coming up with anecdotes about how terribly quirky and unconventional he is I should probably explain the thought process that got me started on the project I’m starting (or, more accurately, about to start blogging about having actually started it a couple of weeks ago).
I’ve been watching quite a lot of Pointless recently. For those unfamiliar with the show, it’s a British daytime quiz programme presented by Alexander Armstrong (the urbane-est man in the world) and Richard Osman (the tallest man in quizzing or possibly the quizziest man in tallness) in which pairs of contestants compete to get the lowest score possible by finding the answers that other people couldn’t. On one episode of this show, an clue on a round the theme of which I can no longer remember involved the phrase “… who wrote the poem Funeral Blues”. And I was surprised to discover that only about fourteen of the hundred people asked got the answer WH Auden. The reason I was surprised that so few people knew this, despite the fact that Auden isn’t exactly at Taylor Swift levels of popularity these days, is that Funeral Blues did quite specifically feature in the classic 1994 Britflick Four Weddings and Funeral.
This led to my having a really strong desire to watch Four Weddings and Funeral, which I did. And this led to my having a really strong desire to watch, um, every film that Hugh Grant has ever made. I’m not sure quite why I had this reaction because Four Weddings and a Funeral isn’t actually a very good film. In fact, thinking about it, that’s probably why I had such a reaction. Because, Four Weddings, and indeed Hugh Grant, sort of embody this peculiar idealised England of the late-Major / early-Blair years that I somehow have a tremendous nostalgia for while also being aware that it almost certainly never existed.
Also: I just really like doing pointless shit that nobody else cares about. Which might also explain why I’m so very invested in a quiz show that is literally called Pointless.
It turns out that because Hugh Grant began his career in the early 1980s, hilariously billed as ‘Hughie Grant’ in 1982 Oxford University produced dramedy called Privileged a lot of his, for what of a better term, juvenilia is actually quite difficult to access. We get very used to the idea that everything that’s ever produced pops up instantly on Amazon or Netflix, or illegally on Youtube, but that simply wasn’t the case 35 years ago.
As a result my excursion into the Grant canon has necessarily been restricted to those titles I can actually source. This means I’m having to start with the 1987 movie, Maurice, and will need to skip some shorts, some straight-to-TV movies, and some other things you just plain can’t find any more. Because Hugh Grant’s entire filmography crosses four decades I’m not getting through the whole thing in one sitting (also, I may not get through the whole thing at all, you might have noticed I’m notorious flaky).
This instalment, which I am loosely dubbing The Colonial Years, will stretch from 1987 to 1988 (Jesus fuck, he was in a lot of things in the late 80s) and cover the films Maurice, White Mischief, Lair of the White Worm, and The Bengali Night. For those who are paying attention, this means I’m skipping over two of his 1988 outings, those being Rowing With the Wind in which he played Lord Byron (though I am still trying to source this because Hugh Grant playing Byron must be the best thing ever) and The Dawning, in which he plays a bloke called Harry, but which unfortunately appears only to be available as a Region 1 DVD. For those of you who are disgustingly young, DVDs are an entertainment medium from the past, and regions were an ill-fated attempt by their manufacturers to control international distribution.
Anyway, let’s get going. Because Hugh Grant won’t watch himself.
Happily, this project starts off with a film that is actually genuinely good (this state of affairs does not last long). Maurice is, of all things, a Merchant Ivory adaptation of EM Forster’s book of the same name, which he wrote between 1913 and 1914, but which was not released until 1971 after his death on account of how it was super gay. It’s not considered one of his best novels, partly because it’s probably not, but partly because it’s just uncomplicatedly romantic, essentially ending with the gay protagonist, and his gay partner, sailing off to America, where they live happily-ever-after as gay lumberjacks. I read somewhere (but I can’t remember where so I might just be making it up) that Forster did write an epilogue in which Maurice’s sister shows up in America and is all like “ooh, we’re so disgusted by how gay you are, you big gay” and he’s all like “whatevs” and goes back to being a gay lumberjack, but Forster felt that even that undermined the thing he was trying to do, which was write a gay lovestory without any sort of social or personal compromise. I mean, unless you count going off to be a lumberjack in America as a personal or social compromise, but even that has this sort of Eden vibe.
Anyway, Maurice the film is actually fairly close to the book. Hugh Grant does not play Maurice – he’s not going to get the starring role in anything until The Bengali Night and that—spoiler—isn’t going to be a triumph. He’s cast as Clive Durham, Maurice’s first love, who he meets at University, and with whom he has as intense, long-lasting but ultimately platonic relationship. Clive is a bit of a difficult character, both in the movie and the book, because he’s very close to occupying the treacherous bisexual role. There’s basically always a character in that type of story (and the ‘young man is gay at Oxford before the Great War’ is a surprisingly well-populated subgenre in British fiction) who is involved with the protagonist at University, always has a delicate, artistic temperament, and two, five or twenty years later shows up having completely divorced himself that part of his life and settled down into a miserable sham of a marriage with a ruthless social climber.
In the book, things are very much from Maurice’s point of view so we never really get a sense of why Clive is the way he is—you can read a lot of self-loathing out of the text, but it’s hard to really understand where his sudden emotional breakdown and subsequent decision to be totes straight now comes from. I presume this is because Maurice himself doesn’t really understand. In the movie, Clive’s nervous collapse is specifically contextualised against the background of an old Oxford friend being imprisoned and sentenced to hard labour for gross indecency, which sort of makes him a bit more sympathetic. It means we aren’t being asked to condemn him simply for being with a woman in later life (which, in this sort of story, often gets presented as a betrayal in and of itself, which is uncomfortable and biphobic). Instead, it commits the film more strongly to an interpretation in which whatever Clive’s identity is he consciously decides to protect himself by living the most conventional life he can. Part of this, apparently, involves growing a moustache. I’m not sure I was ready to see Hugh Grant with a moustache. As much as I enjoyed this film, and I do actually think it is a good film, I’m not sure any of my memories of it will remain untainted by the fact it contains Hugh Grant with a moustache.
Even if you are not trying to watch the complete canon of Hugh Grant (and, let’s be honest, who would do that) this film is genuinely watchable. And for a gay love story filmed in the 80s based on a book written before the First World War it’s surprisingly sincere. Apparently, it had a pretty troubled production, and Merchant Ivory got quite a lot of shit for putting out a gay romantic film in which neither the protagonist, nor his partner, ends up dead or in prison. I mean, it’s 2017 and in a lot of mainstream culture we still are only just getting to the point where you can have a gay love story that’s basically just told the same way as a straight love story. And here’s Merchant Ivory doing it in 1987. There’s kissing, and soft focus 80s movie sex scenes, and I honestly don’t know how they got away with it. Maybe everyone was just too distracted by the fact the film also includes Hugh Grant with a moustache.
I’m going to rate these films by goodness of film and Hugh Grantiness of film.
Maurice gets 5 out 5 for goodness in that it’s actually really good and not even in a “for 1987 way”. I mean, you have to like Merchant Ivory movies but, if you do, you’ll really enjoy it.
It gets 4 out of 5 for Hugh Grantiness because he’s quite a major character and he’s quite Hugh Granty (in that he plays a posh English bloke who went to Oxbridge, he’s hesitant about things, and spends a lot of time lying around looking pretty with big blue eyes). I couldn’t decide whether the film should gain a point or lose point for the moustache so you may treat this as either a 5 or a 3 depending on how much the idea of Hugh Grant with facial hair terrifies you.
Hugh Grant’s second 1987 outing is White Mischief. First of all, this film gets a +1 bonus to its Hugh Grantiness rating for the fact Hugh Grant plays a character who is actually called Hugh. According to the Wikipedia filmography for Hugh Grant, the Hugh in question is Hugh Cholmondeley, the 3rd Baron Delamere, who was an extremely influential figure in the colonial history of Kenya. He was active in recruiting settlers to East Africa, helped to found the so-called Happy Valley set (around whose antics the film revolves), coined the term ‘white hunter’, and was a pioneer of the dairy industry. He also, however, had been dead for ten years at the time the film was set, and not in a ‘tragically young in a hunting accident’ kind of way. In a ‘he was born in 1870 and the film is set in 1941’ kind of way. All of which makes casting the 28 year old Hugh Grant in the role a little bit of an odd choice, especially since the rest of the film is actually quite historically accurate. And, given that, Mr Grant’s character is just credited as ‘Hugh’ in the actual movie, I think it’s probable that it was just a different guy who happened to be called Hugh. Sorry Wikipedia.
In any case, I watched the whole of this film, even though Hugh Grant was only in it for 85 seconds, saying goodbye to Diana Broughton (the feisty blonde woman who the film is mostly about). It’s also got Charles Dance and John Hurt in it, and is kind fascinating in a deeply colonialist sort of way. It’s based around a real group of decadent expats who lived in a place called Happy Valley in Kenya, who basically spent all their time getting off their faces, and fucking each other. And the plot, such it is, revolves around a very real incident in which one of their number (Charles Dance) was murdered by a party or parties whose identity or identities remain unknown to this day. Quite why we should give a fuck, I’m not entirely sure. I mean, I guess it was Tywin Lannister, but this is group of people who, in 1941, instead of fighting to stop Hitler were banging and taking smack on land that they stole from the native Kenyans (I’m aware that his oversimplifies the complex history of the British colonial presence in East Africa). It’s one of two films on this list that are based on true stories, and in the case of both the true stories they are based on are slightly more interesting than the movie.
Goodness of film. Two or two and a half, maybe? Like it’s fine. And you get to see Charles Dance dancing which is worth it just for the opportunity to shout “Charles Dancing” at the screen. Also, because of what I suspect was the writer’s / director’s inability to imagine anything more decadent than putting on the clothing of the opposite sex there’s a scene in which all of the characters (except, randomly, the heroine who they presumably thought—incorrectly—would be less hot in a suit) attend a cross-dressing party, which means you get to see a bunch of quite famous British actors in really half-hearted drag. And it’s sort of fabulous, especially Charles Dance who is sporting a slinky black number and actual pearls. And, like the moustache in Maurice, I couldn’t decide whether I should give it plus 1 or minus 1 for the dialogue, which is stilted in a way that I think requires a genuine talent to produce. I’m not sure I ever heard two characters say sequential sentences that actually connected to each other. It’s all “pass the sugar darling” “do you think the rain will come soon” “I’m so terribly terribly bored.”
Hugh Grantiness of film: 1.5, including the plus 1 for Hugh playing a character called Hugh. Seriously, he’s in it for, like, one scene. And he barely even gets flustered at anything.
Lair of the White Worm
For those keeping track, Lair of the White Worm comes after The Dawning and before Rowing in the Wind, neither of which I was able to acquire. The Lair of the White Worm, however, is available online through Amazon. Interestingly you can buy it and rent it for the same amount money. That should tell you something about the film. The other thing that should tell you something about the film is the reason you seem to be able to access it via Amazon streaming service is that it is now being distributed by Starz. It is a very, very, Starzy film.
Lair of the White Worm makes you feel like you’re watching an episode of MST3K even though you are not watching an episode of MSTK3K. The film features Hugh Grant, as Lord James d’Ampton, the sole surviving heir of the d’Ampton family, which has been cursed since time immemorial (or since, like 800AD or something) by the legend of the d’Ampton worm. I’d say it’s a cheap ripoff of the Lambton Worm, except it’s not really a ripoff, it’s fairly explicitly the same thing, just they changed the first letter of the guy’s name for no reason, which annoys me way more than it should. There’s even a folksong about the Lambton Worm which they put verbatim into the film, except they randomly do a rock version of it and change all the Ls to Ds so it fits the name of Hugh Grant’s character, instead of the name that it actually had and would have been a perfectly acceptable name for Hugh Grant’s character in the first place. Like, did they think people wouldn’t realise he was an aristocrat if he didn’t have a d’ in his name. And what the hell kind of name is d’Ampton anyway? Does it mean he’s from Ampton? Where the fuck is Ampton?
Although the worm is named after his family, Hugh Grant is, at best, the co-star of this film, an accolade he shares with, of all people, Peter Capaldi, who plays a archeologist by the name of Angus Flint. It is, of course, always really hard to see Peter Capaldi in anything without expecting him to go off on a massive Malcom Tucker-like sweary rant at the slightest provocation. Which makes it super disconcerting to see him as a mild mannered archeologist with exceptionally fluffy hair.
I think there was a law in the 1980s that all horror films had to start with an archeologist digging up an unconvincing-looking skeleton. That is how this film starts. It builds a sense of mystery for approximately 12 seconds before Amanda Donohoe shows up as sexy lady in sunglasses and a headscarf who is definitely an evil snake cultist and proceeds to demonstrate this to the audience by immediately popping fangs and spitting poison all over a crucifix. The action of the film, if it can be called action, revolves around Capaldi and Grant ineffectively trying to solve the mystery of the d’Ampton worm, mostly by looking in a cave they already know is empty, while Donohoe (whose character is called Lady Sylvia Marsh, because that’s obviously what you’d be called if you secretly worshipped a snake god and didn’t want anyone to know about it) goes around trying to fuck and/or murder basically anything that moves and crowbarring increasingly heavy-handed snake imagery into every interaction she has with anyone. This reaches its zenith (or nadir, depending on how you feel about this kind of thing) in the scene where she sexily picks up a naive young man on the road and invites him back to her house so he can get out of the rain. We then cut to a scene in which they are playing Snakes & Ladders (oh d’you see), and she has apparently, at some point, got changed into a black PVC lingerie and thigh highs ensemble. I think this sequence might actually have been more incongruous than Hugh Grant with a moustache. And that is saying a lot.
Anyway, the innocent young man meets a sticky end when Lady Sylvia Marsh gives him a poison blowjob and drowns him a hot tub, a transaction she is forced to expedite because she needs to go to the door (I seem to recall still in the aforesaid thigh highs and lingerie get-up) in order to greet Hugh Grant who has come to her house for, I think, basically no good reason. At which point, Lady Sylvia skilfully deflects his suspicions by engaging in ostensibly seductive dialogue that goes something like: Oh I’m all alone, Oh I’m so scared of snakes, Gosh snakes really fascinate me, you know what I really like? Snakes? Do you want to play some Snakes & Ladders. No, I hate snakes. You’re right, that does make my previous comments about Snakes & Ladders a bit peculiar, oh you’re leaving, I don’t suppose you fancy a poison blowjob?
It actually gets worse from there. It turns out that Lady Sylvia is maybe possibly some sort of immortal or something? And that all of the other characters might be the reincarnation of someone. Reincarnations of who? We don’t know, they never really say. Although one of the characters does keep having flashbacks to, um, nuns with their boobs out, covered in blood. Because something something conflict between christianity and paganism something something ancient snake god temple something something boobs. I did mention this was distributed by Starz, right?
The whole film obviously ends with the sexy sexy snake lady trying to sacrifice sexy sexy nun flashbacks lady to her giant snake god and winding up getting fed to her own giant snake god because of course she does. Seriously, that’s why we don’t worship giant snake gods. It’s basically the equivalent of setting up a table in a pro-wrestling match. No-one is going through that table except you. The final confrontation is particularly odd because Hugh Grant’s character is still in the empty hole trying to smoke out the giant snake and according to a conversation he has afterwards with Malcom Tucker that smoking out somehow allowed them to beat the snake god but in the scene it’s not clear at all that it’s having any affect whatsoever. Perhaps even more bizarrely the snake god is ultimately destroyed because Peter Capaldi’s mild mannered archeologist character has a hand grenade with him that has not previously been mentioned at all. So presumably he just goes around with a hand grenade all the time – I guess in case he might need to dislodge a particularly stubborn rock formation.
Oh, also there’s this thing where sometimes if the sexy snake lady bites you you turn into kind of a snake vampire. And as well as having the obligatory 80s horror movie beginning where you dig up skeleton this movie also has the obligatory 80s horror movie ending where you discover that the good guys have been turned into vampires/werewolves/body-snatchers already. Also there’s this dream sequence where Hugh Grant is on a plane and the sexy snake lady is a stewardess and she’s trying to either seduce or murder him or possibly both and he’s holding a pencil which seems to represent his erection. What is this? I don’t even.
Very briefly, in case this incoherent and rambling summary has inspired you to watch Lair of the White Worm (and if the sort of film this film definitely is is the sort of film that you like then you should absolutely watch it) I should mention that it does get quite explicitly rapey at points. There’s some fairly specific ancient fertility god stuff towards the end which is handled with as much sensitivity as you’d expect from everything else in the movie. So if you really like schlocky 80s horror movies but find sexual violence off-putting maybe give this one a miss.
Goodness of film: Like 1 or like 5 but basically nothing in between. It’s a terrible, cheesy, 80s monster flick about a sexy monster lady that sexes people to death brackets one of those people is Hugh Grant close brackets. You know if you want to watch that film.
Hugh Grantiness of film: I would say about 3. He’s got quite a major role, and he plays a bumbling aristocrat, which is basically Hugh Grant’s entire career. Also, he and Capaldi are the only people who can do anything with the atrocious 80s horror movie dialogue – in Grant’s case, I suspect this is because he always sounds like he’s forgotten his lines anyway. I think I’m only giving it a 3 rather than a 5 because he spends quite a lot of the movie in hole and because the eightiesieness and Starziness almost blot out the Hugh Grantiness.
The Bengali Night
Oh dear me. This is the second colonial era film that Hugh Grant appeared in between 1987 and 1988 and, like White Mischief, the story it’s based on is slightly more interesting than the film itself. What’s even more interesting than that is the actual true story behind the not-actually-particularly-true story that the book the film is based on is based on. Basically, The Bengali Night is a terrible film. The only version you can get has terrible picture quality, terrible sound quality, and every single English actor in it looks like they give zero fucks. Hugh Grant can’t even be bothered to give his character a consistent accent.
But, on top of that, it’s just really, really, really skeevy. Potted summary: white European man in his mid-to-late twenties goes to India, fucks 16 year-old girl. It’s based on a book, the plot summary of which is: white European man in his mid-to-late twenties goes to India, fucks 16 year-old girl, then randomly goes up a mountain and fucks a blonde woman. The actual story on which the book is based goes something more like this: white Romanian man goes to India, stays with Indian man, has intense and probably romantic relationship with Indian man’s sixteen-year-old daughter who is already a well-regarded poet and writer in her own right, Indian man asks him to leave, sixteen-year-old goes on to have successful and fulfilling life in India as a wife, a mother, political activist and well-respected intellectual, Indian woman discovers later in life that white Romanian man has written book in which he claims he fucked her when he didn’t, Indian woman is not happy about this. White European director makes film based on White European man’s book. Indian woman is even less happy. Film stars Hugh Grant. Not a career highlight.
So, yeah. Everything about this is fucked up. The film and the context surrounding the film is this vortex of colonialism that is sickly fascinating if you come from a position of sufficient privilege to be sickly fascinated by it rather than just fucking bored and sad. Skipping over the fact that the film itself is a classic “white man goes to hot country and is awesome and bangs a hot babe because of how awesome he is and she’s stifled by her society because her society is objectively worse than western society and her family freak out because reverse racism and shit and certainly not because a guy in his twenties is attempting to fuck their underaged daughter so white man is driven out, everything ends catastrophically because non-white people are not capable of surviving without their white saviour” narrative the meta-text around the film is basically that again. Only worse.
Some bits of the story are actually true in that the author really did live in India, really did live with an Indian man and his family, and really did, arguably, actually fall in love with the Indian’s man daughter. In a weird way, what’s possibly skeeviest about the story is that the skeeviest bits are made up. And, obviously, this is a tricky one because, from a certain point of view it’s better for a bad thing not to have happened but, well, it takes a really special kind of dickhead to lie in a way that makes him sound even more like a dickhead.
To put some actual names on these characters, the white European man in question is called Mircea Eliade and the Indian woman is called Maitreyi Devi, and both of them wrote books about the relationship they had when she was sixteen and he was twenty-something. This is often presented as a kind of “he said she said” but since her book was written only in direct response to his book I’m inclined to assume that her account is the more reliable one. The two elements of The Bengali Night that I found most troubling were the fact that a white European man seemed to be using India as his personal sex party and that the moment the white European man left, Maitreyi’s parents beat her up, locked her in a cellar and then I think possibly died or something? (In the film their fate is relayed to Hugh Grant’s character by a third party about thirty seconds before the credits roll after he’s had the obligatory white man dip in the Ganges). According to her account, neither of these things happened, which suggests that not only did did Mr Eliade live a life that was quite similar to a stereotypical racist and colonial narrative he then wrote about it in a way that made it even more like a stereotypical racist and colonial narrative than it actually was.
I mean, ultimately, The Bengali Night is a 1988 film based on a semi-autobiographical novel from 1933. There was no way it was ever going to have a nuanced portrayal of India or one that treated its Indian characters as real humans with real internal lives. But I think the fact that the girl in the story grew up to be an actual adult woman who had the resources and wherewithal to object to the way she had been portrayed forces us to confront quite how skeevy and de-humanising the whole thing is. The film taken in conjunction with the background information on the film that I looked up as part of this project leaves you with the deeply discomforting impression that the author/narrator/Hugh Grant character clearly doesn’t particularly think of Maitreyi (Gayatri in the film) as a real human being. But, worse, that he obviously doesn’t realise this.
The whole thing gives the impression of having been written by someone who believes himself to have a profound love and respect for India and the Indian people while also treating the whole place like it’s basically a giant theme park. Perhaps the thing that most encapsulates this is that when he wrote the original book (which was always intended to be at least partly fictional) Eliade changed his own name (Hugh Grant’s character in the film is called Allan) but didn’t change hers. And while I’m aware that one should not too easily read symbolism into small gestures or unconscious errors surely nothing signals that you don’t really think of someone as real quite as much as writing a fictionalised account of an event in which you still use their full actual name. Especially when you realise that Maitreyi Devi was kind of a big deal. She was a philanthropist, an activist, a writer, a poet and a philosopher. But in the book and the film she’s just this sixteen-year-old girl whose only meaningful achievement was falling in love with a white guy. And it clearly didn’t occur to Eliade that she would ever be anything else.
Goodness of film: 0. It’s colonialist and boring.
Hugh Grantiness of film: 2. I mean, it is Hugh Grant playing a slightly confused European man, which is, again, the only job he’s allowed. But he genuinely can’t seem to decide what accent he’s doing (if I’m being charitable, I might suggest he’s deliberately trying to signal which language his character is speaking by which accent he does, so he speaks with something approaching a France accent around the characters who I think who are supposed to be French, and an English accent around the Indian characters to whom I think he’s supposed to be speaking in English but mostly it’s just confusing) and, well, not even Hugh Grant could imbue a role like this with anything approaching grace or charm.
I’m really glad that the next movie on the list is based on a Barbara Cartland novel and Hugh Grant plays a highwayman.