TWO DEAD POETS MEET A LIVE ONE

`Film of a book: ho hum. Film of a book about poets: shudder.' With prejudices like these, what does one modern poet make of the filming of Pat Barker's prize-winner Regeneration?

I'm suspicious about film. For one thing, it's still a baby, just a hundred years old, only at the potty-training stage in comparison with ancient art forms, poetry for instance. For another thing, I think it's a fairly passive medium, requiring little of its audience short of not falling asleep. Film rests very comfortably on the retina, whereas printed words seem to get right down through the optic nerve, like microbes of thought, inflaming the imagination.

At best, films are made by collectives. At worst, they're made by companies, or rather by corporations, and what tends to get lost is that single strand of individual thought that we admire in a novel - which brings me to my real grumble. It's reckoned that about 80 per cent of all films are remakes of books, and therefore secondary in nature, and more often than not, inferior. This isn't universally the case, but it seems to me that most films hang around books like thieves in a car park, trying the door-handles of other people's vehicles.

As a rule, the greater the book, the poorer the film. This is not only because the film tends to suffer by comparison, but because it comes a cropper in assuming the same artistic status as the original: eg, Shakespeare wrote it, it must be good. But far and away the worst flicks are those that dabble in poetry, with poetry "cast" in the same way an actor would be, usually in a serious or sensitive role. Recent culprits are the wretched Dead Poets Society and the truly crummy Tom and Viv. Add to this most actors' apparent mission in life to murder poetry by performing it when it only need be said, and the picture is a bleak one. Even the rendition of Auden's "Funeral Blues" in Four Weddings and a Funeral was, to my mind, ordinary, but presumably received such unstoppable praise because of the lack of decent competition. Film of the book - ho hum. Film of a book about poets - shudder.

I'm admitting these prejudices to let it be known that I'm the wrong man for the job - the job being to attend the filming of the Pat Barker novel, Regeneration, a story based around the meeting of poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart Hospital at the time of their convalescence during the First World War. Sassoon had found his way to Craiglockhart via the interventions of Robert Graves, a fellow officer in the trenches, who saved Sassoon from certain court martial following his public declaration against the war effort and the throwing of his Military Cross into the Mersey. Owen was recuperating after a fierce battle near St Quentin, and suffering from nerve damage and speech disruption - two classic results of trench warfare.

The book's other major character is W H R Rivers, the Freudian psychologist who tried to coax shell-shocked servicemen out of their neurasthenia and back into the land of the living. Rivers is played by Jonathan Pryce, recently returned from sharing a balcony with Madonna in Evita, and lining up alongside him in less presidential circumstances are James Wilby as Sassoon, and Stuart Bunce as Owen. The film also boasts the addition of Trainspotter Jonny Lee Miller as Prior, a fictional character, whose love-interest with Sarah (Canadian actress Tanya Allen) provides a sensual and excruciating parallel with Dr Rivers's unspoken feelings towards a sympathetic but unreciprocating 2nd Lieutenant Sassoon.

Most of the filming has been done in and around Glasgow, and on the way up I read through Allan Scott's script, which is excellent - much of the dialogue lifted straight from Barker's novel - and captures perfectly the struggle between bearing up and breaking down that characterised the predicament of the officer classes during the later stages of the Great War. Owen's stuttering unconfidence, Rivers's clipped, professional English and Sassoon's reserve as an officer and a gentleman are measured and weighed against agonising monologues of nerve-torn gibberish fuelled by rage, humiliation and fear. In and amongst, lines of poetry float past like subtitles - detached, conclusive.

THE taxi driver doesn't think this is the right part of town for a film set, and still thinks I'm a lunatic when he drops me off in the covered yard of what looks like an old coachworks with derelict warehousing on three sides. So much for the glamour of the film world. It's just above freezing, but only just, and rain dribbles in through holes in the roof. I'm taken up a rickety metal fire-escape and whisked round the production offices - temporary rooms partitioned with fibreboard and sloshed with white paint, like the headquarters of some illegitimate business, here one day, gone the next. There's a sign on the toilet door saying "Gentlemen, we realise that construction work is messy, but there is no excuse for dropping toilet paper on the floor." Underneath, somebody at the construction end of things has written "Bollox".

"This is Simon Armitage - he's a poet," someone explains as she tours me from one room to the next, and it's at this point that I begin to wonder why I've been flown up to Scotland for the day. Am I supposed to provide some talismanic presence, a kind of poet's blessing of the project during these last days of filming? Either way, everyone's extremely welcoming, and the smiling faces looking up from their computer screens and editing desks all tell the story of a good thing coming to successful conclusion. Everyone looks very, very chuffed.

I'm always impressed by the number of people credited at the end of a feature film, but hadn't anticipated that everyone involved in Regeneration would need to be on location at the same time, from some of the film's financial backers to the best boy's third apprentice, making the set like a community of ants or a beehive. Somewhere in the middle is a central chamber. Around it, a legion of caddies and flunkies and gophers, all in regulation puffa jackets and Timberland boots, all clomping about with clip-boards and walkie-talkies and rolls of gaffer-tape for bracelets. A bell rings in the yard and everyone stops dead in their tracks, like musical statues. Then the bell sounds twice, and everyone starts scurrying around again. At least, that's how it looks from the top of the fire escape, and eventually (after two rings on the bell) I'm escorted to the ground floor and through a heavy, grease-stained curtain, to get a slice of the action.

The Wilfred Owen Society was not impressed, apparently, when it was announced that the actual Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh - still up and running - would not be used for filming for practical reasons. Instead, its atmosphere and interiors would be recreated in a dilapidated industrial shed in Glasgow. At first sight, the artificial Craiglockhart looks something like a cross between a miniaturised Brazilian shanty-town made of pressed sawdust, and some strange industrial-size object boxed up ready for shipment.

But that's only from the outside. I step through one of the false doorways, and I'm halfway along a dingy, carpeted corridor, lit by oil lamps, with windows that look out vaguely towards backcloths of formal gardens or Scottish hills. Reaching one end and turning around to look back along the diminishing, smoky corridor, the effect is undeniable. It's a trench. The bell rings. Silence. It's the middle of the night. A door opens. A perplexed and sorry- looking patient shuffles out of his room, wrapped in a white sheet, and tries the door of the bathroom. Another man opens his bedroom door, sees the ghostly apparition and scurries back to his bed. At the far end of the corridor, like a man at the wrong end of a telescope, Sassoon emerges from his room, dressed in slippers, flannelette pyjamas and a dressing gown. He peers along the now empty passage, murmurs the word "madness" to himself, and retreats. "Cut", somebody bawls. The bell rings twice, and the director, Gillies MacKinnon, hops out of his director's chair and scoots off down the hallway for a directorial word in Wilby's ear before they try the whole thing again.

"I watch it all on a monitor now, as we're shooting it," he tells me between takes, as the oil lamps are being topped up and Make-up are re- applying the bags under Wilby's eyes. Whenever the camera stops rolling, dozens of hired hands suddenly swarm on to the set like mechanics in the pit lane at Silverstone, the most welcome of them being the man who wheels in and cranks up the instant heating system - space age gas-burners that roar like two jet-propelled hair-driers. "Otherwise, there's too much going on, and the cameraman's the only one who knows what it looks like."

MacKinnon seems completely in control, very much on top of things without having to crack the whip, and I get the feeling that respect and admiration are the motivating factors for most of the people milling around here, and a belief in his vision of the finished film. We chat about some of the problems of bringing film and poetry together - mainly the way in which pictures can rob poetry of its power, and the difficulty of providing an image which isn't simply an illustration of the words being said. Certainly it isn't just a case of splicing the two together and imagining that the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts, and maybe it's for this reason that the film contains no more than a couple of dozen lines of Owen's and Sassoon's poetry in total. Maybe that's enough. MacKinnon jumps up into his director's chair, buttons up his tatty combat jacket against the cold, stares into the monitor, and the man in the white sheet goes back to his mark.

James Wilby's retreat isn't so much a five-star Winnebago with water- bed and mini-bar as a two-berth caravan with a Formica kitchenette and foldaway bunk, more suited to a camp-site above Morecambe Bay than here in the wings of a four-million-dollar film set. Over a flask of coffee and innumerable roll-ups, he tells me that he didn't think he'd get the part of Sassoon because he doesn't look like him. He's mistaken. With his hair pushed back under the peak of his officer's cap and with his Merchant-Ivory English face, he looks disturbingly like the classic cameo portrait of Sassoon many people would recognise. It's the face of a low- ranking royal or a wrong-side-of-the-blanket aristocrat. There's also an intensity and a pressure about Wilby, the sense of something kept under control, held back by propriety and correctness.

"I think there's some spiritual good right at the heart of Sassoon," he says, lighting up again.

"Will he stay with you, afterwards?" I ask him.

"Yes. They all do."

"Who were you playing last?"

"Another gay officer - but quite different."

"And next?"

"Nobody, thank God."

"Did you write poems yourself, when you were younger?"

"Yes. But I gave it up because I couldn't do it."

He flicks ash into the ashtray and blows smoke at the bare bulb on the ceiling. I'm trying to explore some common ground between actors and poets, but not really getting anywhere. The lunch gong rings, and just before I duck out through the caravan door, Wilby says, "It's not really an anti- war film, you know." My guess is that it's difficult to know when an actor is working and when he's off duty, and I'm not sure if this is Wilby in role recalling Sassoon's line, "I can't say no war is ever justified", or telling me in an actorly way that James Wilby is a bit of a fighter.

I catch up with Stuart Bunce over a school-dinner sponge pudding and custard in the dining room (Portacabin) next to the cafeteria (hot-dog van). He is smaller than Wilby, more smiley and less worked up. It's apparent this time that the casting department have definitely got it right, not just in terms of looks and stature but also of status and attitude. Owen was brought up in the backstreets of Birkenhead by financially ruined parents, an upbringing in contrast to Sassoon's background of hunting, golfing and privately published collections of verse. I don't know where Bunce grew up, but with his tie off-centre and his collar not quite straight, he has the undeniable look of Paul McGann in The Monocled Mutineer.

"I read Owen at school," he says, "like most people, I suppose. But I never thought ... well, I never thought I'd be him!"

"What sort of things help you get into character?"

"When there's a shot of me writing, I try to fill in some of the blanks in the unfinished poems. And I practise his signature."

"Which hand did he write with?"

"Er ... oh, shit."

He's kidding. He knows. Bunce talks about the responsibility of playing a real person rather than an imagined one, almost as though he were saving Owen from the fiction of history through some sort of dramatic resurrection.

"Is the script being filmed chronologically?" I ask him, having run out of poet-asks-actor-playing-poet-what-it's-like questions. "No, I'm already dead," he grins. "After lunch there's a bit with Rivers in the corridor. Come and watch."

IN the script it's listed as SC.49 INT. CORRIDOR - NIGHT, and contains five lines of dialogue, none of them longer than half a dozen words. I start thinking that I might be home by tea-time, but three hours and several takes later I'm still watching a minutely adjusted version of the same scene, with Rivers apologising to Owen for shouting, and Owen enquiring as to the health of his room mate. It should be a drag, but it's completely fascinating, with Pryce timing his silences and the modulation of his voice to perfection, and Bunce sputtering and stuttering his lines like somebody with terminal hiccups blowing out birthday candles. It's almost as if it's Pryce the actor rather than Rivers the doctor that Bunce is reacting to, and makes me think that Pryce might be one of the few overpaid superstars in the film world who actually earns his corn. His performance is so immaculate and his presence on the set so powerful that I don't even mind when he doesn't want to be interviewed.

"He's a bit crabby," explains one of the puffa-jackets.

"Today, you mean, or all the time?"

"Oh, just with Evita and everything."

I can see that it must be a fag, having to meet a living poet just because you're in a film with two dead ones, so I don't blame him. In any case, the bell rings for the end of filming, and after a little bit of agonising by the director, it's agreed that I can be the first outsider to watch a few snatches of the finished product, "bearing in mind that this is very early stages."

These days, editing seems to be done on a computer screen, and I wonder if it's going to be like watching the Nintendo version of Regeneration. No such thing. A camera inches along a narrow black passageway towards a point of light at the far end. There's a ripple of water as something scurries away, and a dripping noise, and the impression of brickwork. It's a canal. A tunnel. At the far end there's something like a fallen tree or a car crash or a pile of rubbish. The camera comes out into daylight, moves forward. It's a pile of uniforms. No, it's a heap of bodies, half- submerged, torn, broken, bloody. The camera moves forward. Skin, hands. A face, upside-down, quite dead. It's Owen. Bunce, I mean. No, I mean Owen. The camera waits.

"Show him the trenches," says MacKinnon, sat behind me.

More of the same, shot from above this time. Aerial. Cartographical. It looks like artwork made with human remains, then a ploughed field fertilised with corpses, or the dead erupting from patches of scarred earth. It looks like more dead than we thought we could manage, then more. Rain. A trench full of soldiers, all dead. More soldiers, just sleeping. More soldiers covered with blankets, dead. Too hard to watch, too hard not to. Birdsong. Sassoon and another man running without sound. Gunfire. The other man with a hole through his head. Dead. And so on.

Someone says "We were filming at 11 o'clock on the 11th of November, and stopped for the two-minute silence, with the actors in their uniforms, stood in a trench." Nobody needs to say what that must have been like, and nobody does. I watch a few more scenes involving Owen, Sassoon and Rivers, all terrifyingly good, all within a razor's edge of some kind of perfection, then collect my little press-pack and goody-bag before sidling back into Glasgow.

ALL THIS leads to other things, other thoughts. I was a student in Portsmouth when the fleet went past the end of the road, making for the South Atlantic. If they'd asked, would I have gone? I might have. I was young enough. Dumb enough. Didn't have much else to do at the time. I was watching football on the telly at home when the game-show hosts masquerading as CNN journalists announced the beginning of the Gulf War from a hotel room in Baghdad. Would I have gone? Probably not. I was too clever by then, too cool, too against.

Now I'm 33 with a wonky spine, so the question probably won't come up again. Even if it did, it's hard to imagine myself or any English poet these days putting him- or herself in the firing line, bringing back first- hand poetic accounts from the front. Tony Harrison might have been flown in to Bosnia to send poems home to the Guardian by satellite, but it's not really the same thing, is it, and I wonder if War Poetry, in that sense, is a thing of the past. All the poets I know are too smart, too bolshy and too shit-scared to go anywhere near that kind of action. It's not a criticism. Anyway, what good would we be in the modern theatre of war, unless one of the warheads needed a greetings message writing on it, or a computer needed plugging in? My guess is that poets would be sitting out the next one, with conscripts press-ganged from video arcades and cyber-cafes, not the mailing list of Poetry Review.

On the way home I replay another clip from the film. It's the scene where Rivers visits the National Hospital in London, to meet Dr Yealland and observe his pioneering work on the psycho-neuroses of war. In the "electrical room", the patient, Callan, has conductive pads attached to his back and neck, and a probe inserted into his mouth.

Yealland: I'm going to lock the door when the orderlies have gone. You will talk before you leave. It is the only way out. Do you understand? There is no alternative.

Yealland flicks a switch and a current flows into the patient's throat. Each time he fails to respond with speech, the voltage is stepped up. Time passes. An hour. Two hours. The electrical probe is disconnected, then reconnected to the larynx. The voltage is increased. The patient twists in agony. Yealland bellows theatrical encouragement from his position by the switch. Rivers cannot watch. More voltage. Callan rigid with pain. The hiss of electricity through flesh. Eventually a sound, a grunt, a word ("stop" - not good enough), other words, numbers, the days of the week. Callan is unstrapped, like Frankenstein's monster, and led away, cured.

Thinking it through again, I reach a point where I can't remember if it was Rivers who couldn't bear to watch any more, or me. I begin to wonder whether I actually saw the scene at all - it was so vivid, profound, personal, authored - remembering it is more like remembering a passage from a book than a clip from a movie. Maybe that doesn't sound like the greatest praise ever accorded to a film, but it's intended as a huge compliment.

After all, the film will trade on the status of Barker's superb book, and presume upon the reputation of Owen and Sassoon's powerful poems, which somehow legitimise the whole project. It's a hell of a lot to live up to, but even from 20 or so stolen minutes in a dingy cutting-room, it seems to me like it might come pretty close.

! `Regeneration' is released in the UK in the autumn

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