We are all (von) Trapped now

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens! After 35 years of Julie Andrews, haven't we had enough of <i>The Sound of Music? </i>
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As early as November, in his breezy way, the editor had called and begun by saying that this Christmas was the 35th anniversary of The Sound of Music. My phone itself went instantly dead - dear, insightful machine. And I hoped they'd take the hint. But a couple of days later, he was back and he said, "Sound of Music - ring any discordant bells?"

As early as November, in his breezy way, the editor had called and begun by saying that this Christmas was the 35th anniversary of The Sound of Music. My phone itself went instantly dead - dear, insightful machine. And I hoped they'd take the hint. But a couple of days later, he was back and he said, "Sound of Music - ring any discordant bells?"

I took a deep breath. "Look," I told him, "there are things I know about this one too grave, too alarming, to pass on."

"Terrific!" he said.

"I am speaking the simple truth," I tried to explain. " The Sound of Music has never been as it seems. Never just that fatuous 'do-re-mi'." My voice was rising, and likely my blood pressure, too. But I couldn't help it: I had these visions of burnished blond children and I remembered the feel of Austria - only a few years ago - that tough smugness, that readiness to forget where the Egon Schiele nudes were kept and the complacent offer of sympathy, "Well, you know, Herr Thomson, your wretched The Sound of Music - what a farrago! It only played three days in Austria. How about that!"

That film! The one so many film critics could hardly bring themselves to see, but which won the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director (Robert Wise), Best Screenplay (Ernest Lehmann), as well as for music and editing. And which earned over $70m at the box office in 1965 - that was a lot of strudel then for what remains one of the most successful and beloved (it's a litany - I couldn't stop myself writing the glib words) films of all time.

I don't know what 1965 meant to you - deterioration of the situation in Vietnam, troops ordered to protect civil rights marchers in Alabama, campus agitation across the US, China exploding an atom bomb, the riots in Watts; or this strange, stilted story with meandering, singalong songs about a rigidly disciplined aristocratic family being liberated by an English nanny and the need to be carried over the Austrian border as the Nazis researched real estate.

My editor was sure he was on to something: he'd never known me so rattled, I daresay.

"Look," I said. "I won't even warn you that you can't use this, on security grounds, because no one in their right mind would believe it. But The Sound of Music was one of those films people started seeing over and over again."

"Right!" said my editor. "My Aunt Em!"

"Obscene numbers," I said. "There were people who said they'd seen it 34 times, 41.... It became a demented contest."

"Perhaps we could run one," said my editor. "People love contests."

"There were terrible effects," I told him. "Quite frankly, there were people going bonkers over the film. People who thought they were being pursued by Nazis, or they had a duty to teach the songs to the world."

"Those Sixties!" sighed my editor.

"It was hideous, and, unfortunately, I found out about it."


I shouldn't have told him, but one man can't bear such horrors without the eventual, desperate need to just break down and talk, damn it!

"Just let me have the gist," said the editor." We can write it up, give it your touch."

It was a few years later - the early Seventies, I believe - when one's own children were yearning to play Von Trapp children in amateur productions, and when the bathroom was ajangle with the endless repetition of "My Favourite Things" - I insisted on countering with John Coltrane's version once a day at top volume.

It was in that period I received a letter from a Dr Walter von Brandenstein; from a clinic somewhere in the Sussex countryside: "Dear Mr Thomson, I happened to see your recent animadversion on the Sound of Music in Fur [a magazine of the time], and I would have chuckled had I not been so close to tears. Have you any idea of how many times some people have seen this film, or of the results on their feeble minds?"

I wrote back to the good doctor in a cheerful, if not jocular, manner, saying that I could believe anything - and returned to my frame-by-frame analysis of The Wild Bunch (one of those refreshing dashes of bloody realism from the late Sixties).

I had forgotten the whole matter when, three weeks later, I received a hand-written note - "This and worse. Would you be available for inspection, Thursday next, 2.45pm? von B" - and a rather poorly taken snapshot of what looked like a couple of dozen young girls, all in the same drab floral print dresses, running along and clapping their hands on what could have been some stretch of South Downs uplands. There was, somehow, an allusion to the kind of bracing walks Julie Andrews leads in the film, but not without the mood of those Diane Arbus photographs taken at some suburban lunatic asylum.

So it was, on the Thursday, that I drove down to a small country house that stood at the head of a muddy, mile-long track that carried no signs or information. All of a sudden, I was in a studiously well-kept meadow, with strict rustic fencing and iron security gates where I could not pass without showing the doctor's brief letter of invitation.

I parked as instructed, and went into the hallway of the main building, a rather bauhaus mansion. A tall, severe looking woman in grey was seated at a desk.

"Yes!" she barked.

"I'm here to see Doctor von Brandestein," I explained.

"You have papers?" I had to offer the invitation again, my driver's licence and my library membership card. "Precisely," she said, putting all the aforesaid, clipped together, in a drawer - for my departure.

Von Brandestein was a gaunt but upright man, with a monocle in his right eye, and one shattered arm pinned to his suit. He wasted no time on formalities, and led me along a grey-green corridor, humming a refrain that was either "Climb Every Mountain" or "You'll Never Walk Alone". Then he looked me in the eye and said, "Now, sir, as if your life depended on it - and it may - what are your favourite things?"

"My - "

"Don't repeat me!" he hissed. "A list. Your cravings. Your midnight, desert island desires."

Some inner voice spoke, as if I were already under torture: "Sage Derby cheese, early Stan Getz, Egon Schiele and London Pride," I said.

"Excellent," he said, as if I were rather more amusing than he had first opined. "Don't waver."

The doctor was exact in his warning, for what he had to show me that afternoon were the worst cases, under Ministry testing guidelines, of what he called "Sound of Mania". There were other, more pedantic or clinical terms for the teeming aberrations of von Trappery, captainism, lonely goat-herding, chronic yodelling - in short, the ways in which this apparently innocuous piece of Rodgers and Hammerstein had commandeered lives and families and even, in one case, an entire snooker team from Wolverhampton.

"Strictly speaking," the doctor told me, "all this is classified stuff. Whisper a word and we'll disown you, sort of thing. But we have reports of similar crises from 19 countries."

At that moment, the full mordant weight of his words was curiously deepened for me as a line of strolling singers passed by - like the dance of death in The Seventh Seal - singing "Idle Vice". Somehow, the proper name of the Alpine plant had been garbled and turned into this melancholy chant for a futile life.

"We just thought," said von Brandestein, "that some of you professional film imbeciles ought to know. You can't expose minds to rubbish like this without fearful repercussions."

It was not a happy afternoon, though it was a little easier knowing I had no option but to be silent. Now, the years have passed. The Sound of Music somehow has receded a little since all the nonsense of Breaking the Waves or Life is Beautiful. Who was it who said the world will end not with a bang or a whimper, but an uplifting movie? Those wretched reduced sleep-walkers I saw? Dead probably by now, or an endless audience for Julie Andrews.

As he bade me farewell, von Brandestein murmured, "By the way, I liked your favourite things."

"Ah," I said, touched. "And yours?"

"Mine?" He pretended to be caught off-guard by the question. Much as I had done. "Oh, I don't know, a Moselle wine, Wagner, the feel of a good truncheon in the hand, and maybe the scene where Miss Andrews falls in the water so that her dress clings to her."

David Thomson's illness is not severe. He is resting in the country and should be back shortly