John Walsh: Tales of the City

Unreadable, forgotten and downright bad? Perfect material for a Hollywood blockbuster
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I'm sure it's apocryphal, the story about Merchant Ivory Productions. How the great film-making team, having had such notable successes putting three of EM Forster's books on celluloid - A Room With a View, Maurice and Howards End - looked on in fury as other film-makers bagged Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Passage to India, and seriously began to consider bringing Forster's critical essay Aspects of the Novel to the silver screen.

Okay, I don't believe it either, but the readiness of film studios to mine a franchise and flog a successful genre is staggering. How many more variations there can be on the theme of Small Vulnerable Creatures, Some of Them Children, Menaced by Grotesque Monsters from Bogus Folklore? In the churning wake of Harry Potter and Middle Earth, we're now stuck with Narnia, all seven of the Chronicles (dread word) whose moral lecture, that Jesus died for our sins and we should feel jolly uncomfortable about it, can freeze the blood.

I can't help wondering when the studio scouts are going to turn their guns on the Eagle and Child. That was the pub in St Giles, Oxford, where Tolkien, CS Lewis and their friends used to meet every week in the 1930s and 40s, to drink beer, discuss muscular Christianity and read from their elfin, orcan and hobbitocentric works in progress. They called themselves the Inklings. (I sometimes confuse them with The Ink Spots, the popular black vocal-harmony group who flourished in the same period - it's easy to imagine Tolkien doing the posh, quavering tenor of Bill Kenny on "Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall" while Lewis handles the sassy baritone drawl of "Hoppy" Jones, and Dorothy L Sayers, an honorary female Inkling, provides little doo-wop harmonies in the background.)

The pub where they smoked pipes and imagined their witches and Dark Riders and war-torn landscapes was a powerhouse of myth-making, where the orotundities of Gandalf and Sauron, the chilly pronouncements of Aslan and the White Witch, had their first audience. Hollywood would surely love to make a film about it - a cross between the Algonquin Round Table and the Brill Building in New York where the Fifties songwriters wrote their hits. The fact that the Eagle and Child was a rather ordinary, scabby little boozer (known as "the Bird and Bastard" in my day) won't hold back the studio development people. They'll reinvent it as a nightclub, check the availability of Johnny Depp (Tolkien) and Heath Ledger (Lewis), build in some good-buddy drinking and arm-wrestling contests, factor in some love interest (Reece Witherspoon as a lap-dancer with a keen interest in Middle English Phonemic Structures) and climax with a who'll-finish-his-book-first race, and a Richard Curtis-style car chase to the airport.

The other thing the studios will do shortly is to check out Charles Williams. He was the third of the Inklings and his books aren't in print now, but they had a following in the 1930s. They combined religious and thriller elements in a way that's never been tried before or since. In War in Heaven, a murder investigation is distracted by the discovery of the Holy Grail in a country church. In The Greater Trumps, the lawyer hero finds the original set of Tarot cards and discovers they can cause a universal snowstorm. In Shadows of Ecstasy (he had, you'll agree, a way with titles) Europe is invaded by an African dictator who turns out to be the Anti-Christ. Irresistible? I don't think so. But however one mocks Williams's ludicrous plots, they sound oddly like things that Hollywood has already done (in Raiders of the Lost Ark, say, or The Day After Tomorrow). And the fact that he was an intimate of Lewis and Tolkien, hung out in the same creative forcing-house as they did, drinking the same beer, means he comes trailing glory by association. Mark my words, the world will see a spectacular renaissance for Charles Williams, any day now.

There's only one tiny problem. His stuff is quite impenetrable. He is, famously, one of the Great Unreadables of literary history, right up there with John Cowper Powys. His Dictionary of National Biography entry (reproduced, a little disobligingly, by the Charles Williams Society) remarks: "In order to be fully equipped for the task of following the thought of any one of his volumes, it was not only necessary to have read the majority of its fellows, but to have spent many talkative hours in his company." We'll have to see if being a really terrible, forgotten and wholly unread writer is any obstacle to Hollywood turning you into a posthumous money-spinner.

The genius of Pryor

Comedy fans looking to savour the genius of the late Richard Pryor should turn, not to any of his films, but to his concert DVD, Live at Sunset Strip, and find the bit where Pryor impersonates a Chinese businessman with a terrible stammer attempting to order dinner in a Manhattan restaurant, surrounded by his embarrassed Chinese business pals. It features no f-words, it's probably racist, but is simply the funniest thing I've seen in my life.

Death banned

Should you happen to venture near the town of Biritiba-Mirim in Brazil, look after your health or you could be in trouble. The mayor, Roberto Pereira da Silva, is fed up with people getting ill and dying because the town graveyard is full and, since Biritiba-Mirim is surrounded by rivers and jungle, there's no way of expanding it. So he's trying to pass a law that will fine the relatives of people who die prematurely because they don't look after themselves. Effectively, he's banned death. This is a brilliant idea that the human race might have profitably embraced some centuries ago. Since the ban, many people have started visiting the local gym. Clearly, they're more concerned about being fined than meeting the Grim Reaper.