Miles Kington: 'Tolkien, the Musical' hasn't got a middle earthly

'How intolerable these men in helmets and animal skins are! And this silly story of some silly ring!'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Years ago in Punch there was a cartoon that showed a man on a desert island saying to his companion: "I've had a brilliant idea – if we ever get back to civilisation, I'm going to make a film about Oscar Wilde!"

It may seem pointless now, but not then, because two films about Oscar Wilde had just appeared, and the market already looked pretty crowded (one starred Peter Finch as Wilde and the other, unlikely as it seems, starred Robert Morley). To make one film about Oscar Wilde is forgivable, as he himself might have said, but to make two...

The odd thing is that when those two films on Oscar Wilde were first put into production, neither side can have known that they were starting a mini-fashion for films about Oscar Wilde. They must have just thought they were making a film about Oscar Wilde, which I suppose is a thing that has to be done at regular intervals.

I remember Sheridan Morley telling me once that he had been commissioned by George Weidenfeld to write a new life of Oscar Wilde, and I put it to Sheridan that there existed some perfectly good lives already and, in the case of Hesketh Pearson's biography, an extremely lively and well-written one.

"You're absolutely right," said Sheridan, "and I put exactly the same point to Weidenfeld myself, but he said that we needed a new life of Wilde every 20 years or so, and it was time for another one, and as he was offering me money I felt it impolite to refuse..."

I guess that is how fashions work. When the film Gladiator appeared, somebody somewhere must have reckoned that it was time for a return to something that hadn't happened in Hollywood for a long time – the big, Roman Empire epic – and judging from the response, they were right. In the 1950s they were all over the place, those tales of a classical world that never quite existed, in Spartacus and Caesar and Cleopatra and Ben Hur. Ben Hur was actually the meeting point of the Roman Empire fashion with another fashion, the fashion for big films about Jesus – anyone remember The Robe? Ah, those were great days, when someone could say that he was going to make a film called The Bible or The Fall of the Roman Empire, and nobody would laugh at him.

Well, today's fashion, we can safely say, is for magic, wizards, swords and quests – the world of Harry Potter at one end and Tolkien at the other. But this is not to everyone's taste. While I was in Canada at Christmas time I read a piece in the Toronto Globe and Mail (excellent newspaper) by Spider Robinson, a Canadian science-fiction writer who was fulminating against the whole magic and enchantment scene, which he sees as an escape from today's problems into medieval make-believe. If young people are genuinely interested in the future, science fiction is the place for them – that's his message.

And Mr Robinson is not alone in being irked by sorcery showbusiness. Here is something that I overheard on the radio a little while back. "My Lord – how intolerable these men in helmets and animal skins are! And this story of some silly ring that's lost and found again! It's like a game of hunt the slipper..!"

No, it's nothing to do with Tolkien at all – the writer was Claude Debussy, and he was putting down his thoughts a century ago after he had spent four nights at Covent Garden enduring Wagner's Ring. Here is a fuller version of what he said.

"What mental strain four evenings of Wagner's Ring can cause! My Lord – how intolerable these men in helmets and animal skins become by the fourth evening! And what is one to make of the orchestra? All it really has to comment on is the story of some silly ring that's lost and then found again. It's like a game of hunt-the-slipper. Wotan, King of the Gods, spends all his time telling a story that would be immediately understood by even the silliest of those dwarves who huddle together in the factory of the Nibelung... All he can do is brandish his spear, tend the fire and throw everything into disarray by making irreparable gaffes. Among all the hours of boredom the most beautiful things do appear, passages that are quite beyond criticism and as irresistible as the sea. Sometimes they last for almost a minute..."

So let's hope that there's nobody on a desert island right now planning to come back here and do Tolkien, the Musical. It has already been done, and it didn't really work first time round.