All posts by Viv Wilby

So. Farewell then, Stephen Ward.

Stephen Ward, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest musical, opened with the usual fanfare just before Christmas, only to close four months later, dogged by lukewarm reviews and empty seats. Viv Wilby caught the show before it suffered the same fate as The Beautiful Game and Love Never Dies.


They’d already buried Stephen Ward before I got the chance to praise it. News broke last month that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest musical would close at the end of March after less than four months. I saw it in a half-empty theatre and the curtain has already come down for the last time. Continue reading So. Farewell then, Stephen Ward.

Bly spirits: revisiting Jack Clayton’s The Innocents

The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s haunting take on The Turn of the Screw, is back in cinemas. Viv Wilby plucks up the courage to get spooked all over again.

INN2 Continue reading Bly spirits: revisiting Jack Clayton’s The Innocents


Need a solid, British character who can display authority with a hint of vulnerability in a changing post-war landscape? Viv Wilby recommends Trevor Howard.

Major Calloway wondered if this was a good time to take up aromatherapy…

Were he still alive, Trevor Howard would have turned 100 yesterday. One of the striking things about the DVD boxset released to mark his centenary is the extent to which it confirms his own observation that he spent most of his career playing ‘number two’.

Five films are collected here, and only in two does he really have anything like a clear claim to the leading role. Supporting actor, co-star on occasion, but rarely is he asked to carry a film. Even where he arguably gets the main part — The Heart of the Matter and Outcast of the Islands in this collection — there’s a meaty supporting cast buoying him up and it’s still no guarantee of top billing. Yes, Brief Encounter is here, of course, but Brief Encounter is really all about Celia Johnson. She is where the emotional heft of the film resides. Trevor’s just there to look good and give her someone to play off. He’s a consort, a co-lead.

Continue reading A VERY BRITISH ACTOR

Firing into a continent

By Viv Wilby aguirre_cannon

In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech – and nothing happened.

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

Aguirre: the Wrath of God is one of those movies that has almost become more famous for what happened on the set than what happens on screen. The tempestuous relationship between the young German director Werner Herzog and his wildman star Klaus Kinski is notorious and the story of how Herzog ended up threatening Kinski with a gun to get him to behave has been well rehearsed; there’s little point in going over it all again here.

Of course the parallels are irresistible: Europeans struggling to adapt to the tropical terrain; a mission hijacked by an insubordinate madman; problems communicating with the locals; logistics from hell. We could just as easily be talking about the making of the movie as the movie itself. Continue reading Firing into a continent

Trouble in Paradise

By Viv Wilby

Some years ago, the National Film Theatre (as it was then) asked members to nominate a little-seen film for a Christmas-showing. The winner was Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 romantic comedy, Trouble in Paradise. Co-written with Lubitsch’s regular collaborator, Samson ‘The Jazz Singer’ Raphaelson, Trouble in Paradise takes full advantage of the permissiveness that abounded before the enforcement of censor Will Hays’ Motion Picture Production Code in 1934. The script, which is heavy with sexual innuendo and irony, was considered too racy during the code era and re-issues were refused. The film wasn’t discovered again until the late 1960s.

Like a lot of early Hollywood comedies, the setting is old Europe: chic, cultured, decadent, gloriously wealthy. But Lubitsch doesn’t waste any time in making a central point (and a good visual gag). The garbageman we see in the very first shot is also an aria-singing gondolier, punting a heap of festering rubbish down the Grand Canal. Glamour, romance and escapism goes hand-in-hand with rottenness and filth. Continue reading Trouble in Paradise

Rock of Ages

By Viv Wilby

Maybe it would have been different if the band hadn’t been called Arsenal. It’s so jarring to British ears to hear things like, ‘Hey man, I saw Arsenal play in 79.’ Thoughts immediately jump to Alan Smith rather than Aerosmith, to van Persie rather than Van Halen.

Arsenal, in case it’s not clear, is the fictional band in Rock of Ages, the jukebox musical that has made the lightning leap from the LA fringe, to off-Broadway, to on-Broadway, to the West End, to the big screen. Continue reading Rock of Ages

A Study in Scarlett – Part 1

In the first of a two-part series Viv Wilby looks at the way Gone With The Wind tells its story through costume

GWTW costume designer Walter Plunkett with one of his designs

I first saw Gone With The Wind when I was young and impressionable and I’ve loved it ever since: the spectacle, the melodrama and, yes, the frocks. Watch a movie as often as I’ve watched the Wind and you start to notice things, little patterns and parallels. I’m no fashion historian, but it seems to me that Gone With The Wind tells its story as much through costume as through action and dialogue.

Scarlett O’Hara’s story is one of riches to rags to riches again, and of course what she wears throughout the film reflects this. Clothing is a signifier of social status and wealth in any film  but in Gone With The Wind this fact has particular resonance. The wealth of the South came from cotton.  Strict dress codes apply, particularly for women. At key points in the story, items of clothing are given as gifts or rewards or tokens of affection. They are the means through which a woman can recreate herself, the key to a better future, badges of success, markers of disgrace. They can oppress or liberate.

With all this is mind, I thought it would be fun to take a closer look at some of Walter Plunkett’s stunning costumes for the film, chiefly those worn by Vivien Leigh as Scarlett, what they say about the character at different points in the story, how they link her to or set her apart from other characters.

Continue reading A Study in Scarlett – Part 1

The Gospel According to Pasolini

by Viv Wilby

It’s not hard to see Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 film, Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew), as a deliberate shift away from, perhaps even rebuke to, the style of religious filmmaking that had poured out of Hollywood in the 1950s and early 1960s. These were gaudy, technicolor affairs, stuffed with earnest matinee idols, hammy character actors and hundreds of extras. Starlets draped in wisps of chiffon would flash kohl-rimmed eyes at pained looking holy men. And just in case we were in danger of forgetting, a stentorian voiceover would remind us that This Is The Word Of The Lord.

In contrast, Pasolini’s film is simple and spare. Shot in stark black and white with a cast of non-professionals, it follows the linear narrative of Matthew’s gospel. We move through the familiar beats of Christ’s life: the visit of the three wise men and flight into Egypt; the baptism in the river Jordan and temptation in the wilderness; the calling of the apostles; the preaching and miracles; culminating in Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem, his betrayal by Judas Iscariot, arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection. Continue reading The Gospel According to Pasolini

Sweeney Todd


I said when it came out that Tim Burton’s film of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd was his best for a long time. Maybe I got carried away in the moment. A couple of years on, I’m coming round to the view that most of what impressed me was down to Sondheim and not Burton.

I didn’t know the show at all before I saw the Burton film and I’d always been somewhat prejudiced against the whole Sweeney Todd thing. I was scarred by my experience of a dreadful schools’ musical version of the tale (I’m Sweeney Todd the bar-ber, An evil soul I har-bour, I run a little business cutting hair and other things) with which we occupied a couple of ‘music’ lessons in the third year. The few songs that I’d heard sounded difficult and discordant, full of tricky rhythms and rhymes. ‘The Worst Pies in London’ is not a song that makes a whole lot of sense shorn of context and live performance. Continue reading Sweeney Todd