Screening at Edinburgh International Film Festival as part of a retrospective on writer John McGrath, Jack Gold’s first two features, The Bofors Gun (1968) and The Reckoning (1969), made for punchy, exciting viewing.
Both films were made fairly fast and cheap—Gold, experienced in TV, keeps them moving with stabs of the zoom lens, an active camera and choppy, rough-hewn cutting. They’re not things of beauty, visually, but take their energy and spleen from Nicol Williamson’s manic performances.
The Bofors Gun takes place at a British army base in Germany, where David Warner has to command the night’s guard of the titular cannon without incident in order to get returned to Blighty the following day. His reluctance to discipline his men leads to horrific consequences, mostly caused by a drunken Irishman played by drunken Scottish actor Williamson (Merlin in Excalibur). Williamson’s capacity for loquacious, frenzied and diabolic grandstanding is exercised thoroughly. The excellent supporting cast includes Ian Holm, John Thaw and Peter Vaughan.
In The Reckoning, Williamson stars as a London businessman forced to return to his Liverpool roots when his father is beaten to death by Teddy boys. Combining the duplicity and cunning of his big city paymasters with a naked aggression learned on the streets, he browbeats, stares down or fucks everything he sees. A satiated Rachel Roberts describes her post-coital feeling as being like she’s had “two dollops of steam duff.” He must be quite a fellow.
Last Tango in Liverpool
Jack Gold was in attendance to reflect upon McGrath’s work—it was clear both films used autobiographical elements, but McGrath also came to believe that with The Reckoning he had predicted Thatcherism: old-school hypocrisy and greed conjoined with modern vulgarity and brutality.
Gold also mused that The Reckoning hadn't found popular favor because Williamson didn't ingratiate himself with an audience: he shows the repulsiveness of evil rather than its seductiveness. I agree with Gold that Williamson is perfect in the part: the only way to have kept the nastiness and widened the appeal would have been to cast an actor who was not only sexual (Williamson radiates a predatory, seedy lust) but sexy. But the other candidates for such a role in Britain at the time wouldn't have been able to do a Scouse accent as well as Williamson. Looking something like an Easter Island gerbil, he's unhandsome and unhealthy looking. A sex scene run under the opening credits shows Ann Bell as his screen wife grabbing fistfuls of his loose, freckly back flesh in a way that's... not appealing. But his ferocious attack on McGrath's raging dialogue, a Hawksian rat-a-tat played in a Northern accent, is ample substitute for erotic charm.
Gold reported that the hard-living Williamson was never trouble on the set, a verdict supported by other directors who worked with him. It was only later, his mechanism eaten away by alcohol, that he became impossible, culminating in an unfortunate onstage incident where he plunged a rapier into the buttocks of a co-star. He did not act again.
His character finishes The Reckoning with the words, "By God, if I can get away with that I can get away with anything!" Williamson couldn't, quite.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.