We've written a reflection for the Independent on fifteen years as Nicci French.
This is the loom that once belonged to the mother of Sean’s Swedish mother and her three sisters. Now it is in our bedroom in Sweden. I knew it would be here when we arrived, but not how bit it would be (I had an idea it would be a slightly larger version of the toy loom I had as a child, nor how beautiful. It looks like a very delicate grand piano. Nor indeed how intricate. What were we supposed to DO with it? But now we’ve had a lesson and are making a rag rug out of all of Sean’s favourite shirts..
There can be few places more beautiful to swim than Bantry Bay, in South West Ireland. The harbour is narrow and deep, and blue-green mountains surround it, cows and sheep on their lower slopes. A few fishing boats bob near the shore. A gaff-rigged sailing boat tacks out towards the open sea. By a graveyard that runs down the steep field at the end of the town, I jumped in and shrieked. The Atlantic is cold, this wet and chilly July. Sean stood on the shore with a towel and showed no sign of wanting to join me. I've done quite a lot of wild swimming this year, with various members of my family. In February, the estuary at Pin Mill was shallow and silted and sharp stones cut into our feet as we winced our way towards deeper water, which took too long to get to. Our flesh turned blue. Dunwich in March was shocking; it took hours to feel warm again afterwards. But the waves were big and exhilarating and the dog was happy. At Easter-time, the River Severn in Bewdley was just a token gesture - a quick immersion into the swollen, inhospitable waters. Woodbridge in May in the pouring rain was muddy and tidal. The river Cam in June was lovely, though - the day was sunny and the water was cool not icy. Punts got in the way. I often think that swimming is the closest we get to flying - moving in three dimensions, buoyed up by water, not air. This kind of swimming, though, often isn't like flying at all, more like falling. I'm not quite sure what the great pleasure is - you wade over oyster shells that cut your feet or through nettles and brambles that tear your skin; you struggle out of your clothes that you manage to leave in a puddle or on a patch of tar; you get very cold. But it is a pleasure, a kind of freedom. Roger Deakin wrote about so wonderfully it in Waterlog: A Swimmer's Journey Through Britain. See a river, a lake, a sea, and jump in. If it's still raining, all the better.
I just looked through the credits of Ernest Borgnine, who has just died, aged 95. My God, he appeared a lot of terrible films. But it doesn't matter. What matters are the good ones and Borgnine appeared in From Here to Eternity, Vera Cruz, Johnny Guitar, Marty and Ice Station Zebra. But two performances really stand out. He was one of the stars of Sam Peckinpah's masterpiece, The Wild Bunch, but even better than that, Borgnine featured in what is simply the best fight scene in the history of the cinema. Anyone who hasn't seen Bad Day at Black Rock shoud simply stop reading this now and got get hold of it and watch. It's only 81 minutes long, without a wasted word.
To appreciate the following scene, you need to know that Spencer Tracy has arrived in a small town and been subject to relentless suspicion, hostility and provocation. He has been pushed and pushed and pushed and you are both desperate for Tracy to do something in response and uneasy about what will happen when he does. Here, he finally responds - and this was strong stuff for 1955. If asked to defend the portrayal of violence in the cinema, I might simply point at this scene:
I've just read and enjoyed Spielberg, Truffaut and Me, Bob Balaban's diary of his experiences as one of the leading actors in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I'm a sucker for accounts of the making of films and, of course, the best ones are the ones where something, somewhere went terribly wrong: Lillian Ross's Picture (about John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage, vandalised by the studio), Steven Bach's Final Cut (about Heaven's Gate, whose financial failure took an entire studio down with it) and Julie Salamon's Final Cut (about The Bonfire of the Vanities).
Balaban has the pleasant problem that Close Encounters was a critical and commercial triumph. But he had unparalleled access, he got to hang out with Francois Truffaut (Balaban plays Truffaut's interpreter) and he's a skilled writer.
A few thoughts (and anyone who doesn't know the film well should probably stop reading now).
Balaban is a very fine actor but he was peculiar casting because as Spielberg noted on their first meeting, he strikingly resembled Richard Dreyfuss, the star of the movie: 'Spielberg thinks I look like Dreyfuss. Since Dreyfuss has shaved his beard for the movie, I must keep mine.' Which is even weirder, because it means that Balaban looks even more like Dreyfuss than Dreyfuss himself.
Compare the above, for example, with the below:
The result, as Balaban, amusingly describes, is that during the shoot Balaban was repeatedly asked for Dreyfuss's autograph,even when he was with Dreyfuss himself! It seems an amazing risk for Spielberg to have taken.
Balaban has two really memorable scenes in the film: the opening scene, where he meets Truffaut and they find the planes in the desert and the scene where, as a cartographer, he recognizes that the signal from the aliens is a map reference. I learned that both were afterthoughts, shot almost a year after shooting had finished. In the original version, Balaban was a simple translator, not a cartographer. Of course, as Spielberg must have seen, it works much better if Balaban's character is slightly insecure in his role as an interpreter.
There's a lesson for any writer: however painful, it's never too late to make your story better.
Funnily enough, my favourite scene in the film doesn't feature any of the spectactular special effects, or even any of the main actors. If I wanted to show someone how terrific a director Spielberg is (or, at least, used to be), I think I'd show them the little scene featuring the air traffic controllers:
I love the scene both because it's beautifully shot and lit (look at the depth of field, the view of the ceiling), but also because it's so restrained. The controllers simply use their technical language, there is no emoting, the suspense is just indicated by the gradual - but still subdued - interest of the other controllers, and the way they suddenly all start talking across each other. It's a routine, self-contained scene, which could easily have been cut, and yet it is both lovingly made and tells you so much about what this film is about and yet it doesn't do your thinking and feeling for you.
Another lesson for writers: scene should ever be just routine. You can always do something special with it - which doesn't mean too special. We aren't told more than we need to know about the air traffic controllers. We don't see a photograph of a sweet little daughter on someone's work top. We don't hear one of them muttering: 'There's something wrong about covering this up!' He knew when to let well alone, as well.
Last night I watched Taken with - appropriately enough - one of my daughters. Liam Neeson plays an ex-secret service officer whose teenage daughter takes a holiday to Paris and gets kidnapped by white-slave traders. Neeson talks to one of the kidnappers on the phone: 'I don't know who you are, but if you don't let her go, I will find you. I will kill you.' As the film drew to a close, my daughter turned to me and asked: 'Would you do that for me?'
I dunno. Neeson has 96 hours to find her. He flies to Paris on a private jet. Using voice recognition technology and his secret service contacts, he identifies the kidnappers as Albanian gangsters. He jams nails into the legs of one of them and attaches them to an electric socket. He shoots the innocent wife of a corrupt French official in order to get him to talk. He drives the wrong way along a highway alongside the Seine. He kills dozens of of bad guys all over Paris. Four of them while handcuffed to a pipe and being strangled.
Great stuff, but ersonally I've found hanging around outside changing rooms in clothes shops and the occasional lift to the station quite demanding enough. If any of them get kidnapped by white-slave traders, they're on their own.