The Selfish Giant: Kings of the trash heap

Clio Barnard's tale of two Bradford boys, literally on the scrapheap, has little in common with the Oscar Wilde fairytale that gave it its name.

The Selfish Giant (15)
dir: Clio Barnard

Clio Barnard, who made her debut with The Arbor, an innovative drama-documentary about the playwright Andrea Dunbar, has done her second picture no favours by naming it after Oscar Wilde’s short story. Time spent puzzling over what the parallels might be between the tale of an ogre who outlaws children from his garden and this film about two Bradford boys scavenging for scrap metal is time wasted. The film is its own beast with its own beauty, and a spirit that’s wild rather than Wildean.

A sole point of contact between story and film is the idea of exclusion, of children banished into the wilderness. The heroes of The Selfish Giant are a non-matching set of little-and-large urchins: Swifty (Shaun Thomas), an overgrown packhorse of a lad, and Arbor (Conner Chapman), a pipsqueak with a pickaxe face. Every avenue in which these boys might explore childhood has been closed off to them. At 13, they are debt-payers, working stiffs, parents to their own parents.

The first shot shows Arbor in a rage under his bed, pummelling the wooden slats as though he has awoken to find himself the victim of premature burial. He hasn’t been taking his ADHD medication, though his problems are not exclusively clinical. With no father in sight, he has appointed himself the man of the family. When his mother (Rebecca Manley) won’t accept the money he’s earned selling scrap, Arbor fumes, “I worked my arse off for this!”

The disparity between his belligerent phrasing and his sparrow-weight frame is obliquely amusing. It’s played more broadly for laughs when he barks instructions at a police officer entering the house: “Shoes off!” He can be adult in his tenderness, too. When his mother is crying, he cradles her head and pats it softly in a manner he could only have learned from her.

Childhood is no rosier for Swifty. The electricity has been cut off at home and his father (Steve Evets) is flogging the furniture. Even the taunts traded in the school playground feel shaped by adult concerns. “Your family’s gonna be in debt for ever!” says a bully to his victim. Whatever happened to mocking a classmate’s nose or ears, or impugning his mother’s sexual conduct?

The nearest that Swifty and Arbor get to innocent play is when they lounge sleepily together on a broken trampoline. Energy they should be expending climbing trees or playing football is channelled into moneymaking schemes.

The boys fall in with Kitten (Sean Gilder), the volatile owner of a local scrapyard. He has a fearsome-looking machine with gnashing teeth for extracting aluminium wire. It seems entirely possible that Arbor and Swifty will be fed to this monster if they step out of line.

Over a landscape of gnarled metal stand rows of electricity pylons, humming insidiously. The cinematographer Mike Eley sometimes shoots with a long lens through grass so that a subtle green fuzz is visible at the edges of a frame otherwise dominated by greys and rusted bronzes. The enduring struggle between human cruelty and nature’s consolations is nicely captured in such compositions.

But there is an inevitability to the fates of Arbor and Swifty that feels too easy, dramatically speaking. Barnard’s previous film used transformative techniques to lift the material out of the kitchen sink: actors lip-synced to recordings of the story’s real-life subjects, while a performance of Andrea Dunbar’s writing was staged on the Bradford estate where she once ruled over her children, booze in hand.

The Selfish Giant falls back instead on a familiar stylistic palette (the dramatic DNA of Ken Loach, the stalking camera of the Dardenne brothers) every bit as orthodox as the portrayal of no-income families steeped in misery, crime and cold baked beans.

At least Dunbar coaxes a pair of miraculous performances from her young lead actors, both of whom make their feature debut here. And she remains alert to the telling visual details that lend exotic flavours to a drab image: a Lottery sign glowing sinisterly along a precinct of iron shutters, or the care with which a plump sofa is manoeuvred out of a doorway like a vital organ extracted in a game of “Operation”.

Swifty (Shaun Thomas) and Arbor (Conner Chapman) in The Selfish Giant. Image: BFI.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser