The King and the Mockingbird. Credit: Optimum Releasing.
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The King and the Mockingbird: the story of an unlikely, elegant, animated classic

There is a fascinating backstory to France's first animated feature, but it doesn't need one - all the genius and magic lies in the film itself.

The story of how the long-unfinished animated feature The King and the Mockingbird finally made it to the screen in the late 1970s is a marvel in itself. This collaboration between the animator Paul Grimault and the poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert (whose credits include Renoir’s Le Crime de Monsieur Lange and a clutch of stunning work for Carné, not least Les Enfants du paradis and Le Quai des Brumes) was begun in 1948. Based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep (which was then also the film’s title), it was France’s first full-length animated picture. But when a dispute halted production, the film’s producers released an incomplete version without the permission of its makers. Grimault launched a battle to regain the rights to the movie, then spent two decades raising the funds to complete it. The intact version was finally released in 1980, dedicated to Prévert, who had died a year earlier.

But The King and the Mockingbird does not need this dramatic back-story to make it impressive. And there is more to it than simply the selling-point of its UK release as the film that influenced Studio Ghibli. That company’s founders, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, have credited it as a key inspiration, and made it the debut release of their Museum Library label in 2007. (Which reminds me: a Ghibli season is currently underway at the BFI Southbank in London.) To younger viewers, the animation style may look unearthly and radical. It is hand-drawn for a start, with none of the rounded, flawless edges of computer-generated animation, but there is still an eerie smoothness to it; the characters move fluidly like ballet dancers, bringing both elegance and vulnerability.

There is a rich grasp of space and perspective too. In one sequence, a shepherdess and a chimney sweep, who have escaped from two paintings in the king’s quarters, are pursued in turn by a painted version of the cruel king who wants to thwart their romance. They find themselves clambering across towers and rooftops, and the chimney sweep sidles along a thin ledge to rescue a caged bird from falling. The simplicity with which the action is staged gives the action a contemporaneous tension. It is a common misconception that rapid editing increases suspense or excitement or audience engagement—that faster and choppier is automatically more thrilling, and sheathing the scissors is for squares. Cuts have to be used judiciously though. The vocabulary of modern commercial cinema suggests that the editing in even the most innocuous entertainment is modelled on the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin.

Throughout The King and the Mockingbird, music and cutting are used only sparingly. It is doubtful that the moment when the king smashes his mirror after being taunted by the mockingbird would have quite the impact it does were it played from multiple angles, or accompanied by orchestral bluster. The movie reminds us that restraint brings its own rewards.

The King and the Mockingbird is on DVD from 28 April.

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.

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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