Jonathan Coe comes across as something of a cinéaste. He certainly knows about films. His most recent novel Number 11 has as its subtitle Tales That Witness Madness, a reference to the 1973 British horror film with an all-star cast and a strapline which appropriately said: “An orgy of the damned! It happens beyond madness – where your eyes won’t believe what your eyes see”. The film could easily be described as classic rubbish, but it is also something that has a very specific charm.
Films often play an integral part in Jonathan’s novels. The perfect example of this is What A Carve Up! where the serious political protest runs parallel to the central character’s obsession with the 1961 British comedy the book is named in honour of, and in particular one scene starring Shirley Eaton and Kenneth Connor. Shirley is pretty central to the book, especially where the action hots up and connections can be made to another film she starred in, Ten Little Indians, which was based on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. And another of the book’s key characters, Phoebe Barton, an artist and nurse, apparently looks an awful lot like a young Shirley Eaton.
Phoebe reappears rather spectacularly in the sort of sequel to the What A Carve Up! book, Number 11, which features a tale which is named after another early 1960s comedy, What A Whopper!, which is a sort of reprise itself. As an aside, What A Whopper! was also the title of a 1992 Monochrome Set compilation on the Richmond label, an imprint which collected lots of material from the él records archives (a label which Jonathan Coe was very fond of), including the collection of odds and ends Amen: Last Sunshine Desserts of él Records to bring in a Reggie Perrin dimension. Another Simon (Fisher) Turner collection on Richmond, from 1992, used a still of the painted Shirley Eaton from Goldfinger.
Number 11 is made up of five interlocking stories, and that in a way echoes the style of the film Tales That Witness Madness which is made up of four tales, including one featuring Michael Jayston with Joan Collins as his wife, plus a sinister tree which takes up residence in the living room as the third person in the marriage, symbolising all sorts of things. It actually looks like the sort of thing Phoebe Barton might present as one of her art projects.
The Crystal Garden, one of the stories in Number 11, features Laura, an Oxford don, who is struggling with a book she has vowed to finish in honour of her late husband, Roger, who was a film obsessive. And one of the films she is supposed to be writing about is What A Whopper! which Roger had described succinctly as a “lame British comedy about a bunch of beatniks who travel to Loch Ness to build a model of the monster”. The film recurs late on in the book in a way which is curiously touching.
Roger own fatal obsession was with a short film called The Crystal Garden which he saw on TV as a kid while off sick from school, which haunted him ever after, and for a long time he wasn’t even sure it was real until the Internet opened up new opportunities to solve this sort of mystery, such as IMDb, message boards, and so on. One of the questions which Jonathan seems to pose in this story is about the role of nostalgia and the sense of an idealised past which some of us cling to. Roger, for example, loathed too much choice (presumably like the horrendous amount of TV and radio channels there are now which ultimately seem to offer less than when there was only a small number of stations to choose from).
Along the way Roger is asked to contribute to a book paying homage to the film writer Terry Worth, who had been a specialist in lost movies. Terry is a character from Jonathan’s 1997 novel House of Sleep, and one of the lovely things about the world of Coe is the way there are all these lovely little connecting details which form sort of incidental patterns. They are not central to the stories, and it does not matter if people see the connections, and there is anyway a sense that we as readers will be missing out on any number of references Jonathan works into his books. But they are lovely touches. Like House of Sleep itself features a 1934 Frank King novel of the same name, and the film What A Carve Up! is based on an earlier Frank King novel called The Ghoul. Perhaps not everyone would agree but these links are fun.
Michael Owen in the book What A Carve Up! is obsessed with the old film, and the way it connects to his life. Jonathan has written about his own personal infatuation with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. He wrote up his ‘diary of an obsession’ for Cahiers du cinema, and later included it in the 2005 Penguin Pocket edition of 9th & 13th. It now features in the Kindle collection of Jonathan’s non-fiction writing Marginal Notes, Doubtful Statements. In the essay he explains how from the age of 11 (of course) he was haunted, initially by the book (by Michael and Mollie Hardwick) and then by Billy Wilder’s film and its soundtrack by Miklós Rózsa.
It is a lovely article, and one which many of us can readily identify with, citing different names and other obsessions. There is a particularly vivid part about Jonathan haunting a record shop “in a tiny, Dickensian back street of Birmingham”. This street was called Needless Alley, and in a lovely touch in Number 11 we find our old friend Phoebe Barton living at Number 11, Needless Alley, in Beverley.
One of the great things about this article on Jonathan and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is that it is mostly so clearly pre-Internet. Indeed, being able to access information immediately on the web would have ruined much of the magic that tormented and tantalised Jonathan over the course of 20-odd years. It is something Jonathan refers to in a way when he writes about the film’s famous lost scenes: “Part of me, I realize would prefer this material to remain lost, unseen. That is its very essence. Take away that quality and you have destroyed something fragile, irreplaceable.”