Published on November 16th, 2018 | by Padraic Coffey0
My Favourite Things – Katy Hayes
Katy Hayes a playwright, novelist and journalist. She is the Irish film critic for The Sunday Times, and the theatre critic for the Irish Independent. She is also a Teaching Fellow in Creative Writing in University College Dublin.
The Butcher Boy (1997, Neil Jordan)
For The Sunday Times, I write about Irish films, so I decided to stick with an Irish film, and chose The Butcher Boy 1997. Directed by Neil Jordan from a novel by Pat McCabe, it’s about a young boy called Francie Brady who has a mental breakdown. When his friendship with a lad in his class, Joe, is disrupted by another boy, Philip Nugent, Philip’s mother becomes the focus of his anger and his behaviour runs out of control. He attacks the mother, played by Fiona Shaw. The reason I think of it as my favourite is that, visually, it does a tremendous job of recreating the 1960s, not in the kitsch obvious way that we’re used to, but in terms of the paranoia of the nuclear threat and the arrival of the Television into the home.
Small town Ireland is perfectly captured, with all the old dears with scarves on, fussing around the place, being simultaneously caring and monstrous. Rosaleen Linehan does a great job as one of them. The Irish religious fixation is tremendously well-conveyed. Sinead O’Connor plays the Virgin Mary, and Francie is abused by one of the priests when he gets sent away to the reform school. It is visually rich, while at the same time being quite a wordy film. Cinema is primarily a visual medium, but I also really love films that have strong verbal and cerebral content, and The Butcher Boy certainly does. The script is very sophisticated. The whole dramatisation of the boy’s mental breakdown, with the voices in his head – his older voice and his younger voice – is quite an astounding achievement.
There’s been a lot of adaptations of novels in Irish cinema over the years, and The Butcher Boy is one of the most successful. It’s very faithful to the book, but at the same time it reinvents it entirely in visual terms, and pulls out themes in the book for visual deployment. For example, comics are a big part of the story, because Francie steals comics from Philip, an act that starts the spiral of problems. They’re a key part of the action in the book, whereas Neil Jordan has made them part of the visuals. The nuclear threat is very low-key in the book, though it’s part of the whole landscape, but again, in the film it becomes much more foregrounded to maximise the visual potential. The boys in the book play cowboys and Indians, and that’s all visualised; the whole emergence of television is part of the visual storytelling.
Wise Children (1991, Angela Carter)
Angela Carter’s Wise Children was her final novel, published in 1991, a year before her death. Had she lived, she would undoubtedly have written lots more novels. She’s a writer who started off in quite an experimental way, best known for her breakthrough version of fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber. Her early novels were quite fabulist and verging on magic realism, which would have been a trend at the time. Wise Children is a move in the direction of realism, where the author harnesses all the fabulousness into a much more realistic narrative. It is about a pair of older ladies, twins, who were born during the First World War, and it traces their lives up to the time of telling the story, when they are 75.
It’s set in the world of theatre. Cora and Dora, are the illegitimate children of a famous theatre actor, and it follows through their young lives, as showgirls. Then they went off to Hollywood, to make a movie of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As time passes, they have a greater degree of interaction with their natural father and family, and are generally treated as poor relations. It all sounds very serious, but mainly it’s a romp though British history from from the First World War up until the 1980s. It’s a fascinating way of looking at history, when the national narrative is tied into the history of the theatre, and to some degree the history of the cinema. Angela Carter’s attitude as a writer is very provocative. She’s colourful, she’s bawdy, she’s sexy.
She has a real knack of deploying detail. It’s very funny and very witty. I have taught this novel on the MA in Creative Writing in UCD, and I use it as a teaching tool for a variety of reasons. It uses narrative voice very well, in the case a first person narrative voice of a 75-year-old woman. It demonstrates ways of managing the epic along with the intimate. It has much to teach about comic writing. But above all, it is a lesson in how a writer makes their own rules.
Private Dancer (1984, Tina Dancer)
I’m currently 53, so in 1984, when Private Dancer was released, I was 19. I think music plays a more significant role at that age – in your late teens, early twenties – than it does at any other stage, and the albums that were significant at that time remain significant all your life, and implant themselves in your brain in a singular way. At the time, the airwaves were flooded with disco and pop music, and we as kids were dancing to what was popular. What was fantastic about Private Dancer in particular was that it had an incredibly strong, almost aggressive femininity that was totally refreshing for us. Tina Turner was a person who could sing and conform to the accepted pop norms, and produce successful dance and disco music, but at the same time had another edge that put the music on another inspirational level.
It’s a fantastic album, full of wonderful songs, most of which are classics. I heard ‘What’s Love Got to Do with It’ in a café the other day; it always brings that time flooding back, as does ‘Better Be Good to Me’ and ‘I Can’t Stand the Rain’. Those songs gave us a whole different way of looking at how you could be a woman, how you could be both feminine and assertive, how women could sing back and fight back. In the 1980s, for us uppity girls, everything seemed up for grabs, and Tina Turner embodied that.
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Image source: Leonardo Borzi