THE BITCH & THE BULLDOG
January 31, 1994
They make an odd couple, Berkoff and Collins, Steven and Joan. He sits four square, elbows on the table,
a solid grey mass of obscure resentments trying to obfuscate through erudition. Never six words when sixty will do, never simplify if repetition beckons.
With his trademark close crop and his angry eyes, he deliberately makes no concessions to politesse, even less to charm.
He wears clothes to kick shit in and somehow you feel that you would be high on his list to receive it.
Meanwhile, Joan sits winsomely at his side, sixty if she’s a day but shaking her raven curls with the fluttering expectation of a very young, very flirtatious girl.
Her eyes sparkle through a web of artifice, spidery lashes, peaky brows, shady lids. No hollows though. Her make up artiste is too cunning for that.
The Bulldog and the Bitch are facing the hack pack in the interests of publicity. We have just been plied with a clip from the Bulldog’s first film as a director, a screen adaptation of his 12-year-old stage play, Decadence.
The selected footage shows Joan in red huntswoman’s jacket, her skirt hitched high above her knees, riding Steven round and round a white shag rug. The horsewhip rises and fails with an even swoosh and the stiletto heels dig into the hefty flanks like spurs.
‘When Steven asked me to do the part, I begged him, “please, I can’t get on a horse, I’m terrified of horses and they know it”.’ Joan’s voice rode the high register in mock alarm and Steven’s craggy features broke into a grimace that was perhaps a grin. ‘I was a lazy horse so she’d keep kicking and whipping me and I enjoyed it a lot. It was a very pleasurable experience.’
Analyzing the essential Berkoff, the lonely East End boy who has made good through playing thugs, is an uphill task but the finished film does make some things clearer.
Decadence is a play in two interleaved parts. On the one hand, we have Helen and Steve, a corrupt upper class couple who bonk in Belgravia for the greater glory of the long lost Empire.
On the other, we have Sybil, the would be upwardly mobile daughter of a wealthy East End scrap merchant, and Les, the private detective she hires to stake out her errant husband,
Steve. Les and Sybil bonk too, though for a different kind of Britain, a nouveau riche one based in Cheam where obsolescent consumer durables are valued above antiques.
Helen and Sybil are played by the Bitch, Steve and Les by the Bulldog, which gives both a chance to cross the class divide, yet both seem happier in Belgravia than Cheam.
In Joan’s case, this might be because Helen has a glamour wardrobe, complete with swirling white fillies that expose her slender legs, whereas Sybil is a frump in an unbecoming wig. But no, says Joan firmly, she is as happy as Sybil as she is as Helen.
‘I’m an actress,’ she insists. ‘If I choose to be glamorous in my personal life, it’s because that was the way I was brought up but if I’m required to appear with no make up or mud all over my face, then I’ll do it.’
She cites roles in half hour TV plays by Noel Coward, a tea lady in Brief Encounter, a fat red-nosed sixtysomething spinster in Family Album. ‘I had to have prosthetics,’ she adds hastily, ‘but I didn’t become an actress to sit around looking pretty in nice clothes. If I wanted, there’s nothing to stop me swanning around and going to Quaglino’s all the time.’
Steven’s preference for Steve over Les might be because the whinnying posing social climber with the strangulated vowels is a meatier target for a Bulldog’s iron jaws.
If so, he might represent all that Berkoff hates about contemporary Britain, but then again he might not. ‘Decadence is a savage comedy,’ he declares.
‘A comedy noir,’ Joan interjects chirpily, but without ruffling the feathers of the other half of the double act. ‘A comedy of human indulgence and-frailty,’ he continues, an Exocet warming to the attack, ‘in a sense about people who are self obsessed and greedy, a satire on human behaviour, a reflection on our society, a comment on what happens when people satiate themselves.
In a sense, we use the idea of indulgence as a parody on the seven deadly sins, also as a comment on British society, the English upper classes, upper classes everywhere.
Materialism is very important to them. Their lives are built on savouring every possible indulgence in order to satiate themselves.’
When he wrote Decadence in 1981, it was as a verse play that attacked the values of the early Thatcher years so he was naturally gratified to discover that it gained rather than lost relevance as the hollow acquisitive 80s moved towards the hungry recessive 90s. Or so he claims.
He was also gratified to discover that he was a born to be a film maker, a craft that he sees as the perfect showcase for talents he lists as photographer, writer, actor and mime artist
However the British film industry was humblingly slow to spot this glittering potential, a thought that sparks the next chomp of the Bulldog jaws.
The demise of our industry is because producers tend to have very little vision and insight into what makes an interesting film. By tradition, the British are not innovative and my film is experimental, daring, innovative. As it wasn’t an adaptation of E. M. Forster, it was difficult to get the money. Paradoxically it took the people of Germany and Luxembourg to come to my help.
They have enlightened bodies there who give money to the arts to create employment but we don’t have any enlightened bodies in John Major’s England.
It’s a pity because foreigners have an Upstairs Downstairs image of Britain as a slightly gentrified society with occasional forays into a little bit of realism and that tends to be a false picture.
There’s a huge hole in world consciousness of how people behave in Britain, a country they see as full of Fortnum and Mason tea houses with occasional skinheads. Yet a guy in Bradford knows exactly how a guy behaves in the Bronx. We need to show them our own underbelly for a change.’
What world consciousness will make of Decadence, with its kinky sex, its opulent brutalism and its despairing excess, remains to be seen but it is clear that the Bulldog needed the Bitch as much as the Bitch needed the Bulldog. Helen-Sybil was offered to the younger Helen Mirren as well as Diana Rigg, but they turned away with a collective sigh.
‘Joan filtered through my mind when I first wrote it,’ Berkoff observes with hindsight worthy of the oracle at Delphi. ‘I wanted someone with extraordinary sexual powers, enormous magnetism. The character I created was of such an exotic nature, a bizarre combination Qf a woman who was very arrogant, very elegant, someone who was accustomed to this life. Joan was one of the very few average actresses you might find hanging about in England who I felt could play Helen and she did it so well the film is remarkable tribute to her talent.’
‘I’ve never seen such an incredible actor as Steven,’ Joan reciprocates gamely, bestowing her poutiest smile. ‘He has such amazing range, 47,000 different faces in the space of a minute.’ Well, she has already admitted that in her long past Alexis mode, she is no longer flavour of the week, defmitely not receiving ‘a million scripts a week’, but this is ridiculous and it is not the end.
‘When Steven asked me, it was so challenging that I couldn’t say no. No violence, no overt sex, a bit of bad language but the way Steven has written it is almost Shakesperean.’
Thanks for the almost, Joan, but it is really not enough.