Recently I watched a programme on Sky Arts called Discovering Gregory Peck. It’s part of a series of hour-long profiles of various actors from Julia Roberts to Basil Rathbone. Obviously the name Gregory Peck is synonymous with various iconic roles – Dr Anthony Edwardes/John Ballantyne in Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Philip Schuyler Green in Gentleman’s Agreement, Joe Bradley in Roman Holiday,Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mocking Bird, Robert Thorn in The Omen,plus countless others.
But I’m of the belief that the Gregory Peck film that had the greatest effect on me, was not any of these. It was in fact Moby Dick.
I’ve often read that Gregory Peck was the most unlikely Captain Ahab. I’ve got to be honest when I watched it at the age of 7, he seemed pretty bloody good to me. Pretty scary … pretty insane … pretty obsessed.
For those of you who are not familiar with this fantastic tale, Ahab is whaler and on an earlier voyage he’d had his leg bitten off by a great white whale named Moby Dick. He now limps around with one leg made of whale bone, obsessed with catching Moby Dick. And of course this was in the day before there was the rule book on how to write, so everything was up for grabs. It was one of the more creative periods of filmmaking.
1957 was my seventh birthday. Going to the cinema was a treat and in those days there were three categories of seating in the stalls. Back stalls, the most expensive. Middle stalls, the second most expensive. And front stalls, the cheapest.
I had a choice, I could invite three friends and sit in the middle stalls, or I could invite five friends and sit in the front stalls. Front stalls it was.
In the still early days of this millennium, we’re in an era where people are scared of everything. Something terrifying lurks around every corner, which most of us know is because that’s what sells newspapers. News doesn’t sell newspapers, because we have TV and radio news 24 hours a day, so anything news worthy is out there in a flash – long before those offset presses start printing. So newspapers have to come up with something terrifying to make you buy their paper and the result is lots of coverage about knife crime, carbon emissions, shortage of medical supplies, overcrowded prisons at boiling point. Now I’m not saying there isn’t an element of truth or merit in some of these ‘news items,’ but I don’t think they’re as critical as newspaper editors would like us to think. Personally, I’ve never seen anybody being knifed and I’ve visited some very dodgy places. As for carbon emissions, let’s be realistic, if those very important wealthy actors have to travel for their oh so important work, then what the hell, I’m going to travel as well, because they might not think so, but my life, like yours, is just as important as theirs. Change will come, but it will evolve. I’m not a great believer in revolution, much prefer evolution.
But irrespective of the validity of these stories, ultimately it’s about scare tactics, because a good scare will get us interested every time.
Now apparently it’s alright to frighten adults, they can take it, but frightening kids is a different thing. We’re told fear in children could induce nightmares, plunge them into depression, force them to take sedatives or even need to see a shrink. Well I think kids love having a good jump, a good scare, from the safety of a multiplex or in their sitting room. As soon as they know how to access the 18 rated horror movies, they’re in there like a flash.
Humans want to feel fear, granted from a distance, be that distance the front stalls, middle stalls or back stalls. You know it’s not your leg Moby Dick is after, the man in his mother’s dress is not coming for you with his knife and you’re never going to live in the house in the American Horror Story, but the shock and the relief proves you’re alive.
As a kid I loved watching films that scared me … and I didn’t know anybody who didn’t. It’s impossible not to be scared by the Child Catcher played by Robert Helpmann in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – he was the most memorable thing in the movie. Or Cruella De Vil in 101 Dalmations, puffing out green smoke and voiced by Betty Lou Gerson, an actress most people have never heard of, but giving an unforgettable performance. Or the sadistically gross Miss Trunchbull in Matilda – for me the best thing Pam Ferris has ever done. No winking at the camera, instead giving us a tour de force in hammer throwing, using some little girl and her pigtails to demonstrate her technique. Love it!
As for Moby Dick, there I was, me and my five friends, sitting just a few feet from the screen, watching Gregory Peck being impaled with harpoons onto the side of this mother of all whales. How fucking great is that?! It was there – in our face. And bizarrely enough, you’re on the side of the whale. Which over the years I’ve often thought about, in the same way I’ve thought about the sympathy you have for King Kong in the 1933 movie. How can that be? They’re monsters, not even comic monsters, but we side with them. The art of great story telling.
I seriously believe the Moby Dick moment which I experienced in the front stalls of the Cosy Cinema in Wibsey Bradford, influenced all my writing. And quite frankly if that violent incident wasa seminal moment in my career, then it’s no wonder I prefer tragedy to comedy. Whatever funny, sad or scary, bring on that cinematic pain, that extreme laughter and those tears of joy at someone else’s success, all of which tells you that you’re alive.