A detail from William Powell Frith’s 1858 masterpiece <em>Derby Day</em>. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A detail from William Powell Frith’s 1858 masterpiece Derby Day. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Editor’s Desk: A lesson in civility

Charles Dickens is the link as we look at two great actors and the art of respectful disagreement

“You are so mercifully free from the ravages of intelligence.”

This line — from the 1981 film Time Bandits — has been one of my go-to movie quotes for years, along with “Shut up; I was speaking rhetorically” from the same movie. Both lines were beautifully delivered by the great David Warner as Evil, and I was saddened to learn of his death, aged 80, on July 25.

Warner was hailed as the greatest Hamlet of his generation when he played the role on stage in 1965, but generations of moviegoers will know him from his appearances in Tom Jones, The Omen, Tron, Titanic, and many more. One of his best, and best-remembered, roles is as John Leslie Stevenson (aka Jack the Ripper) in Time After Time, which sees his character flee Victorian London in H.G. Wells’ time machine to evade capture, only to end up in San Francisco in 1979.

Tracked down by Wells, who tells him they don’t belong in the future and begs him to return to their own time, Stevenson clicks through the TV channels in his hotel room, showing image after image of war, crime, and violence. “We don’t belong here?” he says quietly. “On the contrary, Herbert. I belong here completely and utterly. I’m home. Ninety years ago I was a freak. Today I’m an amateur.”

It’s a testament to Warner’s skill as an actor that he manages to make a character like the Ripper if not likable, at least understandable. It’s something that great actors do: find the truth and humanity (for good or ill) in every character they play. They’re also able to take on any role, and while Warner often played villains, he was equally capable of playing good guys.

Nearly 20 years before his odious (fictional) character died in James Cameron’s Titanic, Warner survived the ship’s sinking in 1979’s fine TV movie S.O.S. Titanic, where he played the sympathetic (and real) Lawrence Beesley, a second-class passenger onthe ship. He was also superb as Bob Cratchit in the wonderful 1984 version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, taking what is often a thankless role and making him a fully-rounded man and heartbroken father. RIP, Mr. Warner; you were truly one of the greats.

Speaking of great actors and Charles Dickens, there’s Simon Callow, a near-contemporary of Warner’s who has also had an illustrious stage career. An admirer of Charles Dickens, he has written about the author and played him more than once, and I recently watched him on Knowledge Network in an episode of Tate Britain’s Great British Walks, where he joined cultural historian Gus Casely-Hayford for an appreciation of the artist William Powell Frith and his great work Derby Day (1858).

It was one of the most popular paintings of the 19th century (and beyond; I have a framed print of it, purchased at the Tate Gallery in 1983, at home), and Frith was a great friend of Dickens. Derby Day, which shows the crowd gathered at Epsom Downs racecourse for the eponymous race, teems with life, from acrobats, beggar girls, and con artists to high society toffs. It could absolutely be called “Dickensian”, but Callow was clearly not sold on the painting as a work of great art.

He admitted to liking some of it, and admired Frith’s intentions, but in the end — despite Casely-Hayford’s best and most persuasive efforts — had only warmed to it slightly. Despite this lack of a “road to Damascus” moment on Callow’s part at the end (or perhaps because of it), the show was a joy to watch, because throughout it the two men had an honest conversation about their respective views.

There was no haranguing, no browbeating, no accusations of Callow being “elite” or Casely-Hayford having no taste, no dismissal of Frith as an artist. Instead, we had intelligent discourse between two men with different viewpoints who actually listened to each other and respected the other’s position and opinions. There’s a lesson in there somewhere; if only I could figure out what it was.


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