2016 is upon us, and so is the Queen's New Year Honours list. Which is showbizzier than it used to be. So, from the ranks, here are a trio of damehoods that caught my eye - Kiwi, Cockney and Cymru.
Jane Campion was only the second woman to be nominated for a Best Director Academy Award and the first to win the Palme D'Or in Cannes. Now she has the additional honor of being Dame Commander of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
Dame Jane, DNZM, made her biggest splash internationally back in the Nineties. The Piano had a cast that was both starry and cool. Back in 1993, we were at peak Harvey Keitel, who in those days was releasing so many films he should have had his own Oscar category. I saw the film in London in October of that year, and it was his third UK release of the month, following The Young Americans and Rising Sun. As these pictures were filmed in, respectively, London, Los Angeles and rural New Zealand, a rough calculation of the travel time suggests that, although Keitel was releasing a film per week, he can't possibly have been sparing them seven days apiece.
Nevertheless, granted that he gave her a mere 48 hours or whatever, Dame Jane got more out of him than Rising Sun or Young Americans, including a nude scene. In The Piano, he's paired with Holly Hunter, the diminutive Georgia peach whose biggest commercial hit was Broadcast News but who wound up winning an Academy Award for her turn here as a mid-l9th-century pallid Scots mute shipped out to a hut in the middle of a New Zealand bog for an arranged marriage. With nary a line of dialogue except for an eventual orgasmic whimper, Miss Hunter is left with no option but serious face-acting, and there are moments when her idea of the role seems to be more or less Harvey Keitel in a bonnet; she even offers a transvestite version of that just-jutting-jaw routine Keitel likes to milk.
Her husband (Sam Neill) has traded her piano for Keitel's land, but Keitel offers to sell it back to her, a key at a time, in return for an ascending scale of sexual favors. Whole scenes pass in his rude cabin with barely a sound, save for an occasional chromatic ripple on the keyboard: Hunter and Keitel sit in the gloom jutting jaws at each other but keeping their lips sealed — she because she's dumb, he because he wisely figures that his colonial English accent is best heard in small doses. It ought to be no contest: he's even daubed Maori symbols all over himself. But Keitel face-acts because the good Lord has given him few other choices, whereas Miss Hunter came to the role fresh from playing a platinum blonde in The Firm, and Hollywood respects effort, which is why she won the Oscar and he didn't. She also plays her own piano, and off-screen taught sign-language to her 11-year-old co-star Anna Paquin, who in her very first film also waltzed off with an Academy Award.
The Piano is self-consciously arty, but it has a very particular atmosphere, and its tone and mood stay with you when the contrivances of plot have been forgotten. It made Dame Jane's international reputation, and deservedly so. Four years later, trading up to Henry James, Miss Campion (as she then was) revealed herself to be a far more conventional treater of material. James's Portrait of a Lady has many subtle emotional shades; Dame Jane's Portrait, like Henry Ford's Model T, comes in any color you want so long as it's black. As one gloomy interior yields to another gloomy exterior, we see Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman) arrive in a bleak, repressive England, move on to an Italy which is also (and improbably) bleak and repressive, and then marry Gilbert Osmond, who, defying the burdens of his surname, is bleakest and most repressive of all, as would be obvious to anyone expect Isabel — he is, after all, played by John Malkovich at his most intense. Miss Campion's line seems to be that Isabel is ensnared by Osmond because she is a woman in a repressed Victorian society. James suggests something more interesting and even topical: Isabel is, by the standards of the day, a modern liberated adventuress — and it's that very sense of moral adventure and progressive thinking that makes her such easy prey for Osmond.
That's too complicated for Miss Campion, whose view of Isabel is somewhat patronizing. She interpolates bizarre fantasy scenes in which Isabel gets touched up by just about every male member of the dramatis personae; the only one who doesn't cop a feel is old Mr Touchett (John Gielgud). In other words, Isabel's difficulties stem from the sexual repression she as a woman is doomed to endure in a hypocritical patriarchal Victorian society. James was struck by the paradoxical naïveté of the liberated and, in this grade-school reductio, Jane Campion more or less confirms that. The Piano owed much to the anonymity of its origins: the strange locale, the mute heroine, the eponymous keyboard, the metal finger, all obscured and enlivened an otherwise straightforward female-empowerment parable. It's all a bit more lumberingly obvious here.
~No need to fret about the burdens of sexual repression with Dame Barbara Windsor, as we must now learn to call her, following her appointment as Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Her name notwithstanding, Babs is not a member of the House of Windsor, but of some entirely different tenement house of Windsor some miles east of Buckingham Palace. On the big screen, she's best known as the baby-voiced blonde who provided such desirable crumpet as was to hand in a long-running series of British trouser-droppers. It began one day in 1958, when Peter Rogers was sent a perfectly serious screenplay about the effects of military conscription on a couple of most unmartial English ballet dancers. In a moment of genius, he decided to produce it as a comedy. The result – Carry On Sergeant – was the first of what became the second most successful British film series in history (after James Bond). There followed Carry On Nurse, Carry On Constable, Carry On Cowboy, Carry On Up The Khyber, and a couple of dozen others, all more or less exactly the same: A bunch of British comic actors, variously prune-faced, lumpy, dozy, camp or emaciated, would set off in improbable pursuit of curvy dolly-birds but be stymied by ferocious martinets. Come to think of it, even the dolly-birds were rather on the burly side: one recalls Joan Sims as Miss Allcock in Carry On Teacher. Dame Babs climbed on board in Carry On Spying, playing the comely Daphne Honeybutt, and stayed more or less until the end, as Nurse Sandra May in Carry On Doctor and Nurse Susan Ball in Carry On Matron and Hope Springs in Carry On Girls.
Although her bra strap tended to snap at reliably inopportune moments, she was a very English and unsensual bit of totty - jolly and game but not really sexy. She packed it in after Carry On Dick (1974) - as in the highwayman Dick Turpin whose flintlock is always cocked. The joke underpinning the entire series was that in British English virtually anything can be a synonym for the word "penis". Thus, in Carry On Henry, Sid James as King Henry VIII gets his Hampton Court – ie, he gets his hampton caught. A man called Peter Rogers would seem to be the perfect producer for such an enterprise.
Rogers petered on Babs-less for a bit, but wound up getting his hampton caught, box-office-wise, in a pastiche of the popular suburban soft-core series of the Seventies, Carry On Emmanuelle, which pretty much did for both franchises. The nymphomaniac Emmanuelle Prevert has her way with the Prime Minister, the American Ambassador and anyone else other than her poor put-upon husband. Key dialogue:
'Why me? You could have Tom, Dick or Harry.'
'I don't want Tom or Harry.'
Barbara Windsor survived the Carry Ons to become one of those "national treasures", indestructible by anything short of a paedo conviction (Rolf Harris). She's a beloved "Cockney sparrow" - or "Cockney sparrer" - and, given the East End's demographic transformation, may yet prove the last of the breed. Off-camera she seems to have led a livelier life than the somewhat numbingly repetitive plots of the Carry Ons. She was married for many years to Ronnie Knight, an "associate" of the leading London gangsters of the day, the Kray twins (see here for a vivid bit of Kray lore). Babs had a one-night stand with one of the Krays - I forget which, but presumably the one who wan't gay - and tended to defend the order they brought to the rougher parts of the metropolis, plus their general charm. "Very gentlemanly, fabulous looking guys," she reckoned - unlike their victims. "They were two of the nastiest people that ever was on the earth, the two that they killed." So there. At the time she offered that judgment she'd just been appointed Sky TV's new "fairy godmother": "If there's something you want, write to Babs and she'll arrange it." And, if not herself, well, she has friends who can arrange almost anything...
~And finally my personal favorite of the New Year dames: Siân Phillips, star of stage and screen, and Mrs Peter O'Toole for two decades more than anyone else managed. Dame Siân was a memorable Livia in I, Claudius and Mrs Smiley to Alec Guinness in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but at this particular shingle we treasure her for her guest appearance on my centenary salute to Frank Loesser (available here), and a rollicking rendition of "See What The Boys In The Back Room Will Have".