Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Arts Picturehouse), Cabaret (Cripps Auditorium)

Some things – doilies, say, or Harold Macmillan – were quite popular in 1961, but now, thankfully, belong squarely in the past. Blake Edwards’s “classic” adaptation of Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, re-released this week, is one such cultural fad.

I say “adaptation”, but “bowdlerisation” would be fairer. Main character Holly Golightly’s drug habit and illegitimate child are written out (Holly herself is effectively a child bride); Blake Edwards clearly didn’t want Capote’s ironic probing into the American underbelly to get in the way of a blockbusting flight of fancy.

I say “flight of fancy”, but “flight into fatuity” would be fairer. It’s difficult to decide what grates most as Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard smoke and litter their way through Manhattan’s classy Upper Eastside. The latter’s performance as the leading man is confused and inconsistent, and inevitably fails to rise above his character’s incoherence as a struggling writer who, actually, doesn’t seem to struggle much, soaking in champagne breakfasts like an alcoholic, aristocratic sponge. And, I should add, with just as many holes in his priggish arguments that “life’s a fact, people belong to each other and that’s the only chance anybody has to be happy”. Nevertheless, it’s difficult not to admire the perfect, Humphrey Appleby scansion with which he manages to say “I’ve never drunk champagne before breakfast before. With breakfast before, but never before, before.”

Most memorably, Audrey Hepburn kookily portrays Holly Golightly as a vacuous socialite. I say “socialite” because it seems absurd to describe someone who lives in a Manhattan townhouse as a “callgirl” (even if she has come to afford this townhouse through methods that can only be described as… well, let’s skip that, just like the film does) To her romantic misadventures Hepburn tries her best to add charm, but ultimately comes over as simple, selfish and morally dubious. True, thousands of women-viewers have for decades begged to differ. This says more about their character than about the film’s.

Holly’s admirers fancy her as a Dorothy Parker-type figure, a witty female who is more than a match for the pretensions of any male intellectual. “A girl can’t read that sort of thing without her lipstick”, she says. But as Dorothy Parker pointed out, “There’s a helluva distance between wise-cracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wise-cracking is simply calisthenics with words.” Holly’s performance is mere callisthenics, a verbal fitness video, repetitive and brainless, and best followed by a shower.

Certainly, she looks as stylish as ever in her Givenchy dresses, and Peppard is similarly good-looking, as are the implausibly clean streets of New York, but style is no substitute for substance.

Not that these touches are without its pleasures. Viewers will warm nostalgically to Henry Mancini’s iconic, if dated, score (including the Oscar-winning first-ever rendition of Moon River), but one cannot expect the same of Mickey Rooney’s turn as the absurd-accented and buck-toothed ‘comedy Jap’, a painfully racist performance in yellowface that recalls a Hollywood one would really rather not (among the movie’s earliest lines include: “Me so sorry! Me love you long time!”).

A classic, we are told, stands the test of time. Breakfast at Tiffany’s effortlessly flunks it. Never has there been a film more undeserving of its place in cinematic history, but it does deserve to be consigned to it.

Some artefacts from the 60s, however, do not deserve this fate. Harold Wilson, for starters, or pop-tarts: spectacularly popular back in the day, but now out of fashion. To that list add Cabaret (Cripps Auditorium, ), Kander and Ebb’s mesmerising musical meditation on the rise of Nazism. Its popularity now pales in comparison with fluffier Nazi-themed musicals like The Sound of Music, Bent or The Producers (I can’t be alone in noticing that Nazism has proven curiously ripe for musical material). One can only welcome, then, MMPS’s deft revival of this subgenre’s most sophisticated exemplar, raising in true cabaret-spirit deadly serious questions alongside more than a few show-stopping musical numbers.

Cabaret shows Nazism to be more a pall-bearer to the decaying hearse of Weimar vibrance than some long-knived hatchet-man, rejecting the clichéd narrative of an innocently liberal culture spontaneously subsumed by fascism. Instead Cabaret combs the kernels of corruption inherent within a no-holds-barred culture, to which Cabaret is as much indictment as homage.

Millie Benson’s effulgently vivid performance as the innocent ingénue, Sally, show-stealingly captures fin-de-siècle modernism’s decadent, decrepit and dying gasps as the Kit Kat Klub’s patrons and performers sing and dance away the onset of a mass movement out to extinguish the liberty their every lyric and lock-step agonisingly celebrates.

Despite occasional misplaced feel-goodery, director Charlie Risius handled the haunting historical context with admirable subtlety, adumbrating the nastiness to come before unveiling it, the ambiguous black-and-white imagery during the patriotic paean “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” eventually giving way to Swastikas. But the choreography, though crisp, lacked the delectable depravity 30s Berliner cabaret epitomised. No hinting, too, at the symbiosis between sexual and political perversion. Indeed, the sexual subtext is skirted over in favour of populist polish, which the punters lovingly lapped up. Yet, as the naughty noughties dovetail into the EDL and Geert Wilders, an awareness of the relationship between cultural excess and political perniciousness would have added some germane freshness.

A virtue is made of the venue’s small size, creating an intimacy particularly effective in foreboding a sense of impending tragedy as the Kit Kat Klub’s carefree cosmopolitanism yields to nationalism’s corrosive cancer. Better-acted than most things this reviewer has seen at the ADC, Rupert Mercer’s American prig and Jake Arnott’s nuanced Nazi merit mention. Thankfully, the romances were restrained, not overdone (the film processes them into low-brow soap, probably from Lidl; this is classier, more John Lewis) and the orchestra was literally the show’s unsung hero.

Without a doubt Cabaret entertains eminently, from emcee Rob Young’s Kurt Weill-style overture to the doom-laden finale (the Kit Kat Klub insists throughout that ‘life is a cabaret’; one knows by the end it’s no such thing). This is a marionette’s-eye view of history, one through which all would be well-served to glance.


A Miracle of Biblical Proportions: 400 years of The King James Bible

Published in The Cambridge Student

Curtains opened on the year 1611 with the soporific masque, Oberon, The Faery Prince and closed with the distressingly debauched drama, John Cooke’s The City Gallant – both now rightly forgotten – while the year’s bestseller was the legendary Coryat’s Crudities, a travelogue so hilariously bad the nation’s leading literarateurs, from John Donne to Ben Jonson, put together a poetic tract devoted to making a mockery of it. Not a good year for literature, then.

Were it not for one book. Published amid little public attention 400 years ago, the King James Version of the Bible has acquired the status of a global literary classic, both by sales, with over a billion copies sold, as well as critical acclaim, considered as it is “the noblest monument of English prose”.

Its cadences are everywhere, from the US Constitution to the lyrics of Paul Simon (just listen to The Boxer). Perhaps more than anywhere in the curious clichés and mixed metaphors of football pundits: how often have you heard, say, Alan Hansen bemoaning a team’s giving up the ghost (Mark 15:47), observing they won by the skin of their teeth (Job 19:20) and lambasting the management as the blind leading the blind (Matthew 15:14)? The KJV’s influence is no less singular in pop-culture than in high culture. Radio 4 may well list it alongside the Shakespeare’s Complete Works on Desert Island Discs (no better arbiter of the literary canon than the BBC of course), but as salt-of-the-earth (yup, there’s another one: Matthew 5:13) a man of the people as Johnny Cash has released a spoken word album of KJV readings.

To what does the KJV owe its phenomenal legacy? To say it holds a prime position in the linguistic lineage of the world’s most widely-spoken tongue is as common a cliché as the hundreds it has bequeathed to us since publication. And there are hundreds. Few, for example, are aware that their casual exhortation at a party to eat, drink and be merry (Ecclesiastes8:15) has solid scriptural sanction. Every time we regret a politician’s tendency to be all things to all men (Corinthians 9:22) or – these banker-bashing days – inveigh against the love of money as the root of all evil (Timothy 6:10), we are quoting the KJV, whose turns of phrase are so ingrained in our everyday speech patterns that we do it unthinkingly. Discovering the extent of this, one might feel like Molière’s bourgeois gentleman, enchanted to learn from an expert that he had been speaking something called “prose” his whole life. We’ve been speaking something called the King James Bible our whole lives.

But it’s easy to overstate the case amid all the excitement of the quatercentennial celebrations. Melvyn Bragg has declared the KJV “quite simply the DNA of the English language”. But DNA is in our every cell; it seems absurd to suggest every word we speak comes from the KJV. The nation’s favourite bearded linguist, David Crystal, is somebody keen to challenge this received wisdom – a fly in the ointment, as it were (Ecclesiastes 10:1, if you were wondering).

In his latest book, Begat, Prof. Crystal examines whether it’s true that no book has wielded a greater influence on our language than the KJV. Personally counting the number of KJV-derived idioms that have entered modern English, he finds only 257 against the usual estimate of thousands. What of the KJV’s rival for the title? A quick count in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations finds Shakespeare ahead: 71 pages against 39.

Yet according toCrystal’s own method – to count only those which have entered modern-day parlance – the KJV can claim twice as many idioms as Shakespeare. But modern parlance has displayed a penchant for fiddling with what was once believed to be the inerrant word of God. According to Professor Crystal, only 18 are exact quotes, the rest corruptions. Isaiah invokes the phrase “No peace for the wicked.” This later became “No rest for the wicked”. Nobody knows why. But, as we know from Shakespeare, the best quotes always are misquotes – the odd missing adjective can surely be forgiven. (The same cannot be said for missing negatives: the 1631 version, printed here inCambridge, made mandatory the practice of adultery, commanding in Exodus 20:14: “thou shalt commit adultery”; the printers narrowly escaped death.)

More iconoclastically, Crystal’s research shows only a minority of these phrases are original to the KJV. Most are found in Tyndale’s 1534 translation or even the 14th century Wycliffe Bible. The OED cites the KJV as first evidence for only 43 words. The Wycliffe, by contrast, originated over 1400.

Nevertheless, it is the KJV that has over 400 years popularised these expressions, even if it didn’t originate them. Indeed, many of these expressions are inept, very literal translations of Hebrew idioms, non-sensical in 1611, but today, so intimately familiar that it’s hard to believe they’re not English in origin. “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for the children of Texas.” So went the slogan spouted by anti-immigrant Republicans in the US, but it actually makes some sense.  And the classics of English literature, from Milton’s Paradise Lost to Waugh’s Vile Bodies, have imbibed the KJV (those titles included), sometimes verbatim. “She gave me of the tree, and I did eat.”Paradise Lost Book X or Genesis?

Curiously, modern English literature’s pre-eminent Christians, CS Lewis and TS Eliot, both shuddered at the thought of considering the legacy of the KJV in such secular terms as language. As the historian Gordon Campbell argues in his recent door-stopper, Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011, the KJV’s enduring allure is religious. “It is the King James Version that has been loved by generations of Christians who have listened to it or read it to themselves or to others.”

Arising out of the arcane theological disputes of 17th centuryEngland, the 54 scholars working on the text (a third here in theUniversity ofCambridge) struck the middle ground between Puritanism and Papism to make the text as amenable as possible. Most British, one might say. Americans, though, beg to differ: according to a TV poll, the KJV is the “most American” book. It was, of course, usually the only book carried by colonists as they trotted the globe, where it’s been taken to heart with as much aplomb. The King James Bible unites the world’s English-speakers more than any other book. Who would have thought as parochial a place as the Divinity Fac. – and four centuries ago at that – could be responsible for so global and timeless a phenomenon?

As former Poet Laureare Andrew Motion extols: “To read it is to feel simultaneously at home, a citizen of the world, and a traveller through eternity”. And as Alan Hansen might say, the King James Bible simply refuses to give up the ghost. Or was it the Apostle Mark?

Greatest Cantabrigians: Jawaharlal Nehru

Published in Varsity, November 2009

Not only did Jawaharlal Nehru achieve one of the highest ever firsts in Cambridge’s NatSci tripos, but he also defeated the British Empire. Gandhi’s protégé and de facto leader of the Indian independence movement, he spent over a decade in British jails fighting for freedom for his 300 million countrymen. Elected the first and longest-serving Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy, he set the impoverished nation he inherited onto its path to prosperity and became a key figure in post-war international politics. A hero to millions, this Cantabrigian is undoubtedly one of the towering figures of world history.