With the new season of The Richard&Judy Show now down the slipway and making rather large waves in that fast flowing river known as TV, I’ve had time to notice that my dear wife has been looking drawn these past few days. I hesitate to say she’s been looking ‘rough’ because, to be fair, there’s not a woman alive who deserves the term less. She’s merely been missing that little bit of natural effervescence that normally marks her out as a right bottle of fizz.
As you know, being a considerate husband, I always try to do my bit to ease my dear wife’s nerves. Taking her out for a nice evening would, I thought, help calm her down. A good meal, a few bottle of wine, followed by a film at the local multiplex: could there be a better tonic? I thought not so, this afternoon, I set to making all the arrangements .
The only problem is Judy's delicate nature. It takes a measured eye to pick out a film suitable for her unique temperament. Remember: this is the only woman to walk out of the film adaptation of Pride & Prejudice complaining that it was too loud. Casino Royale had ‘too many filthy innuendos’. As for The Simpson’s Movie: she got dizzy once Spiderpig began crawling across the ceiling.
So tonight, I knew I had to choose carefully. I spent a good hour deliberating over the twenty seven films currently showing at the local Odeon and then I booked ahead of our arriving at the cinema. A few of the films were clearly not the sort of thing you’d want to introduce to a nervous woman in her early forties. Last week, I’d been forced to go alone to see the Coen Brother’s rather excellent No Country For Old Men, which would have been much too visceral for Judy. Beowolf was too macho and the less we say about Death Sentence, based on the original Death Wish novel, the better. I also knew that American Gangster was out, while Saw IV and Aliens vs. Predator 2 were really as far from Judy material as modern cinema can go without invoking the name 'Paul Verhoeven'.
In the end, my decision was influenced by factors not exactly related to my good lady wife. Truth to tell, I've always suffered this odd emotional reaction whenever I see Helena Bonham Carter. I tend to blub through any film she's in and pen sonnets during the closing credits. Not that I’d like to ‘covert a neighbour’s wife’ or anything as Biblical as that – they are indeed neighbours of ours – but I’ve just always thought her as beautiful as she is talented. No man leapt as high as me when hearing that she’d parted company with that blowbroth Brannagh. Nobody, perhaps, except Tim Burton. Not that I begrudge him the perfect woman. Well-worn men with a handle on scruffy are men after my own heart and it’s good to see woman of beauty and wit attracted to our kind. In other words, Judy loves a good musical and I wouldn’t be averse to looking at Helena B.C. for a couple of hours. That's why I booked us two premium row seats to Sweeney Todd on one of the largest screens in the South West.
And might I commend myself at this point by saying it was the perfect choice. Judy was soon happily holding my arm and eating from her tub of popcorn. As we settled into the murk of the Victorian gothic, I eased down into my chair, listening to my wife humming gently beside me as she began to sing along with each song. Helena was looking more stunning than I've seen her in a while, while Johnny Depp confirmed my suspicion that he's become the most intelligent and interesting actors of his generation.
Like I said: it was the perfect choice. That is: perfect until the first throat was cut...
I turned to Judy and patted her hand. ‘Can’t be too much of this, love,’ I said as the spray of arterial blood filled the screen and rained down around us in 7.1 Dolby Digital sound. 'There can't be too much of this at all. It might be rated 18 but it is a musical...'
After four or five more throats were cut, each one bloodier than the last, Judy was no longer humming along to Stephen Sondheim’s score but dry retching into her popcorn bucket. During a particularly bright scene on a beach, I turned to find her looking more ashen than a Tim Burton heroine. Her face was drained of colour and if it weren’t for her eyes, which were open (though, oddly, not blinking), I’d have thought she had passed out.
When another hour had passed and the credits began to roll, I was grateful to discover that one of the usherettes was a strapping youth. I had to call him across to help me get Judy from her chair. We then struggled to carry her to the car, much to the amusement of the cinema’s customers.
‘Oy, Madeley!’ shouted one. ‘Finally bored her to death have you?
Another, equally as witty, suggested that ‘Madeley’s got to drug his women to get them on a date’.
It was all most amusing and nearly as pleasant as the silent twenty minutes I spent driving home.
As soon as we were through the front gates, I hit the switch and sealed us in for the night. Sure that nobody could see from the road, I grabbed Judy by the ankles and dragged her into the house. Once I got her settled in a chair in the living room, I poured her a big glass of brandy and an even bigger one for me.
‘Deary me,’ said Stephen Fry, appearing in the doorway. He was dressed in a purple gown and carrying a copy of Caesar’s Commentaries in his good hand. ‘Is that Judy I see looking a bit the worse for wear?’
‘Just shock,’ I explained. ‘We’ve just sat through a Stephen Sondheim musical.’
‘Ah!,’ he trilled. ‘The pleasures of the contrapuntal world!’ His smile broadened as if it were inflating on spirits warming to a favourite subject. He came and sat down in an armchair. ‘You should have said and I might have come with you. I’m a great fan of Mr. Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the film version of which has a cameo by my favourite of the great silent comedians, Mr. Buster Keaton. Unfortunately, the film, though praiseworthy for the performances of, among others, the equally great Phil Silvers and Zero Mostel, also gave the world our first glimpse of the somewhat less than great Michael Crawford. The scene in which he attempts to scrape sweat from a horse’s hindquarters is not one of my most favourite in the history of American cinema. The very thought of drinking an animal’s sweat makes me feel quite nauseous…’
I looked at him, a steady gaze of whimsy and wonder. ‘I think we’ve had enough of that this evening, don’t you?’
He nodded to Judy. ‘Yet shock is such a wonderfully enigmatic reaction. One never knows whether to cure it or simply observe the patient’s response. Was it caused by the linguistic dexterity of the Sondheim libretti? They have been known to strain many a professional singer’s warble.’
‘No, it was blood,’ I replied. ‘Gallons and gallons of blood. Never seen a film like it. I shouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t have trouble sleeping tonight. It will be months before I’ll even contemplate eating a meat pie again…’
‘Well, should you suffer wakefulness, you need only come tapping on my door and we can play Scrabble til dawn.’ He smiled as Judy’s head lolled onto her chest. ‘The poor thing,’ he said, standing up and taking two long strides across the room. ‘There, there,’ he hushed, laying a hand on Judy’s head. ‘Rest yourself in the knowledge that it wasn’t blood at all. I should imagine it merely a combination of corn syrup and food colouring.’
Miraculously, Judy looked up at him. It was the first movement she’d made since the second act’s little ditty involving a straight edged razor.
‘Oh, Stephen, is that right?’ she asked.
‘Of course it is, you silly thing,’ smiled the Great Man. ‘Now, you drink up your brandy and I’ll sing you something soothing to help you take your mind off it.’
And with that, he took another strode that carried him to the fireplace where he threw another log onto the grate before lifting his and lifted his plaster cast and resting it on the mantelpiece. And there he stood for the next hour as sang a selection of light operetta to us in his deliriously sonorous voice. At the end, Judy was feeling well enough to applaud and I was relieved enough to stand up and go shake him by the hand.
‘Stephen Sondheim, eat your heart out,’ I said.
I would have clapped him about the back but Judy chose that moment to faint.
‘Under the circumstances,’ said Stephen, ‘it probably not wise to talk of men eating their own hearts.’
And I suppose, under the circumstances, it wasn’t.