Wednesday, 19 June 2013

gloriously demented: the case of dr jekyll, mr hyde and peter cook

Ralph Bates in Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde, dir Roy Ward Baker, Hammer, 1971

When Hammer Films remodelled Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde for the early 70s sleaze horror market as Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde, Peter Cook must have kicked himself. Or he should have. Everything had pointed towards him getting to a remake of the story first. Cook did eventually write a screenplay, but what he came up with was far more than an excuse for macabre sauciness. Dr Jekyll & Mrs Hyde, as it was called, just never made it to the big screen.

A smattering of newspaper interviews in the late 60s dripfed Cook's mullings over of an idea for a horror film - "something rather nasty about rejuvenation, acupuncture and spiritualism", far from "one of those modern giggle and ketchup affairs". It wasn't so unlikely. He'd conquered stage, print and TV in just a few years with his pioneering satirical writing (plus set up a home for subversive comedy with the Establishment club in London's Soho) before turning his mischief-making to ideas about good and evil for the commercial cinematic mainstream. In 1967 Bedazzled featured a Devil that was even likable, as demonic genies can be, especially since it was Cook himself as George Spiggott, aka Lucifer. "He's not so bad once you get to know his problems," as Stanley Moon says. Politics provided the less literal, but darker version of devilish japes in The Rise And Rise Of Michael Rimmer in 1970, with Cook again in the lead, this time as the schmoozing, social climbing and possibly murderous would-be dictator of the title. 

Cook had also appeared among the all-star cast in Bryan Forbes' 1966 film version of The Wrong Box, a gothic farce from 1889 written by Robert Louis Stevenson with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne. Replete with dead bodies, dastardly haplessness and Victorian values upturned, the narrative also featured a character that could've come from Cook's own pen called The Bournemouth Strangler. That Stevenson's fevered writing of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde in 1885 took place under those same sedate English riviera skies of Bournemouth and not, as might be expected, in genteel yet sepulchral Edinburgh seemed to complete some kind of fateful circle (and surely would have amused Cook).

Hammer's sexy horror rewrite of the Jekyll and Hyde tale as Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde, directed by Roy Ward Baker, saw a Jekyll out to cure the world of disease (Ralph Bates) warped into Jack the Ripper by his murderess alter ego (Martine Beswick). What Peter Cook had in mind was very different: a comedy, but multi-faceted, as Smarter Than The Average (to which I'm indebted for this story) revealed in its indepth trajectory of the forgotten manuscript a few years ago.

From the script's foreword by Cook: "Dr Jekyll and Mrs Hyde, though predominantly a comedy, is also a love story, a study in narcissism and an exposé, in funny terms, of the hypocritical Victorian attitude towards women. Dr Jekyll, though outwardly respectable, is an adventurer. His alter-ego, Mrs Hyde, the only woman he can really love, represents everything a Victorian lady should not be." 

By the time Cook had finished the script it was the beginning of 1977 and the film's time was no doubt already long past. There were efforts to put the script into production as late as 1979 though, (with the idea of Dudley Moore in the lead role), and some wistfulness on Cook's part a year later in a Radio Times interview that he might even be able to get Moore (by then a Hollywood star thanks to Blake Edward's film, 10) to fund it. Instead, there was silence and the script became a shadow again.

But there is still the script and, once past the long and unnecessary opener about Jekyll's schooldays, it's a brilliant one. 

Like the question in Frankenstein of who the monster really is – the unnatural creation or society – the apparently mad scientist Jekyll and his apparently "demented" harpy alternate Mrs Hyde are, in this tale, an RD Laing take on gothic: the sane ones in an insane world. 

In Stevenson's original story the horror was about the loss of self, control, power and the dividing of personality. In Cook's version, the horror is about the lack of self, control and power among those subjugated by Jekyll's standing in society (whether women, servants, or soldiers). But Stevenson was also puncturing the veneer of Victorian respectability, and Cook gleefully stabs some more, updating and amplifying the hypocrisy with plenty of lampooning of repressed 'animalistic' desires.

Not so much had changed, after all, between the Victorian era and the 70s (never mind where we are now). Likewise with gender relations, which Cook turns from the vaguely misogynist nightmares of Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde (and countless other horror films) into feminist-fuelled comedy. Cook's Jekyll is outstripped by a female Hyde who is stronger, smarter, wittier, better-looking and more inventive. Mrs Hyde outrages Dr Jekyll's peers by arguing (or just speaking), drinks Scotch rather than sherry, bares far too much leg at every opportunity and rouses the workers, servants and women to revolt. Notorious as she is though, Mrs Hyde isn't murderous or villainous – and Jekyll adores her, even when she uses his money to set up a newspaper for women, just as she adores him (and not for his money). The problem is not who has the power or trusting each other but whether they can co-exist in the same body. A happy ending for both of them isn't too much to ask for in such a topsy-turvy world.

Besides all this, the comedy works. There are classic Cook-style sight jokes (sometimes literal), inventive wordplay, ridiculously fascinating characters, running gags, ludicrous scenes. Easy targets are avoided in favour of askew bullseyes (Mrs Hyde's brief meeting with Jack The Ripper, Jekyll's gynaecological exam of Queen Victoria, the planning of the Charge of the Light Brigade.) 

It's funny, naughty, smart and radical – a waste of a good screenplay, in other words. But without Cook as Jekyll (and a comparable co-lead as Mrs Hyde), or rather, without specifically a late-60s era Cook, maybe turning it into a film is impossible. Or is it? Read Dr Jekyll & Mrs Hyde for yourself, see what you think. Toast Mr Cook with a drink if you like it at least.

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