|Mike Hodges: "Flash saved the world! Maybe now's the right time to make the sequel?"|
MIKE HODGES is best known as a film director, most notably, of the classic British crime movie Get Carter, which he adapted memorably for the screen from Ted Lewis’s Brit-noir novel Jack’s Return Home. He has written and directed widely for film, television, radio and theatre. His first novel, Watching The Wheels Come Off is a biting and bleakly satirical take on rampant self-interest and the culture it spawns, set in a fictional English seaside town. Here Hodges speaks about his own take on the novel and his inspiration for the story. He gives a no-holds barred perspective on the current state of politics and society and the attitudes of British publishers.
I began by asking him what was it about the ideas behind Watching the Wheels Come Off that prompted him to put pen to paper for his first novel?
“I’d been waiting for the finances to come together on a film adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Mario and the Magician. As usual it was taking longer than expected: five years. Previously I’d been lucky enough to fill the gaps between feature films by writing and directing television, radio and theatre. This time I did what I'd always hoped I'd do: write a novel: Watching The Wheels Come Off is the result.”
Watching The Wheels Come Off is a tightly plotted, fast and exhilarating read. In Mark Miles it creates a fully functioning anti-hero for our times: a small beer PR consultant with an insatiable sexual appetite, ducking and diving through his own inadequacies as the fag end of his business throws him unceremoniously on his backside. Miles's troubles coincide with the arrival from the USA of the 'Performance Improvement Institute' tour. It's deliciously and unashamedly allegorical. Where did Mike's central concept for the story and its characters come from?
“Anybody reading the novel will find it hard to believe it's central idea comes from a real occurrence. In 1973 I found myself in Los Angeles making my third feature film. It was a Warner Brothers’ production, The Terminal Man: a tough assignment because, not only was I adapting Michael Crichton’s novel, but I was also producing and directing it. As a consequence, I lived there for nearly a year. At some point I heard about a mind-bending weekend course during which the fee paying participants were inculcated with the supposed dynamics of leadership. In fact, it espoused a quasi-religious, ruthless form of capitalism: a sort of boot camp for unfettered exploitation. The props used in this process indicate the degree of depravity employed: a coffin, a crucifix, a man-sized cage, and finally a hangman’s rope. I investigated further: uncovering a recorded account of one case in which the course had turned seriously violent. On my return to England I was telling all this to a friend who, out of the blue, remembered the very same course coming to London. He recounted how a tabloid journalist had infiltrated it and blown the whistle. With that the American organisers disappeared: no one knows where. That’s where my novel starts.”
Like much of Hodges’ film work, the novel presents something of a bleak world view; especially striking in the evangelistic convictions of the staff of the ‘Performance Improvement Institute’ and their messianic leader Dr Herman P Temple. Would Mike say there is a direct link with any of his film work?
“I suppose there is. Get Carter is a bleak story laced with dark humour. The Terminal Man is just bleak. Pulp, the film I made between the two, is dark humour laced with a bleak story. Come to think of it so is Black Rainbow, which I wrote and directed in 1990. But it’s not surprising they are bleak as all four films have one element in common: an examination of the unremitting exploitation of humans by other humans. It’s a subject that, for reasons I don't totally understand, obsesses me. Now, with the bailout of the banks and the universal acceptance of a bogus bonus system for the bosses, exploitation is much on our minds. This time though it’s not third world workers being exploited; it’s us. More bizarrely, unlike those workers, we helped build and set the fiscal trap; then walked right into it. Wilful blindness is a term currently in vogue; and rather appropriately so. I must, however, point out that not all my work is dark and bleak. I also made Flash Gordon and, as its aficionados will know, Flash saved the world! Maybe now's the right time to make the sequel?”
The blackly comic punch of Watching The Wheels Come Off places Mike Hodges firmly in an English satirical tradition. Less a nod to the footlights or the Establishment club and Private Eye, this feels like it has a direct line to grubbier worlds of Swift and Hogarth and more recently a TV show like the League of Gentlemen. Does he see the novel in that context?
“The savagery of Swift and Hogarth is something I can only aspire to. A country so patently corrupt across all its institutions (while remaining stoically hypocritical about it) will always be a target deserving of swingeing satire. Besides, it’s a fantasy island worthy of Swift's imagination; with a class system that’s harder to eradicate than wet rot; on top of which sits a queen (sometimes seen riding in a golden coach) and a plethora of lords and ladies, barons and baronesses, dukes and duchesses, princes and princesses. No wonder the Christmas pantomime is an indelible part of the country's fabric. And let’s not forget Alice in Wonderland. Of course, it would have been more appropriate if Watching The Wheels Come Off had been published before Mrs Thatcher came to power. Back in 1973 (six years before that event) I never for one minute believed the values of that American course would hold sway in my own country. I was wrong. The “trickle down” constantly referred by the Iron Lady turned out to be mostly avarice. And with each drip the gap between rich and poor widened. Worse; the messiah we anxiously awaited to restore our spiritual health turned out to be Tony Blair. Enough said.”
The demands of script writing, particularly for a major feature film are notoriously tough to negotiate. Does Mike view his novel writing process as different from his script-writing/adapting processes?
“I found writing my novel much more exhilarating than any script. The sense of freedom was wondrous. It’s like painting or drawing; just you and your marks. So it's very different to screen writing. There are no budgetary considerations, no catering for the whims of producers and actors.”
Mike has spoken on a number of occasions about the state of the British publishing industry and how the mainstream rarely values innovators. It means that an aspiring novelist, even one with a stellar track record as a film writer and director, can come up against the equivalent of a private members club. What was his experience of the process?
“I’ve found the publishing world to be much like every other mini world in the UK (see above). But with one added ingredient: intellectual snobbery. The condescending chatter swirling around every Man Booker prize was encapsulated when this year's winner peevishly called it ‘posh bingo’ after his previous attempts to carry off the prize had failed. From my observations it's a world as incestuous as the gentlemen's clubs in Pall Mall. That’s par for the course here in Great Britain.”
That said, is he planning to write another novel?
“I certainly am!”
Watching The Wheels Come Off is the blackest and funniest novel I've read in a long time and the first time I've ever encountered donkey sex in print: a scene I won't be forgetting for a long time. Mike Hodges introduces his cast of grotesque and wonderfully seedy characters like the barker of a 21st century seaside freak-show. He hits his targets unerringly. As the novel moves towards its climax and the 'Performance Improvement Institute' circus rolls into town, the final act drags Mark Miles into his own performance improvement hell and in doing so, makes a boldly uncompromising satirical mark with its take on the relationship between the UK and USA and the shared religious/political zealotry and sycophancy of a society in decline. Above all, Watching The Wheels... is expertly crafted and a great read from one of our foremost writers and film-makers.