This is the perfect time of year to reminisce about ones childhood and of course I’m no different from anyone else, indeed the other day I couldn’t stop thinking about The Woodentops .
The Woodentops, way back in the late 50s, and when I was getting on for ten-ish1, were a rather stiff upper-middle -class-ish marionette family on the BBC telly, who very obviously lived (if that’s quite the right word) up to their name by being made of wood---one could see the strings, and the structure of the joints; but mainly one could see the wood. The over-all impression they gave was of those cute little artists’ mannequinny-modelly things being animated in a rather wooden way.
Though I must now admit that I was thinking of The Woodentops less because of a seasonal sentimentality than because I had just been to see the new Beowulf movie in 3-D at the IMAX. I just couldn’t stop thinking “Aaaargh! There are forty-foot tall Woodentops poking sharp things right at me!” so it wasn’t quite the pleasant trip down memory lane that you might have been imagining: though I must also admit that the movie wasn’t all that bad. I mean all our favourite characters were there---the Scildings weard watching from his holmclifu, Breca, Unferth (and his sword Hrunting). Wiglaf was there, and was there right from the beginning of the story (as he is not in the poem so that one began to suspect that he had an ‘in’ with the re-writers to pad up his part a bit) and not only that, but every single time I saw him the first thought that flashed across my mind was “How on Earth did Gimli Gloin’s son escape from The Lord of the Rings---and when is he going to start enquiring as to the whereabouts of his friend Legolas?”
Poor Grendel is of course there, all gibletty and oozy and pathetic (well for a murdering monster he’s pathetic). Now Grendel is depicted as having really, really bad teeth---I mean we’re talking Austin Powers bad here, and then some---and the reason for this (and perhaps for some of his other nutritionally-based problems) became apparent when we saw his mother. Angelina Jolie (for it is she) was, for the most part, nude and was most definitely breasted, however her breasts were equally definitely not nippled, so we don’t need to get too Freudian in our analysis to imagine the frustration and lack of calcium that poor baby Grendel must have had to face.
And mentioning Mr Powers reminds me of one of the more amusing aspects of the production, you see they chose to interpret the fact that the poem has Beowulf take off his armour so he can fight Grendel on equal terms in such a way that he doesn’t stop there but gets carried away a bit, stripping down to the (rather computer enhanced) buff, which of course then forced them to contrive Austo-Powersian concatenations to keep things decent enough for the ratings board (and, thank goodness, to save us from having more stuff thrust at us through the horrors of 3-D), not that they went nearly far enough---if they really wanted to put Beowulf’s wardrobe on an equal footing with Grendel’s then they should have removed his skin and, I suspect, several of his less-vital organs.
Ooo! Oo! Oo! And the dragon was even there!
This may indeed be a first for anyone in Hollywood to have actually read the second half of Beowulf---though come to think of it it’s probably a first for anyone in Hollywood to have read the second half of anything!!
Apart from the wooden aspect of the semi-animated-CGI-ish-loosely-based-on-actors process, the things in the movie that were all that bad included the absolutely crap jewelry (the real stuff that has survived from that period is so much better---I mean there wasn’t even any cloisonné!) and there was their strange decision to get all Aristotley and to try for the unity of place (not to mention the unity of having-just-about-every-guy-in-power-Impregnating-Grendel’s-mum) by having Beowulf become king of the Danes rather than the Geats back home as he should have done! And last, and the absolute nadir of execrable horror: Queen Wealtheow’s song---and it wasn’t just the fact that she was playing an anachronistic lap harp with a fore-post instead of a lyre, no, no, this was a sub-musical vileness that made me want to reach out and tear her thirty-foot long Woodentoppy 3-D throat out and beat her with it.
Did I mention that it was horrible?
Anyway to end on a high note (and to try to subsume Wealhtheow’s absolutely horrible collection of low notes into my repressed memory syndrome) they must at least have met someone who knew the original poem because there was some actual Old English in the thing. They had Grendel talk in it (to the extent that he could through those dreadful teeth); and later, when Beowulf was an old king, they had a few lines from the poem in OE recited while a mini-me of our hero fought a guy in a horse-skull mask, very strange but strangely satisfying.
Cheerio for now
from Richard Howland-Bolton.
1 Of course I should reassure you that I (aet. 7-10) was not part of the Woodentops target demographic. I’m not sure if I actually ever even saw one episode, however narrative necessity always overrides reality in these essays.
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