Friday, 3 July 2009

Summer with Harriet

57 years on from what is perhaps Bergman’s most direct and purely sensual movie, Summer with Monika, our heroine is no longer sunning herself on a Swedish island (how wide of the mark the Americans were, by the way, in the hilarious naughtiness-sells advertisement above). She’s here in London, in the lovable personage of her creator Harriet Andersson, one of the three key Bergman muses. Can it really be as long ago as 1992 that I last saw her at the Barbican with her successors in the great man’s complicated love life, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann, as well as Gunnel Lindblom? They ran elegant, stylish rings around bemused film critic/presenter Philip French like the ladies in that, well, not entirely successful Bergman comedy About all these women.

Thanks to the diplo-mate introducing me to Swedish Cultural Affairs Councillor Carl Otto Werkelid, I got to meet Andersson the evening before the Barbican screening of Summer with Monika. I’m prepared to let my absurdly grinning mug appear on screen as this is the only good shot I have of us together.

This was a high-profile concert to celebrate the Swedes taking over the EU presidency from the Czechs, and ticked many of the Nordic boxes in the City of London Festival’s agenda. It was a chance to see inside the Guildhall, which I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a teenager obsessively sightseeing all the city churches, and very splendid it is too despite much post-blitz reconstruction. Thrilled to see those legendary giants Gog

and Magog

even though they’re limewood replacements for the originals, and amused by the OTT monuments to Nelson and the Pitts. Beguiled, too, by bits of a generous programme from the Nordic Chamber Orchestra and Christian Lindberg.

From where we were sitting some way back, the wittier throwaways of Grieg’s Holberg Suite got a bit lost and Lindberg’s declamations between trombone blasts for his own performance-art piece Kundraan couldn’t be understood (alas, there was nothing about it in a badly-proofed programme, either, so it remained baffling, ephemeral perhaps but a lot livelier than most of the post-serial stuff). As usual in cathedral-ish acoustics, the quiet passages of the evening worked best, chiefly those of Part’s Fratres – the trombone version doesn’t quite come off in the faster stuff, to which I can never reconcile myself on this instrument, though Lindberg does it better than anyone – and a gorgeous string arrangement of Sibelius’s B minor piano Impromptu.

Anyway, pressing the flesh of La Andersson was bound to be a highlight. She was utterly natural and charmingly pooh-pooed my declaration that she was my favourite Bergman actress (‘you’d say the same to Liv or Bibi’). It’s true, though. At any rate, she’s certainly the one who’s covered the biggest range, from wild-child Monika and saucy maid Petra in Smiles of a Summer Night through to the schizophrenic girl of Through a Glass Darkly - this poster is part of an exhibition outside Barbican Cinema 1 -

the dying sister of Cries and Whispers and even the cameo grotesque maid Justina in Fanny and Alexander.

Here’s what Bergman had to say about her in The Magic Lantern: ‘She is an unusually strong but vulnerable person, with a streak of brilliance in her gifts. Her relationship to the camera is straight and sensual. She is also technically superb and can move like lightning from the most powerful empathy to conveying sober emotions; her humour is astringent but never cynical; she is a lovely person, one of my dearest friends.’ And later, in Images: ‘Harriet Andersson is one of cinema’s geniuses. You meet only a few of these rare, shimmering individuals on your travels along the twisting road of the movie industry jungle'.

Although I’ve seen Monika twice before, it was startling to be reminded of the teenage Andersson’s contemporary-ness, as if 1952 were today; the mobile expression of changing emotions is amazing, and that scene late in the film where she turns to challenge the viewer directly still takes the breath away. I had to find the still of this, and while I await the Ingmar Bergman Foundation's permission - and I could be waiting a very long time - I'll assume it amounts to good publicity for IB and credit Svenska Film.

The image the Barbican used shows Andersson's Monika, eyes shut, adored by Lars Ekborg as Harry, a man with better teeth (take my word for it) than the one seen with her above.

It was another full evening, cornerstone among the usual suspects of the Barbican’s Bergman ‘Directorspective'. The Swedish ambassador made the most urbane of many speeches we’ve stood or sat through in the past few days, remembering his young days in America when Eisenhower described Sweden as a land of ‘sin, suicide and socialism’. We got to see for the first time in the UK Stig Bjorkman’s half-hour edit of Bergman’s on-shoot ‘home movies’, Images from the Playground, including more from Harriet and Bibi about those golden days. What came across were the dynamic companionship, the energetic teamwork, the humour (Ingmar as Groucho at one stage); needless to say, the fun surprised viewers at Cannes earlier this year. There was live music, a chance to see Bergman’s witty Bris soap commercial in which the 3D actress leaps the screen, then Summer with Monika and a chat with Andersson and Bjorkman conducted by that ardent Bergmanite and distinguished documentary-maker David Thompson.

Andersson was frank about Bergman’s long-term seduction – was it she by him or he by her? – and the telephone time on Sundays he set aside in later years. Was it true, asked David, that the reason they had to go back to the island was because the studio damaged the film? No, that was a lie - he was a great liar - he just wanted to get away from his wife and be back with her in the summer idyll. She seemed rather moved to compare the old man with the handsome charmer of the 1950s. There was never any jealousy, she said, between Bergman's women: how wise, how Swedish. In fact when she saw Bibi Andersson filming a Bris commercial with Bergman, and he told her (Harriet) to leave the studio, 'I thought, she looks so fresh and lovely, and I said to myself, "Ah, there's the next Andersson" - which in a couple of years turned out to be true'. Talk about the need for comedy on the set in Bergman's grimmest scenes led her to speak frankly about how her character’s death in Cries and Whispers was modelled on that of her father, screaming with agony from cancer back in the days when morphine was less readily available.

Afterwards, I was enjoying a drink at the cinema bar with friends Pia and Sylvia, getting to talk Schnittke with Timothy of the Brothers Quay and soprano Allison Bell, when the VIPs emerged (minus the Swedish princess, I think, who by that stage had left). Carl Otto encouraged me to show the 1992 Barbican programme I’d brought to HA, because she’d wanted to know how long ago it was and what had happened then. Again, she was charm itself, even in her rather peremptory utterances (‘move your ass HERE!’, said with a comedy-American accent), sought reassurance that her ‘performance’ in the interview had gone well and chatted away happily to Pia in Swedish. One last jolly shot, then, of Libedinsky, Andersson and Ostlund.

But that’s not the end of Swedomania in London. On Saturday another Andersson even better known to the world at large, Benny, brings his band to a free concert in Parliament Hill Fields (further details here). A few Abba hits are promised. We’ll be there with two of the godchildren.


jondrytay said...

Good lord, you met Harriet Andersson, you incredibly lucky person. She looks about 35.

Angela Maxwell Stewart said...

referring to the entries about digital versus analogue, I understand that attempts are being made to develop a digital stream which won't be thinned by more and more people tuning to the output station, as on Radio 3 during Prom relays for example, but it is nowhere near completion. The Australian broadcasting authority rejected DAB as its primary source because of its lack of sound depth when putting out concerts etc.
I note that you praised the Oxford choral foundations in one of your previous blogs, but what about Cambridge? Kings is justly considered ne plus ultra, but my own college, St.Johns, has an excellent full-time choir too - meembers of the public often visit for Evensong and Holy Communion. Why not check us out?
Angela Maxwell Stewart, Maths, St.Johns, Cambridge.

David said...

Jon - as in the film, vitality is beauty. She must be in her 70s: I think I'm right in saying that she was nineteen when she debuted for Bergman as Monika in 1952.

Ah, you can imagine the Emilia Martyish mystique of seeing young Monika and older Harriet alongside each other...

Angela, I know King's is de rigeur but I wait to hear them in situ. And I've long enjoyed the St John's recordings. I was in Cambridge a year ago, but hope to return to catch some evensongs there too.

Are you any relation to the glamorous Lucy MS (maybe spelled differently)?

Angela Maxwell Stewart said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Angela Maxwell Stewart said...

To David Nice blogspot
I'm glad you've enjoyed the St.Johns College Choir recordings-there is a very good box set from Naxos with Christopher Robinson which is quite inexpensive. I have a few which Hyperion have done and they are excellent.
No, I am not directly related to a Lucy of same surname(possibly spelled Maxwell Stuart), although here at Cambridge Univ I am often asked if I am a member of a well-known Scottish recusant Catholic family of that surname and spelling(perhaps Lucy is). The sad and rather boring fact is that my father is Maxwell and mother Stewart so I joined the names together when they divorced, so I didn't have to choose one or other and cause a rift.
You won't be finding me or my family in Debretts!
Angela Maxwell Stewart

David said...

You'll be relieved to know I don't look in Debrett's, Angela, nor am I impressed by the recusant Scots, of whom Lucy is one - I just know her and like her.

Jon - I checked Harriet on Wikipedia and she is 77 (and such a person would not, I think, knock a couple of years on or off her age).

David Damant said...

David Damant writes

You should study the Peerage, David, it is the best thing in fiction the English have ever done ( Wilde, and bearing in mind the number of peers that were probably not the son of their fathers, likely to be true)

Your comment about the two Pitt memorials being OTT shows a sad undervaluing of history. As the Elder Pitt (Chatham ) said, " I know that I can save this country and that no one else can" - a statement repeated ( to herself) by Mrs Thatcher in 1979. Both suceeded. And the Younger Pitt was, as was said after his Maiden Speech, not a chip off the old block but the old block itself

David said...

David, I'm not denying those great men their right to monumental splendour, but some of the figures did make me laugh a bit - as does much funerary sculpture. Nice to have a muscly Neptune and Hermes in the picture, I guess.

Of course, I should have posted those pictures too, but I thought more than Gog and Magog would get in the way of the Bergmanian goal.

BTW, Angela, your message came up twice, which is why I deleted the first one.

David said...

PS - David - of course we beg to differ on La Thatcher. Though as I think you know I did find her personality overwhelmingly impressive at the Garrick.

David Damant said...

David Damant adds

Sorry you don't care for storied urns and animated busts

The Stewarts were one of the great families of Scottish and English history, though hopeless heads of government in England. Mary Queen of Scots changed the spelling to "Stuart" when she married the Dauphin, as with "Stewart" the French pronunciation was not clear. Hence the present confusion as to spelling.Iain Moncrieffe of that Ilk - the greatest authority on such families - claimed that the present Stuart pretender was not the Duke of Bavaria but ---------Elizabeth II !!!

There is nothing to debate about La Thatcher. Our economy was transformed and her policies were adopted by many governments all over the world, including Labour. I would guess - if it would ease the strain - that the grocer's daughter would have slapped on tighter regulation and money supply before the banking crisis got serious.

David said...

OK, OK, so long as you promise not to start on about how cultured our Adolf was. Actually I have a Wagner thing in line for here, from Zurich days, but it doesn't have much to do with Bayreuth and Katharina Wagner's plans to open up information about her great-grandfather's appropriation by the Nazis, a news story I guess you've been following.

David Damant said...

As Dr Johnson said, there is no awarding a precedence between a louse and a flea - and we cannot judge as to who was the most evil of the various and horrible tyrants in history. But as to who ( in modern history) had the greatest influence, Hitler has few if any rivals.....if it had not been for him there would have been no Second World War( in the West anyway). Hence he is worth studying. As to his artistic ideas, I would recommend - very strongly indeed - Frederic Spotts book "Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics"

I doubt if there is much more to say about the "takeover " of Wagner by Hitler (NOT by the Nazi's, most members of the party having to be forced to attend the operas. In that, as in no other matter, I am in complete agreement with them)

Angus said...

Seconded, jondrytay - the great Harriet Andersson looks amazing. Such vitality in the eyes. David, you look thrilled to meet her.

David said...

I was, Angus, I was. Second only to the great might-have-been of meeting IB himself. A trombonist in the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra said he could fix it, and later we were going to make an excursion to Faro, but it never happened. What could one say, anyway? Where to begin?

toubab said...

David dearest,
I am envious and would so much wanted to be there to meet La Anderson with you, Pia and Sylvia.
It is incomprehesible it is already seven and a half years ago then, that Bergman season at the Barbican..
I am trying to reacall Summer with Monika: its the one where the boyfriend dies in a diving accident, yes?
much love from another Swede

David said...

No, dahling, that's Summer Interlude starring Maj Britt Nilsson (it's the early Bergman alter ego Birger Malmsten who plays the doomed young man). Here the pair are just pulled apart by the mundanity of life back in Stockholm with a baby.

The earlier Barbican season was back in 1992 before we knew each other. The NFTfest we shared was in Jan-Feb 2003. I must dig out that picture of you in Swedish costume and Sanjay holding up my treasured F&A poster.


Peter M.Stephenson said...

From Peter Stephenson, Elwood Street, N5
Dear David
I well remember attending, with my wife, some of your City Lit lectures about 20-odd years ago - very informative and enjoyable they were too. I read your blog regularly and have quite a prosaic question to ask:just how many god-children do you actually have? You mention different ones in various countries, though not by name. My wife and I have but one godchild who damn nearly bleeds us dry through expected embursements at Grade 5 violin distinction success, O levels, winning merit at Operation Raleigh in Brazil(very expensive) etc. I assume that your godchildren expect the same. How can you afford them all?
Peter Stephenson
p.s.I also heard your Discovering Music on Prokofiev a week last Sunday and found it VERY interesting.

David said...

Greetings, Peter. You remind me that I've been holding forth at the City Lit for over two decades now. Well, we've just put Traviata to bed and pick up with Turandot, Tchaikovsky's Slippers and Bartok's Bluebeard in September.

In answer to your question, I have three and a half godchildren - the half is disputed, since I wouldn't follow the mother's wishes to subject me to an evangelical preacher - while my partner has two + one unseen.

None is especially demanding on the finances, since two have parents much better off than us and the others seem to have all they need and are very undemanding. I often forget birthdays, but make a fuss of them when we see them. One is shortly to feature here in the company of Benny Andersson - so happy to fix that for her.