The enduring allure of erotic masterpiece Black Narcissus



That movie was made by an English director and a Hungarian-born writer-producer: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the celebrated cinema partnership revered for a series of groundbreaking and influential British films, of which Black Narcissus has become one of the best-loved. Now, there is a new adaptation, this time a joint BBC-FX production made for the small screen and starring Gemma Arterton and Aisling Franciosi.

The book, Godden’s third, and first bestseller, was praised by critics for its “rare beauty” and its “subtlety and freshness”, yet the story is not commonly described in such terms now. Rather Amanda Coe, the writer of the new three-part television version, says she thinks of it as “The Shining with nuns”.

Godden, who died aged 90 in 1998, was born in England but spent much of her childhood in India where her father managed a steamship company. She was a bestselling author who wrote more than 60 books, several of which were filmed. However her popularity has waned to the point where the most familiar Rumer to some will be the actress daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, apparently named after the writer.

Black Narcissus is Godden’s best-known work, partly because of the success and enduring popularity of the 1947 film. It tells the story of a small cadre of nuns from an Anglo-Catholic order sent to a remote mountaintop palace 8,000ft (2,400m) up in the Himalayas to establish a school and dispensary for the ‘natives’ – whether the ‘natives’ want one or not. The young, relatively inexperienced and rather self-important Sister Clodagh is placed in charge of this mission. Among the nuns is the highly-strung, difficult Sister Ruth.



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Flash Gordon: An erotic sci-fi extravaganza



As with the imagery and the tone of Flash Gordon, the eroticism can be traced back to Raymond’s 1930s comic strips, in which women in skimpy harem underwear and men in tiny shorts are chained up and whipped on a regular basis. “I spoke to my American friends about Flash Gordon,” explains Hodges, “and they said that a lot of their sexual fantasies came from the comic strip. They loved all those pictures of the voluptuous Princess Aura. I took that as a green light to run it at two levels, with the action angle for the younger audience, and the sexual stuff for the older audience.”

That decision may have scuppered the film’s box office prospects in conservative parts of the US. And, partly as a result of its under-performance, the sequel De Laurentiis originally talked to Hodges about was never made. But, along with its fabulous retro design, its adrenaline-pumping rock operatics, and its signature mix of earnest grandeur and winking humour, the sex in Flash Gordon helped to ensure its eventual cult status. And it’s certainly steamier than Star Wars. “I regard them as completely different,” says Hodges. “Star Wars is so bland beside the colours of Flash Gordon, I don’t see any connection between them at all.”

The Flash Gordon 40th anniversary restoration collector’s edition DVD is released by StudioCanal on 10 August. Flash Gordon in 4k is in UK cinemas now, restored by StudioCanal.

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The erotic songs lost in translation



When asked if he’d like to perform more he ponders for a while before replying, “I’d have to understand them a bit more. I don’t know. Now that you’re mentioning it to me I’m thinking ‘yeah, maybe that’s a good idea.’” He is intrigued to hear of Birkin’s intentions as at one time he was trying to get Faber to do a translation of the lyrics. “Maybe I should talk to her,” he muses. “It’s very dependent on getting the right person to do it but I think it would be worthwhile.”

A Birkin/Cocker collaboration is certainly something that appeals to Bob Stanley, Saint Etienne’s songwriter and pop expert par excellence, but when considering how one might go about covering Gainsbourg’s songs he also emphasises the integral nature of the musical arrangements, particularly those of Jean-Claude Vannier. “If you take that away, the songs just don’t sound as strong.” Although he hasn’t heard Birkin’s albums he believes her approach is the way to go. For any alternative version to work and not sound derivative, “you’d have to have someone of equal stature doing their own arrangements.”

He also thinks playing up the Gallic nature of the music would be a huge mistake. “If someone took the Frenchness out of a cover that could make it work. Melody Nelson was from Sunderland after all.” 

It is clear that if ever Cocker is to be persuaded to be Gainsbourg’s Scott Walker not only will his Mort Shuman need to be found but also a stunning contemporary arranger to do the compositions justice. Let’s hope they can be, for as Birkin says, “Serge would have been so flattered to be sung in English.”

The album is out now on Parlophone France.

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