SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS: AN AWFULLY HONEST FILM
This is the thirty-sixth chapter of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, which is introduced here.
An Awfully Honest Film
In 1978 Andrew Birkin (who went on to direct “Burning Secret”, “Cement Garden”, and make a cameo appearance in “Name of the Rose”) wrote a trilogy for BBC TV about author J M Barrie’s intimate and tragedy-strewn relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family, which gave him the inspiration for “Peter Pan”. It’s incongruous that I should single out “The Lost Boys” (not to be confused with the 1987 teen vampire film) for my pièce de résistance, because not only was it a TV drama, it locates itself in the mind and introspections of the man, when this whole survey has considered such relationships from the boys’ social status and needs. “The Lost Boys” is a view from the other side of that adult/child wall, and yet Barrie’s persona and writings were so completely in thrall to a romantic view of boyhood that it has to be considered the central fact of his existence.
Such wistful veneration of boyhood (which I hasten to add I do not share) was not uncommon among writers — Kipling had it, Twain had it, and it resonates unmistakably in the works of Faulkner, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King. The culture of boyhood inspired such authors just as it inspired contemporary film-makers like Spielberg or the artwork of Norman Rockwell. Boyhood exerted a pull on them far beyond simple nostalgia. There was a nobility to it, a poetry to it, which almost defies comprehension today. No film articulates that sense of yearning better than “The Lost Boys”.
For J M Barrie, however, one of the pre-eminent authors of Edwardian Britain, the attachment ran deeper still, a primal itch he was constantly scratching through his diaries, notebooks and published works. He insinuates himself by degrees into the family life of the Llewelyn-Davies in order to cement his comradeship with their five young sons, and while he does grow devoted to their ever-patient, serene mother Sylvia, it is first George and later Michael who are the captains of his heart. His attachment to them is absolute, fiercely possessive and a total mystification to all around him. To the boys themselves, JMB is an ally behind enemy lines, a boy in a grown man’s body, and he of course is delighted with that role. His wife less so, their pain-etched marriage no more than a stiff public contrivance, they play the solicitous couple for society, and vent their grief and despair at one another in private.
Forget Johnny Depp in the lamentable “Finding Neverland” (USA 2004), Ian Holm is magnificent as Barrie, giving surely the defining performance of a long and distinguished career. He is a sour, maudlin man, veering between self-recrimination for his marital shortcomings and active connivance to bind the Llewelyn-Davies boys ever closer to him. He is truculent, waspish, suffocating in his propriety and mawkish beyond belief in his whimsy, but he relates to small boys with an effortless offhand charm and humour, winning their confidence with an ease that baffles other adults. Even in far-off Edwardian society, such liaisons did not escape the occasional whisper of mistrust, but Sylvia’s faith in him is so adamant, his frankness with her so disarming, as to overcome all misgivings. It is written off as an eccentricity, the foible of a pillar of society.
“We Set Out to be Wrecked”, the first instalment of the trilogy, describes Barrie’s first casual meeting with George in Kensington Gardens, 1897, and his winning of the boy, a lazy-eyed coquet in scarlet tam-o’shanter played with exquisite archness by Holm’s own son Barnaby. “I do have a boy, a rather depraved one I’m happy to say,” he tells a woman at a New Year’s Eve dinner, “but he’s not exactly mine. I’ve always held that dogs and boys have much in common. Except dogs have a keener sense of humour.”
“Mr Barrie” she replies, “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but “your” boy’s father is sitting next to me!” So he meets George’s parents, and in short order becomes a regular fixture in their household. Arthur Llewelyn Davies resents this intrusion, and the family governess, Mary, takes against Barrie from the outset, but the boys accept him with nonchalance, captivated by his stories and grim jokes. Their mother (finely played by Ann Bell) warms to him quickly. And so we watch the gradual genesis of the Peter Pan story through JMB’s fantasies told to the boys, and a long summer holiday with them at his Devon estate of Black Lake in 1901.
It was not of course Peter, the third Llewelyn Davies boy, who was Barrie’s inspiration but George. Peter was still a baby at the time. And Barrie had no romantic interest whatever in Sylvia, who was utterly devoted to her husband Arthur. And Barrie was not young, handsome and at ease with women like Johnny Depp, but short, dour and paralysed with discomfort even at the caresses of his long-suffering wife Mary. “Finding Neverland” was, I say again, a total travesty of the story. This is a portrait of pain, dull incomprehension and a longing on Barrie’s part to escape back to some “carefree” time of his childhood, before the complications of adult life set in. George is his mirror on a long-lost self. “I could forgive that boy anything,” Barrie muses to himself, watching the young George, “except his youth”. He scribbles his thoughts and observations down in an ever-present notebook. Boys have “appalling courage, but sudden floods of feeling and emotion. All boys grow up, that is their tragedy. Except one. That is his”.
Tragedy hits the Llewelyn Davies family sooner than that, in the second episode “Dark and Sinister Man”, when Arthur’s chronic toothaches are diagnosed as a hideous cancer slowly devouring his upper palate and jaw. At the same time George fails his scholarship exam to Eton. By this time Peter Pan has proved such a hit on the stage that JMB is able to persuade Sylvia to let him pay not only George’s school fees, but also Arthur’s hospital bills, and Barrie is constantly at the bedside, silent, understanding. George, now 12, has already outgrown Barrie, but the fourth brother, frail delicate Michael, arrives on the scene to fill that space. Barrie is enchanted with him. It is Michael, more artistic, more sensitive, tormented by dark dreams, who models the Peter Pan costume on which the world famous statue is based.
During a brief remission period, Arthur returns home to his family, scarcely able to speak now. He sees that Jack, his second son, resents Barrie more and more, and tells him “Don’t think I don’t understand how you feel about Mr Barrie. No-one understands that as well as I do, because it’s how I felt about him myself. The only thing we had in common was our mutual love for you boys, and no father likes to share his children with another man. But I have heard so much from him that is wise, and good, and true, that I have come to regard him as a brother. His love for you boys is my one great comfort when I think of the future after I’m gone.” The remission is soon over, and Sylvia is shattered with grief at Arthur’s death. She is not long after to follow him. Barrie invites Sylvia, Michael and the whole family on a holiday in Switzerland, and this is the scene for the following exchange between “Uncle Jim” and Michael, now 10 or 11, deliciously played by Sebastian Buss. In a truth game, Barrie asks why Michael stayed behind at the hotel, rather than join all the others skiing. “To be with you” Michael replies, smiling coyly, “till death us do part …”. Barrie makes him hold his finger out, and blows a smoke ring over it. “But we’re both boys?” says Michael. “You speak for yourself” Barrie huffs, “I am what is commonly known as a ‘grown-up’.” “You’re not common and you’re definitely not grown-up. You’re … old, but you’re not grown up. You’re … one of us.” And so the game goes on, the two of them exchanging confessions they could otherwise never allow into words, but for the game.
Other games are afoot, and Barrie discovers his frustrated, humiliated wife Mary has begun a secret affair with a younger man. She demands a divorce, but he will not hear of the scandal. He swings between white rage — playing the injured husband — and blaming himself for everything. She was a fool to have married him in the first place. He could not change himself, try as he did, and she could not change him either, as she first supposed. It’s a domestic dialogue we recognise all too well, smothered with soaps as we are, but this is pre-WWI society, and all that Barrie can conceptualise is that he was ill suited for marriage, for … certain aspects of married life … and had always known it.
The divorce goes through despite him, and wandering forlornly with Michael through Kensington Gardens, picking a site for the new statue, this dialogue takes place:
Michael: You shouldn’t smoke so much! It’s very addictive!
Barrie: So are you.
Michael: Not for always I shan’t be. One day, quite soon I daresay, I shall grow up, and then I’ll be like everybody else, and you’ll get bored with me and find another boy to love …
Barrie: Did I get bored with George?
Michael: You found me. Perhaps … perhaps if I get bored with you first? That would be amusing wouldn’t it?
Barrie (sourly): Hilarious …
When Sylvia dies of some sudden unexplained malaise, the five Llewellyn Davies boys become wards of Barrie’s and the scene is set for the final chapter “An Awfully Big Adventure”. The “war to end wars” breaks out, and the society Barrie has always known suffers its death throes on the fields of Flanders. His beloved George is slain before he even sees battle and then, a few years on, Michael commits suicide as an undergraduate, in circumstances that hinted at homosexuality. Barrie is left a harrowed shell of a man. His only comfort is that the species boy lives on, brave as ever, heartless and insensitive as ever, enchanting as ever. The story closes with him, an elderly man now, playing on a beach with the small child of his secretary.
“The Lost Boys” is a rare and precious gem, a frank and searching character portrait of one man, not an agreeable man at all, for whom the magic of boyhood was everything in life. “A sensitive and beautifully crafted masterpiece” said the Daily Telegraph; “A brilliant achievement … one of the finest pieces of television drama I have ever seen” wrote the Listener; “Superb and haunting” wrote the Times. Since 1978 hundreds of films have been released with a boy as the central figure, and many of these have been special friendship tales. Not one of them had the candour, the insight or the subtlety of this piece, where boys themselves are far from centre stage. What is centre stage here is boyhood itself, the mystique of that state of being, undistracted by poverty, race or social upheaval. I have never read J M Barrie, nor do his whimsical fancies delight me in the least. What attracts me to this film is its honesty, and a tour de force performance by Ian Holm.
Let us scrape the poisonous matter from our heel and look at it before we discard it. It’s manifestly obvious what audiences would make of JMB today, although in 1978 there was still room for question, still ambiguity. It seems clear to me that the man was a paedophile by instinct, as his contemporary Baden Powell surely was, but like Baden Powell he was sublimely unaware of it himself. Instead he cast about in his childhood to find explanations for that strange itch he felt, and decided that boyhood was for him a sublime escape from adult life, from all matters sexual. To a liberal mind it does not matter what label you put upon a relationship, what matters is the quality of that relationship. Barrie’s devotion to George and Michael was celibate, but he felt it heart and soul, and their deaths in young manhood ripped into him as it would a loving parent. It is not the nature of love that matters, but the depth of it. Barrie was possessive, often selfish or manipulative (particularly with Michael in his student years) but that could be said of many parents too.
I chose “The Lost Boys” to round off this study because it has a depth and nuance as drama that few Hollywood scripts achieve. As much is conveyed in the glances and silences as by words. The special friendship it describes was so special that it left its mark on childhood culture in the shape of Peter Pan (which was filmed for the very first time, almost exactly a century after it was written, with a genuine boy playing the lead, in 2003, but by that time of course, Wendy had nudged herself centre stage in the story, itself a travesty of Barrie’s original meaning). In a culture where children were still to be seen and not heard, Barrie took a different view. He regarded boys as a superior life form, not an inferior one. It was a deeply sentimental vision, shrouded it’s true in Edwardian social privilege, but the sentimental veneration of childhood today, stifling and suffocating as it is, can scarcely be held as an improvement. Barrie was a romantic, seeing the species boy as a breed of noble savage, but that was perhaps better than the ignoble savage that has taken his place.
Boyhood, to his mind’s eye, was the morning of life, imbued with all the joy and colour and promise of life. If that was a delusion, we can say it was a benign one. There are worse delusions in the world.
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One of the many enjoyable aspects of Freeman's book is that one can swing so effortlessly from whole-hearted agreement to fierce opposition -- without ever endangering the good humour and enlightenment he offers. I was startled, for instance, earlier on when he mentioned in passing he loathed the term "male-bonding". Now I admit the term has a tendency to be bandied about by those embarrassing bear-hugging types, but the term itself I'd always thought blameless and benign.
But his views here on "The Lost Boys" are bang on the money, I reckon. An extraordinary production that managed to illuminate the enigma that was J.M. Barrie and his boys, without ever man-handling it into some gross Hollywood trope or other.
Freeman says Barrie had a "wistful veneration of boyhood", and was "completely in thrall to a romantic view of boyhood". I think that's a fair description of Barrie's emotional core, but it's equally significant that Barrie was quite sarcastically scathing of his own boy-infatuation. In fact this was the quality that fired the sharp, often dark wit which his boys found so attractive. Un-riddle me that!
Barrie certainly didn't romanticise his eccentric, somewhat marooned existence in Neverland. The paradox of his boy-love, an unarguably sexual phenomenon, being deeply and fundamentally celibate--well, that's a mystery beyond anyone's ken, even the subject's biggest thinkers such as Plato. But Barrie accepted it, and lived it with admirable courage, dignity, honour--and the all-important humour. A boysexual of any era, fraught or free, can't aspire to much better.