Citation: Tofts, Darren and Peter Milne. “Erroneous Attributions.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 15, 2016. doi:10.20415/hyp/015.g04
Abstract: Donald Cammell’s and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance. What an odd, intriguing piece of cinematic arcana; a film that brings the ultra violent world of the Kray twins into comfortable collision and collusion with the bohemian self-indulgence of 1960s’ swinging London. But nothing so obvious as lipstick traces, feather boas and shooters. That’s far too obvious. Rather metaphysical slips in time, space and identity. Time, indeed, for a change. In a dialogue between image and text, Erroneous Attributions moves in the wake of, as well as insinuates its own rhythm into the flow of recent and ongoing interest in the film; an interest represented most forcefully by recent books devoted to it such as Paul Buck’s Performance: A Biography of the Classic Sixties Film (2012) and Jeremy Mark Robinson’s Performance: Pocket Movie Guide (2015). Specific to the central figure of David Litvinoff in this project, Kieron Pim’s masterful biography, Jumpin’ Jack Flash (2016) attests to ongoing interest in the rock’n’roll underworld associated with this Mephistophelean figure.
Being a series of fabulations, fanciful and to whit knowing, that there be performers and performers. Herein shall the truth be known, after Heraclitus, that “there is nothing permanent except change.” Time for a change.
‘Nothing is true, everything is permitted’
— Turner quoting Hassan I Sabbah, Performance.
A camel can pass through the eye of a needle, so say the Scriptures. But did Jorge Luis Borges pass through the forehead of Donald Cammell? And if he didn’t, how can we make it so?
What of Performance? That odd, intriguing piece of cinematic arcana that brings the terrifyingly louche world of the ultra violent Kray twins into comfortable collision and collusion with the bohemian self-indulgence of the late 1960s. And not simply lipstick traces and shooters; that’s far too obvious a juxtaposition. Rather metaphysical ruptures in time and space, Mars bars, psilocybin fungi and an unearthly object as the favoured choice of reading for at least one London gangster: the Grove press edition of Jorge Luis Borges’ A Personal Anthology. Glimpsed several times during the film, the printer’s ink on this curious piece of exotica was barely dry at the time it was being made in 1968. Like David Bowie’s Mr Newton it seemed to have fallen unexpectedly to earth into unlikely hands, blossoming like flowers in a field. It is seen most conspicuously in the bucolic paws of a real performer, the East End London gangster Rosenbloom. Several times in fact, suggesting Rosie simply can’t put it down. But imagine another fictional Bloom, unassuming advertising canvasser in James Joyce’s Ulysses, also keeps a copy in his pocket, cheek by jowl with The Sweets of Sin by Paul de Cock. In another time and place we could glimpse it yet again in the hands of yet another Leo Bloom, the ineffectual nobody in Mel Brooks’ The Producers. In the world of fabulation, time is definitely out of joint.
Averring to René Magritte, this then will not have been any ordinary art-work. Rather it is a provocation that seeks to explore, in a collage-dialogue between text and image, the peculiar mindfuck of Donald Cammell’s and Nicolas Roeg’s film Performance. Not the theatrical release of 1970, nor the many iterations of the film that met their quiet deaths on the cutting room floor. Instead, an anachronistic treatment of the film that creates plausibly impossible worlds that comfortably intervene into the verifiable worlds of cinephilia and literature. Erroneous Attributions presumes that if the burden of criticism is to postulate, the work of art is to fabulate.
Act One, Scenario 1
Ice and a slice
Eaton Square, Belgravia. David Litvinoff, the Fagin of London’s East End, has just closed a door. ‘A tasty finish’ he thinks with a knowing smirk. Sliding his finger downwards, he shakes his head in disbelief. Shrewdly, he takes a moment to see if he has been copped. ‘That was a right treat. I knew Rusty Humphries was on the money about him. Jumped-up ponce. Last time I get myself invited to some snooty geezer’s doss. And I don’t give a monkey’s who he knows. Name-dropping Ron. Next it’ll be Posh Ken’.
Litzy has just left the residence of Robert John Baron Boothby, Knight Commander of the British Empire. He climbs onto a clapped up bicycle leaning under a window frame. He’s a long way from his own manor in Whitechapel. He has travelled across town to pass on a message to Lord Boothby from a mutual acquaintance. His Lordship could expect Mr Kray to attend the following evening at exactly 7pm. Leslie Holt, cat burglar and chauffer to Lord Boothby, would also be present. Ron too liked tasty finishes.
‘Well that’s sharpish’, Litzy grumbled as he set off to Shoreditch. ‘Ron may still be in bed then’. He chuckled knowingly, the glint in his eye heightening the scar across his face as well as a Dickensian hooter. ‘He’ll be well Brahms and Liszt’. He was expected at the Grave Maurice for a drink with a few of the lads including Reggie, Alfie Allpress and Ginger Marks. There he would pass the dicky on to Ron.
Litzy skidded to a halt at the side door of the pub and snickered, imagining what was to unfold the following evening. ‘That Leslie’s a right charmer. “Ice and a slice my Lord?”’ He imagined Boothby’s response, leaning his bike against a lamp-post. ‘Indeed. Twice-nightly’.
In a Green Room at BBC House an anxious Harold Wilson sits in tentative conversation with his aid. The Prime Minister is also accompanied by Tom Driberg, fellow parliamentarian and a member of his leader’s support entourage for the evening. Driberg leans forward diffidently. The occasion, he muses, is bigger than the presence of his senior colleague. It is Eamonn Andrews’ final appearance as host. Twenty-five years. It may as well be his life being honoured. Wilson is anxious. On the running sheet he notices that he is to be the butt of impressionist Mike Yarwood’s satire. All Britain will be watching and there is an election looming. A week is a long time in politics, but Eamonn’s studio is to be a season in hell. As Wilson stands he places a tentative, troubled hand on Driberg’s knee for support. ‘Rude Britannia’ Driberg muses. ‘If only he knew’. Ash from a cigar drops on to his colleague’s shoes. He takes a deep breath and hopes for the best.
Driberg sits glumly. He knows that he will never appear on This Is Your Life. Litvinov, he muses with a nod, has more chance. He knows everyone. And they know him. Distracting himself from this disappointment he furtively crosses his legs. The first blush of a smile reflects the black caress of fishnet stockings on his scrotum. An assistant producer notices the gesture and smirks to herself. Driberg has no time for chagrin. ‘Aleister would love this’. Enjoying this thought his slightly rouged lips seem to glow, fleetingly, amid the tinctured caverns of ageing skin. ‘What a glorious beast.’
He raises an eyebrow in affected pomp, taking vicarious delight in the prospect of the following evening’s pleasure with Bobby and the boys. ‘They all liked it down the hatch,’ he can hear His Lordship intone, a delicious thought amid the stuffy air of BBC propriety. He smiles to the young woman with her notebook, gently stroking his pin stripe slacks with a fey gesture of the hand, an eyebrow raised for effect.
Dr Michael Okpara, Prime Minister of Easter Nigeria, has just delivered a gift of lemons to the chambers of Lord Boothby in the House of Lords. Eager to impress his distinguished host, Dr Okpara extolls the virtues of his country’s much-prized citrus. Boothby listens politely, sipping a large gin and tonic adorned with a slice of one of his guest’s fruit. After such pleasantries Dr Okpara deferentially raises the delicate matter of investment. Walking to the drinks table with a knowing look and a gleam in his eye, Boothby pours his visitor another drink without asking.
Understanding the nuanced diplomatic etiquette, Dr Okpara moves his next piece on the board. He is very much aware of His Lordship’s connection with two prominent young London entrepreneurs. Through His Lordship he is soliciting an accommodation to meet them. Investment, both mercantile and philanthropic, is very much invited from the business sector of the United Kingdom. His Lordship, working in a facilitator’s role, is in the position to offer a gesture of friendship to a foreign government, by means of support for their offshore expansion. In the course of their short meeting, Boothby mentioned Mr Ronald Kray’s preparedness to offer a certain sum of money for the building of “his” town in the African province. Dr Okpara, in return, assured his host that Mr Kray would be most welcome in Enugu as a guest of Nigeria.
Sensing it was time for the meeting to come to an end, Boothby thoughtfully poured himself another drink. Without altering his gaze from the task at hand, he bid his distinguished visitor a good afternoon. Africa, he mused to himself with knowing, colonial superiority, really is a cradle of syphilisation.
Act One, Scenario 2
Claret all over the place
Excerpt from an interview with David Litvinoff, GTK, ABC TV Australia, 1972.*
Interviewer: David how do you reconcile your reputation in the criminal underworld with your connections in the music scene, as well as the art world in London?
Litvinoff: Well that’s been said about me but I’m not a violent person. I’m more of a people’s person, making introductions and the like.
I: This is why Lucien Freud painted your portrait as the “Procurer”?
L: I make connections between different people, that’s all. I suppose that’s why Lucien called it that. It is usually referred to as Man in a Headscarf.
I: It is well known that you have lots of stories about the London demi-monde. There would seem to be something in the likes of Freud and the crooner George Melly being seen in the company of the Kray twins at Esmeralda’s Barn and places like that.
L: That’s sort of true. I know people from all occupations who seem to drink in the same pubs. I am a storyteller, despite what you have heard about me.
I: What’s one story you are fond of telling?
L: One year in the early 1960s the painter Brett Whiteley was ear bashing Francis Bacon at a launch party. I think it was for an exhibition of Brett’s. He kept insisting on wanting to talk to Francis about painting. Bacon just wanted to get away. The evening ended up with Brett jamming his foot in the door of Francis’ mews house in Kensington. No wonder Francis got rid of the painting of Brett’s that he owned.
* This was recorded in Sydney but was never aired on ABC TV Australia.
In the borough of Bethnal Green Albert the Jar lies slumped in the gutter behind the Carpenter’s Arms hotel. He has been on the receiving end of John Bindon’s displeasure, underlined dismissively as a handkerchief is thrown, still folded, on to the cobbles now trickling with blood. Known to all as the Guv’nor, Bindon rolls his shoulders to straighten his jacket and casually walks back into the pub. He wonders, momentarily, about any possible difference between his on and off screen lives as a hard man and nutter. In time his bit part in Get Carter with Michael Caine would, along with half pint mugs, be something else to hang on his voluminous and legendary appendage.
Inside the boozer he is to wait for the twins and receive instructions. A non-smoker, Bindon carries a cigarette pack. He is eager to discuss its contents with Ron and Reg. ‘Ear today and gone tomorrow’ he thinks to himself. With a smirk he takes a seat at the bar. He will also inform the General that he has sorted the little matter of insolence with the Jar. Nearby in Vauxhall Road his employers have just left a meeting with their associates in the parlour of their mother’s house at number 178. They are accompanied by Ron’s gun keeper, Johnny Davies, who is tooled up for the evening’s business. Once the dramatis personae are assembled, proceedings will get under way to discuss the matter of Martin Sharp.
The twins were happy to court notoriety when it honed their image as gangsters of designer violence. But they were cautious about any disrepute, with members of the firm or their associates, that was in the public eye for too long. It is for this reason they were keen to have a little chat with the Australian artist about his friendship with David Litvinoff. It was agreed that at some point in the near future Mr Sharp would receive a visit from John Bindon and Mickey Fawcett. Sharp was rumoured to be planning a feature illustration of the Krays hosting Sonny Liston at the Cambridge Rooms in Hackney. This was to appear in the satirical magazine Oz. Rather than the guest of Ron and Reg, as had been publicised, Liston was in fact hired by the Firm for the evening to add Marquis of Queensberry respectability to their celebrity as pugilists of the pubs and back streets of East London. This was not publicly known. Sharp’s uncompromising take on the matter would not be to the Twins’ taste, or in their best entrepreneurial interest. Nor, for that matter, the artist’s health.
Not far away in Chelsea David Litvinoff, head shaven and lugubrious, sits in the corner of a meeting room at the Pheasantry. Once a breeding ground for ornamental species of birds, it was now a colony of sorts for artists, musicians and altogether different peacocks. Litzy’s only distraction is a hanging globe, swaying gently in the breeze from an open window, which casts his baldpate into vivid relief, smooth as the blade used to shave it. In other circumstances this could have been the title sequence from Callan. Though he was no Edward Woodward, the allusion, not to mention the illusion, was not lost on him.
Postcard sent from Tenerife by Barbara Windsor to Reggie Kray, September 1963.
Hello Reg love how you doing, alright? Enjoying the sun and sand here, really lovely. Thinking of you a lot my sweet.
It was fun meeting that boxer friend of yours from America the other week. He was a real charmer. Haven’t made my mind up about that Litvinoff. At the Maurice the night after he was complaining that he had not been invited. Wouldn’t take a hint and leave me alone. I told him that Ron was very selective. He huffed and said Ron sometimes needed a shove when it comes to meets and the like. Don’t say anything to Ronnie. I’m not a fan of David but I wouldn’t want him hurt.
And how’s my girl Mitsy? Give her a big cuddle from me and tell her I’ll be home soon. We can take her for a nice walk up the High street when I’m back. We can take Violet she’d like that. Give my love to Charlie and a hug for Big Scotch Pat.
Act One, Scenario 3
The Green Faerie
From the Diary of David Litvinoff
Met young Fox above the Becket, boxing with Johnny Shannon. Boy’s tasty for a toff. Don’t talk like one though. Visiting Brixton nick taught him well, meeting some of the chaps. He’s no poncy layabout. Doing push-ups with Jimmy Evans did him no harm either. Never understood method acting. Cecil Gee clothes seem to make a difference, or so he says. Put the frighteners on the rest of that film lot. Don’t know where Cammell found him to be in that film. Bit of a sweetie really. Just like the toe rag in that Dickens book, he wants to make that lot’s flesh creep. Should take him to meet Freddie the Earbiter and show him how it’s really done.
The grim resignation of not being ‘acceptable.’ Bad memories obscure the louche ambience, an unforgiving affront for not being part of the in crowd. Edward remembered the jejune violence of a childhood fight on the cobbles and the shame of being an outsider, unwanted and unwelcome. Like that kid in the film Donald liked so much. Odd Man Out. Nothing much has changed. He’s nothing like his kid brother, the self-made hard man. Johnny Shannon says so: ‘like a rock.’
Edward Charles Morice Fox. Never Maurice. An important difference. From the Latin ‘dark skinned,’ Moorish. He should be at home in this bohemian atmosphere. He’s met painters before, knows Lucien and a thing or two about performing. Even met the Stones around the London clubs. Instead condemned to a ghetto of snooty roles, the reliable, upright white man of costume dramas. But why doesn’t he fit in? The military look was in full swing in London by ‘66. ‘Sergeant Pepper and tha’ lot.’ A wince at the affectation. Who’s he kidding. He’s no Admiral Halsey of Carnaby Street. Never even been to Granny’s. Stiff neck in a stuffed shirt and mock Mr Fish tat. ‘Trying it on with a plumb in ’is gob.’ He shakes his head lugubriously. Just doesn’t sound right.
He closes his eyes on the bacchanal before him and muses. ‘Tonight on ITV’. A single episode in Redcap, bit part, underling to John Thaw, special investigator for the Royal Military Police. Title couldn’t be more fitting: “Rough justice.” A few years later his leading man would be in The Sweeney. He thinks sheepishly of his costume drama alter ego. The man in uniform stares back at himself in a mirror. One arm looks palsied, perhaps an old wound, carried with the pride of a war veteran. An affectation to be polished? Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath. Sounds impressive, honourable. But more likely gout, demobbed before serving his time. At least Edward was the Jackal before Thaw was Regan. Though he didn’t know this at the time.
Pound notes, bubbles and a tart with a Mars bar. ‘Anyone’s guess where that’s been. She’s no Julie Christie either.’ And no mat rolled out in welcome. Anyway, Moroccan music and incense are not to his taste. Back to the soundstage and the Officer’s Mess. Chin up Uncle.
Act One, Scene 4: Coda
I don’t like Mondays
Davington Priory, Faversham, 8 April, 1975.
Henry Wallis’ 1856 painting “The Death of Chatterton” is a highly mannered portrait of the Romantic poet’s suicide at the age of 17. It depicts the poet’s stylized death pose, supine and sculptural on a single alcove bed, above which an open window lets in air he will never breathe again. One arm is draped over his chest, the other dropped to the floor, an empty bottle nearby that until recently was filled with arsenic. Two versions of the painting exist, one brighter, gaudier and more self-conscious than its twin. Each a mirror image of the other, they seem to be quoting facets, details and hues, deliberately prompting comparisons between the same mise en scène.
The uncanny likeness of this death scene to the small bedroom in which David Litvinoff died has been the subject of much speculation since. Did he recognise in this confluence the ironic suitability for his own mannerist act of self-destruction? What better conceit than copying the terminal, theatrical event of an artist, himself famous for being a forger. Litvinoff’s most recent biographer, Kieron Pim, is in no doubt of his protagonist’s familiarity with the work; its attic room similar to his own at Davington, as well as the manner of death by an overdose (in Litzy’s case nitrazepam, as the toxic death of his blood by arsenic was apparently not to his thespian taste). Christopher Gibbs, in whose country house his friend wantonly shuffled into the night, was not amused. By design as well as method this knowing gesture of appropriation, of nicking an idea from someone else, was to be the procurer’s final performance.
What a nerve.