Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Now I see him, now I don’t: a May-time mystery for Christmas


I wish I could open, “on a mid-December afternoon, in a grey and grainy light...” But I can’t. It happened on one of this year’s bright May mornings.
And I wish I could say I was feeling particularly whimsical, romantic, suggestible or dreamy. But, tell the truth, in a grim mood, I was trudging to meet an erstwhile colleague to talk about my difficult relationship with a third party in another organisation, a dim-witted brute with an over-partiality for red tape and tight trousers.
So, heading towards Newgate Street, I go through the rose garden in the ruined nave of Christ Church.
On the other side of the road, a man is sitting on a low wooden stool, painting. He is in early middle age, robust and square jawed. He wears wide leather boots, the colour of fresh-shelled chestnuts, with navy trousers tucked into them; a big blue canvas shirt, a tan leather waistcoat and a black leather pillbox hat.
I cross the road. He looks up at me – piercing dark eyes – and I smile. He doesn’t.
Passing him, I glance down (as one does) at his easel. I remember thinking, “hey, that’s clever, he’s painting the church not as it is, but as it was, before the Blitz.” Firm ink lines darting up the page; a light ochre, watercolour wash between them. Above, pale blue sky and some thin clouds.
Six, perhaps eight more paces. I look over my shoulder and he’s gone. I return to the kerb and gaze down and across the street, into the church and around it. No sign of him.
Now, there are three possibilities. One is that he packed up with incredible speed – painting, easel, stool, jam jar of water, jam jar of brushes, box of paints, pens and inks – strode swiftly behind me and passed to my right, so that I missed him as I turned to my left to look back – and then I walked and went on looking the wrong way.
The second, I suppose, is that he packed up with incredible speed and jumped into a taxi.
And the third is difficult.
Sequel one, psychologically explicable: that night I dream we go for the first time to dinner with new friends. In their dining room is the painting, behind dusty glass, in a walnut frame.
“Where did you get this?”
“Been in our family for centuries.”
I unhook and turn it over. There is a faded inscription in a kind of informal copperplate: “The ruins of Time build mansions in Eternity – W.B., 1800”.
I know the quote, although I hadn’t thought of it for a long time before the dream.
Sequel two, less explicable: the following afternoon I’m walking through the beech wood on Hampstead Heath and fall into conversation with an elderly female stranger. She tells me, “do you know what I hope one day? to see the ghosts of some of the poets who came here for inspiration. Coleridge, perhaps, or Keats or Shelley – but the one I’d really like to meet is Mr Blake. Wouldn’t you?”

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Hopes going down, the real man stands revealed



I don’t know if you read the story about poor Paul Hopes?
Why do I call him poor? In three years he spent nearly £4-million on fast cars, fast girls and five-star hotels.
Big problem: it wasn’t his money. So now he’s in custody waiting to be sentenced after pleading guilty to 18 charges of theft.
Paul managed the purchase ledger at Toys ‘R’ Us in Maidenhead, Berkshire, UK, a chain whose exchequer he clearly saw as his personal plaything. His story is well told by Ben Marlow and Robert Watts in The Times.
What jumped at me was this:
The 58-year-old accountant, with greying hair and a double chin, appeared to live a life of suburban normality... “It’s all been a big surprise,” said one of his colleagues. “We just knew him as ‘Paul from finance’. He was a quiet, likeable chap. He just didn’t strike you as that sort of person. Look, in all the time I’ve worked in the same building ... getting arrested is the one memorable thing I can remember him doing.”
And why did that portrait leap out? Because of all the times that I and others whose mission is to coach and communicate with staff in various corporate enterprises have been warned off by executives who take an entirely one-dimensional view of their underlings.
You know the put-downs? “These people are accountants, so there’s no point trying to appeal to their imaginations”; “they’re in sales, time-starved, only interested in a quick fix that will open someone’s wallet”; “you’re dealing with IT people, for heaven’s sake – they’re geeks. You can’t expect them to emote or perform.”
There’s a line you can use in a session limber-up which often brings surprising answers: “everyone of us leads several lives – tell me about one of your other ones.”
And you discover the geek who writes songs and plays in a rock band, the salesperson whose vacations are cricket tours, the accountant who’s an ardent cineaste and is just now shooting an amateur movie.
My point being that one reason communication and coaching fail is that its clients are often treated as functions rather than people. Find a route into the whole human being and they blaze up like logs pushed together in a fire.
Paul Valéry, who was a poet, wrote: “If the logician could never be other than a logician, he would not, and could not, be a logician. If the poet were never anything but a poet... he would leave no poetic traces behind him. I believe in all sincerity that if each man were not able to live a number of lives besides his own, he would not be able to live his own life.”
So if an accountant could never be other than an accountant, he would go mad. Or take the journey Paul Hopes took through the high life and into the slammer.
Next week, for Christmas, a ghost story. Well, probably not – you decide when you read it.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

White City, Forbidden City: how we tried to help the Beeb and got swatted


I fear I may be turning into an avatar of Gabriel Betteredge, the venerable house steward in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone who has an eccentric dependency on Robinson Crusoe.
“When my spirits are bad – Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice – Robinson Crusoe. In past times, when my wife plagued me; in present times, when I have had a drop too much – Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service.”
In my case, the oracle is an Oscar-winning documentary called The Fog of War, which has become for me and its other students a significant educational resource.
The film, made in 2003 when its protagonist was 85, is subtitled “eleven lessons from the life of Robert S. McNamara”, and if you want to know briefly what the lessons were, I’ve précised them into a short slide-show.
In a way, the doc is a factual version of Dr Strangelove. McNamara, the once-vilified Secretary of State to J F Kennedy and L B Johnson, had grandstand places for the fire- and nuclear-bombing of Japan, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam war. He delivered this extended, superbly-illustrated, autobiographical monologue six years before he died, and for my money his wisdom knocks old Sun Tzu (specialist subject, the b******* obvious) into a coolie hat.
So there I was, on Saturday night, glass of red at my side, revisiting The Fog of War while the rest of the family were rapt by Strictly Come Cowelling.
Why? Because sometimes two separate problems rub against each other and create a solution. Problem one: I knew that there was a McNamara lesson which I’d never fully understood and been able to apply – lesson five, “proportionality should be a guideline” ; problem two: why exactly I’d been crushed and swatted aside in an encounter with the BBC.
At the centre of the BBC story is my friend and colleague Andy Drinkwater. He tells the act one and act two of it in his blog, What Now?
In essence, Andy got alarmed when senior Chinese diplomats who’d come to the UK in advance of the 2010 Shanghai Expo told him how offended and furious they were that while delegates from almost every other major media channel would be meeting them, the BBC hadn’t even bothered to reply to their invitations.
He knew that I had a veteran BBC contact who in turn had a friend high up in the Beeb’s management, and both of us felt sufficiently protective of our national broadcaster to want to find a way to warn them of the damage they were inflicting on their own reputation.
So, we wrote the email together and I sent it – and got in reply a stinging, pompous put-down, written on the assumption that we were trying to short-cut procedures for some commercial purpose, and telling us how very, very busy BBC people were, and how, if an invitation didn’t interest them, they really couldn’t be expected to acknowledge and decline it.
Woah. Lesson five: “proportionality should be a guideline”. In effect, then, the BBC is bigger and more important than China. So now I know.
By the way, it’s also worth watching The Fog of War for the moment when McNamara recalls his fiancée asking for his middle name so she can get the wedding stationery printed. It’s Strange, he tells her. Never mind, she says, give it to me anyway. No, he explains. That’s what it is. “Strange”.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Blond sensation’s message for IT security


Out of nowhere this month there erupted onto the media stage the figure of Phillip Blond, until recently an unnoticed lecturer in theology at the University of Cumbria, now installed as “Philosopher King” of the Tory party, guru to David Cameron, and founder of a new think tank called ResPublica.
Armed with a social theory called “Red Toryism” (a bit of a cocktail out of Edmund Burke, Michael Oakeshott and Catholicism) Mr Blond believes he has the right prescription to fix Britain’s so-called “broken society”, but first, he wants to tell us what’s gone wrong.
He writes pungently. In an essay called The Ownership State he denounces the modern economy’s fixation with:
“...a purely market driven approach, whose domination of the speaking parts [in the corporate narrative] is so complete that in the middle of the greatest management meltdown in history, management responsibility for the financial crisis is entirely shielded from question. Resource allocation, risk, product design, accounting, reward and governance: the visible hand of the financial and banking sector ham-fistedly got every single aspect of management wrong. Yet not only is there no investigation, no critique and no alternatives on offer to the model that has got us here; the same model that caused the crash is now expected to get us out of it again.”
And again:
“In the market sector, Wall Street and the City of London are full of firms staffed by people with the highest academic and business qualifications who are collectively so witless that they have not only burned their own houses to the ground but almost brought down the whole edifice of capitalism.”
“Discuss,” as the exam questioners say; but during the course of the 40-odd pages of Mr Blond’s essay, some other observations resonated because they seemed to bear closely on the subject of Internet Security, and the reasons why experts consistently fail to convince the laity to understand and take online safety seriously (to repeat a shocking statistic: 98 per cent of UK office workers do not see the protection of corporate electronic data as their responsibility).
At the heart of contemporary enterprise Mr Blond perceives that those in command make “pessimistic assumptions” about human behaviour which lead them to devise ever more exhaustive systems of prescription and regulation; these in turn, “by emphasising formal controls perversely make organisations less adaptable, more stupid... a system that overemphasises knavish motives – through crass incentives or rigid targeting – will accentuate them. Or to put it another way, since you get the behaviour you plan for, treating workers like knaves makes them more likely to act like knaves.”
Treating them like idiots, equally, will make them behave more idiotically. But treat them like idiots is what, in my experience, IT security experts generally do to their inexpert clients inside the organisation.
What Mr Blond proposes is a transfer of power, trust, responsibility and reward away from managers and regulators and back to the troops in the front line: to the neighbourhoods, actual and metaphorical, where the living is real, raw and anxious and has material percussion and repercussion.
It seems to me that the critical task as we enter 2010 and develop our plan to “build the human firewall” is to find ways to open up the world of security and effect this transfer and empowerment; to stop delivering sermons and patches and find ways to help the inexpert, collectively (albeit with guidance) to teach security to themselves and each other.
Elsewhere, Mr Blond bemoans the fact that modern capitalism has obliterated “the great intermediary institutions of British life and the non-professional contributor” – all the voluntary, civil associations through which individuals once acquired and shared knowledge and exercised influence.
But is that quite true? Aren’t new “intermediary institutions,” albeit virtual ones, emerging via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and all the other varieties of social media?
And are there clues there to the way staff empowerment could be achieved? In order to create, in Mr Blond’s phrase, “a structure where peer-to-peer motivation builds ethos and expertise and replaces vertical sanction”? It would be useful to start a dialogue.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Out there still, there are the eggmen


Four doors down, someone often flings his windows open late at night or in the early hours and plays I am the Walrus, repeatedly and very loudly.
You know the song?
Sitting on a cornflake, waiting for the van to come.
Corporation tee-shirt, stupid bloody Tuesday.
Man, you been a naughty boy, you let your face grow long.
I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.
I am the walrus, goo goo g'joob

It doesn’t really bother me. The nights have got cold, so now we have our doors and windows shut. And anyway, after about half an hour a nearer neighbour starts shouting obscenities in such a rage that the broadcast stops.
Before that, as the Walrus chugs along with the velocity and resonance of an old steam locomotive, I tick off various background choruses: “oompah, oompah, stick it up your jumper,” which my Dublin grandmother would have recognised, and “smoke pot, smoke pot, everybody smoke pot,” which she wouldn’t. These were added by an easy-listening group of the time called the Mike Sammes singers, which is rather akin to Julie Andrews providing soprano whoops for Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious on Anarchy in the UK.
Boxing Day evening, 1967, 8:35. I am the Walrus is one song featured in the latest Beatles film, Magical Mystery Tour, shot in colour and premiered in black and white by the BBC across one-set UK households. There’s nowhere to hide from overindulged adults grunting “what is this rubbish?” For once, you feel pretty defenceless. The Tour (more of a meander, truth to tell) is an effort to enjoy and you sense something ending.
All the other original songs in the film – Fool on the Hill, Flying, Blue Jay Way, Your Mother Should Know and even the title track – have more or less gone under the sand.
But night after night, 42 years later, courtesy of the man down the road (I just assume he must be a man), Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Starr and the Mike Sammes singers are belting and bellowing out I am the Walrus again and again.
How has the Walrus got its (so far) tiny tusk-hold on eternity? I trek into the web and get lost for longer than I planned in a labyrinth of fan sites.
If you have Windows XP, go play this song on your sound recorder and play it til the line “See how they smile like pigs in a sty see how they snide” and right after it ends stop it and play it backwards and listen real closely to what is heard. I heard John say, “Take this axe and his life is going out tonight.” I am serious! Try it out for yourself to hear it!
Also during the line “If the sun don’t come then you'll get a tan from the English rain” I heard something but can’t remember what...
Also, during the line “Climbing up the Eiffel Tower” backwards I heard the most creepy thing yet, “I smoke marijuana.”!!!!!! You have to really pay close attention to get the word “marijuana” so it sounds like it...

What does this writer do for a living? air traffic controller, possibly? bank clerk? software developer?
While I was trying to sharpen up the stabs at satire here, my son asked if I’d help with his art homework by taking him to the Estorick Collection.
This is a small art gallery in North London featuring paintings, drawings, etchings and ceramics by Italian artists of the first half of the twentieth century – people like Giorgio de Chirico, Mario Sironi and Giorgio Morandi.
And among them, I discover, are works by the self-styled metaphysicals, the proto-surrealists, forerunners of Dali and Magritte, where normal expectations are subverted.
De Chirico – that’s one of his paintings at the head of this – wrote:
“To become truly immortal, a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken, it will enter the regions of childhood vision and dream.”
Semolina pilchard, climbing up the Eiffel Tower.
Elementary penguin singing Hari Krishna.
Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe.
I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.
I am the walrus, goo goo g'joob g'goo goo g'joob...

But hey, maybe not at two in the morning? Leave me to my own dreams, perchance...

Friday, 13 November 2009

Inside the mind of a betrayer


He sat unshaven at one of the bar’s outside tables, in sunlight, nursing a beer and a cigarette. Sometimes he trembled. It certainly looked as if this wasn’t the day’s first drink, nor its last.
This was Sascha Anderson, perhaps the most extraordinary exhibit in the gallery of extraordinary characters portrayed in the BBC’s feature-length documentary, The Secret Life of the Berlin Wall.
In East Berlin, when the GDR still reigned, he was a poet, a radical, a firebrand – among the most influential figures in the city’s subversive underground.
He was also an informer for the secret police, the Stasi.
“Were you a good spy?” he was asked.
He laughed shyly. He sighed and swallowed. He looked everywhere but at his interviewer or the camera. For a quarter of a minute he said nothing. And then:
“In the place that I was, I was the top informer. I have the feeling that I wasn’t just an ordinary spy.” Now a confessional moment – he looks straight at the interviewer. “Of course, I told them everything.”
Harald – we weren’t given his surname – was another radical, a photographer. “When I came to Berlin I noticed a big gap between what the party said and the reality. And that’s the area I occupied.” He took pictures of punks, ruins and desolation, physical and psychical.
The commentary tells us: per head of the population, the Stasi were twelve times more numerous than the Gestapo, thirty-five times bigger than the KGB in Russia. And that’s not counting their network of informers.
Impossible for Harald to escape their notice.
“There were about thirty-five people informing on me. I thought none of them would be close friends, but I recently realised I was wrong.”
One of them was his friend Sascha Anderson.
Harald was asked what he’d tell Sascha if he saw him now: “’Sascha, you arsehole...’”. A pause. “What am I supposed to say? He has to live with his conscience.” This isn’t said unkindly.
And Sascha himself, asked to explain his treachery:
“Someone comes and wants something from you. And if you’re egotistical and altruistic enough, then you say ‘okay – let’s do it. I’ll do what I can and you do what you can. That’s fine’. I’m not the sort of person who makes decisions based on an idea. So, if the Devil looks good, I might say to him, ‘how can I help you, dear Devil?’”
I remind myself that Goethe’s Faust is much nearer to the mental and cultural surface in Germany than Marlowe’s is in England. Then I spool back, because talk of this Devil’s pact has eclipsed the two self-describing adjectives which came before.
“Egotistical” – yes, a spy would be egotistical. But “altruistic”? Regard for others, as a principle of action; opp. to egoism or selfishness – Shorter Oxford Dictionary.
But if he doesn’t seem to have been much of an altruist, neither does he come across as a great egotist.
“I sensed they wanted something from me. Someone is taking you seriously and listening to you. So I offered myself up. Every gap in the conversation was a chance for me to say: ‘I am the right man for you’.”
Was that egotism, or an appeal for respect from someone who felt misunderstood, undervalued, overlooked? See the film, and you find it hard not to feel sympathy for him, which I found fascinating and disturbing.
He was asked whether, if he’d stopped informing, his Stasi comrades might have put him in prison. He replies, nodding:
“Usually traitors who betray the secret service are given the harshest punishments.”
“What is the punishment for traitors who only betray their friends?” he’s then asked.
He swallows. Grins unhappily. Says nothing.
Another place, another age, another interview...
FAUST: Where are you damned?
MEPHISTOPHILIS: In hell.
FAUST: How comes it, then, that thou art out of hell?
MEPHISTOPHILIS: Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.
From Christopher Marlowe's The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1604)
The Secret Life of the Berlin Wall was produced and directed by Kevin Sim and was a Diverse Production for the BBC.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Internet Security: a conspiracy against the customer?


In the first week of July, 1980, the world would have been destroyed if computer systems had been left to their own devices.
Here’s the novelist Christa Wolf, writing her diary in what was then East Germany, on the very brow of the face-to-snarling-face confrontation between capitalism and communism:
“Meteln, July 8. Twice in the past week, the US computer has sounded the alarm: Soviet rockets are flying towards the United States. In such a case, we are told, the President has twenty-five minutes to make a decision. The computer (we hear) has now been switched off. The delusion: to make security dependent on a machine, rather than an analysis of the situation possible only to human beings”.
From the fact that we’re still here one can deduce that human intervention – probably a red-phone call between White House and Kremlin – overrode the intentions of the machine and prevented our annihilation. But now fast-forward almost thirty years to the recent RSA Europe 2009 Conference in London, and listen to a senior figure from Internet Security:
“Whenever you can take the user out of the security equation without affecting his or her performance then you’re well on the way to a security solution”.
And another speaker:
“Our systems are over-reliant on the human element. We need to completely eliminate human involvement and mitigate its influence”.
Isn’t this the same delusion at large? Doesn’t it demonstrate, if we accept George Bernard Shaw’s theory that “all professions are conspiracies against the laity” the way Internet Security is becoming a conspiracy against the very people it’s supposed to be protecting – the clients and the colleagues who are its ultimate customers? A conspiracy to exclude them, to baffle them, to talk over and round them in an unintelligible language?
The same speaker who urged us to “take the user out of the security equation” invited us to be astounded and outraged when one of the many surveys in his deck revealed that “98 per cent of UK office workers [yes, that’s almost every one of them] do not see the protection of corporate electronic data as their responsibility”.
His solution? Don’t involve them at all. Ignore them. Build a slicker system.
As if security had as its grail a kind of fully-automated Hadron Colllider which could revisit the big bang of the virtual world’s creation and reinvent it with the elimination of risk and “the human element”.
My friend and colleague Peter Wood, who runs First Base Technologies, illustrates in his lectures and practice, chillingly and entertainingly, that yes, cyber-criminals are technologically adroit, but principally, they are social engineers: the first vulnerability they seek out is not in the machine, but in the mind: greed, vanity, lust, envy, fear or innocence and trust.
So how do you patch those?
At the 21st annual conference of FIRST, the Forum of Incident Response and Security Teams, held in Kyoto this June, one of the simplest and most provocative suggestions was made by Dr Suguru Yamaguchi, member and adviser on information security at the Japanese Cabinet Office National Information Security Centre.
“We need to find ways to help corporate executives actually to visualize what goes on when a computer network is under attack”, he said. “Just explaining in words isn't enough - the words are too dense, too technical - what we should do is design special games and animations which will bring the severity of current threats vividly alive in the executives’ imaginations”.
His idea flashed around the world, and was picked up on nearly 150,000 news sites within days. He said: stop either ignoring the user or, when you deal with him or her, being technical, turgid, instructional; instead, talk to humans in ways that humans understand; start being dramatic, start playing, start investigating ways to communicate which may even be non-verbal.
It was a theme I developed in my own address to RSA Europe, telling an audience:
“The educational establishment in the UK was convulsed a few days ago by a report which recommended that the culture of targets and rigid curricula for little children should be swept aside and replaced by learning through games and play, at least until the child has reached six.
“Immediately, radio phone-ins were flooded with reports from parents about education systems abroad which applied this theory to astonishing effect. I recall one father ringing in to say that by three his daughter was speaking fluent Japanese and Chinese. She hadn’t been taught them. She’d learned them in a game.
“Of course, at some stage children have to knuckle down and address themselves to a syllabus.
“But why shouldn’t we, as adults, recapture the pleasure and the value of learning through play, and use that as a principal tool to bring the inexpert into the world of Internet Security?”
And I expect the same ideas to be percolating through FIRST’s 22nd conference next year in Miami, which has as its theme “Past the Faded Perimeter” – that is to say, how does security contend with criminals now the 20th century device of inclusive and exclusive technological ramparts has so often turned out to be flawed and permeable to the cunning of delinquent social engineers, playing on human nature?
How else but by involving and enlightening the users, the “human element”, and turning them into willing conscripts in a sort of home guard or civil defence association which becomes a human firewall?
In the UK, the three words “computer says no” have become a catchphrase. Delivered in an advertisement by a plump, bored operative to a supplicant for a loan or mortgage he’s about to disappoint, the line is an indication by a bank of the kind of financial institution it is not and will not become.
But “computer says no” also speaks to a deeper sentiment: to a public rage at and contempt for all those organizations which have replaced the discriminations of the human mind with closed and inflexible processes; which have, for example, in the justice system (one thinks of the case of Gary McKinnon) eliminated reasonable doubt – because a computer has no reason to doubt – and become all sword and no balance.
Partly out of nostalgia (or should I say, Ostalgia: I was in Berlin twenty years ago when, thanks entirely to the pressure of human sentiment, the wall came down) and partly with an eye on a future project, I have been re-reading and researching Christa Wolf, with whose words I began this blog.
In a relatively recent interview she said:
“With the wild growth of technology and global networks, it seems to me that the power of systems is on the rise. And these are becoming independent, it’s no longer possible to ascertain which people carry responsibility. Rational counterweights, like democracy for example, seem to have been hollowed out, and their influence is declining. This is not only regrettable, it also makes you fearful of what our grandchildren’s generation will have to cope with.”
In 1983 Christa Wolf published a novel called “Cassandra” in which she retold the tale of the unhappy Trojan priestess partly as an allegory – well, it’s my theory – for her predicament as an artist in what was then communist East Germany.
Let me finish by reminding you of Cassandra’s story (that’s her with the snakes at the top of this piece, by the way). It was most delicately set down, I think, by the great Dr Lempriere in his Classical Dictionary of 1834:
“CASSANDRA, daughter of Priam and Hecuba, was passionately loved by Apollo, who promised to grant her whatever she might require, if she would gratify his passion. She asked the power of knowing futurity; and as soon as she had received it, she refused to perform her promise, and slighted Apollo. The god, in his disappointment, wetted her lips with his tongue, and by this action effected that no credit or reliance should ever be put on her predictions, however true or faithful they might be… She was looked upon by the Trojans as insane, and she was even confined, and her predictions were disregarded.”
Anyone listening?

Saturday, 31 October 2009

The Curious Case of the Cancelled Ledger


How far the one-eyed squint of journalism has seized the perspective in almost every public conversation became clear when you read reviews of “The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus”.
Even serious critics treated the death of Heath Ledger as if it was the story of “The Imaginarium”, rather than a story that was incidental to the film.
For there is only one way that Ledger’s unexpected and – perhaps – unscripted departure from the stage could be the story, and that’s in a way that none of the critics or commentators have suggested.
“The Imaginarium” is a work of genius, I think, which confirms Terry Gilliam as one of the very few directors working in and out of Britain who makes films for the big screen, rather than pumping up television dramas for a brief excursion into cinemas before they subside more comfortably onto TV and DVD.
Dr Parnassus runs a travelling theatre – a sort of superannuated Foots Barn – the centrepiece of which is a mirror. When individuals pass through its pane, their ids realise a fantasy world which leads either to redemption or perdition.
We remember where we’ve encountered the magical looking glass before. The doctor’s daughter, Valentina, is that forbidden and alluring creature, Alice emerging from the chrysalis of puberty. Her two suitors, Anton and Tony, are an emaciated Tweedledum and a rakish Tweedledee, and Parnassus himself has a dash of the wandering Jew added to the substance of the Red King (“why, you’re only a sort of thing in his dream... if that there King was to wake, you’d go out – bang! – just like a candle”).
It was a sensible, logistical choice, perhaps, that led Gilliam to shoot all the reality-side sequences before the fantasy-side. But it was an extraordinary coincidence that Ledger, who played the anti-hero, Tony, died between the two.
Three times Tony goes through the mirror, and we discover three different aspects of his character. Three times Gilliam needed a different way to distinguish Tony-through-the-looking-glass from Tony-in-the-real-world.
With Ledger gone, the solution was to hand: cast Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell as the Tonies-through-the-looking glass, and style-up their physical resemblances to Heath.
In ten years time, when sentiment about Ledger has faded, it may be argued that the accident of his star’s death propelled Gilliam to a solution that immeasurably enhanced “The Imaginarium”.
Unless, of course...
But in the making of a film which revolves around a pact with the devil, that would be a plot twist too far. One that could only happen inside the imagination of Terry Gilliam.