Why are we so obsessed with stars and the movies? It’s normal for children to play cowboys and Indians, but when does imagination stop?
I’m delighted to welcome Brian Pendreigh to this week’s lockdown book blog to talk about his engrossing novel which I thoroughly enjoyed - The Man in the Seventh Row and Related Stories of the Human Condition.
|The Man in the Seventh Row|
In ‘The Magnificent Seven’ Brynner and McQueen achieved immortality. They are Akira Kurosawa’s samurai knights relocated in the American West, with guns and horses and wistful talk of Dodge and Tombstone in the days before they became civilised. They are the embodiment of the legend, the myth, of the Wild West in corporeal form – not the way it was, but the way it should have been. … Most of all they are a couple of boys playing at cowboys and Indians. … They are gone now, but their ghosts illuminate the Chinese Theatre. Cinema is the gateway to immortality, the door to another dimension, to another state of being, another plane, life after death. Brynner and McQueen are dead, but every night, somewhere in the world, they still ride the range with the others in the Magnificent Seven.
Roy Batty is obsessed with the movies. Since the age of four, he’s been mesmerised by the beam of light travelling across the darkened auditorium over the heads of the audience and exploding into life in glorious technicolour on the screen. Every year on family holidays to North Berwick, Roy has immersed himself in fantasy worlds. Westerns are the best. He imagines riding the prairie, shoot-outs at the OK corral, tipping his cowboy hat up off his face with one finger.
This is the background to Brian Pendreigh’s The Man in the Seventh Row. Roy Batty chooses to sit in the seventh row of any cinema he attends, whether that’s in one of the many picture houses in Edinburgh, or on those childhood seaside holidays, or, in adulthood, when he seizes the opportunity to live and work in Arizona and LA to be at the epicentre of the film world he adores.
The novel was originally subtitled ‘The Movie Lover’s Novel’, and this remains an excellent description. Brian Pendreigh weaves his story of Roy Batty the boy growing to manhood through the plots and storylines – the grand epic sweeps – of the blockbuster movies of the era. Sometimes the two are so tightly meshed it’s hard to separate real from imaginary.
What happens when you’re so obsessed that you begin to see your own features replacing the faces of the actors on the screen? Is it obsession? Or is Roy losing his grip on reality? This is the puzzle and the real plot in The Man in the Seventh Row, as the clues the author has seeded amongst all the film references and descriptions gradually grow in relevance and burst into life in a vivid flowering I can’t possibly mention because it would be the spoiler of all spoilers. Just trust me – the revelation is worth it. In a truly cinematic moment, it brings everything into focus and imbues this intelligent and often laugh-out-loud funny book with solid depth and resonance way beyond the make-believe movie world we’ve been caught up in. Layer upon layer. Because this book, too, is a work of fiction. Throughout, there’s a sense of loss at cinema closures – an era ending – and a yearning for worlds we just can’t have.
The Man in the Seventh Row was lauded loudly by some of the giants of cinema, literature and the media when it came out with Blasted Heath almost a decade ago – Barry Norman, no less, Ian Rankin, Andrew Marr and others. Pendreigh has revived the novel by adding three related stories that stand alone yet also act as codas, intriguing us with further layers to ponder about Roy, about our grasp on reality, and that strange dream world of the movies that has such a grip on us.
|Author Brian Pendreigh|
CMcK: Brian, thanks so much for joining me on my blog to talk about The Man in the Seventh Row, which stopped me with the popcorn half-way to my mouth. You have lots of non-fiction books about the movies to your name. I’d love to know a bit about that first, and what enticed you turn to fiction.
BP: The first two books were quiz books. My family always did quizzes. Back in the 1980s my uncle Jim Brunton and I both entered a primetime quiz show called Superscot without either knowing the other had entered. We both reached the final. We had a couple of months between recording and broadcast and multiple bulging notebooks of Scottish facts. I saw a chance to put them to good use, set up a deal with Lomond Books. The Scottish Quizbook came out the day after broadcast and we did a signing at Stockbridge Bookshop, with queues in the street. It made the Scottish bestsellers list.
I was originally a news journalist, but eventually specialised in film. My first film book was On Location: The Film Fan's Guide to Britain and Ireland. There was a gap in the market for an anecdotal guide for the general public and it was the first book of its type. I did a biography of Mel Gibson, having met him during Braveheart, and one on Ewan McGregor, which even got translated in Japanese.
However I always wanted to write a novel and I began work on The Man in the Seventh Row about 30 years ago. I always thought William Wallace was a great subject for a film and the origins of my novel, with its Wallace film references, predate Braveheart, a film on which I was involved from the writer's original idea to the actual Oscars. I was at Mel's party afterwards, but that is a whole other story.
CMcK: Wow! That’s quite a story! When I write fiction, I imagine myself in the role of my characters, much as Roy Batty transposes himself into the characters on the screen. So I have to ask, do you get into the role of Roy Batty? And Yul Brynner? Where do you find your storylines and characters?
BP: Obviously some of the stories in the book are straight lifts from my childhood. I always say the incidental stuff is biographical, the major incidents are not - I have never been sucked into the movies, not literally. It was my intention to produce a book that would meld fact and fiction, memoir and magical realism, that would shift in tone and that ultimately would transcend the confines of the traditional novel, beginning with one set of characters in a novel-length story and end with another set in a different, but related story.
CMcK: Your evocation of family holidays in small Scottish resorts utterly absorbed me and had me recollecting ways of life I’d completely forgotten. Yet one of the most immersive passages of your book is when teenager Roy challenges himself to take the dangerous route up The Law hill. I was Roy Batty while reading that, sharing that sensation of stinging fingertips. Why was it important to you to show Roy conquering the hill in the ‘real’ world?
BP: Well spotted. Firstly, this account is a genuine memory, which may explain why the passage is particularly convincing. Secondly, although these are literal roots – the words "root" and "roots" occur no fewer than ten times in that passage – I would be happy if readers were to conclude there may be a metaphor or two in there somewhere. I think a lot of it is of course subconscious.
|Getting to grips with hills and roots|
CMcK: Did you ever consider writing this as a film script?
BP: No. I did some freelance work as a script consultant and did write a screenplay for a thriller and got as far as having an agent, a producer, casting talk and offices in Leith before it fell through. Film is like that. And TMITSR would be a huge challenge, not just in terms of technology, but in terms of legal rights to muck about with classic movies. When the original version came out I had an inquiry from an English producer, which came to nothing, and someone from Spielberg's company expressed interest, as in "That sounds interesting," nothing more. If anyone were to go anywhere with this in terms of film I reckon it could be Tarantino, though I do not know how you would accommodate the layers and nuances. The book Cloud Atlas is a masterpiece, the film is a confusing mess. It is not something I am pursuing.
CMcK: It’s nice to know books can still do things films can’t! What’s next for you and your writing? Where can we find out more about you and your work, and buy a copy of your books?
BP: The next book is an update of The Legend of the Planet of the Apes, which I was asked to do specifically for the Brazilian market. It is currently being translated into Portuguese. It seems I am big in Brazil. I have no more plans for books. But then I always say that. I thoroughly enjoyed trawling through archives and pulling material together for The Times on Cinema, which is my only other book still currently in print. I am easily found on Google, Facebook and other social media under my own name. There is only one Brian Pendreigh. The book is available from Amazon as a paperback and ebook, as an ebook from Kobo, Smashwords etc, and as a paperback from Waterstones. It is in stock at Topping and Co and several other independent bookshops. Normally you would be able to order it from any bookshop in the UK, but I am not sure at present. And of course there is always eBay for everything old and new.
CMcK: Thanks, Brian! And thanks for supplying this link.