The Great McGonagall (1974, Joseph McGrath)

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Every morning when I go out
The Ignorant rabble they do shout
“There goes Mad McGonagall.”

William Topaz McGonagall, ‘A New Year’s Resolution to Leave Dundee,’

While William Topaz McGonagall (1825 – 1902) is now a celebrated figure in Scotland for his questionable verse this forgotten movie languishes in the kind of obscurity normally reserved for poets. Made in a couple of weeks at the Wilton Music Hall in London it was funded as a tax-write off. Tigon productions made some interesting British horror films in the 60s’ but by 1974 their output consisted mainly of pornography.

Written by Spike Milligan and director Joseph McGrath, an inventive comedy director who had worked on Not Only But Also and been one of the five directors involved in James Bond debacle Casino Royale (1967). McGrath directed the Peter Sellers/Ursula Andress segments of the film which work really well and might have made something of that project had producer Charles K. Feldman not taken over the production.  Milligan’s film career amounted to little more than cameos in other stars films but The Great McGonagall is his project and he clearly sensed a kindred spirit in this gentle Scottish misfit.

Like Tim Burton’s biopic of Ed Wood (1994) the film shows compassion for a talentless outsider whose passion outstrips his abilities. This opening line to McGonagall’s poem about old Braveheart himself gives an idea of the kind of poetic sophistication you find in his work.

“Sir William Wallace of Ellerslie
I’ve heard he went to the High School in Dundee,”

While the film mocks McGonagall it’s kinder towards him than the rest of the cast. Queen Victoria (Sellers cameoing) is so dumb she doesn’t notice an assassin adjusting his pistol for a better shot while standing next to her, it portrays Tennyson (Valentine Dyall) as a snobbish sex maniac, the Edinburgh literary crowd as a bunch of braying hoity-toits, and Prince Albert (Julian Chagrin) as Adolf Hitler. McGonagall comes off quite well in comparison. Milligan and McGrath transform McGonagall’s odd life into a fanciful tale involving a foiled assassination attempt, a royal love affair, and his ascension to the title of poet laureate. In among Milligan’s clever wordplay, “he turned out to be a very reasonable unreasonable man,” and sight gags is a moving celebration of creativity and the artist’s struggle to make sense of the world around him however inept the results may be.

McGonagall’s eccentricity is apparent from his autobiography. As a young wannabe actor playing Macbeth onstage he refused to die and kept on fighting Macduff. He walked from Dundee to Balmoral with the intention of meeting Queen Victoria and is bewildered when he is turned away by an angry estate worker at the Castle gates. McGonagall is both innocent and provocateur. This kind of material is perfect for Milligan. McGonagall has already done most of the work for him leaving him free to put his unique spin on events and the result is one of the few films to capture the absurdist brilliance of Milligan’s legendary sketch show Q (1969-80).

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