Friday, 27 November 2015

The Grass Arena (1992)

The release of Steven Spielberg's latest movie Bridge of Spies has brought about some of the most arrogant and ignorant statements I have ever heard from the director and its star Tom Hanks. 

Both statements refer to Mark Rylance.

Hanks claims that Rylance is a name with a promising future ahead of him, which rather dumbly ignores everything Rylance has achieved thus far and clearly believes that the only success an actor could achieve is in a major Hollywood movie. Spielberg meanwhile accepts Rylance has had a career, but gloats that he has 'saved him' from theatre, again corroborating Hanks' belief that movie stardom is the only thing of merit.

Anyone who knows just how good Mark Rylance is, like scarily good, can point to a career of glittering highlights which dates all the way back to the early 1980s.  To be fair to Spielberg, it has been a career that has primarily focused on the stage, but he has delivered some exceptional performances on both the big and small screen before Hollywood came a calling, and the 1992 Screen Two film The Grass Arena is a great example of this. It's a role Rylance could totally inhabit and get his teeth into, and he's absolutely spellbinding.

Based on the autobiography of John Healy, The Grass Arena tells Healy's story from his formative years as a sickly, bullied child to a promising career as a boxer which was curtailed because of his addiction to alcohol. The film pulls no punches whatsoever in its depiction of Healy's fifteen years in the wilderness of the titular 'grass arena', a park in which he and other alcoholic down and outs frequented; begging, stealing and violently arguing among themselves.

Convicted of several petty crimes - often just to clear the unsolved books at the local police station - Healy was habitually imprisoned, as well as sent to several horrific drying out programmes. During one stay in prison, he was introduced to the game of chess by a cellmate known as Harry The Fox. Finding he had an aptitude for the game, Healy decided upon his release to give up the drink and focus specifically on playing chess. Determined to become a Grandmaster, he became a regular on the coffeehouse circuit and was capable of conducting several games concurrently. His career in chess lasted ten years and he was highly successful, but he never felt he was accepted into the elite society of players and ultimately gave up his ambitions, turning to a career in writing instead.

As you can tell it's an amazing life and the BBC film depicts it in a bleak, harrowing and uncomfortable manner, though it is occasionally uplifting. The film belongs to Rylance though, he is nothing short of mesmerising throughout. As indeed he always has been - we didn't really need Hanks or Spielberg to enlighten us of this fact. See for yourself on YouTube.

To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic plays please sign the petition I started here


  1. I don't know the context of the Spielberg and Hanks quotes you've cited, but I could believe that they were intended to be tongue in cheek, especially if both were uttered in the same interview.

    I'm just back from seeing the film myself, incidentally. It's very good, and Rylance in particular is superb. He's escaped my radar until now, but I'll definitely be looking out for his work from now on. By the way, he does an uncannily good Glaswegian accent in it -- which apparently is true to life, as the real Rudolf Abel, despite being born in Newcastle to Russian parents, spoke English with a strong Scottish accent.

    1. Tsk Mr Mainstream Cinema you, it's you Spielberg and Hanks are talking to then!

      Sadly not tongue in cheek. Hanks - on particularly loud, embarrassing form - appeared on Graham Norton and muttered it with an unmistakably impressed gleam in his eye and a warm glow after Norton showed a clip of the film. Spielberg, well I'm not so sure, I could give you the benefit of the doubt there given that it comes from Rylance's own mouth in an interview with the RT.

      You didn't see Wolf Hall then? Or any of his Shakespeare performances? You really need to see him in The Government Inspector as Dr David Kelly, and he bares all literally in Intimacy, having full sex on camera a couple of times with co-star Kerry Fox.

    2. Ah well, that's a real shame then, and like you say pretty jaw-droppingly ignorant on Hanks's part. I suppose I was inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt given that it seems rather, shall we say, odd do describe a man in his mid-50s as having a promising future ahead of him. It's the sort of thing you'd normally say about a child actor or perhaps someone in their 20s.

      In all fairness, I suspect I probably HAVE seen Rylance in other things -- I just hadn't consciously identified him. And no, I didn't watch Wolf Hall. In spite of the critical acclaim and the amount of talent on either side of the camera, I can't say the subject matter remotely interested me. I'd definitely like to see The Government Inspector, though. I remember seeing it trailed at the time of its original broadcast. I had no idea that was him playing Kelly.