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Lights on at Signpost by George MacDonald…
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Lights on at Signpost

by George MacDonald Fraser

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"... it has been a fairly rambling, eccentric sort of book, no doubt intemperate on occasion, though not without good cause, and I make no apology for it: the polemical stuff needed saying, if only because I'm shot if I'll go silent into that good night, whenever it falls, and I couldn't leave my memoirs of the wonderful, enchanting world of movies unwritten. But that's not the whole story by a long chalk..." (pg. 287)

A supremely entertaining pseudo-autobiography from the author of Flashman, my favourite book. Even leaving aside his exceptional novels, George MacDonald Fraser had an interesting life. He travelled the world from a young age, serving in the Far East in World War Two (read his matchless war memoir, Quartered Safe Out Here – read it now) and later flitting all over the place as a Hollywood screenwriter during the 1970s and 1980s. It is the latter which is the mainspring of The Light's on at Signpost, as Fraser recounts his dealings with the likes of Steve McQueen, Burt Lancaster, Cubby Broccoli, Charlton Heston and Oliver Reed, among (many) others. He casts the penetrating and observant eye of the writer over these diverse characters, and his anecdotes are not only entertaining but illuminating about the persons involved.

His memoir is refreshingly uncynical; he describes himself as "incurably star-struck" (pg. 9) and not interested in scandal. Consequently, we get a warm and nostalgic account of a screenwriter who mixed with some of the heavyweights. This is not without its charms: when Steve McQueen says "I think we've got [a new] Gone with the Wind here" about Fraser's unmade screenplay for Taipan (pg. 211), it told me more about one of my favourite actors than any biography or documentary could. Even when he's recounting something negative Fraser remains diplomatic: recalling the American McQueen's feud with Oliver Reed (a Briton) and their opposite-poles personalities, he says, "Thinking of them together, I have no difficulty understanding the events of 1776" (pg. 85). This is also just one of a number of turns-of-phrase that I have come to expect from the author of Flashman.

And speaking of Flashman, I cannot disguise my fascination with the people Fraser encounters who profess an admiration for the books. On pages 96 and 97, he lists just some of the famous people who have done so: Kingsley Amis (whose favourite was Flashman and the Redskins), Burt Lancaster, Johnny Cash, Charlton Heston (who wanted to play Flashman at Little Big Horn – pg. 28), P. G. Wodehouse and, in one endearing anecdote, even an octogenarian Charlie Chaplin. Interestingly – and disappointingly for those of us who still want it to happen – Bond producer Cubby Broccoli thought that a Flashman movie would be even more expensive to make than the 007 films (pg. 244).

Despite the book's qualities, I did sometimes yearn for a more conventional memoir in which Fraser would go beyond his 'movie memoir' remit to include his views on the writing process and, in particular, writing Flashman. He does briefly recount these sorts of things in the penultimate chapter, which serves as a sort of condensed autobiography, and it is fascinating – but something I'd have liked to see more of.

What we do get a lot of is political polemic; Fraser railing against all the things he sees wrong with the 'permissive society' of modern Britain. These are called his 'Angry Old Man' chapters and can be safely called 'politically incorrect'. I won't address these in detail, but his views in general can be encapsulated by the following sentence from page 74: "How tragic, how degrading, that the marvellous thing that was Britain, the wonder of the world, should after all the travail and suffering and heroism and sacrifice and sheer bloody genius of centuries, end with the sorriest of whimpers, sold down the river by mere politicians, unworthy and third rate." As it happens, I agreed with a lot of what he was saying, particularly his observations that apologising for the past actions of imperialism only makes sense if you believe in racial guilt and inherited guilt (pg. 117) and that 'positive discrimination' is still discrimination (pg. 227). I suspect he's right when he's talking about the silent majority of decent people who don't fall for all the politically-correct hysteria, but it doesn't make him sound any less like a Daily Mail op-ed piece. His arguments, though often valid, are advanced by emotional rather than intellectual appeal (for example, he gets carried away when talking about capital punishment, speaking animatedly of "helpless folk battered and tortured and slain" by unpunished criminals (pg. 142)), and consequently won't sway anyone who isn't already convinced of their merits. For such people, these polemical chapters will be cathartic, but some readers will no doubt find them one-note. Whatever opinion you hold, they can certainly be considered the Marmite chapters of the book.

This contrast between the positivity of the movie memoir chapters and the negativity of the political soapbox chapters can be jarring, especially as the two alternate without any attempt at linkage. But, somehow, it all works (maybe the two cancel each other out?) and The Light's on at Signpost has the air of a book being pulled together by the sheer force of will of a talented writer. Not only by reading his forthright views but also by recalling his rich life experiences, the reader is left with the distinct impression that, sadly, we don't make them like him anymore.

On his favourite British Prime Minister: "... I have to confess a liking for the style of Sir Alec Douglas-Home, not because he was on the Right, but because he spent a year in office without, on his own admission, doing a damned thing." (pg. 263) ( )
  MikeFutcher | Mar 28, 2017 |
Comments on film writing, including famous actors he has worked with, and the general state of the world, especially Great Britain, by the author of the Flashman series.
  ritaer | Apr 20, 2014 |
A great writer pens a awespme memoir. Great book.
  ocianain | Mar 31, 2007 |
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"In a screenwriting career spanning thirty years and encompassing Hollywood, Pinewood, Cinecitta and film sets worldwide, George MacDonald Fraser worked with some of the greatest legends of the film world including Steve McQueen, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charlton Heston, Cubby Broccoli, Christopher Lee, Burt Lancaster, Raquel Welch, Federico Fellini and Oliver Reed. Now he shares his recollections of those encounters, providing a glimpse behind tbe scenes." "He looks back also to a time before political correctness and permissiveness, and contrasts those enlightened days with the insanities of the present, lamenting the damage that has been done to Britain in the last fifty years and castigating those responsible."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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