To thine own self be true

Remaking the classics

Posted by Polonius on 8 April, 2007

I was reading Christy Moore’s comments on Fairytale of New York:

The most written about song in my repertoire,Shane and Jem Finer fairly nailed it with this classic.Why cover it at all the pricks often ask.It is a wonderful song to sing,magical to dream through,faces from my past inhabit the characters of the story.Some fail to understand that we sing songs, primarily, for personal reasons, not to do a “better” version or gain fortune and acclaim.The definitive version is Shane and Kirsty and The Pogues.How many songs have had films made about them? Then there is the ” The Haggart” version

Of course he has a valid point. Music, especially folk music, is a tradition of performance, rather than of writing or recording. Every rendition of a song is different, and transient. In this respect, music is like theatre. Where would theatre be if actors took the view that Richard Burbage‘s Hamlet or Lear was definitive, and therefore nobody else should attempt the role?

Film, on the other hand, is not theatre. The finest performances ever given are preserved for eternity. Of course there are great scripts, including Shakespeare’s, and the fact that Olivier has given a noted Hamlet shouldn’t preclude Branagh from having a go, though he should expect comparisons to be made. There are also films on the same theme but with different scripts. If Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando wanted to do Mutiny on the Bounty, they should still expect to be compared with Laughton and Gable. Trivia question: what 1978 movie saw Howard and Brando together again?

Some films should not be remade. Casablanca is the obvious example. With the best will in the world, The Italian Job was not Troy Kennedy Martin’s finest hour, and the success of the original was down to some quirky incidental music and some bizarre casting (Noël Coward? Benny Hill?) . I have no intention of watching a remake. And the Coen brothers should have had more sense than to take on The Ladykillers.

Where a film has a weak script, and is made memorable by the direction and performances, it takes a brave, perhaps arrogant, director or actor to attempt a remake. Witness for the Prosecution perhaps deserves special mention here. There was an earlier TV version, but the definitive version is Billy Wilder’s 1957 version. Much as I respect Billy Wilder, he didn’t have a great deal to go on with this story. To his credit, by clever direction, and a superb performance (No plot spoilers here!), he makes the most of the twist in the tail. Nevertheless, for most of this film, it is carried by Charles Laughton. A remake, even for TV, is pointless.

If theatre, unlike film, is a tradition of ephemeral performances, folk music is much more so, in that the “script” is traditionally not written down, but is passed on by ear. Performers collect songs, adapt them to suit themselves, add new verses, mix’n’match words and music, and the songs evolve.

I accept that Christy Moore sings songs for personal reasons. but he should accept that the paying audience have a right to prefer some performances over others. I wouldn’t say that he shouldn’t sing particular songs, but I do believe, for example, that any man will have trouble singing The Blacksmith as convincingly as a woman, and Fairytale of New York is best performed as a duet.

And what the Hell is “The Haggart” version?


6 Responses to “Remaking the classics”

  1. azahar said

    “And what the Hell is “The Haggart” version?”

    Beats me. But I agree that folk music and theatre productions don’t usually end up having a ‘definitive version’.

    Films, on the other hand …

    I had the misfortune of seeing the Cohn Bros remake of The Ladykillers – dire, dire, dire. As for Casablanca, there has actually been a remake…. 😉

    Casa Blanca reinacted by Bunnies

  2. […] by reading this post over on Polonius’s blog, I started to wonder about the worst ever movie remakes. I […]

  3. Edward the Bonobo said

    Speaking of McColls…Kirsty’s Dad had a somewhat Stalinist view of the “correct” way to sing folk songs. He was firmly of the “Bearded men in cable-knit jumpers sticking their fingers in their ears and singing songs about dead herring” ((c) Alexei Sayle) school. It has to be said that his ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ is a fine song, not least because it manages to stay away from sickly cliche. But it also has to be said that Roberta Flack’s version is better than Peggy Seeger’s “official” version.

    I’ve never liked Casablanca myself. Now let me ruin it for the rest of you. It was made during the war, and there were no spare Dakotas for the final scene. They considered making a model, but the budget was running out. So they built a half scale model and hired every midget in Hollywood to run around underneath it. You’ll remember this next time you watch it!

  4. azahar said


  5. Tommy said

    As to the “haggard” version: Some googling led me to the fact that Ronan Keating covered the song, but instead of the “faggot” line he sings
    “You’re cheap & your haggard
    There you go. And we all love Christy when he sings the song even though Shane and Kirsty are the yardstick by which the song has to be measured.

  6. Polonius said

    Thanks for clearing that up!

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