Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The Birds

Agatha Christie once said that there is no greater distance between two people than between one who is seasick, and one who isn't. For 'seasick' she might have substituted 'phobic', because it is notoriously difficult to feel empathy towards someone for a phobia you don't share.

Ornithophobia, for example - fear of birds. It's quite common, but I personally find it harder to imagine a fear of birds than, say, a fear of buttons (with which, curiously enough, my sister-in-law is afflicted). Still, when a certain friend of ours visits Islandmore from Edinburgh, we always take Castle Espie Wildfowl and Wetlands Centre, where the ducks will take food from your hand, off the agenda.

Daphne Du Maurier must have understood ornithophobia's potency when she wrote The Birds, and Alfred Hitchcock said of his 1963 movie of the same name, 'It could be the most terrifying motion picture I have ever made.'

Hitchcock instructed Evan Hunter, who wrote the screenplay for The Birds, to ignore Du Maurier's plot entirely - he was interested only in the title, and the fact that the story involved birds which attack people. Of course, it's an unforgettable movie whether birds scare you or not - every scene a meticulously planned mini-masterpiece which builds on its predecessor to ratchet up the tension towards (as I remember it anyway) a climax for which you are more than willing to suspend disbelief. Only afterwards do you say to yourself, 'How on earth did they do that?' The answer is, an awful lot of birds, Disney's sodium vapour process to render the claustrophobic shots of flapping wings (they tried the more conventional blue screen technique but found that the speed of the wingbeats created a blue fringe around the image) - and some judiciously-placed elastic bands. The elastic bands were used to attach individual birds to the screaming figure of heroine Melanie Daniels, played by Tippi Hedren.

Tippi Hedren with daughter Melanie Griffith

Which brings me to the point. Many Happy Returns to Tippi Hedren, who was born on 19th January 1930, and so turns eighty-one today. The Birds was her first movie - until the day Hitchcock saw her in a TV advertisement for a diet drink called Sego, she had been a catwalk model - and it propelled her to stardom. Marnie was her second movie with Hitchcock, and according to Hedren it was during the filming of Marnie that she found she could no longer tolerate the director's unwelcome attentions, and asked to be released from contract. Hitchcock refused, and said he would ruin her career - which to some extent he did, keeping Hedren under contract for years (at $600 a week) when she could have been one of Hollywood's highest earners.

Nowadays, Tippi Hedren heads the Shambala Preserve in Acton, California, an animal rescue charity she founded in 1972.

Interestingly, the girl in the poster for the movie (above) is not Tippi Hedren, but the wonderful Jessica Tandy, who played another central character called Lydia Brenner.

To return to Agatha Christie, my favourite cure for seasickness is the one prescribed by A. Nonimus: 'Sit on the shaded side of a brick-built church in the country'.
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