- Written By:
- Michael Armstrong
- First Performance:
- 7 July 1998
- New End Theatre, Hampstead, London
- 1998 Cast:
- Michael Armstrong
- Mark Barlow
- Oliver Cheetham
- Steve Finch
- Mark Hartley
- David McGillivray
- Mark Tiller
- Krisztina Vaszko
- Directed By:
- Allen Stone
- 2001 Cast:
- Michael Armstrong
- Matthew Daines
- Neil Jackson
- Kevin James
- Jamie Alan Osborn
- Frances Lunn
- Nicholas Osmond
- Quinn Patrick
- Rachel Summers
- Directed By:
- Michael Armstrong
- Currently available for production
The screenplay: In 1973, Armstrong was working for Drumbeat Productions and took time out from the conveyor belt of commissioned sex comedy screenplays he and Tudor Gates were churning out to service independent producers, and wrote an original film treatment to add to their stockpile, inspired by the heavily commercialised Tuttenkhamon exhibition at the British Museum. He titled it, The Sex-Curse Of Tittikhamon.
Other than the basic premise of a vengeful, if highly confused, Mummy and his sexually comic demise, the treatment bore little relation to the screenplay, The Curse Of Tittikhamon, which he would write four years later in 1977 and even less to the stage version of that screenplay twenty years later in 1998.
Intended for Martin Campbell to direct after The Sex Thief, the comedy thriller of a plot concerned a couple of private eyes (Armstrong and Christopher Neil in another double-act) and their mishap-laden adventures as they investigated the Mummy's ludicrous murderous rampage. It was intended to be an off-the-wall low budget sex comedy for inclusion in Drumbeat's line-up of films they were planning to produce as part of a deal with Tigon Distributors. Both Gates and Campbell thought the whole idea very funny but too ambitious for their immediate capabilities and it was filed away for possible production at a later date.
The script, consequently, never passed beyond a 1st draft and remained unfilmed.
In the winter of 1977, Armstrong was working with Barry O'Keef's company, Maiden Music and looking for a suitable low budget vehicle with which to launch a film production side to the company. No longer having to service the sex market, Armstrong was free to re-think his Tuttenkhamon idea and completely reconceived it as a musical comedy spoof of Mummy films, movie genres and just about everything else. The resultant screenplay was The Curse Of Tittikhamon.
In January of 1978, Maiden Music announced that it would go into production with the film at the end of the year and immediately set about packaging the project.
As an encouragement to potential investors, Armstrong decided that, rather than hand over a screenplay to read, he would, instead, offer them an audiotape of the script performed as if it was a radio play. It was something he had already done, in a crude form, with his musical comedy version of Robin Hood, which Stanley Long of Alpha Films had commissioned in the summer of 1977.
As O'Keef's company specialised in audio plays, it was simple to set up a taping for Armstrong and Campbell, who Armstrong still intended as the film's director.
During an extended session in February, Armstrong and Campbell gathered a small cast to record the dialogue sections of the screenplay - among them Roy Kinnear, Peter Duncan and Armstrong himself taking on the role of Baby Bette, only because no one else was prepared to risk tackling a Bette Davis impersonation. This session was followed by a series of separate tapings where Armstrong read out the narrative and description of screen action to link the dialogues. Where original songs would occur in the film, existing show songs were used to indicate style and mood. Finally, sound effects and mood music were added.
In addition to this audio screenplay, investors were also given a demo tape of three of the film's actual songs: Tip-tap-tapping Shoes (music and lyrics by Danny Beckerman and performed by Armstrong as Baby Bette); It's Lovely Being in the Water (music and lyrics by Danny Beckerman) and They Don't Make Them Like Us Anymore (music by Max Early, lyrics by Armstrong).
By the end of July, most of the financing was in place through O'Keef's city contact and financial adviser, Harry Bollon, together with a completion guarantee and the involvement of Bray Studios.
To provide a fresh approach to the dance routines, contemporary dance star, Robert North had been approached for the choreography of the musical numbers. Casting ideas included Leo McKern as Sir Henry (at one point Peter Cushing, the star of Hammer's The Mummy had been mooted by Armstrong), Anna Quayle as Minerva, Roy Kinnear as Bustem, Alfred Marks as Whippit, Diane Langton as Sal and Diana Dors as Baby Bette. Armstrong had pencilled himself in to play one of the gutter press, Grub Digger, again as a double-act with Christopher Neil as his paparazzi photographer, Flash.
On the basis of all this, a shooting date was pencilled in for October with pre-production due to commence in September. Then one of Bollon's city investors withdrew from the deal, suddenly leaving a third of the budget still to be found.
As efforts were being made to secure this missing third, Campbell in association with the writer and director, Anthony Simmons, approached Armstrong and O'Keef, offering to enter into a co-production situation with O'Keef's company in return for which they would attempt to raise the required balance through Simmons's contacts. To this end they wanted drastic re-writing of the screenplay into a Pink Panther style comedy.
Armstrong and O'Keef were shocked not only at what they saw as an attempt to take over the production but the fact that Campbell suddenly seemed content to discuss changing it into a completely different kind of film. Withdrawing from any further discussion, O'Keef and Armstrong decided to continue trying to raise the additional monies themselves but with Armstrong now as the film's director.
As their search for investors began, a change of circumstances suddenly brought O'Keef's album, The Enchanted Orchestra to the fore as a possible feature film. To facilitate this and turn the album into a screenplay, Armstrong had to put The Curse Of Tittikhamon on temporary hold.
It was never remounted due to the collapse of O'Keef's company in 1983. Armstrong's subsequent move to Los Angeles and, later, Paris, meant that the script of The Curse Of Tittikhamon continued to lie dormant as a project until 1998.<< Introduction History (Part 2) >>
The stage play: From 1990 to 1998, Armstrong was working, primarily, as an independent producer with Allen Stone, an American he had met in Paris. Stone had originally trained as a clown with The Ringling and Barnum & Bailey Circus in America before moving to Paris and studying under Jacques Lecoq and Philippe Gaulier. He had subsequently moved to London to enrol in Armstrong's newly created Structured Acting Course.
Initially working through Drumbeat Productions, during which they produced Gates's thriller, The Kidnap Game with Hayley Mills and Richard Todd, he and Armstrong went on to resurrect the production company, Armstrong Arts.
Stone had originally heard the demo tape of The Curse Of Tittikhamon screenplay while in Paris and loved it, but it wasn't until their company was producing a pilot for an intended series of dramatised audio tapes, that the idea of turning the screenplay into a stage production occurred to him.
"An idea flashed into my mind," recalls Stone, "The Curse of Tittikhamon adapted from film to stage, in the form of a live radio broadcast. It seemed so obvious I couldn't believe that someone hadn't thought of it before. I told Michael of my concept and he was sold on it immediately."
In adapting the text, Armstrong updated some of the references and cut the majority of musical numbers: a police soft-shoe shuffle, an Esther Williams water ballet in a public swimming baths (later re-instated for the 2001 revival), a blue movie jazz ballet, a dance routine parodying over a dozen of the cinema's most famous death scenes, a Born In A Trunk send-up from the Cukor version of A Star Is Born, and a burlesque song & dance performed by the tabloid press.
As Armstrong explained: "On screen they were to open out the movie and provide visual breaks from the dialogue scenes but in a predominantly audio rendering on stage they lost most of their comedic value and slowed down the narrative flow."
Other changes included the loss of a rapid cartoon-style montage of the Mummy murdering various celebrities and replacement scenes for a send-up of the Osmonds together with a Mary Whitehouse style love scene set in a phoney wonderland of television commercials.
With Stone directing and Armstrong making a rare appearance on stage after an absence of over twenty years, the play went into rehearsal and almost immediately hit problems. Stone's inexperience as a director and the fact that he was using his own and family money to fund the production placed him under enormous stress - which from the first day of rehearsal communicated itself to his cast. To make matters worse, one member set about stirring up trouble internally within the company. Resultant dissention amongst the cast nearly closed down the production until the instigator was identified and replaced. Although this immediately meant tensions and conflicts within the company ceased, none of this had helped the creative work needed for the show.
The play opened for a limited season on 7th July 1998 at the New End Theatre in Hampstead.
Critical reactions to the show were split. Several of the critics, apparently not knowing the films being parodied, took the spoof dialogues and satirical swipes at face value and damned it accordingly.
As Armstrong recalls, "While I was on stage, I could actually see the Time Out critic scribbling away in horror at what she was hearing. She took just about everything at face value. She was very young and had, obviously, never seen Hammer's The Mummy or any of the other movies, stars and genres being parodied. She didn't even know Bette Davis in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? I know my impersonation wasn't exactly the greatest but nobody else in the audience took it as a cynical attack on the disabled. Worse, she completely missed all the satire as well and took it literally, so I was accused of being racist, homophobic, sexist and God-knows-what-else. I dread to think what she would have made of Alf Garnett. The fact that everyone around her was falling about laughing only seemed to increase her sense of indignation - although I did spot her laughing with the rest of the audience at my tap dancing number, which, no doubt, is what forced her to give me a begrudging acknowledgment for my acting. Another well-known critic was so drunk he fell over trying to find his seat after the interval, so goodness knows what show he thought he'd seen by the time he got down to writing but it certainly didn't bear much relation to anything we'd been doing on stage. As for the local critic, he was so shocked and offended by what he saw that his review just became a single vitriolic and highly personal attack - so much so that, for the first and only time in my life, I actually wrote a response to the paper."
Armstrong also mused on whether or not his satirical damning of the press - and in particular the gutter press - might have added insult to their sense of injury.
"It was as if everything they had ever held sacred had suddenly come under attack," he continues. "Having been a critic, myself, they hold no mystery for me and, coming from the movie exploitation scene, I'd quickly grown used to being called every name under the sun...but this was extraordinary. One critic, who, unfortunately, wasn't reviewing it, privately confided that he too was bewildered by how they could have so completely missed the point of the show. I mean, it's hardly a subtle work. One reviewer, as he was leaving the theatre, stopped me and said it was one of the funniest things he'd ever seen and loved it - and then slagged it off in print. Another used a brief exchange: "Call me Richard." - "I prefer Dick." - "Don't we all?" - which used to get a huge laugh every performance - to remonstrate about resorting to double-entendres to get a laugh and then a few weeks later proceeded to quote the same double-entendre in some fringe production as an example of sparkling wit!"
Contrary to the overall press reaction, however, audiences found it extremely funny and original, as did a couple of West End managements: one of whom felt that, with different direction, it had all the cult potential of another Rocky Horror Show. Certainly sufficient audience members returned to see it a second and, in some cases, third time to give credence to that belief.
Disillusioned with his experiences of the industry, Stone quit show business immediately after the production, in pursuit of a less stressful life, leaving Armstrong with the production company, which he eventually re-formed with former student and fellow performer in the show, Krisztina Vasko; later, to be joined by the show's musical director, Mark Hartley.
The Curse Of Tittikhamon remained as a production idea which they planned to remount, especially once Armstrong had re-conceived its staging. It was, further, intended to place it in repertory with the equally outrageous if more ambitious musical of Robin Hood, which Armstrong had also adapted for the stage.
In 2001, the two plays were included as part of a repertory tour. This time, with a new cast (including Armstrong again), the reinstatement of the water ballet number and directed by Armstrong. The Curse Of Tittikhamon opened the tour at the Theatre Royal, Margate - the week immediately following the Bin Laden attack on the World Trade Centre in New York.
"Not the best time to open a show full of jokes about a murderous Egyptian mummy being identified by the police as a ‘kinky costumed terrorist poof'," Armstrong points out, "Audiences were so thin as to be almost non-existent. The few who came certainly laughed and applauded loudly enough for us to know there was somebody out there but - alas - a tiny handful of enthusiasts, however much they may love a show, aren't enough to combat the harsh reality of economics. I gather everywhere was badly effected at the box-office - hardly surprising - but it really didn't offer any consolation."
Audiences and advance booking proved so disastrous that the tour folded.
"At some point, I'd love to see it revived and running in repertory with Robin Hood as originally intended under the joint heading of Movies That Never Got Made." Armstrong says, "They're very funny shows and there's certainly a big audience out there for them. They're not expensive to mount but they need enough backing to nurse them through the opening weeks in order to allow sufficient time for word of mouth to develop. One day..."<< History (Part 1) Gallery >>