One of the most enjoyable English lessons of my youth was watching Joe Macbeth, over two legs. Perhaps the teacher thought that the updating to a gangster milieu would make the complexities of the Scottish play more relevant to his rabble of fourteen year olds. Unfortunately not living in 1940’s Chicago or being excessively involved in organised crime outside the flogging of some bent stencils, gangster speak was equally as alien as Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English. Nevertheless it had guns in it, Banquo was renamed Banky and was most importantly played by Sid James. A rare straight role for master of the dirty laugh, he sucked us in on the promise of a few innuendos. They did not appear, but watching videos always make for a good lesson. Or two.

My point? Watching the recently rebuffed Jean Cocteau’s Orph’e illustrates the folly of updating the classics. Orpheus is a mess of a tale anyway, so much so that the film feels the need to tell the original before showing its modern take. So Eurydice dies because he is to busy playing music. So he goes to rescue her from the underworld, but he can’t look at her. There is the vaguest of moral in the original which, and about as much sense as many Greek myths had. Cocteau updates to post-war (but still surprisingly fascistic) France, making hisOrpheuss a poet and the whole thing makes even less sense.

No-one is watching it for its story of course. Instead we invoke its dreamlike sensibilities and wonderfully inventive special effects. But history is rarely kind to spesh FX extravaganzas, here the effects lookseamlesss but as is often still the case, in the service of a dunderheaded story. Why are mirrors the way into the underworld, why does Death take an interest in square jawed self-obsessed Orph’e, why does Eurydice just not leave him rather than dying of the heartbroken swoon. And why does Cocteau tag on a happy ending? Worth it perhaps for the backwards gloves (later ruined by replaying), but generally more stupid than visionary. And yes, Joe Macbeth is better, cos its based on a better story. And has Sid James in it.