HEE_ Toxic avenger
When a schoolboy fascination with toxicology goes too far, friends and family start dropping like ﬂies. Benjamin Ross, director of The Young Poisoner’s Handbook, tells Alan Morrison about the blackest British comedy of the year.
Back in the early 70s. the British public were shocked by the story of Graham Young. a man whose unhealthy obsession with toxicology took its toll on those around him. What outraged a nation of tabloid readers wasn‘t so much that he'd furthered his experiments by adding a dose of poison to his workmates' teabreaks. as the fact that he‘d previously been incarcerated for similar offences a few years earlier. but had been released back into society as psychologically sound. For eight-year-old Benjamin Ross. those headlines in 1972 remained just newspaper horror stories with a local relevance — Young lived a couple of miles down the road in North London — until the murderer made an unexpected entry into his own family life.
‘My mother worked as a secretary for my dad's law ﬁrm,‘ explains Ross. ‘and in I975. Graham quite arbitrarily got in touch with the ﬁrm from prison. looking for legal representation because an ex-con who'd been his cellrnate had opened a restaurant and
was selling paintings and drawings he claimed were by Graham. and which Graham said were not his. He i was painting a lot of the time and took this very seriously — a lot of them were self-portraits of himselfas Hitler. weird Nazi things. Nobody from the ﬁrm wanted to meet him apart from my mum. who's quite morbid and can take shorthand. so she went to meet him at Wormwood Scrubs and was quite fascinated by him. She brought two books about him into the house. and I read them when l was about ten or eleven. We were always driving past his house on the North Circular Road. which was just opposite a big reservoir where we used to play. so he was very much a local ﬁgure who preyed on my mind as a kid. That lingered there for years until I ﬁgured that it would be a good thing to write about.‘ The result is Ross's feature debut. The Young Poisoner's Handbook. which he co-wrote with Jeff Rawle (who plays George in Drop The Dead Donkey). The ﬁlm, which last week won Ross the Channel 4 Director‘s Award at the Drambuie Edinburgh Film Festival. takes certain liberties with Graham Young‘s story. dramatising events in order to make the most of a perfectly balanced mix of black comedy. horror and psychological drama. ‘Our Graham is very much a ﬁctional creation.‘ admits the director. ‘It became less and less interesting to me to think about what he was really like because there weren‘t any answers there. It's a very difficult thing
to write a script about somebody who doesn't feel
anything. which seems like a dramatic dead end. The process took us further and fun her away from the facts. and thinking what the real Graham would be like. into a flight of fancy.‘
The ﬁlm starts against the backdrop of suburban London in the ()()s. when Graham's attempts to create a diamond from his chemistry set blow up in his face. instilling in him a bitterness but also a knowledge of the darker side of chemical cocktails. It‘s this that he soon puts to good use when his schoolfriend Mick takes kindly librarian Sue to a live recording of "The
Dickie Boone Sltow' »» a few drops of a special
‘It you make things too horrible, they become inadvertently ludicrous. You can’t escalate horror indefinitely. There comes a point when you have to cut away and make something funny.’
substance into the mustard of a ham sandwich. and it's Graham who's sitting next to Sue w hen the broadcast goes on air. Graham's experiments escalate. and any domestic bickering with his sister or mother is an excuse to take some kind of toxic revenge on them. When he discovers heavy metal Thalliunt — tasteless. colourless. untraceable his pursuits take a more fatal bent. and his mother suffers an agonising death. Convicted of tmrrder and sertt to a high security hospital for the criminally insane. Graham eventually persuades liberal psychologist l)r Ziegler that he has overcome his adolescent problems. The parole board agrees. and Graham is sent to work in a photographics lab . . . where there happens to be a substantial store of 'l'hallium.
‘What draws me towards Graham is his innocent love of his craft. his fascination with beauty of a scientiﬁc and abstract nature.‘ says Ross. ‘llis ideal starts out as an experiment to prodtrce diamonds and only later turns poisonous. He's on a search which
the Young Poisoner’s Handbook: ‘a perfectly balanced mix of black comedy, horror and psychologica
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begins as a mission of purity; it‘s what makes him interesting and frightening and. I think. it‘s what makes him universal too.‘ The look of innocence is certainly captured on the face of actor Hugh ()‘Conor. previously seen in Lam/2 and as the young Christy Brown in My Left Fool. His wide. almost unblinking eyes hypnotise the audience. pulling them in to share Graham's childlike fascination with his hobby. ‘There's a thing about eyes in ﬁlms.‘ admits Ross. ‘liyes are the key to how you frame a shot. the key to how and when you cut. If somebody moves their pupils from left to right. it gives you the right to cut because the character looks and then you cut to let tlte audience see what they're looking at. When you‘re looking at actors. what you're really looking at is the life behind the eyes. What you really want from an actor is that they communicate with a look rather than speecli.‘ _
Graham's actions certainly cause pain and suffering. but Ross handles this difﬁcult and potentially controversial element with much skill. It's not easy comic relief that he‘s after. but a way to complement and heighten the horror with a disturbing. complex sense of humour. ‘If you make things too horrible.‘ he explains. ‘they become inadvertently ludicrous. You can't escalate horror indefinitely. There comes a point when you have to cut away and make something ftrnny. In fact. what you're doing is actually exacerbating the horror and making it bearable and communicable in some way. You have to ﬁnd a way of making the humour work for you rather than against you. The fact that you present the audience with paradoxes. contradictions and complications is to be encouraged because you're creating something that exists on a morally complex level. It is a bleak picture. but it‘s presented in a way which is. hopefully. digestible. People need tnore of that kind of stuff — ﬁlms that aren't afraid to look at unpalatable truths and encourage audiences to engage in a little introspection.‘
The Young l’or'sonw".s Handbook opens ur the lz'tlm/nug/r Film/rouse on Friday [5 Seplember.
18 The List 8-2] Sept 1995