Wilderness Years: From Rapunzel to Travolta and General Zod

A blind prince wanders through a Biblical-looking stony desert. The strange coda to Rapunzel is often forgotten, but it’s what I remember most about reading the Ladybird storybook as a child. And it’s where I chose to start today’s Something Understood programme for BBC Radio 4 exploring Wilderness Years. Follow the link to listen to it now.

The witch has discovered Rapunzel’s secret romance, shorn her hair and cast her out. She lies in wait for the Prince and hurls him from the tower. He is blinded by the brambles below. There follow several years in the Wilderness. Meanwhile Rapunzel has been wandering, too. In the unexpurgated version she’s given birth to the Prince’s twins and has been raising them alone for several years before they are reunited. The psychoanalytical reading is that the story is a metaphor for the repression and punishment of adolescent sexuality. It certainly didn’t seem fair. The Ladybird “Happily Ever After” ending includes this:

How happy Rapunzel and the prince were to be together again! It did not matter to them that they were in rags. They forgot the sad years behind them.”

But how could you forget such a time? And if life has a purpose, what is the purpose of wilderness years? As well as the Israelites’ forty years in the desert and the temptation of Christ, the programme explores political wilderness: Winston Churchill’s decade before the Second World War, warning of the growing threat from Germany; and political shame and punishment for transgression from the Profumo scandal to today.

In the section on showbusiness I wanted to tell the Wilderness Years stories of 3 great actors, who by coincidence were all nominated at the 1995 BAFTA film awards: Terence Stamp, John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson (the latter for Best Supporting Actor, which he won). Incidentally, you might want to muse on the subsequent career of the  man who actually won Best Actor, Hugh Grant, for Four Weddings and A Funeral.  My encounter that night as a news correspondent with John Travolta is still in the programme. But this is the sadly lost section on Jackson and Stamp:

There were 3 wilderness year returnees nominated for BAFTA acting awards that year. Terence Stamp, about whom more shortly. And Travolta’s Pulp fiction co-star, Samuel L Jackson, whose break through came only as he approached 40, after finally turning his back on drugs and drink. As Elaine Lipworth discovered when she interviewed him in 2012:

“Jackson’s dabbling in drugs began in New York in the late Seventies when he joined the acclaimed Negro Ensemble Company. “It was the life. I was in the theatre, the revolution. I fancied myself as Oliver Reed. Part of it is hereditary: my father died of alcoholism,” says Jackson with measured detachment. “I took it a step further, I drank and I used drugs. I liked the feeling of not being cognisant of what was going on around me.” Despite the addiction he never spiralled into utter dissipation.

“I didn’t rob people, I was working the whole time. I rehearsed and performed on drugs. I went on stage and watched people’s eyes roll across stage and I’d go ‘oh I have a line, OK got to focus on the play now.’” He admits it was hard for his wife and daughter to deal with his behaviour. “I was not affectionate, I was not associative and I was kind of crazy – in a way that I regret and I’ve apologised to both.” The turning point came when his family discovered him “passed out on the kitchen floor. I guess I wanted to get caught. I ended up going to a party, drinking too much tequila and decided on the way home I needed to get cocaine and level myself out because I was drunk. I got home and cooked it.

“When I looked up, LaTanya and Zoe were standing there. The cocaine was cooked but I’d never smoked it. That was the first time LaTanya realised I was doing something that was greater than just smoking weed and drinking.” Jackson checked into rehab. “I didn’t resist because I was ready.” Ironically, two weeks after rehab he began shooting what would become his breakout film performance, as a crack addict in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (1991). “It was the first thing I did without a substance in my body.”

Sometimes the wilderness years arrive over night, like an appointment. The actor Terence Stamp embodied the 1960s in films such as Far From The Madding Crowd. And when they ended, he found himself staring into a desert:

“In a long career, there are invariably lulls. You either start late— Jack Nicholson didn’t get discovered until well into his thirties; neither did Michael Caine— or, there is a parched stretch in the middle, as in Cary Grant’s case, and my own. It’s tough, as at the time there is no certainty the final curtain hasn’t fallen. I coped by travelling, and drew inspiration from Muhammad Ali. On my first trip to New York, I was up front on a big TWA jet. There was a lot of commotion at the rear and I strolled back to catch the action. It was the then Cassius Clay and his extensive entourage. I had seen him in action a few nights earlier at the Arsenal Stadium, when he’d taken Henry Cooper down . He looked alight, sitting there, talking with his hands the way many fighters do, laughing and animated, lit from within. His charisma was overwhelming . After that, I kept up with his career. Hearing somewhere that during his time away from the ring— when he was banned for not fighting in Vietnam— he stayed very fit so that whenever the call came he would be ready at an hour’s notice, if need be.

When, during my long sojourn in the East, the weeks became months, the months became years and my hair became noticeably grey, I would recall Ali’s discipline. Whether it was the breathing practices that strengthened my core and stretched my lungs or the long Tai Chi forms that complemented my coordination and kept my tendons supple, my mantra became, “This will refine my performances when the call comes.” “

From Rare Stamps by Terence Stamp: Reflections On Living, Breathing and Acting.

Stamp challenges the idea that wilderness years are something we need to escape. Perhaps they are to be embraced. I think it’s no coincidence that Terence Stamp went to study meditation in India. And the programme features Jay Lakhani of the Hindu Academy explaining the central importance of Wilderness Years in the Hindu model of life.

You can listen here to Something Understood: Wilderness Years on BBC Radio 4 March 9th 2014 at 1130pm or iplayer for 7 days after. It also has a list of all the music and readings featured including songs from James Taylor and the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction.

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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