JDIFF: John Healy – 'Barbaric Genius'


DIR: Paul Duane PRO: Paul Duane and Mary Carson ED: Ian de Brí and Colm O’Brien

Light House Cinema, Smithfield, Saturday 19th February 2pm

Bloody Hell. That’s quite a documentary to watch when you are still recovering from the night before.

John Healy, whose parents were from Sligo, was a homeless alcoholic living in London who only stopped drinking when he was introduced to chess in prison by his cell mate, a notorious burgler nicknamed ‘The Brighton Fox’. He went on to play chess to international level before writing an award-winning autobiography, ‘The Grass Arena’ ,which went out of print for a number years due to him threatening to kill his publisher.

Now that’s an interesting subject for a documentary. After the screening I went out and bought ‘The Grass Arena’. I can’t really critique the filmmaking aspect of this documentary as from about two minutes in I was glued to it. I guess when you pick such a fascinating person to make a documentary on you are most of the way there.

The ‘row’ he had with is publisher, almost 20 years on, is water under the bridge and the publisher appears on camera to give an unintentionally hilarious recollection of events containing quite possibly the highest number of contradictions in the fewest words spoken.

Director Paul Duane and Healy himself took part in a Q&A chaired by Dr Harvey O’Brien of UCD. Healy recalled that when ‘The Grass Arena’ was published he thought he was getting away from the psychopaths that he was hanging around with when he was drinking, only to discover that the real psychopaths were in the middle class, who he discovered, ‘don’t like listening to problems unless they are their own’.

Paul Duane described Healy as vulnerable and open and the two became friends over the long period of filming. Norman Brock, who wrote the screenplay for ‘Bronson’, and does some of the voiceover on ‘Barbaric Genius’ is scripting another adaptation of the book, the first one made in 1992 was directed by Gilles McKinnon and starred Mark Rylance as Healy.

Talking about alcoholism and the use of the term ‘wino’, Healy said there are many types of alcoholic, those in the drawing room, those in the pub, and the ‘wino’ ‘who would attack another human being if it furthered them to drink’. When he discovered chess he said that’ drink dropped out of his mind’ and that he didn’t give up the drink, drink gave up him.

When Paul Duane was asked why he made the documentary he said he wondered ‘why is this man being ignored for so long, why is he being surpressed?’, after watching ‘Barbaric Genius’ I was thinking the same thing myself.

Gordon Gaffney

‘The First Movie’ Report


2 Replies to “JDIFF: John Healy – 'Barbaric Genius'”

  1. Went to the screening and thoroughly enjoyed the documentary.
    Beautifully shot and the attention to detail was commendable.
    John Healy comes across as a sensitive man who is understandably wary
    of the camera and of people in general. He has experienced life in all
    its forms and i really hope he gets the recognition he deserves.
    I would love to see some of his other books published and his life
    told again with Paul Duane behind the camera. I loved that film Bronson
    and if the same screen writer Norman Brock is scripting another adaptation
    of The Grass Arena with Paul Duane directing looking forward to it already.
    Hopefully this will get shown at other festivals. Well done to all involved. It was very well edited and the music choices were perfect as were the various voice overs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *