Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Early To Bed (1975)

"It's about an 18-year-old lad, very masculine, tough. He's quite athletic. And he's got a mam who's blind. But she's got a strong vision of life. And... the woman next door... she's the type who puts her make-up on with a trowel... she's lonely" ~ Alan Bleasdale, writer of Early To Bed"


Second City Firsts was a 1973-'78 series of half hour plays from the BBC recorded at their Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham and on location across the country. Its title derived from the fact that Birmingham has long been considered the UK's 'second city' whilst the series was committed to its commissioning of young first-time writers, hence 'firsts'. It's now most famous for Mike Leigh's The Permissive Society, but BBC Store is gradually making good on its promise to open up its archives and their current Alan Bleasdale collection has allowed this, his first television play, a chance to find a new audience for a £2.99 download.


You'd be forgiven for thinking this was Alan Sillitoe, rather than Alan Bleasdale. The Liverpudlian writer foregoes the obvious setting of his hometown to instead focus on the pit town of Hindley, just up the road from me in Wigan. The story concerns Vinnie (David Warwick) a bright and athletic 18-year-old who is about to sever the apron strings from his blind mother (Patricia Leach) with a move to Loughborough University. Next door to them is Johnny Meadows' lugubrious coalminer Frankie whose horizons consists of the chance he gets to bequiff his hair and adopt a transatlantic drawl to sing down at the club of an evening, before a bellyfull of ale and a fish supper takes him happily home. Clearly wanting more from life is his young wife Helen (Alison Steadman) who is slowly suffocating from an existence waiting on her boorish hubby. When he goes out to work each morning, she slaps on the make-up and opens the door to the willing Vinnie.


Directed by Les Blair, Early to Bed is an intriguing snapshot of life in my part of the world in the mid '70s, a period that still looked and felt like the Victorian age in such impoverished, post-industrialized regions. It's an authentic debut from a writer who is clearly still honing his craft (Bleasdale modestly remarked that Blair's direction enlivened his 'average script') but not without clear examples of northern wit and strong female characterisation.

The great Clifford Kershaw also has a small role as Vinnie's PE teacher who has helped him secure a place at Uni. Can someone write that man's biography please?


To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic plays, please sign the petition I started here

Monday, 25 July 2016

Fatherland (1986)


Fatherland is something of a forgotten, overlooked film in Ken Loach's body of work. Made in the 1980s, a decade which saw Loach at his least prolific and most openly disillusioned with the feature film making process, this marked an intriguing change of pace for the director; working from a script by acclaimed left-wing playwright Trevor Griffiths, it saw Loach move away from his familiar social realist depictions of the issues based within the UK to focus instead on the issues inherent within 1980s Germany and specifically Berlin, then still divided by The Wall.

German singer-songwriter Gerulf Pannach stars as an East German protest singer Klaus Drittemann who is, at the start of the film, facing expulsion from the GDR because of the openly critical views he expresses through his work. As the politicians, reporters and record company executives in the West eagerly await his arrival, they openly wonder if such a move is hereditary, given that his estranged father was also concerned a political dissident asked to leave by the East in the 1950s. Presumably Drittemann can be viewed as a fictionalised version of Pannach himself, given that he too was expelled from the East Germany in the previous decade. 


Fatherland is a film of two halves. The first half of the film establishes Klaus's situation in the East and sees him cross the checkpoint into the presumably more open West Germany. Here he is promised greater artistic freedom, a more appreciative audience and huge money-making potential. He is wined and dined and thrown parties and press conferences by the record company, and he meets up with Rainer (Hans Peter Hallwachs) another previously outspoken, artistic exile from the GDR and an openly gay man who now makes music videos in the most sexually explicit of styles. In these scenes the film asks us to compare the notions of East and West and whether the grass really is greener on the other side - indeed Rainer seems no happier for the fame and freedom he has secured. In the East, Klaus had a family which, like his father before him, he has left behind. His artistic integrity was compromised by censorship and open contempt from the authorities and he was plagued by constant surveillance by Stasi agents. In the West, Klaus is alone; he has no family, he is followed by other intelligence agencies such as the CIA, and his record company openly refer to as a 'commodity'; a money-generating product for this capitalist society whose art will surely be compromised by commercial pressures. In one blisteringly good key scene, set at his inaugural press conference, Klaus rips into a local Christian Democrat politician who promises him a better, freer existence in the West by pointing out how the oppression he faced within the GDR was likely to be more honest than the hypocrisies he faces in West Germany. He mentions the Bitburg controversy - the 1985 visit by Ronald Reagan to a German military cemetery which contained many burial plots dedicated to members of the Waffen-SS - and argues that a society that was founded on the fascist ideals of Nazi Germany, and which continues to protect and preserve those war criminals in high office, can offer him no guarantees of greater personal freedom. It's a great scene and one which was cut by West German backers ZDF when broadcast on television in Germany; "It was ironic that they cut the only decent scene in the film" Loach lamented, being somewhat harsh on himself.


The second half of Fatherland deals with the mystery surrounding Klaus's father. Once he arrives in West Germany, Klaus meets a French journalist, Emma (Fabienne Babe), who believes she has tracked down his old man to Cambridge, England where he is now living under an assumed name. En route to the UK to investigate further, the pieces of the puzzle gradually begin to fall into place revealing exactly why Klaus's father defected and why he is keeping his identity such a closely guarded secret start to fall into place, revealing exactly why Klaus's father disappeared from the limelight after he left East Berlin, and why he might now be living in England under an assumed name. In short, Klaus's father was working every possible side and, upon that discovery, Klaus is forced to confront the fact that the reality of his estranged father is not in keeping with the image he has carried with him in his head since childhood.

Whilst the general consensus may be that Fatherland is a film of two distinctive halves as I've laid out, I've yet to actually discover anyone who agrees which half is the most superior. Loach himself believes that the key to Fatherland ought to have been the East v West argument that appears in the first half and that, giving over to the search for the father in the concluding half, was something of a mistake; a strong storyline, but a mistake nonetheless. Others however claim that the first half is a little too ponderous and that the internal argument Klaus feels about his country can be summed up in just a couple of scenes (such as the aforementioned scene where Klaus finds his critical voice again during the press conference, and Rainer's obvious dissatisfaction with working and living in the West) whereas Griffiths' script only really comes into its own with the father storyline. It's fair to say that Loach has always been found of an arbitrary style when it comes to plot and is happy to allow narratives to go off wherever they will. His only other feature film of the 1980s, Looks and Smiles, which came out five years earlier, also employs an overdue narrative in the film's final half which suddenly focuses on the girlfriend of the central character and her own estranged father, but Loach seemed happy with that instance, whereas he is most emphatically not happy with his work on Fatherland. He cites a frustration with film making at the time which led to an incompetence on his part when it comes to clarity. He also felt that, despite he and Griffiths sharing the same political outlook, the script was more literary than the type he usually works with and that the film required a director who would have allowed the film to be more plot driven. Lessons he claims he went on to learn when exploring the mystery at the heart of his next feature, 1990's Hidden Agenda.

In my first review for Hidden Agenda I argued that it was sometimes hard to believe such a thriller, with two relatively big name American stars, was a Ken Loach film. I would argue that Fatherland is equally disorientating, if not more so. This was the first time Loach filmed outside of the UK (he would go on to do this in films such as Carla's Song, Land and Freedom and, most explicitly, the US set Bread and Roses) and a good 80% of Fatherland is a proper European foreign language film, with its German cast understandably speaking German to one another (it's worth pointing out too that some actors have a better command of English than others; I struggled with Fabienne Babe's pronounciation at times, which rather detracted from the key information we were being given at that stage) . There's also the somewhat expressionist dream sequences, shot in eerie black and white, that concerns Klaus's father and haunts his nocturnal hours. All these things are stuff that you do not expect from 'A Ken Loach Film'. Indeed there's one scene, when Klaus and Emma arrive in the UK and are travelling to Cambridge only to be stopped by a police patrol who are checking all the cars coming into the region, that I found myself wondering if the real 'Ken Loach Film' wasn't actually occurring on the periphery of the frame at this point; when we witness a group of striking Yorkshire miners, intending on a peaceful protest at a Cambridgeshire power station, turned back by the police.  

Ultimately, though it's clear Loach recognises it as a production which he should have handled better, I still find much to recommend in Fatherland. Personally I found both halves of the film interesting and felt that they led to an experience that wasn't as disjointed as I initially feared. It also boasts the as usual excellent cinematography from Chris Menges and, in his only film role, an intriguing central performance from the musician Gerulf Pannach who sadly passed away from cancer in 1998 aged just 49. 


Lastly, though the film struggles to preserve its own identity given that it shares a title with the Robert Harris alt-history thriller, I actually really like the title Fatherland, far more than the title it goes by in the US (Singing the Blues in Red - named after one of Klaus' songs) because the irony inherent in that title is really satisfying. Still, you can't expect America to appreciate irony can you?


Out On Blue Six : UB40

From 1993 (so long ago?) UB40's cover of the Presley classic, used in the soundtrack for the steamy Sharon Stone thriller, Sliver (hence the strange surveillance camera video) 



End Transmission


Sunday, 24 July 2016

Silent Sunday : Fiddlers Ferry


Theme Time : Cyndi Grecco - Laverne & Shirley

Garry Marshall, the man behind such classic US 70s sitcoms as The Odd Couple, Mork & Mindy, and Happy Days passed away last week at the age of 81. As a tribute I thought I'd focus on the theme to one of Marshall's other hit 70s sitcoms, the one which starred his younger sister Penny, Laverne & Shirley


The show ran from 1976 to 1983 and concerned the titular characters; single room-mates who worked at a Milwaukee brewery as bottlecappers. Penny Marshall played as tough-talking tomboy Laverne DeFazio and Cindy Williams starred as the perky and positive Shirley Feeney. The show was a spin-off from Happy Days (as indeed was Mork & Mindy, later) with the pair having been introduced on that show as friends of The Fonz (Henry Winkler) Like Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley was set in the recent American past, from 1958 to 1967.


Each episode title sequence started with Laverne and Shirley skipping down a Milwaukee street, arm in arm, reciting a Yiddish-American hopscotch chant: "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated," which was a chant from Penny Marshall's childhood. This then lead into the series' theme song titled Making Our Dreams Come True, performed by Cyndi Grecco and composed by Frank Comstock, John Beal, Charles Fox and Jack Hayes. Accompanied by the Ron Hicklin Singers, Grecco charted at number 25 when the theme was released as a single in 1976, but her subsequent album, and a disco themed single entitled Dancing, Dancing failed to set the world alight. The positive message of striking out and following your dream inherent to the theme with its refrain of how the girls will do it 'our way' was later lampooned by Alexei Sayle for the theme to his sketch series The All New Alexei Sayle Show which was entitled Doin' It My Way 





RIP Garry Marshall

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Number One (1985)



Number One is a film I used to watch this one all the time back in the day, in my early twenties. It's a real lads film, a post pub fave with a plethora of talent both in front of the screen and off.


Written by GF Newman and directed by Mike Leigh's schoolfriend Les Blair - the team that gave you Law and Order and The Nation's Health - Number One was, like those mini-series, originally commissioned as a TV movie but it actually found its way to the cinemas instead. Focusing on the world of sport and clearly influenced by Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins, Newman's tale concerns an Irish rogue adrift in London and scratching a living playing snooker in dingy clubs and halls and the odd bit of action on the wrong side of the law who turns pro, impressing the audiences with his colourful performance style.


Bob Geldof stars as the lead character Harry 'Flash' Gordon who eyes a chance out of his troubles with both the underworld and the law when he's spotted by local bookmaker Billy Evans (Mel Smith) and his whispering minder Mike The Throat (who reveals his vocal problems stem from receiving a blow from a hammer to his throat during a fight) played by PH Moriarty. They think they've got the next big thing and a nice little earner, but Flash's unkempt and untameable nature - breaking and throwing cues around, turning up late, needling his opponents - creates headaches in the professional sporting arena, as does the constant threat of two bent cops who are after nicking Flash played by Alfred Molina and James 'A Clockwork Orange' Marcus.




Cheap and cheerful working class London movie which blends sport with petty crime and has the courage to point out the illegalities in the game itself, Number One boasts an impressive supporting cast including both Alison Steadman as Geldof's prostitute love interest and Kate Hardie as his schoolgirl love interest! Then there's Ian Dury as a local stick up man, David Howey as the established snooker rival, Phil Daniels as a boxing promoter, Ray Winstone as one of lads down the boozer and Alun Armstrong as a Blackpool Bobby.  Add to that we have cameos from the likes of the great snooker commentator Ted Lowe and referee John Williams whilst Joe Fagin and Dave Mackay of Auf Wiedersehen Pet soundtrack fame provides the toe-tapping score.


Lovely jubbly.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Runners (1983)


Runners is a 1983 film that explores the desperation parents must feel when their children go missing. Northerner Tom Lindsay (James Fox) waved goodbye to his eleven year old daughter as she left home on her bicycle one day, he could not suspect that she would never return home. With his teenage daughter on the missing list for two years, Lindsay refuses to accept the pessimism around him and the suggestions that she is probably dead, and sets out on a journey to London to find her.


There he meets Jane Asher, a fellow member of a rather desperate and eccentric self-help support group for the parents of missing children (who meet in an empty swimming baths - reminding us of Asher's turn in the excellent Deep End from the previous decade), and together they scour the hidden world of the capital for their errant offspring, coming into contact with a range of puzzling figures who may help or hinder them, and finding a momentary comfort in each other in the process, despite their respective partners at home.


Written in the usual idiosyncratic manner by Stephen Poliakoff, Charles Sturridge's film is a bleak, documentarian look that shines a light on the unseen aspects of London, turning a social issue drama into a distinctive and deeply atmospheric ambiguous thriller that seems to serve as a metaphor for Thatcher's Britain and the 'get on your bike' employment policy of Norman Tebbit (cheekily referenced in some graffiti at one stage).


Given the countless number of toffs James Fox has played down the years, it's easy to forget how versatile an actor he could actually be - as anyone who has seen his extremely realistic London gangster in Performance will testify (watch out to far his co-star from that film, real life East End shady Johnny Shannon in a small role here as a hotel receptionist). I'd go so far as to say that this ranks alongside Performance as one of Fox's greatest roles. He easily slips into the Stockport accent his character possesses (perhaps he developed an ear for the Northern dialect in the 1970s when, leaving acting briefly behind him, he found religion and worked in a mission in Bolton, of all places) and the neurosis and desperation Tom Lindsay understandably feels is brilliantly conveyed throughout.


The object of his hunt, his daughter Rachel, is remarkably played by Kate Hardie in her screen debut. Though she was only fourteen or fifteen at the time (and I recall a story about a pop star at the time, whose name escapes me, who announced to the NME that he 'fancied Bill Oddie's daughter in that film Runners', leading to the reporter pointing out that she is just 13 years old - a slight error; as that's the character's age) her screen persona comes fully fledged in Runners; she is, as The Independent would later proclaim, the foreunner of the hip, damaged nymphet that Hollywood were in awe of in the '90s and early '00s, and it's easy to see how her huge-eyed, duck lipped baby face could attract anyone's attentions. Though the pop star's (whoever he may be) attentions may have been a shade unhealthy at this stage, it's worth pointing out that Poliakoff's script does not go down the route of Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa, which Hardie would go on to star in as a vulnerably teenage prostitute and the object of Cathy Tyson's obsession and affections.


Runners is a quirky odyssey that refuses to explain itself when father is reunited with daughter. It may make for an anti-climactic ending in some eyes, but by this stage your attention has been engaged so completely that you should pretty much accept its rather oblique mystery.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Don't Let Brexit Ruin The NHS


EU migrants keep our NHS going. 1 in 10 doctors are EU citizens. Weeks have passed since that monumental vote was cast to leave the EU but the government have still not made a decision on whether EU medics can stay in the UK or not. The longer this decision goes unmade, the more likely it is we'll see 55,000 staff members within the NHS pack their bags and take their considerable expertise elsewhere - a place where they feel welcome.  

Theresa May needs to realise that without these people, people who make significant contributions to our NHS and society as a whole, we would be much worse off. Please sign this petition  and let her and her government know that we simply cannot afford to lose them.

The NHS was shamelessly used as a political tool in the Leave campaign. We were told lie after lie regarding it. It's time we get some honest answers. Answers we want to hear.

Out On Blue Six : Kate Rusby

As regulars to this blog will probably know, I have no time for the majority of super hero movies. However, if they chose to make this I'd be the first in the queue!


That's my kind of super hero; cutest thing ever - cheers Kate!

End Transmission


Wednesday, 20 July 2016

TV Review: Simon Callow Is...The Rebel (Without A Laugh)

This new sitcom starts tonight on Gold at 10pm, but it's been available to watch for the last few days as a preview. 




My advice? Avoid it!

Based on a cartoon strip in The Oldie, The Rebel tells the story of Henry Palmer a disgruntled 70 year old who begins to despair of modern society with its hipsterish tendencies, it's nanny state and how the bankers and big businesses seem to get away with whatever they like. In short, he feels cheated that the promises of the 1960s never came to fruition and that he's lost the rebellion he felt as a mod in his youth. Mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore, Henry reverts to his youthful, rebellious nature and spends the entire first episode attacking policemen, blowing up cashpoints and performing his own kind of ram-raiding at his local supermarket, ramming a trolley into the glass frontage.  The result being he's up before the magistrate played by Simon Williams, with only a last minute backstory from his GP (Doon Mackichan) excusing his behaviour as a symptom of depression since he has become a widower.

Simon Callow is terribly miscast as the former mod, Henry. Watching him flail about in his front room, supposedly in utter bliss, to The Jam's A Town Called Malice is totally unconvincing and quite embarrassing. In fact he's the most ludicrous example of someone claiming to be a mod since the time when Phil Collins said he wanted to meet Paul Weller to discuss The Modfather's perceived grievance with him, 'mod to mod'. It doesn't get any better for the supporting cast either; Henry's ageing hippy best friend played by Bill Paterson is the kind of stereotype last seen with Dylan the hippy rabbit in The Magic Roundabout, whilst Anita Dobson also pops up, largely to stand between the boys and look on adoringly, and Anna Crilly (Katy Wix's comedy partner) is wasted as Henry's middle-class and despairing daughter. These are great actors performing really shoddy material.

Because worst of all, it's just not funny. Not in any way, shape or kind. A case in point; when Crilly's character suggests a residential home for her dad and offers her dimwitted, weedy Asian husband (another generic stereotype in this kind of sitcom) the brochure, he misreads the home's name as 'Golden Corpses' - it is of course Golden Copse. Ho ho no.

Out On Blue Six : Eddy Grant


End Transmission


Wordless Wednesday : Ice Cream Weather


Tuesday, 19 July 2016

The Eagle Has Flown

Hahaha, hahaaa, haha, ha



Her coup against Corbyn has gone the way of the disgraceful coup in Turkey at the weekend, and it couldn't happen to a nicer person.

Let's look at her disreputable character in the past few weeks and savour the moment that she realised she had little support in the party.

1. Her claims that Corbyn didn't do enough for the Remain camp during the EU referendum. In fact, Corbyn visited ten times more venues than she did. And if she truly believed that, why did she say at the time that Corbyn was tirelessly working to ensure we remained in the EU? "Jeremy is up and down the country, pursuing an itinerary that would make a 25-year-old tired, he has not stopped" Angela Eagle speaking to the Guardian on 13th June, this year. 
"Under your leadership the case to remain in the EU was made with half-hearted ambivalence rather than full throated clarity" Angela Eagle in her resignation letter on 27th June, this year.

2. The fact that she had planned this coup way before the EU result, with an Angela4Leader website being licensed two days before the referendum. So if it really was about Corbyn being unable to sway Labour voters to vote Remain, why had she planned this before the result was announced? 

3. Her constant claims of abuse, both homophobic and those that suggested she would be harmed or even killed. This is something that many anti-Corbyn Labour MP's and workers are now claiming - A disgusting attempt to use the murder of Jo Cox as a concern they all face - and the finger seems to be forever pointed at Momentum. Reports that a Brighton CLP meeting was disrupted by intimidating, hard left thugs has been thoroughly debunked by those in attendance who reported a calm and civil meeting. Johanna Baxter claimed that she was intimidated at an NEC meeting, a claim that has never been corroborated whilst she has routinely failed to provide evidence to support her claim. There were even claims that Wallasey CLP endured homophobic abuse when Angela attended a meeting; a claim that was subsequently proven false by the chair of Wallasey CLP who pointed out that not only was the meeting civil, but that Angela Eagle wasn't even there! Is it any wonder that Wallasey refused to support her? No one reports that Jeremy Corbyn receives death threats himself.

4. The infamous brick through the window of her office. The brick actually shattered the window of a communal stairwell in Sherlock House, a building that houses several interests, one of which just happens to be Angela Eagle's office. Her staff placed a Labour poster there deliberately to suggest that the window was the one to her office. See the following YouTube video

5. Angela Eagle consistently claimed that her intention was to unite the party, yet her idea of unity actually seemed to be a determined, scurrilous effort to tear the party apart. She completely discredited the thousands of new Labour supporters who have become politicised because of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, claiming that a bitter minority, thrown out in the '90s had returned and were pulling the strings. Her hashtag keepitcomradely was the last, hilarious straw. 

6. Angela Eagle never once answered a straight question with a straight answer. Asked about policies and Eagle routinely referred to leadership and long prepared speeches that said absolutely nothing. Her policy ideas could have been summed up by her appalling voting record (which she referred to as 'one of those nasty little memes going around on twitter) Angela Eagle voted for the cuts to welfare, she voted for the Iraq war, she voted to bomb Syria, she voted for tuition fees, and she voted for nuclear weapons.

Goodbye, Ms Eagle. 

Now we just need to see Owen Smith's leadership bid fail.

Important News For Corbyn Supporters


The deadline to register as a voter in the forthcoming Labour leadership election is 5pm tomorrow - that's Wednesday, 20th July. If you want to cast your vote for Jeremy, and only joined the Labour party from January this year, and you want a better Britain you must pay £25 to do so. 

Monday, 18 July 2016

RIP William Lucas

Veteran actor William Lucas passed away on Friday at the age of 91.


Born William Thomas Clucas in Manchester in 1925, Lucas held down a series of jobs before entering showbusiness including a long-distance lorry driver, a commercial traveller, cook, laundry hand and farm labourer. In the late 1940s, he became an assistant stage manager at Chesterfield Civic Theatre which led to work as an actor in rep and a career on the stage that continued right until the 1990s. His big breakthrough on television was the role of blackmailing car dealer Reg Dorking in the 1955 series A Portrait of Alison, a role which he reprised for the film version that same year.


From there he appeared in the Hammer classic X The Unknown and several BBC Sunday Night Theatre productions as well as big roles in a string of TV series, including the lead role in The Infamous John Friend in 1959, and guest roles in shows such as The Adventures of Robin Hood, The New Adventures of Charlie Chan and William Tell.

The 1960s saw further high profile roles on TV with appearances in Danger Man, Ghost Squad, Redcap, No Hiding Place, Z Cars, The Avengers, The Saint and in Sherlock Holmes, in which he played Inspector Lestrade alongside Peter Cushing and Nigel Stock. Film appearances in this decade included The Night of the Big Heat with Cushing and Christopher Lee, Dateline Diamonds, and Bitter Harvest.


Guest appearances in classic and fondly remembered series continued in the 1970s, along with a recurring role as Dennis Maxwell in several episodes of Coronation Street and roles in the films Man at the Top and Operation Daybreak. But the decade also brought him his most famous role; that of Dr James Gordon in the 1972-'74 series The Adventures of Black Beauty, based on the novel by Anna Sewell. It was a role he would subsequently return to in the 1990-'91 series The New Adventures of Black Beauty.


The 80s and 90s saw Lucas star in the Doctor Who serial Frontios alongside Peter Davison's incarnation of the Doctor, The Spoils of War, On The Up and a film role in the adaptation of Watership Down author Richards Adams' novel The Plague Dogs. But he's perhaps best known in this period of his career for his role as another doctor; Stanley Webb in the BBC's ill-fated Spanish based soap opera, Eldorado, which ran from 1992-1993.

Some of his last TV roles included a return to Coronation Street (albeit as a different character this time; a judge) a guest spot in The Bill, and those perennials for actors of a certain age; Last of the Summer Wine and Doctors.



RIP

Bumday


Viewers with a keen eye watching the first episode of the BBC's new adaptation of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent last night may have spotted this piece of vintage erotica on display in the Soho sex shop run by Toby Jones' Verloc and his wife Winnie, played by Vicky McClure.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Letter To Brezhnev (1985)


Call me a sentimental old northerner, but the opening to Letter to Brezhnev remains one of my favourite moments of celluloid. Whilst budgetary constraints mean that it may not be as epic as it clearly wants to be, it nevertheless understands that Liverpool is a British city to be mythologised; we see Peter Firth and Alfred Molina's Russian sailors on deck in the last stretches of the Irish Sea, excited to clap eyes on the wondrous Three Graces of Liverpool by the evening light. Accompanied by Alan Gill's (Teardrop Explodes, Dalek I Love You) soaring score, the camera sweeps across the remaining stretch of water to rise up across the city skyline.

It's the perfect love letter to the city. 

And overall, Chris Bernard's film, from a script by Frank Clarke (adapted from his own stage play), continues to be the almost perfect love letter to Liverpool. Alexandra Pigg and Margi Clarke (Frank's sister) star as two salt of the earth Kirkby girls, Elaine and Teresa - the former a dreamer and the latter a realist - who optimistically head out into Liverpool one night whereupon they meet Peter (Firth) and Sergei (Molina) on shore leave. 


Whilst the brassy Teresa enjoys a simple night of orgiastic pleasure with Sergei, Elaine finds something deeper with the more sensitive Firth. Like Cinderella at the stroke of midnight, come the next day the Russians have to reboard their ship and head back beyond the iron curtain, leaving Elaine heartbroken and lovesick, her only option to fix matters being the titular 'letter to Brezhnev'; a plea to be reunited with the man she loves.


It's a far from perfect film, it's rather naive and all too often it betrays its shoddy budget (Margi Clarke famously announced it was made for the equivalent of "the cocaine budget on Rambo") but it's heart is always in the right place. Its a film about daring to dream and having the courage to break out from the doldrums of Thatcher's Britain for love - even if that love just so happens to be in Soviet Russia. 


What helps Letter to Brezhnev is the vibrant, energetic and exuberant performances from the cast which belie the brittle nature of the characters they portray. It's a film blessed with tough, rough charm and perhaps an unexpected romcom sweetness that has proven to be deeply influential in the years that followed (that first episode of Gavin and Stacey anyone?) Margi Clarke was never better than she was here and Peter Firth and Alexandra Pigg make the most affecting of star-crossed lovers.


Saturday, 16 July 2016

Hidden Agenda (1990)




"What the fuck are you people running here? Your own private shooting war?"

On my first watch of Hidden Agenda I, like many others, found it to be a one-sided affair which rather tempered my appreciation and enjoyment of it on the whole. 

Granted, Hidden Agenda is an impartial production - after all, it isn't considered a controversial film ("the IRA entry at Cannes" as one Tory MP put it) without good reason -  but on reflection, it's worth noting that Ken Loach and his scriptwriter Jim Allen took what was, at the time, an extremely unprecedented step here, by allowing Sinn Fein a voice in the media. 



It's easy to forget that from 1988 to 1994 Gerry Adams could only appear on the news with his words dubbed by an actor, whilst any perceived sympathy to the Irish cause on television was immediately embargoed; a clear example of this was a performance by The Pogues on Friday Night Live in 1988. The performance of their song 'Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six' was forcibly interrupted by an unscheduled advert break (the station, Channel 4, had previously muted the words of a striking miner on an episode of The Tube four years earlier) and the song was subsequently banned for broadcast anywhere by the IBA who concluded that the song claimed "convicted terrorists are not guilty, the Irish people were put at a disadvantage in the courts of the United Kingdom and that it may have invited support for a terrorist organisation such as the IRA" It was three years later that this was indeed proven to be the case in a court of law and the Birmingham Six were granted their freedom. 


When Jim McAllister, a real-life Sinn Fein politician, compares the actions of the IRA to the historically vindicated campaigns of George Washington, Jomo Kenyatta and Archbishop Makarios, it's easy to see why critics accused Loach of turning in a film that refuses to offer an objective balance, but to do so ignores the fact that there wasn't a free debate in this period to begin with. 

As The Wind That Shakes The Barley would later remind us, Ken Loach's sympathies may lie with the Republican cause, but its core is in the socialist ideals that some of its factions possessed. Whilst dialogue from Frances McDormand's character serves to remind us that "not every Republican supports the IRA", it's perhaps telling that Loach chooses to set his film via a caption over the first scene in Belfast 'a few years ago', perhaps to disassociate his depiction of the Republican fight from the funding via drug trafficking and prostitution that had become de rigueur by 1990 and would continue to be so until the peace process a little over a decade later. 



Revisiting Hidden Agenda, I don't feel Loach truly glorifies the IRA or Sinn Fein in the way that some critics vociferously suggested, but I do fee that both he and Allen were perhaps laying themselves open to criticism by neglecting to tell the story of the innocents who truly suffer in the tit-for-tit war between the IRA and the security forces representing the interests of the UK. But then perhaps what Loach is really trying to depict here is the lack of morality and a growing callousness on either side when it comes down to this 'collateral damage', whilst undoubtedly his real message lies in the fact that our intelligent services are now on record as going against our wishes in our supposed free and democratic society. Because it is a film about British dirty tricks; not just in Ireland, but on the mainland too.

The plot of Hidden Agenda revolves around the execution of Brad Dourif's civil rights lawyer and the subsequent investigation conducted by Brian Cox's British police inspector, Kerrigan, and the victim’s grieving partner and colleague, Ingrid Jessner (Frances McDormand, excellent). The film takes inspiration from John Stalker's hampered investigation into the RUC's 'Shoot to Kill' policy (Kerrigan is as much a thinly disguised Stalker as he is an avatar of the audience) and it is clear that Loach believed the constabulary to be an out-of-control militia which was responsible for the deaths of 130 people between 1969 and 1980, half of whom were innocent of any crime. Loach’s intention with Hidden Agenda is to highlight the civil war occurring in the UK and that our government's actions were just as reprehensible as that of the terrorists.



It's strange therefore that Loach and Allen muddy the waters by planting in a secondary storyline concerning the conspiracy theory that claimed a cabal of politicians, high-ranking members of the security forces and captains of industry operated a black propaganda campaign in the 1970s against both the Labour PM Harold Wilson and his Conservative opposition rival, Edward Heath. Though it bolsters the notion of the dirty tricks the security services and establishment play against the wishes of the general public, and despite a fine turn from the great Maurice Roeves as Harris, the former SAS officer turned whistleblower, I still feel that Loach overreaches himself in asking his audience to accept two extremely big, contentious political viewpoints in the one film and Hidden Agenda suffers for it.



However, it's important to remember that Hidden Agenda brought about a return from the wilderness for Loach, one of this countries most important and renowned filmmakers. For that alone, we must be grateful to it.