Saturday, 26 May 2018

RIP Peter Byrne

Sad to hear that Peter Byrne, who played Andy Crawford in Dixon of Dock Green for twenty years, died earlier this month at the age of 90.

Byrne first played the role of PC Andy Crawford in Ted Willis' stage adaptation of his film screenplay The Blue Lamp in 1952 and, when Willis brought Dixon of Dock Green to the BBC three years later, he resurrected the role to become a household name. In the twenty years Byrne starred in the series, his character progressed from a wet behind the ears rookie constable under the wing of the capable Dixon, as played by Jack Warner, to Dixon's son-in-law and later, superior within CID. With Warner's age, Byrne took on much of the legwork in later years and the series reflected the more cynical '70s, with Crawford's attitudes often shown at odds with that of his father-in-law and former mentor. In 1975, after twenty-one series, Byrne left the show and the series continued for just one more year before the doors of Dock Green nick closed for good in 1976. 

Away from the show that made his name, Byrne appeared in films such as The Large Rope, Reach For The Sky, Watch Your Stern and Carry On Cabby, and appeared in the West End in the '60s with lead roles in the farces Boeing Boeing and There's a Girl In My Soup. He directed and starred in several Agatha Christie plays and appeared in numerous pantomimes. Other TV credits included Derek, the widower who attempted to woo Nellie Boswell in the '80s sitcom Bread, and an ageing Tony Blair, roaming the war torn streets he was responsible for, in Armando Iannucci's futuristic satire Time Trumpet in 2006. His last TV appearance was in an episode of Holby City in 2012.


Clowns (2008)

Daisy Asquith's 2008 documentary which sheds light on the world of children's entertainers is the kind of documentary I wish we made more of. It's intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive and sympathetic and offers no easy ins for audiences unfamiliar with the documentary as a genre (ie there's no voiceover from 'ooh what's he been in?' actors and no popular soundtrack laid over the scenes) It is resolutely Asquith's work, though it helps of course that she has some brilliant characters to observe at close quarters; Tommy Tickle, Potty the Pirate, Mr Pumpkin and, most tantalisingly of all and standing more or less on the periphery of the film, The Great Velcro. 

Understandably dominating the proceedings is the subversive and likeable figure of Tommy Tickle (no performer's real name is ever properly alluded to throughout the film), a bald headed and bespectacled man who works as a clown in West Sussex. Tommy is TV Gold; dressed in full clown gear, Asquith catches him downing two pints at once and smoking one of his 40 a day outside a pub, where he cheerily tells her that he embraces oblivion after the stresses of a working day filled with three or four children's parties. Although a family man himself, he has no rosy allusions about the kids of today; largely because his own estranged thirteen-year-old daughter is a problem child who has been expelled from school for attacking a teacher. He wears a cricket box to protect himself from children who find the humour in punching the clown in the balls and carries a baseball bat because, "it's better to have one than not have one". He is occasionally surprised to find his opinion of modern kids incorrect however - such as the moment when, outside the pub, he tries to cadge a light of some kids walking home from school; "None of you smoke? What's wrong with you, call yourself kids?" he chides, with his tongue firmly in cheek. Clowning is clearly just a job for Tommy, though it's one he is surprisingly very good at. He makes both the kids and adults alike laugh with his jokes about Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe's name being 'Ee By Gum Trebor' backwards for instance. 

Potty the Pirate is a God fearing bachelor who entertains children with his sea shanties and general tomfoolery across Brighton. He loves children, but he sometimes feels they aren't paying enough attention to his act and will stop on such occasions to instruct they do or simply to change tack. This utter attention to detail and perfection carries across to his domestic life too; a cleanliness freak, he achieved his high standards working on the cruise ships rather than on a pirate's galleon. Now he's ashore, this true romantic he wants to find love, but he's afraid that most women today don't take love seriously enough and are only interested in sex. His mother, who he calls 'a religious nut', would dearly like to see him settle down, but  the truth of his bachelorhood may lie in the scars of a childhood dominated by a severely alcoholic father. For now, Potty gives himself 100% to his work and to such an extent that one lady friend is convinced that he is unable to divorce himself from his job role; "He makes pirate noises at inappropriate times" she confides to camera after a date at a burlesque club is cut short by Potty's desire not to appear hungover for the children in the morning. Standing just a few feet away, Potty cannot understand the criticism, answering that Potty is him. For him, it's only natural then that any facet of his clown should appear in any given situation.

Mr Pumpkin is a children's entertainer of great sensitivity. He doesn't wear the traditional clown make-up that the likes of Tommy wear because, as he says, some of the smaller children can get upset and scared by it. It's an unusual step for a man who spent most of the 1980s singing in a band dressed up in 'full on gay' make-up and attire like Julian Clary, which saw him attract the attentions of many male admirers despite being happily married to 'Mrs Pumpkin' whom more often than not, helped him with his stage costume. This lack of a clown 'disguise' does mean that he is instantly recognisable outside of work hours and he must confess to the pitfalls and suspicious glances gained from children greeting him as an old friend when out shopping. It's hardly surprising they are so warm to him though; he's been a clown for twelve years and, as one adult is heard to remark during his Bodger and Badger style performance for the kids, "he earns every penny". The sensitivity he possesses is a mark of the man himself; as Asquith shadows him, she discovers that his beloved mum is in a home suffering with Alzheimer's and may not have long left. Understandably, the tears of a clown are routinely caught by the eye of her camera.

All three clowns know that their working environment is a pressure cooker, all three understand the importance of professionalism, and all three are acutely aware of what happens when you let the stress get to you. They each speak darkly of a fourth protagonist, The Great Velcro. A professional magician who entertained children for thirty years, The Great Velcro serves as a warning for anyone who gets too complacent in their work, for The Great Velcro committed the sin of giving one disruptive child 'a clip round the ear' (although it isn't mentioned in the film, subsequent research online shows that the child did in fact have Asperger's, which puts a wholly different light on the proceedings - and I wonder why Asquith chose not to present the child's side of the story, if only from her challenging Velcro's version of events during their interview?) Daisy Asquith tracks the man down to his bachelor home, a museum piece dedicated to the world of magic and filled with the sounds of Bardot, to find a man in his sixties facing up to a retirement that he did not ask for. He describes how he felt on that fateful day and the moment when, bungled into the rear of a police car, he realised his thirty year career had gone down the drain. He spends his days now performing his old fashioned and rather dated magic tricks in old folks homes where the audiences are, he admits, much quieter and more respectful. But the glint in his eye has all but gone, suggesting that this is a double-edged sword. The sense that this is both a wilderness and purgatory combined goes implicitly unspoken between subject, documentarian and audience.

Asquith chooses her subjects with great and satisfying care; from the irreverent (Tommy) through to the obsessively dedicated (Potty) and from family men at pain to singletons in a similar emotional state. It's a rewarding documentary that I wouldn't have minded a follow up to, or even a series. You could even dramatise this and make a dramedy sitcom of it - Perry Benson as Tommy Tickle anyone?

Friday, 25 May 2018

Out On Blue Six: Cornershop

One song, two versions now. It's Brimful of Asha, the 1997 hit by Cornershop

The song was an ode to Bollywood playback singer Asha Bhosle and was released in August 1997, reaching number 60 in the charts.

Then Norman 'Fatboy Slim' Cook got his hands on it and his remix, which sped the track up and modulated it to a higher key, was released and reached number 1 in February 1998 

End Transmission

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Raw Material by Alan Sillitoe

As a young man, Alan Sillitoe was one of the first authors to capture my imagination. I was in my teens when I read Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, discovering a story printed on the page that actually felt like the life I saw and experienced on a daily basis. The drinking culture, the hard and depressed industrial towns, the philosophy of the protagonist, all chimed with me.

A couple of years ago whilst on holiday in Settle I picked up a couple of vintage paperback novels of Sillitoe and have just finished reading one in two gloriously sunny days flat this week. Though to cal it a novel is perhaps inaccurate. Raw Material from 1974 is part novel, part autobiography and part family history.

In detailing the lives of his ancestors, Sillitoe discusses at length the barbaric horrors of the Great War in a manner which would not endear him to Michael Gove. It's a fascinating read which enlightened me to a particularly bloody and shameful moment during that whole futile conflict - the incident at Meteren, 14th April 1918 - a chapter of our history that has been somewhat hushed up.

"I have scoured official histories, and searched divisional accounts, but can find no mention of it save for one book; Machine Guns: Their History and Tactical Employment by Lt. Col. G.S. Hutchinson, published in 138" Sillitoe states.

On the 9th April, the German forces moved their artillery train of heavy guns from the Somme to commence the offensive on the Lys. The artillery disintegrated the Portuguese corps and routed the English who swiftly became demoralised and in fear for their lives, or 'panicked' as the official line has it. Resistance quickly collapsed in the face of the offensive as the officers and their young and inexperienced soldiers who had been holding the line at that point fled and deserted. Hutchison, the author of the book Sillitoe refers to, was the commander of the 33rd Division's Machine Gun Battalion and was ordered to the village of Meteren, near Bailleul, to defend a tactically important hill against the enemy. 

"He relates how, on his reconnaisance on 12th April" Sillitoe explains in discussing Hutchinson's account, "he went into a roadside estaminet and found a crowd of British stragglers, fighting drunk. He ordered a machine gun to be trained upon them, and sent them forward towards the Germans where, he said 'they perished to a man'"

"By 14th April the Germans were attacking once more, and again men were inclined to flee. Hutchinson therefore ordered the sergeants in charge of the gun teams to fire on any British troops who began to retreat. He then goes on to say 'From near the mill I saw one of my gunners destroy a platoon of one regiment which in its panic had taken to flight'"

"For this confession of atrocity," Sillitoe recounts, "no one was ever brought to trial. The line at this point had only recently been reinforced by very young and half trained soldiers, boys who were dragged unwilling from farm and factory, slum and office. For not playing the game, and obeying the stringent rules laid down for them, the Gestapo machine gunning officers and sergeants murdered them"

"As far as I can ascertain from official history the units from which the forty murdered men of this platoon could have come were the 1st Scottish Rifles, the 1st Queen's Regiment, The XXI Corps Reinforcement Battalion, or from three platoons of the 8th Middlesex (Pioneers)....If anyone lost a member of his family this day and from one of those regiments it is possible that they were not shot by Germans, but that they were butchered when faced with an overdose of British rancour" Sillitoe concludes, adding quite understandably "How many more were there?" 

With such horrors in mind, is it any surprise that the Etaples Mutiny had occurred just seven months earlier in September, 1917 - a mutiny that was eventually quashed by two battalions from the Front? 

Is it any surprise - given how hushed up Meteren seems to be - that the documents surrounding Etaples (which should have come to light last year after the hundred years had passed for the files to enter into the public domain) were 'accidentally' lost to a blaze in the late 1970s - around the same time that William Allison and John Fairley's book on Percy Toplis, The Monocled Mutineer, was published.  As for Lt.Col G.S. Hutchinson, a man so utterly unrepentant in his role in such mass slaughter of his fellow countrymen that he happily presented us with the facts in his own book, Sillitoe discovered that he was awarded the Military Cross and te Distinguished Service Order, as well as being mentioned four times in despatches. After the First World War, he became involved in political work in Poland which Sillitoe attests that "it was here that he seems to have become infected with the virulent anti-semitism which lasted until his death" He was the author of some sixteen books on military and political matters, one of which was effusive with praise for Nazi Germany. Using the pseudonym of 'Graham Seton', he wrote several penny dreadful adventure novels, which often cast Jews and foreigners as the villains. In 1933 he set up the National Workers Movement; an organisation that was heavily influenced by similar bodies he had seen first hand in Nazi Germany. He sat on the National Playing Fields Association's Executivr Council and on the board of Gordon Boys School. He spent the Second World War working for the air ministry and died in 1946.

Out On Blue Six: Buzzcocks

After yesterday's post it was only going to be one song wasn't it?

End Transmission

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Love You More (2008)

Over the weekend, I made the mistake of rewatching Sam Taylor-Johnson's young John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy. I'd seen it just once before, where I found it to be no masterpiece, but even then I enjoyed it more than I did this revisit. 

To counteract this, I decided to rewatch and share this other music based short from Taylor-Johnson (nee Wood), Love You More. Written by Patrick 'Cornish Curmudgeon' Marber, this is a beautifully bittersweet, tender and sexy look at two teenagers coming together over their mutual appreciation of the Manchester band Buzzcocks in the summer of 1978. 

The sense of excitement and anticipation, of euphoria and timid uncertainty and ultimately the enthusiastic naivety that comes with the stirrings of first love is gloriously captured by Taylor-Johnson, most notably in the scene in which the two teens played by Andrea Riseborough (looking not unlike one of my exes) and Harry Treadaway sit in the bedroom listing to the eponymous Buzzcocks track. The moment which really chimed with me was the close up of the hairs on Riseborough's standing to attention and Treadaway's subsequent panicked, dry mouthed beer swigging response. It's so real and yet at the same time feels so original for it to be captured in such an arresting, artistic manner.  As with a lot of artistic director's works, it's the little details that speak volumes - and Taylor-Johnson's film is full of beautiful little details.

A perfectly crafted short with excellent timing, strong direction and performances, I am willing to bet money that this is more sexier to me than the director's best known offering, Fifty Shades of Grey. It's certainly better musically than Nowhere Boy.

Warning; this is really quite steamy...