Friday, 9 October 2015

Made In Britain (1982)

"I'm a success mate, I'm a fucking star...I'm in exactly the right place at the right time. The fact that you're too fucking thick or stupid to see that, that marks you down" 

Made in Britain was just one of four TV plays in the Tales out of School series, a contemporary quartet of films concerning youth and education and the opportunities, or lack of, available for them. But the success and renown of Made in Britain has meant that it has rather dwarfed the other instalments, which is a shame.

But it's understandable, because Made in Britain is so very fucking good.

I remember the first time I ever saw it. I was absolutely blown away by Tim Roth's performance as the young skinhead Trevor and that wonderful scene in the middle with Geoffrey Hutchings cannily calling every move in Trevor's life, past and present, on the blackboard in the assessment centre. 

Trevor is a a teenager whose latest bout of shoplifting has landed him in trouble once more, forced into the care of weary, ineffective key workers. Aged just sixteen, he's already got a record as long as his arm. He's an habitual offender; a violent, racist, anti-social skinhead. But he's also very bright, and extremely articulate and with a streak of stubborness and individuality which means he refuse to cooperate with all attempts at rehabilitation.

Made in Britain was written by David Leland and directed by his long time collaborator, Alan Clarke. It's the kind of film that Clarke absolutely excelled in, and Trevor is a definitive Clarke character. You can draw a line from Archer in Scum right the way through to Bex in The Firm and you'll be sure to find Trevor leering directly at you in the centre of that line. Each one of them are responsible for actions which means they are shunned by an appalled society, but they are each extremely intelligent and see themselves principally - and correctly - as a desperate victim of the system that they must fight, with the only weapon they have left - their eloquent, aggressive defiance. Even Bex who, with his white collar job as an estate agent, has managed to beat the system to some extent - riding on the Thatcherite wave of the 1980s - still feels the need to act belligerently against some aspect of authority; for Bex, it's tribal and he chooses the most tribal of protest, football hooliganism. Interestingly, when a sequel was mooted to Made in Britain, Leland suggested that Trevor would have remained obnoxious, but diversified into becoming a 'Loadsamoney' style yuppie, spraying Asti everywhere and generally making a nuisance of himself in the trendy winebars of London.

In a time when the stereotype for skinheads was that of mindless knuckle dragging thugs, Made In Britain was a sobering, thought provoking wake up call. Indeed, Trevor is still to this day (barring Shane Meadows' This Is England) a unique depiction of just such a character, because television all too often takes the easy route of the cliche. There aren't many Alan Clarke's out there now who can tell viewers in their cosy homes just what the real world is actually like - a complex and confusing thing indeed. Speaking of complex, I haven't even mentioned Errol, the rather dopey black youth Trevor 'befriends' in the centre and who, noting Trevor's overbearing charisma and intellectual superiority, begins to act like a sheep, following Trevor around, parroting and mimicking the racist language he uses when targeting the home of an Asian family late at night - "Baboons, go back to the jungle!" - from a young black boy, its very incongruous but all too easy to see the release he gets from it, a chance to let off steam and 'belong' in some strange way. Likewise, Trevor a belligerent racist complete with a tattoo of a swastika between his eyes, doesn't actually seem to have much of a problem with Errol.

Clarke's trademark use of Steadicam makes its debut with Made in Britain, allowing him to capture every spurt of energy the wild Trevor- who can barely keep still - has across the 70 odd minutes. As such Made in Britain is an important, seminal production in the Clarke oeuvre, the first to capture the kinetic fluidity of the characters or the way of life he constantly wished to explore. It is arguably my favourite film of Clarke's.

Made in Britain has been released several times on DVD as a stand alone feature and is available alongside the three other plays in the Tales Out Of School series via Network DVD.

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

Thursday, 8 October 2015

London Road (2015)

Steve Wright's 2006 killing spree of sex workers in Ipswich has inspired two dramatisations now; firstly there was the BBC's excellent mini series Five Daughters, which looked at the effects the serial murders had on the relations of the victims and of the community as a whole. It was the second adaptation that focused chiefly on the reverberations and ripples the killings created for the community - the innovative and inventive 2011 National Theatre production, London Road. This quasi-musical was directed by Rufus Norris and performed at the Cottesloe stage, with music by Adam Cork and verbatim dialogue and lyrics by Alecky Blythe. Following the success of Norris' debut feature film, 2012's Broken, London Road has now made the transition from stage to screen.

But has it lost something along the way?

Well unfortunately I'd say the answer is yes - yes, I think it might have, sadly.

The film reminded me a little of Clio Barnard's excellent Andrea Dunbar 'biopic' and drama-documentary, The Arbor. That film took recorded interviews of Dunbar's friends, family and now grown up children and used lip synching actors to perform it to great effect. Norris' film, and indeed his original stage production, takes the transcripts of interviews made by Blythe of the residents in and around Ipswich's 'red light' area, London Road and crafts them into songs which the cast perform.

It's a moving, sobering, somewhat disorientating and occasionally amusing trick that unfortunately I don't think the medium of cinema can truly pull off in the way that theatre or possibly even single act TV drama can. It's actually really commendable that Norris doesn't seek to completely tear apart what made the piece a stageplay just because he's adapting it for film - this is a production that wears its theatrical origins with pride - but, in placing the likes of Olivia Colman and Tom Hardy (good though they are) into the original National Theatre cast reprising their roles, does seem to be there solely to afford the production a sense of the cinematic and pull audiences in, which just feels a little discordant really.

I had high hopes for Norris' follow up to Broken, and whilst I'm not totally disappointed and feel excited that he not only had the audacity to produce something like this as his second feature but that he is also still operating on the very apex of the social agenda, like the classic British directors who made their name in the 70s (Alan Clarke, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach) I do worry that this may unfairly be viewed as a miss-step right now. Unlike a conventional musical, the film is suitably downbeat (it is about the murders of sex workers after all) with much of the action being photographed and lit in a very grim, grey washed out colour, which in itself is quite alienating, because you don't expect to see singing performers against a backdrop of peeling, dirty walls and in grubby caffs. 

Blythe's script repeatedly selects key phrases to shape the songs – “In the wake of what’s been happening recently…”, “You automatically think it could be him…”, “We’re all frightened to go out...", "It's really scared me...I'm just gonna like cry..." - each performed with the stutters, the ums and the ahs that the interviewee's uttered originally. Through a series of loops, samples and repetition it creates a very specific kind of beat, tone and poetry that does slowly captivate the viewer and never more so than in the opening scene when the newscasters reports slowly become songs or when two young girls (one of whom is Eloise Laurence, the brilliant young star of Broken) animatedly scurry through the town being both suspicious, fearful and excited.

What emerges throughout the film is the honesty of those interviews, an honesty that perhaps becomes slightly more palatable set to music, but also may be lost on viewers who are alienated by the genre of the musical. In the wake of the murders, many of the locals felt a macabre sense of relief; for years their front doorstep was effectively not their own - sex workers prowling their pavements plying trade and bringing with them the trouble and poor disreputable reputation that ultimately creates. They may be horrified by Wright's actions, but a part of them is actually pleased that this terrible act effectively ended their neighbourhood's stigma of being a red light area and because it also revitalised the community, as seen in the film's final scenes which feature an 'In Bloom' garden fete. It is here that the film comes alive, shaking off the dour washed out palette, to become bright and gay, much like the community did itself.

Ultimately my instinct is to say London Road didn't quite pull it off, but you really have to applaud it for trying and who knows, with repeated watches and further evaluation, it may prove to be a real grower.

Nina (1978)

Nina is an earnest and authentically downbeat exploration of the life of Russian dissidents in exile here in the UK at the height of The Cold War because of their political views. 

Written by Jehane Markham and directed by Alan Clarke, the play concerns the titular Nina, played by the wonderful Eleanor Bron, and her lover Yuri, played by Jack Shepherd. Markham wrote her script from her experiences of campaigning for many political exiles and the central character of Nina is in fact based on Marina Voikhanskaya who, like Nina in the play, was a doctor in Soviet Russia who found herself in a situation where she was being ordered to give medication to patients who had no need of it, simply to shut them up and keep them so doped up that they could not continue their critical attacks on the communist regime. Marina managed to leave Russia but had to leave her son behind, with the understanding that he would be allowed to join her in the UK in the near future. However, once Marina arrived in the West, the Soviet authorities reneged on the deal keeping her son effectively as a hostage back in Russia. All of these things figure in the play itself.

But Nina isn't just a political piece, it's actually more a love story, and a doomed one at that. The freedom Yuri and Nina have longed for in the West comes at a price. Away from their position of attacking the system from within, Nina finds Yuri impossible to live with. He's frequently drunk and in debt, and seems preoccupied with playing to the romantic stereotype of the exiled dissident and relying on the liberal kindness of the Amnesty crowd rather than effectively integrating with society itself. Ultimately Nina's desire to adapt wins through and their love is destroyed in scenes of great domestic disharmony.

It's not all doom and gloom though, there's one (just the one, mind) very funny scene featuring Yuri, as a guest in someone's house, stripping naked in the bathroom to wash his smalls, singing loudly along to the then Eurovision chart hit 'Save All Your Kisses For Me'. When he finds his hosts have turned the radiators off, he is forced to wear Nina's underwear which he is discovered in by the hostess bringing breakfast in the morning!

Shepherd and Bron deliver very effective performances, with Shepherd adopting a complete different physicality to his role to suggest his foreign identity. Bron is more quiet, more weary and sophisticated, which is totally in keeping with the personality of her character. She would go on to have a relationship with Alan Clarke after filming concluded, Clarke having once been in a relationship with Markham.

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

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

The Hard Way (1979)

The Hard Way is as cold, clinical and as briskly efficient as an assassination itself. There's nothing especially new in this story - a man of violence wants out of the game, but he's pressured into taking the mythical 'One Last Job' before he's finally granted his freedom. He soon finds himself out on a limb and out of favour, determined to turn the tables.

So, not very original but what sets this story apart is the key cast of Patrick McGoohan as the ageing assassin John Connor, and Lee Van Cleef as his employer, McNeal. These veteran toughs deliver fine performances in this formulaic game of cat and mouse and it's a gripping, absorbing experience thanks to those two and the sparse, tense writing and direction on offer. At 51 and 54 respectively, McGoohan and Van Cleef actually look a good decade or two older by today's standards but that really works - you really do get the feeling that those two lone wolf operatives have lived their lives on a knife edge waiting for their pasts to catch up with them. Waiting for this very moment. 

The whole film has a suitably bleak and wintry feel as befits both the wet and austere looking Irish landscapes and the autumnal points in both stars careers.

Of course nowadays they'd remake it with those growing old disgracefully meatheads Stallone and Mickey Rourke and have them fighting, stripped to the waist and greased up at every opportunity so it's satisfying that this plays out more authentically and effectively, with a prescient nod to the (at the time of writing - Spectre hasn't come out yet!) most recent Bond movie, Skyfall with its thrilling, booby trapped mansion house denouement. 

Like I say it's not an original storyline so you can draw many comparisons to this film, which owes something of everything from Point Blank to Day of the Jackal and tonally as a TV movie there's an affinity to the likes of Callan and with, that elegiac and lyrical melancholia that is uniquely Irish, there's also similarities to that great TV miniseries Harry's Game too - though it's refreshing to see an Irish based hitman thriller made in 1979 and set in that present day that hasn't anything to do with The Troubles.

Cleverly, the film utilises Brian Eno's Music for Films album which Eno composed as a conceptual work for imaginary films. It adds a cold, anonymous feel to what is already a chilly little production - one that is so good it lingers in the memory for some time after viewing.

Monday, 5 October 2015

If There Weren't Any Blacks You'd Have To Invent Them (1968, 1974)

There was more to Johnny Speight than just a sitcom writer and the creator of one of British comedies most recognisable and acclaimed characters, Alf Garnett. Speight was also a serious playwright and, whilst his earlier plays - The Compartment and Playmates, made in 1961 and 1962 with a young, then unknown Michael Caine, and remade in 1969 for The Wednesday Play with comedian Marty Feldman playing impressively straight - owed more than a little to Harold Pinter, but this allegorical, surreal piece entitled If There Weren’t Any Blacks You’d Have to Invent Them with its nowhere, abstract setting and its archetypal role based characters has a debt to the absurdist nature of Samuel Beckett.  

Written for the stage in 1965 it was later made twice for television. First in 1968 and once again in 1974. Both versions are available on one single Network DVD release, and it is both versions I will be commenting on here. 

Whilst Speight's more serious work may have a lot on common with more well known and critically applauded playwrights, the abiding themes he explores here are unmistakeably his own, and once again he is mining the issue of racial prejudice, class and politics as he had done with his most famous creation, Alf Garnett in the sitcoms Till Death Us Do Part and In Sickness and In Health.  

The play takes place in a surrealist version of a cemetery in which a variety of nameless characters (identified only as ‘The Workman’, ‘The Blind Man’, ‘The Young Man’, 'The Officer', 'The Doctor' etc) appear and offer symbolic gestures of and lip service to specific social attitudes. It's a largely episodic piece, with each character getting their moment in the spotlight until the final act where a clear narrative starts to develop. The theme of scapegoating and prejudice is woven throughout and a clear parallel is drawn between Moray Watson's The Officer and Leslie Sands' The Blind Man. In an early scene The Officer is shown to press-gang at gunpoint a young mourner at the graveside, forcing him into becoming a soldier for him to boss around.  Later, The Blind Man - and his companion, the wilfully ignorant The Backwards Man (played by Jimmy Hanley, he keeps his eyes closed in solidarity with his friend and walks backwards, holding onto him) meet John Castle's rather prissy, camp Young Man who discusses the importance of equality and is promptly and erroneously identified by The Blind Man as 'coloured'. The Young Man objects, arguing that he is white but The Blind Man's mind is made up, he's too liberal to be anything but black.

The Young Man turns to the Officer for help but The Blind Man interferes demanding that he needs "a black" and pointing out the similarities between how he views The Young Man and how The Officer views his forcibly enlisted subservient soldier; ''That's what young Sambo here needs, a gun at his head. You put a gun at his head, he might start behaving more like a black to me'' The Blind Man serves as an opinion maker, his voice being the loudest of all. Convincing The Officer, he now commands his Private to 'black up' the Young Man and boot polish is applied to his face, at which point the Young Man has no alternative but to be black and considered black from that moment on, thus suffering the cruel behaviour the ensemble characters have towards such an easily identifiable scapegoat and ultimately he is tried and executed by this kangaroo court of his 'peers' who each find a perfect excuse as to why society must have a victim.

An intriguing and surreally satirical exploration into powerlessness and social marginalisation, Speight ensures that all of the characters are desperate to find their 'other', a victim to blame for all of society ills; The Officer has his Private, The Workman - who is an extension of the Arthur Haynes comic persona Speight regularly contributed scripts for - believes The Young Man to be upper class and therefore the root of all his problems, and The Blind Man needs his black man. As he says; ''I'm white, you see, purest white. There's no joy being white if there's no black, is there?'' The liberal characters such as the Doctor or the Priest and Vicar are unable to effectively shape an argument against The Blind Man's clear prejudice - much like Mike, the left wing son in law of Alf Garnett, was unable to effectively quash the older man's ignorant views with those of his own - because they are the minority voice in society; too quietly spoken or too easily ignored and ridiculed by the louder, angrier prejudiced views. In some cases they even become convinced by those ugly views, as The Doctor concludes  ''You have to let them kill you tonight, so that we who are decent can revile their crime against you'' Ultimately it is The Backwards Man who is perhaps the most quietly complex character in the piece; he chooses his ignorance as witnessed by his self imposed blindness and his desire to get along with the Blind Man, which thus reaffirms his friend's prejudices, and bringing about the persecution of The Young Man. He is the epitome of the middle ground, who allows because of their inactivity and their head-in-the-sand manner the complete opposite of their intentions to 'get along' and actually maintains in their complicitness an unfair, prejudiced society. 

For me, it is the themes around the play that work more successfully than the actual play's execution itself. I consider them important issues raised in an unflinching, unapologetic manner and I can see how some of the language that requires, will offend and upset modern day audiences who, as a result, do not see beyond the racial slurs to the issues being discussed. 

In 1974, LWT staged the play once more, this time in colour and with a new cast. There is actually very little difference between the original 1968 version and this 1974 adaptation: the script of both versions is more or less the same, barring some minor changes in the dialogue. The main difference is that this one is, as I say, in colour. There is also some pronounced differences in the set design and the performances of the piece which has both its good points and bad.

What I enjoyed here was the more abstract setting. The stage design here is much more in keeping with the traditions of absurdist theatre, looking more like a surrealistic notion of a cemetery rather than the more or less faithful depiction of the cemetery in the 1968 version. With its Expressionistic painted vista of oddly angled buildings and its foreground populated with pop art style smashed up cars, cherubic statues, billboards, murals and neon signs this is seems to be a 'cemetery' which in fact represents the death of our society and culture, which is of course in keeping with the message of the play itself.

This version firmly embraces the absurdist traditions and the theatricality of the piece, to the extent that it veers towards the farcical in places, enhanced by its jazzy deep trumpet score. On the whole this works well, but it does dilute some of the dramatic currency inherent in some of the characters and in the final reel when the narrative gathers and builds to its crescendo. In terms of the characters, Leonard Rossiter's performance as The Blind Man is markedly different to that of Leslie Sands in the original. Sands was the very vocal definition of the loud voiced bitterly ignorant protest, whereas Rossiter delivers what was essentially his screen persona of a comic near hysteria. It feels very familiar and perhaps that is because it is; this isn't all that different from his Rigsby in Rising Damp, a character which regularly hectored his co-star Richard Beckinsale who also stars here as The Young Man, the target of his prejudiced desire to scapegoat and segregate. This depiction of The Blind Man is essentially from the same sitcom bigot mould of Rigsby, old man Steptoe and - of course - Speight's own Alf Garnett, whereas Sands' Blind Man felt palpably dangerous at times and never more so than in the final act. 

I enjoyed Bob Hoskins' Workman, a tubby Teddy Boy who now pulls on a bellrope that seems to be suspended from the sky, and still has the same preoccupations with class as his older, shabbier predecessor in '68, but Donald Gee's Backwards Man has much less impact than Jimmy Hanley's which is a shame because I believe the character should be more integral and more smilingly wilfully ignorant. Likewise I wasn't keen on Michael Bryant's Doctor whose costume and performance style bears all the hallmarks of the nutty medic - again its played a touch too much for farce, a touch too boldly, which ultimately detracts from his reveal in the final stages that he's happy to sit back and allow The Young Man to be killed because as a liberal, he needs a martyr to shed tears for. But at least they try to integrate the Girl's character and storyline into the piece overall here by having her witness the narrative reach its climax, rather than just disappear as she did in '68.

As I say both plays are available on one DVD from network. Sadly there are no extras to them but for anyone interested in TV plays, race issues and vintage comedy with a message, I'd recommend it. To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic plays please sign the petition I started here

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Random Infatuations : Camilla Long

Following another amusing and sharp guest spot on Have I Got News For You I've decided that I probably would...but I'd have to mark it up as an act of class warfare ;)

RIP Denis Healey

We've lost a good comrade today, the former Labour MP Denis Healey has passed away at the age of 98.

Healey was a Labour giant, a huge figure in the political arena era of post war in this country. He was the MP for Leeds for forty years from 1952 before joining the House of Lords in 1992. He was Labour's Defence Secretary from 1964 to 1970 and Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1974 to 1979, applying for an emergency loan from the IMF in '76 in an attempt to save the pound from collapse. By 1980 he came very close to becoming the leader of the party, losing by just 10 votes to Michael Foot. He served the party in that decade as deputy leader, having beat Tony Benn to that position. During the war he was a hero of Anzio and memorably criticised Thatcher for 'glorying in slaughter' during the Falklands conflict. His trademark bushy eyebrows, love of the cut and thrust of Westminster, sharp tongue and eccentric tastes - he played a range of instruments including piano and double bass - made him a recognisable political figure who the country held in great affection whatever their allegiance.


Out On Blue Six : En Vogue

The best Bond theme we never had?

I still maintain that arrangement, the ominous piano is totally Bond. It's better than Sam Smith that's for sure! Sorry Sam, but Writing's On The Wall for the forthcoming Bond film Spectre needed a much bigger chorus!

End Transmission

Friday, 2 October 2015

Theme Time : Julee Cruise/Angelo Badalamenti - Twin Peaks

With a lot of my Theme Time posts I like to discuss the programme the theme is from, and generally gush over it.

I can't do that with Twin Peaks. I've watched some of it, but I've never fallen for it. Me and David Lynch just don't really get along (The Elephant Man and The Straight Story being the exceptions that prove the rule) I can appreciate it's great television and I like it's quirkiness but it just doesn't draw me in like a lot of TV.

I did however fall for the theme tune, known as Falling and released in 1989 by dream pop singer Julee Cruise. The music was by Angelo Badalamenti and the lyrics were by Lynch himself.

Fan of the show or not, you have to agree it's a damn fine theme tune!

Created by Lynch and Mark Foster, Twin Peaks ran for two seasons consisting of 30 episodes in total from 1990 to 1991. A spin off feature film Fire Walk With Me, serving as both a prequel and sequel to the series, was released in 1992. A superb example of 'water cooler television', the series gripped the world with its central mystery of just who killed the homecoming queen Laura Palmer, a case investigated by FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper played by Kyle MacLachlan. A third series is currently in production.

One of many curious quirky characters that populate the fictional town of Twin Peaks was The Log Lady played by Catherine E Coulson, a woman who talked to her log and took to carrying it around with her at all times like a pet or a baby. Sadly Catherine E Coulson passed away from cancer this week. She seemed a genuinely nice person who always had time to discuss her most famous role, as witnessed in her taking part in the 50th anniversary celebrations of BBC2 last year.


One Fine Day (1979)

Anyone who expects all Alan Bennett plays to be monologues delivered by Thora Hird, Patricia Routledge and the like, which seem to place great emphasis on inferior biscuits and memories of wet weekends in Harrogate may be rather surprised by One Fine Day, just one of six plays he wrote for LWT at the end of the 1970s. 

Indeed it's quite an unusual, unexpected experience all round. It features the wonderful Irish stand up (or should that be 'sit down'?) Dave Allen in a rare straight role as George Phillips, a jaded commercial properties estate agent whose increasingly bizarre behaviour seems to mark him out  rapidly on course as being for a mid life crisis. It's a quiet, contemplative piece, populated by a tremendous sense of melancholia and operatic arias. 

Unlike that other stand out 'mid life crisis man' of the 1970s, Reginald Perrin, Phillips; breakdown is depicted in a staggeringly calm manner, with Dave Allen delivering a very still, focused performance which requires him to handle sparse dialogue and a great number of scenes virtually mute. It's a real shame Allen didn't do more straight roles as he's perfectly capable of them (he was originally slated to play Jeff Randall in the 60s telefantasy detective series from ITC Randall and Hopkirk, Deceased) and shows here be it as an actor, a comedian, writer, documentary maker, TV host or raconteur, he always wanted to tell stories and tell them to the best of his abilities - no surprise then that he started life as a journalist.  

The reason for his mental turmoil and his suffering in silence is a growing dissatisfaction with his work, his colleagues and with the albatross around his neck; Sunley House, an empty office block known as 'White Elephant House' because it was abandoned when the builders went bankrupt in the latest recession leaving the top floor incomplete. It's been on Phillips' books for two years and shows no sign of ever being sold. Feeling an eager young coldfish of a colleague, a sort of prototype yuppie played by Dominic Guard, nipping at his heels under the paternally gimlet gaze of their boss Robert Stephens, Phillips visits the folly one afternoon and finds himself suddenly taken by its possibilities for peace and quiet contemplation.

It becomes his private space, his secret hideaway and there, relaxing in a deckchair with opera on his headphones on the surreal empty top floor or even on the roof sunbathing, he can shut himself off from all his woes at the office or at home like a modern day, city version of Robinson Crusoe. It is there that this doormat of a man finds his sense of purpose and his voice once more, allowing this to be a Bennett play that actually ends on what could be considered an upbeat note and a victory for his central character.

The play also takes on a new dimension when viewed now because despite the 36 year gap we have found ourselves once again in a world where the dreams of others have been put on hold, and recession has stalled or effectively terminated many a business proposition.

Directed with a great sense of the stillness of the piece by Stephen Frears, the play is somewhat enlivened by several suitably Bennett-esque characters on the sidelines who act almost like a Greek chorus. I was especially taken by the ever lugubrious Harold Innocent alongside Benjamin Whitrow and Edward De Souza bemoaning the switching of the times for a game of squash in the lift, and by Sheila Kelley (an actress I love) lovely Liz Crowther and Mary Maddox as Phillips' office girls gossipping away and making plans for their social life. "Topless is really 1960s now" Kelley is heard to mutter, baulking at an invite to a topless steak house somewhere.

Frustratingly One Fine Day has never been repeated, nor is it available on DVD, but it is also available to view on YouTube.

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

Thursday, 1 October 2015

RIP John Guillermin

Another sad passing in the world of entertainment; veteran director John Guillermin has died at the age of 89.

Ironically I decided to revisit The Towering Inferno, the film he is perhaps most famous for, only last week so to hear of his passing today was quite a sad shock.

The British born director was also responsible for classics such as war films such as The Bridge at Remagen, Guns at Batasi, I Was Monty's Double and The Blue Max, the Peter Sellers movies Never Let Go and Waltz of the Toreadors, the all star Agatha Christie adaptation Death on the Nile, blaxploitation thriller Shaft in Africa, the disaster movie Skyjacked and the disastrous 1976 remake of King Kong.


Girls With Guns

Jane Greer, Out of the Past (1947)

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Raskin On The Road

All this week afternoon television has become a little ray of sunshine thanks to the delightful antique expert Natasha Raskin appearing on BBC1's Antiques Road Trip

The beautiful glossy haired Scot is often a regular on the same channel's Bargain Hunt, but it's a real bonus to see her appear every day on TV. She's glossy haired, gloriously goofy, always smiling or laughing and - like fellow expert Christina Trevanion - shows that antiques can be quite sexy!

Natasha will be appearing on the Road Trip battling Philip Serrell for bargains every day until Friday at 4:30pm.

The Black and Blue Lamp (1988)

I've wanted to (re)watch this for years. As a nine year old kid in 1988, I had already seen The Blue Lamp and my father, who was brought up on Dixon of Dock Green, was keen to watch this BBC2 single play in the Screenplay strand, The Black and Blue Lamp. Much of what followed I can only imagine went completely over my infant head, but  abstract memories of scenes have remained with me for years, increasing in understanding as I matured. 

In The Black and Blue Lamp, playwright Arthur Ellis (who had previously written Christine, directed and condensed to its main points by Alan Clarke, and would go on to write the 1990 Screen One drama The Police) explores the changing landscape both of British society and of television, challenging the changing views on, and representations of, law and order across four decades. A curious mixture of satire, black comedy, telefantasy and police drama, the play transplants the 1949 coshboy Tom Riley (made famous by Dirk Bogarde in the classic Basil Dearden film The Blue Lamp) and PC 'Taffy' Hughes (Meredith Edwards in the film) into the then present day setting of 1988 with a breed of copper more familiar from the world of GF Newman (Law and Order, the Terry Sneed novels such as Sir, You Bastard - indeed one supporting character is named after this anti-hero) The Sweeney and The Bill. Aware that the last twenty years or so the media had entirely changed the perceptions our society had of the police force, Ellis brings both the current and the past depictions head on in a glorious, entertaining and thought provoking fashion.  What's incredible is that such a groundbreaking, fresh and - as we will come to see -  Screenplay's producer Brenda Reid had an hour's studio filming slot that required filling. By this stage, studio-only recorded plays were on their way out and becoming trickier to cater for, but Ellis leapt upon it and completed his script in around a month. 

The play picks up immediately after the concluding action of the Basil Dearden film. It's opening moments are shot in monochrome black and white and features the stiff, fast talking acting style of the late 40s, with Sean Chapman (previously the lead in Alan Clarke's Contact; the first ever Screen Two play) and Karl Johnson convincingly adopting the mannerisms of Bogarde's Riley and Edwards' Hughes. Awaiting an interview from CID and the promise of a cup of tea and a jam bun ("They used to give you that for giving blood," Hughes sadly observes. "Now they give you it for taking blood") the action suddenly, and inexplicably, switches from black and white to colour and Riley and Hughes end up in a 1980s police station, complete with strange (to them) markers such as graffiti on the walls, a radiator, flickering strip lighting, and the sound of telephones and screams. At one point Hughes, concerned with the knock to his head he suffered upon arresting Riley, reveals to the police surgeon that, since he returned back to the station, he's been hearing "rude words" - how far we have come, indeed.

Indeed, the period banter of both Riley and Hughes is given short shrift when CID eventually turn up in the shape of Kenneth Cranham's Superintendent Cherry;  “You’re gonna put your hands up to this one, son, or I’ll take your bollocks off with a Stanley knife” he snaps and another title sequence kicks in, this time a tongue-in-cheek affair for an imaginary 1980s police series The Filth.

Riley and Hughes have, without explanation from Ellis, replaced 1980s versions of Riley and Hughes, after the murder of an 80s version of Dixon; a character a world away, it is revealed, from the cosy patrician in blue of Jack Warner. This Dixon was being investigated by A10 for his part in a paedophile ring, a grubby secret that would destroy, as John Woodvine's Superintendent informs Cherry, the good PR his slaying could achieve among society and in terms of recruitment intake; “The training schools’ll be having them in and out quicker than a pork sword in a knocking shop", a sly reference to the alleged recruitment spike The Blue Lamp afforded the constabulary after its release in 1949. Equally, the criminality of the 1940s is depicted as far cosier too, with Riley bewildered and helpless at the rough questioning style and beatings Cherry and his faithful sidekick George (Ralph Brown, who had not long left The Bill where he played a hard nosed, sadistic and racist uniformed constable who had gleefully done his duty on the picket lines in the miners strike of '84 - something you could never imagine Dixon having done) dole out to him during his 'interview'.

But The Black and Blue Lamp is more than just a jet black parody of the world of George Dixon, Tom Riley and Taffy Hughes. It's also a canny and intelligent inversion of that source material. Hopelessly adrift in this alien, modern world P.C. Hughes succumbs to a violent breakdown which culminates in him confronting Riley with a gun. The ensuing scene directly lifts the action from The Blue Lamp in which Riley shoots Dixon, but this time it is Riley who is trying to talk down the policeman. Ellis utilises the original dialogue here, and when Riley is shot, Sean Chapman captures Jack Warner’s facial expression with great accuracy. Corrupted by the modern world he finds himself in, with the routine backhanders, planting of evidence and deaths in custody occurring throughout, it is Hughes who commits the very worst offence in the play - shooting an unarmed man. Just as it was in The Blue Lamp.  

The play closes with Cherry wondering just who they had under arrest all along and whether he could really have been, as he claimed, a coshboy of the late 40s. If that were the case, he ponders, and if somehow he had taken the place of the 1980s Riley they had been keen to question, then where has their Riley actually gone? The credits - a sombre Sweeney-like homage - conclude to reveal a brilliant coda, inverting the rest of the play by now showing the modern-day Riley and Hughes in the world of The Blue Lamp. "The detective will want to grill you" a bobby informs Riley. “What’s he think I am," he yells defiantly "a fucking sausage?” 

A brilliantly inventive single drama, it's easy to draw a line from the strangeness of The Black and Blue Lamp to Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes in the 00s which took equal delight in supplanting a heroic cop figure into a different world, to explore the perceived representations of that day.  But Life On Mars and its sequel Ashes To Ashes were primetime, populist TV drama rather than the stuff of 'highbrow' single act TV plays and as such we can, once again - just as The Black and Blue Lamp did in 1988, consider the changing landscape of television in the intervening years. 

Staggeringly, The Black and Blue Lamp has remained unrepeated and unreleased to DVD or VHS. It is however available to view on YouTube. To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic plays please sign the petition I started here

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Prime Cut (1972)

Prime Cut is a prime cut of pulp fiction served with a large side order of American Gothic. 

Directed by Michael Ritchie, it has a great, mouth watering trio in Lee Marvin, Gene Hackman and - in her screen debut - Sissy Spacek, who each invest strong performances in the ensuing hard boiled weirdness.

Marvin stars as Nick Devlin, a hard as nails enforcer for the Chicago mob who is given the mission to go to Kansas City and bring back half a million dollars in mob money that cocksure slaughterhouse kingpin Mary Ann (Hackman) has been creaming off for himself, arrogantly believing Chicago to be a town of old men and kids and therefore now no longer a threat to his private enterprise. Indeed so arrogant is he that he has sent back previous enforcers the mob sent his way - ground up into sausages. Yuck.

Undeterred, Devlin and his men arrive at Mary Ann’s ranch in the middle of a livestock auction like no other - groups of well dressed men survey the pens full of young, doped naked girls, sourced from local orphanages and runaways. The repugnant Mary Ann, and his even more loathsome brother Weenie (Gregory Walcott), have got themselves a white slavery racket to run alongside the legitimate ranch business. One of the girls is Poppy (Spacek), who Marvin rescues, before giving Mary Ann an ultimatum to meet him the next day to pay the debt back in full. 

Needless to say, the money exchange doesn’t go down as planned leaving Devlin with no option but to take Mary Ann’s organisation apart piece by piece. Well, it's what you expect from Lee Marvin really isn't it? But the tone of what occurs is perhaps not as you'd expected, because Prime Cut is a surreal, distinctive and quirky little thriller. 

American cinema of the 1970s seemed to have a gleeful phobia about the rural areas of their country; Deliverance, Southern Comfort etc. In Prime Cut, Kansas gets more or less the same treatment. It's more the American Nightmare rather than the American Dream; a corrupt cabal which sees Mary Ann scratch the back of, and in turn have his back scratched, similar sweaty stetson wearing Republicans each with denim dungaree clad corn fed blond haired, blue eyed farm boys to do their bidding, lethal shotguns in hand. The county fairs and turkey shoots on display here take a peculiar, disturbing and bizarre aspect, and pose a great threat to Marvin and his fellow Chicago interlopers who make no concessions for their environment, dressed in their city suits and cruising through town in a sleek black Cadillac as if they were a small recon platoon of an occupying force looking to crush the locals under their expensive boot heels. 

Of course this peculiarity leads to several 'WTF' moments, most notably in one of the film's crucial set pieces which sees Marvin and Spacek fleeing a menacing combine harvester through a vast wheat field much like Cary Grant escaping the crop duster in North By Northwest. It looks impressive, but - like the film in general - it has no relation to reality. For a start who tipped off the fat farmboy at the wheel of the harvester to attack? Why does Marvin continue to hold Spacek's hand as they desperately try to evade its impending assault? Surely splitting up could help them to run faster and even evade the peril altogether? The scene ends with the Cadillac, driven by Marvin's faithful chauffeur, smashing head on into the harvester - which promptly digests it!  

It's the cast that really make Prime Cut worth watching. There's nothing new here from Marvin but then there really doesn't need to be; this is the kind of role he can do in his sleep and, on occasions here, it looks like that's exactly what he's doing. Laconic, wryly humourous and authentically tough, his Devlin is never less than convincing. For what was her first major screen role, Spacek - one of my favourite actresses - is straight out of the traps here as Poppy. She performs the doe eyed, troubled ingénue to perfection and there's a wonderful asexual relationship between her and Marvin, her avenging angel. My favourite scene with the pair has to be the one where they dine in  a posh Kansas City restaurant. Poppy's young naivety means she has elected to dress in something she thinks is pretty rather than something respectful and suitable, and so they arrive with her clad in a see through, figure hugging green evening dress (and Spacek certainly looks a knockout here!)

The rest of the clientele, the refined Kansas townsfolk (as opposed to Mary Ann's set) look on and judge internally, but one dead-eyed look from Marvin soon has them turning their heads! Poppy recounts the story of her time at the orphanage and her closest girlfriend there (who is at this point in the clutches of Mary Ann's brother, the brawny man-child Weenie) with the inevitable confession of a flirtation into naive lesbianism. But what could have been a moment of leering sexuality and nudge nudgery for the audience is  respectfully kept away from what is essentially a respectful almost father and daughter like relationship between Marvin and the considerably younger girl. In the wake of several truths coming to light over on this side of the pond regarding care homes in the 1970s, the plot here about the orphanage literally handing over their charges to Mary Ann to sell as sex slaves gives the film a chilling resonance.

It goes without saying that Gene Hackman is just as good here as his co-stars. A year on from The French Connection and he greedily accepts the challenge of playing the bad guy this time around. (Interestingly, Eddie Egan, his co-star from The French Connection and the real life cop who inspired the role of Popeye Doyle, appears in the film's opening scene as the mob boss who orders Marvin down to Kansas) Hackman's a repulsive sight to behold here, whether its cheerfully feasting on offal in his debut scene or reverting to infancy - and reaching levels of homoeroticism - to tussle around on the carpet with his brother whilst the moneymen organise the accounts, he holds your attention brilliantly proving he's more than a match for Marvin's screen presence.