Tuesday, 6 December 2016

RIP Peter Vaughan

It's been a terrible few days; first the news that one of my favourite character actors Bernard Gallagher had passed away, and now it's announced that Peter Vaughan, another of my favourites, has also died at the age of 93.

The versatile character actor was famous for a host of roles in a career that stretched back to the 1950s. Often cast as the villain, Vaughan would use his physical heft to strike an intimidating presence on both the big and small screen, but he could also play heroes too and had a natural warmth and air of benevolence. His film roles included the starring role in the B movie Smokescreen, Village of the Damned, Sapphire, The Punch and Judy Man (opposite Tony Hancock), The Naked Runner (opposite Frank Sinatra), Ken Russell's Savage Messiah, Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, The Blockhouse (opposite Peter Sellers), The Mackintosh Man (opposite Paul Newman), The Razor's Edge, the Terry Gilliam films Time Bandits and Brazil, Face, Death at a Funeral and Is Anybody There? (opposite Michael Caine) 

Vaughan was equally prolific on television; amongst a host of guest roles in a variety of programmes throughout his long career, he will be best remembered for his performances in two classic 1970s sitcoms Porridge and Citizen Smith. In the latter he played the thick-headed Yorkshireman father of Cheryl Hall, who disapproved deeply of her relationship with Robert Lindsay's eponymous would-be revolutionary, whilst the former saw him play Slade Prison's criminal mastermind, 'Genial' Harry Grout, a role he would repeat in the big screen spin off movie of 1979. He also played the 'Godfather'-like patriarch of a large London family in Fox (1980) which starred Ray Winstone, Bernard Hill, Derrick O'Connor, Larry Lamb and Eamon Boland as his sons, and starred as Christopher Eccleston's father and veteran of the Jarrow Marchers in the landmark 1996 BBC series Our Friends In The North. He was mostly recently seen on our TV screens as Maester Aemon of The Night's Watch in Game of Thrones.


Out On Blue Six: Edie Brickell & New Bohemians/Tin Tin Out ft. Emma Bunton

One song, two versions...

End Transmission

Monday, 5 December 2016

A Chat With Andrew Cartmel

Andrew Cartmel is a novelist, playwright and screenwriter. He is perhaps best known as his work for BBC television as a script editor for the 1987-'89 series of Doctor Who, an era of the show that saw Cartmel attempt to reinvigorate the long-running show with a new sense of mystery which become known as 'The Cartmel Masterplan'

Since his time on Doctor Who, Cartmel has written several novels as well as scripts for Midsomer Murders, Dark Knight and Torchwood. His latest venture is the noir thriller Written in Dead Wax, the first in a series of novels featuring 'The Vinyl Detective' - a record collector turned sleuth.

I recently spoke with Andrew about one of the lesser known aspects of his career; his role as a script editor on the fifth series of the BBC medical drama Casualty back in 1990. This chat, a frank and fascinating look at a rather difficult behind-the-scenes experience, has been published online at the Casualty and Holby City fansite Holby.tv. You can read it for yourself here and learn at last the link Cartmel forged between Casualty and Ridley Scott's Alien!

For more information on Andrew, visit his excellent film review blog Narrative Drive, twitter or his Amazon Page

Autumn with Yves and Simone

Just a beautiful autumnal photo 
of the beautiful coupling of Yves Montand and Simone Signoret.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Danton (1983)

"The revolution like Saturn devours its own children"

Polish director Andrzej Wajda imbues this historical fact-based drama concerning France's reign of terror with the fitting contemporary resonance of what was then occurring in his native Poland and its fellow Eastern Bloc countries under the stranglehold of soviet communism. It's a particularly insightful and satisfying move - after all, the horror of show trials was not exclusive to the oppressive USSR alone and, in Danton, Wajda paints a savage indictment of the same mockery of justice that took the architect of the French Revolution, Georges Danton (played to perfection here by Gerard Depardieu), and his supporters to the guillotine, thanks to his former friend and ally Robespierre's paranoid and tenuous grasp on power.

To further emphasise the point in this Polish/French co-production, Wajda not only cast Polish actor Wojciech Pszoniak as Robespierre, but populated all of his faction on the dictatorial Committee of Public Safety with his fellow countrymen. Pszoniak himself didn't speak a word of French, and all the Polish performers spoke the lines in their mother tongue, being dubbed into French later. The idealistic and popular Danton and his similarly like-minded supporters are all played by French actors, whilst there's a wonderful spot of stunt casting in the role of revolutionary painter Jacques-Louis David, played by the Polish artist Franciszek Starowieyski. It perhaps shouldn't work, but it really does and Pszoniak's performance as the bloodless, stubborn and fearful Robespierre is brilliant - the perfect contrast to Depardieu's loquacious yet equally stubborn Danton, a man of the people but fatally a man of flesh and blood. Watching Depardieu perform what was said to be Danton's audacious, heroic and at times incomprehensible defence until he shouts himself hoarse is spellbinding stuff. 

I've seen some people claim that Danton is confusing and long winded to the point of dull, I couldn't disagree more. Granted, it may help to know of the events of that led up to Robespierre essentially becoming as much of a tyrant as those the revolution deposed to follow the film effectively, but this is far from dull - it's a really absorbing, fascinating dramatisation that benefits from the parallels it draws with what was happening in the Poland of the 1980s, lifting it above the usual historical fare.

"Show them my head. It is worth it"

RIP Andrew Sachs

2016 has been a terrible year for losses in the entertainment world. Indeed, just this last week I seem to have done nothing but post obituaries. Yesterday saw news break of another passing to add to the ranks as it was revealed that Fawlty Towers star Andrew Sachs had died on 23rd November at the age of 86.

The actor, famous for playing Manuel the hapless waiter in the classic BBC sitcom, had been suffering from dementia for the past four years.However, he continued to work right up until the end with roles most recently in soap opera EastEnders (opposite Timothy West, husband of his Fawlty Towers co-star Prunella Scales) Kelsey Grammer comedy film Breaking The Bank and Tim Burton's Alice Through The Looking Glass.

He will of course be best remembered for Fawlty Towers but Sachs' 60 year career - which commenced in 1947 with uncredited schoolboy parts in Ealing's Hue and Cry and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby - was very diverse and varied with prolific and notable roles in both comedy and drama. He will also be remembered for the infamous 'Sachsgate' controversy that rocked the BBC comedy department when, in 2008, Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand proceeded to leave a string of obscene telephone messages to the unwitting actor on Brand's Radio 2 show. Sachs was also a much in demand voice over artiste, dubbing the English language versions of Monkey and the animated Asterix movies, as well as narrating everything from '90s kids cartoon William's Wish Wellingtons to Peter Kay's breakthrough series That Peter Kay Thing. In recent years he regularly guest starred in a series of popular dramas and soaps including the aforementioned EastEnders, Coronation Street, Holby City, Casualty (three times in fact between 2008 and 2011) Doctors and The Bill. His last regular role in a drama series was probably 1999's Jack of Hearts alongside Keith Allen, Anna Mountford and Ruth Madoc.


Thursday, 1 December 2016

RIP Bernard Gallagher

The very very sad news broke today that Bernard Gallagher who, as Ewart Plimmer was Casualty's first leading man, died earlier this week according to Roobarb and a note in The Guardian obit.

I know that being in his late 80s (he was born in 1929) he had a good innings, but I am nevertheless heartbroken. Gallagher was one of my favourite character actors and produced not only one of Casualty's finest characters in Ewart but also one of British TV's finest characters full stop. Indeed, he was rightly recognised as being key to Casualty's success that he made a brief 'return' to the show (albeit in voice only) for the 30th anniversary episode A Child's Heart written by one of the show's creators Paul Unwin. It's doubly sad to think that we have now lost two of the long-running series original cast members; Christopher Rozycki having also passed away last year.

Gallagher had many credits in his long career ranging from Crown Court right the way through to Downton Abbey. It was his role in the former as Jonathan Fry QC that saw Gallagher repeatedly cast as characters in authority, often judges or barristers, but also senior police officers and of course, in Casualty, a consultant doctor. He also appeared in several excellent TV plays such as Red Shift, Arthur's Hallowed Ground and First and Last.

I am so glad I took the opportunity to write to him last year, recieving a lovely handwritten note on a beautiful British Red Cross card and a photo (signed on the back) in reply


(Edit to add: a full obituary appeared in The Guardian  on Monday 5th December, 2016)

The Blockhouse (1973)

The Blockhouse is a 1973 film based on a novel by French author Jean-Paul Clébert which was in turn based on a true story concerning a group of German soldiers discovered in Poland, though the authenticity of this tale has been disputed for many years since.

D-Day, France: a mixed group of forced labourers held by German forces take shelter from the bombardment inside a German bunker, only to find themselves entombed within when the entrances are blocked by the extent of the heavy shelling. Exploring their new surroundings they discover that it is in fact a storehouse, replete with plentiful reserves of food and wine that could last them years. However, the seven men slowly come round to the fact that they are more likely to be trapped down there forever, rather than for years - a realisation that begins to chip away at each man's sanity as the stock of candles begin to run out. 

The Blockhouse is perhaps notable for featuring Peter Sellers in a rare straight dramatic role (I think this and 1960's Never Let Go were Sellers' only true forays into straight acting) alongside French singer Charles Aznavour. A British production, it was filmed on Guernsey in the Channel Islands and was entered into the Berlin Film Festival but, for some reason, the film was subsequently never released in British cinemas. As such, The Blockhouse was something of a rarity for decades until a DVD release around ten years ago. It is currently being screened on the cable channel Movies4Men, which should attract a few more viewers as well as logs on here.

I'm a big Sellers fan but today is the first time I've set eyes on The Blockhouse. I've known about it for years, thanks to Roger Lewis' extensive 1995 biography The Life and Death of Peter Sellers which dedicated lengthy passages and critiques of all Sellers' movies, including this one. The reason why I haven't sought it out in the years since it has become more commercially available is because it just sounded too bleak and depressing - and guess what? It is very bleak and depressing indeed. 

The film is an utterly claustrophobic and unflinching study of how the eponymous blockhouse turns from the saviour and hiding place of the men to an impregnable and inescapable underground prison, and how such captivity impacts upon their human nature, their mental and physical health, their sexuality and sexual desires, their relationships with one another and ultimately with death itself - both the acceptance and eventuality of this fate. It's the kind of film you need a strong constitution or philosophy for but, as there's certainly a market for these kind of single setting survival/trauma stories, I would argue that it deserves wider recognition amongst audiences for whom this is their cup of tea.

However, it's worth pointing out that I recall Lewis citing that the film was rather unsatisfying and somewhat inept too and I have to say I found myself sympathising with this criticism. It is sadly somewhat fair to say that this isn't exactly proficient filmmaking; shooting almost exclusively in 'the blockhouse' itself makes for poor sound design and lighting/cinematography, and in some places that means it is actually really hard to make out what is being said and who is saying it. The director of The Blockhouse was Clive Rees who despite the limitations clearly has some talent but, given how his film was received - or rather, not received at all - in the UK, it's perhaps unsurprising that his career was pretty sparse after this, with his only other cinematic credit arriving sixteen years later with 1989's When The Whales Came.

The above photo of actor Leon Lissek who played Khozek in the film was taken by Sellers himself and has recently features in a retrospective of Sellers' photographic work. 

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949)

If you live in the UK and possess a television you can't have failed to notice that rubbery featured funny man Rowan Atkinson is going to have a second crack at the whip of playing Georges Simonen's celebrated detective Jules Maigret this Christmas, as the trailers have been shown in between a succession of z-list celebrities chewing their way through camel's anus (I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here!) every night for the past fortnight. Unfortunately, Atkinson's previous stab was a very dull affair indeed so I can't seeing this Christmas present being a particularly treat, though I'm happy to be pleasantly surprised. Anyway, the constant plugging for it encouraged me to venture back in time to seek out other Maigret adaptations and this 1949 rarity has recently been screened on Talking Pictures TV.

The Man on the Eiffel Tower is an adaptation of Simenon's 5th Maigret novel which is largely known in the English language as either A Battle of Nerves or A Man's Head. The film is, barring a set-piece finale that the title alludes to, a fairly faithful account of the novel and the plot goes a little like this; the hapless, short sighted Joseph Heurtin (Burgess Meredith) stumbles one evening upon a vicious murder scene - the brutal stabbing of a wealthy American Mrs Henderson and her maid - and catches the murderer, Radek (Franchot Tone) in the act. Terrified and sworn to secrecy, Heurtin flees - but he leaves both his glasses and his bloody fingerprints and boot prints behind, making him prime suspect. Maigret (Charles Laughton) however, is not convinced. He believes that Heurtin has neither a motive for the killing nor the necessary callous nature. In his usual, inimitable way, Maigret engineers Heurtin's escape from custody - an unorthodox measure which he hopes will lead him to the real culprit. 

One of the film's star Franchot Tone and legendary US movie producer Irving Allen set up this Franco-American co-production and shot on location in post-war Paris (the film even credits the French capital as a star of the film in its own right, receiving billing after Laughton, Tone and Meredith) Allen was originally slated to direct, but behind the scenes ructions between him and Laughton regarding his competency to direct such a film meant that Burgess Meredith took on the directing duties. It is said that Meredith directed all the scenes that he did not have to act in, with Laughton actually directing those whilst, for the instances in which Laughton and Meredith have scenes together, Tone was elected to direct. With those facts in mind, the shoot was clearly a real co-operative affair, but its perhaps inevitable that such practices behind the scenes would effect the film overall and its fair to say it never really comes together and is pretty much of curio value only now. Laughton delivers an interesting performance of Maigret though whilst he certainly fits the physicality of Simonen's detective better than the pipe-cleaner frame of Atkinson,  he perhaps has a tendency to find the humour in the character a little too broadly to be an accurate portrayal. Tone and Meredith are equally enjoyable in their respective roles also.

For many years The Man on the Eiffel Tower was believed lost but it was eventually restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive using two worn projection prints. The print remains poor however on account of the film being shot on Ansco Reversal film, an early single strip colour process that no longer exists, which means the colours are rather washed out, but it is the only print available to watch.

Wordless Wednesday: Work & Play

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The Promised Land (Ziemia Obiecana) 1975

Based on an 1897 novel by Wladyslaw Reymont, Andrzej Wajda's The Promised Land is an epic period drama that is reminiscent of Dickens or Zola and is a savagely incisive indictment of the rampant industrialisation of the 19th century and capitalist greed. 

Three friends, one Polish, one Jewish and one German (played by Daniel Olbrychski, Wojciech Pszoniak and Andrzej Seweryn respectively) hatch a plan to enter the textile industry in the expanding milltown of Lodz for their ruthless pursuit of fortune. Wajda's location work in Lodz - an area still largely unchanged from the days of the industrial boom - is stunning, lending the piece an impressive, weighty and expensive looking air that probably belies the budget they were actually working with. Working with a team of three cinematographers (Witold Sobocinski, Edward Klosinski and Waclow Dybowski) Lodz itself becomes a character within the film in its own right; the imposing smoking chimney stacks and the smoking ruins of factories burnt by their bankrupt proprietors for the insurance, the worker's shantytowns and their unrelenting poverty, is all captured through a wide-angle, hand-held camerawork that places the viewer into a realistic, near documentarian record of a thunderous metropolis, scored by the driving motif of Wojciech Kilar's score. 

The performances are excessive and some of the set pieces uniquely graphic. The Promised Land offers a visceral depiction of the harshness and horrors of industrialisation and the unfeeling nature of big business as best evinced by bloody and gruesome scenes of human flesh and limbs being ripped apart by machinery in workplace accidents. Morality is a commodity revered far less than materials and profit and, as such, it is easy to see why Wajda's anti-capitalist film found much favour with the Communist regime that ruled in his native Poland at the time. This also explains why the performances and Wajda's direction revel in the grotesqueness of the characters greed and ambition, with one scene set on a train featuring Olbrychski and his voluptuous mistress (played by Kalina Jedrusik) sating themselves on both a rich banquet and their bodies, reminiscent of Ken Russell whilst another, which sees Pszoniak, exhausted from gazumping a former ally in business, break the fourth wall by leering and gesturing at the camera, remains as shocking and surprising as it is sly and ugly. 

By nailing its colours so firmly to the mast of anti-capitalism, Wajda rewrote the original novel's somewhat positive ending for his adaptation, to close instead on a bleak coda set some years on which sees our central trio give the command to the local militia to shoot upon their striking workforce. This powerful conclusion enhanced his reputation with a Soviet establishment who had previously viewed his output with some suspicion and would go on to do so again before their rule came to an end.

What remains however is the fact that a tale which features the opportunistic greed and triumph of a trio who have nothing but their names, reputation and have no scruples in regards to undertaking acts of industrial espionage or duplicity continues to be deeply relevant to this very day. It may be 163 minutes in length, but I for one found the running time more or less flew by, so absorbing was the tale.

Monday, 28 November 2016

I Am Not A Serial Killer (2016)

Based on a 2009 ‘Young Adult’ novel by Dan Wells (the first in a trilogy I believe) I Am Not a Serial Killer is a British/Irish co-production set and shot in the chilly Midwestern state of Minnesota. It is directed by Billy O’Brien and stars the seventeen-year-old Max Records, Laura Fraser and Christopher Lloyd.

Records plays John Cleaver, a fifteen-year old who has just been diagnosed by his child psychologist as a sociopath with an unhealthy obsession with serial killers and dead bodies. This facet of his character is perhaps unsurprising when you consider that he just so happens to live above a mortuary owned by his mother (Fraser) and helps out there. Aware of the terrible impulses that constantly tempt him, Cleaver tries to keep himself “good” and “normal”. However, when a spate of grisly murders occur in town and bodies show up missing various limbs and organs, it becomes increasingly difficult for Cleaver to stick to his rules and ignore his morbid fascination for serial killing. When it appears that the elderly neighbour across the street (Lloyd) may have a part to play in the gruesome violence that erupts across town from Halloween to Christmas, Cleaver realises he may just have to let his dark side out in order to stop the carnage. But, in giving over to his impulses, could Cleaver be more dangerous than the monster he attempts to hunt down?

Read my full review at The Geek Show and the film is released in selected cinemas from Dec 9th.

Out On Blue Six : Colonel Abrams, RIP

Another death from the entertainment industry - Colonel Abrams has died at the age of 67.

His song Trapped reached number 3 in the UK charts back in 1985 but last year it was revealed that Abrams was homeless and friends raised money to ensure he had vital diabetes medication.


End Transmission

Sunday, 27 November 2016

RIP Ken Grieve

The TV director Ken Grieve has passed away, aged 74.

Edinburgh born Grieve trained initially as a cameraman before moving into TV directing, and had a string of impressive credits in a thirty-five year career that concluded with his retirement in 2009. These credits included the 1979 Doctor Who serial Destiny of the Daleks which reintroduced the Timelord's deadliest foes after a four-year absence from the show,episodes of Murray Smith's The XYY Man and its subsequent spin-offs Strangers and Bulman starring Don Henderson, two episodes of Bergerac, the adaptation of Len Deighton's Game, Set and Match series of novels, episodes of The Bill, Peak Practice, and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the Terence Stamp series Chessgame, and five episodes of the first series of Bugs. But Grieve's most famous, evergreen credit lies in his first job in 1975, directing episodes of Coronation Street along with the location footage that would make up the opening titles for the long-running soap

These titles introduced the show for fourteen years from 1976 to 1990 and made a legend out of Frisky the cat, who stalks his way along the gutters and rooftops of those familiar terraced houses.


Silent Sunday: Riding Pillion

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Theme Time : Matumbi - Empire Road

The BBC has done much across its channels to mark Black History Month this November with a wealth of programming, but it's a real shame that it didn't find space in its schedules to raid the BBC archive for long unseen programmes made specifically by or for black audiences. I'm thinking specifically of course of Empire Road which ran for two series on BBC2 from 1978 to 1979.

Created by Michael Abbensetts, the show depicted the life of Afro-Caribbean, East Indian and South Asian residents of a street in Birmingham. Ostensibly a drama in the soap opera tradition, Empire Road was written, acted and directed predominantly by artists who identified with being part of the ethnic minority within the UK. As such, this enabled the series to tell things totally and accurately from the perspective of the multicultural communities of the country. 

It starred future Desmond's star Norman Beaton as Everton Bennett, a West Indian who had arrived in the UK and built a business as a residential property landlord and the owner of a minimart. Bennett was seen as the neighbourhood's 'Godfather' figure, and if you had a problem, Everton Bennett was the man to go to, using his wisdom, experience and common sense to resolve matters. This is perhaps best exemplified in a storyline featuring Rudolph Walker (Love Thy Neighbour, EastEnders) as a Rachman-style slum landlord, Sebastian Moses, with his eye on buying property in Empire Road. Seeing both his patch and his neighbours potentially threatened, Bennett sets about a series of stings that publicly humiliate Moses, and a feud between the two men develops.

Made by the BBC's legendary Pebble Mill studios and with location work in the Handsworth district of Birmingham, Empire Road starred a host of talented actors including the aforementioned Beaton and Walker, along with Corinne Skinner-Carter, Joseph Marcell, Wayne Laryea and a young Julie Walters. The series theme tune was by reggae group Matumbi who were well known in the Rock Against Racism movement. It was released as a single in 1978 and went on to become the title of a best of collection for the band in 2001.

EDITED TO ADD: Sadly news reaches me today that Empire Road's creator, Michael Abbensetts passed away on 24th November, just two days before I made this post. Read his Guardian obituary here RIP

Fidel Castro

And so at the age of 90, Castro has breathed his last and an era effectively comes to a close.

It's going to be quite amusing now to watch the world media and world leaders try and work out whether to depict Castro as a good or bad figure. 


Thursday, 24 November 2016

Rapid Reviews: Sailing Close To The Wind by Dennis Skinner, MP

Labour MP for Bolsover since 1970, Dennis Skinner finally succumbed to demand and wrote his reminiscences of a life in politics in 2014. It wasn't something he wanted to do, believing he is a more skillful communicator with the spoken word via public oration, and admits that it was hard to write; "I hope it turns out alright" he says in the acknowledgements. Well, I can assure him and you that it most certainly has turned out alright - the humour, passion and dedicated commitment of the man shines through on every page. At a time when politics seem to be dominated by right wing nutjobs and centre-ground squatting squirts who are simply careerists, it's good to know that Skinner still fights for what he believes, for the rights of the working class men and women of his constituency and, in turn, his country.

I've read many political memoirs in my time, but this has to be one of the funniest and warmest. It reads like a barroom chat with and old friend you hold in the greatest regard and respect. Here's one of the funniest passages;

'Norman Tebbit was an uppity backbencher before Thatcher stuck him in the Cabinet. Tommy Swain, a fellow ex-miner from Derbyshire, was sitting opposite Tebbit (in the House of Commons) who was muttering away. I didn't catch precisely what Tebbit said but, looking at Tommy, he'd said something like "The old man's turned up for once" in a clear dig. 

"What did he say?" asked Tommy

"He called you a bastard," I answered to wind up Tommy. He cursed Tebbit, then a few moments later I heard: 

"Tebbit's said something else - what was it?"

"He's called you a bastard again, Tommy"

Tommy wasn't happy.Tommy shouted at Tebbit that he wanted a word and Tebbit, the silly sod, got up to speak to him. I was thinking what a fool Tebbit was when Tommy pounced at the back of the chamber. I can see the pair now: Tommy holding Tebbit by the tie with one hand, Tommy's other hand screwed into a menacing fist in Tebbit's face. The two of them were near the heavy double doors into the Member's Lobby so beyond what's known  as the bar of the House and officially out of chamber. The Speaker was unable to save Tebbit from a pasting if Tommy wasn't appeased. Bernard Weatherill, then a Tory whip and later himself a Speaker, saw what was going on and rushed over. Tommy complained that Tebbit was bad-mouthing him and Weatherill told Tebbit to apologise. I saw Tommy later with a piece of paper in his hand. It was a letter of apology from Tebbit!  I don't know what Tebbit said exactly but I must have been nearer the truth than I imagined'

Two things strike me about that particular anecdote; one, is that it's the kind of thing my late grandfather (who bore a passing resemblance to Skinner and was an ex-miner himself) would have done. He enjoyed a good leg pull. And the second is that it really couldn't have happened to a nicer person than Norman Tebbit, a loathsome hard hearted man who enjoyed his role as Thatcher's hatchet man, destroying the lives of millions of Britons throughout the 1980s and remains unrepentant to this day. I'd have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that moment; Tommy Swain might have been over 60 by that stage but as a miner and a former fairground boxer, he could have done Tebbit some serious damage!

Dennis Skinner remains one of a kind, and in many ways that's a great shame. However, we can be grateful that he continues to fight the good fight against the likes of the Tories and UKIP at 84. Long may he continue.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Is Paris Burning? (1966)

Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre concerning the liberation of Paris, René Clément's 1966 production of Is Paris Burning? boasts a script from Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola and is a stirring, war epic in the vein of The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far (films that were based on the factual books by Cornelius Ryan) with an internationally star studded cast including Alain Delon as Jacques Chaban-Delmas the future Gaullist politician and Prime Minister, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Leslie Caron, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret and Charles Boyer representing France, Glenn Ford, Kirk Douglas as Patton, Robert Stack, Anthony Perkins and George Chakiris representing America, Gert Fröbe as von Choltitz, the sympathetic commander of Nazi-occupied France who disobeyed Hitler's orders to raise Paris to the ground, Gunther Meisner and Wolfgang Preiss representing Germany, and Orson Welles standing alone as the Swedish diplomat Nordling who desperately tried to minimise bloodshed through negotiation. Weirdly, despite this raft of star names Claude Rich plays two parts! He's General Leclerc, with a moustache, and Lt Pierre de la Fouchardière, without a moustache! Surely there was another French actor knocking about?

Unfortunately, whilst Clément's film is certainly ambitious and conscientious, it isn't in the same league as the likes of A Bridge Too Far and The Longest Day and great swathes of the film are stiflingly dull and rather sprawling. It's a real shame as when the film does ignite (excuse the pun) its really satisfying; the battle scenes on the streets of Paris as the Americans and French allied forces take back the city are impressive enough to stand alongside any other war epic of the period and allow Jean-Pierre Cassel in particular a moment to shine, whilst the role of Anthony Perkins is predictable right from the off. The tense, sweaty performances of the film's big men (in every meaning of the word) Welles and Fröbe also suggest a more interesting film struggling to get out from under the weight of cameos, plodding scenes and historical accuracy. Make no mistake, this isn't Welles at the top of his game, but his inherent gravitas is suitably fitting to the role of the beleaguered Swedish Consul. 

Likewise Fröbe remains the film's best performed and best written character; a complex character study of a professional soldier who has realised the orders he receives from on high are from the mind of a madman. His weary expression, when finding himself suddenly alone in a restaurant as the bells of Paris break their four year silence to proclaim the Allies' arrival, speaks louder than the peal itself. Ultimately, when he surrenders to Cassel's Lt. Karcher and he faces the angry jeers of newly liberated Parisian crowds, it's hard not to feel some sympathy towards him knowing that what he did to save the city, disobeying his command, will not be immediately recognised. 

All too often however the film gets bogged down in vignettes whose prime intention seems to be to showcase whatever A-lister is in the vicinity at the time. Whilst it's really great to see the likes of Delon, Montand, Belmondo and Boyer et al, the real interest and meat of the story rests with less showy French actors such as Bruno Cremer (who went on to play the definitive - to my mind - Maigret) as Communist resistance leader Colonel Rol-Tanguy and Pierre Vaneck (looking not unlike a Iain Glen here) as Maj. Roger Gallois. That said, much of Rol-Tanguy's efforts are ignored by the film including his personal acceptance of von Cholitz's surrender, at least Gallois' cross-country mission to appeal to the US forces and Gen. Patton himself for help is given some prominence. 

Despite its many flaws, Is Paris Burning? proved to be a box office hit in France but proved significantly less successful elsewhere as witnessed by the fact that it doesn't get shown on TV or mentioned much at all in comparison to other WWII epics. Some cite the decision to film in black and white as a major mistake (reputedly, it was a decision forced on the film maker's by the French government, who refused to allow them to fly red and black Nazi flags over the city for fear it would bring back painful memories - grey and black however, were deemed OK enough to be permitted) but I actually think it works to the film's advantage especially when you consider how seamless the archive footage is subsequently incorporated alongside Marcel Grignon's cinematography. 

Personally I think the real stumbling block is in relying on dubbing; all the sequences featuring French and German actors were filmed in their native languages, which was then dubbed - in a rather hit and miss fashion - into English, while all the sequences with the American actors were filmed in English. Given that the cast is predominantly made up of non-native English speakers, it would have made far more sense to use subtitles. Granted, a majority foreign-language film may have still proved unsuccessful at the box office in English-language territories, but it would have ensured the film stood the test of time far better. As it is, this is a film that hints at being a classic but ultimately falls short too many times.