Saturday, 16 December 2017

Black Christmas (1974)

I'm not really a big fan of slasher movies but that's actually because nine out of ten are derivative pap with Hollywood churning them out in a manner somewhat akin to wringing out an old dishcloth. But when they're done properly, such as here in and the first Halloween (the latter often considered the daddy of the slasher genre though this film actually predates it by four years), they're really rather enjoyable. 

Now granted, Black Christmas is utterly predictable right from the off, but what makes this surprisingly shoestring budgeted Canadian chiller so effective are some truly striking cinematic sequences and the overall atmosphere of the piece. Writer A. Roy Moore and director Bob Clark take the much-repeated (and subsequently adapted) urban legend of 'the babysitter and the man upstairs' and plant it firmly in the festive season, capturing that unnerving, sinister essence that has often gone hand in hand with Christmas (and used to great effect with the traditional ghost stories of the season) yet hidden beneath the tinsel, baubles and the notion of goodwill to all men. 

Olivia Hussey's Jess is bathed in a red glow from the wreath on the sorority house door as she watches the carol singers and its an image and a colour that is redolent of both the warmth and kitsch of Christmas and the bloodbath of the horror itself. The subversion of the festive themes make Black Christmas the perfect candidate for an alternative festive movie, not only in the notion of the horror being set at Christmas but also in the mischievous disregard it has for the season: Margot Kidder's Barb plies a child with drink at a party, and house mother Mrs Mac (Marian Waldman) is hardly ever seen without a bottle of booze - they both know the true 'spirit' of Christmas! And where does our infantalized killer hide out? Why in the attic naturally, the space for abandoned and forgotten toys. 

Also in the film's favour is the fact that the script never once treats its female characters like idiots. Yes they can be a little obnoxious (hello Margot Kidder) but they are astute and convincing as intelligent young college students, who are allowed to discuss and joke about sex, drink and smoke and be independent enough to not only know that they have such rights but to actively insist upon them too, as evinced by Hussey's decision to have an abortion and her refusal to consign her own career and ambitions to the scrapheap because her selfish and highly strung boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) has failed in his own. These are female characters who are far from the dumb, highly sexualised objects of lust that often populate such examples of the genre. There's no denying that Hussey in particular is a very striking, attractive young woman, but these characters possess an everyday, natural beauty that no longer exists in such a genre these days as the women simply look like they're in a film. 

With its emphasis on suspense from a telephone landline, it would be easy to write off Black Christmas as rather dated now. However nothing could be further from the truth. The basic ingredient of an unknown monster lurking in the shadows, harassing, stalking and terrorising young women continues to be topical and all too relatable  when you consider the online misogyny of trolls. And sadly, just like anyone who has had to fight to get their harassment acknowledged online, it takes our heroines a hell of a long time to be taken seriously by the police or indeed the community at large.

Out On Blue Six Christmas: Thea Gilmore

End Transmission

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Wanker of the Week: David Morris

Wanker of the week this week goes to the Conservative MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale, David Morris

My local news programme Granada Reports has been showing several reports for the past few weeks about child poverty in the area. Doctors are reporting an increase in rickets, working parents say they can't make ends meet, schools reveal that children are coming in of a morning having had no breakfast and in clothes that require washing in the school washing machine. Viewers have donated clothes, food, toys in their droves but Childrens Minister Robert Goodwill (what an ironic name) refuses to come onto the programme to discuss it, even when Granada Reports viewers took to twitter to demand Goodwill appear to defend his position.

Enter David Morris who took the bullet for Goodwill last night and went online and rubbished the reports as false, before appearing on Granada Reports tonight to claim that their reports were 'politically motivated', arguing that they must be false as he's never once been made aware of any poverty issues, and stating that he believes the headmasters and teachers of these schools are members of the Labour party and Momentum out to discredit the Tory government. By doing this, he actually introduced the idea that this was a political gambit and then went on to claim that he had the right to dodge the issue because he wasn't interested in making it a 'political jamboree'!

Thank goodness his insulting comments have been met with the criticism and derision they deserve, both by Granada Reports presenter Lucy Meacock and by those who replied to his tweet - all of whom point out that he deletes comments regarding austerity from his FB page and then blocks that user. He's clearly unrepentant and unwilling to accept that his party's austerity measures (which he has a record of voting unanimously in favour of) are having a detrimental effect on people, anyone who says otherwise is just a left wing propagandist. For the record Mr Morris, I am both a member of the Labour Party and Momentum, but that has nothing to do with it: I think anyone, irrespective of their politics, would be rightly appalled and angry, demanding action, when faced with such extreme examples of poverty and neglect. Shame on you, and all your Tory cronies.

What a wanker.

Out On Blue Six Christmas: Chris Rea

Another Christmas classic. Hope Chris gets well soon

End Transmission

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Rita, Sue and Bob Too Is Too Controversial For London

Just a couple of months ago I had the great pleasure and privilege of seeing the revival of Andrea Dunbar's play Rita, Sue and Bob Too at the Liverpool Everyman.

Today it has been announced that the Out of Joint Theatre Company production will no longer end its national tour at London's Royal Court in light of the company director Max Stafford-Clark's resignation following allegations of sexual harassment. A joint statement from Out of Joint and the Royal Court has been released; 

"The departure of Max Stafford-Clark from Out of Joint and the recent allegations in the media have coincided with Royal Court's response to the spotlight on our industry and the rigorous interrogation of our own practices. On our stage we recently heard 150 stories of sexual harassment and abuse therefore the staging of this work,with its themes of grooming and abuses of power on young women, on that same stage now feels highly conflictual"

I have to say I am deeply disappointed by this decision. It may come from a very sympathetic and well meaning place but it doesn't mean it is the right thing to do. Plays are there to make people think and removing a contentious play from the season at a time when he subject matter is at its most relevant is, to my mind, a very simple and somewhat appeasing solution to a situation that demands attention and discussion. This decision feels like a rejection of the authentic voice of a truly great and original playwright who dared to write about real life issues that she personally experienced. To censor those who shine a light on the truth is not how anyone should deal with those who instigate abuse or treat young women in an exploitative manner. 

But most of all I feel it is a terrible decision for the extremely talented cast and production team who have done nothing but entertain audiences and bring plays to the people, yet they are being punished for the actions of their former company director. I think it is a great pity that their hard work and commitment has been treated in such a manner and I think it a real shame that there are audiences out there who will not have the opportunity to see a truly remarkable revival of an '80s classic that really deserved attention and acclaim. 

A theatre is not meant to be a safe space. The stage is not an area where concerns and issues are to be shied away from, it ought to be the home of unpalatable truths and a place to provoke thought, reaction and comment. Entertainment doesn't have to be disposable fluff, and the Royal Court need to realise that.  

Pulp (1972)

My actual review of this underappreciated quirky gem that reunited Michael Caine with Mike Hodges, the writer/director of Get Carter and its producer Michael Klinger, can be found at The Geek Show. So I'll just fill the space here with the fan letter JG Ballard sent to Hodges about the film:

“Pulp is a special favourite of mine – I must have watched my tape a dozen times, or more – a wonderfully witty script, and the brilliant attention to detail, as in Get Carter – so many superb performances, like the typing pool manager, or Caine himself, Lionel Stander and Al Lettieri. Lizabeth Scott was never better, and of course best of all was the great Mickey Rooney, totally unappreciated by film critics – you drew a fantastic performance out of him, which can’t have been easy – I love the scene of his dressing, moving layers of flattering mirrors past himself – I take my hat off – “A tip – don’t stand too close to him” – a great film.”

Monday, 11 December 2017

RIP Keith Chegwin

Another day, and the announcement of yet another truly shocking and surprising celebrity death - Keith Chegwin, gone at 60. 

Now obviously you don't expect people to live forever, but there's something almost unbelievable about hearing the news that the endlessly upbeat scouser known affectionately as 'Cheggers' has died. Like Richard Herring said about Terry Wogan, it's hard to imagine a world in which such mainstays are no longer a pop-cultural cornerstone, flickering away on the box in the corner of the room. But the awful truth is that Cheggers has died, at the age of 60 from a long battle with the progressively degenerative lung condition idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. In a way, a part of childhood has died with him too.

Because, with shows like Swap Shop, Saturday Superstore and Cheggers Plays Pop, Keith Chegwin was your childhood. And perhaps more than any other entertainer, Cheggers adapted with the times and reflected your life as you grew older. He had of course started out as a child actor, appearing in productions from the Children's Film Foundation, as Fleance in Roman Polanski's acclaimed Macbeth, opposite Peter Sellers in The Optimist of Nine Elms and in TV series such as Open All Hours, Village Hall, The Liver Birds, Z Cars and The Whackers. But it was the move into presenting around the mid 1970s, that Cheggers made his name. He was there for you every Saturday morning when you were a kid both in the gaudy glow of the 1970s and in the sparkle and shine of the 1980s, performing outside broadcasts up and down the land, helping children to swap their toys and games. And then, as you found yourself headed into your teen years and your twenties in the '90s, he rode the wave of the ironic tide and successfully reinvented himself without even moving away from his self appointed kingdom of morning TV. As you roused yourself from slumber for lessons and lectures, there he was surprising one and all in The Big Breakfast's 'Down Your Doorstep' segment, and later even presenting the show alongside Gaby Roslin and Zoe Ball, a surprise promotion when '90s zeitgeist wunderkid Chris Evans resigned.

When time was called on The Big Breakfast and the show ended, he simply took the format and moved seamlessly across to ITV to do it all over again for GMTV, his perpetually chirpy demeanour whisking you off to work. What's surprising about this ever-reliable, ever-reimagining fixture of our lives is that Chegwin achieved it all after overcoming alcoholism in the late '80s and early '90s.

In later years, Chegwin fully embraced the role of cheesy celebrity and the boost social media like Twitter afforded him. Having hosted Channel 5's revival of It's a Knockout and even appearing naked for the channel's nudist gameshow The Naked Jungle, he began to take part in several reality TV competitions such as Celebrity Big Brother (finishing fourth) Dancing on Ice and Celebrity Masterchef, as well as quizzes like The Chase and Pointless Celebrities. His ability to poke fun at himself and embrace the irony led to him starring as himself in a series of productions from the comedy slasher film Kill Keith to Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant series Extras and Life's Too Short, the latter of which he formed an unusual comedic trio with Les Dennis and Shaun Williamson. 

A true entertainer, he'll be much missed. 


Sunday, 10 December 2017

Out On Blue Six Christmas: The Pretenders/KT Tunstall/The Unthanks

It's that time of year again! It's time to start the festive countdown with some Christmas hits, starting with one of my favourite Christmas songs - one that means more to me with each passing year I think because, the older I get, the more Christmas reminds me of the people who made the Christmases of our past who sadly can't be around for each new one. As I've said previously, what surprises many about 2000 Miles is it's actually more about death than the festivities.

And here's two cover versions; one from KT Tunstall and one from The Unthanks

End Transmission

Friday, 8 December 2017

No Escape (2015)

"What are you? British CIA?" Owen Wilson asks Pierce Brosnan at one point in this rather '70s throwback 'political' actioner. Are you fucking kidding me, Owen Wilson? Surely even a dumb Texan knows what MI6 is and surely you can see that that's James Bond you're talking to?! 

No Escape (what a rotten generic title), the story of an American family caught up in a coup in an unnamed country in South-East Asia, may have picked up the baton in action stakes from Taken and the like but it is, as I say, quite '70s in its psyche and, as such it's been labelled xenophobic. That's OK, the '70s were quite xenophobic: if you couldn't get there via a package holiday then it was a dangerous backwater full of inhuman, cannibalistic murderers who hated 'the white man', right? Of course, it's funny to see a country full of these cliched ruthlessly inscrutable, 'fiendish orientals' attack white western visitors at a time when hate crimes against foreigners and those seeking asylum are repeatedly on the rise in western countries. But hey, the film does at least attempt to criticise the West's involvement in the development of Third World countries via a confessional from Brosnan's intelligence operative.

Still, the blatant xenophobia isn't as funny as seeing Owen Wilson lob his infant daughters off a roof in slo-mo. There really was something unintentionally hilarious and yet at the same time effective in a heart-in-mouth tense way about those sequences. But the unwanted humour of it all just about edged it, unfortunately...right down to the ultra-polite guy just standing by waiting for Wilson's family to escape ahead of him.  Of course, maybe it doesn't help that it is old wonky nosed Wilson in this role of the average joe who has to draw on inner reserves of strength to secure his family's safety. I'm not sure I've really seen Owen Wilson play it straight before, certainly not in an action role (I know he did that one with Gene Hackman years ago, but I never watched it), but he's  nonetheless surprisingly effective in it. Normally such a role might have gone to Brad Pitt or various other Pitt-alikes, but its fitting that it is actually Wilson because, when his character says "I invented a valve", you actually believe that Owen Wilson may be capable of doing such a mundane yet effective thing, unlike Pitt or that guy off The Mentalist, the kind of handsome buff actor you would imagine was on the wish list ahead of Wilson. 

Equally surprising is the inclusion of Lake Bell as Wilson's wife although I have seen her in one dramatic action role prior to this - Black Rock. Unfortunately, No Escape doesn't give Bell much opportunity for kicking ass (certainly not as much as Black Rock did) which is a shame as the notion of her as a lioness protecting her cubs is a promising one. 

Character-wise this is pretty pants really. The family are really sketchily drawn and both Wilson and Bell have little to make their mark upon beyond moving the plot along from one tense moment to the next. There's the suggestion of a backstory and some fault line in their marriage; Wilson seems a little bit of a prat, being both needy enough to seek approval yet at the same time single-handedly feeling he knows that what's best for his family is to uproot them from the US to far flung Asia. There's a moment when Lake Bell has a little cry by herself on their first night in the hotel room and Wilson, rather selfishly, expects her to massage his ego even though she's clearly struggling with her own thing, but none of this is followed through - the characters simply don't develop, they're just there as audience ciphers as we vicariously witness the fraught action through them.

And lastly, there's Brosnan. Now, my hatred of Brosnan as Bond is well known but I actually don't mind him that much in his other roles, even those that clearly give a nod to his most famous performance. I think it's because he's far more acceptable as a faux Bond than he ever was as the real deal. Here, he returns to the cockney intonations of his duplicitous MI6 agent from The Tailor of Panama, but this time he sports a beard. It's not a subtle performance (but hey, it's not a subtle film) and he actually put me rather unfortunately in mind of the time when Michael Crawford donned a beard and a cockney accent to star in Chalk and Cheese, his ill advised, unsuccessful and now rightly forgotten follow up to Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, but it is nonetheless a spirited and effective, slightly extended, cameo - and a cameo really is all it is, despite him featuring prominently in the credits and poster etc.  But I can't help feeling the film would have benefitted from an authentic Londoner in the role - just imagine what Tim Roth could have done with it, for example.

No Escape isn't bin juice as such, it's perfectly entertaining enough, it's just deeply disposable, silly and pretty forgettable. If it turns up on Channel 5 (as I'm sure it will) it's worth a watch, but nothing more.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

The News Is You're Not Funny Anymore

OK, bit of a sacred cow this one, but let's talk about Have I Got News For You and why it simply isn't funny any more.

Let me be honest, I grew up with Have I Got News For You. First broadcast in the autumn of 1990, when I was just eleven years old, the series was perhaps the first or among the first to show me that you could be funny about serious issues. Have I Got News For You, or HIGNFY as it is abbreviated, moved from BBC2 to BBC1 in 2000 and lost its original presenter in 2002, when Angus Deayton was forced to leave when his private life of drugs and paying for sex became the news. This was the second time the line up had changed in the show's history (Merton having previously briefly left the show for a series in 1996 because he was tired of the format and believed himself to be 'stuck in a rut') and for the last fifteen years the show has been helmed by a different guest host each week. There have been 54 series of the show so far.

And doesn't it feel like it?

I haven't watched the show now for a couple of series. I got tired of watching Hislop gurn and moan at the near-the-knuckle gags the guest host had to read off the autocue (especially if they're ever to do with the Royal family - he's a blatant royalist) as if they were nothing to do with him and were deserving of his withering contempt, or the blatant disinterest Merton has for the show and some of the hosts it employs each week (he's particularly disgruntled and aloof whenever Frankie Boyle appears). I think the last resort was actually when Merton subjected German comedian Henning Wehn to a series of 'jokes' relating to WWII and Hitler. Um, it's a topical comedy news quiz Paul. The stuff you're making gags about was last topical sixty years ago, and it's actually kind of racist to continue to do it now. Likewise, the trailer for the last series which featured Hislop and Merton heavily dubbed in English speaking 'comedy' Russian, demanding 'vodka' and praising Putin. It's like the 1970s all over again.

I can't really blame Merton for his obvious disinterest (well actually I can, he's getting paid to sit there!) because HIGNFY has become deeply tired. I'd have more respect for him if he actually returned to the principles he held 21 years ago and took a break from the show, rather than sit there week in, week out looking so utterly bored and believing that wearing a cravat is hilarious and a worthwhile contribution to the programme. Paul, it's not.

When it started, HIGNFY was fresh and populated by daring young satirists and comedians who were happy to take potshots at the establishment and the status quo. But Ian Hislop is 57 now and Merton is 60: they are the establishment now, and the cosy, out of touch boys club they have cultivated down the years was never more obvious than in this latest series when guest host Jo Brand had to slap the all male panel down and point out that, actually, sexual harrassment allegations aren't funny and they must be taken seriously. It made the show watchable...for all the wrong reasons.

And that's another issue that really bugs me: since the BBC edict that all panel shows must contain at least one woman per episode, HIGNFY has consistently ensured it does the very least to get by. If a woman is hosting, then it's usually the case that the other two guests sitting beside Hislop and Merton will be male. Granted, it's not always the case, but 9 times out of 10 it most definitely is, and that stinks. Like a lot of the BBC's output in terms of news and comedy, HIGNFY is now totally behind the times. Created in the '90s, HIGNFY was definitely of its time. It's born into Blairism; the disgust of Thatcherism and the optimism of something better, but just like Blairism, it has had its day. It's no longer relevant, its woefully middle class and it holds a sneering contempt for anything else. In the '90s it spoke to teenagers and young people, but I doubt it does now. Most young people can see through the bias and snobbery it holds for new ideas and developments as it toes the BBC party line of how they're the only news outlet you can trust, that 'Corbyn is deluded', 'Russia is corrupt and bad', and 'Scottish independence is a silly idea'. And yes we all know Trump's an idiot, but we need something more satirical surely than people just parroting that?

It's the same with Private Eye, Hislop's 'day job'. In 1986, Hislop acceded Richard Ingrams to the role of editor when it was felt the the magazine needed new blood. At that time, Ingrams had been the magazine's only editor since its inception in 1961. Hislop's tenure has overtaken Ingrams' by six years now. There are many really good politically astute and intelligent comedians out there just now (Sara Pascoe and Josie Long immediately spring to mind) but they're not getting the opportunity to make a name for themselves with their own show because the old guard refuses to make way. We live in a confusing age of political turbulence and unrest in which the UK entertainment industry seems desperate to create its defining satirical comment to rival anything that Stephen Colbert and John Oliver are doing stateside. The 10 O'Clock Show, The Nightly Show, The Fake News Show and The MASH Report have all tried to do this, with some mixed to terrible results, but it's only the stale HIGNFY that continues to survive. And what is it's legacy? HIGNFY is the show that has helped cultivate the commercial appeal of odious Tory MP's like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, happily giving them the limelight because the image they chose to present audiences appears 'funny' rather than dangerous, which in reality is what they truly are. 

It's time this programme was put out to pasture. It won't be of course, because the BBC are content to flog a dead horse when they know that its longevity means it will always have an audience rather than attempt to produce something new.

POW Double Bill: The Camp on Blood Island (1958) The Secret of Blood Island (1964)

Mention Hammer Films to anyone and the first thing that comes to mind is horror. But Hammer were actually responsible for a variety of film genres and styles and in the late '50s and early '60s they produced two war movies that proved to be as  spine chilling and unflinching as anything they produced featuring Dracula or Frankenstein's Monster. These films were 1958's The Camp On Blood Island, and its 1964 sequel, The Secret of Blood Island.

"Never before  has any film portrayed with such honesty and accuracy, the tormented sufferings, brutality, heroism, and degradation that were the lot of the POW under his demonic slave masters, the Japanese. I believe everyone in the so-called civilised world should see this magnificent picture, absorb and digest it, and realise that this could happen again. For the animal minds of our former captors will never change and all ex-POWs know this"

So wrote the journalist Leo Rawlings on the release of Hammer's hit 1958 movie, The Camp on Blood Island. Strong words, but perhaps understandably so given his own experiences as a POW in Singapore.

Unfortunately there hasn't been any mainstream or widespread ability to take Rawlings' advice and see, absorb and digest the film for thirty-eight years now. Despite The Camp On Blood Island being televised in Britain on a handful of occasions throughout the 1970s, the film that was one of the most popular hits in British cinema in 1958, has effectively been banned from our screens since 1979, presumably (and at the risk of sounding like an uber twunt Farage-a-like here) on the grounds of political correctness. Granted, it's trying and deeply regrettable to see so many white British actors (Ronald Radd, Lee Montague and, perhaps least convincing of all, Michael Ripper!) don offensive make-up and accents to play Japanese soldiers but, given that so many of the films of this era indulged in such dubious casting and still manage to get broadcast today, one is left to wonder if the real bone of contention is in fact the light in which the Japanese are portrayed in the film. Hammer certainly live up to their reputation for X rated filmmaking here, depicting the cold blooded executions and brutal torture of British POWs at the hands of their captors in an unflinching manner (along with the same lashings of 'Kensington gore' they indulged in for their horror output), but the film's truth - it's wholly unempathetic and hardline depiction of the Japanese forces - isn't in any way different from any number of Japanese POW films, from the recent Unbroken and The Railway Man right the way back to this film's more contemporary stablemate, David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai, which is rightly regarded as a classic. Perhaps there's another reason then why this rattlingly good film, an ostensible Hammer 'B movie', hasn't seen the light of day for almost forty years - snobbery?

The film was said to have been based on a true story that Hammer's Anthony Nelson Keys had heard from someone who had been a Japanese POW. Seeing the potential for a movie, Keys took the story to Michael Carreras who commissioned a script from John Manchip White. The film went into production in the summer of 1957 with Val Guest as director and boasts an impressive cast, including André Morell (who also starred in Lean's POW epic) as the senior British officer, Carl Möhner, Barbara Shelley and the perpetually pained looking Richard Wordsworth, the star of Hammer's The Quatermass Xperiment, as a deeply convincing near-starved and heroic prisoner.

Unfortunately, whilst The Camp on Blood Island proved to be a neglected gem, its sequel, The Secret of Blood Island, most emphatically isn't.

This belated offering from Hammer came some six years after the success of their first foray to Blood Island and has proved to be equally little seen since its release; indeed, I can't find any transmission details for this one at all on BBC Genome (though it may have appeared on ITV as some reviewers on IMDB recall watching it on TV at least once in the '70s) Unlike its predecessor, it has not been released to DVD, making it all the more scarce, but it is available to watch online. Rather than a sequel, which would have been difficult given The Camp on Blood Island is set as the war ends, The Secret of Blood Island is, in fact, a prequel set around a year earlier. Filmed in colour, it stars a handful of actors from the original film but, confusingly, they are playing completely different characters. Those returning included Barbara Shelley, Edwin Richfield, Lee Montague and Michael Ripper.

Unfortunately, the whole film is simply ill advised. The original film was said to have been based on a true story related to the production team at Hammer by a former POW and, whilst the veracity of such a claim could be doubted, what wasn't in any doubt was the intentions behind such a film; The Camp On Blood Island may have been, to quote one critic, the examination of an open wound in Post War Britain,  but it was one that was perhaps required. This film may have toned the brutality down a little, but there's no denying its exploitative credentials as it is clearly a cash-in with so little to say as evinced by the unconvincing and dumb narrative from screenwriter John Gilling.

Barbara Shelley takes centre stage as an SOE agent shot down over Malaya and discovered by a work party of British POWs who agree to hide her in the camp until she's able to continue on with her mission. Quite how Shelley is meant to evade recognition by their Japanese captors with the sole disguise of an elfin cut and side-parting care of the camp barber is beyond me! Nevertheless, it's up to the likes of Jack Hedley, Charles Tingwell and Bill 'Compo' Owen, along with the aforementioned returnees Richfield and Montague, to ensure the game isn't up. Presiding over them is the camp commandant played  by Patrick Wymark - and if you thought Ronald Radd's heavily made up turn in the previous film was offensive and unbelievable, just wait until you see Wymark - and Michael Ripper as his sadistic lieutenant. Quite why Ripper was 'promoted' when his turn as a Japanese soldier was so laughably unconvincing in the first film is beyond me, but to his credit he has improved a little with this more central role and is leaps ahead of Wymark.

The film was directed by Quentin Lawrence, who has none of the skill of The Camp On Blood Island's helmer, Val Guest in the same way that Gilling has none of that earlier film's author Jon Manchip White's flair for telling such a story. I'd also quibble over the decision to place the end of the film at the front in the form of a pre-credit sequence, which adds nothing and effectively gives away everything. Unlike it's predecessor, this film failed to make much of an impact with audiences and so its retreat into relative obscurity is no real loss.

RIP Christine Keeler

Christine Keeler, the woman who arguably tipped the pendulum that commenced the swinging decade of the 1960s, has died at the age of 75. 

As a young model and the protege of society osteopath Stephen Ward, Keeler was the girl at the heart of the Profumo affair that subsequently demolished Macmillan's scandal rocked government. It was notoriety, rather than fame, that swiftly followed Keeler following her lover John Profumo's resignation and Ward's immoral earnings trial, and it was notoriety that continued to dog her for the rest of her life. 

I have blogged about Keeler, Profumo and Ward several times down the years (see here) as it's long been a subject that has fascinated me. The news today that she passed away from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease came just a little over a week after Profumo made the news once more, when declassified MI5 files which revealed that the disgraced MP had had an affair with German model, Gisela Winegard, a Nazi spy in the early 1930s. It's ironic that, given how Profumo and Keeler's names and fates are forever intertwined, her death should arrive just days after one more revelation from her former lover who passed away eleven years ago. It was a fate Keeler certainly paid a hefty price for; broken marriages, estranged family, and scarce employment (she was sacked from the position of school dinner lady when a headmaster learned her real identity) all added to her woes. In later years she lived as a virtual recluse, often donning disguises to preserve her anonymity and keep out of the spotlight.

A victim of her time whose main crime was simply to be Christine Keeler, I hope she's at peace now.


Monday, 4 December 2017

Cluub Zarathustra (1996)

Imagine, if you will, that Big Brother from Michael Radford's version of Nineteen Eighty Four put on a comic cabaret to entertain the masses. Are you imagining it? That, ladies and gents, is Cluub Zarathustra, a Channel 4 pilot from 1996 that has never been broadcast.

Cluub Zarathustra has to be the single most important and influential movement in comedy of the 1990s. Without it, there would be no The Mighty Boosh, Smack The Pony, Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle, Jerry Springer - The Opera, Johnny Vegas, Harry Hill, Al Murray's Pub Landlord, or Jam. And yet it remains a deeply overlooked cultural (or cuultuural?) landmark. One of comedies greatest kept secrets.

Developed by Simon Munnery, Roger Mann and Stewart Lee as a Dadaist comedy club night at The Market Tavern, Cluub Zarathustra ran from 1994 to 1997, spurned traditional stand-up comedy in favour of the surreal and absurd (their creedo was 'we aim to fascinate, not entertain', and as such you were more likely to see The Actor Kevin Eldon dressed in oilclothes and measuring the room, reporting each measurement into a dictaphone than anything resembling a traditional joke) and was presided over by Munnery, in character as his self-aggrandising, deluded and weedy tyrant The League Against Tedium. The likes of Mann, Lee, Eldon, Sally Phillips, Richard Thomas, Lori Lixenberg and Julian Barratt performed alongside Munnery as his faithful fascistic acolytes clad in black militaristic garb. The Cluub houseband was Evangelista, featuring Al Murray on drums, and guest spots were regularly taken up by the likes of Harry Hill and Johnny Vegas, the St Helens comic being the only performer to regularly receive payment for his efforts.  This was cult comedy performed as if it was a cult itself.

Following the Cluub's first excursion to Edinburgh in 1995, Channel 4 commissioning editor Seamus Cassidy enticed the cabaret to make this pilot; a twenty-one minute futurist extravaganza filmed at Ealing studios on a vast stage surrounded by Z banners and emblems and a giant ever watchful projection of The League's face, Big Brother-style, his eyes swivelling around the room. At any given command, The League could invoke rapturous applause from his devoted and clearly faked audience, deeming the real audience surplus to requirements and beneath contempt. Between his proclamations came testimonies from The League's cult, a beret-wearing Roger Mann and Sally Phillips attesting to the fact that, before discovering the Cluub, they had a 'withered leg' or were 'bald'. As they speak, the silhouette of a pacing, demanding Munnery can be seen, ensuring their praise of him and the Cluub is suitably effusive. Master storyteller Edgar Allan Poo ascends to the stage from the hidden depths below, amidst impressive pyrotechnics, whilst Lori Lixenburg appears as a 20ft tall steel Valkyrie known as 'The Opera Device' singing insults to France and Germany. The pilot cost £120,000 to make, big money in 1996, but still not enough: the pilot fizzles out with the legend 'INSERT MORE MONEY', the brainchild of Stewart Lee and an unashamed begging bowl for any potential series to follow. 

The series was not to be, indeed the pilot was not even broadcast, and as such Cluub Zarathustra as a televisual experience remains a tantalising missed opportunity. Several of those involved cite the transition from cabaret night to TV production itself as being problematic and near impossible. Munnery felt the performers were too removed from the audience to make the pilot a success, whilst Cassidy, in Robert Wringham's excellent book on the Cluub, You Are Nothing, cites the decision to make it so big a production took away some of the magic that made Cluub Zarathustra a success in the first place; "For me, the joke was always that Simon was the annoying bloke who sat down beside you on the bus, only he'd actually managed to get it together and start this embryonic messianic cult. when they dressed him up in Victorian kit, and had a massive set, and a soprano in metal Brunnhilde gear, I wasn't at all convinced". It's true that something is altered when you take the inherent ramshackle live experience to the screen and the essential joke that originated in such a shambolic incubator surrounding the scum-baiting League and his loyal, brainwashed followers does seem a little lost when portrayed with a big budget, but Cluub Zarathustra remains a startlingly good and radically different example of TV comedy. See for yourself:

And then weep at the realisation that this is all we have. And then cheer that the BBC did commission Attention Scum! five years later. And then weep that they didn't recommission it. And then rinse and repeat until satisfied.

Out On Blue Six: The Beatles/Elbow

One segment of a classic medley from Abbey Road has been given a new lease of life by Elbow for this year's John Lewis advert. Here are both versions to compare and contrast

End Transmission

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

RIP Bill Cashmore

I have just heard from Stewart Lee's latest mailshot that Bill Cashmore passed away on the 9th of November, aged just 56. Cashmore may not have been a household name, but anyone with a keen interest in comedy in the '90s and '00s will recognise his face from his appearances on Lee and Herring's Fist of Fun, and The Day Today and Brass Eye with Chris Morris. More recently, Cashmore entered the world of politics and stood as the Green Party candidate for Chelsea and Fulham at the last election, as you can see in the campaign photo below.

Cashmore's career started out, like many of his contemporaries (including Nick Hancock and David Baddiel) at Cambridge Footlights. From there he appeared in several landmark comedies of the 1990s, as well as straight roles in The Bill, All Creatures Great and Small (as cricketer Fred Trueman, pictured below) Casualty, and Kavanagh QC.

Cashmore also worked in children's TV, writing and performing sketches on the Saturday morning show Gimme 5 and appearing in the 8th series of the cult children's quiz series Knightmare in 1994, where he played several roles; the menacing Snapper Jack the fool taker (pictured below), Honesty Bartram the potion dealer and Bhal-Shebah the Red Dragon, which he provided the voice for. 

He was also a travel writer with columns in The Spectator and The Sunday Telegraph and a noted playwright, having penned the award winning Daughter,  the much staged Trip of a Lifetime, and An Everyday Actor. His play Him, Her and Them was due to transfer to London's Finbrough theatre at the time of Cashmore's death which came about following an aortic dissection earlier this month.  

Here is one of Cashmore's most famous appearances on Fist of Fun, appearing as The Man in the 'The Tortoise and The Man' sketch from series 1


Monday, 27 November 2017

Theme Time: The Sanderson Pitch - Man Stroke Woman

This takes me back. Man Stroke Woman was a fine BBC3 sketch comedy series featuring an impressive ensemble cast consisting of Nick Frost, Daisy Haggard, Nicholas Burns, Amanda Abbington, Ben Crompton and Meredith MacNeill. The series was directed by Richard Cantor and produced by Ash Atalla, who had just come from The Office. The show ran for two series from 2005 to 2007 and was innovative and fresh enough to break away from most sketch show conventions by containing no laugh track or studio audience and centring mostly around a general theme of relationships, as the show's website put it:

Some people think men are from Mars and women from Venus. Well, this show pits the two together and turns it into sketch comedy. Acted by a troupe of 20 to 30 somethings, the situations all strike close to home, but with a more extreme and comedic bent.

I recently picked up both series on DVD quite cheaply for plenty of laughs and nostalgic feels. Chief among those feels was the show's beautiful theme tune from an unsigned band called The Sanderson Pitch. Back when the show was airing in the mid 00s, the band had a Myspace page and I got quite friendly  with them, chatting back and forth and professing my love for the theme tune, which was entitled Dive. It really is a beautiful song...

Unfortunately, The Sanderson Pitch never got the big success they clearly deserved. The cast of the show have fared much better though, with Amanda Abbington and Nick Frost having both gone on to become household names (though admittedly Frost had already done Spaced and Shaun of the Dead prior to making the show). The rest of the troupe all continue to work regularly; Daisy Haggard continues to be a familiar and beautiful face on our screens, most recently having starred in the hit comedy series Episodes, whilst Nicholas Burns has appeared in Benidorm and in the title role of Nathan Barley, as well as the films The Lady In The Van and The World's End, which reunited him with Frost. Meredith MacNeill starred in the films Confetti and FAQ About Time Travel and appeared as Merry in Peep Show before returning to her native Canada where she now stars in the all-girl Baroness Von Sketch Show. Meanwhile Ben Crompton has starred in several seasons of Game of Thrones as Eddison Tollet, appeared in Ben Wheatley's cult film Kill List and was most recently in an episode of BBC2's very funny Motherland. For me however, he'll forever be Colin, the scally who is perpetually on probation in the BBC3 sitcom Ideal

You can check out several sketches from Man Stroke Woman on YouTube, including this one which also features a pre-fame Miranda Hart

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

RIP Derek 'Red Robbo' Robinson

A belated obituary for British Leyland trade union leader Derek Robinson who passed away on the 31st of October at the age of 90. 

A titan of the trade union movement and a familiar figure in the 1970's, the Morning Star today featured a very good obituary piece from Graham Stevenson, Andy Chaffer and George Hickman, which you can read by clicking here.


Rodney Bewes, Mike Hugg and Jimi Hendrix? A Theme Time Special

Following the death of Rodney Bewes yesterday, an anecdote he once shared with Richard Herring has surprisingly come to light; did he once jam with Jimi Hendrix?

As you'll see from Herring's Metro article (click on the link above) Bewes - admittedly no stranger to embellishment - claimed that Hendrix poked his head around the studio door that housed Bewes and Likely Lads songwriter Mike Hugg and asked if he could join them and play on the theme to Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? It's a great story, but it's impossible as not only was Hendrix was dead by then, Bewes wasn't even involved in the theme tune anyway. But, as Herring argues, had Bewes misremembered? Was he really thinking of the psychedelic theme he and Hugg wrote for his overlooked sitcom Dear Mother...Love Albert?

Dear Mother...Love Albert was a sitcom written by Bewes himself based on the letters he wrote his mother back home in the north of England. Bewes starred as Albert Courtney (a nod to his good friend Tom Courtenay?) who moves to London to work in a confectionery company and shares a flat with two girls, finding love with Doreen (played first by Liz Gebhardt and later Cheryl Hall). His letters home are prone to exaggeration (as was Bewes himself in real life, as we have seen). The series ran from 1969 to 1972, but only three series exist as the first was wiped by Thames TV. Hugg and Bewes' theme tune was memorably groovy with the leading man relying on a bottle of port to give him the confidence to get the vocals down. But was Hendrix really there? Have a listen and see what you think...

Out On Blue Six: Grace Petrie

Since seeing her on the Lefty Scum bill, I've become quite besotted with the talents of Grace Petrie. Here's the video for How Long Has It Been? (The Topshop Song). It may be one of her non political songs, but it is still a lovely showcase of her songwriting and vocalist skills. Accompanied by Caitlin Field. Enjoy...

End Transmission

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

RIP Rodney Bewes

I'm truly saddened to hear of the death of another entertainment figure who had the ability to seem so familiar and relatable to us all, Rodney Bewes, who has passed away just days ahead of his 80th birthday. Coming so soon after Keith Barron, it feels like a kick in the teeth.

Hailing from Bingley, West Yorkshire, Bewes will forever be remembered for his performance as the aspirational but ever hapless Bob Ferris in Clement and La Frenais' The Likely Lads, it's subsequent follow up Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads and it's big screen spin-off. For my money, one of the greatest British sitcoms of all time. Bewes certainly felt so too, taking great pride in his association with the series - unlike the snobby attitude that his co-star James Bolam has regarding the show, which has seen him refuse repeats in the past, and continue to consider the show off limits for interviews to this day. Sadly Bewes and Bolam fell out over a misunderstanding after making the film version of the show which arguably stopped any more episodes being made and the rift sadly continued for the rest of Bewes' life. 

Bewes got arguably his first big break with a supporting role in the film Billy Liar, sharing the screen with his then real-life flatmate Tom Courtenay. It was a role that effectively led to him playing Bob Ferris, but away from The Likely Lads Bewes enjoyed a career that included the ITV sitcom Dear Mother...Love Albert, which he co-created and co-wrote with Derrick Goodwin, appeared as a sidekick to children's TV favourite Basil Brush and starred in the films Spring and Port Wine, San Ferry Ann, Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, The Three Musketeers, Saint Jack, Jabberwocky, The Spaceman and King Arthur and The Wildcats of St Trinian's and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore.  

The 1980s and '90s saw Bewes appear as a guest actor in series such as Doctor Who, were he played the conflicted Stien in the action-packed Peter Davison serial Resurrection of the Daleks, and the Jimmy Nail detective drama Spender, which returned him to Newcastle, home of The Likely Lads. Much of this latter stage in his career was preoccupied with theatre work, with Bewes appearing in Ray Cooney's farces such as Funny Money in the West End and touring one man shows of Rollerball, Three Men in a Boat and Diary of a Nobody in art centres, theatres and at the Edinburgh fringe. He wrote his autobiography, A Likely Story, in 2005 and is survived by his four children and two grandchildren.

RIP pet.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Out On Blue Six: Lissie

I guess you know you're getting old when you discover music via trails on BBC1, as often seems to be the case for me these days. The old muso of my youth would shake his head in dismay at me, he really would; he was all over this kind of thing like a tramp on a thrown away Meal Deal. Anyway, this one from Lissie is currently appearing on the trails for the BBC's new adaptation of Forster's Howards End, which I still haven't seen a single episode of yet as I am so behind with TV just now. Is it any good?

End Transmission

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Fact Meets Fiction: Jessie Eden and Peaky Blinders, Part 2

In episode four of season three of Peaky Blinders, there was a mention of Jessie Eden, the real-life Birmingham trade unionist and communist who made her name during the 1926 General Strike. I had previously blogged about this fact meeting fiction moment here, and saw that post gaining much traction in the last fortnight. Well, now I know why: Jessie Eden has become a regular character in the show, making her debut in the season four opening episode which was broadcast on Wednesday. 

Jessie Eden is played by Irish actress Charlie Murphy and her appearance has sparked a lot of interest in the real Jessie, as evinced by articles at Den of Geek and The Guardian, the latter of which features an interview with her daughter-in-law Andrea McCulloch, who had previously posted a message on my earlier blog post.

I was already looking forward to this new season but now, having watched the nail biting first episode and seen Murphy's performance as Eden, I'm looking forward to seeing how it all plays out even more! It's worth pointing out though that, as with the mention of Eden in the last series, writer/creator Steven Knight is playing fast and loose with history once more: Season four commences on Christmas, 1925 and at this point in her life, Jessie Shrimpton (as she was then known, Shrimpton being her maiden name) was only a shop steward of a small number of unionised members rather than the union leader they are depicting her as - that came much later, in 1931, when she led thousands of women out on a week long strike.

Still, it's good to see both an aspect of social and cultural history and a significant figure in trade union history be given the spotlight they have been unfairly kept away from for so long.