Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Up until the past couple of weeks, this was the only film from the acclaimed Polish director Andrzej Wajda's 'War Trilogy' that I'd ever seen. 1958's Ashes and Diamonds was the final chapter in the trilogy and I'd previously seen it as a teenager and had been rather bowled over by its depiction of the power vacuum that occurred in ravaged Poland during the final days of the Second World War.

Following Wajda's death earlier this month at the age of 90, I decided to have a bit of a binge on his films starting with the first two chapters in his War Trilogy that I hadn't seen, before rounding it off with this rewatch. I have to say, watching them as a whole, I've now changed my mind; Kanal, the second film, is to my mind the much stronger offering overall. But that's not to say that Ashes and Diamonds is anything other than the classic it is rightly regarded as, and it remains a superb example of 20th century Polish cinema.

The action takes place over the course of just 24 hours on the day that Germany signs their surrender. Faced with the prospect of peace, Poland is effectively in open season and, having spent the war under the Nazi jackboot, the mood in the Resistance is one of an understandable refusal to welcome a post-war future under an equally harsh regime of Communism from Russia. A charming and roguish young resistance fighter called Maciek (Zybigniew Cybulski) and his senior, in both age and rank, Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) have been ordered to lie in wait for a newly arriving Communist Party Secretary Szczuka (Waclaw Zastrzezynski) and his aide and to assassinate them on sight. Unfortunately, the assassins get the wrong men and two innocent civilians have been killed instead. 

Undeterred, Maciek and Andrzej catch up with their quarry and the former books a room at the hotel where the official is staying. As he waits for the right moment to make amends and complete his orders, Maciek meets and falls in love with the barmaid Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska). It is this unexpected connection with the girl leads him to reconsider his role in what has become an endless cycle of violence and potentially offer him a way out.

Wajda brilliantly mirrors Maciek's increasing life crisis and inner turmoil with the political and social context of Poland, with its uncertain future under the approaching Soviet rule. But cleverly Wajda doesn't just depict a black and white situation here, as the party official Szczuka appears to be to all intents and purposes a good man, who wants the best for his country and wishes to be reunited with his 17-year-old son, who has been captured by the authorities after fighting with the resistance in the uprising. There's also a good deal of satire and caustic commentary to be had about Poland's political turmoils, with party officials drinking too much and squabbling over their splendid banquets about who did what and who should get what as the city beyond lies in rat infested ruins and the aristocracy hatch their plans to leave and live in exile. It's also deeply symbolic, with some great visual motifs of fireworks and flames lighting the way through darkness.

What most people remember about Ashes and Diamonds is of course the extraordinarily charismatic star turn from Zybigniew Cybulski as Maciek. The film may be set in 1945, but Wajda et al made a conscious decision to depict their (anti) hero with the mood and fashions of the year it was made - 1958. Clad in army fatigues and wearing sunglasses almost constantly throughout (even at night) Maciek, and Cybulski's performance in turn, is a deliberate attempt to create a cultural film icon for Poland and was a style that was emulated by Polish teens for years to come. It is no surprise that Cybulski was known as 'The Polish James Dean' and, like his Hollywood counterpart, Cybulski too suffered a premature demise via a tragic accident; falling under the wheels of a train he had attempted to board in 1967. He was just 39 years old. Tragedy later struck Cybulski's co-star here too - Ewa Krzyzewska, who delivers a soulful, subtle and honest portrayal of the barmaid and potential saviour Krystyna, died in a car crash in 2003 at the age of 64.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Out On Blue Six : Bobby Vee, RIP

1960s pop idol Bobby Vee has lost his battle with Alzheimers at the age of 73. Vee had many classic hits such as Rubber Ball and The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, but this is the one I've picked to commemorate him - a favourite of mine... 


End Transmission

Sunday, 23 October 2016

RIP Jimmy Perry

And now for some more deeply sad news, comedy legend Jimmy Perry who, along with David Croft created and wrote the hit sitcoms  Dad's Army, It Ain't Half Hot Mum, Hi-De-Hi! and You Rang, M'Lord?, has passed away following a short illness at the age of 93.

His contribution to the comedy landscape of this country is vast. Simply put, he helped set a template for sitcom that is still adhered to to this very day, and Dad's Army and Hi-De-Hi! remain perennial favourites on BBC2; with the former airing every Saturday to healthy viewing figures that other modern day sitcoms would kill for, whilst the latter is once again part of the channel's retro afternoons on weekdays.

Perry, first on the right, in the Palace Theatre production of Doctor in The House. Perry also ran the Watford based theatre at this time and is seen here with fellow cast members John Newbury, Valerie Newbold, John Clegg (later to star in It Ain't Half Hot Mum) and, seated, Jill Hyem. Phot appears on Hyem's website.

Perry came to write Dad's Army primarily in order to secure himself an acting role. Having trained at RADA after the war, Perry was originally a thespian appearing in theatre but securing only played minor roles on TV - his dream - up until that point. He had earmarked the part of the spiv, Joe Walker, for himself but he was persuaded to take a step back for actor James Beck instead. The sitcom was based on Perry's own experiences in the Home Guard during the early days of the Second World War, as the writer was too young to join the forces.

The character of Private Pike was based on Perry, whilst many of the others were based on old soldiers he had known. He also wrote the show's theme tune, Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mr Hitler? Sung by Crazy Gang's Bud Flanagan, this was a spot-on pastiche of the morale boosting ditties of the day that many did not believe it was written especially for the show. It earned Perry a prestigious Ivor Novello award in 1971.

After a run of 80 episodes, Dad's Army came to a close and Perry and Croft turned their eye to another next project also set in wartime. It Ain't Half Hot Mum was based once again on Perry's experiences during the conflict, this time as a member of the Royal Artillery concert party touring India. Another hit, Perry was awarded the OBE in 1978 alongside his writing partner and friend, David Croft.

After the war, the demobbed Perry trained at RADA and performed in rep as well as a stint as a redcoat at Butlins. Once again, Perry's life experience would help shape another hit sitcom and in the 1980s Hi-De-Hi! was born. It ran for eight years and won a BAFTA in 1984 for Best Comedy. Perry's final sitcom with Croft was You Rang M'Lord, which ran for 1988 until 1993. A period comedy that made much use of the rep company Croft and Perry had come to establish across their three previous shows, and one which seemed to spoof Upstairs, Downstairs, Perry had once again mined reality for inspiration - this time the life of his grandfather, who had served as a butler in that era.

Away from Croft, Perry wrote three sitcoms, The Gnomes of Dulwich in 1969 for the BBC, which was a curious satire on the Common Market, and two for ITV in the '70s and '80s, Room Service and High Street Blues, but none of these were well received. 

Earlier this year Perry was seen to give his blessing to the somewhat misguided big screen adaptation of Dad's Army by attending the film premiere, as well as criticising Boris Johnson and the Leave camp's campaign to become independent of the EU. Last Christmas Paul Ritter played Perry in the BBC's dramatisation of the making of Dad's Army, We're Doomed. Like the Dad's Army film, this was not something I personally enjoyed, but I guess its heart was in the right place.

I have laughed so many times watching something by Jimmy Perry, be it Dad's Army, Hi-De-Hi, It Ain't Half Hot Mum or You Rang, M'Lord?, everyone of them was a classic and we owe him a great deal of thanks for making the world a happier place, filled with laughter.


Kanal (1956)

Kanal is the late Andrzej Wajda's second instalment in his war trilogy (my review of the first, A Generation, can be found here) Beginning on the 25th of September, 1944 and the 56th day of Warsaw Uprising, which lasted from 1 August to 2 October 1944. The Polish Home Armies campaign featured some intense fighting, but was ultimately unsuccessful, with massacres carried out by the SS causing the deaths of some 10,000 armed insurgents and possibly as much as 200,000 Polish civilians. With such sobering historical fact in mind, it is only right that Wajda's tale is a bleak, harrowing and horrifying saga of blind hope, courage, fatalism, tragedy and poor luck.

Wajda opens his tale with Jerzy Lipman's beautiful tracking shot through the rubble-strewn streets that introduces us to the key players, the resistance fighters and Home Army soldiers, who are attempting to hold their Nazi adversaries back, whilst at the same time commencing a tactical retreat towards the supposed safety of the centre of Warsaw via the city's underground sewers (the 'canal' or 'Kanal' of the title).  But a shadow already looms large over our band of brothers, as the film's narrator informs us: 'watch them carefully in the last hours of their lives'. We know that a happy ending does not await anyone here, not our leader Lieutenant Zadra (Wienczyslaw Glinski) or his second in command, Lieutenant Madry (Emil Karewicz) nor the lovers Korab (Tadeusz Janczar) and Daisy (Teresa Izewska) or the artist and musician Michael (Vladek Sheybal - and how good it is to see him play something other than the weaselly KGB spy he was so often typecast as in English Language productions) Their fates have been sealed from the off. 

Kanal is a film of two halves - the first sets up the group's relationships and dynamics and sees them fending off attacks from within derelict, battle scarred buildings, whilst the second tracks their perilous and ill-fated journey through the sewers. Naturally once we reach this second act all hope rapidly ebbs away and Wajda's comparison with the sewers to Dante's Inferno is obvious, even before the educated Michael alludes to it. Once the film goes underground, the atmosphere changes to a dark (literally) and claustrophobic psychological horror, with the sense of tension and foreboding being increasingly ratcheted up with every hopeless waded turn through the filth, as paranoia and insanity begins to creep in and members of the group become lost, taking separate paths to their doom. Wajda excels with these truly haunting sequences and Jan Krenz's eerie score further serves to exacerbate the deeply unsettling mood.  

This sense of desperation is both palpable and greatly affecting in this distinctive and powerful anti-war piece, making it a feature that is leaps and bounds ahead of Wajda's previous instalment in the trilogy, the faltering A Generation. Here is a production from a filmmaker whose confidence is clearly growing, and at a rate of knots. He's also helped immeasurably by a fine cast, with Glinksi's pessimistically honest yet totally dedicated officer whose desire to protect and lead his company easily elicits our sympathy, and the mercurial coupling of Janczar and Izewska proving especially winning. And praise too for Izewska's character Daisy; an assured, hardbitten yet feminine (she's a blonde bombshell in appearance) soldier who is heavily relied upon by the others. This is a rare example of gender equality and forward thinking feminism in a genre often lacking in such opportunities. I especially liked how she tells a near-blind Korab that she wrote 'kiss my arse' on the walls of the sewers in defiance against the Nazi onslaught, even though we the audience know that what she actually wrote was the more revealing, tender 'I love Korab' - such a bittersweet moment.

Kanal uncompromisingly fatalistic tone doesn't make for an easy watch, but it's a vital one which helps educate a Western audience on the horrors and experiences a country such as Poland faced during the war.

Silent Sunday: SE.T.TLE

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Friday, 21 October 2016

A Generation (Pokolenie) 1955

As previously reported here, the great Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda died earlier this month at the age of 90. The voice of Poland, the director turned out scores of films, many of them masterpieces, so I decided to have a season of his films starting with his first.

A Generation, or Pokolenie to give it its Polish title, was also the first film in what was to become Wajda's 'War Trilogy', a loose series of films exploring Poland's experiences of WWII and the underground resistance movement which Wajda had been a part of as a youth. The rightly celebrated masterpiece, Ashes and Diamonds, was the film to close that trilogy and it did so on a note of some disillusionment, but here in A Generation the story starts with a sense of optimism.

The film follows Tadeusz Lomnicki's Stach, a disaffected young apprentice from the slums of Warsaw who is turned on to communism by his colleague at the factory, Sekula (Janusz Paluszkiewicz) and, in turn onto the resistance movement against the Nazi occupation by Dorita (Urszula Modrzynska) a beautiful resistance fighter with whom, somewhat inevitably, Stach falls in love with. Playing one of Stach's comrades-in-arms in the resistance is a very young Roman Polanski.

One of the film's strengths is the story strand involving Tadeusz Janczar's Jasio, an ambiguous and richly fascinating character who loathes both Nazis and communists alike. He reluctantly joins the movement and, without authorisation, assassinates the local Nazi officer who uses particularly brutal, bullying methods upon the local workforce. This impulsive bloody action earns him a rebuke from Stach, who dismisses him as little more than 'a cowboy', but he is oblivious to Jasio's own remorse for his actions. There's significantly more depth to this secondary character than to Stach or anyone else, and it's clear he feels disgusted by the realisation that he is now a killer. His story concludes with Wajda's most powerful and brilliant sequence in this, his debut film; chased into a tenement by the Nazis, Jasio clambers up a spiral staircase battling his pursuers at every turn. Cornered and with nowhere left to turn, he dives from the top flight to his death - a moment worthy of Hitchcock and Vertigo.

A Generation bears all the hallmarks of a director's first film in that it is far from being an instant classic and is a good deal amateurish in many places, but it shows enough glimpses of promise that Wajda would deliver upon time after time from this moment onwards. One of the things that hampers your viewing experience is the rather murky quality of print on this Arrow DVD; exterior scenes filmed in daylight are bleached and pale, whereas interiors or scenes at night are almost unwatchable. There are several scenes where all I could see is the noses of the cast, their features and bodies were shrouded in darkness.

Though it's not perfect, A Generation is definitely worth your time, and you'll want to watch it either to see a master developing his craft, or because you're a completist and you'll want to see the whole trilogy.

Specs Appeal

Caroline Munro in the 1982 music video Goody Two Shoes by Adam Ant

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Out On Blue Six : Altered Images

Because today is my birthday,

Happy to receive Clare Grogan, wrapped up in a bow or otherwise, but not holding out much hope of it!

End Transmission

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Monocled Mutineer (1986)

2014 saw the centenary of the outbreak of World War One and the coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats seemed keen to mark the anniversary, though the intentions of the latter party were predictably out of step. Prime Minister David Cameron claimed that they wanted a “commemoration that, like the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, says something about who we are as a people”, and was rightly and immediately condemned for suggesting that the deaths of 38 million people were something to celebrate. It was the kind of comment that hinted at the mindset of the Tory establishment. It has recently come to light that, in 2012, the then Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt expressed dissatisfaction with Danny Boyle and his Olympic Opening Ceremony team for not representing the might and triumphs of the British military throughout our history, arguing that the NHS segment could be dropped with the same attitude and manner that we have seen him undertake his current stewardship of Health. But perhaps most pointedly of all then Education Secretary Michael Gove claimed that the opinion we have come to hold about The Great War is nothing but a lie spun by "left wing academics...degenerating virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage"

This fear the Tory establishment feel about the truth being told about the horrors, the futility and the downright stupidity of WWI isn't new, the same attitude was rife in the mid '80s under Thatcher's rule, and the thorn in its side was the BBC's The Monocled Mutineer, a drama series written by Boys from the Blackstuff author Alan Bleasdale (from a 1978 book by William Allison and John Fairley) concerning the exploits of Percy Toplis, a deserter, an imposter of officers and presumed murderer (he was tried in absence for the murder of cab driver Sidney George Spicer - the first British inquest in modern times to do so) who was gunned down in Penrith following a two month manhunt instigated by the Home Office in 1920. Like the book, Bleasdale's series depicted Toplis as a leading participant in the Étaples Mutiny  of 1917.

"The Étaples 'mutinies' amounted to no more than a few days of disorder' a little disrespect to officers and some loudly-voiced demands for humane treatment. The army reacted briskly. It restored discipline by bringing in unaffected troops. It removed the cause of discontent by replacing the worst of the staff with wise men. That is about all there was to the British Army 'mutinies' of the 1914 - 1918 war."

So argued military historian Sir John Desmond Patrick Keegan OBE FRSL in the Daily Telegraph (Torygraph) on September 9th, 1986. Not a very good military historian if you ask me; his claim of 'a few days disorder' is an outright lie as, after a fractious summer in 1917 in which complaints regarding how troops were being treated at the Étaples training camp known as 'The Bull Ring' were routinely ignored, things came to ahead on September 9th of that year, when the mutiny exploded and remained in force until mid-October. This is recorded fact by many sources, including no less a figure than Vera Brittain in her book Testament of Youth which recounts her time with the Voluntary Aid Detachment at Étaples; "the mutiny was due to repressive conditions......and was provoked by the military police". The Monocled Mutineer depicts Military Police and Instructors at the camp 'crucifying' soldiers (tying them to posts on the parade ground) soldiers for various misdemeanors, and doling out savage beatings, instances I imagine Keegan and the like would vehemently refute. The real truth about what occurred in Étaples should by rights come to public light next year in 2017 when classified documents have reached the 100 year embargo for their release. However, it was discovered by the House in 1978 following the publication of Allison and Fairley's claims, that  all the records of the Étaples Board of Enquiry had been destroyed long since - this is nothing more than an establishment whitewash and cover up.

Keegan's words were just the start of the controversies that dogged the transmission of The Monocled Mutineer exactly thirty years ago. But there was more going on here than just the disgruntled criticisms from so-called historians. In 1986, the BBC was under fire from the Tory government in the same way that the corporation has been on shaky ground with the present government with regards to its Charter renewal. Throughout 1985 and '86, the BBC was subjected to the Peacock Committee, which was purportedly set up to decide the future of the corporation, but in reality saw Norman Tebbit instigate a McCarthy-esque style witch hunt throughout the BBC, monitoring its staff, output and ethos for 'left wing bias' which saw, amongst others, police raids at BBC Scotland in relation to the planned and subsequently banned programme concerning the Zircon signals intelligence satellite, a dossier suggesting the BBC news team were biased against America in their coverage of their bombing raids on Libya and 100 Tory MP's sign a motion for"the restoration of proper standards at the BBC" and the sacking of DG Alisdair Milne. 

The Daily Mail, ever the bastion of right wing ire, launched a vitriolic campaign against The Monocled Mutineer that must have made Thatcher and Tebbit proud. They especially went to town over the claims that official records show that Toplis' regiment was en route to India during the Étaples mutiny, and that there is no actual evidence in existence that shows Toplis played a part in the mutiny or that he was absent from his India-bound regiment at this time. In defence of the rising criticism and derision the programme faced, the BBC's director of television Bill Cotton and the series producer Richard Broke admitted to "small examples of dramatic licence" having been taken, but argued that the drama spoke of "the greater truth about World War I". But the damage had been done, not least because BBC Worldwide, the advertising arm of the corporation, had shot themselves in the foot by inaccurately representing Bleasdale's series as "a true-life story" in its marketing and promotional campaigns. The Tories had their wish granted and Alistair Milne was unceremoniously ousted from the BBC, whilst The Monocled Mutineer has been repeated just once in 30 years, and that was in the summer of 1988 - two years after its original broadcast. The series itself wasn't even released to DVD until 2007 and anyone expecting to see the programme form a part of the BBC's commemorations for WWI between now and 2018 need only look to the current mindset of the government for their answer. It ain't gonna happen.

Alan Bleasdale was originally loathe to write the series. Claiming he didn't do adaptations, he avoided all attempts by the BBC to coax him into staging it from 1981 through to the mid '80s. He only changed his mind when he recalled that his own grandfather died in WWI six months before his father was born and that - and this is what really resonates with me, what I feel is actually crucial to understanding the whole story about The Monocled Mutineer and the reaction and backlash it faced - he felt that he had "studied history books people in power had wanted me to read" and had "never learned what it was like for a common man to go to war, and a common soldier to go through those times". By the latter half of the twentieth century the tide was finally turning and the accurate notion of 'lions led by donkeys' was at last becoming accepted fact. By 1986, seventy years after the conflict, Alan Bleasdale, and others that came after him, finally felt able to seek out the truth for themselves, to think for themselves, and to get that message across to the masses to ensure we never have to endure such catastrophic folly again because, as he told the Radio Times "It's a costume drama, with something to say about the times we live in". It is that freedom to think for ourselves that the established order of this country would rather we did not have, should they need to lead us lions with as much gross incompetence as they can muster once again. 

Percy Toplis utterly fascinates me, having read the Allison and Fairley book as a teenager (I only vaguely recall seeing The Monocled Mutineer on TV in either '86 or '88 - I know my dad watched it but I was of course too young to rightly understand the situation) and although the received wisdom now has it that he wasn't involved in the mutiny, I remain uncertain. I may be being naive here, but though there's no evidence he was in Étaples, there's equally precious little evidence he was with his regiment at that time either. If the man was a notorious deserter, surely he could have left his troop before they boarded for India and taken himself Étaples, where he had previously hidden out in the forests around the region with other deserters, pacifists and socialists? And why did the Home Office effectively run such a massive manhunt for someone the authorities deemed guilty of murder? Why was his funeral held in private, his family lied to and turned away, and why was he buried in an unmarked grave? I just think the whole thing is a huge cover up and that, as we have seen, it is all too easy to cry 'left wing propaganda' when the right wing establishment don't want to be embarrassed.

The Monocled Mutineer remains one of the must-watch TV series ever produced by the BBC, and one of the most pivotal and polished from the 1980s (not bad for a decade that also brought us Edge of Darkness) it boasts a central performance from Paul McGann as the anti-hero Toplis who takes the notes Bleasdale gave him to play it as a cross between Cool Hand Luke and John Lennon and runs with it beautifully to deliver a charismatic, multi-dimensional career-best turn. But above all this is just an incredibly deep and well textured piece of writing that continues to provoke thought and debate to this very day.

Monday, 17 October 2016

The Crystal Gazer: Sandra Caron, 1973

Channel 4 broadcast a special one-off edition of The Crystal Maze last night for the charity StandUp2Cancer, with Stephen Merchant stepping into the gamesmaster shoes previously worn by Richard O'Brien and latterly by Edward Tudor-Pole of Tenpole Tudor fame. I was quite surprised to see they'd included Mumsie, the riddling fortune teller character created by Sandra Caron in the original series, played this time around by none other than Maureen Lipman!

Mumsie then, Sandra Caron

Mumsie now, Maureen Lipman

It spurred me on to googling Caron, who was of course the sister of tragic songbird Alma Cogan, and I found these delicious, atmospheric photographs from 1973 taken by Howard Grey which feature her gazing wistfully, maybe even mournfully out of the window of a cafeteria

For more of these photographs visit Howard Grey's site here