Sad news today as the family of two-time Oscar nominated comic genius Gene Wilder have confirmed he has died at the age of 83.
I grew up with Wilder films. As a family we loves his collaborations with Richard Pryor; Silver Streak, Stir Crazy and See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and I loved the stuff he did with Mel Brooks such as The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, so it's really saddening to hear that he has died following complications with Alzheimer's disease. One of Wilder's most famous roles was as Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka in the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a film that means he is still watched and beloved of children to this very day.
Over on my friend Cait's blog, she's been discussing her love of the sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf. To be honest, it's not a love I've ever shared but I do like the theme tune it has to be said. So, having previously explored one Chris Barrie sitcom in Theme Time this week, I thought I'd best double up and dedicate tonight's post to Red Dwarf.
My disinterest in Red Dwarf often surprises people, but what can I say; I did try and watch it and get into it in the '90s and it just never really clicked with me. I remain more of a HitchHikers Guide to the Galaxy man myself, but maybe I should dip my toe in the waters again sometime?
Anyway, RedDwarf was a BBC2 sitcom which started life in 1988 (I well recall watching that first episode) and was created by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. The show is set in the 22nd century upon the eponymous mining spaceship 'Red Dwarf' In the first episode, an on-board radiation leak of Cadmium kills everyone except for lowest-ranking technician Dave Lister (Craig Charles) who was in suspended animation at the time, and his pregnant cat, Frankenstein, who was safely sealed in the cargo hold.
Following the accident, the ship's lugubrious computer Holly (Norman Lovett) keeps Lister in stasis until the background radiation dies down – a process that takes three million years, making the feckless Lister the unlikely last human being in the universe. His immediate superior, the officious Arnold Judas Rimmer (Chris Barrie) is resurrected by Holly as a hologram to keep Lister company. At the same time, Lister's cat has evolved in the hold to become the humanoid Cat (Danny John- Jules) whilst later series saw the introduction of Kryten, a sort of robotic servant the crew rescue from the crashed Nova 5 in series two, played initially by David Ross and, from the third series onwards, by Robert Llewellyn) Holly would be later played by comedienne Hattie Hayride in series three to five, whilst the crew was expanded to include Kochanski from series 7, played by Chloe Annett - though the lovely Clare Grogan had previously appeared in the role prior to the character becoming a regular.
There have been ten series of Red Dwarf since 1988, with the most recent series being broadcast on Dave. The show was based on sketches by Grant and Naylor entitled Dave Hollins: Space Cadet for the Radio 4 series Son of Cliche which starred Nick Wilton as the hapless marooned space traveller and Chris Barrie as his companion Hub. Despite Barrie's role in this, the initial casting choice for Rimmer in Red Dwarf was Alfred Molina (Alan Rickman also auditioned for the series) but when the actor had doubts about the character and the series, he bowed out to be replaced by Barrie.
The brilliant theme tune was composed by Howard Goodall (of Blackadder theme fame) and was sung by actress Jenna Russell (pictured above) star of stage and screen and no stranger to sitcom herself having appeared in the Esmonde and Larbey penned On The Up around this time and in Home to Roost prior to that.
I mean, isn't that just a brilliant theme tune?
And who can forget the song Tongue Tied which appeared in an episode and went on to reach number 17 in the UK singles chart
I've previously discussed Acorn DVD's release of six existing episodes from 1970-1974 of BBC Television's Dixon of Dock Greenhere. This second volume covers what's left of the long running show's twenty-first series from 1975; six episodes entitled Target, Seven for a Secret Never to be Told, Baubles, Bangles and Beads, Looters Ltd, A Slight Case of Love and Conspiracy.
After watching the first DVD, I pretty much know what to expect from Dixon now. If you're looking for hard edged thrills, this isn't the place, but it is fair to say the cosy, anachronistic and outdated stereotype argument that is levelled at the series during this period isn't correct either. The show may have been running for twenty years by this point (and Dixon himself had been in the public conscious since 1950, thanks to The Blue Lamp) but its clear it did so for a reason; its ability to tell well crafted, solid storylines that were entertaining, thought provoking and enjoyable.
Target was the first episode of this twenty-first season and was broadcast on the 15th Feb, 1975. Again, it puts pay to the lie that the show was a genteel depiction of community policing and old style bobbies on the beat. Anthony Steel stars as Smith, a clearly ill and disorientated man we meet at the start of the episode. Director Vere Lorrimer immediately hooks our attention with some impressive and atmospheric camerawork shown from Smith's POV as he struggles to differentiate between reality and his own imagination (which may hint at past experiences) Collapsing in a supermarket, he is helped by a young black couple (Willie Jonah and a pre-fame Floella Benjamin) who he feverishly believes to mean him some harm. They manage to get him back to his flat, but he pulls a gun on the man and they leave and notify the police. Unbeknownst to them - and the team at Dock Green - Smith has already alerted the suspicion of the police; Special Branch are watching his flat. Written by Kenneth Clark under the alias of Ben Bassett, Target is that favoured sub-genre of 70s TV and cinema, the mercenary story. It transpires Smith has been a soldier for hire in the Congo and is currently suffering from a bout of Malaria. Special Branch are waiting for a man called Kumal (Yashaw Adem) to show up at Smith's abode, a particularly nasty piece of work who is wanted for a massacre he took part in in Central Africa. As the SB officers - and our heroes Andy Crawford (Peter Byrne) and his sergeant, Mike Brewer (Gregory de Polnay) - continue their surveillance of Smith from the confines of a candy-striped workman's tent in the road (the Dock Green boys joke that the stunt is so old hat, they tried to catch Jack the Ripper with it!), Smith opens up about his life to his landlady, a musician called Joyce played by Freda Knorr. Interestingly, David Hargreaves plays one of the SB officers. Hargreaves would go on to play a regular in two other police dramas; Juliet Bravo and Mersey Beat. Though there is some impressive gunplay and action involved, along with the traditional 1970s 'swarthy' foreign villain, Target isn't really in the same league as The Sweeney and is actually quite an eccentric episode - Brewer waylays a local French onion seller, complete with beret, Breton top and bicycle, and adopts his clothes and bike as a disguise to get close to Smith's home; were there really French onion sellers doing the rounds in London in the mid 70s?? - which benefits from being shot entirely on film, on location. Target gives Jack Warner's Dixon incredibly little to do, as befits the actor's ill health and mobility issues at the time, but such a lack of presence from the leading character does make for a rather slow-burning and strange season starter.
Target was immediately followed by Derek Ingrey's script for Seven for a Secret - Never to be Told, so it's nice that there's no gap in the archives here and the DVD moves along in the correct order. By the time the series came to a close Ingrey had written 19 episodes across the 1970s, and he was responsible for Eye Witness which appeared in Volume One and a further two episodes which appear in the collection. His episode here is an interesting one, paving the way for the kind of sympathetic, character driven crime-based storytelling that became more popular and common in later detective series like Shoestring. The all-film episode starts with a bang - literally! - as a man enters his home, lights up a cigarette and is engulfed in a sudden explosion. Someone has deliberately turned all the gas on and its down to Dock Green to find out who is responsible. Miraculously, the man has survived and been rushed to hospital, but the officers find a dead woman elsewhere in the building, and the woman's current boyfriend and her sixteen year old have gone missing.
The episode is neatly divided between the police chasing up the clues that will solve the case and the boyfriend and daughter of the deceased on the run. Andrew Bradford and June Page star as Ralph and Chrissie respectively, and the titular secrecy shapes the bond between them. Chrissie is, to quote her father "a bit backward like" and it's a quality that the blank Page (pun totally intended) captures and plays off very well against Bradford's intriguing, enigmatic performance. We know something isn't right here, and all roads are pointing to Ralph being responsible for the explosion and kidnapping Chrissie, but there's much more to this episode than meets the eye. What also makes Seven for a Secret - Never to be Told stand out is the departure from the usual London locale. Crawford and Brewer chase up the leads and discover that Ralph hails from the west country, so it isn't long before they're in the greenery of the countryside with the admirably slow local bobby Sgt Dawes (Denis Goacher) assisting them and proving that things are done much differently here in the sticks. Once again, there isn't really all that much for Dixon himself to do and Warner's mobility problems are painfully obvious in scenes where he is shown to be walking or when he arrives at the scene of the gas explosion and remains seated in a panda car whilst Sgt Johnny Wills briefs him, crouching down in the gutter. However the director Joe Waters does occasionally cover these issues in a suitable way simply by cutting as Dixon moves off or by having him standing in the street, which at least does look like he's going about his business.
The next two episodes of this series are missing from the BBC archives, and the next episode in this set existed only as an off-air recording which means some of the picture quality is a little ropey at times. It's another one from the team of Ingrey and Waters entitled Baubles, Bangles and Beads and it couldn't be more different from their previous story. As a viewing audience, we're quite familiar with the diversity of storytelling in modern day long running prime time drama; how Doctor Who can afford us some seriously dark thrills one week, and some panto like comedy the next. Given the gaps in the archives it is sometimes hard to glean the variety of stories that Dixon, a primetime Saturday night drama that attracted all ages just like Who does, tackled. However, from Baubles, Bangles and Beads, it is clear they weren't averse to playing things for laughs either. The episode opens with a somewhat deliberate piece of misdirection; a car chase between the police and three actors who can only be described as a trio of likely looking villains (Brian Glover, Frank Jarvis and Johnny Shannon - who certainly knew the seamy side of life before taking up acting in Ni Roeg's Performance) makes one suspect we are in store for an episode not unlike TheSweeney. Indeed, all three actors had appeared in Euston Films grittier depiction of policing, with Glover and Shannon appearing in both the series and the spin off film Sweeney!. The resemblance to The Sweeney goes out the window though once Glover throws the stash they've just snatched out of their car window, thereby evading arrest for burglary when the police catch up with them. The stash - a leather bag containing the titular three B's - landed in the yard of a derelict, condemned property. But unbeknowst to our villains, the property was home to two squatters - and one of them has taken their booty for himself as they move on to their next digs.
Please Sir and future Dear John star Peter Denyer and Kubrick favourite Leon Vitali (he starred in Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut, and was personal aide and casting director to the auteur on The Shining and Full Metal Jacket) star as the squatters Phil and Eric, two young men who have 'got religion' and are following the teachings of the guru Shashti Ap Davies. On their path to enlightenment, they come to live with the comely Marion (Kitty Stevenson) who follows Guru Rhum Rhaji and has a tendency to meditate naked (regrettably off camera, of course!) Eric becomes somewhat smitten ("That's your trouble that is," says Phil at one point. "You're carnal oriented") and resolves to visit the Guru Rhum Rhaji's temple with Marion, along with an offering of the jewellery they found in the leather bag which of course the Guru is only too happy to receive. Meanwhile the villains are on the trail and they won't their stash back... In exploring the hippy counter-culture, it's fair to say that Dixon of Dock Green's view is a little pessimistic as perhaps befits the attitude many households watching no doubt possessed. It's perhaps best exemplified with an exchange in the episode that sees the ever-dependable Sgt Johnny Wills claim that whilst he has no problem with religious cult followers who have a genuine faith, he does express caution about their leaders, many of whom he believes to be nothing more than con artists. Wills' words are very prophetic; as the Maharishi Yogi-like Rhum Rhaji and his aide are unmasked at the end of the episode as nothing more than a pair of blacked up cockney confidence tricksters! This neatly sidesteps the increasingly uncomfortable feeling I was experiencing throughout this episode at seeing what was clearly two white actors affecting cod Indian accents and wearing dark make-up. Once I knew it was all part of the plot rather than casual racism, I could relax a little! Pessimism aside, where Baubles, Bangles and Beads truly succeeds is in the comic playing of Denyer, Vitali and Stevenson. In Denyer and Vitali, Ingrey's script captures a hippy version of Pete and Dud. Like Cook and Moore's fabulous creations, they're both idiots, but crucially, one idiot thinks he's cleverer than the other. That trait here goes to the Denyer's dogmatic know-all Eric who never wastes an opportunity to put down Vitali's dopey, good-natured Phil and claim he is further along the road to enlightenment than he is. Stevenson is a wonderful, doe eyed innocent and neatly plays the lines brilliantly. It's an episode that perhaps sees something more of a culture bump, than a culture clash, and it's quite amusing to see the patriarchal figure of George Dixon sharing the screen with patchouli oil, flared trousered, long-haired hippies - even if they are a somewhat cynical parody depiction of them - as it means we're a long way from The Blue Lamp now!
Which brings us to the more familiar ground of Looters Ltd. Indeed this next episode spins on the notion of a grudging respect and a sense of fair play between the old school lifelong copper and the old school lifelong villain, and the latter's disgust at fly-by-night reckless crooks without 'a trade' as previously witnessed in Basil Dearden's The Blue Lamp. Veteran character actor Sam Kydd stars as Charlie Barnett our old school villain. Time was, Charlie could scale any building you'd care to name, but a bad fall on his last job saw him crippled and banged up. Fresh out of the nick, Charlie stumbles upon a mugging and intervenes, returning the wallet to the victim before heading home to his family who have thrown a little welcome home party in his honour. On hearing of Charlie's good deed, Sgt Dixon - who knows Charlie of old - decides to gatecrash said party, not long after Charlie's eldest Ray (Terry Cowling) gives his old man a gold watch as a present. Charlie senses the watch is hot, and he's right - by a stroke of sheer coincidence Ray was one of the muggers Charlie had disturbed earlier! Turns out Ray's not the only one in the family who has been busy whilst Charlie's been banged up either; his wife (Margery Mason) and his daughter (Gwyneth Powell - who had appeared in the episode Eye Witness on the previous DVD) have taken to shoplifting and selling the goods on to neighbours and friends on the 'never never'. Unfortunately they get much more than they bargained for when they attempt to sell a mini-TV to the fiancee of PC Dunne who brings it into the station to show it off to his colleagues. Written by Gerald Kelsey, a prolific writer for the series, and directed by Mary Ridge, Looters Ltd is a strong episode that explores the code of honour amongst thieves. Charlie is disappointed to learn that his son was one of the muggers, but he's not necessarily appalled; he just wishes that his son would learn "aproper trade" insisting, "I don't want no son of mine to turn out to be a small-time mugger" He doesn't mind him entering a life of crime, but draws the line at petty thievery with menaces. "The young 'uns today. They're too wild" he laments to a friend still in the game - words that could have been used to describe Dirk Bogarde's character Riley in The Blue Lamp. Interestingly, he is less concerned with his wife and daughter's antics, and we must presume shop lifting is fair game for a woman to be doing in Charlie's books. As you can tell, it's an episode that delights in the morally grey areas and is delivered by a writer and director with a clear understanding of the show.
The next two episodes of the series are also missing in action which means the next on the DVD is another strong offering from Derek Ingrey, entitled A Slight Case of Love. The episode opens in great fashion as we see a woman, in a variety of different wigs, turning down a series of proposals from gentlemen because of her commitment to an unseen ailing mother. Each scene ends with the suitor in question signing and handing over a cheque for a £1,000 to place dear old mum in a care home so they can be married and live happily ever after. Realising they have been conned, the men report her to Dock Green police but, because of her chameleon nature and her use of aliases, our boys in blue have very little to go on. Kate Harris is the woman in question played by Moira Redmond. Her and her sister are both artists (she pottery, her sister - played by the beautiful Isla Blair - a potter) and are in financial difficulties. They required £8,000 to keep their artistic projects going, so Kate went out to romance and con eight suitors from a grand each. The perfect con you might say - except one of those men has really fallen for her. The man in question is the effortlessly debonair Julian Glover (Blair's husband) He plays a merchant banker called Lewis Naylor, a man who is clearly used to getting exactly what he wants. And what he wants is Kate in his life. He wants to marry her, and he doesn't want her going to prison. Retracting his complaint from the police, Naylor hires a private detective (a youngish Dave Hill) to locate Kate and gives him a painting that she had gifted to him as a lead. The PI is a step ahead of the police, meaning the boys at Dock Green have to simply play catch up, watching his every move in the hope that it will lead them to Kate. The story culminates with a police line up that Naylor has agreed to attend that features, unbeknownst to him, Kate (who he has now been reunited with and romance has peculiarly bloomed for them in the proper fashion) Determined that Kate should walk free so they can live happily ever after, Naylor refuses to identify her from the line up. But the police have also called in the seven other conned men, who all make positive identifications of Kate. Dixon closes the case with the usual 'crime doesn't pay' kind of homily, but adds that it's not every woman who leaves Holloway gaol for a honeymoon in Barbados! A Slight Case of Love is another good character piece helped immeasurably by fine performances from Glover and Redmond, each playing the moral ambiguity inherent in their characters rather brilliantly. It also boasts some fine little comic relief cameos from Mela White (later to become Diamante Lil in Bergerac) and Hilary Crane (later to appear in doomed soap Eldorado) as two other honeytrap con artistes; White's Heather is hilarious, a short sighted good time girl who is now 'retired' and writing her memoirs which she has provisionally entitled 'Horizontal Confessions' though Crawford, who knows her of old, argues that 'A Hard Time Was Had By All' would be more fitting. Crane plays Susan, who claims in her babygirl voice to be long out of the game and settled down with Rory an Irish man ("though you wouldn't know it, as he's quite intelligent" is the un-PC joke of the week) but when Dixon and Brewer leave the room, she's on the phone to an accomplice telling her their have to put their latest con on ice whilst the police are sniffing around. Again, A Slight Case of Love seems to be made from an off-air recording, so the quality isn't as crisp as you might hope in places.
The last episode in the collection is also the last episode of the series, entitled Conspiracy and written by NJ Crisp, it was almost the last episode ever of Dixon of Dock Green. There's certainly a sense of everything coming full circle in Conspiracy, an effective tale concerning the possibilities of police corruption. Andrew Burt (the first Jack Sugden of Emmerdale Farm) stars as the ambitious young beat bobby PC Warren, whose activities are brought to the attention of Dixon and Andy Crawford by way of an anonymous letter which claims Warren is in the habit of drinking with Ben Randall a known criminal. Worse, Warren is chief prosecuting witness in an upcoming trial featuring Randall, which makes the allegation in the letter all the more damaging. The reaction the letter gains from both old colleagues is less than harmonious. Dixon views it with utter disdain and announces how, ten years ago, such a letter would have been binned straight away, but now Crawford has to flag it up with A10 (the anti-corruption squad) a move which Andy is extremely keen to do, setting him at odds with Dixon who wants to keep the inquiry in house for the time being, doing his best for the uniformed constable who after all falls under his jurisdiction. Warren is depicted as an ambitious, cold loner of an officer. One who is keen to get on and move off the beat and into CID and who isn't above cutting corners. It's an attitude that clearly gets Andy's back up but, as wise old Dixon points out, Andy was much the same as Warren back when they were both pounding the beat together - a remark that Crawford doesn't take kindly to. Their investigations draw out a significant amount of circumstantial evidence that seems to support the poison pen letter writer's claims but in the end it is revealed that the letter has been written by an unlicensed street trader (Tommy Wright - making his second appearance in this series of Dixon, having previously appeared as a different character in the episode Seven for a Secret - Never tobe Told, that's quite the turnaround for guest actors!) who has a grudge against PC Warren for what he believes is the officer's unfair treatment of him. Warren is cleared; he took no bribe whatsoever from Randall. Feeling hounded and betrayed by Crawford and the team's investigation into his personal affairs, Warren subsequently resigns. Dixon is naturally disappointed by the young man's decision and tries to get him to change his mind. This leads to what is one of several good moments from Jack Warner in this episode, a speech on the nature of the police force and what is expected of an officer of the law. "All the years I've spent as a copper, I think every minute;s been worth it. Oh the police force isn't perfect. It can't be. It's manned by ordinary men. I know we talk about red tape and frustration when a villain foes free and the harm done by the occasional bent copper. But, for all the criticism, the police are there to protect the public, and that's what we do. We curb violence. We do our best to deal with villains who want to prey on society. I've been proud to have been a part of that. Even a small part. It's been my life for a long time now and I don't regret any of it" Fine words, delivered by an actor who clearly believes every one of them. It would have been a fitting end to the series in fact, ending twenty years of untarnished service with its head held high as the camera watches Dixon and Crawford (on happy terms once more) exit the station before panning up to 'TheBlue Lamp' that started it all. But the BBC decided there was one more series in it yet, and Dixon was to return a year later for his last hurrah, working semi-retired as a collator in the back office of Dock Green station. But not with Andy Crawford, Peter Byrne having decided twenty years was enough for him.
Orthodox is a bleak and gloomy production from writer/director David Leon that expands upon his 2008 short of the same name. It stars Stephen Graham as Benjamin a Orthodox Jewish man whose decisions in life has seen him semi-cast out on the periphery of the London Jewish community he was born into. Bullied as a child, Benjamin developed a skill and passion for boxing which was subsequently frowned upon by his traditional family and society. Taken under the wing of his Irish friend Shannon (Michael Smiley) who is at the end of a very long leash held by the omnipotent Orthodox businessman and community leader Goldberg (Christopher Fairbank) Benjamin begins to make some much-needed money indulging in grubby illegal bare-knuckle fist fights, managed by Shannon, and much to the disappointment of his non-Jew wife Alice (Rebecca Callard) who is another reason he has been cast out from the Orthodox community. When Goldberg instructs Shannon to burn down one of his slum properties, Shannon delegates the job to the cash-strapped Benjamin and sets him up as a fall guy resulting in Benjamin being sent to prison for four years and losing everything.
His misplaced trust in Shannon continues upon his release, leaving him in a very vulnerable position as he tries to reaffirm his identity and find his place in a world that continues to fail and betray him, as well as him attempting to protect a new, Jewish teenage protege of Shannon's. Without question Orthodox is an atmospheric and good looking feature that raises it far above the usual glut of low budget British straight-to-DVD criminal thuggery and into what seems to be a growing fashion for stylish but minimal and flawed slow-burning examples of the genre. But it is flawed; David Leon takes a strange approach to his story, with events being skipped over in an instant, leading to some very significant plot points being delivered in conversations so throwaway and casual that you can be forgiven for missing them. It is really disconcerting and serves to keep you at arm's length from Benjamin's plight. What makes this choice all the weirder is that Leon spends great swathes of the film playing with soulful metaphorical interludes involving caged greyhounds - it does make one question where his priorities lay.
Anyone looking for a film specifically about the world of bare-knuckle fighting will be greatly disappointed by this too. Whilst boxing - in all its forms, both legit and significantly less so - appears as something of a saviour for Ben, the theme of it is largely underdeveloped as the film progresses to concentrate on the circles of deceit and the abuse of trust Benjamin is subjected to both in his old community and the new as represented by Shannon, which are of course more closely linked than he perhaps first thought. However, there's something satisfying in the way Leon subverts the nominal sports/boxing drama and this is never more clear than in his cuts from the brutal, animalistic and ugly world of fighting to the cosy portrayal of a devoted and loving family that the bruised Benjamin returns home to between bouts.
At its heart, the ace up Orthodox's sleeve is the fresh setting on offer from the Jewish orthodox community and how it rubs shoulders with these more familiar tropes and the topical subject of how anonymous immigrants are routinely exploited in a chain of command that rises up from the sly, scummy Shannon to the hands-off respectability of Goldberg. The other positive in the film is of course its cast; Stephen Graham is the glue that keeps it all together delivering another impeccable performance that is convincing both as a fighter and as a family man, whilst Michael Smiley and Christopher Fairbank feel like vultures circling around him, manipulating and betraying to one extent or another and reminding us all that we should choose our friends wisely.
Ultimately though, Orthodox is just too disparate and too obtuse to be truly memorable or enjoyable.
I hope all the people who voted for Brexit with the absurd idea that the NHS would be revitalised if we leave the EU feel thoroughly conned and ashamed today as the government reveal some of the most harshest and damaging cuts to our already beleaguered health service.
There are several petitions regarding the threat facing the NHS in your area on 38 degrees that I urge you to check out and sign.
Which leads me to one particular hospital in my area that is facing closure - the prestigious Liverpool Women's Hospital, star of Channel 4's One Born Every Minute.
The Women's is an award winning maternity institute that cares for extremely poorly babies at the start of their lives, their mothers and is also at the forefront of fertility research.
I don't know if it is the done thing to publicise such things, but it is via that last specialty which it provides that I have come to know the Women's as the caring, pioneering and first class hospital it is. It is this personal experience that means I am urging you to do your bit in protecting its future.
Today's Theme Time post is an especially apt one as the programme it is from is currently getting daily repeats on Gold, which I have been enjoying. It's TheBrittas Empire and its theme by Frank Renton is guaranteed to put a jaunty, if slightly officious spring in your step.
The Brittas Empire was a big favourite of mine growing up. Running for seven series from 1991 to 1997, for me the show crossed that entire path from childhood to early adulthood in that I was eleven when it started and seventeen when it concluded. It starred Chris Barrie (I was never a fan of Red Dwarf, but I loved him here) as Gordon Brittas, the well-meaning but utterly tactless and totally irritating manager of the fictional Whitbury Newtown Leisure Centre, where his staff included sensible Laura (Julia St John), the dim-witted, endlessly unhygienic Colin (Michael Burns) gay couple Gavin and Tim (Tim Marriott and Russell Porter) chirpy Linda (Jill Greenacre) sarky secretary Julie (Judy Flynn) receptionist Carole (Harriet Thorpe) who kept her children in drawers, and Gordon's pill-popping neurotic wife Helen (Pippa Haywood)
The show was created by Richard Fegen and Andrew Norriss (who had previously written the Simon Callow and Brenda Blethyn Channel 4 sitcom Chance in a Million) and under their stewardship it was a complete and utter farcical delight. The show should have come to a close in 1995 when Fegen and Norriss seemingly killed Gordon off once and for all by having a water tank fall on him after heroically pushing Carole out of its way. However the show returned with a rebuilt, bionic Brittas and ran for two more series with a succession of different writers and without St John's Laura. At the time I felt that the results of this final fling were less than impressive and my opinion hasn't changed at all; indeed, I watched the first episode of series six on Gold and decided not to bother watching the rest this time around. When an episode thought that having Barrie say the word 'cowpat' twice to gales of canned laughter was funny, then I knew it was time to bail. Besides which, I dreaded sitting through to the bitter end - which ended with the ultimate cop-out in TV terms, when all the previous episodes were revealed to have been a dream - for a second time.
It's a real shame that the show went out on such a whimper really as those first five series were of a consistently high quality (indeed you could argue it only got better and better with each successive series up to that point) that saw Brittas, his team and the leisure centre itself facing increasingly large disasters and mishaps. I felt so transported watching these repeats, I kept worrying that I hadn't done my homework!
And those pubescent concerns reminded me of the crushes I had on at least two of the regular characters; the wonderfully deadpan and acerbic Judy Flynn (pictured in the photo at the top of this post, on the right in the angora top) as Julie, whose short skirts showed off her lovely legs, and Linda played by Jill Greenacre (pictured in a rather disheveled fashion below)
The series composer Frank Renton is an accomplished musician and Radio 2 host who has previously served as the director of York's military music school, musical director for Versatile Brass and a conductor for the famous Grimethorpe Colliery Band. You can read about him here
There's a wonderful write-up and all sorts of interesting links regarding the show on co-creator Andrew Norriss' website including a discussion on whether Gordon has Aspergers or not, which I must admit was the first thing I realised watching the episodes back on Gold - not something the child and teen me would have spotted at all back in the '90s - indeed there's a whole episode where Linda tries to teach Brittas that what people say doesn't always mean what they think or feel; a nuance he finds impossible to spot.
Rumours abound of a return for The Brittas Empire with Barrie claiming a script was in development just last year. Most recently the character appeared alongside girlband Little Mix in the video for Word Up, their single for charity Sport Relief
But Corbyn got my vote yesterday. PS. How bloody stupid is this Virgin train fiasco? Trains do get busy! I have lost count of the amount of times I've had to stand up or have been packed in like sardines. The media are, not surprisingly, swooping on it like flies round dogshit - anything to slur Corbyn and his campaign. Yet the BBC news, clearly hoping to get vox pops of people using Virgin trains to complain about Corbyn's potential 'lie', have received virtually unequivocal support for his claims re nationalisation, citing their own inability to always secure a seat, and that this is all just a stupid thing to make news about given what else is going on in the world. How true.
1995's Butterfly Kiss is director Michael Winterbottom's big screen debut and it's a clear example of him starting his career as he means to go on, with a significant dollop of provocative storytelling. From the pen of his erstwhile collaborator Frank Cottrell Boyce, Butterfly Kiss is an attempt at creating a specifically American genre type - the wild, law-breaking road movie - right here in the north of England, up and down the M6.
Amanda Plummer (no stranger to walking on the wild side, and adopting a curious baby-doll attempt at a Lancastrian accent that put me in mind of future Winterbottom star Shirley Henderson) stars as Eunice, a clearly troubled and psychotic soul who, swathed in chains, piercings and tattoos beneath her drab clothes, stalks the A roads and lay-bys looking for her 'Judith'; in all likelihood a figment of her imagination inspired by the Apocrypha story of Judith who beheaded Holofernes during lovemaking to save her city. She first quizzes petrol station cashiers for a song that's 'about love, but it isn't really a love song' before asking 'You're Judith aren't you?' a query that can prove to have deadly consequences.
But not for Miriam (Saskia Reeves) one such attendant whose natural arrested development, innocence and her overall well meaning nature means she doesn't challenge Eunice's bizarre behaviour with irritation or brusqueness that ultimately saves her life. More, she becomes enamoured and fascinated with Eunice - a case of love at first sight. Pretty soon, Miriam and Eunice become lovers and Miriam abandons her work, her home and her ailing grandmother to join Eunice's bloodthirsty quest for Judith and a song about love across the length and breadth of the beautifully empty, sun dappled Lancashire landscape via its anonymous roads and monotonous motorways.
At the heart of this dangerous odd couple love story is Eunice's madness and utter Miriam's inability to truly comprehend it. The film's narrative is broken up with a series of flash-forward monochrome straight-to-camera narration from Miriam as she gives her distinctly matter-of-fact and unemotional interview to the police that acknowledges her actions with Eunice in the most naive of fashions.
Many reviewers at the time and since have been quick to call Butterfly Kiss, Britain's answer to Thelma and Louise, but I think there's a more satisfyingly spiky and complex dynamic between Eunice and Miriam that is more compelling and more provocative than that Hollywood classic. Winterbottom's film doesn't make it easy for the viewer either, he makes their characters intriguing but, certainly in the case of Eunice, hard to like or comprehend. There's no real explanation for why Eunice is as she is, or even why Miriam drops everything to be with her and doesn't stay fazed for long at her murderous antics, Cottrell Boyce's script is deliberately oblique and disorientating, suggesting deeper meanings with the mythical legend of Judith and the many Biblical connotations that Eunice refers to throughout. It's perhaps best to view the pair as two halves of a split-personality, or as a depiction of how easy it is to take the wrong road in life. "I'll make you evil before you make me good," Eunice tells Miriam at one point and it's ultimately more than an observation or an idle threat - it's a prophecy.
It's always fun to watch a film set in a part of the world you know, reside in or - in the case of the scenes shot around the Arthurian theme park Camelot - have memories of attending, but whilst this lends Butterfly Kiss a naturalistic milieu (enhanced by Winterbottom's casting of familiar, or future-familiar, Granadaland and Yorkshire TV faces like Watching's Paul Bown, or Emmerdale's Lisa Riley and Paula Tilbrook and of course the ubiquitous Ricky Tomlinson) Northern Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey captures the landscape in a breathtaking manner which rightly identifies the insignificance of the characters against such an overwhelming backdrop. There's also a great soundtrack too - with The Cranberries featuring predominantly, alongside the likes of Bjork, PJ Harvey and New Order - that firmly ties the film to the mid 90s.
Butterfly Kiss is, like many a debut, far from perfect, but it remains an intriguing, enigmatic and passionate psychological thriller that demands our attention for its subversion of the genre and its ability to offer up something a little different in terms of place.
Ask anyone to name a film in which Al Pacino played a cop and they're going to name Serpico or Heat. Some might even name Cruising, a film whose controversy and power to shock has ensured it has lodged into some people's consciousness forever more. But I have a theory that it is Pacino's 'comeback' film, the overlooked Sea Of Love, that is actually the most influential policier of recent times.
It's a theory that can certainly be proved here in the UK; the Jasper Carrott/Robert Powell '90s sitcom The Detectives spoofed it in an episode wonderfully entitled 'DC of Love', the late '90s Keith Allen drama Jack of Hearts references the blistering chemistry between Pacino and his leading lady Ellen Barkin, whilst the surprisingly good and gritty early '00s Nick Berry and Stephen Tomkinson cop vehicle In Deep saw the blind date/DNA steal scenario employed in the film lifted completely for one episode. Most recently, in 2013, the light-hearted cop drama By Any Means stole the idea of the police using the promise of meeting local sporting heroes to lure criminals with outstanding warrants originally used here.
It's perhaps precisely because Sea Of Love has become so forgotten that the replication of some of its scenes, setpieces and ideas has become so commonplace. But just why Sea of Love has fallen through the cracks is something I have no theory on at all, because this is a great film that deserves wider attention.
Pacino hadn't made a film in four years when Sea of Love came around, having retreated to the theatre to lick his wounds after the ill advised Revolution. But he came back and how with his performance here as Detective Frank Keller, a jaded divorcee and twenty-year man staring into the abyss of a mid-life crisis, making all the wrong moves and, worst of all, being conscious of every single one. It's the kind of role in the kind of film that on a bad day would star Michael Douglas, that king of the mid-life crisis sex thriller, so let's be grateful for the impeccable acting and natural charisma Pacino displays here. With this one film he made up for all the sins inherent in Revolution and in some ways you could unfortunately argue that he never bettered the renewed potential he showed here for further mainstream Hollywood projects.
The central premise sees Keller investigating a serial killer who is seemingly seeking out his or her victims in the pages of the lonely hearts column, and who leaves the unfortunate victim prostrate upon the bed with the old Phil Phillips song Sea of Love playing on the turntable. Along with his partner played by John Goodman, Keller hatches a plan to go undercover in an attempt to root out the murderer. Placing his own ad in the lonely hearts, he goes through a series of dates and meets the hard yet brittle single mother Helen, played by Ellen Barkin. Against his better judgement, Keller falls desperately in love. But he can't escape the niggling suspicion that she might just be the one he's looking for.
Both Pacino and Barkin deliver excellent performances here and are both wonderfully sensual and sexy in their interplay together, whilst the supporting cast includes not just the reliable light relief of Goodman, but also a youngish (though still largely bald) Richard Jenkins as the cop who stole Pacino's wife away, and a young Samuel L Jackson in a minor role as a criminal.
What makes Sea of Love so good is its genuine air of unpredictability which was so inherent in Hollywood films that the time, back when films seem to have memorable hooks and twists as a matter of course and would ensure you never heard certain songs in the same light again (see also Blue Velvet, Halloween II and The Crying Game). Granted there is an issue of tonal consistency sometimes as the film attempts to juggle its sinister thriller elements alongside its romance, but I find you can easily forgive the film these faults when its narrative and intentions are so good. And when you consider what Sea of Love does with its source material, and how influential it has actually become, it clearly pays off.
And for what it's worth, I'm one of those smug know-alls who would have cited Sea of Love if you'd ask me to name a film which saw Pacino play a cop. And why not, I've loved this for years now.
In September 2004, CBS’s 60 Minutes, anchored by respected veteran anchor Dan Rather, led with a story that cast doubt on the then president George W Bush's service as a Texas Air National Guard pilot from 1968 to 1974.
In the aftermath of the story breaking, the authenticity of the key documents that shaped CBS's story was called into question, along with the conduct of the reporting team led by producer Mary Mapes who were forced to cut corners to reach deadlines enforced on them by the channel itself. Critics were quick to argue that the team had been duped, that the documents were fake and that poor and biased journalism had sought to tarnish an incumbent president seeking reelection. Pretty soon, the story was no longer about whether Bush shied away from active service and was protected by his superiors thanks to political pressure, it was about the documents and the doubt thrown upon them, and then eventually the CBS news team itself became the news. With pressure from above and arguably from the White House itself, 60 Minutes was subsequently forced to retract and apologise for the story they broke and Dan Rather's twenty+ years with CBS came to an acrimonious close, whilst Mapes - who received a torrent of vitriolic online abuse and unbearable scrutiny - never worked in TV news again.
Truth, the directorial debut from James Vanderbilt(the screenwriter of David Fincher's acclaimed Zodiac), is based on Mapes’s own memoir, as such it's only right that the film comes firmly down on Mapes's side - something which some critics and audiences don't seem to appreciate. Like the actual event it depicts, Truth has had some unfair and unjust scorn and derision poured upon it and I cannot see why. Sure, its script is a little hokey and it tries a little too hard to be inspiring in a year when Spotlight rightly walked away with an accurate and rewarding experience of crusading journalism at its best. Truth was perhaps always going to play second fiddle (and arguably even third fiddle when you consider how Aaron Sorkin's second season of The Newsroom detailed a fictional duping perpetrated against the news team) but the brickbats it has received does make me wonder if the nature of the story CBS sought to break is still the key here. Or maybe people just didn't want to see a film in which the heroes lose and the ultimate findings are, in the general consensus, begrudgingly considered inconclusive at best, or scurrilously false at worst.
Cate Blanchett is her usual reliable and impressive self as Mapes, a celebrated journalist juggling the demands of the job in this new demanding media world which sees stories being fitted around Billy Graham and Dr Phil specials, her troubled and abused childhood and her own family life, whilst Robert Redford provides a stately, dignified presence as Rather. It's just a shame that the rest of the team, including Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace and Elizabeth Moss (the silly scientologist clearly not taking the message from the film to 'ask questions'), are given scarcely fleshed out or developed characters to perform.