Saturday, 24 September 2016

They Who Dare (1954)

All Quiet on the Western Front's Lewis Milestone returned to the folly of war with this 1954 adventure film based on the real life mission Operation Anglo.

Anglo was a somewhat ill fated Special Boat Service raid on the island of Rhodes that occurred in 1942. Carried out by eight SBS commandos and four Greeks, the mission's aim was to take out two Luftwaffe airfields on the island to scupper the enemy bombers attacks on Royal Navy convoys. Whilst the infiltration and attack on the airfields were a success, the unit's return to the rendezvous point to get off the island was besieged by bad luck - only two men made it off Rhodes, with the other members of the raiding party captured or killed. In the aftermath of Anglo, the depleted SBS was merged with the SAS (Special Air Service) and They Who Dare takes its title from that Regiment's motto 'Who Dares Wins'.

As a film, They Who Dare explores the heroism and professionalism of soldiers but also questions the limits of such courageous qualities and intentions in a suitably cynical manner in light of the grim coda of the mission it seeks to recount. As a result, it's a curious mixture of the traditional gung-ho 'men on a mission' wartime biopics that came out in the immediate postwar period, and the more pessimistic, gritty approach of a more mature anti-war feature. This mix isn't exactly successful alas, but the contradiction is perhaps best exemplified by Dirk Bogarde's starring role as the group leader, Lt Graham.

Being habitually somewhat effete in his performances and of the matinee idol mould, Bogarde was never what you'd call the archetype man of action or professional warrior, yet his CV contains some respectable instances of starring roles playing just that in everything from The Password is Courage to A Bridge Too Far, and that's not to mention is own impressive career in army intelligence, where he attained the rank of major and received a total of seven medals. Watching They Who Dare knowing of his own personal experiences in the war, you're left wondering if his service had any bearing on his portrayal of Lt Graham, a leader racked with self doubt, yet possessing an almost sadomasochistic desire to take risks and push things too far simply for 'kicks'. There's a strong character study to be had here on just what kind of man led such daring raids that went on to form the genetic make-up of a regiment that is still employed and world renowned to this day, but They Who Dare isn't that film unfortunately, despite the promise of what might be in Bogarde's performance. 

Indeed outside of Bogarde, They Who Dare is something of a weak film. The intensity and dimension inherent in his character is not shared with any of the supporting cast, made up of cardboard cutout stereotypes of the jovial partisan foreigner - all big beards and bigger back slapping laughs - and the inimitable Sam Kydd playing his usual cheery working class squaddie, this time with an annoying habit of replying to everyone with a song he had just made up that always has the line 'Confucius says' - yeah that gets old quick. Bogarde's fellow officers include William Russell (credited here as Russell Enoch) is Bogarde's faithful second whose sole characteristic seems to be that he draws caricatures, Denholm Elliott fares a little better with a thoughtful depiction of an academic type finding his talents required for behind enemy lines operations, but it's just one of those films where you can all too easily guess who makes it to the end credits, and who doesn't.

Whilst the change of tone isn't necessarily muffed, it is hampered by these stereotypes, some dreadful dialogue and an alarming tendency towards histrionics, whilst the special effects look to have been done on the cheap even by 1954 standards. If they had perhaps concerned themselves more with character and less with spectacle they may have had a minor classic on their hands here.

Friday, 23 September 2016

The Silent Enemy (1958)

The Silent Enemy remains a somewhat low-key but very interesting war film, interesting primarily because of the influence it would subsequently have on future films, most notably those in the Bond franchise.

The film attempts to depict the life and wartime exploits of the legendary British frogman Lieutenant Lionel Crabb, R.N.V.R, known to all as 'Buster' Crabb. It was based on the biography Commander Crabb by Marshall Pugh and released on the wave of publicity and fascination that arose from Crabb's disappearance and likely death whilst secretly investigating the Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze and its propeller design on Naval Intelligence orders in 1956.

The film opens with an incident from 1941, the Italian manned torpedo raid on Alexandria, which saw their frogmen plant limpet mines on the hull of two British battleships, attacking and disabling them. This was to be first strike in a concerted Italian effort against British naval supremacy in the Mediterranean and, in Spain, the Italian underwater expert Tomolino observes the British base in nearby Gibralter, planning their next move against a British convoy. Concerned by this new Italian tactic, the British navy assign bomb disposal expert Lionel Crabb to head up their response. Crabb quickly develops a flair for diving during this posting and begins to form a team of divers who can intercept the attacks from the Italians and defuse their bombs, as well as investigating the suspicious death of General Sikorski of the Polish Army, whose B-24 Liberator aircraft crashed in the waters off Gibraltar in 1943. Infiltrating a Spanish dock, Crabb and his team identify the torpedo-laden ship the Italians are planning to attack from and launch an unauthorised and pre-emptive strike against them, destroying the ship and foiling their plans. In recognition for his efforts during the war, Crabb was awarded the George Medal.

The real Crabb, photographed in Gibralter

Laurence Harvey as Crabb

Crabb may not be the well known name he once was (after all it is some sixty years since his mysterious disappearance in a Cold War incident that will not be revealed by official records until 2056) but he was unmistakably a true British hero. William Fairchild's film ought to stand on a par with Lewis Gilbert's biopic of ace flier Douglas Bader, Reach For The Sky, released two years prior to this, as both films try to get under the skin of what was clearly a very courageous, but also complex and eccentric breed of hero. Laurence Harvey's dark locks are dyed blonde for the role and he also wears a full naval beard to deliver one of his more memorable performances, coming off occasionally like a cross between James Robertson Justice, James Bond and Roger Moore's diving hero character ffoulkes from 1979's North Sea Hijack.

Which brings us neatly on to the question of inspiration. The lead character in North Sea Hijack is undoubtedly based on Crabb, whilst Ian Fleming was compelled to write the Bond novel Thunderball in both the wake of Crabb's disappearance and the release of this filmed biopic. The splendid underwater cinematography on display here from Otto Heller - including the underwater hand-to-hand battle scenes between British and Italian divers (which didn't actually happen) - is certainly a key influence on the similar underwater segments of Terence Young's subsequent adaptation of Fleming's novel, and indeed of other Bond film to feature similar scenarios that has followed.

It's not an historically accurate film, but it is an enjoyable one although a little slow moving. It boasts a fine supporting cast, including Michael Craig as Crabb's lifelong diving buddy, Sydney Knowles (who, before his death at the age of 90, claimed Crabb was killed by MI5, rather than the KGB, because of a desire to defect to Russia) and Harvey's friend and fellow South African Sid James, playing it mostly straight as Chief Petty Officer Thorpe. However, I believe it was this film that ended their friendship as James became angered by how fame had gone to Harvey's head by this point and the allegedly disgraceful attitude he took towards the crew during filming.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Tony's Last Tape @ Liverpool Everyman, 22/9/16

Tony Benn is brought back to life in Liverpool this week thanks to the Everyman's staging of Nottingham Playhouse's touring production of Tony's Last Tape.

This one-man, one-act piece from Midlands playwright Andy Barrett takes as its cue both the rigorous life-long habit the late socialist Labour MP had for documenting his life via a personal audio diary, and the Samuel Beckett play Krapp's Last Tape which it occasionally mirrors and draws comparisons with.  

It's a compelling showcase for the actor Philip Bretherton, a performer with a considerable body of work but who is perhaps best known as yuppie literary agent Alistair in genteel sitcom As Time Goes By, who captures something of Benn's voice and mannerisms but is altogether a more nuanced performance than a mere impersonation. Its a lovely subtle turn that captures the frailty of the aging Benn, but who allows for a flash of youthful righteous indignation at the merest whiff of injustice...or mention of Blair and Kinnock!

Barrett's play is at times witty, and at times deeply poignant. The play concerns Benn's determination in the small hours of a rainy night to mark the final full stop on his politically active, methodically documented life. Here in his study, in the bowels of his house (a wonderful design job from Rachael Jacks) he intends to make his last tape, and he's in ruminative mood; the play doesn't just reference Benn's political past, it also focuses on his personal past too, principally his grief at losing his beloved wife Caroline in 2000, and his brother Mike during the war. But it is in the political threads that we can see the contemporary and topical parallels with what is occurring right now on the left; you'd have to be spectacularly short-sighted not to spot the link between Benn and his fellow firebrand Jeremy Corbyn, and the play has something to say about how key protest is - never mind all this 'we have to be an opposition' nonsense. We have to fight, as Tony Benn clearly and passionately tells us before the curtain falls.

This was an enjoyable production that ran to a satisfactory 75 minutes without an interval, thereby ensuring it did not outstay its welcome and is well directed by Giles Croft. Tonight's 'opening night' performance offered an 'Afterwords' chat with Bretherton and the company, but I'm afraid I had to leave to catch my train and so missed this pleasure. Overall, the Everyman once again came up trumps; it really is a lovely space, though smaller perhaps than the production is used to, but this actually lent itself to the intimate nature of the piece rather beautifully. Unfortunately, I did find myself sitting to an old duffer who presumed he was sat at home in front of his TV rather than in the theatre, which meant he provided his own commentary at several key stages, burbling away to himself and remarking 'good' every so often, to show that he was enjoying it. I was also sat in front of a belching woman too, which was also pretty distracting! Ah well, the programme - a sparse affair - was free and a good night was had by all.

Tony's Last Tape runs at the Everyman until this Saturday.

Out On Blue Six : Anohni

Love this

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Monday, 19 September 2016

Theme Time : Spencer Davis Group - Magpie

Is it any wonder that ITV's Magpie was considered the edgy alternative to Auntie Beeb's Blue Peter when it had a theme tune from Brum based mod rockers the Spencer Davis Group?

Granted the chart toppers went under the alias of The Murgatroyd Band, but there's no denying that whilst Blue Peter spoke to the middle class suburbanites, Magpie was for council estate kids and the magazine show focused on hobbies, pastimes and interests, collecting and charitable appeals.

Created by Lewis Rudd and Sue Turner for Thames TV, Magpie made its debut in July 1968 and ran twice-weekly from the following year right up until its last broadcast in 1980. The original hosts were Susan Stranks (often braless - one for the dads!) former Radio 1 DJ Pete Brady, and Tony Bastable. When Brady left the show in 1969, he was replaced by diminutive Scot Douglas Rae, whilst Bastable left in '72 to make way for Mick Robertson. Jenny Hanley provided the eye-candy for the dads in '74 when Susan Stranks made her exit, and in 1977, Rae left to be replaced by Tommy Boyd. The final line up for those last three years were Robertson, Hanley and Boyd, pictured below.

The theme tune cribbed from the old nursery rhyme that referred to the old English superstition regarding the portent of a number of magpies seen in a flock. However, the traditional lyrics were changed to be more child-friendly;

"Eight for heaven, nine for hell, ten for the devil himself" became "Eight's a wish and nine a kiss, ten is a bird you must not miss"

Hanging On The Telephone

Suzy Parker, 1953

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Rapid Reviews: Motherland by Jo McMillan

"My mum was quiet on the journey, which didn't worry me because I knew from last year it was just love and the left-hand drive"

That excerpt, which I've highlighted because of that beautiful phrase 'love and the left-hand drive' (I mean, that could almost be a Billy Bragg album title, right?) is from author Jo McMillan's 2015 debut novel, Motherland, which is a semi-fictional account of her teenage years, when she spent her summers with her mother, an active communist, in East Germany as part of an educational programme run by the GDR's Ministry of Education.

Motherland is full of beautiful, quirky little touches and turns of phrase like that, which just about save it from the vagaries you get elsewhere in the narrative.

Spanning 1978 to 1984, the story concerns Jess, the daughter of the only communist in Tamworth, her schoolteacher mother Eleanor - a marvellously eccentric, highly-strung and determined creation. When we meet Jess she is 13 and her belief in the GDR, the Soviet Union and Communism, is unflinching. She sells the Morning Star (or at least, attempts to sell it) with her mother to a disinterested and antagonistic Tamworth town centre every Saturday, and dreams of life at the other side of the Iron Curtain ("It's not really an Iron Curtain" Eleanor says at one point, "More a Veil of Misunderstanding")

That dream comes true when Eleanor is invited over to the GDR in the summer of '78 as part of a group of sympathetic teachers from across Western Europe. There, Jess meets the enigmatic teenager Martina and a strong friendship develops, just as Eleanor falls for Peter, Martina's widowed father; a love that is one of the two reasons for the aforementioned silence on the journey back.

But when Peter is dispatched for two years  of solidarity work in Laos, the trouble starts and Jess realises the GDR isn't necessarily a place for love. Slowly, in this tragi-comic portrait of an unusual childhood, Jess begins to think for herself as she approaches adulthood and the bonds between mother and daughter begin to change.

The author and her mother, Isobel, in Potsdam, 1978

I rather enjoyed Motherland, primarily for its little character touches, than the story as a whole. I would recommend it to anyone who has read and enjoyed the memoirs of similar communist youths such as Alexei Sayle and David Aaornovitch. It seems we're having something of a boom period for these kind of stories now.

Silent Sunday : Ménage à trois

Friday, 16 September 2016

The Man From U.N.C.L.E (2015)

Having never seen Henry Cavill as Superman, I have to ask does he make as much of a hash of the American accent in them as he does here in The Man From U.N.C.L.E? He sounded Australian at times, especially in the scenes at the start of the film, set in East Berlin.

Fresh off the back of his success at creating two Sherlock Holmes movies in the buddy buddy vein, mockney moviemaker Guy Ritchie sets his sights on reviving the unlikely cold war partnership of agents Napoleon Solo (American) and Illya Kuryakin (Russian) of U.N.C.L.E, based on the hit US TV series that ran from 1964 to 1968 starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum.

It's a very glossy, stylish film but unfortunately it is also dogged by a crippling lack of zip and, much like the original series itself, it exudes an obnoxious smugness that is barely tolerable. Yes that's right I didn't really like the original series either. For me, the spy boom that sprang up in the 1960s at the height of the cold war - thanks largely to the success of the James Bond films - spawned many a cult espionage hit, often with various levels of tongue-in-cheek, but the greatest and most successful was made here in Britain; The Avengers. That series positively brimmed with effusive and effervescent charm, that frankly the natural arrogance of the young Robert Vaughn failed to match. The Man From U.N.C.L.E, like many other cheap and cheerful US derivatives of the genre, lacked the polish of The Avengers and the Bond films an possessed an underlying seediness,  as anyone who recalls Dean Martin's mutton-chopped, paunchy polo-necked Matt Helm will testify.

If the aim was to make a film as bland as the original series then you could say Ritchie has pulled it off, except Vaughn's instinctive smarm was still more palatable than the deeply uncharismatic Cavill, who fails to invest the necessary spark in his partnership with Armie Hammer's Kuryakin, who is a poor substitute for the dour and earnest McCallum. When will Hollywood realise it can do nothing with Hammer? It really is time to STOP! Hammer Time.

(Thank you, I'm here all week)

With none of the requisite brio and the central partnership pretty much boiling down to 'my gadget's better than yours' (rather like that old gag about the CIA training dolphins to attach mines on USSR nuclear subs...only for the USSR to train fish to attach mines to the dolphins), everything about this felt deeply laboured and not unlike one long aftershave advert. Ritchie swamped the film with lounge music and easy listening but it never feels natural, just forced. And speaking of forced, Hugh Grant's turn as Mr Waverly just proved that Grant can't really play anything other than Hugh Grant. Only the girls kept this remotely interesting; Alicia Vikander as the defecting daughter of 'Hitler's favourite rocket scientist' (yes, that's actually a line in the film) and Elizabeth Debicki (last seen in the BBC's adaptation of Le Carre's The Night Manager) who delivers a villainous turn as a silky svelte ice maiden. The sight of Vikander drunk-dancing in her PJ's to Solomon Burke's 'Cry To Me' is a brief, sweet highlight in a sea of admittedly glam looking dross.

Proof if ever it were needed that Guy Ritchie should not be allowed anywhere near the Bond franchise.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Shakedown: Return of the Sontarans (1994)

"She is female, you are male. Are you sexually pair-bonded?"

It always amuse me when you see the reaction of new Doctor Who fans to the news that there will be no new season for a year. I genuinely don't know how they would have coped as Who fans in the '90s, when all you had that was vaguely approaching 'new Who' was the sight of a former Blake's 7 actress running around HMS Belfast in silver vinyl kecks.

Shakedown: Return of the Sontarans was an attempt to plug the void left by the BBC's decision to axe Doctor Who in 1989. Made on a shoestring budget by the fans (director Kevin Davies and Doctor Who composer Mark Ayres came up with the initial idea before handing scriptwriting duties to former Doctor Who script editor and writer Terrance Dicks) and for the fans, the film was a direct-to-video release that hit the limited mail-order and sci-fi store market in 1995.

The story features two legendary Doctor Who monsters created by the writer Robert Holmes, the Sontarans and the Rutans, attacking and invading the Tiger Moth, a state-of-the-art galactic racing yacht. The crew of the Tiger Moth is made up of two actresses renowned for playing former companions of the Doctor, Carole Ann Ford (Susan) and Sophie Aldred (Ace) alongside two former stars of Blake's 7 Jan Chappell and Brian Croucher. Michael Wisher, famous for playing the original Davros in the Doctor Who story Genesis of the Daleks, also appears here. 

The unlicensed nature of the production meant that the design of the Sontarans had to be amended to avoid legal wrangles with the BBC, and all mentions of the Doctor was verboten; which is why Croucher's character briefly recalls meeting an old boy who called himself ''the Physician, or the Dentist or something...'' on Metebelis 3 (a terribly clunky reference; why not just say 'I think he was some kind of medic, least that's what he was calling himself'). Though, whilst Shakedown shares such obvious similarities with Who, it's worth pointing out that what it would really like to be is Alien, with Jan Chappell's tough skipper a Ripley clone as her crew are picked off one by one in space where no one can hear you scream... 

It is ropey old nonsense made on the kind of budget I imagine would barely cover Steven Moffat's brunch order today, but you've got to admire the dedication these former sci-fi alumni had in wanting to continue to entertain a hungry audience. My favourite criticism of it is one of the comments left on the YouTube upload that says "gosh this feels/looks like a porno", and don't even get me started on the embarrassing Marcel Marceau antics the cast have to do at one point to convince us they're piloting the space yacht in VR. But the many naff moments and faults aside, there is a certain nostalgia to be had watching this now. It offers us a chance to look back at the '90s when we fans genuinely didn't know if/when Doctor Who was ever going to come back and this kind of offering (along with the New Adventure novels and the comic strips in DWM) kept us going. And it's kind of fun to see Carole Ann Ford act like the sister to Joan and Jackie Collins that no one refers to, and Sophie Aldred looking like a cross between Lara Croft and the sixth Spice Girl.

Out On Blue Six : Wet Wet Wet/Billy Bragg (feat Cara Tivey)

This unlikely pairing came about as a double A side single, released in May 1988 to raise funds for the charity ChildLine. Taking two Lennon and McCartney compositions, With A Little Help From My Friends (performed by the Wets) and She's Leaving Home (Bragg, with regular collaborator Tivey) it went to number one and raised a lot of money for the children's counselling service.

End Transmission