Tuesday, 31 December 2013

RIP John Fortune

Another sad loss to the world of entertainment as its been revealed that the brilliant comedian, satirist and writer John Fortune lost his battle with leukaemia today aged 74

In the 1960s Fortune was one of the founding members of Peter Cook's Establishment Club alongside his long term comedy partner John Bird, known as 'The Long Johns'. The forty plus year strong partnership perhaps reached its peak when in the 00s, they appeared in Channel 4's Bremner, Bird and Fortune performing effortless semi improved sketches each week that were the show's absolute highlights.


Festive Frights On BBC2 - Part Two

Alongside the Hammer horrors, BBC2 also produced two brand new chillers for our entertainment over Christmas....

You have to love Mark Gatiss, a supremely talented bugger, he endeavours to single handedly or collaboratively bring back all that was good in the tradition of television; Doctor Who, Sherlock and now the Ghost Story for Christmas - an adaptation of MR James' The Tractate Middoth for BBC2 Christmas Day.

In truth it's not the first time Gatiss has tried to resurrect the Ghost Story For Christmas formula, having previously given us The Crooked House, a story of his own devising, for BBC4 a few years ago. But its perhaps this adaptation that hopefully brings it back to the fore, given that it was also granted a companion piece; a documentary about MR James hosted by Gatiss immediately after he'd scared the bejesus out of us.

The Tractate Middoth is a rich and suitably chilling story for a late Christmas evening, with only the tree lights and the fireside flickering and a glass of something by your side. I don't normally consider myself fearful of spiders (unlike James himself, a notorious arachnophobe) but I had quite a clammy frisson of fear for the arachnid watching this  and shudder at the thought of one crossing my face now! Likewise dust motes, something so ordinary can cause a chill here. 

It's a reverential and well drawn adaptation in Gatiss' scriptwriting and directorial hands. The casting is strong with Sacha Dhawan in the central role whilst his fellow young players include Nicholas Burns and Charlie Clemmow, but its perhaps in the casting of the more mature roles that Gatiss not only excels but betrays his love of nostalgia; Roy Barraclough gives the piece some comic relief, as does Una Stubbs (previously employed by Gatiss for Sherlock) whilst 70s classical actor hunk John Castle, the divine Eleanor Bron, David Ryall (playing the very definition of a wicked old bugger) and Louise Jameson (70s Doctor Who companion, The Omega Factor and Bergerac star - a clear favourite of Gatiss) all grandly fill out the rest of the cast. For the record Jameson's striking ice blue eyes still look amazing and even better in HD.

It's a simple story well told that maintains the tradition of less is more when it comes to scares. The last scene featuring Castle for example bears all the hallmarks of the classic 70s ghost story adaptations.

Well we were rather promised 'A Ghost Story at Christmas' with The Tractate Middoth but, good though that was, it was the second new chilly offering from BBC2, The Thirteenth Tale (based on the novel by Diane Setterfield) that trumped it entirely.

An utterly engrossing atmospheric Gothic and psychological chiller, The Thirteenth Tale pitted two glorious actresses together; Vanessa Redgrave, whose brittle frail elder stateswoman was perfect to embody the cancer ridden and mysterious writer Vida Winter, and Olivia Colman, the national treasure at the height of her powers as Margaret Lea, her inquisitive biographer summoned to the Moors to hear Vida's life story - a life story that was strange, chilling and full of twists and turns. Both gave brilliant performances that made it impossible to tear your eyes from the screen. Likewise, the film's flashback narrative was also populated by great actors  like Robert Pugh, Tom Goodman-Hill, Alexandra Roach, Sophie Turner and Antonia Clarke and indeed, the most harshly horrific moments occur here.

The narrative itself was slow moving, allowing the actors to tell the story and sinuously grip a hold of you, pulling you like quicksand into the dark atmosphere and enveloping you totally in the prickly unflinching mystery and scares.

An eerie story of grief, jealousy, incest, murder and the peculiar dynamic of twins, The Thirteenth Tale was tense, harsh and often almost too unsettling and unhappy to bear. Never a comfortable watch, it was damn entertaining nonetheless. If I had to pick holes, it was perhaps inevitable that the required rationality of the final act made it far less compelling than all the suspense and mystery that came before it, but that's just a minor quibble concerning one of the season's TV highlights.

Monday, 30 December 2013

Festive Frights On BBC2 - Part One

BBC2 have rather treated us this Christmas by broadcasting plenty of seasonal chills, both new and old. Here are some reviews for the older offerings, a season of Hammer horror movies which commenced in the wee small hours of Boxing Day/27th Dec with...

Between the lurid gore and the bare bosoms indicative of their last decade as a film studio, it's sometimes easy to forget just how revolutionary Hammer were in approaching traditional and familiar stories when they commenced their horrors in the 1950s. This adaptation of Bram Stoker's Gothic classic made in 1958 and issued simply as Dracula (ignore the American heathens alternative and pointless title 'Horror Of Dracula' which some rigidly stick too) was, like the previous year's Curse of Frankenstein - which we'll come back too - a bold mission statement for a new era in horror film making. 

Abridged, expedient but nevertheless still faithful to previously unexplored themes in the source material and deeply atmospheric, Dracula benefits not only from the great production team behind the camera (Terence Fisher, Jimmy Sangster etc) but in having as its leads two men who approached their roles with extreme reverent dedication and utter gusto; Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Both legends are at the very top of their game here, giving us pitch perfect performances of a tense and swashbuckling action hero and villain velocity.  Lee's Dracula is a sexual predator; urbane, charming and utterly ruthless yet on the turn of a sixpence he becomes a wild animal, truly undead and alien. Meanwhile Cushing's performance as the determined Van Helsing is both gentlemanly, heroic and yet fallible enough to immediately gain audience support. When he flinches with disgust at the monsters he is compelled to hunt, we feel it equally so. 

Beautiful to look at and barely dated, Hammer's first foray into the world of vampire was also one of their very best adult fairytales. Utterly recommended.

This offering from BBC2 was a rare treat, a Hammer movie I don't think I've ever actually seen before. It's a good film in the traditional early Hammer mould, following Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein in bringing horror into the cinematic mainstream once more after the 1930s/40s Universal era. Indeed, this one is derived from two previous Universal film plots; The Mummy's Hand  and The Mummy's Tomb as opposed to the 1932 Boris Karloff film of the same name. However unlike the previous classic gothic horror adaptations, The Mummy perhaps owes more to the Saturday matinee adventure genre and there's  an air of melancholia and doomed romance in the production too. 

Shot with the trademark bold colour palate of early Hammer; the vivid reds, greens, blues and yellows, The Mummy's cinematography of the exotic settings of days gone by put me in mind of the illustrations in the Ladybird books on historical figures I devoured as a child. It has a somewhat languid pace even for an 85 minute feature but that's not to say the film is missing spirit or the necessary thrills which largely stem from the classy, reliably keen, totally committed and often physical performances of the leads Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee; with Lee drawing on his past experience with mime to convey great presence to a role which all to often requires him to simply loom menacingly and unrelentingly towards his victims or attackers. In other hands it would be little more than a blank, but Lee manages to deliver not only threat but a tragedy to his impassive brutish figure, helped of course by some terrific set pieces from Terence Fisher - chief amongst them is perhaps the first vengeance killing of former 'tomb raider' Felix Aylmer whose cries for help and struggles go on unheard in the padded cell of the local asylum he has been confined too. It's a chilling fate palpably felt I find.

Look out for Hammer's comic relief being provided by Harold Goodwin and Dennis Shaw (admirers of Keith Waterhouse's Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell will know him as 'Den-Den' a figure whose drunken exploits are relayed by Bernard in the play's monologue) as two iffily accented Irish tinkers conveying the Mummy once in England.

The Curse of Frankenstein, Britain's first colour horror film, is one that ranks as one of Hammer's finest. However The Observer, at the time of release, had this to say "(it is) among the half dozen most repulsive films I have encountered in 10,000 miles of film reviewing", whilst The Daily Telegraph advised it "For sadists only"

Oh dear. I wonder what those reviewers would think of horror films now?

Naturally, the gore is now tame by comparison - though that said, there's still something utterly shocking about the crack of the shotgun and Lee's Creature's hand going up to his head, deep red blood gushing through the fingers - but where the real horror lies in The Curse of Frankenstein is in the characterisation and performance of Baron Victor Frankenstein played by Peter Cushing, a role with which alongside the more angelic Van Helsing he would forever be associated with Hammer thanks to several sequels. His Baron is a cold calculating and determined bastard. A homicidal sociopath devoid of moral scruples so blinkered is he by scientific, medical progress. Cushing embodies the role perfectly with enough arrogance and swagger to convince whilst never ever going over the top. A master at underplaying, his conviction to the role amd complete understanding of what is required of him ensures he walks the delicate line between the ruthless cad the audience can be shocked by and one which they can smirk at too whenever the script explores a certain style of dark drawing room comedy. Indeed the 'pass the marmalade' line between he and Hazel Court that immediately follows the scene in which he has unforgiveably sacrificed his strumpet servant girl Valerie Gaunt to the Creature is a prime example of a film that is totally aware of the fact the audience need to breathe and have some playful light relief. It's a rare thing that, despite the character's inherent evil (he is after all the true monster here) one cannot help but feel sorry for Victor as he is locked in his cell frantically relating a story no one believes, the guillotine being primed in readiness for him.

Praise too to Christoper Lee as the Creature. Like The Mummy two years later (and broadcast the night before this) Lee is required to do little more than be a silent unrelenting menace but, thanks to Jimmy Sangster's script, Terence Fisher's assured direction and Lee's own skills, innate physicality and background in mime, he delivers a performance that has many layers and depth and above all is utterly tragic. Little wonder then that one year later he would be afforded a much juicer and bigger role alongside Cushing, that of the titular Dracula in Hammer's next step at becoming the home of horror.

Minor irritations aside - Robert Urquhart, saddled with the do goody mentor role is at times irritatingly theatrical and mannered which is totally at odds with Cushing's playing and, likewise, the otherwise reliable Valerie Gaunt seems to be sporting a 'Vot iz dis?' Germanic accent that no other player is doing - The Curse of Frankenstein is close to perfection.

The Abominable Snowman, the 1957 feature based on Nigel Kneale's BBC play The Creature from two years previously, remains one of my favourite Hammer films. 

The story focuses on Kneale's usual obsessions; the intriguing mix of science and folklore, the noble scientist at odds with the narrow minded capitalist hunter, and an ancient intelligence waiting in the wings for a self centred mankind to destroy itself. Like the BBC's 1984 before it, The Creature reunited Kneale with Rudolph Cartier as producer and Peter Cushing in the lead role as the morally right, sensitive and gently inquiring hero, John Rollason. The subsequent success of Cartier and Kneale's Quatermass serials would gain Hammer's interest in producing a big screen versions, before the company would adapt The Creature into The Abominable Snowman, a thoughtful, beautiful and unjustly neglected film.

Cushing returned to the role of Rollason, accompanied by Forrest Tucker (replacing Stanley Baker from the TV production) and Robert Brown as two loud mouthed uncouth American trappers seeking the Yeti for commercial gain. The film, directed well by Val Guest, revels in stunningly crisp black and white photography from Arthur Grant, lending a real majesty to the Pinewood studio built snowy peaks (with scenes on the French Pyrenees used as establishing shots) The set design deserves special praise; Bernard Robinson creating a convincing Himalayas as well as a lavish Tibetan monastery which would later be resurrected for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu films the following decade. There's also something wonderfully British and Boy's Own about the production, as witnessed in the costume design; explorers in duffle coats, cricket jumpers and fingerless mittens, and the inclusion of some light comic relief in Richard Wattis' character Foxy, waiting patiently at the monastery base with Rollason's wife, Helen (also created for the film, and with Cushing's real life wife's christian name) played by the beautiful Maureen Connell alongside the Arnold Marle's quirky Lama, who can be both amusing, reassuring and unsettling in equal measure.

Kneale has always had a direct line to my spine and what makes it tingle and he does so again here, despite several rewatches. It's primarily because he delivers in intelligent scares and this was superbly displayed by the central plot here and Cushing's famous line, "Suppose they're not some pitiable remnant, suppose we're the savages. Homo Vastens. Man the destroyer!" Kneale also knew that less was always more when it came to frights and the encounter with the Yeti was no exception; in a dark, dank cave Cushing becomes aware of large, distinctly humanoid shapes. With little more than an almost imperceptible turn of the head and widening eyes Cushing expresses total awe at what he has seen, and that's enough for the audience too.

The legacy of Kneale's work continues to be felt even today in a revived Hammer studios. The head of production has expressed interest in remaking this film in November this year, if it does go into production, it has some big Yeti sized footprints to fill.


Paintings by Malcolm Liepke, Wim Visschers and Felix Vallotton


Olivia Munn

Sunday, 29 December 2013

TV Highlights of 2013

So, what's been good on the box in 2013. Well here is my opinion, categorised into genre but in no particular order...


Strictly Come Dancing, 

Yes ok, Brucie's well past retirement, Tess is a fembot and the majority of the judges get on your wick, but this is still the highlight of autumn/winter. Enlivened by Claudia Winkleman on Sundays and as Bruce's stand in occassionally, this year saw some great dancers and general eye candy thanks to the likes of Susanna Reid (above) shaking her tail feather and Sophie Ellis Bextor, the epitome of classy beauty

The Great British Bake Off, 

Possibly the nicest and therefore most enjoyable of all reality TV, TGBBO is just good relaxing tele. This year did have some controversy creeping into the genteel baking tent, thanks to some uber jealous female viewers hating Ruby Tandoh (above) and taking to Twitter to slag her off, where she gave as good as she got. Good for her! She didn't win, that went to the lovely Frances, and good for her too.

Only Connect, BBC4

The cosy cerebral half hour I enjoy of a Monday evening is tempered by the fact that the absolute fox that is Victoria Coren-Mitchell is at the helm and at her deadpan best.

Charlie Brooker's Weekly Wipe,

The deliciously sarcastic and spot on Brooker - my hero - casts his critical eye over TV, the news, social media, video games and film

Fire In The Night: 
The Piper Alpha Disaster, BBC2

Genuinely jaw dropping and heart rending documentary concerning the infamous oil rig disaster.

Educating Yorkshire, Channel 4

Heartwarming, life affirming documentary following the day to day lives of teachers and pupils of a Yorkshire comprehensive. I was in holiday in Yorkshire at the time of the first transmission and the buzz around there was incredible; they were all so proud and couldn't wait to see it.


Man Down, Channel 4

I've been a fan of Greg Davies ever since his role in the hit and miss comic troupe We Are Klang. Since then, alongside a brilliant solo stand up career, he's slowly been proving himself as a sitcom star thanks to The Inbetweeners and Cuckoo. Man Down is his first self penned sitcom and its a hilarious joy.

Toast of London, Channel 4

Inspired lunacy from the genius that is Matt Berry. One of the most inventive and laugh out loud comedies of recent years. It was a pleasure to be in Toast's London for half an hour each week.

VEEP, Sky Atlantic

Series two came to Sky Atlantic in Oct and capitalised on everything that made series one so fun and successful. Far more than just the US Thick of It, Veep is something in its own right, with a superb cast of players and an assured British team of writers and directors (all who cut their teeth on The Thick of It) behind the camera.

Hello Ladies, Sky Atlantic

Following his debut stand up tour of the same name, Stephen Merchant stepped out of Ricky's shadow and went stateside, pleasantly surprising us all with a genuinely funny and astute new sitcom with a wonderful soundtrack.

Bluestone 42, BBC3

Somewhat inevitably this sitcom following the lives of a bomb disposal team in Afghanistan was met with much criticism decrying it was in 'bad taste', often from idiots who hadn't even deigned to watch it (seriously, check out one idiot who reviewed the entire 3 hours of the first series just from watching a 90 second trailer) It's a shame because if they watched it they'd have seen a worthy successor to M*A*S*H, albeit with a uniquely sarcastic British flavour. Very very funny but also occasionally dramatic, its a fitting representation of the kind of spirit ensembles have when facing danger and high pressure environments on a daily basis.

A Touch Of Cloth, Sky One

The second Touch Of Cloth proved to be more of the same thanks to Charlie Brooker's never ending stream of inanity and bad taste. Think Police Squad, in Britain...with more nob gags.

London Irish, Channel 4

Despite some iffy moments (that guy in the centre stretched out is an irritating prick; bad character, poorly played) this new sitcom about Irish students in London had a good gag rate and much promise

Fresh Meat, Channel 4

Now in its 3rd series, the cast may have aged but the show hasn't dated. If you can suspend your disbelief that these aren't in their late 20s and are in fact just 2nd year Uni students, as well as suspending your innate hatred of the talentless twat Jack Whitehall, then this is a riotous comedy from the pen of Peep Show creators and The Thick Of It writers Bain and Armstrong.

Count Arthur Strong, BBC2

It took a lot of flak (idiots) but this is the sweetest sitcom I've seen for some time. Steve Delaney's Count is the best drawn character comedy I've seen since Coogan and Rory Kinnear gave sterling support. Proper fun for all the family sitcom.

Hebburn, BBC2

The other sweetest sitcom I've seen in some time, Hebburn has all the familial warmth that idiots say Gavin and Stacey had - it didn't. This has Vic Reeves/Jim Moir, Gavin and Stacey had James Corden. Nuff said.

The Ambassadors, BBC2

More of a comedy drama really, this all too brief (just three episodes) series hit its stride almost immediately. Robert Webb proved he can do straight(ish) acting whilst David Mitchell proved he's a lucky lucky man. In real life he's married to Victoria Coren, and in this he has to pretend he's married to Keeley Hawes. The poor guy. Not.


Mad Dogs, Sky One

The increasingly bitter, bloody and jet black comedy returned this year for a final series and a two part conclusion with The Best Male Ensemble Ever Gathered on British Tele (Max Beesley, John Simm, Marc Warren and Philip Glenister) One criticism, the stupid surreal wtf ending to the finale tonight. Anyone able to explain?

Borgen, BBC4

My favourite Danish export returned for its final series and had me gripped every Saturday, I don't really want to say any more, I'm in denial that it has actually ended and won't be coming back. Intelligent aspirational drama, like what we don't do alas.

The Newsroom, Sky Atlantic

Speaking of intelligent and aspirational drama, the yanks can do it too with HBO's excellent The Newsroom returning for a tighter, more dramatic and more funny second season. I LOVE this, my favourite HBO export.

Boardwalk Empire, Sky Atlantic

My second favourite HBO export, we returned to the boardwalk for a thrilling fourth season this year with Stephen Graham's short tempered Al Capone discovering cocaine, losing a brother and gaining more purchase in the criminal underworld. Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson is the strong unassuming centre of the drama, one whom you underestimate at your peril.

Peaky Blinders, BBC2

BBC2 also went a bit HBO this year with their Birmingham 1919 based criminal drama Peaky Blinders, concerning the violent escapades of the gang of the same name. Dodgy accents aside this was a lavish piece of work.

The Village, BBC1

Peter Moffat's answer to the decade/generation stretching classic German drama Heimat was a true Sunday night highlight, the antidote to dull Downton in that it focused squarely on the lives of the ordinary working classes, particularly the family headed by John Simm's desperately tragic alcoholic farmer and his wife Maxine Peake. The last TV work of the great Antonia Bird, who sadly died in Oct.

The Mill, Channel 4

The Mill followed a similar path to The Village and aired in the same Sunday slot too; telling the real life inspired story of Northern mill workers. It was that rarest of things in current tele, politically aware drama. It also entertained, educated and made you realise just how bloody lucky you are. 

Scott and Bailey, ITV

ITV's answer to Cagney and Lacey (ish) returned for a third series. I love this Manchester based, highly realistic police procedural, but the real star remains Amelia Bullmore as the titular partnership's sharp tongued boss. 

What Remains, BBC1

Gripping Sunday night drama based in part on the real life story which was told in the documentary film Dreams of a Life. David Threlfall's retiring detective couldn't give up the investigation into how a young girl fell through the cracks of society and died alone and undiscovered for two years. Only a melodramatic final episode (slightly) tarnished the otherwise excellent series.

Top of the Lake, BBC2

New Zealand is the other end of the world and Jane Campion;s quirky, dark drama made it feel just like that! Brilliant and gripping it filled a gap for those longing for their Scandi noir on Saturday evenings.

The Fall, BBC2

Another gripping crime drama, this one set in Northern Ireland with Gillian Anderson's cold and aloof detective hunting a serial killer who may be under her very nose. Again, the curse of the underwhelming or irritating final episodes struck here, but this was still top drawer stuff.

Broadchurch, ITV

Probably THE highlight of 2013 tele, Broadchurch disproved the myth that event TV no longer existed, The whole country was talking about this, the most enthralling small community murder story since Twin Peaks. Olivia Colman acted everyone off the screen and to our joy we got a final episode that tied up everything perfectly.

Southcliffe, Channel 4

Like Broadchurch, Southcliffe was another small coastal community beset by violent tragedy, in this case an almost Hungerford style massacre which saw the village crank and loner kill his invalid mother before going on a rampage, casually strolling through the town taking potshots at whoever passed by. Sean Harris has cornered the market in playing deeply unnerving damaged individuals and the stories closest thing to a hero was played by Rory Kinnear, a world away from Count Arthur Strong, and my personal favourite tele actor of 2013.

Field of Blood: 
The Dead Hour, BBC1

Denise Mina's second Paddy Meehan mystery was adapted for the BBC this year and once again impressed. The atmosphere of a Glasgow newsroom in the 80s was convincing, the cast uniformly excellent and the mystery gripping.

The Great Train Robbery, BBC1

Splendid dramatisation of the events of 1963, brilliantly performed with an excellent production design and eye for detail. For more info see my review from earlier this month.

Lucan, ITV

Rory Kinnear showed his range once more as the infamous Lucky lucan in Jeff Pope's chilling dramatisation that offered up some interesting theories. See my review from earlier this month for more info.

Burton and Taylor, BBC4

The last of the BBC4 biopics focused on the last time the tempestuous on/off lovers worked together. Well played by Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter, from a script by Billy Ivory, this was quite a gem. 

Truckers, BBC1

Also from Billy Ivory, Truckers returned him to similar ground he'd previously explored with his 1990s hit Common as Muck. Taking one individual character from the ensemble to look at their story each week (The Boys From The Blackstuff approach) Ivory delivered some rough hew, earthy humoured indifatigable odes to working class life.

Dancing on the Edge, BBC2

Stephen Poliakoff's new one as ever divided the audiences, but I for one really enjoyed it. I loved the look, I loved the music and I love the fact that he never plays by modern TV's rules and rushes the narrative; things are played out at the speed he wants to play them and the audience has a chance to bask in the story. If that means some critics call it slow and uneventful, then so be it. This was also the last role of Mel Smith, RIP.

Doctor Who -  50th Celebrations,

And lastly it has to be Doctor Who. It was everywhere this year, from Capaldi's reveal as the next Doctor in the summer right through to November, the anniversary month, when it felt like every other programme was linked to Who; a Culture Show special, a beautiful dramatised re-enacment of the show's history in An Adventure in Space and Time, several specials on BBC3 (mostly crap but well meaning) a thing about the science of Who with D:Ream science geek Prof Brian Cox and of course, the anniversary special itself; a thing of beauty which united Smith, Tennant, Hurt and - to our surprise - Tom Baker! It was the perfect year for Who fans.