Saturday, 30 November 2013

Out On Blue Six : Steph Spencer

Steph Spencer is a singer songwriter who has, for some years, provided the furniture company CSL with tracks for their adverts. The current one, for Xmas, is an especially catchy one with lyrics like 'and when you call my name, I come running again' You can see the ad here... 

My favourite however hails from a couple of years ago now, Computer Sensing Love, an odd choice it may have been for a furniture ad with its lyrics about robots being 'auto erotic' but it's a damn good song

End Transmission

Her Master's Voice (2012)

I should start by saying I'm a fan of Nina Conti and her act. To put that into context, I'll copy and paste a review I once made for her live stand up Talk To The Hand here;

'Tom's daughter consistently does the impossible; reminds us that the humble vent act, when done right, can not only be a thing of joy and entertainment and very funny but can also be wonderfully subversive and irreverent too.

Needless to say Nina does it right. Seriously there are times when she is addressing the audience, thinking up material on her feet, that you forget the character she has her hand up isn't actually a separate entity in this 'double act', reacting for itself. And that's really no mean feat at all.'

I'm also a big fan of the unique legend that was Ken Campbell; the bushy eyebrowed theatrical subversive, playwright, actor, comedian and all round eccentric, the man turned down for the role of the 7th Doctor Who as he was deemed too dangerous to play a children's hero (for shame!) and the part went instead to his more palatable protege Sylvester McCoy. He was truly a man only these isles could create and when he died in 2008 we lost a true visionary and one off. Ken was Nina's mentor and her lover, a fractious yet intensively loving relationship having developed secretly between the pair when she was in her twenties and he was almost 60. He died just as she summoning up the courage to tell him her plans to quit the vent act he encouraged her to undertake. Now, I'm fascinated by this odd spring/autumn relationship and so, when I heard that Nina had made a documentary that explored what Ken meant to her as both a person and a performer via an odyssey to Kentucky for a ventriloquist convention, I was naturally eager to watch it.

"I was planning to do something in his lifetime and I ended up doing something after it. It's really annoying"

That comment from a teary eyed and understandably rueful Nina comes during one of the film's highlights; a strange conversation she instigates about her relationship with Ken between herself and her puppet Monkey. Watching a woman visibly welling up as she essentially talks to her puppett as if it were a separate entity ( like an interviewer or perhaps more tellingly a counsellor) about her regrets regarding the relationship and the heartache she feels in knowing that she has just one small piece of video footage to remember their time together is extremely poignant and affecting.

There are a few heart tugging  scenes like this, including one of Nina visiting Ken's monument in a forest and breaking down before it, as well as several somewhat unsettling bittersweet conversations that she has with an array of both her and Ken's puppets, including most affectingly of all, the one modelled after Ken himself with which she conducts a seance through at one point. 

As you can probably guess, the documentary is not afraid to traverse dark terrain and as such, it's not always an easy watch. Equally, it's clearly not an easy experience for her either; as a performer who clearly thinks on her feet it's obvious she doesn't always seem to know what the puppet is going to say until it is out there, and she never ever allows herself room to hide. Her secrets are laid bare in a painfully honest and revealing way, including her discussing an abortion and the possibility that her puppet Monkey purchased 7 months later was in fact some kind of substitute. In confronting this notion,  she forces herself into a staged event which sees Monkey run over in a road traffic accident, which seems to cause her genuine pain and grief as she is made to consider her true feelings.

What is ultimately clear from this film is that Nina's drive and ambition in the entertainment field she has chosen stems from Ken himself and that he still casts a long shadow across all aspects of her life even to this day. That said, this pilgrimage does appear to have exorcised some demons, noticeably in her leaving behind one of Ken's puppets at Vent Haven, the home for bereaved puppets and giving the Ken modelled one to a young American boy in the closing credits. It's something of an honour to witness a form of therapy masquerading as entertainment, because that is what this is.

Her Master's Voice is a little flawed - its seemingly made for TV constraints mean a time limit of one hour and the occasional uneven tone and cul de sac in terms of what Nina is actually feeling. Nevertheless it is a memorable production; at once deeply strange, uneasy, poignant and thought provoking as well as very funny and engaging. It has a real flavour of what goes on behind the curtain and the old notion of the tears of a clown. It's a deeply personal film to Nina but also, like Ken himself, it's a true one off. 

Trust me, watch this and you'll really feel emotionally for puppets. No mean feat indeed.

Out On Blue Six : Malcolm McLaren

End Transmission

Friday, 29 November 2013

Brabbins & Fyffe

I've been rewatching all three series of Armstrong and Miller again recently and thoroughly enjoying each one.

My absolute favourite characters of theirs are Brabbins and Fyffe, whom the comedy duo describe as 'the filthy reimagining of Flanders and Swann' the much loved English comedy duo of the Post War period whose comedy songs delighted audiences.

Here are Donald Brabbins (Armstrong) and Teddy Fyffe's (Miller) in all their glory...

It's about time Armstrong and Miller return to TV together (they haven't done anything since Channel 4's very funny one off Felix and Murdo around 2 years ago) but if they don't want to do sketch comedy I would dearly love to see them do a full show featuring just these two characters. Now that would be ideal for Christmas *sighs*

Out On Blue Six : Echo and the Bunnymen

Classic cut from Echo and the Bunnymen...

This was used to great effect in Dominic Sandbrook's excellent Cold War series on BBC2 this week, accompanying scenes of Arthur Scargill and the police state we endured during the 1984 Miner's Strike.

End Transmission

Legacy : Review

After the impressive critical and cult success of Dredd (though lacking somewhat unfathomably, the crucial commercial success) this is what Pete Travis did next, a 90 minute adaptation of Alan Judd's 70s set 2001 spy novel Legacy for the BBC's Cold War Season which has been running this past month.

It's a suitably somnolent production as befits the slow burning espionage genre that the likes of Le Carre excels in. The cinematography seems to be soaked in murky brown tea and easily captures the bleak ambiance of 1974, the year in which the film is set; a year which saw the UK crippled by what was up until that time the greatest recession since the 1920s. It was a time of power cuts, three days weeks and large scale industrial unrest. In short,this was a UK that was massively the plot will go on to suggest. There's also something to be said for the camerawork, hand held and shaky it offers unsettling angles and close ups that seem to want to emulate, albeit it for its time, Sidney J Furie's The Ipcress File. But obviously not as iconic or as good (what could be?)

The cast is headed up by Charlie Cox an actor who shot to fame for the dismal Neil Gaiman fairytale Stardust. He seems to have grown into his own features in the intervening years and has recently impressed me as the former IRA soldier turned mobster bodyguard in season three of Boardwalk Empire.  He plays Judd's ongoing hero Charles Thoroughgood, a role previously played in the 1994 adaptation of his '81 novel A Breed Of Heroes by Samuel West. I'm currently reading that novel (it's very good) and so perhaps feel a little more inclined to the character as a result than the casual viewer may have felt towards him here given Cox's performance or the script by Paula Milne. It's not that either of them are no good, far from it, but the crucial empathy to get across to the audience via both performance and writing is a little lacking.  There's very little for us to care about, despite the twist that suggests Thoroughgood's father was a double agent himself, and that's a bit weird really. Here, Cox's Thoroughgood is little more than a puppet for the viewer to idly watch as he traverses the labyrinthine plot moving from one shock to the next. Perhaps that's an intentional move by the production team in terms of the genre they find themselves operating in? I don't know.

Supporting him are the divine and beautiful Romola Garai, a trifle muted perhaps unsurprisingly given how thinly drawn her role was but still nonetheless gorgeous, and Andrew Scott who is an actor whose popularity frankly baffles me. Yes he was ok as the pantoesque Moriarty in the BBC's Sherlock, but he's failed to impress in the glut of work he's since undertaken (bar an episode of Channel 4's Dates) and seems decidedly one note to me. Here he played a Russian KGB agent in London, cod accent and all. Very 70s indeed! Perhaps best of all is a statesmanlike turn from Radio 4's George Smiley himself, Simon Russell Beale as the MI6 chief. He frankly stole every scene in the most dignified quietest way possible.

As I say, Judd suggests that the winter of discontent of the 1970s was a dangerous vulnerable era for the UK and there's an intriguing plot to that effect at the heart of Legacy; a plan by the KGB to attack the UK infrastructure from within. This includes as Thoroughgood discovers, a terrorist bombing of Dungeness. I think the peril of this may have been more heartfelt in the novel than it actually comes across here. In short Legacy, though enjoyable, is just too ponderous to actually grip the viewer. A palpable near miss, alas.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Out On Blue Six : Roxy Music

Three from Flesh and Blood

End Transmission


Tonight's TV tip is a feature length adaptation of the writer Alan Judd's 2001 spy novel Legacy as part of their excellent ongoing Cold War Season.

This is actually the second book by Judd to feature his protagonist Charles Thoroughgood. His first was 1981's A Breed Of Heroes, and it is one I'm currently reading (and loving) That novel concerned Thoroughgood's military service and an incident packed first tour in early 70s Northern Ireland at the height of The Troubles. It was adapted by the legendary Charles Wood (Tumbledown, Charge Of The Light Brigade, How I Won The War and The Long Day's Dying to name but a few) for the BBC Screen One strand in 1994 and starred Samuel West as Thoroughgood alongside the likes of Jonathan Firth, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Robert Bathurst and Alexander Armstrong.

This time around, Charlie Cox (Downton Abbey, Boardwalk Empire) plays Thoroughgood, who has now left the army to become a trainee MI6 agent. It's 1974, the middle of the Cold War. The three day week, petrol rationing and industrial strife has plunged Britain into a state of emergency. Against this backdrop, Charles Thoroughgood is asked to revive his former friendship with Viktor Koslov (Sherlock's pantoesque Andrew Scott) a Russian diplomat he knew at Oxford with a view to 'turning' him. But Viktor has his own agenda and a shocking truth concerning Charles' own family that threatens to derail him both personally and professionally. Catapulted into a dangerous personal odyssey to uncover the truth, he's also drawn into a lethal KGB plot to mount an attack within the UK whilst realising betrayal can take many forms when he begins a relationship with the beautiful Romola Garai's character, the wife of another agent.

RIP Lewis Collins

I can't believe I'm typing this, but Lewis Collins - star of The Professionals, Who Dares Wins, a clutch of Macaroni Combat movies of the 80s and ostensibly the best James Bond we never had - has passed away aged just 67 following a five year battle with cancer.

Born in Bidston, near Birkenhead, the Wirral in 1946 (who can forget his line 'Liverpool for The Cup' when greeting a non English speaking Russian agent in The Professionals?!) Collins originally began life as a ladies hairdresser (no doubt to chat up the birds) and a drummer and bassist in several Liverpudlian Merseybeat outfits, including The Mojos -  Indeed he was at one stage a close friend and bandmate of Paul McCartney's brother Mike - before moving into acting, training at LAMDA and working in rep. Following appearances in episodes of Z Cars, Crown Court and Warship, he bagged himself a regular role as rugger bugger Gavin Rumsey in the sitcom The Cuckoo Waltz before a guest appearance in The New Avengers episode 'Obsession' saw him paired with Martin Shaw.  

Perhaps fatefully, Collins had this line to say to his co-star in the episode "Maybe we should work together again. We're a good team"

It became clear this was an electric partnership, despite no love lost between the actors in real life. Brian Clemens, looking to start another series in The New Avengers vein, had second thoughts about pairing future Danger UXB and Brideshead Revisited star Anthony Andrews alongside Shaw, and cast Collins instead as the laconic tough nut CI5 agent Bodie in The Professionals.

It was the role that made him, running from 1977 to 1981. He became the hero of young boys, the pin up of girls and the guy most blokes wanted to have a few pints with (and secretly wanted to be) His performance of Bodie not only subsequently shaped the remainder of his own career, its reverberations can be felt throughout TV to this day (Ross Kemp always singled him out as inspiration for many of his own hard case roles and John Simm admits his outfit for time travelling cop Sam Tyler in Life On Mars took its cue from Bodie's in The Professionals, to say nothing of The Comic Strip Presents spoofs featuring Keith Allen as Bonehead to Peter Richardson's Foyle) 

Upon leaving the role of Bodie, Collins auditioned for the part of James Bond in 1982 but was deemed 'too aggressive' by Cubby Broccoli for the role. Instead, he took the lead role in Euan The Wild Geese Lloyd's movie Who Dares Wins, based on the SAS resolution of the 1980 Iranian Embassy siege in London. Collins played covert SAS operative Captain Peter Skellen in an all star cast that included Edward Woodward, Richard Widmark, Judy Davis and Ingrid Pitt. Legend has it Collins required no training from the SAS, having passed the entrance tests for their territorial branch, where he was ultimately rejected because of his fame.

The remainder of the 1980s saw Collins star in similar fare for Italian director Antonio Margheriti (aka Anthony M Dawson) in films Codename: Wild Geese, Commando Leopard and The Commander alongside a rep company of acting legends Klaus Kinski, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Van Cleef and Donald Pleasance (see this earlier post for a more in depth look at these films)

On the small screen, Collins received the accolade of being a 1982 subject for This Is Your Life and gave an hilariously camp and dangerous performance as Philip Mark, a replacement Sheriff of Nottingham, in a 1986 episode of Robin of Sherwood before starring alongside Michael Caine as one of the policemen hunting down Jack The Ripper in 1988.

Work began to become more and more scarce in the 1990s following Collins move to LA (and rumours he was 'difficult', shooting up his home with a shotgun didn't help such gossip!) he appeared in the adaptation of Barbara Cartland's A Ghost Of Monte Carlo in 1990 alongside Joanna Lumley (a reunion between the pair after The New Avengers episode) before playing Col Mustard in the live action version of the Cluedo board game in 1991-92. He would play the SAS soldier father of Brian Conley's sadistic PE teacher (himself based on Bodie's look) in the 1970s set sitcom The Grimleys for two episodes in 1999, before making a final UK TV appearance guesting in a 2002 episode of The Bill

I feel I've lost a part of my childhood today.


Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Theme Time : Mike Oldfield - Blue Peter

OK, starter for ten; what links The Exorcist and The X Files with Blue Peter?

Answer, Tubular Bells genius Mike Oldfield.

He provided the theme tune for all three.

Blue Peter, the perennial children's favourite commenced in 1958 and the show's theme has always been the tune Barnacle Bill, originally composed by Ashworth Hope (1880-1962) a solicitor turned musician. In 1979, Mike Oldfield appeared on the show and provided a version to show, in an educational film insert, how pop music was created via multi track recording techniques. His version proved so popular with viewers that the programme had it recorded to replace the Sidney Torch Orchestra rendition that had been its signature since the start, to be used as the theme tune for the next ten years.

Here is the original film

Oldfield released it as a single in November 1979 with the proceeds going to that year's Blue Peter Cambodia appeal. It reached number 9 in the UK charts.

And the song...

Pan's People dancing to it on Top Of The Pops 1979...

This was my era of Blue Peter. I have found memories of Peter Duncan, Simon Groom and of course, the divine Janet Ellis (later to become known as Sophie Ellis Bextor's mum)

Cinema Verity : Remembering Verity Lambert

Today would have been Verity Lambert's 78th birthday. Verity was born on 27th November 1935 and sadly passed away on 22nd November 2007.

A pioneer in television production and a role model for women everywhere, Verity carved out a successful career for herself in a time when women were being crushed by the proverbial glass ceiling. A female TV producer was something of a rarity, and a successful one who would help create a show that is still running today some fifty years later (Doctor Who) would, I imagine, have been beyond the imagination of even her allies and supporters, and probably even herself, back in the early 1960s when she started out. When she commenced work at the BBC she was the youngest producer and the only female one.

Last week's excellent biopic An Adventure In Space and Time (broadcast just in time for Who's anniversary) detailed Verity's connection with that show and her early years in TV brilliantly. She was played superbly with a vibrant, savvy and flirtatious strwak by Call The Midwife star Jessica Raine, as seen in images here alongside Sacha Dhawan as Who's first director Waris Hussein.

Away from Doctor Who, Verity helped develop and produce series like Adam Adamant Lives! and The Newcomers for head of drama (and creator of Doctor Who Sydney Newman) in the 1960s before moving to LWT at the start of the new decade to produce Budgie (a favourite of mine) and Between The Wars. She would return to the BBC, freelance in 1974 to produce Shoulder To Shoulder, a series of 6 plays about the Suffragette movement. 
Later that year she became head of Thames Television and oversaw some of the cream of TV drama at that time; The Naked Civil Servant, Edward and Mrs Simpson, Rumpole of the Bailey, Bill Brand, Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill, Fox and Rock Follies to name but a few. In 1976 her remit included Euston Films, Thames film subsidiary, where she oversaw  The Sweeney, Minder, Quatermass, Widows, Reilly: Ace of Spies and Charlie Muffin .

The 1980s saw Verity branch out into film, taking the position of Director of Production for Thorn EMI where she worked on John Cleese's Clockwise, the Smith and Jones film Morons From Outer Space and Dennis Potter's Dreamchild amongst others. But it was not a happy experience and she felt frustrated and not creatively in control. Determined to get the work she wanted to produce out there she set up her own independent production company, Cinema Verity and immediately made the 1988 Meryl Streep and Sam Neill film A Cry In The Dark based on the real life dingo baby killing incident in Australia. The company also stretched to television productions including the successful BBC sitcoms May To December and So Haunt Me, and comedy dramas like The Boys From The Bush and Sleepers which starred Warren Clarke and Nigel Havers as two KGB sleeper agents reawakened after almost thirty years of living in the UK (the dummy London household of the 1960s discovered in the KGB training centre would include Adam Adamant Lives! on the TV set, a nice little in joke to one of Verity's previous shows)

She also served as Executive Producer on Alan Bleasdale's brilliant GBH for Channel 4 but 1992 was notable for one rare flop; the BBC's ill advised soap Eldorado. Unperturbed Verity continued to freelance produce right up until her death working on shows like Jonathan Creek and Love Soup for writer David Renwick.

The  Museum of Broadcast Communications hails Verity as 'not only one of Britain's leading businesswomen, but possibly the most powerful member of the nation's entertainment industry. Lambert has served as a symbol of the advances won by women in the media'

And her legacy continues and will continue to do so. Not only is she now immortalised via last week's anniversary drama, she's had a character named after her in the show she helped create and even had a reference to her in the 1969 Monty Python sketch, 'Buying a Bed', which featured sales assistants called Mr Verity and Mr Lambert. Most recently Romola Garai's committed and determined young female news producer in the 1950s set BBC drama The Hour clearly takes a cue from Verity. 

Gone but never forgotten. Happy birthday

Smoking Hot

Hannah Tointon in The Hour

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Out On Blue Six : Karen Ramirez

Love this one, a hit from 1998. Where does time go?

End Transmission

Borgen Beauties

The return of one of my favourite TV programmes, the excellent Danish political drama Borgen has seen me jumping for joy and wallowing in a regular fix of intelligent, sharp and insightful drama once more.

Now in its third and final season the show has so far shown no sign of letting up and continues its consistent high quality across a double bill of episodes every Saturday night from 9pm on BBC4.

I wish the UK could produce such thought provoking and entertaining political drama (we haven't done anything as good as this in that genre, certainly not since Party Animals at least) and I certainly wish UK television could provide the kind of strong female role models that Scandinavian television seem to excel in. Seriously, Saga in The Bridge, Sarah Lund in The Killing and both Birgitte and Katrine in Borgen are light years ahead of the tired old men hating tarts with hearts stereotypes that our drossy TV programmes churn out.

Scandinavian TV can show us female characters who an audience can totally invest in. They are three dimensional, highly intelligent, determined and with strong will power, empathetic, focused, professional and with ideals and principles that any viewer can benefit from taking notice of.

They're also very pretty, but their characters are rightly never defined by that point. If this were a UK show they'd have to reference their attractiveness time and time again, until it becomes the character rather than just a facet of who they are.

Sidse Babett Knudsen who plays Birgitte Nyborg

Birgitte Hort Sorensen who plays Katrine Fonsmark

And making her debut in this final series, Julie Agnete Vang as the utterly delightful Nete Buch

Theme Time : Mike Post - LA Law

Another classic US drama from the 80s (running from '86 to '94 in fact) and another classic from the partnership of show creator Steve Bochco and theme tune composer Mike Post (having collaborated on Hill Street Blues previously, they would also go on to collaborate on NYPD Blue) LA Law was set in and around the fictitious Los Angeles based law firm, McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak, with a cast including Harry Hamlin, Susan Dey, Jimmy Smits, Corbin Bernsen, Michael Tucker, Richard Dysart and, as one of TV's groundbreaking bisexual characters, British actress Amanda Donohoe as CJ Lamb.

The opening credits of each episode depicted a close up of a car trunk being slammed shut, displaying the show's title LA LAW on the licence plate. The registration, trivia fans, was updated at the start of each season to denote the year and the car itself was initially a Jaguar XJ6 before being replaced by a Bentley in the show's final seasons.

Out On Blue Six : Green Day

End Transmission

Pop Art

Just a selection of colourful comic and magazine art from the 60s and 70s