Friday, 31 January 2014

Smoking Hot

Tilda Swinton

Theme Time : Wings - The Zoo Gang

Looking for another hit series to continue ITC's winning formula of big name stars fighting crime in glamourous locations, Lew Grade turned his attention to Paul Gallico's 1971 novel The Zoo Gang for inspiration.

The novel told the story of former WWII resistance fighters who were individually known by animal-based code names and collectively as 'The Zoo Gang'. They reunite when they find a lead to one of their former colleagues who betrayed them to the Gestapo, the appropriately code-named 'The Wolf'.

Grade took the basics of that plot for the first episode, penned by famed scriptwriter Reginald Rose, but changed the nationalities of the majority of the gang from their original French to appeal to the UK/US market; so we had John Mills as the British Tommy Devon ('The Elephant') Brian Keith as the American Steven Halliday ('The Fox') Barry Morse as the Canadian Alec Marlowe ('The Tiger') and Lilli Palmer as Manouche Roget, now the only French character ('The Leopard')

The show lasted for just one series of six hour long episodes featuring our geriatric heroes battle vice, corruption and robbery on the Cote d'Azur. It had much promise, but ultimately the scripts weren't up to much; indeed John Mills even suggested strike action at one point to demand better material!

As with many ITC series, the theme tune was eminently catchy and a pretty funky accompaniment to the excellent opening titles. It was provided by former Beatle Paul McCartney and his wife Linda in the guise of their then band Wings. It featured as a B-Side to Band On The Run

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Great Scot

Bill Forsyth

I love Bill Forsyth films specifically the trio he made in the 1980s; Gregory's Girl, Local Hero and Comfort and Joy. You'd be hard pressed to find a better teenage romantic comedy than the first, a better feelgood film than the second and the third is one of my annual Christmas treats.

They're also films in a distinctive Scottish vernacular, a wry whimsy that is distinctly Forsyth and of course they gave mainstream audiences a succession of other great Scots including, to name just a few, John Gordon Sinclair, Clare Grogan and Dee Hepburn in Gregory's Girl, Peter Capaldi in Local Hero and Bill Paterson in Comfort and Joy.

And you can see Comfort and Joy on Saturday late night in the BBC2 schedule. It's a month late for the Christmas broadcast it should have, but who's quibbling - a screening of it at all is quite a rarity. I thoroughly recommend it!

Frozen (2005)

A deeply ambiguous metaphysical and psychological thriller, with plenty to say on the duality of siblings and the sisterly bond, Frozen is a rather eyecatching and atmospheric debut from director Juliet McKoen who co-wrote the script with Jayne Steel.

Shirley Henderson, that beguiling actress of the little girl lost screen persona, plays Kath Swarbrick, a fishery worker in Fleetwood, Lancs whose sister, Annie disappeared without trace two years ago. When Kath is shown some strange CCTV footage purportedly of Annie the night she vanished, her grip on reality starts to unravel and she begins to have recurring visions of her sister in an austere otherworldly landscape. Friends and colleagues are concerned for her sanity and beg her to stop her own personal investigation into the disappearance and even her counsellor, a local clergyman played by Roshan Seth fails to convince her to leave it and she determinedly takes up a dangerous path that could lead to her own death or disappearance.  

This is a strong and curious independent feature that takes an obscure path, preferring to pose questions of us as to just what we think is going on. Are Kath's visions a clue to Annie's whereabouts, a glimpse into the afterlife or a warning for her own safety? Not since Blow Up perhaps has a thriller been so deliberately vague or so confident to leave its meaning up to each individual viewer. For me, the reveal at the end was just right and in no way a let down. It nailed my preconception as to what was going on perfectly.

Henderson carries the film well and her endearing characterisation immediately gains audience sympathy, but she's ably assisted by a great supporting cast of well known faces including the aforementioned Seth, Richard Armitage, Sean Harris, George Costigan, Jamie Sives, Maxine Peake, Richard Ridings, Ger Ryan, Ralf Little, Lyndsey Marshal and Stephen Lord. 

The film is beautifully if starkly shot by Philip Robertson's Hi-Def lenses, capturing the essence of the chilly North West coast of England perfectly. It takes a region I know well - having holidayed in and around Fleetwood, Cleveleys, Blackpool and Morecambe many time in my childhood - and retains its familiar whilst at the same time depicts a rich seam of something alien and aloof to the locale. It's suitably intriguing for such an intriguing thought provoking film. 

Now, where has Juliet McKoen gone?

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

A Sense of History (1992)

"If anything should happen to me I DO want this film to be shown"

It was the 1970's largely amateur stage production of Brecht's The Life of Galileo for the Bermuda Arts Festival that Mike Leigh deemed such an 'atrocious experience' that he vowed never to direct anything other than his own material ever again.

He broke that vow just the once in 1992 with A Sense of History, the Bafta nominated short from 1992, written by and starring his long time collaborator Jim Broadbent. As such it remains something of a rarity in Leigh's body of work and is perhaps a testament to Leigh's friendship, respect and appreciation for Broadbent.

Broadbent's script is a very clever satire of the upper classes and of the kind of biographical talking head short documentary film that seemed to be in constant circulation at the time, such was the fascination for the previous generation of 'betters' and their going down of the sun on the British Empire. 

It's essentially a one man show (though we do see two children and an estate worker during the film) in which Broadbent  stars as the fictional 23rd Earl of Leete, a true British eccentric who takes the viewer on a tour of his estate and tells of the progress of over 900 years of family history. A Sense of History's look and -  on first inspection at least - script is a beguiling recreation of those then popular documentary films that instantly puts the viewer on the back foot in terms of what to expect. It's only when Broadbent's character begins to reveal not only obnoxious, offensive and outmoded beliefs but more importantly, and more surprisingly, homicidal chapters in his life that we realise what we're in for; a darkly funny piece of satire and a character piece to utterly cherish.

I do believe Jim Broadbent is an amazingly underrated character actor - yes that's right, Jim Broadbent the Oscar winning, multi-BAFTA nominated actor is, I feel, underrated. This performance, from his own script (he came across the idea when improvising a monologue to himself on a walk in the Fens) shows just what a chameleon he is. For many British audiences at the time, certainly in the mainstream, Broadbent was known only for his occasional role in Only Fools and Horses as bent copper Roy Slater but this is such a marked difference, an astonishing performance that displays his quirky range and talents beautifully. It's a real shame he hasn't written more since.

Shot on location at Highclere Castle, Newbury in the middle of a freezing January 1992, Dick Pope's bright and crisp cinematography invokes a tangible chill in the viewer that it was clear Broadbent felt when filming. Leigh's perfect evocation of the visual and aesthetic aspect the kind of documentary they're mimicking employed is spot on and is perhaps a far better though just as broad a satirical depiction of the upper classes than his own films -  High Hopes and Who's Who - could manage.  A Sense of History is a joyous 22 minute film that demands repeat viewings that only serve to further appreciate the production.

But don't just take my word for it, do yourself a favour and watch it here...

Out On Blue Six : Ella Edmondson

The wonderfully talented first born of Ade Edmondson and Jennifer Saunders...

End Transmission

RIP Pete Seeger

The folk legend, passed away aged 94


The Land Girls (1998)

David Leland is a fun but somewhat unfairly overlooked talent in British television and cinema circles, whether it is his TV plays such as Psy-Warriors or his films like Wish You Were Here or Personal Services, a production of his is always worth watching. And so too is The Land Girls from 1998, a film he directed and co-wrote. Indeed, on some occasions, the shadow of Wish You Were Here -  perhaps his best known feature - looms over this production, especially when Anna Friel's flighty flirty character evokes memories of Emily Lloyd's naughty teenager.

Friel is just part of the ensemble or more specifically the trio at the heart of the film; the other being Rachel Weisz, lying at the opposite end of the character spectrum to Friel, playing the former Cambridge student so far unsullied by carnal knowledge, whilst somewhere in the middle of the two lies Catherine McCormack as perhaps the film's central heroine. McCormack was one of those actors who briefly shone - albeit in an satisfyingly understated way - in the late 90s and early 00s with several major credits. As her co-stars here have gone from strength to strength in their respective TV and film paths, McCormack has somewhat disappeared (though she was most recently spotted as Lord Lucan's ill fated wife in ITV's Lucan)

Away from the trio the film is bolstered by performances from the great Tom Georgeson, Maureen O'Brien and Steven Mackintosh as the farming family who take the Land Girls in to help farm their land for the war effort.

The film captures a feeling of the passing seasons and the perils of wartime rather well but it drops the ball in terms of depicting the work and role of the Land Girl movement during WWII. Instead it seems to prefer to focus on the tangled love affairs of our heroines, specifically as each of them come to grips with Mackintosh's farmer's son. 

The script is occasionally lively and the performances of all concerned make the best of those moments and especially the humour, but one cannot escape the feeling that the whole thing runs out of steam long before the titles roll. It's a great pity.

Equally pitiable is the appalling quality of film grain presented here - at least on the Film 4 channel. I'm sure someone more technically minded can tell me what technique was used but the whole effect of the cinematography is so watery that occasionally long distance shots become an almost indistinguishable blur.

Nevertheless there is still much to enjoy with The Land Girls, I would argue it's a perfectly passable way to spend 115 minutes especially of a Sunday evening say. And what Can I say, I've always been a sucker for the Land Girl uniform *whistles*

Monday, 27 January 2014

Smoking Hot

Michelle Pfeiffer

RIP Jerome Willis

A belated obituary for that fine character actor Jerome Willis, who sadly passed away on the 11th January aged 85.

A veteran of theatre and with over 100 screen credits to his name too, it is perhaps easier to name what Jerome wasn't in rather than what he was, but he was a particular favourite of mine for his role as the officious SIS mandarin Matthew Peele in the excellent spy drama The Sandbaggers and his guest role as the corporate polluter villain in the Jon Pertwee Doctor Who serial The Green Death aka 'the one with the maggots' as anyone of a certain age will tell you (pictured above)

His film credits also included Andrew Mollo's Diggers film Winstanley, Lifeforce, Orlando and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer 


Out On Blue Six : Kate Rusby & Kathryn Roberts

Kate and Kathryn's 1995 album has recently been reissued, here's just one of the gems from that folk classic, a cover of Suzanne Vega's The Queen and The Soldier.

End Transmission


Bit of a retro and leopard print vibe to today's bumday

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Shifty (2009)

I've had Shifty on my 'To Watch' pile for some time now. To give you an indication as to how long, it's been on the TV twice *I think* since I first recorded it. Whoops.

What took me so long? 

Ostensibly, this is a 'Broken Britain' film (is it just me who feels a bit cynical towards that phrase? I was born in 1979, I don't think I've ever seen Britain 'fixed') but it is one that has grown out of the cringey and all too earnest dour adolescence of the likes of Kidulthood and is thankfully a mature and rewarding production. It's shot on a shoestring budget of £100k with a shoot of just eighteen days I believe, though there's not a single frame to show that truth up.

It helps of course that the principal leads are played by two of the most vibrant and exciting young British actors currently around, Riz Ahmed as the titular Shifty and Daniel Mays as his estranged mate Chris. Chris returns to his old stomping ground, having left under something of a cloud four years ago. He finds his old schoolfriend Shifty, the brightest boy in their class, has in that time become more and more immersed in dealing drugs on the local estates, much to his dismay. Both actors portray a friendship which, though the plot requires it to occasionally be an uneasy one, the chemistry between the two actors remains easygoing and convincing throughout, making their characters disagreements  all the more palpable. I must admit of the two, I am perhaps more familiar with Mays so principally watched Shifty for him, but it was Ahmed who really impressed and held the attention, possessing as he does the kind of assured intensity that the character requires, flitting from charm to a steely toughness in a manner not too dissimilar to that other great actor Mark Strong - who writer/director Eran Creevy would go on to work with on his follow up feature Welcome To The Punch. 

I also really liked the film's score by Molly Nyman and Harry Escott because to be honest it was a relief not to hear the now cliched and expected wall of Dizzy Rascal blasting out over every other scene. Instead we were treated to the kind of score one would normally hear in Mike Leigh films.

Convincing, well made and with a real friendship at its big heart, Shifty doesn't rely on the usual tropes and trappings of British gangland mockney nonsense, the likes of which have sustained a glut of films ever since the dismally overrated Lock Stock, and as such stands out head and shoulders above most offerings.

Leigh's Ladies : Alison Steadman

And seeing as we're speaking of her...

Alison Steadman.

Number of filmed Leigh projects: Seven (plus an uncredited voice over for Kiss of Death) from the 1970s through to the late 1990s.

Married to Leigh from 1973 to 2001 (though they'd split by the mid 90s) and the mother of his two sons, Toby and Leo, Alison Steadman is the archetypal Leigh leading lady. It's hard to pick a career best from those seven films and TV plays but it's fair to say she will most be remembered for her role as the monstrous Beverley in Abigail's Party and the twee Candice Marie in Nuts In May. Two roles that couldn't be any more different yet for Steadman, one of the finest actors of her generation, they were a perfect chance to exhibit her chameleon like abilities and her talent for getting to the absolute believability of each character she plays. 

A Civil Arrangement (2012)

I'm a great admirer of Alison Steadman so the prospect of her performing a 30 minute monologue for A Civil Arrangement, a made for TV short film was always going to be a winner for me.

Steadman plays Isobel, a mother who we meet in the first scene six weeks ahead of her daughter Kelly's civil partnership ceremony - an event she has accepted,helped largely by her liking for Janice, Kelly's intended, but her husband has not; he is said to baulk at the idea of walking his only child down the aisle to 'I Kissed A Girl' for example.

Of course, as this is a monologue, we do not really see or hear the views of the others; they are merely supporting artistes who largely leave a scene as it begins or 'rhubarb' in the background. Colin Hough's chatty script places the viewer in the position of confidant for Steadman's Isobel as each scene places us closer and closer to the big day. As such it is pure Alan Bennett's Talking Heads, with a dash of Victoria Wood thrown in for good measure; "I dangled Acker Bilk's canon, but she wasn't biting" Isobel remarks following the aisle music row.

It could be argued that, on the periphery, Hough deals with the cliched stereotypical view of lesbianism; Isobel remarks she should have seen the signs when, growing up, Kelly had the complete collection of Haynes manuals. Many boys would come calling, she remarks, but she later realised they only wanted help with an oil change. Meanwhile the older Janice is depicted as a leathers wearing motorcyclist who works at B+Q garden centre and has hands like shovels, along with her kind face. But I guess it is because they are on the periphery that a certain 'larger than lifeness' is required. The film belongs to the script and Steadman after all, and they are our only guide and point of reference.

It's an enjoyable thirty minutes if a largely predictable one. You can see where the plot is going from the first couple of scenes for example. But there's enough dry Northern whimsy in the script and enough of an acting masterclass from Steadman to keep you entertained, and the currency of the subject matter is still extremely relevant and contemporary enough to interest.

The film is available, in full, on several video sites such as Dailymotion. 

PS; like the 'poster' at the top of the page? I made that myself. There was sod all on Google images for the film!

Sellers and Ekland