Thursday, 31 July 2014

Svengali (2013) & The Selfish Giant (2013)

I once managed a band...for all of one night. Securing them their first gig, the singer and guitarist decided to have an argument and then a full blown fight on stage before decreeing their career together in music to be over. It's therefore with some amusement and a rueful shake of the head that such a scene also features in Svengali. Seems that kind of thing is par for the course.

Svengali may not be the most original film on the block - in fact its rather redolent of a lot of those 'follow your dreams where the streets are paved with gold' films of the late 60s and early 70s, the likes of which captured the murky cruel lie of London as the swinging city started its downward motion - but it's done with so much charm that you'd have to be the most hard hearted of sceptics to not allow yourself the ride.

Jonny Owen is the film's star, writer and producer, developing the film, I believe, from a series of webisodes he had previously made. A familiar enough face in supporting roles on TV, specifically Welsh productions, he thoroughly embraces his chance to shine here playing Dixie, a likeable Welsh chancer who dreams of being the next Epstein, Malcolm McLaren or Alan McGee. Utterly hapless in most departments, he is nonetheless blessed with 'golden ears' and through a mixture of chance, good luck and a willingness to go the extra mile, he secures the obscure but promising new band The Prems and sets about getting them to the top in the dog eat dog London music scene.

Owen chooses to show and tell very little with The Prems, a smart move as its always an uphill struggle to convincingly portray a talented hot young band. Equally smart is his congregation of famous faces in the cast including the likes of McGee playing himself, Martin Freeman, Maxine Peake, Matt Berry, Morwenna Banks, Michael Smiley and - as the leading lady, Dixie's girlfriend Chelle -  Vicky McClure, Owen's real life girlfriend. It's a great casting coup; for one, McClure's star is on the ascent and for another, the real chemistry and affection she shares with Owen is beautifully palpable throughout.  Only the deeply unfunny Katy Brand proves to be the film's weak link in a comedic Eastern European landlady role, whilst former Flying Picket Brian Hibbard as Dixie's ailing father adds much poignancy knowing that he died not long after the film's completion.

Svengali is a very peppy film that wears his heart on its sleeve with an unabashed pride and commitment. As Dixie's innocence and goodwill becomes slowly eroded in the big bad city it could be argued that some of that pep gets lost but its integral for the narrative and remains a satisfying watch.

* * *

If Ken Loach has decided that Jimmy's Hall will mark his leave from the world of fiction film making then I think we can safely say his style of storytelling will continue regardless because, on this evidence, the mantle has been passed to Clio Barnard.

Only her second film, following the deeply impressive debut feature The Arbor which detailed the life of Andrea Dunbar in an experimental documentary fashion, The Selfish Giant places us firmly and literally in the muck and brass world of scrap metal in deeply scarred post Thatcher/Blair Bradford.

Using the language of Loach, Barnard skilfully cultivates a tale which is in some ways similar to his own Kes using two juvenile non professional leads, Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas. They are exceptional finds and give the tale an ever present, ever beating heart. You may well know where the narrative is taking you, but it doesn't soften the impact one iota - this is bleakly beautiful stuff. Assured film making from one of this countries most promising writer/directors.

There's just not enough words to explain how brilliant this film is; just watch it!

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Police Spying

Sukhdev Reel's son Ricky was just 20 when he was found dead in the Thames after being racially abused by two men.

The police informed her and the family that they would never be able to properly establish the cause of Ricky's death and that it must have been an accident. Undeterred, the Reel family fought for a proper investigation, to get justice for Ricky. Because of this, the police - the very organisation who should have been on their side, supporting them in their grief - spied on them.

The Reel family weren't alone. The families of Cherry Groce, Stephen Lawrence, Jean Charles de Menezes, Rolan Adams, Michael Menson, Joy Gardner, Harry Stanley and many more have all been victims of underhand and vindictive snooping from this so called democratic societies police force. All because they sought justice for their dead loved ones. The police are supposed to investigate criminals, what crime did these grieving families commit? 

This is a disgusting betrayal of trust and a failure to support the families of victims. As a result of this coming to light Sukhdev Reel has started a petition demanding that the Home Secretary Theresa May seeks an apology from the Metropolitan Police and to not only take action on any wrongdoing but also to promise such activities will no longer occur, that an assurance will be made that justice campaigns will be consulted when drawing the terms of reference for the inquiry - slated for next year - eventually takes place and that the families will be provided with Legal Aid to ensure proper representation.

Please sign the petition here and visit the campaign's website here

Storyboard to Screen : Cleopatra

The wonderful costume designs of Vittorio Nino Novarese for Cleopatra's dancers in 1963's epic Cleopatra

Rapid Reviews : Moranthology & How To Be A Woman

I love Caitlin Moran's writing and I devoured two of her books, Moranthology (a compendium of articles written for The Times) and How To Be A Woman (in her own words ''like The Female Eunuch, but with jokes about my knickers!") last week.

I could wax lyrical about the plentiful merits of both books and how its impossible not to read them without bursting out laughing on at least every other page, but instead I'll just select one passage which sees Moran discuss the banality of modern day porn movies...

One upon a time, a girl with long nails and a really bad outfit sat on a sofa, trying to look sexy, but actually looking like she'd just remembered a vexing, unpaid parking fine. She might be slightly cross-eyed, due to how tight her bra is.

A man comes in - a man who walks rather oddly, as if he's carrying an invisible garden chair in front of him. This is because he's got a uselessly large penis, which is erect and appears to be scanning the room for the most sexually disinterested thing in it. 

Having rejected the window and a vase, the cock finally homes in on the girl on the sofa.

As she disinterestedly licks her lips, the man leans over and - inexplicably - weighs her left breast in his hand. This appears to be the crossing of some kind of sexual Rubicon because, 30 seconds later, she's being fucked at an uncomfortable angle, then bummed whilst looking quite pained. There's usually a bit of arse slapping here, or some hair pulling there - whatever can ring in the variety in a straightforward two-camera shoot in less than five minutes.

It all ends with him coming over her face messily - as if he's haphazardly icing a bun in one of the challenges on The Generation Game.

The End.

And that is the genius of Caitlin Moran. I am also, to quote modern parlance, super stoked that her semi autobiographical sitcom on her childhood, Raised By Wolves - which had a piss makingly funny pilot last Christmas -  is getting a full series on Channel 4 sometime soon.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Out On Blue Six : Chas & Dave

I make no excuses; if they're good enough for Tori Amos, they're good enough for me

End Transmission

Alexandra Roach

I seem to be seeing an awful lot of young Welsh actress Alexandra Roach of late, thanks to watching Channel 4's deeply disturbing conspiracy theory thriller Utopia and revisiting Julia Davis' excellent and downright filthy period costume sitcom Hunderby, both of which she stars in.

She's has a great screen presence, played the young Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, and she also scrubs up very well too


Sunday, 27 July 2014

Out On Blue Six : Blue Pearl

I was reminded of this track last night when, after a week of oppressively close weather (we're currently experiencing something of a heatwave here in the UK - I know, it's actually hot in the summer, a real fluke for us!) the heavens finally opened for some sweet relieving rainfall at around 10pm last night. That was me barechested and off into the garden for a bit of an arms outstretched spin!

End Transmission

Believe (2014)

Aw man I feel like I'm kicking a puppy here, but I guess I have to admit that, being a man in his thirties, I'm not really Believe's target audience. If I was a kid I imagine I'd really like this movie, but as it stands it is maudlin, sentimental and occasionally, unintentionally, unsavoury.

Allegedly based on true events, Believe sees former Man Utd manager and footballing legend Sir Matt Busby (Brian Cox at his most avuncular, with a suitable trace of steel) come out of retirement to coach a seven-a-side team of pre pubescent working class urchins to glory in mid 80s Manchester. 

I feel rather like many who criticised the film Attack The Block for representing thieving children as heroes in that I failed to be won over by the principal boy, Georgie, who is saddled with the unruly but talented cliche which means we see him steal Sir Matt's wallet in the opening scene, steal his mother's savings a little later and finally attempt to break into and rob his teacher's home. Why am I supposed to care about this little cretin? Oh yeah, his dad's dead. It doesn't help that the child actor picked to portray this difficult role, Jack Smith, cannot act for toffee. Harsh criticism for a little lad I know, but there's surely better actors of his age out there. It really didn't surprise me to learn in the closing credits that each child was picked for their footballing abilities - they all play in under 12 squads - than for their acting, though I would query that decision ultimately as, whilst it clearly aided the football choreography, I don't think it helped the film overall. I just wanted to clip his ear throughout the 90 minutes and I can't imagine that was ever director David Scheinmann's intentions.

Further discomfort is evident with the employment of a real tragedy, the Munich air disaster that Busby survived, as currency to hang the fiction upon. It's deeply unsuitable and a jarring fit that makes the whole affair somewhat cringeworthy. In fact much of Believe proves to be a jarring fit, with some performances and characterisation much closer to panto (yes you, Toby Stephens, 'gifted' the OTT comedic caricature of posh teacher with mildly amusing name) than the realistic and well intentioned endeavours of Cox et al. Natascha McElhone and Kate Ashfield, once very promising actresses, appear as players mothers in what can only be depressing proof that their stock is sadly falling. 

Oh and we really didn't need that reference to some promising kid called 'David B...something' at the end did we?

Believe has some good intentions and its nice to see a British family film attempt to capture hearts in a manner that is perhaps more familiar in the American market but its delivery is ultimately incredibly flawed and rather boring. I'd be interested to see what children and/or Man Utd fans make of it, however...

Silent Sunday : A Knight's Rest

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Theme Time : Anna Ternheim - Wallander

Utterly beautiful song from Swedish singer Anna Ternheim (pictured below) which was used as the theme tune for the 2005/06 series of Wallander which saw Krister Henriksson make his debut in the role that has made him an international name in the households of crime devotees.

RIP Julian Wilson (Belated)

I've only just found out that former BBC horse racing correspondent Julian Wilson passed away on 20th April this year following a 12 year battle with prostate cancer, aged 73.

Growing up in the 1980s with a grandfather who was a keen follower of the sport meant that Wilson was a permanent fixture on my TV screen. I'm actually surprised he was only 73, as he was the type of man who cut a raffish and much older looking figure than he clearly was at the time.

An old Harrovian, he was born Julian David Bonhote Wilson and became hooked on the sport of kings from the age of nine, when an aunt showed him the racing pages and asked him to pick out some winners. A stable of the BBC's coverage for four decades, Wilson with his slicked back hair and clothing which befitted the season - tweeds, pinstripes or morning dress complete with top hat at a slight, jaunty angle - gave proceedings a gentlemanly, old school and intelligent air. Ever the professional, his difficult working relationship with commentator Peter O'Sullevan, who he believed would retire from the BBC on his 65th birthday in 1983 leading to his succession to the top commentating job. But O'Sullevan remained and Wilson, who had turned down an offer from ITV because he felt the job was his, remained in 'second place'. Ultimately, it was Wilson's dissatisfaction with the way the BBC seemed to be dumbing down the sport, alongside his dislike of co-presenter Clare Balding - that saw him retire from the screen in 1997 to concentrate on his freelance journalism work in print.


The St Helens Girl and The Albert Medal

A story from my town now and specifically my village and my old infants school. October 14th 1881 saw a severe storm, 'a gale of terrific fury', hit St Helens, Lancashire. At Sutton National School, almost 200 children were in the infants schoolroom as the storm reach its peak. The winds attacked the school belfry, dislodging a ton stone, sending it crashing through the gallery and on to 40 children, causing the instantaneous death of one four year old girl, Harriet Bradbury and injuring others, eight severely.

Step forward 23 year old assistant schoolmistress Hannah Rosbotham

Though teaching elsewhere at the time, Hannah rushed to the scene as others fled to safety. Entering the schoolroom, she proceeded to rescue five pupils in critical danger, one of whom was near suffocation under debris, despite the persistent threat from falling masonry and rafters and the increasingly unstable gable wall.

Following the disaster the working class Sutton villagers, despite their penury, raised the sum of £13 (around £900 in today's money) to reward with gratitude Hannah Rosbotham for her bravery that night.

Two months later, on December 16th 1881, Queen Victoria awarded Hannah with the Albert Medal - the heroine of Sutton being the first female to be honoured with the award. Often described as the civilian Victoria Cross, the award was instituted in 1866 in memory of Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, and was initially to be conferred for acts of gallantry at sea. The Medal's remit was only extended to include heroism on land in 1876, just four years prior to Hannah receiving it. 

By the time the famous Strand Magazine (the illustrated monthly which introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes) profiled Hannah in 1896, she was still the only female to hold the Albert Medal. In fact Hannah remains one of just sixteen ladies to ever have had the award conferred upon her. She will always remain as such to, as the award no longer exists; having been replaced by the George Cross in 1940.

Hannah's story was told in print a further time in a March 1968 edition of Look and Learn, a magazine about historical moments. The tale was accompanied by this artist impression by Angus McBride

Surprisingly little is known about the heroic Hannah. She married a Pilkingtons glassworks clerk by the name of James Parr in 1887 and remained in Sutton, living in areas very close to where I live now, and continued to work as a teacher rising to headmistress. Hannah passed away in 1935 aged 77 and was buried in the local St Nicholas churchyard of Sutton Parish. Bizarrely, there is no mention of her bravery on the grave nor the initials 'AM' after her name to highlight her ownership of the Medal like other recipients have. It could be that, with Hannah and James having no children of their own, those responsible for her internment may not have been aware of her gallantry. They're not the only ones; this is a story that is barely known in St Helens despite the pride its residents should feel. There is nothing to commemorate this heroine in the town (or in Sutton itself) and, though Hannah's medal survives, it isn't even in this country; it remains in a private collection in the United States.

I first heard about the story on the 'Sutton Beauty' website, a heritage site for my little part of the town. I hope that by reporting on this here, I can spread this story that little bit further.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Great Scot

After witnessing just 20 minutes (believe me, that was enough) of the sheer horror that was Glasgow's opening to the Commonwealth Games last night, I thought it was time to wrestle back to the fore some truly great Scottish culture - because John Barrowman (who left Glasgow aged 8) serenading a giant 'Nessie' whilst people dressed as Tunnocks Tea Cakes really doesn't show the country in a good light. In fact, it made it feel like an acid trip in a Tourist Information Centre. Trust me, Danny Boyle had nothing to worry about here.

So instead here's Frankie Boyle

For some whingeing do-goodies in the establishment, Boyle could not be considered a 'great' person. How can you call someone who tells jokes about Jordan (conceited) Rebecca Adlington (conceited) and James Arthur (conceited) be a good (Scots)man?

This is a Scotsman who brought The Daily Mirror to court when they libelled him a racist. He won £54,650 in damages and gave it to charity. 

This is a Scotsman who ensures we have a dialogue about free speech, the unfairness of censorship, offensive material and what it is to be offended in a society that is becoming too passive aggressive in the way it deals with anyone who doesn't toe the line.

This is a great Scot.


Margaret Nolan

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

RIP Dora Bryan

More sad news, the legend that was diminutive actress and comedienne Dora Bryan has died aged 91.

Southport born Bryan had a long and varied career both on television thanks to performances in Absolutely Fabulous, Last of the Summer Wine and a string of classic movies including The Blue Lamp, Carry on Sergeant, The Great St Trinian's Train Robbery, The Cockleshell Heroes and The Gift Horse. But perhaps most famously she appeared as the mother in the film adaptation of Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey


Out On Blue Six : Cocteau Twins

This is my first Cocteau Twins post? How?! I love their achingly beautiful sounds

End Transmission

Worldless Wednesday : Lovecats

Monday, 21 July 2014

Fanny and Elvis (1999)

How to conceive a hit movie.

Step 1, compile an impeccable cast of household names and favourites including Ray Winstone, Kerry Fox, Jennifer Saunders, Ben Daniels, David Morrissey, Colin Salmon and Gaynor Faye.

Step 2, Hire a scriptwriter with the Midas touch in the shape of Kay Mellor, the woman behind TV hits such as Band of Gold and Playing the Field

Get those together and you've got a surefire box office baby on your hands haven't you? Fanny and Elvis has to be a hit, right?


Fanny and Elvis is a largely forgotten romcom from the turn of the century, concerning a woman's desire to get pregnant in time for the new millennium. And it seems to be forgotten with good reason because Mellor's usually assured writing is flabby here, suggesting the script was hurried through to coincide with its Y2K release. Further issues arise from her joint role as director of the piece, which proves her talents only really (usually) lie in writing. She shows off the beauty of Hebden Bridge well enough, but this is a movie not a Yorkshire Tourist Board advert; it feels a bit trite, a bit like the film is screaming 'Our location is a USP!' in much the same way that the later Calendar Girls exploited the scenery for mystifying international success.

It starts off well enough, Kate (Kerry Fox) is a Hebden Bridge based aspiring romantic novelist who prangs into the beloved Jag of Dave (Ray Winstone) on the day that they both learn that their respective partners (David Morrissey and Gaynor Faye) are leaving them for one another. Dave moves into Kate's spare room in lieu of compensation for the repairs to his Jag, just as the ticking of Kate's biological clock becomes deafening. A love/hate relationship of the opposites attract variety immediately develops which Mellor clearly hopes will remind viewers of Elizabeth and Mr Darcy - and just in case we haven't spotted that similarity, Kate has several dream sequences set on the Moors in which she confuses the period romance she's writing with her own increasingly confused reality.

The performances are relatively good, though Fox is consistently short changed by the normally reliable feminist voice of Mellor with the role of Kate who is alternately shrill and hopeless and superior and smug. It's not the usual kind of film one expects to see Ray Winstone in, but in a way that's why I appreciate it more; Winstone has some skill at comedy (he had previously starred in the early 90s BBC sitcom Get Back, as well as having a guest role in the first series of Auf Wiedersehen Pet) and its refreshing to see him playing an ordinary and rather likeable guy rather than the usual menacing hood. The rest of the accomplished cast however must content themselves to play cyphers and stereotypes who exist solely as comic relief; specifically Daniels as Kate's gay best friend and Saunders giving an Edina-lite performance as her book agent. 

A better draft, one that allowed the project some time and nurturing rather than just being, as I suspect, a millennium cash in may have helped this movie immeasurably. Then again, maybe it should have just played out on the small screen as a series where its ups and downs may have played out more consistently and satisfyingly across a number of weeks. Sometimes, you just have to stick to what you know and what you do well Kay Mellor.


Sunday, 20 July 2014

Trouble at The Mill

"It used to be our moral duty to take care of the poor and the vulnerable. That's what the carpenter's son from Nazareth preached. But our parliamentarians could teach that humble water walker a thing or two. Teaching that poverty is a crime and the criminals are the paupers. It's their idleness, insobriety and vice that causes poverty.

The English labourer did not cause the downturn. A banking crisis in America started it. So why should he suffer?

The 'wise' men in Westminster know that the solution to poverty is not to increase wages or end unemployment, no. The solution to poverty is to make the hungry hungrier. Inflict even more suffering and indignity upon the unfortunate so that sooner of later they will find employment or die. Either outcome reduces the financial burden on the ratepayer"

That impassioned, well reasoned diatribe against the government's stance on the working class is not in fact one that is levelled at the present Coalition of 2014, but rather one against the government of 1838 and spoken by John Doherty, the Irish born and Manchester based campaigner for workers rights, played by Aidan McArdle in John Fay's excellent factually based historical drama series The Mill, which returned tonight to Channel 4 for a second series. 

But I'm sure you'll agree, as you read it, that those very words accurately sum up the present too and the government's determination to blame all the world's ills on the poorest people in society to justify their desecration of the Welfare State. Let's not forget we live in an age of Atos and Esther McVey (the cunt) whose belief is that heartless Tory policy actually 'liberates' people from benefit. Hmm, yeah. Like the Nazis 'liberated' the Jews from existence.

The first series of The Mill was, when broadcast last year, Channel 4's biggest ratings winner. A beautifully bleak, stirring and politicised tale set and indeed filmed in Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire, it featured a stand out performance from young Liverpudlian actress Kerrie Hayes as bolshie Mill girl Esther Price (she's thankfully back for this second run) and helped restore my faith in television to see socialist politics appear on prime time once more. As the exchange from tonight's episode above proves the writer John Fay makes it his business to not only educate the viewer on what life was like in the 1800s, but also cleverly compares and contrasts the situation of the day with the one we find ourselves in now. The message is that very little has changed sadly, but in taking a platform to point that out one hopes that he may just help to bring awareness to a nation who, for these past few years, have become increasingly apolitical, to its own detriment. 

And kudos too to Fay for slipping one of the funniest tongue in cheek lines possible in this series two debut as Matthew McNulty's heroic honest man of toil Daniel (pictured above) was faced with the arrival to Quarry Bank of new economic migrants from the south, where work is scarce to non existent he sympathised by saying "I know it's grim down south" One in the eye for all those lazy London-centric critics who took one look at The Mill last year and churned out the stereotypical "Eee it's grim 'oop north' comments by way of a 'review'.

The Mill will air on Sunday nights, 8pm on Channel 4 for the next five weeks and is seriously recommended viewing.


Happy birthday to Dame Diana Rigg, 76 today