Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Class of Miss MacMichael (1979)

The Class of Miss MacMichael the third and final film to feature the pairing of Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed (following Women In Love and The Triple Echo) is a deeply flawed, muddled affair that doesn't seem to know what it wants to be and ends up being rather a mess. 

The story depicts the efforts and different approaches of the teaching staff at an approved school full of rowdy delinquents in innercity London in the late 1970s. Glenda Jackson is our titular heroine Miss MacMichael, a rather frumpy committed educator who is happy to share the jokes and laugh along with her disruptive pupils rather than curb or at least manage their ill behaviour. Quite why she is so respected by her charges is a mystery to me and the film makes no effort in explaining either. It's all very strange as she just comes across as a wet ineffectual type who such kids would run rings around and make just as much fun of in normal circumstances. Her style of teaching, or rather her opinion of the kids given we see precious little teaching, is markedly different to the school's head, Mr Sutton, a haughty martinet played by Oliver Reed, largely several yards over the top. 

The general consensus in any review seems to be that Reed's broad playing is so farcical that it scuppers the film, but to be honest I'm not sure that criticism is all that correct - and tellingly, in his autobiography Class Actor, Phil Daniels claims that though it was clear for all to see Reed was determined to clownishly mug for all his worth during filming on reflection today he thinks he likely had the right idea for this material. Some would have you believe that The Class of Miss MacMichael was an earnest attempt to depict the harsh realities of reform school and that the reason why it was not a success was because Reed refused to play it straight, but in all honesty this film from director Silvio Narizzano seems to have precious little interest in realism and plays more like a very juvenile broad comedy, a vibe that is enhanced with the jolly score from Stanley Myers and the pranks the kids play. This tone is also evident in the US posters (seen at the top of this review and below this paragraph) which claim it "Makes Kotter and his sweathogs look like kindergarten", a reference to the US sitcom of the time, Welcome Back Kotter, which means nothing to me and perhaps nothing to UK audiences. 

It's also interesting to note how, at the time, Miss MacMichael's style was seen as liberal whilst Mr Sutton's was seen as boorish and discipline heavy, because in many ways the latter's determination to keep a difficult child with learning difficulties and arrested development at the school can be seen, rightly or wrongly, as a progressive and before its time attempt at the inclusion strategy and much more open minded than MacMichael etc's belief that the child should be taken to a mental institution. And is there really anything to benefit from letting problem children run riot, drink, smoke, have sex and take drugs in school, - which is what Miss MacMichael does? As Martin her American boyfriend says at one point, being a pushover to the kids isn't really helping them.

They may be singing from different hymn sheets here but Reed and Jackson are really the only main characters of any interest here and let's face it, even when they're not at their best they are the kind of actors you struggle to take your eyes off. The film was made in the UK but funded by America which perhaps explains the presence of Michael Murphy as MacMichael's aforementioned whiny, wine swilling middle class American boyfriend and Rosalind Cash as her colleague and best friend, a teacher from America. Both are terrible, dull and an ill fit in these surroundings. Perhaps the best enjoyment that could be had here is spotting young actors like Phil Daniels, Perry Benson, Patrick Murray (Only Fools and Horses Mickey Pearce) and Gabrielle Glaister (Blackadder's Bob) to name but a few, whilst Daniels' band Renoir play over the credits. 

Overall, this is the kind of turkey that leaves you frustrated and wondering what on earth they were thinking at each and every turn. Perhaps it's best viewed not as a To Sir, With Love or a Grange Hill and more as Carry On (Reform School) Teacher!

Dirtysomething (1994)

"When is a house not a house?"

"When it's a home"

"Where is home?"

"Where your heart is"

"Play it safe son, never get off the bus"

Dirtysomething is a 1994 Screen Two drama and the debut of Rachel Weisz. It's never been repeated or released on video or DVD but it has become via word of mouth and the passing of around of copies something of a cult classic, untouched by the masses. There's even a Facebook page dedicated to it and some wonderful person has uploaded it to YouTube.

The story concerns Weisz's character Becca and her boyfriend Dog played by former Press Gang and Let Him Have It star Paul Reynolds. The dreadlocked couple live the alternative lifestyle; they are nomadic, travellers, 'crusties' - which at the time was very much in vogue and in the news here in the UK. When the film starts we are at the end of summer and the festival season. Becca, restless at the oncoming winter, impresses upon the complacent Dog the importance of finding somewhere else to stay other than their caravan beneath The Westway. 

Taking the bull by the horns, Becca travels out to Weybridge to find an abandoned house in a street full of bricked up, derelict terraces that they can use as a squat. But the house she picks isn't empty, a lonely old man (Walter Sparrow) lives there. Rather than throw Becca out, he welcomes her in along with Dog and their feckless and wise older traveller friend Larry (the great Bernard Hill) and their dog, Leggit. Bill tells them he hasn't long to live and, to prove that point, promptly dies on them one night.  The trio, fearful of notifying the authorities in case they suspect them of foul play because of their lifestyle, decide to cremate Bill's body (as was his wishes) on the quiet, thanks to a friend who works at a pet cemetery!, and stay at the house for the winter, with Becca taking an office job to pay the rent and avoid any unwanted attention.

What follows is like The Good Life in reverse as the crusties endeavour to approach the normal home owning 9 to 5 life with some difficulty, with the glib Larry and the idle and impressionable Dog lazing around all day putting the dirty dishes out in the garden for the rain to wash them whilst Becca puts in the hours at the office and begins to get close to her yuppie, former backpacker boss played by Rufus Sewell.

Written by Peter Salmi and Carl Prechezer (who also directs the film) Dirtysomething cleverly subverts expectations by initially making the humdrum seem appealing as slowly but surely both Dog and Becca embrace normality with Dog showing an unexpected flair and passion for home improvements and decoration. Ultimately it becomes clear that the house is breaking the lovebirds up as it and their associated place in normal society begins to represent different things to each of them. The message is clear; material positions and respectability mean nothing if you don't have each other. That is what is important in life.

So yeah, "Play it safe...never get off the bus"

Dirtysomething is a deserved cult classic and deserves to be more widely seen. It's a very funny, charming and romantic film very much of its time.

God I miss the 90s.

To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic plays please sign the petition I started here

Monday, 30 March 2015

The Assassination Bureau (1969)

Another celluloid slice of swinging 60s Victoriana (well this one's Edwardian really) The Assassination Bureau is on the whole more enjoyable, satisfying and intelligent than The Best House In London and is a blackly comic tale about the business of murder based on an unfinished novel by Jack London.


The titular bureau is an international cartel that has its headquarters in England during the early 1900s and the reign of Edward VII. It murders for profit, but only victims that have been judged to be morally bankrupt and deserving of death. Its chairman and the son of the bureau's Russian late founding father is the English public school educated Ivan Dragomiloff played by Oliver Reed, who looks like he's having a ball mixing up the action and light comedy that the role requires. Determined to expose his murderous antics is Sonya Winter (the divine Diana Rigg), a stanch and liberated aspiring journalist who commissions the bureau to assassinate Dragomiloff to bring about their downfall. Amused, Dragomiloff accepts, largely because he fears his team of assassins have become morally bankrupt and solely interested in financial gain. These less than savoury motives are particularly embodied by his Vice Chairman and newspaper owner, Lord Bostwick (Telly Savalas) and the German General Von Pinck (Curt Jurgens) both of whom seem determined to bring about the First World War for their own ends. 

From there, Rigg and Reed race from London to Paris, Vienna and Venice, gradually falling in love with one another whilst he dodges numerous assassination attempts from his own team to dispatch them one by one and save his own skin and the moral stance of his bureau. 

The film, directed by Basil Dearden and with a screenplay by producer Michael Relph and Wolf Mankowitz pitches the action colourfully and lavishly somewhere between the Ealing classic Kind Hearts and Coronets and the James Bond films (which Mankowitz had some experience on, having helped write, albeit anonymously, the first Bond film Doctor No and having also penned the Bond spoof Casino Royale) Indeed the whole thing plays out rather like a Victorian Bond film with Rigg, Savalas and Jurgens all going on to take roles in the series and with Oliver Reed perhaps being the best James Bond we never had. Again, like The Best House In London I suspect this film influenced Alan Moore when he wrote The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, along with Kim Newman for the Anno Dracula series (pretty sure he mentions Dragomiloff in one of the novels) and Mark Gatiss for his Lucifer Box novels.

The Assassination Bureau is a film with great style, but much of this is to do with its 60s flair, Edwardian settings and production design and with its performances, specifically those of the leads Diana Rigg and Oliver Reed who are great company and have fun chemistry with one another. Unfortunately it's a little over long at 110 minutes and a lengthy interlude in Venice does little to hold the attention and feels like a lot of padding. Lastly the film unforgiveably gives Rigg nothing to do in the finale - a fight to the death aboard a bomb laden zeppelin heading for a European peace summit - and for fans of The Avengers that is simply not on.

Margaret Nolan

One of the stars of today's film The Best House In London (although to be fair, she has one line, delivered in a Scottish accent; "Do you fancy threading the needle?" before waggling her ample breasts at a prospective punter - yeah, it's that kind of film) along with a plethora of comedies, ITC dramas and Carry On's (she has a memorable scene in Carry On Henry which airs on ITV tonight/the small hours which enchanted me as an impressionable child!) as well as the James Bond film Goldfinger in which she played Bond girl masseuse Dink and the golden girl in the opening credits, it's Margaret Nolan (also known as Vicki Kennedy in some modelling work) and any old excuse for a picspam


The Best House In London (1969)

It doesn't surprise me that so few people seem to know The Best House in London; you either haven't seen this near forgotten swinging 60s film, or you have and YOU have forgotten, or you have and you'd rather not admit to it!

The film comes perhaps a little too late on the heels of the decade's fascination with Victoriana, and a little too early on for the corny sexploitation films the following decade would see the British film industry sink to. 

Joanna Pettet (famous for that other spectacular, famous faces filled tongue in cheek comedy of the 60s, Casino Royale) stars as the militant leader of the League of Social Purity, Josephine Pacefoot, a woman who devotes her time to saving fallen women and wishes to get the capital's prostitution trade outlawed. The government however (represented by satirical favourite John Bird) is reluctant to oblige, believing that prostitution benefits society and that the girls provide a service without which a gentleman would have to trouble his wife for. "There'd be rape on the streets!" Bird protests at one point. His plan therefore is to follow 'the French system'; a state sponsored bordello which would get whoring off the streets and into the plush Libertine Club in London's Belgravia. Disguised as a convent school (of course) the brothel, populated by such familiar dollybirds as Margaret Nolan, Hammer's Veronica Carlson and Penny Spencer, offers something for every discerning gentleman including mud wrestling, orgies, whippings, lewd games of chess, costume roleplay and young virgins.

But there quickly appears to be a snag; there aren't enough young ladies of ill repute to go round. Cue David Hemmings in one of two roles he is given here (God knows why!) who takes to infiltrating Pettet's League of Social Purity for new blood. Cue one particularly unrepentant storyline which sees a fifteen year old girl called Flora (Carol Friday) who, having been kidded into joining the League by thinking it is a brothel, get to fulfill her lifelong ambition and voracious sexual appetite as a genuine prostitute at last. It's the kind of addition that perhaps explains why this film isn't a regular in the TV schedules today. 

As I said, this is just one role for David Hemmings. The actor had been catapulted to fame with Blow-Up in 1966 and, by the time The Best House In London was made just three years later, Hemmings had racked up a further 7 film roles. There's no real reason to give Hemmings two characters to play here (the roguish, moustache twirling toff infiltrator and the kindly, whiny hero and supporter of the League) other than to increase his already prolific output! Much as I like Hemmings, this duality does not in any way shape or form display his virtuosity and he's far from a Sellers like chameleon. The only difference he brings to each role is a dark wig and moustache for the blackguard, and a blonde wig and clean shaven for the innocent hero - and both are played relatively poorly. I read once that Hemmings, cheekily, asked for two salaries during this film. I think he barely deserved the one!

It's in no way a good film but it holds some curiosity and appeal for any fan of 60s made bawdy bonanzas. The script by future It'll Be Alright On The Night host Dennis Norden packs just as many sniggering double entendres as any Carry On instalment and, in littering the story with cameos from real and fictional Victorian figures such as Dickens and Wilde, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Jekyll, clearly influenced graphic novelist Alan Moore for his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series. Director Philip Saville (who would go on to direct many great Play For Today's and single drama for the BBC) wisely fills the screen with a host of familiar faces including Warren Mitchell, George Sanders, Willie Rushton, John Cleese, Queenie Watts and even Tessie O'Shea, who all jostle about amid the colourful and somewhat lavish, larger than life depiction of Victorian London, complete with a multi-coloured psychedelic looking airship!