Monday, 31 August 2015

An Evening With Harry & Paul, BBC2

Tonight's Bank Holiday treat from BBC2 was a somewhat spoof-ish retrospective of Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse's comic partnership as it reached its 25th year (iffy calculations aside) entitled An Evening with Harry and Paul.

Now I have always like Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse - being a schoolkid 25 years ago means I was the ideal target age to be reciting their catchphrases in the playground, and I did - but I do have my reservations. Naturally with any sketch comedy duo, their material is scattergun at best; some gags and characters hit the bullseye, others go very wide. 

So it was rather curious to see them meet these reservations and objections head on in tonight's special, which saw them take questions from 'celebrities' in the audience (in reality Harry and Paul playing notable figures including Ricky Gervais, Stephen Fry and, in one hilarious moment, Jimmy Carr taking the piss out of his ridiculously fake attention seeking laugh, as well as some odder inclusions like Brian Walden and Margaret Thatcher) as the format ultimately deconstructed to conclude with allegations of sexism, racism, homophobia and unfair portrayals of mental illness and dementia in their material. 

Enfield and Whitehouse haven't actually made a full series together since 2012 (though they did produce the critically acclaimed Harry and Paul's Story of the Two's for the channel last year to celebrate its anniversary) and I must admit I was beginning to find the seeming contempt they had towards women characters very wearing back then. When this special opened tonight with both of them ridiculing Catherine Shepherd playing Harry's considerably much younger wife for her supposedly unattractive looks my heart did sink. But as the show subsequently became a trial it seems like they accept the criticisms they attract...yet bizarrely, they took this nowhere. In the end, the special closed with more bad taste; Harry brushes off the criticism and is shown to heal Stephen Hawking (in reality, Whitehouse) who rises up from his chair to walk, though his voice remains the same electronic voice box aid. 

What were they telling us here? Yes we have overstepped the mark with some material that leaves a bad taste in the mouth and we'll continue to do so - was that it?

At it's best, An Evening With Harry & Paul reminded of us some great moments from the '90s, and allowed us a chance to see Kathy Burke on TV once more. But thankfully this wasn't just about 'the good old days' and there was some great contemporary material in the canny and astute mickey takes the pair had for their celebrity audience; the aforementioned Carr moment, a Mark Rylance from Wolf Hall which had somehow merged with Robert Lindsay's Wolfie Smith of 70s sitcom Citizen Smith, and a Dave Nice who had, by his own admission, been recently acquitted of all bar one Yewtree allegations. But it also reminded me that Paul Whitehouse remains the powerhouse of this comic partnership and that Harry Enfield is very lucky to have him. That's not to say that Enfield isn't a talented performer, but I do think it is Whitehouse who somehow grounds him and adds a likeability factor that Enfield doesn't necessarily have solo but that he clearly does, as The Fast Show - that successful, critically and commercially acclaimed looming elephant in the room of any Harry and Paul discussion - proved. It is however becoming increasingly clear that they need one another; Whitehouse cast Enfield adrift into the comedy oasis as The Fast Show began its impressive rise but swiftly returned to him when Chris Langham was found guilty of downloading level 5 child pornography, nixing any future series of their sitcom Help. Now that Nurse, his latest BBC2 sitcom has been unfairly axed after just one series by the corporation, it seems likely he'll be back with Harry for something more long term shortly.

Also - has Harry had a terrible hair transplant?

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Moonlighting (1982)

I've been wanting to see Moonlighting for some time, but bizarrely the only DVD I could get my hands on was an Italian one. I recall my dad watching this one in the 80s and, being a fan of the Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski - Deep End is one of my all time favourite films - I really wanted to see this now with adult eyes. 

The movie takes place in London, during the winter of 1981 when Poland was gripped suddenly by martial law, banning the Solidarity movement overnight. Our four protagonists, led by Jeremy Irons' Nowak, are cast adrift in Kensington on tourist visas doing the titular 'moonlighting'; renovating an expensive town house for a corrupt Polish official. Nowak, the only English speaker in the group learns of the situation back home and tries desperately to keep his comrades in the dark, blissfully ignorant.

Where Skolimowski excels as a storyteller and film maker is in his ability to explore the themes of isolation, of being an outsider in a strange land. As an emigre living in working in England himself, this obviously came naturally to him, but he has an uncanny ability to present the West to Western eyes in an alien manner that we haven't previously considered ourselves. A good example of this is Deep End which was filmed both here and in Germany (though set exclusively in London) and concerned the outsider, isolated nature of a teenage school leaver entering the adult world of work at a local swimming baths. London may have been his home, but its viewed anew and in a peculiar manner as he begins his daily routine and falls in love for the first time. Here in Moonlighting, Skolimowski has the perfect opportunity to explore these themes for real outsiders, unfamiliar with the capital and the country itself, and the scene in which our four labourers enter a supermarket for the first time is marvellously realised; their eyes agog in wonder and awe at the luxuries and goods so easily on offer in this capitalist country.

Several passages within the film occurs in unsubtitled Polish as a highly convincing Irons talks with his clueless comrades played by Eugene Lipinski, Jiri Stanislaw and Eugeniusz Haczkiewicz. This actually allows us to emphathise with them, lost in a strange land with no ability to communicate with the outside world. In this respect, the film hasn't dated at all;  Polish workmen having become ubiquitous here in the UK in the last ten years since the country joined the EU - a move that was unthinkable back in the early 80s.

Isolation is further addressed when Nowak learns of the political unrest in his homeland and chooses to keep this development a secret. It's a huge burden on Nowak and we are privy to his thoughts thanks to a well worked voice over from Irons which explores his anguish and inner turmoils. As money becomes tighter with every passing day, Nowak begins to shoplift - out of necessity at first but soon this clearly becomes a challenge he secretly enjoys, allowing him some control over events that are rapidly spiralling away from him.

Skolimowski's skill at making us see our everyday society afresh is further delivered by the comparisons he makes between communist Poland and Thatcherite Britain. It is clear to us that he views both countries as cold, austere and merciless, run by snooty petty bureaucrats and jobsworths and he skilfully depicts the early days of Tory rule with its widening gulf between the rich and the poor, in the scenes of shoplifting and comfortable Kensington life.

A League Of Their Own (1992)

This adorably sweet sports movie from Penny Marshall boasts a feminist take on the genre that still has an important message today - especially when one considers the growing interest (and about time too!) for women's football here in the UK in light of their successful World Cup campaign this summer. 

A League of Their Own tells the story of the All-American Girls' Professional Baseball League, which was founded in 1943 to keep the sport alive whilst the men's game became a casualty of the Second World War. When the war ended, the men returned home, baseball resumed and the days of the women's game were numbered; they eventually shut up shop in 1954.

In rural area of Oregon, a wisecracking scout played by Jon Lovitz spots two sisters, Dottie and Kit (Geena Davis and Lori Petty), one who can catch and hit, the other who can throw but whose Achilles Heel are the high, fast balls. He sees some merit in the pair and brings them to Chicago for tryouts with a lot of other aspiring ball players, including Madonna, Rosie O'Donnell and Megan Cavanaugh, hoping to make it on the team managed by former golden boy Tom Hanks, now a washed up alcoholic with a dodgy knee.

The Hanks character represents initially the general disinterest the American baseball crowds feel towards these girls, viewing them as little more than an amusing distraction at best and, at worst, women who simply do not know their place. But slowly and surely he's won over by the commitment and talent these girls have for the game and soon the crowds too are bewitched. It's also interesting to explore here how his character is a man who naturally had every skill and every opportunity at his disposal but wasted much of it through a fug of alcohol, whilst these women never had such an opportunity to waste at all until now and are shown to be unlikely to ever go down the same route.

Marshall's film may follow the tropes of the sports movie genre and may suffer from a certain level of stock-characteritis, but what's undeniable here is the important feminist stance it makes. During WWII women were suddenly recognised as a crucial part of the wear effort and the home front, their participation a necessity. It got them out of the kitchens and shattered the image of the docile domestic housewife and home maker, replacing it with the truth of strong, independent women. The film effectively tells us this tale of transition, about how it feels for these characters to suddenly find themselves in situations which offer them new roles and a sense of freedom. And it's bittersweet too, as we see in the present day scenes which bookend the main action just how this burgeoning liberation was all too sadly swept aside. I'm not totally convinced by these scenes but I do believe they were much needed; their reunion is a touching acceptance of their trailblazing nature - and a reminder, to our shame, that they blazed so brightly but all too shortly.  It's not an uncommon tragedy either; women's football here in the UK could have eclipsed the men's game after the First World War where it not for the FA banning it outright in 1921, a ban that was not lifted until fifty years later and largely ignored until this year.

But A League of Their Own doesn't beat you around the head with this message, not does it challenge the audience, provoking them into tut tutting at the reach of the stifling patriarchal society into the world of sports. It just tells its story through engaging characters and believable scenarios and winningly, leaves you asking the question for yourself; was this fair? Watching those real women of the AAGPB play once more, now old but not lacking in spirit, over the closing credits (accompanied by Madonna's touching This Used To Be My Playground) I defy you to think that it is.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Outpost: Black Sun (2012)

I remember being pleasantly surprised by director Steve Barker's 2008 film Outpost. Low budget, straight to DVD and highly derivative chiller it may have been, but it actually clicked and became a surprising cult success thanks to its eerie and almost unbearably tense and downbeat atmosphere, a strong committed cast and by coming in ahead of the curve for the niche but popular market of supernatural Nazi horror movies.

Distributed by Sony who saw its potential and had faith in it, Barker was  then encouraged to make a sequel alongside original co-writer Rae Brunton and, four years later, Outpost: Black Sun was released. 

Unfortunately, despite being written and directed by the same people, this sequel is not a patch on the original Outpost movie. It certainly continues in the same vein and is very much authentic in serving as a continuation of the story and the fictional universe they have created, but it's ultimately a disappointing venture. 

Go bigger seemed to be the key for this sequel and, despite looking like it had a bit more money spent on it, the film fails in delivering. There's perhaps just too much trying to be done here and overall it lacks many of the key things that made the original such a modest hit, namely the simple use of its singular, claustrophobic setting meaning a loss of much of the necessary suspense and horror that a film like this needs to captivate us and capture our attention. 

The cast is also a problem. In Outpost, we had the likes of Ray Stevenson and Michael Smiley but here we have  Downton Abbey's Catherine Steadman adopting a whiny American accent to play Lena, a female Nazi hunter who frankly irritated me from the get go.  Richard Coyle - who will always and forever be Jeff from Coupling to me - plays our hero Wallace, some journalist type. Like Steadman he too adopts an American accent, albeit far less successfully. I say he's our hero but his character is not especially heroic nor is he charismatic - it's a radical departure from the first film which traded in bluff macho mercenaries. Similar characters return here, played by the likes of Gary McDonald and Nick Nevern, and on occasion Coyle stand in their midst like a rather poor Doctor Who, questioning their brawn over brain mentality. It doesn't help that these characters are there solely to serve as fodder for the killer undead Nazis, with zero character development beyond them hailing from different parts of the UK or, in McDonald's case, being black. 

The narrative feels overstretched throughout, it's like they want to do a big budget blockbuster on a shoestring rather than actually knowing their limitations and recalling how well they had served them first time around. By the time we reach the computer game like conclusion (Castle Wolfenstein anyone?) it's almost impossible to care and indeed, I wonder just how I lasted the distance.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Theme Time : John Cameron - Crimewatch UK

Broadcast roughly every month by the BBC since its initial episode on the 7th June 1984, Crimewatch UK remains the countries most high profile public service magazine programme, helping to solve major crimes by staging dramatic reconstructions and broadcasting CCTV footage to gather valuable information from the viewing public at home. 

The show is loosely based on a German programme entitled Aktenzeichen XY … ungelöst (translation; File Reference XY...Unsolved) which was also the inspiration and template of the US series America's Most Wanted but, crucially, the BBC declined the dramatic scores that were laid over those programmes reconstructions, as well as filming the reconstructions from the POV of the offender, focusing solely on the public service aspect of audience participation and appealing to the public for information, much like Shaw Taylor's Police 5 though that focused only on minor crimes. Crimewatch UK would tackle serious criminal activity including murders, armed robberies, violent burglaries and physical attacks and sexual assault. It began as an experiment, because the producers were unsure of whether the police, the victims and witnesses would participate and whether or not the show would prejudice a jury, but they did and Crimewatch quickly became an institution that has over the years seen up to 57 murderers, 53 rapists and sex offenders, 18 paedophiles and more being captured as a direct result of the programme.

The show's original presenters were Nick Ross and Sue Cook (pictured above) Ross was famous for signing off each broadcast with the immortal phrase "Don't have nightmares, do sleep well" and presented the show for a total of twenty three years, before being replaced by current presenter Kirsty Young in 2008. Cook left after eleven years in 1995 and was replaced by Jill Dando, the much loved TV presenter who was murdered in 1999 - a crime which tragically remains unsolved despite the programme's efforts at the time.

The bombastic wonderfully dramatic theme tune was composed by John Cameron and is entitled Rescue Helicopter - a sublime piece of music that screams of the dedicated action of the emergency services as you can see in this clip of the opening titles from the 1980s that I've uploaded to the old Tube of You.

Do sleep well. Don't have nightmares

Girls With Guns

The increasingly svelte The Inbetweeners movie star Lydia Rose Bewley acting tough in BBC3's new sitcom Top Coppers

Out On Blue Six : KD Lang

End Transmission

Thursday, 27 August 2015

RIP Alison Parker, Adam Ward and Marcy Borders

Normally when I post RIP or obituary posts on here it's for actors who have passed or famous people on the world stage whose lives I was aware of.

I did not know or experience the work of Alison Parker and Adam Ward, two broadcast journalists with the small Virginian news channel WDBJ, but since the news broke here yeatserday evening of their slaying at the hands of embittered former colleague Bryce Williams aka Vester Lee Flanagan (who has subsequently taken his own life) live on air as Parker was being filmed by Ward interviewing local chamber of commerce director Vicki Gardner (injured in the shooting) I have felt numb and ultimately compelled to comment on this devastating violent attack upon two young people whose lives were cut cruelly short at 24 and 27 respectively. 


Also, spare a moment for another life that ended all too prematurely; Marcy Borders, the woman known as 'the dust lady' of 9/11 following the famous footage of her coated in debris in the wake of the terrorist attack, has passed away this week aged just 42 from stomach cancer.

The cancers which have spread amongst the survivors of that horrible day just goes to show that this terrorist atrocity is continuing to take innocent lives.


For Marcy, Adam and Alison, I'm lighting a candle today.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Corporation of Fools

Just what are the BBC thinking? They've decided to axe Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer's hilariously daft House of Fools

This is a ridiculous move. Makes me sad face. As Renton Skinner's character Bosh would say; "Yooooooooou little twaaaaaaaaat"

A petition has appeared on to get the BBC to change their minds. You can sign it here

Not only that, but the Radio Times claims they've axed Paul Whitehouse's wonderfully bittersweet Nurse which starred Esther Coles as a community mental health nurse dropping in on patients played largely by Whitehouse but also Rosie Cavaliero and Jason Maza. In the same Radio Times, Spinal Tap star Harry Shearer professes his adoration for the show in a Q+A on the back page about his TV likes.

First axeing BBC3, then giving Tom Jones the boot off The Voice and now this. I love the BBC and I am fearful of the Tory government's intervention in their affairs but honestly, they don't make it easy for themselves sometimes with these lamebrain decisions.

Wordless Wednesday : Long, Lonely Road

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Tea Up!

The marvellous Roisin Conaty.

My life would be complete if I had her as a drinking buddy. I feel sure of this.

Gunrush (2009)

Gunrush strikes me as being quite unusual for an ITV drama made in recent years in that it hasn't been endlessly repeated by one of the subsidiary ITV channels like 2 or 3 or Encore.

Shown just once to my knowledge in 2009 I must admit I couldn't recall all that much of Gunrush beyond its Broken Britain plot of a grieving father, played by Timothy Spall, tracking down the hoodies who shot to death his daughter just days earlier. It's a plot that is rather reminiscent of James Coburn's final movie, 2002's American Gun; a fact which was I know was running through my head when I watched it. Perhaps it was because of such comparison, that I was ultimately disappointed in Gunrush, but I'm not altogether sure now. So, it's rewatch time - maybe I can provide a clearer picture as to why it left me feeling so meh, and why it hasn't been repeated.

Well, a quick look online tells me that Gunrush lay gathering dust on a scheduler's shelf for a couple of years before its broadcast in 2009 - never a good sign. With that ignominy in mind, it's perhaps not surprising why I believe it hasn't been repeated either. It's a real shame though, because this had a very strong cast – Spall, Deborah Findlay, David Harewood and Paul Kaye – and kept a firm hold of the political hot potato of urban gun crime and the ghettoisation of council estates in inner city areas. It could have been the intelligent alternative to Harry Brown, but instead Richard Cottan's script wavers between offering up a realistic storyline and an infuriatingly stupid one.

It starts out encouragingly. I particularly liked how David Harewood's character met Spall's comment that the youths who had murdered his daughter lived 'just up the road' on the estate with clear derision; "They're not from some other planet" he scoffed. "They're us. They're you and me" Finally, you think, a drama that actually appreciates that criminals are not some specific breed apart from the rest of us. These kids, dabbling with drugs and running in gangs, are just the same as everyone else, except they haven't had the same breaks and they are shaped by totally different dispiriting experiences. 

Naturally it's a big and downbeat grim storyline, depicting a young black male pulling a gun on a young middle class white female teenager and killing her and the blind rage and grief that single devastating act inflicts upon the girl's surviving family. So its a real shame therefor that from such an incendiary starting point, Cottan wimps out on bringing his story  to a plausible conclusion, taking it to a final reel that is just as silly as any other kind of Death Wish/Harry Brown scenario. I actually didn't have that much of an issue with Timothy Spall's human doormat becoming a would be vigilante who, when faced with the youth responsible and with the very gun in his hand, contemplated bloody revenge, no not at all - the problem I had was in the ridiculous manner the story removed itself with a single shark jumping leap from the avenue it had taken Spall down to wrap the tale up with no ramifications whatsoever. It didn't help either that the director clearly felt the same way, either consciously or subconsciously, and framed a shot of an anguished wailing Spall against a wall on which you could quite clearly see the word 'RUBBISH'

There was a germ of a good idea here, especially when it was revealed just what brought about the tragedy that occurred, but it got lost long before the final credits rolled - and that is why, despite Spall's reliably strong performance, Gunrush has returned to the vaults to collect dust.

If you want to see for yourself, it's on YouTube.

Table For One

Valerie Leon

Monday, 24 August 2015

Fighting Back : Petitions to Sign

First off the bat today, let's tackle the insufficient information regarding your right to appeal against benefit decisions. Sign this petition to get things changed and your rights made clear.

The repugnant, shameless Iain Duncan Smith (the cunt) has announced a further benefits shake up, despite being proven to have blood on his hands and lies on his lips. How this man is still in a job is beyond me. We need to get him out! Sign this petition demanding his removal, and this to get the CPS to investigate him for the manslaughter of benefit claimants.

It's not just the Tories alas who show their disgusting true colours regarding the disabled in our society. Liz Kendall, the prospective Labour leader, made an almighty gaffe on BBC News last week when she said "Yes, we must support the disabled. But we must also support the ordinary people as well" That kind of mindset should nix anyone's dream of high office. Sign here to demand she apologises.

The Labour leadership election is sadly becoming a terrible farce of dishonourable unfair conduct. Several thousand votes have been purged - and we all know who these votes are for - which stinks of corruption within the system by the Blairites. Sign here to demand this stops.

Whatever the outcome next month, Labour needs to unite and realise who its enemy actually is - the Tories. The in-fighting and constant statements of intent to battle within a potential Corbyn led party is despicable. The party needs to unite and this petition asks them to realise this for our sakes. Cos y'know, we're only the electorate after all.

For over a fortnight now, parts of Lancashire have been without safe drinking water thanks to the bug cryptosporidium having been found in the local water supply. Some 300,000 homes have suffered as a result. But how did this parasite get into the water supply? This petition demands an inquiry.

The Tory govt has turned its back on those who helped them fight the war in Afghanistan, namely the hundreds of interpreters who risked their lives to help our forces. Cameron refuses to resettle these interpreters who served our country between 2006 and 2012 unless they can 'prove' their lives are at great risk. They seem to ignore the murdered family members, bullet holes through cars and injuries they have faced. A previous petition gained 50,000 signatures, but still the Tories have done nothing. Sign here to remind them of their responsibility.

It disgusts and astounds me that this government proposes to cut the wages of our firefighters. These people risk life and limb to ensure our safety and they're struggling to make ends meet as it is. Sign here to reverse that decision and ensure their situation improves.

Chichester Ambulance Service is to be closed to make way for a centralised hub which outsources services to private contractors. This is a waste of NHS money and a terrible risk for Chichester itself. Please sign this petition to express your dissatisfaction with the decision.

Lastly, this one doesn't have anything to do with injustice but I would like people to consider signing it. The BBC are terminating its contract with The Met Office, a contract that has seen these professional forecasters broadcast our weather report for over 90 years, to seek another provider of the service. I think this is a really bad move and so do many others. This is just one petition calling for this decision to be overturned.


'90s Cesare Paciotti advert

Sunday, 23 August 2015

The Veteran (2011)

The Veteran is a 2001 film starring Toby Kebell as Robert Miller, a soldier returning home from Afghanistan and unable to fit back into society. Living on a violent, run-down council estate, he finds work in undercover surveillance and becomes obsessed with taking down a group of local gangsters who may be linked to a suspected terrorist call.

I feel miss-sold with this one. I kind of expected it to be him taking the fight to the drug dealers on his run down council estate. When Ashley 'Bashy' Thomas relates to Toby Kebell how the war he has just fought was basically just a way to keep the supply chain open for drugs to arrive in the West I thought 'yes, this is interesting' But the plot never really seems sure what it wants to be and we're quickly diverted from that to one long malaise of an espionage thriller - minus the thrills. The majority of The Veteran seems to be Kebbell following people, and then reporting back to Tony Curran and Brian Cox - both sleepwalking through roles they've done a dozen times or more in better fare.

I truly believe that Toby Kebbell can carry a film, but this isn't his opportunity. No one could carry a film which fails so spectacularly in keeping the audience's attention and in knowing what it actually wants. The dialogue is also a disappointment, with characters ultimately spouting diatribes to convey a sense of this film actually having the message it teasingly promises us all along. 

Come the final reel, all guns are a blazing. This sudden spurt of action does manage to jolt the film back into something lively, but in being such a long time in coming it ultimately feels rather wrong and misplaced. It is not, however much the film makers want it to be, Taxi Driver.

Overall this is really disappointing. This could have said something about the state of the nation in an interesting political way, but instead it opts for the last gasp of a Call of Duty style sensationalism it had spent the previous 80 minutes scorning.

A Prize Of Arms (1962)

A Prize of Arms is a rollicking good heist movie co-written by future director Nic Roeg that keeps you gripped with its constant tense atmosphere and has you willing the trio of crooks - Stanley Baker, Tom Bell and Helmut Schmid - on, hoping they'll get away with their audacious plans.

Set a few years earlier in 1956, A Prize of Arms stars Stanley Baker stars as Turpin, a bitter ex-army officer with a dishonourable discharge to his name following some black-market activities in Hamburg just after the war. Determined to put his military experiences to use to exact some revenge, he masterminds the intricate robbery of the paymasters safe inside an Army barracks on the eve of the regiment's embarkation to Suez, enlisting former comrade Swavek, a Polish explosives expert played by Schmid and Fenner, a young mechanic played by Tom Bell.

The trio infiltrate the barracks for the day posing as drivers then, as night falls, they set fire to the pay office and rob the £1m payroll before making good their escape by tagging on to the end of the troop's convoy. That is the plan, and it almost works perfectly were it not for Fenner being attached to cookhouse duty and Swavek suffering a bad reaction to an inoculation. 

This is a cracking, well-paced crime drama from director Cliff Owen who keeps the tension levels high throughout and delivers an authentic depiction of both the crime and the military. The three leads are very strong and there's a plethora of familiar faces along the way too including Patrick Magee as a barking, moustachioed RSM, Michael Ripper as an MO and Stephen Lewis, who died this month, as a redcap.

This nail-biter is an underrated and overlooked 60s heist movie that I thoroughly recommend catching.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Out On Blue Six : Billy Fury

End Transmission

Darklands (1996)

I can't actually recall when I first saw Darklands. I just recall it being on some TV channel late at night either in the late '90s or the early '00s and have a vague idea it may have been on Sky movies prior to that, but I can't be sure. Whilst I enjoyed it and found it diverting enough at the time, I was a bit dismissive of it I must say, largely because I'd not long since seen The Wicker Man. To me, it just looked like something extremely derivative of Robin Hardy's cult classic. I didn't realise at the time how derivative The Wicker Man itself was. I doubt I knew or understood the pagan mythology and legend of John Barleycorn back then, now that I do Darklands has actually gone up in my estimations on this rewatch. It's hardly surprising either; it's actually refreshing to see an early entry in what has become known as the revival of the British horror genre that stands apart from the formulaic and repetitive dirge being churned out in its name now - all those [insert subsection of society here] Vs [insert traditional horror creature here] titles - I think the only one they haven't done yet is Chavs Vs Werewolves

Darklands stars Craig Fairbrass stars as Frazer Truick, an investigative journalist born in Wales but taken to London in his formative years (which explains his cockney accent) he now finds himself back in the town of his birth after being dumped by Fleet Street for writing a story they couldn't defend. 

So OK, that's the first credibility stretch - Fairbrass as a cockney sounding Welshman. The second is that, for an investigative reporter, he struggles to see the truth when its standing right in front of him and tweaking his pumped up pectorals. No matter, I'm one of those people who actually find Fairbrass quite charismatic and watchable borne from the fact that I grew up watching him in the likes of Prime Suspect and London's Burning and then going 'No way, that's Technique!' when he popped up in major Hollywood action flick Cliffhanger. I will stick my neck out here and say this is one of his most satisfying central vehicles, primarily because it's just really nice to see him play something likeable and something other than a gangster.

Darklands opens with some atmospheric shots of industrial Wales - Port Talbot to be exact - interspersed with scenes featuring some grungy alternative circus looking types performing a sort of prototype Stomp! These look like the kind of people who rock up at Glastonbury making art with chainsaws and bits of old flatbed trucks and remind you that the 90s really were a bit of a cultural oasis; a no man's land of identity, fashions and style whereupon anything remotely 'alt' looking was leapt upon to provide the shorthand for 'sinister' and 'strange'. Throw in a few gypsies - as Darklands goes on to do - and you have an audience convinced these boyos are up to no good. Sure enough, the next thing we see them do is drag a squealing pig into the space by the ears (this moment is not for the squeamish, animal lover!) and promptly slit its throat and string it up in a vaguely 'sacrificial' manner.

Frazer, and his new colleague Rachel (the glamourous looking Rowena King), are called to the local church where the pig' remains have been unceremoniously dumped, along with Celtic writing daubed on the walls in its blood. This isn't the first time such desecration has occurred and it's clear that this is a story Frazer wants to get to the bottom of, but he's soon sidetracked by Rachel who asks him to investigate the death of her brother, a steelworker who she feels got mixed up in a strange cult in the town. It isn't long before Frazer believes the two investigations are linked and his digging around leads him to a Nationalist MP (Jon Finch) and a sinister well dressed man called Carver (David Duffy)  as well as revelations about those closest to him. 

Efficiently directed by first timer Julian Richards, Darklands cherrypicks from several classic horrors. There's more than a pinch of The Omen, a touch of Rosemary's Baby, a liberal dose of the classic, chilling Play For Today
Robin Redbreast and then of course there's the aforementioned The Wicker Man. There's even an air of the '70s Hammer movies in the rather lurid, baby oil slicked depiction of ceremonial sex! But it's all done with obvious affection and with a sense of atmosphere and it has developed something of its own retro style too now that the years have moved on, making it all really rather enjoyable.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Wolcott (1981)

Blaxploitation finally came to Britain television in 1981 with Wolcott, a groundbreaking detective drama released by Network DVD this week which was the first drama to feature a black actor in a leading role.

The actor in question is the magnetic George Harris (billed here as George William Harris) playing the role of Detective Constable Winston Churchill Wolcott. Newly promoted to CID by a Metropolitan Police with an eye for PR and community relations, he swiftly becomes embroiled in a drug war between rival black and white gangs in London's East End.

Produced by ITC and Black Lion Films and written by Americans Barry Wasserman and Patrick Carroll, this mini-series (the first of its kind on British TV screens apparently) is a pulpy delight, with its blunt, bloody violence and colourful language ultimately - and perhaps rather unfortunately - dominating the sociopolitical context. It's easy to draw a line from blaxploitation films like Shaft and Across 110th Street to this (as I have at the top of this review) but it's also fair to say there's a good deal of influence noticeable here from the likes of the Sidney Poitier Virgil Tibbs movies and our very own The Sweeney. But Wolcott certainly doesn't look like the exploits of Regan and Carter and it's clear to see that ITC had an eye on export value too - as indeed they always did - creating a glossy, hard hitting aesthetic thanks to Roger Deakins glorious and striking cinematography and Colin Bucksey's innovative direction which makes Wolcott far removed from the look of its contemporary British crime dramas. There's also a role for visiting American actress Christine Lahti as a journalist who sees in Wolcott a wealth of headline grabbing stories. 

The cast is actually a very interesting one with Hugh Quarshie (now a regular in Holby City) as Wolcott's youth worker cousin who disapproves of him being in his view little more than the Met's pet, Mona Hammond as his proud mother, Warren Clarke as the representative of old school gangland villainy struggling to keep apace with the rise of black rivals and cheap heroin, and Christopher Ellison as a bent cop that can easily be seen as a dummy run for his role as DI Frank Burnside in The Bill. Unfortunately the rest of the cast are a bit of a let down; Raul Newney as an up and coming black gangster doesn't have the necessary menace for the role, and Martin Dempsey and Paul McDowell (dubbed throughout by Bernard Gallagher, whom Harris would later star opposite in the first series of Casualty) as Wolcott's weary and/or disapproving superiors at the station offer little or merit.  But perhaps of most interest in the cast are the likes of the young Rik Mayall, Alexei Sayle and Keith Allen, then making a name for themselves on the alternative comedy scene of The Comic Strip, appearing respectively as a sneering racist policeman, a right-on soap box public speaker and his National Front heckler in the crowd - the latter at least helping to give Wolcott some of its sociopolitical context.

Dominating it all is the tremendous short tempered tough guy presence of George Harris in the title role. An outsider to both the community he was brought up in and the colleagues he now works alongside, it's clear he is the only one who seems to have little problem with being a black policeman. The miniseries was originally designed to be a pilot run for a full thirteen-part series but this failed to materialise, leaving the nihilistic tone it builds up to a rather ambiguous conclusion. It's a shame, but it is fair to say that the central storyline chosen to open with was too minimal and unable to sustain its original four episode run. Perhaps if it had something stronger from the off it would have been readily picked up for further episodes. As it is, just a couple of months later, the BBC's answer to racial intolerance and the ethnic minorities within the police force at the time was handled with more subtlety and intelligence in The Chinese Detective, written by Ian Kennedy Martin the creator of The Sweeney.

Network have produced another great release here but it's lacking on the extras front; just an image gallery and the chance to see 'clean' titles for one episode.