Saturday, 31 October 2015

Ghostwatch (1992)

For my money this 1992 Screen One drama is still the most compelling, technically accomplished and effective scare story television has ever staged. I can enthuse about Ghostwatch for hours amongst friends in pubs, explaining just why I think it was so successful, influential and unique, and indeed I often have.

Ghostwatch remains a clever, controversial and utterly shittifying experience.

Broadcast by the BBC just after the 9pm watershed on Halloween night 1992, Ghostwatch purported to be a live BBC broadcast from Foxhill Drive in Northolt, where a council house has been haunted by a malevolent spirit. The traumatised and unfortunate Early family - single mother Pam and daughters Kim and Suzanne - have been placed under the microscope by Dr Pascoe who has been investigating the poltergeist given the name ‘Pipes’ for some time before the BBC descends. 'Pipes' - it's a name that sends a chill down the spine of British men and women of a certain age.

Ostensibly an outside broadcast and studio discussion fronted by familiar TV personalities of the day (veteran chat show host Michael Parkinson, Saturday morning kids TV presenter Sarah Greene and her former Radio 1 DJ husband, the late Mike Smith and performance poet and Red Dwarf actor Craig Charles) many viewers were easily duped into believing this was in fact a real live TV event, failing to notice author Stephen Volk's writing credit, the cast list printed in the Radio Times or the Screen One logo before the action commenced. Not since Orson Welles' infamous 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast had a deception been so widespread and convincing and,spurred on by a minority of infuriated viewers upon realising that they'd literally been tricked and treated, the media created a shitstorm in the aftermath of its broadcast citing numerous examples of extremely effected viewers including, if memory serves, a tenuously linked suicide. As a result, the programme has never been repeated on British television.

If you were there, and I was 13-years-old at the time, Ghostwatch had a huge impact and remains a crucial TV viewing experience. It was, understandably, the talk of the playground for days after and from both its controversy and its stunning depiction of psychic phenomena - influenced by the real life paranormal incidents at Enfield, which were finally effectively dramatised this year with Sky's The Enfield Haunting - continued to fuel the morbid fascinations of many a teenager. Remember this was an era long before Sky+ and 'Live Pause', and Ghostwatch's subtle, spine tingling chills in the form of the fleeting, cameos from 'Pipes' really are of the blink and you'll miss it variety. But if you were quick enough to catch it, even from the corner of your eye, it was suitably unnatural and made you question your own eyes and, quite rightly given the context of the piece, what it was that you were actually seeing.

Ghostwatch's skill lies in just how realistic it actually is. It really does emulate the live broadcast superbly shot on videotape and using infra red cameras to create a fascinating postmodern narrative. The tropes of live TV are all there; the awkward, mundane chat between studio and outside broadcast; the satellite delays, the phone-in segments and the naturalistic air employed by the performers. It's especially commendable that the production includes the rather daring gambit of not always making the action totally clear, with lines being delivered in a murmur or people talking over one another. 

The jovial, jokey 'it's only TV, folks' tone  slowly gives way as the sinister goings on in the area is slowly drip-fed into proceedings - we learn of children going missing, a pregnant Labrador butchered in the nearby playground, and folkloric tales of a murderous babysitter and a disturbed cross-dressing lodger with convictions for child sex abuse -  before its nihilistic conclusion where it becomes clear that the broadcast has acted as a gigantic, universal séance, thus making the viewers truly a part of this well designed, edited and plotted drama with some surprisingly good and natural performances - specifically from Parky as the host - and the experienced acting talent of Gillian Bevan as Dr Pascoe and Brid Brennan as Mrs Early.

It's the kind of drama that sadly could only ever have been made in 1992; risky and totally reliant on the shared experience of TV viewing. 

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

Happy Halloween

Halloween Treat : The Stone Tape, Radio 4 10pm

As discussed in yesterday's post, Radio 4 will remake Nigel Kneale's classic 1972 ghost story The Stone Tape tonight at 10pm to mark Halloween.

Directed by Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy) and written by Matthew Graham (Life on Mars) the play stars the divine Romola Garai as Jill, the role taken by Jane Asher in the original, with Asher providing a cameo as Jill's mother.

Also in the cast and recording the piece at 4 Princelet Street, Spitalfields are Julian Rhind-Tutt, Julian Barratt and Dean Andrews

And if you're still in the mood for chills after that, stick around on Radio 4 immediately after for their adaptation of the 1991 novel by Anita Sullivan Ring, which was subsequently made into a classic cult film in 1998 and remade in Hollywood later. It stars Torchwood's Eve Myles and Naoki Mori, as well as reuniting Myles with her Broadchurch and Baker Boys co-star Matthew Gravelle. Then you can switch to 4 Extra for their remake of The Exorcist with Robert Glenister.

Friday, 30 October 2015

The Stone Tape (1972)

Ahead of tomorrow night's 'remake' of The Stone Tape from acclaimed director Peter Strickland as part of Radio 4's Fright Night schedule for Halloween, I thought I'd give this classic 1972 play from the prophetic genius that was Nigel Kneale a rewatch.

The play concerns a team of scientists (headed up by research boss Peter played by Michael Bryant and programmer Jill played by Jane Asher) working on a new recording medium in an abandoned mansion who discover a ghost is haunting one of the rooms. Deciding to explore the phenomena scientifically, they discover that the room itself may be made of a type of stone that can store sounds and images and therefore is exactly what they are looking for.

Nigel Kneale was no stranger to the traditions and tropes of the ghost story, but The Stone Tape - his Christmas Day play for the BBC in 1972 - he produced perhaps his finest piece in the genre. It's concept may be original and challenging but it is also brilliantly simple - are spectral, psychic presences self aware, ie do ghosts know they are haunting people, or are they simply recordings of a disturbing tragedy somehow captured in the building itself?

Kneale's astute script explores traditional male and female perspectives from how his characters are effected by the phenomena. Bryant's ruthless and somewhat swaggering boss considers the issue rationally and coldly, whilst Asher's troubled programmer reacts on a more emotional and compassionate level. Her investigations are as much to do with healing the suffering the spectre may feasibly be experiencing as they are to do with the job at hand. Using these differing approaches Kneale engages the audience perfectly and then adds another layer, in that their opposite points of view mean a deterioration in their relationship, both professionally and personally - as it is revealed early on that Peter and Jill are having an affair. The events at the house come between them, producing an inability to communicate and eventually a complete breakdown of goodwill and understanding between the pair. 

Between them stands the site foreman Colly, played by Iain Cuthbertson, whose impressive performance marks him out as far more than the middle-ground cipher his character could so easily have become in a lesser performer's hands.  Equally so, the commitment levels displayed by all the principal cast is terrifically commendable even though the kind of brusque businesslike characterisations that Bryant and latterly Reginald Marsh employ are unfortunately a touch reminiscent for modern day viewers of Fry and Laurie's whisky swilling John and Peter. The stand out performance belongs of course to Jane Asher who is utterly convincing as Jill, the victim of the phenomena. It's very easy to create something melodramatic and acutely embarrassing when faced with the challenge of having to act against nothing, but Asher never once succumbs to this mistake. It's really quite commendable.

Granted you could argue know in these days of CGI that the special effects on display in the climax, which sees Jill pursued by ancient and unidentifiable shapeless creatures of centuries old evil, are rather crude but I would challenge that they are still gripping and effective if taken in the context of the whole piece. Accusations of being dated cannot be levelled at the startling use of sound in the production by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and I'll be keen to hear how this distinctly sonic piece works on the medium of radio tomorrow night.

The Stone Tape is perfect Halloween viewing and is available on DVD.

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

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Out On Blue Six : Urban Cookie Collective, RIP Diane Charlemagne

Just heard the sad news that Diane Charlemagne has lost her battle with cancer at the age of 51. Playing this hit in tribute to her


End Transmission

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Doris & Doreen (1978)

This production was the second to be broadcast in LWT's 1978 series of Six Plays by Alan Bennett. Doris and Doreen is the most traditionally 'theatrical' of these films, taking place on a single studio set, shot on VT and featuring essentially just three main roles. As such, it doesn't necessarily work as an engaging piece of television especially when placed between its siblings in the series, but it was to subsequently find its natural home on the stage when Bennett adapted it and retitled it as Green Forms for a tour in 2003 as part of a double bill alongside A Visit From Miss Prothero under the collective title Office Suite.

Directed by Stephen Frears, this original production stars Patricia Routledge and Prunella Scales as the titular Doris and Doreen, two archetypal Bennett matrons who work together in a small office within a sprawling unspecified bureaucratic organisation in the north west of England. In between their lengthy gossiping conversations, they indulge in some myriad paperwork and in their hurried investigations into the possibility of a new arrival's plans for change and restructure.

It's quite a prescient political piece which sees the pair discuss the of several previously key branches that have been, or are being, 'wound down' (or 'wound up' as the less jargon familiar Doreen continues to say) and the inevitable redundancies such decisions bring about. Broadcast ahead of Thatcher's victory at the election in 1979, Bennett skilfully takes the pulse of the nation, knowing full well the forthcoming Tory government would establish their pitch in the bitter economic stand offs between management and unions by raising unemployment levels and placing great emphasis on public and private sector productivity, modernity and efficiency. With that in mind it's all too easy to see that Doris and Doreen, with their grade 3 skilled or grade 4 semi-skilled status, are right to no longer feel as secure in their cosy paperchase workplace. As we now know, somewhere beyond the obvious studio set there was a big black storm cloud, and it was rapidly approaching the all too real Doris and Doreen's and many, many, many others in the UK.

Pete Postlethwaite delivers a memorable turn as a one-armed newly unionised office messenger (though he's clearly way too young for the part, given that Bennett writes him as a veteran of Tobruk!) who parrots the positives of his new union with all the fervour of the freshly converted. "I'm under the umbrella," he proclaims, feeling a sense of security and protection. "Get in under the umbrella, quick" he advises. But his words fall on deaf ears to the willfully excluded and exclusive Doris and Doreen, to the extent that its clear their previous sniffy disinterest in, and opposition of, organisation and collectivity in the workplace - which is widely more emblematic of their small, tight cliquey ways - is likely to be another reason they are unable to maintain the cosy, feathered nest like conditions they have become all too accustomed to. Although again, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and we know that Postlethwaite's 'umbrella' couldn't, alas, hold off the cold Tory downpour that decimated the unions for much longer.

Doris and Doreen rightly belongs to Scales and Routledge, who form a great partnership and both dominate the screen and enliven what could have been a very flat televisual experience with their flair and nuance for delivering Bennett's dialogue. It's not one of Bennett's best TV plays - Frears does little to lift it from its stagey demeanour (nor does he, it seems, want to) and the score is both intrusive and arch - but it remains an enjoyable enough piece, thanks in the main to the performances, and a good historical document of the late '70s. Your enjoyment of it depends on how you feel about stage like TV productions I guess.

Lastly, it amuses me that an unseen character shares my name - the oft referred to Mr Cunliffe (a distinctly Lancastrian surname that Bennett would later employ for a minor character in his screenplay for the Joe Orton biopic Prick Up Your Ears) - who works in personnel. 

Repeated once in the 80s on Channel 4 (along with the other plays in the Six Plays series) this remains unreleased to DVD. It is available to view in instalments on YouTube.

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

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

RIP Philip French

Sad news - veteran film critic Philip French has died following a heart attack at the age of 82.

I always enjoyed reading French's film reviews and they were quite inspirational in how I shape my own reviews here on this blog and over on Letterboxd.


Me! I'm Afraid Of Virginia Woolf (1978)

"Hopkins hated Skinner, and longed to be him"

It is that line that is probably key to Me! I'm Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, the first in the LWT series of Six Plays by Alan Bennett from 1978, as it neatly describes the issue at the heart of its hero, the painfully shy English lecturer Trevor Hopkins. 

This terribly self conscious 35 year old bachelor, played by Neville Smith, finds himself in an almost constant state of ennui and uncomfortable awkwardness with his fellow man. Like Virginia Woolf, whom he teaches at the local Polytechnic, he seems to be blindly questioning what life is (indeed he gets student Janine Duvitski - whom Bennett's third person narration describes as "a refugee from life" - to read out the dictionary definition of 'life' at one point) and has a repression that stifles and prevents him from actually feeling anything, as we witness in his unnecessary lies to a young Julie Walters in a GP's waiting room at the start of the film and, at the end in a neat example bookmarking, his entranced staring at the crying old lady in the hospital corridor. Unsatisfied and with a sense that he does not belong to the human race, that he is merely an observer as witnessed by his lack of interest in romance and his doomed relationship with yoga teacher Wendy (Carol MacReady) Hopkins is challenged by his most lively of students, the confident Dave Skinner (played by a young Derek Thompson, now familiar to TV audiences as Charlie Fairhead in Casualty; a role he has played for the past 30 years), whose intelligence and macho working class credentials, combined with his earring and trendy sheepskin, marks him out as someone radically different to Hopkins in that he can easily flout convention and feel comfortable and cocksure in his own skin.

It becomes apparent that the only way Hopkins can truly move forward and turn the corner is by developing male friendships, since his relationships with women - notably his mother, superbly played by Thora Hird, and the aforementioned Wendy - are so spectacularly ineffectual. As the title implies, he seems afraid of women in general and doesn't possess the ability or inclination to communicate effectively with them. However, as much as his envious and awestruck relationship with Skinner mirrors that of the relationship Bennett explores between equally hesitant teacher Irkin and the swaggering sixth former Dakin later in The History Boys, it isn't necessarily a clear cut homosexual one - indeed, though Bennett and Frears muddy the waters of this claim by having South Pacific's I'm In Love With A Wonderful Guy play over the credits of Smith and Thompson's smiling soft focus faces, one can draw a comparison here with Thora Hird's mother character and her inability to grasp the true meaning of a lesbian relationship. Despite the cheeky concluding soundtrack and Bennett's narration revealing Hopkins feels love for Skinner, it's open ended to consider that his fixation is purely emotional or the desire for physical intimacy. It's not intrinsically as simple as homoerotic longing; for Hopkins, Skinner represents the ability to naturally experience, feel and enjoy life - which is something that does not come easily to him at all. He wants to be him, wants to have such a seemingly carefree existence.

Repeated once in the 80s on Channel 4 (along with the other plays in the Six Plays series) this Benett piece, directed by Stephen Frears, remains unreleased to DVD. It is available to view in instalments on YouTube and it's worth it - especially for Hird and a lovely little cameo from Lancashire legend Bernard Wrigley.

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

Yesterday's Hero (1979)

"He plays for the glory, he plays for the feeling inside."

Currently showing on -where else? - Talking Pictures TV, Yesterday's Hero is a ridiculously cheesy late 70s romp from the nonsensical pen of the late Jackie Collins (pictured above with star, Ian McShane) that mixes football with the music industry and stars Ian McShane, Paul Nicholas, Adam Faith and Suzanne Somers.

Collins does a cut and paste job of every scandalous headline from the sports pages to create the George Best like Rod Turner (McShane) a washed up drunk of a footballer whose fall from grace has sent him plummeting to the depths of the lower divisions and their churned up mud splattered pitches on a season of harsh unforgiving wintry Saturdays. That is until rock star club chairman Clint Simon (Paul Nicholas, currently enjoying a resurgence as the latest villain in EastEnders yet here channeling Elton John and his ownership of Watford FC) offers him the opportunity to return to the big time. 

Yesterday's Hero hasn't an ounce of credibility or authenticity in either its script or its performances - strange considering McShane's father was a footballer with Manchester United in the '40s and Nicholas was a pop star - with advisor Frank McLintock (Arsenal and Scotland international as well as Leicester's disastrous '77/'78 season manager) definitely scoring an own goal. Collins uses the sport merely as backdrop to explore her usual glossy adult melodrama mixed in with the even more simplistic Roy of the Rovers style storytelling. 

Hovering over the threshold of so bad its good territory, Yesterday's Hero comes off like an inferior Silver Dream Racer, the David Essex vehicle - almost literally - from the following year. It comes complete with a far naffer soundtrack too; Nicholas and Somers perform as a protogenic Dollar-like duo to some excruciatingly awful tracks. It's films like this that shows just how inadequate a genre the sports film often is for cinema. For every This Sporting Life there's a Yesterday's Hero knocking about.

And yet, any aficionado of British cinema and popular culture at the time will be drawn by the casting of Faith, Nicholas, Alan Lake, Glynis Barber and of course, Ian McShane - a man whom I have looks-envy for during this late '70s period. Even when playing constantly hungover, he looks great.

Monday, 26 October 2015

My Three Least Favourite Bond Themes

Today sees the latest and hotly anticipated James Bond adventure, Spectre, arrive on our cinema screens.

The theme tune, Writing's On The Wall, by Sam Smith has come in for some criticism in quarters as being a bit weak and ineffectual. I can see where these objections are coming from; the song builds very well but doesn't seem to go anywhere, delivering a rather maudlin chorus rather than the bombastic, rousing lift we're familiar with. But on the whole, the song is effective enough and is certainly scored in an atmospheric manner which is both haunting and catchy. 

See what you think;

It's not really that bad is it?

Anyway, bearing in mind the flak Sam Smith has taken, I thought I'd share what I believe to be the three worst Bond themes in my opinion. Here they are, in no particular order;

The Man With The Golden Gun - Lulu.

I've never really been a fan of Lulu's music, though To Sir, With Love is the exception that proves the rule. Unlike that successful theme to a movie, her attempt at a James Bond theme was truly dismal. It also boasts John Barry's most risible, uninteresting score and proves that a shit Bond film always seems to equal a shit Bond theme.

Die Another Day - Madonna

"Sigmund Freud, analyse this" sings/speaks the diminutive '80s legend at one point. No prizes for guessing Freud's subsequent findings revealed that this was a terrible, embarrassment of a Bond theme. Speaking of embarrassing, a small, wizened chew toy of a man delivers an incredibly wooden performance as fencing mistress Verity. Rumour has it this was Madonna - how strange! Once again, a shit Bond theme for one of the franchises all time worst instalments.

Another Way To Die - Jack White & Alicia Keys

A deeply risible caterwauling duet between Jack White and Alicia Keys marked Daniel Craig's second outing as 007. We expected so much after the great Casino Royale and its theme from Chris Cornell, You Know My Name. What we got was a tedious adventure set to an abysmal track which plunders the Cornell riff and has a truly cringeworthy 'Woah-oh-oh-oh-oh-oooh' wail-off between White and Keys that sounds like they recorded the vocals on a ride at Alton Towers. Some neat tricksy rhyming lyrics (''Another dirty money heaven sent honey turning on a dime'') is all this theme has in its favour.

So you see, when you consider this terrible trio, Sam Smith's Writing's On The Wall really isn't that bad at all is it?

Narrowly avoiding the final three was Sheryl Crow's Tomorrow Never Dies

Many people consider this a bad song. Personally, I think it's just disappointing. There's some lovely touches to it and it's very retro '60s with its Barry-esque use of the cimbalom whilst at the same time retaining a contemporary '90s flavour but it's just an average song really, and poor Sheryl Crow - who I'm a fan of - was an admittedly strange choice for a Bond theme and seems lost in awe of the singing greats who came before her. They should have had the nerve to go with KD Lang's offering, hastily retitled Surrender and used to close the film instead.

And you may be interested to hear I have no issue with Rita Coolidge's theme for Octopussy, All Time High. I've regularly seen that met with some derision but personally I think it's a very sweet song, if a little misplaced for a Bond theme - though it's clearly following in the footsteps of Carly Simon's Nobody Does It Better (The Spy Who Loved Me) and Sheena Easton's For Your Eyes Only.

Oh and not all shit Bond films mean a shit theme - Moonraker by Shirley Bassey is sublime, whereas the film is anything but! I even love the disco version!

So, now I've set the (Thunder)ball rolling, what's your least favourite Bond film and why? I'd love to hear from you, so get commenting! And if you've seen Spectre before me, feel free to gush enthusiastically about it - but no spoilers please!

White Mischief (1987)

In reality, cliques are the most insufferable tedious bore. However, on screen or on the printed page there's a fascination to be had for them, and none more so than the Happy Valley set of British aristocrats and adventurers in the Wanjohi Valley region of colonial Kenya from the 1920s to the 1940s. While the dark clouds of war gathered in Europe and the bombs began to drop on London, this notorious clique continued their hedonistic existence of wife swapping, adultery and excessive drinking and drug taking.

White Mischief tells the true and scandalous story of Sir 'Jock' Delves Broughton, who left the UK in 1940 to take up residence in Kenya with his new wife, Diana who was thirty years his junior. Soon after their arrival, Diana met and fell in love with Josslyn Victor Hay, 22nd Earl of Erroll; a serial womaniser and gambler, who specialised in seducing rich married women and was feared by husbands as a result. Broughton appeared sanguine about his wife's affair with this predatory charmer and even dined out with them on the night of January 24 1941 - the night Erroll was subsequently found shot dead in his car.

An obvious suspect, Delves Broughton was brought to trial for the murder and the media coverage cast a devastating spotlight on the extravagant lifestyles and social mores of the idle rich in Africa while Britain suffered at the height of the blitz and endured harsh rationing. 

In what was considered a blatant miscarriage of justice, Delves Broughton was found not guilty, as there was no proof to convict him. Disgraced, he left his wife in Kenya and sailed home to England where he committed suicide by a lethal overdose of morphine in a bedroom at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool.

Michael Radford's film, based on the book by James Fox (not to be confused with the actor of the same name), has long been a favourite of mine. It's not a classic by any means and has received over the years some distinctly unfair criticism but I have always found it extremely watchable and make a point of catching it every few years, often on one of its many screenings on TV. I first became aware of it in the early '90s thanks to my sister's then boyfriend who loved the salaciousness of it and the fact that it featured its star Greta Scacchi - who played the role of Diana - in the nude. He had a thing for Scacchi, and who could blame him: she's gorgeous.

Whenever White Mischief appears on the BBC the Radio Times reviews it in the poorest terms describing Joss Ackland's performance as Delves Broughton as one that is 'overacting terribly' - it's a damning verdict I have never seen any truth in. I think he's perfectly fine in the role, delivering an austere, bloodless turn as the cuckolded husband who exacts his revenge upon the Valley's number one lothario, played with an impeccably sensuous magnetism by Charles Dance, and he of course makes a beautiful, chemistry-fuelled couple with Scacchi. Radford assembles a great supporting cast to play 'the set' of expats; Murray Head, Jacqueline Pearce, Susan Fleetwood, Trevor Howard, Geraldine Chaplin, Catherine Neilson, John Hurt and a compellingly oddball turn from a wraith-like Sarah Miles as the infamous Alice de Janzé, a ukulele playing, morphine injecting, emotionally unstable 'casualty' of hedonism. There's also Ray McAnally as a barrister in the trial and, in an early London scene, a young Hugh Grant.

The screenplay by Radford and Jonathan Gems may take some liberties with the facts (specifically in Delves Broughton's suicide) but it positively crackles with some wonderful dialogue; "Oh, God. Not another fucking beautiful day" Miles mutters with weary contempt as she opens up the shutters upon the Kenyan morning; "She shot her husband," Neilson gossips to Scacchi about Miles. "In Kenya?", "No, in the balls"; "Every time I see his fingernails," Fleetwood confides to Scacchi in reference to the approaching 'gone native' monosyllabic eccentric Gilbert Colville played by John Hurt, "I thank God I don't have to look at his feet" ; "The more I see of men, the more I like dogs" she later glumly remarks; and in one wife-swapping scene, Dance demurs the advances of a naked Pearce, explaining, "Don't be ridiculous Idina, you were my wife" and, when there seems to be no takers, she is left to bemusedly announce "This is frightfully unsettling. Doesn't anyone want to fuck me?"

In short, if you see White Mischief pop up as it often does late at night on the BBC, ignore the naysayers and give it a whirl.