Monday, 30 November 2015

Felicity Kendal in The Mayfly and the Frog (1966)

Doesn't The Good Life star look positively swinging on her scooter here in a still from the 1966 Wednesday Play, The Mayfly and the Frog?

Regrettably, beyond the star pairing of veteran thesp John Gielgud (making his debut in an original play for TV film) and Kendal (setting out on her career), I found Jack Russell's play, just too arch and old fashioned to be enjoyable.

The play kicks off with Kendal's scooter being unceremoniously tipped over by Gielgud's chauffeur driven Rolls Royce at a filling station in a Belgravia mews. When the Roller fails to stop, a disgruntled Kendal gives chase, determined to receive recompense for the broken headlamp the collision caused before heading on to Dover. She arrives at a huge Mayfair mansion and is given short shrift over the telecom. Undeterred, and ingeniously defying the amazing expense devoted to keeping intruders out, the girl enters the mansion via an open window to find Gielgud naked in the bath, whereupon a verbal battle of wits and wills soon plays out. 

It's a traditional culture clash/opposites attract story with a swinging 60s beat; the vivacious and cheeky Kendal in her biker jerkin and jeans, meets the fusty great tycoon. He believes in ownership and preservation, keeping rare and expensive paintings on the walls, whereas Kendal possesses nothing but the clothes she's standing in and a positive manner which means she sees the bright side in every corner of the world she has travelled to. Eventually, Gielgud's aristo (boasting the grand name of Gabriel Quantara - sounds like a villain from The Avengers doesn't it?) comes to view his secluded sanctum, his money and minions in a different light, as he becomes hopelessly enamoured by the vitality of the girl he christens, amongst other things, 'The Mayfly'

It's all just a bit too creaky now for me to fully enjoy, though the two leads are enchanting enough and it's quite amusing to see Gielgud dismiss the boyishly beautiful Kendal as "a child hermaphrodite", "a bisexual" and an "imp"

Fancy it? See it for yourself on YouTube 

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

Hanging On The Telephone

Jane Fonda,
Klute (1971)

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Women's Football or We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful

I'm currently trying to watch women's football; England playing Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Euro 2017 qualifier on BBC2 but I'm finding myself extremely irritated by the presence of one of the game's most extreme irritants - the England Supporters Band

This 'band' has made a career out of ruining games for almost twenty years now thanks to their tuneless trumpeting and incessant drum thumping. They murder every song they attempt and are as distracting and obnoxious as any vuvuzela or traditional rattle.

Seriously, does anyone like their musical intrusions?

I love women's football, I have done for years, but right now I can best sum up my feelings by quoting the Morrissey song in this blog post title. Whilst a part of me is thrilled and pleased to see the game finally get the recognition it deserves, there's also a great part of me that wishes it still belonged in the wilderness of minor interest. Because it wasn't until the immediate aftermath of this year's World Cup campaign that the women's game was discovered by these irritating parping pillocks.

PS, I believe one of St Helens famous sons, Bernie Clifton, is a member of the supporters band. What a twunt.

Sod it, petition started. Sign here

Plenty (1985)

"The film is called Plenty because it describes a rise and fall. The years of austerity in the late forties are followed by the years of plenty in the mid-fifties, and it's a recurring feeling in the film that it is money that rots people. It was possible to just rise on the great bubble of wealth after the war, and that's just what the characters in the film do." ~ David Hare

I'm an admirer of David Hare's work but I feel much is lost in transferring his 1978 play Plenty from the stage to the big screen. It really isn't helped that Meryl Streep is totally miscast in the lead role; a touch of '80s Hollywood parachuted in (like the SOE operatives at the start of Fred Schepisi's adaptation) to this distinctly British affair. It is clear that she simply cannot convey the complexities required of the central character at this stage in her career and she is caught 'acting' throughout. 

Hare's story was inspired by the fact that many women involved first hand with the war found civilian life in peace time deeply unsatisfying, with divorce being especially rife. 

Streep sars as Susan Traherne who we meet as a young British courier for the SOE in Nazi-occupied France (and kudos to Schepisi for introducing his photogenic star with a striking introductory shot, her sharp long nose, high cheekbones and wide, soulful eyes being picked out by torchlight as she and her fellow operatives wait for a parachuting agent, played by Sam Neill, to land) Invigorated by the adventure of her work, but fearful of the repercussions, Susan and Neill's agent, 'Lazar' spend a passionate evening together, like ships that pass in the night, but which we shall see builds in meaning for Susan in the years to come.

After the war, Susan meets by chance Raymond Brock (Charles Dance), a diplomat at the British embassy in Brussels and the pair soon fall in love, with Brock spending his weekends at Susan's flat, which she shares with Tracey Ullman's bohemian live wire Alice, in drab post war London.

It's the stultifying nature of peacetime that makes Susan restless. She wants a child, but she no longer wants Brock. Enter spiv Mick (Sting - dreadful as always) who she chooses to be her sperm donor, without counting on Mick's growing feelings for her. Feeling trapped, Susan has a breakdown and is subsequently rescued by the return of Brock, the pair are married and he is posted to Jordan, but even that isn't satisfactory for Susan and she returns to England desperate to reconnect with her wartime experiences. She reunites with 'Lazar' and the pair try to replicate their one night of passion in a seedy seaside hotel, only to find they cannot recapture the excitement and romance of the past.

Obviously Plenty is a deeply ironic piece; the era in which, according to British PM, Macmillan, we had 'never had it so good', Susan experiences all the materialistic success but nothing speaks to her heart and we slowly come to realise that at that very heart she is actually capable of being a very cruel and bitter individual. It's a hard character to convey and Streep struggles to gain our sympathy or explore the inherent light and shade to her character with her rather soulless performance. It's not helped by Schepisi's own poor grasp on the material either. It's only positive is that it all looks rather nice, but it is quite the yawnfest which wastes an accomplished cast that includes John Gielgud, Ian McKellen and, briefly, Hugh Laurie.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Vanity Fair (1998)

Famously subtitled 'A Novel Without A Hero', William Makepeace Thackery's Vanity Fair is a satirical and cynical commentary on both society and the human condition. A tale of ruthless, lusty ambition against a background of the Napoleonic wars, Vanity Fair follows one Becky Sharp, a scheming governess, who seduces her way to success, but doesn’t bargain on the hand fate plays. 

Adapted by the grand master himself Andrew Davies and directed by Marc Munden this 1998 BBC adaptation is the definitive take on the novel, perhaps because the pair so resolutely and fearlessly embrace the anti-heroine characteristics of Thackery's central character and have them beautifully and captivatingly played by Natasha Little. 

Whenever a discussion regarding sociopaths in literature rears its head, the chances are examples from crime fiction loom large and that Hannibal Lector is more often than not cited as a prime example. But the greatest example for me is Becky Sharp, whose constant scheming and ingenious displays of self serving resourcefulness Davies wisely depicts in such a manner that we cannot be anything other than deeply impressed, despite ourselves. In reality, no one would really like to meet a Becky Sharp but, in fiction, one cannot help but marvel at her low cunning and admire her unnerving ability to come out on top nine times out of ten. 

Fresh from playing the shit-stirring minx Rachel in This Life, Natasha Little was perfect casting for the role of the utterly amoral, ruthless and calculating young beauty. She is excellently supported by Nathaniel Parker, Frances Grey, Philip Glenister, Tom Ward and Jeremy Swift, as well as a host of period drama favourites such as Miriam Margolyes, Anton Lesser, David Bradley, Sylvestra Le Touzel and Eleanor Bron. 

Davies' script, combined with Munden's directorial style, produces the very best kind of adaptation of a literary great in that it says just as much about contemporary society as it does about the era it was originally written in. Broadcast in 1998 there's more than an air of that era's 'Cool Britannia' craze to the busy, bustling proceedings, whilst Thackery's commentary on a Britain on the brink of both bankruptcy and war remains just as resonant now in the post economic crash, ISIS threatened Western world  as it was in the early 19th century. And there's always the irony of one of the key characters being named George Osborne!

The acting is impeccable, the period design excellent and Murray Gold's brassy and chaotic score - part oompah, part funereal sarabande - is at once both irritating and authentic as it draws out the satire with a series of intrusive blasts.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Smoking Hot

Carol Doda

The Grass Arena (1992)

The release of Steven Spielberg's latest movie Bridge of Spies has brought about some of the most arrogant and ignorant statements I have ever heard from the director and its star Tom Hanks. 

Both statements refer to Mark Rylance.

Hanks claims that Rylance is a name with a promising future ahead of him, which rather dumbly ignores everything Rylance has achieved thus far and clearly believes that the only success an actor could achieve is in a major Hollywood movie. Spielberg meanwhile accepts Rylance has had a career, but gloats that he has 'saved him' from theatre, again corroborating Hanks' belief that movie stardom is the only thing of merit.

Anyone who knows just how good Mark Rylance is, like scarily good, can point to a career of glittering highlights which dates all the way back to the early 1980s.  To be fair to Spielberg, it has been a career that has primarily focused on the stage, but he has delivered some exceptional performances on both the big and small screen before Hollywood came a calling, and the 1992 Screen Two film The Grass Arena is a great example of this. It's a role Rylance could totally inhabit and get his teeth into, and he's absolutely spellbinding.

Based on the autobiography of John Healy, The Grass Arena tells Healy's story from his formative years as a sickly, bullied child to a promising career as a boxer which was curtailed because of his addiction to alcohol. The film pulls no punches whatsoever in its depiction of Healy's fifteen years in the wilderness of the titular 'grass arena', a park in which he and other alcoholic down and outs frequented; begging, stealing and violently arguing among themselves.

Convicted of several petty crimes - often just to clear the unsolved books at the local police station - Healy was habitually imprisoned, as well as sent to several horrific drying out programmes. During one stay in prison, he was introduced to the game of chess by a cellmate known as Harry The Fox. Finding he had an aptitude for the game, Healy decided upon his release to give up the drink and focus specifically on playing chess. Determined to become a Grandmaster, he became a regular on the coffeehouse circuit and was capable of conducting several games concurrently. His career in chess lasted ten years and he was highly successful, but he never felt he was accepted into the elite society of players and ultimately gave up his ambitions, turning to a career in writing instead.

As you can tell it's an amazing life and the BBC film depicts it in a bleak, harrowing and uncomfortable manner, though it is occasionally uplifting. The film belongs to Rylance though, he is nothing short of mesmerising throughout. As indeed he always has been - we didn't really need Hanks or Spielberg to enlighten us of this fact. See for yourself on YouTube.

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

Thursday, 26 November 2015

The Creeping Blairite Revival and Some Thoughts on Syria

Look at that image - sickening isn't it?

The only time I want to see Blair sans tie now is shortly after his arrest for war crimes, when a custody sergeant instructs its removal because he fears he'll use it as a makeshift noose in his cell during the long dark night of his poisonous duplicitous soul.

The joker on the left really is a joker too. It's Matt Forde, former Blair office boy, now stand up 'comedian' whose sweaty porcine fart features are currently pissing me off on Question Time as he dismisses the party he worked for, but has now left, as 'the loony left' with ineffectual aims and leadership, despite helping pressurise Osborne into a complete and utter U turn this week.

I hate this creeping revival of the Blair regime which sees media friendly whores getting a free pass at TV airtime to wax wistfully about 'the good old days' of Blair in the hope that he'll descend upon us once more like some Second Coming. 

It's actually insulting to start looking at the Blair years through rose tinted glasses when there is still so much about his dictatorship that remains unresolved and deeply contentious, specifically the fact that we still haven't got a clear verdict on his warmongering.

And war rears its ugly head on Question Time obviously, given the increasingly inevitable step towards air strikes in the vain hope that it may defeat Isil.  

It won't defeat Isil. 

It's an understandable move to do it. But it's a kneejerk reaction. Cameron himself once said that he was not someone who believed that he could "drop democracy out of an airplane at 40,000 feet" yet he's putting us on course for that right now, making the same mistakes that Blair did. And it's a dangerous course, and that's why Corbyn is arguing that there is no clear strategy. Bombing will only be a crap gesture at foreplay ahead of the inevitable call for 'boots on the ground'. Britain does not have the resources to go to war any longer. Thanks to MOD cuts that Cameron has overseen, our army is now the smallest it has been for centuries. 

It will be impossible and fatal to take this path now. You simply don't pick a fight with someone with your hands tied behind your back and that's exactly what this will be.

Worse, we'll inevitably hear that vital funding required for other areas in civilian life, such as the NHS will suffer. It's ridiculous that the NHS is now completely, critically ailing with the finger of blame being pointed at the poor economy when Cameron's government will happily spend 4 billion on the replacement for Trident. The Socialist Labour government of 1945, vowing to never agin endure anything like the war we have just come out of, set up the NHS and it did so when we were a completely bankrupt nation. So what really is Cameron's excuse?

Attlee's government made the commitment to look to our own after the shadow of war. I say that with terror looming over us, we should look to our own once more and focus more on surveillance, policing and prevention within our country.

Murdoch and the media may want a Blairite revival, but they really will be getting the very worst of it if we decide to make the same mistakes that warmonger gleefully led us into. 

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Up Close & Personal (1996)

1996's Up Close & Personal is indicative of the by numbers filmmaking of the day. A remake in all but name of A Star Is Born, it is the cinematic equivalent of a big mug of hot chocolate with marshmallows in that it's a warming comforting and somewhat too rich concoction of a romance between FILF (is that a thing? It really should be) Robert Redford and younger model Michelle Pfeiffer. For all those things, it's enjoyable and cosy enough, but when you realise the film began life as an adaptation of the book Golden Girl: The Story of Jessica Savitch, you quickly feel cheated and disenchanted with Hollywood.

Screenwriter John Gregory Dunne, spent eight years working on a script adaptation of the book which detailed the tragic, short lived life of news anchor Savitch with his wife Joan Didion, but found commercial decisions made by the producers of Up Close & Personal meant the vast majority of their vision was abandoned. They jettisoned everything that made Savitch's life so poignant and so much of a disaster; gone were the incidents of her alleged drug abuse that led to an outcry when she appeared incoherent during a news bulletin, her falsehoods about a miscarriage to cover up an abortion, her tragic second marriage that saw her in denial homosexual husband commit suicide, and her premature accidental death at 36 from a car accident. When Dunne challenged producer Scott Rudin as to what his butchered script for Up Close & Personal was now really about, he received the reply that it was about "two movie stars", and they certainly didn't come as bigger and brighter as Redford and Pfeiffer at that time. Dunne would go on to write a book describing his experience on the film, called Monster: Living Off the Big Screen.

And yet...those are the laments for what the film could and indeed should have been. For what it is, this is an effective mid 90s romance that is now distinctive of that ear of late twentieth century Hollywood. It has the stars, the glossy sheen, and it even has the great impact of an Oscar nominated theme song, 'Because You Loved Me' performed by Celine Dion and penned by that songstress with the Midas touch, Diane Warren.

Up Close & Personal is deeply sentimental slush but the ideal thing for certain audience members to settle down to with that very same big mug of marshmallow bobbing hot chocolate and have a bit of a blub with. Me, I'm a sucker for behind the cameras, newsroom based romcoms, as evinced by my HUGE love for Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom and my like of the rather overlooked 2010 film Morning Glory. I have always found Robert Redford to have a unique chemistry that transcends the sexes and any sexual orientation, and it's always good to see him play to the screen persona of the liberal professional that he clearly is in reality. Plus we have as his leading lady Michelle Pfeiffer, who is obviously attractive and - more importantly here for the role - engaging enough, so with all those things considered this has always been rather enjoyable viewing for me, though this rewatch suggests it hasn't held up as well as it may have previously. 

Calling the news station at the heart of the film IBS though is not a good idea given what IBS stands for in the medical world, unless of course it really was your intention to suggest your two hour romantic movie is a touch bloated, in which case - well done!

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Specs Appeal

Victoria Coren Mitchell

(from the Fyeah... tumblr fan page)

So what if it's my second post about her in as many days. She's an absolute fox - with glasses or without!

Monday, 23 November 2015

Theme Time : Tony Hatch - Crossroads, RIP Hazel Adair

Just days after the loss of one pioneer of British television Peter Dimmock, it has been announced that another has died today; Hazel Adair, aged 95.

Adair can lay claim to the crown of queen of British soap opera, having created the very first example on ITV, Sixpenny Corner in 1955 and, alongside Peter Ling, she would go on to create the BBC soap Compact and, most famously of all, Crossroads which ran on ITV for 24 years and regularly pulled in 18 million viewers at its peak in the 1970s.

Famed for its wobbly sets, bobble hat Benny and Miss Diane, Shughie the chef disappearing for months on end when he only nipped into the kitchen for a potato peeler and that theme tune from Tony Hatch... 


Support Your Local Bobby - Stop the Cuts

I don't know whether it's funny or just plain infuriating that David Cameron (the cunt) is now calling for a bombing campaign in Syria in the wake of the recent terrorist attack on Paris, given that in 2011 he scrapped RAF Tornadoes, Nimrod surveillance planes etc as part of his extensive defence budget cuts costing millions.

It is infuriating that a man who has 'downsized' (ie made redundant) great swathes of MOD and service personnel and scrapped so much weaponry, technology and equipment, now believes it imperative that we place so much pressure on our now beleaguered (by him) forces.

It shows a complete lack of foresight on the part of this Tory government who seem determined to implement cuts in the most needed of services now, and to worry about the problems that those cuts may bring about later.

Prevention of a terrorist attack, such as the ones in Paris, here in the UK require some dedicated and effective performances from the likes of MI5 down to your local police force. So it's baffling to me that Cameron et al are making the same mistake once again - calling for cuts to many police forces across the land whilst at the same time proclaiming they're committed to our security! Should the unthinkable happen here - and let us hope and pray that it does not - we will be caught napping because there simply isn't enough money going round to protect ourselves.

This petition specifically focuses on asking Cameron and Theresa May etc to reconsider the cuts they propose to my local constabulary, Lancashire. Please consider signing it and please seek out similar petitions for your own region's force should they be under threat. We are constantly being reassured that London is protected, that it is near impossible for an attack to occur there. If that is true, and terrorists are considering attacking the UK, then to me that points to smaller cities being targeted by them. Cities like Liverpool, Manchester etc - cities that the Tory party staggeringly believe can be sustained with a significant loss to their constabulary. 

Only Connect to Dave

I've been a very happy chappy this past week or so, getting a great fix of my favourite play-along quiz show Only Connect (and the chance to letch more than just once a week over its host, Victoria Coren Mitchell) thanks to the current series on BBC2 Monday nights, and repeats of the very first series on Dave in the wee small hours.

What's interesting about watching those early episodes again now is seeing how subtly different the programme and Victoria's presenting style was back then. 

Certainly I found the first few episodes really rather anonymous, and it was only until about episode four or five that Victoria began to show her personality and throw out a few of the witty asides we have now become familiar with and which we cherish.

Overall, her style then was the burgeoning style of the minxy head girl, dressed down in a baggy jacket yet intellectually flirting with the teams by setting them a series of complex questions.

Whereas the current series sees Victoria very much in the style of a glamourous and dotty aunt, teasing the teams and more often than not forcing them into sing-songs!

Sunday, 22 November 2015

RIP Keith Michell & Peter Dimmock

Two losses to the world of entertainment this weekend; Henry VIII star Keith Michell and the first presenter of Grandstand Peter Dimmock have both died, aged 89 and 94 respectively

Australian born Michell will forever be known as the actor who brought Henry VIII to life in the classic 1970 BBC series The Six Wives of Henry VIII and its subsequent big screen remake in 1972, Henry VIII and His Six Wives - which ironically had only been repeated on TV again last weekend. He returned to the role in 1996 in The Prince of Pauper. Other roles included parts in All Night Long, The Hellfire Club and a memorable Heathcliff in a 1962 adaptation of Wuthering Heights. He was also a regular in Murder, She Wrote and was a renowned artist and singer, lending both talents to Jeremy Lloyd's Captain Beaky poems. RIP

A former RAF Flight Lieutenant, Dimmock joined the BBC after the war as head of outside broadcasts and famously oversaw the coverage of the Queen's coronation in 1953, which was the largest OB event undertaken and that time and saw more than 20 million viewers. The broadcast had the effect of doubling the number of TV owners in the UK within a year. That was the year that saw Dimmock move in front of the camera as the host of sports programmes such as Sportsview (later renamed Sportsnight) Grandstand and Sports Personality of the Year. A true pioneer of television. RIP


Veronica Carlson

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Angels Are So Few (1970)

"Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, For thereby some have entertained angels unawares" ~ HEBREWS, 13.2 

The first of my purchases from the new BBC Store, which is essentially a newly launched online archive of material both past and present, Angels Are So Few was the first play Dennis Potter wrote for the Play for Today series and is an example of one of his 'visitation' plays. These plays typically feature an ethereal and peculiar stranger who enters a suburban home, bringing buried secrets and sexual and/or emotional traumas to the surface during his stay. Like Son of Man, his previous BBC screenplay for PfT's forerunner The Wednesday Play, which told the story of a particularly human (with all the strengths and weaknesses that that implies) Christ's arrival into Judea, this piece concerns an earthy and flawed young man called Michael who is convinced he is an angel; though it is made clear, from Potter's pen to the audience, that he is not. 

Played superbly by Tom Bell, Michael descends upon a suburban street telling its residents to appreciate things of everyday beauty such as the dried up leaf he possesses. It's a positive message but it is met with much disbelief, scorn and cynicism which reveals Michael's threatening character. "I feel sorry for you," he is heard to mutter to those who refuse to see his way of thinking. "I feel extremely sorry for you" he reiterates before a cruel fate befalls those 'non-believers', much like the shenanigans Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's celestial pair would later get up to in Kevin Smith's Dogma. Despite not really being an angel, can Michael actually influence events? Potter certainly enjoys playing with the ambiguity.

When Michael meets repressed and stultified middle class housewife Cynthia (an exemplary Christine Hargreaves) it becomes clear that his desires for purity within the kingdom of heaven stem from a sexual neurosis he is suffering from. He views sex with complete and utter distaste, believing it to be dirty and unwholesome. Indeed, he physically recoils from one old woman's description of a female angel that was painted on the banner in her local chapel when she was a child; "Angels with tits?! There's none of that in heaven. Flesh rubbing against flesh. It hurts!" he roars, clearly pained. Cynthia however, trapped in a loveless marriage with her dull husband, believes sex can be something free and open, beautiful and necessary and sees in Michael her chance to indulge and rid herself of her sexual repression. Coaxing him back to her house for a second time, she seduces him and effectively robs him of his wings, throwing his deluded self belief into disarray.

It's a bold piece from Potter and pointed the way forward for much of his later work which would again explore the visitation set-up, most notably with its pinnacle, Brimstone and Treacle, and would become - to quote the play's director Gareth Davies - 'sleazy' and 'self indulgent'. This would be the last time Potter and Davies worked together precisely because of this very clear and obvious artistic and creative difference. It's a shame, as this is a deliciously blackly comic tale with some real laugh out loud moments from Potter and two extremely strong central performances from Bell and Hargreaves. As Michael, Bell almost pre-empts the northern itinerance that David Threlfall would later bring to the part of Frank Gallagher in Channel 4's Shameless, whilst Hargreaves manages to engage our empathy even when she somewhat selfishly turns the tables for her own sexual desires in the final reel, destroying an already deeply vulnerable young man who, it is implied, has escaped from some sort of psychiatric care and whose fear of sex may point towards an abusive past.

Not released to DVD and not repeated for some years, the addition of Angels Are So Few to the BBC Store (alongside some other previously unavailable Potter plays) is a very welcome one indeed. 

To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic Play For Today's please sign the petition I started here

Friday, 20 November 2015

From Essex to the Jungle

I have never seen an episode of The Only Way Is Essex (or TOWIE as I believe it's affectionately known) and, to be honest, I couldn't think of anything worse than watching an episode.

But, having watched I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here this week, I must admit to seeing the show in a new light thanks to the gorgeous Ferne McCann

She's definitely my kind of girl; lovely body and a sharp striking profile with lovely big eyes, nose and teeth.

This 60s inspired photoshoot on her website puts me in mind of a young Barbra Streisand

Ferne stepped into the jungle earlier this week alongside fellow 'constructed reality' TV stars Made In Chelsea's Spencer and Geordie Shore's Vicky (nope, me neither) Spencer has surprisingly left already due to 'medical grounds' leaving gorgeous Ferne and the hilarious and charming Vicky

These winter nights have just warmed up!

Miss Julie (1999)

"If they aren't any better than us then what is the point of us striving to better ourselves?"

Miss Julie is a Swedish play written in 1888 by August Strindberg concerning the toxic love between Jean, a servant and the titular Miss Julie, his master's daughter. Despite the play's age and its foreign setting, it remains something of an oft staged favourite in the provincial theatres of the UK, and it's easy to see why; the explicit theme of class warfare and the implicit theme of Darwinism, coupled by Strindberg's naturalistic approach mean that it still has much to say to its contemporary audiences in a country that still feels the harshness of its class divide. It is the antithesis of Downton Abbey.

The play has also been adapted several times for the cinema, and this 1999 adaptation from director Mike Figgis is especially worth watching. Figgis does relatively little in lifting the film from its stage origins - there are no sweeping shots of the Midsummer's Eve lit Swedish landscape or much filler, the whole thing is shot in an obvious studio, which highlights the artificial nature of the painted scenery during the brief sojourns 'outside'  - but what he does do is use the camera in a variety of interesting, intrusive Dogme-like ways to capture the spark and passion between his two leads, Saffron Burrows and Peter Mullan. 

I would actually argue that this (along with Paddy Considine's directorial debut Tyrannosaur) is Mullan's finest hour. An actor with a plethora of strong performances behind him, it's no small compliment to claim that he's particularly electrifying here in drawing out the grasping ambitions of his footman, Jean, in contrast with the equally ugly arrogant privilege Burrows displays as Miss Julie. I defy you to try and take your eyes off him and, when Miss Julie comments that his eyes resemble ''burning black coals'' you realise that there is no finer description for Mullan's powerful, unflinching stare. Much comment has been made remarking on the height differences between the willowy Burrows and the diminutive Mullan, but I actually think that that is only fitting for the characters; the upper class lady and the lower class male servant. When he talks of climbing the branches to reach the top of the tree and the golden eggs in the nest he dreams of (a clear metaphor for his desire to become gentry) you can almost see Burrow's statuesque imperious frame as the physical embodiment of that desire, with him climbing up and trampling over her which, as a notion, only adds to the imagery of their hurried, rutting copulation in the larder from which neither character can ever go back. 

In the third role, that of the cook Christine, Maria Doyle Kennedy is just as impressive. Overall, this is a classy adaptation that has the ability to grip the viewer from the off.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

The Lady In The Van (2015)

I took my mother to see The Lady In The Van. On leaving the cinema, her first remark was,

"I didn't know Alan Bennett was gay?" 

It's a naive enough remark, but she then went one better by adding

"I thought the men coming round the house were doing jobs for him?"

It's the kind of maternal comment that Bennett has made a career from. But if that means my mum has now become an 'Alan Bennett Mother', what does that make me?

Fans of the National Treasure himself will lap this up, after all it has Bennett's wonderful dialogue and sly, deadpan humour and there's the familiarity of having it directed by his long time NT collaborator Nicholas Hytner. There's also the simply marvellous cast, with cameos from The History Boys alumni, alongside the likes of Roger Allam, Deborah Findlay, Jim Broadbent, Gwen Taylor and the lovely Claire Foy in more substantial roles, topped by two (or is that three?) superlative performances; Maggie Smith as the titular character, Miss Shepherd, and Alex Jennings as Bennett himself - both Bennett, the writer and Bennett, the man living through the experience of having this demented old dear taking up residency on his drive. Smith is, of course, genius and in describing her performance I can only reiterate the phrase Danny Leigh used in last week's Film 2015 review "Miss Marple meets Gollum" - there is no finer description. But Jennings deserves an equal amount of the accolades here, skilfully crafting a three dimensional interpretation of Bennett rather than offering up an impression or imitation for 100 minutes.

This is a very enjoyable film, comic and deeply tender as it explores Bennett's difficult relationship with both his ailing mother (Taylor) and his surrogate mother, Miss Shepherd. It's not perfect - I would argue that it's a shame the film couldn't find in its heart a way to end on a sincere note, opting instead for some rather jarring grand comedic gesture, whilst some of the characters (specifically those created for narrative purposes like Broadbent's somewhat panto villain) seem to offer little more than a walk on for a famous face like an old Morecambe and Wise sketch - but I think it's important to remember that, fifteen years of squatting on your doorstep or not, Bennett's tale is a very slight one as witnessed by the slender tome it started life out as. Ultimately, Hytner has delivered an enjoyable film that shows in Smith that the grand dame of British acting is in extremely rude health.