Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Theme Time : David Mackay & Carla Lane - Bread, RIP Carla Lane

The sad news today is that celebrated sitcom writer and animal rights campaigner Carla Lane has passed away at the age of 87. Her writing career scored many hit sitcoms including The Liver Birds, Butterflies and, perhaps most famously of all, Bread which charted the exploits of the Boswell's, a large Catholic family, ducking and diving to make ends meet in the impoverished 1980s Liverpool.

The sing-a-long, catchy theme tune was written and composed by Lane and David Mackay and sung by the cast. It was released as a single by the BBC, but failed to chart.

Running for seven series from 1986 to 1991 Bread was a huge success and a favourite in our house for a time, but the cast changes (several regulars left to be replaced by lookey-likey actors or inferior characters altogether) and the growing propensity towards 'dramady' (comedy drama) subsequently alienated us. Indeed much of Lane's writing often crossed the line into drama and whilst it's true to say it wasn't always to everyone's taste, there's no denying she created some successful, fondly remembered comedies.


Catch Me Daddy (2015)

If Ken Loach remade the epic John Ford western The Searchers, it would probably look rather like this...

Catch Me Daddy is is a bleak, visceral cinematic feature debut from Daniel Wolfe, a former music video director (who has also co-written the script his brother Matthew) concerning the murderous phenomenon of the 'honour killing' in British Pakistani communities.  Laila (Sameena Jabeen Ahmed - an incredible performance) and Aaron (Conor McCarron) live together in a squalid caravan on the edge of the unforgiving Yorkshire Moors. They are ostensibly in love, but Laila's family - believing she has brought shame upon them - refuse to tolerate their relationship, and have hired a posse of hardened bounty hunters — Tony and Barry, a strictly mercenary white duo (Gary Lewis and Barry Nunney) and a South Asian four man crew led by Junaid (Anwar Hussain) and accompanied by Laila's brother Zaheer (Ali Ahmad)  ­— to forcibly split them apart and return her back to them.

Naturally given the weight of the issue the film deals with, its tone is both harrowing and pessimistic. Wolfe's eye and Robbie Ryan's fantastic cinematography capture the ugly harsh savagery of life in its many forms; drugs feature in various forms, not least of all Gary Lewis' coke snorting, but there's also a preoccupation with pills too. There's a moment early on where Aaron watches a falcon decimate its live prey which sees the camera linger on the gore and is a potent metaphor for the hunter and their prey to come - indeed the camera often strays around bloodletting, not in an exploitative way, but in a strangely sensitive, lyrical manner, almost as the calm before the storm. It's certainly a very visually striking movie, boasting imagery that will remain with you for some time after viewing.

The film boldly foregoes any sense of a great love affair between Laila and Aaron. They are living in a reasonably contented manner, but still with a degree of tension borne of constantly looking over one's shoulder. There is some sweet talk of childhood experiences and crazed dancing to Patti Smith's Horses, but the connection is never really felt, making their relationship seem all the more futile when considered against the danger they face. Overall you get the feeling that these are just two disenfranchised kids who have simply ended up together as a form of escapism of one kind or another. The irony is however that it appears Laila may have swapped one controlling male in her life for another as she earns pin money working in a dreary local salon whilst Aaron refuses to budge from the caravan or entertain the notion of the menial work on offer in the town.

The action is split between them and their hunters; Junaid is definitely the alpha male here, a cold and impassive figure who Wolfe introduces with an ironic gentility, having a 3D picture taken of him and his baby daughter in a shopping centre. Once the action gets under way, we realise we've been sold a dummy here and its chilling to reflect on the suggestion Wolfe implicitly made with just such an introduction - that some time in the future Junaid might be unable to come to terms with his grown-up daughter's  Western liberal nature, the expression of her sexuality or her overall maturity just like Laila's father right now in the present. The Asian bounty hunters have an uneasy alliance with Tony and Barry, the white men they have contacted to help through their work on the club doors. Barry Nunney's Barry is a truly frightening, loutish monster, whilst Tony, played by Gary Lewis, is clearly a troubled older soul, struggling with an obvious drug addiction and lacking the necessary aggression or focus for the task ahead. He also appears to have family issues of his own and the estranged parent and child relationship is a theme that runs throughout the film in various guises.

This is a bleakly beautiful, scary, exciting and authentically gritty piece of social realism, but it is perhaps not for the faint hearted - some scenes are really difficult to watch because of the high emotion and unflinching spectacle on display. The film's final moments may divide opinion but there's no denying that this is a blistering debut from Wolfe who, on this form, could easily take his place alongside the likes of Clio Barnard, Andrea Arnold and Shane Meadows as part of this generation's cinematic social realists.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Fighting Back : Petitions to Sign : Expel Blair

Former PM and war criminal Tony Blair recently called Jeremy Corbyn's Labour leadership 'a dangerous experiment' on BBC television. It is nothing of the sort; it is an example of a democratically elected leader voted in with the largest majority by the party as a direct reaction to the failures of the Tory government and the hideous legacy of New Labour.

Tony Blair, like all his media spinning Blairite minions, are deliberately working against the party and Corbyn from within, and as such they should be expelled from the Labour Party - just like the members who, in the run up to the last leadership election, were barred from casting their vote and/or removed from the party. 

It is clear these self-serving middle-of-the-roaders will not do the decent thing and resign from the party themselves, like so many of us (including myself) did when we disagreed with New Labour and its own, far more 'dangerous experiment' of waging phoney wars to maintain a vain man's legacy and reputation in the US. So in that case we must remove them from the party ourselves.

If you agree, please sign this petition

Theme Time : Lulu & The Lampshades (and Anna Kendrick) - Mum

Friday night is proving a good night for comedy right now. As well as Nick Hornby's adaptation of Love, Nina at 9:30 on BBC1, immediately after it on BBC2 at 10pm is Mum, the new sitcom by Him and Her creator Stefan Golaszewski.

Mum is a comedy about Cathy, a 59 year old mother who is experiencing a milestone year in her life, a year of new beginnings following the death of her husband. Lesley Manville stars as Cathy, joined by a fine ensemble including Peter Mullan as her long-standing, good natured friend Michael (who is clearly harbouring feelings for her but is too shy to say) Sam Swainsbury as her twenty-something son Jason, the hilarious Lisa McGrillis as his girlfriend, the dotty Kelly, and Ross Boatman and Dorothy Atkinson as the in-laws.

Golaszewski's obvious love for Mike Leigh style humour shines through Mum, not least in the casting of Leigh performers Manville and Atkinson. The dialogue is emphatically conversational and the quirky humour is borne out of that rather than events.

The theme tune is the traditional a capella Cups, first performed by the famed American folk music outfit The Carter Family in 1931 as When I'm Gone. Revived in 2009 by Lulu and the Lampshades for a viral internet video, a cup was used to provide percussion, thus lending it its alternate name

And in 2012 the song achieved new heights of popularity when performed by Anna Kendrick in the film Pitch Perfect and subsequently released as a single

Silent Sunday: Plane Pursuit, Slight Return

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Fact Meets Fiction : Jessie Eden and Peaky Blinders

Fact met fiction in Peaky Blinders once again this week, as the Shelby women decided to show solidarity by walking out on the Good Friday strike of 1924 with the rest of Birmingham's working women. "Let's go to the Bull Ring"  Helen McCrory's Aunt Polly declared, striding out of the Shelby's illegal gambling den in Small Heath to see Jessie Eden, shop steward at Lucas' Motor Components factory, demand equal sanitation rights for her female members.

Jessie Eden

Unfortunately, the episode didn't actually show us Jessie Eden, or her rally at the Bull Ring, though it is revealed that a drunken Aunt Polly, burdened with guilt at the Shelby's increasing murderous exploits, got very pally with the twenty-two year old firebrand though found her too diplomatic for her tastes!

Peaky Blinders, Series 3 Episode 4;
The Shelby Women discuss Jessie Eden's strike

It appears that Peaky's writer Steven Knight has taken both the 1926 General Strike and a subsequent week-long strike for female workers in January 1931 as his main inspiration here. In reality, the first recorded act of militant unionism that Jessie Shrimpton (her maiden name, and as she was then known) undertook was in the General Strike, which means Knight has used some licence to depict her as politically active some two years prior to what we actually know. It's not the first bending of fact Knight has undertook - many will remember how, in series two, he wrote of Tommy Shelby and Churchill as being active in the British forces at Verdun; a First World War battle that occurred between the French and German armies only.

The General Strike lasted 9 days from 4th May to 13th May, an attempt to force the government to halt wage reduction and worsening conditions for the 1.2 million locked out coal miners. Despite over a million people standing in solidarity and transport and heavy industry being particularly effected, the action proved unsuccessful thanks to a prepared government reaction and the enlisting of middle class volunteers to run services struck by the industrial action. 

For the fiftieth anniversary of the strike, The Birmingham Post interviewed a then 74-year-old Eden - then using her final married name of McCulloch - for her memories of the day she downed tools at Lucas' and led all the women in her section out to join the traditional May Day march onto the streets of Birmingham alongside some 25,000 fellow marchers from across the city.

"When policemen laid hands on trade union tomboy Jessie McCulloch at a workers' meeting in the old Bull Ring during the 1926 General Strike they pretty soon realised they had made a mistake; 'One policeman put his hands on my arm. They were telling me to go home but the crowd howled 'Hey leave her alone' and some men came and pushed the policemen away. They didn't do anything after that. I think they could see that there would have been a riot. I was never frightened of the police or the troops because I had the people with me you see; I don't know what I'd have felt like on my own'"

On strike, the Shelby womenfolk march to the Bull Ring to hear Jessie Evans speak; Peaky Blinders, Series 3, Episode 4.

She soon got a taste of it. In 1931 Jessie went down in history when she led 10,000 Birmingham women out on a week long strike - virtually unheard of at such time. It all started when Lucas' management instigated a time and motion study from America called the Bedaux System, after its creator Charles Eugene Bedaux, which had so impressed factory owner Charles Lucas on a visit to the US. It was universally accepted among the management at Lucas' that Jessie's work filing shock absorbers at the plant was both the quickest and most efficient and the plan was to set the time by her and expect her colleagues to keep up with her. The two Americans brought to Birmingham had even begun to time the women's visits to the toilet and this offensive act spurred Jessie and 140 of the girls into action; refusing to participate in the project, the Americans were chased from the screw machine shop, with one of them taking to the roof! 

Jessie initially went to the AEU (Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union) to ask them to represent her fellow women in this dispute but, whilst the AEU were the most populated and largely Communist union at Lucas' at the time, they did not accept women as members. So instead she turned to the TGWU (Transport and General Workers Union) who promptly signed up the female workforce at her behest. A rank and file committee was duly formed, holding lunchtime meetings at the gates. Numbers increased rapidly and eventually, Jessie led thousands of women out of the gates in an all-out strike. 

With support from other factories and the Birmingham branch of the Communist Party (which Jessie had now joined) Lucas' seemed set for a complete stoppage and an anxious management dropped the Bedaux system as a result.Tasting victory, the jubilant workforce hoisted Jessie up onto their shoulders in celebration. But triumph proved to be short-lived; a 5,000 strong victory march the following day was broken up by Birmingham's Chief Constable who was booed by the procession and arrests of known communists were made in attempts to stage a May Day rally. After a while, cutbacks at the Lucas plant and a vengeful management saw Jessie lose her job. She subsequently received victimisation pay from the union and a gold medal from Ernest Bevin and had so impressed the party that they would sent her to Soviet Russia to help rally the female workers at the Moscow Metro.

Returning to England, Jessie raised her family, remarried and remained politically active, playing a prominent part in the 1939 mass rent strike across the city and would spend much of the war involved in pro-Soviet activity building bridges with the USSR's ambassador and many visiting delegations in an attempt to improve our relationship with Russia. She unsuccessfully stood for council representing the Communist Party in the 1945 election for the Handsworth district, but drew a respectable 3.4% of the vote. She protested against the Vietnam war in the 1960s and remained an active and much respected member of the party until senility struck in the late '70s. She died in 1986 after spending her last years in hospital from heart failure and dementia. She was 84 years old.

For more on Jessie, the Midlands and the Communist Party, visit Graham Stevenson's website.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

The Invisible Circus (2001)

Far better than a film which sees Cameron Diaz join the Baader Meinhof gang has a credible right to be, The Invisible Circus is adapted from a novel by Jennifer Egan by writer/director Adam Brooks and maintains its novel-like structure which is probably why, for some film-goers, the film failed to resonate.

It's certainly much better than its reputation and, though I was only really watching for Christopher Eccleston, I was pleasantly surprised by this. It's relatively slight, bot in terms of story and of running time (just 90 minutes) but that at least means it doesn't outstay its welcome and it's all rather effectively touching.

The film centres on Jordana Brewster's Phoebe. It's 1977 and she is 18 years old in 1976. In the summer of 1969, her sister Faith went to Europe with her English boyfriend 'Wolf' and never came back. The story was that Faith (Cameron Diaz) had killed herself in Portugal, but Phoebe has always been sceptical, refusing to believe her older sister would have committed suicide and left her and her mother heartbroken. After a heart-to-heart with said mother (Blythe Danner), Phoebe sets off to Europe, following in Faith's footsteps in an attempt to solve the mystery of her sister's fate once and for all.

Essentially the film has two stories; Phoebe's, and Faith's - which is told via a flashback device. Phoebe heads first to Amsterdam (where she is given acid for the first time, just to remind us this is a film about the '60s and '70s I guess) and then on to Paris where she finds Wolf, now going by his real name of Christopher; settled, working and engaged to a French woman. He tells her all he can, how he and Faith were involved in radical 1960s politics and how Faith seemed increasingly driven into dangerous, wild behaviour by the death of her father. The father is shown fleetingly in another flashback played by Patrick Bergin, in what is the narrative's most weakest strand. A thwarted artist, the father had to work for a giant corporation to provide for his family and, when he died of leukemia, Faith gets it into her head that his employers slowly poisoned him because of his artistic spirit. This really needed to be fleshed out an awful lot more to provide Faith with motivation for what depths she would later succumb to during her European odyssey (or at least have characters challenge her 'conspiracy-theory' belief), but it's also frustrating that Phoebe's own belief that her dad always liked Faith more than both herself and her mother (he only ever painted Faith) is also ignored when she proceeds with her own quest. 

Of course it soon becomes clear that Wolf/Christopher knows more than he's letting on. Slowly, more and more revelations are brought out into the open as both he and Phoebe make their way to Portugal and the spot where Faith took her own life. Satisfyingly, my first instincts regarding the reasons for his slow drip-fed delivery of information - that he's hiding something that will prove him guilty - was proven somewhat wrong and it's actually rather nice to see Eccleston playing what is essentially a romantic lead in a Hollywood movie yet keeping his usual unorthodox, distinctly British style, even when that romance transcends to both sisters. 

Indeed, the acting overall isn't too bad. It's easy to forget that Diaz can act when required and even managed to do so between the mindless action and sauce of the Charlie's Angels movies. She captures the frustrating mystique that her character requires relatively well and is at least depicted as a deeply incompetent political activist, because anything else may have been too much of a stretch. Jordana Brewster - an actress I'm completely unfamiliar with, having never seen any of the Fast and Furious films - is also effective as a suitably wide-eyed yet determined guide for this rites of passage journey to the truth.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

RIP Burt Kwouk

Very very sad to hear that the legendary Burt Kwouk has died today aged 85

Kwouk will forever be remembered for his iconic role as the karate-practicing manservant Cato in the hilarious Pink Panther films starring alongside Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau, but his career was very long and extremely varied thanks in no small part to being constantly in demand as an actor of Oriental appearance.

Though he was born in Warrington in 1930, Kwouk's family moved to Shanghai where the young Kwouk stayed until he was 17. He went to the US to study at Bowdoin College, graduating in 1953 and returning to his family in the UK the following year. He claimed he was nagged into acting by a girlfriend and made his big screen debut in 1957's Windom's Way, following up a year later with a crucial role in The Inn of Sixth Happiness.

The '60s followed and proved to be a highly productive time for Kwouk, who became a stalwart of ITC drama with roles in Danger Man, The Avengers, The Champions and The Saint and the like and three appearances in James Bond films; Goldfinger, Casino Royale and You Only Live Twice alongside his debut in the Pink Panther film A Shot In The Dark.

His partnership with Peter Sellers continued in the '70s, but the decade also saw him play a completely different kind of role, that of Major Yamuachi in WWII Japanese POW camp drama Tenko, alongside roles in films like Deep End and Rollerball, and TV shows such as It Ain't Half Hot Mum, Shoestring, The Tomorrow People, Monkey Magic and Minder. In the '80s and '90s, Kwouk became something of a cult favourite appearing in Doctor Who, Lovejoy, Carry On Columbus, I Bought A Vampire Motorcycle, Leon The Pig Farmer and The Harry Hill Show as well as Hollywood fare like Empire of the Sun and Air America. In most recent years Kwouk appeared as Entwistle, a regular lead character in the final incarnation of the BBC's long running gentle Yorkshire Dales set sitcom Last of the Summer Wine.


Out On Blue Six : Bad Manners

Given that we've had some lovely weather these past couple of days, I thought it only right to share this track today

Factoid: Buster Bloodvessel threw up in front of me in St Helens shortly before going on stage at the town's Chicago Rock!

End Transmission

Monday, 23 May 2016

Antonia Bird: From EastEnders To Hollywood

At last, three years after her premature demise from cancer at the age of just 62 and following on from a BFI retrospective earlier this month, Antonia Bird gets the tribute and recognition she deserves with this superb documentary, From EastEnders To Hollywood from Susan Kemp.

It's hard to work out why Antonia Bird is so overlooked; certainly the number of awards and plaudits her work gained would suggest she should be as fondly remembered as Alan Clarke and the like, but that is sadly not the case. Kemp's film places gender at the heart of Bird's story, suggesting that the lack of appreciation points the way to a much wider issue concerning gender inequality in film and television, a claim which is very much asserted by Bird's good friend, the actor and director Kate Hardie.

Kemp’s documentary - shown on BBC4 last night alongside a 1986 episode of EastEnders directed by Bird, and her 2000 film Care - is both extremely detailed regarding Bird's impressive and groundbreaking career, as well as being firmly in keeping with Bird's own beliefs and political stance. I love that the film chose not to follow the usual linear structure of early days to final days, to instead hit the ground running with an exploration of one of Bird's finest works, Safe; a 1993 BBC2 film concerning the plight of the homeless on the streets of London. In choosing this as her starting point, Kemp is not only paying tribute to one of Bird's most satisfying and important signature pieces, she is also addressing the inequality that remains at the heart of our society in the same manner that Bird did. Homelessness has risen once again since David Cameron entered Number 10 six years ago and is showing no sign of decreasing. This pressing problem is neatly paralleled here, especially with the inclusion of archive footage from parliament which shows present Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn haranguing the then PM Margaret Thatcher from the backbenches regarding this extreme poverty. It's meaning is clear; the problem continues and therefore the fight must do also. But worryingly, we do not have many filmmakers of Bird's calibre with a voice in primetime mainstream television any more. Much has been made recently of the desperate need to protect the BBC from Tory pressures, but the BBC lost its independent spirit a long time ago and is already gagged by government. It's telling that whilst it was commonplace to see such a polemical drama as Safe at 9pm on BBC2 in the early 90s, no such programme could be made now - or indeed, screened; BBC4's tribute to Bird last night neglected to show this film, after all.

Equally, it's worth pointing out that whilst the programmes Bird helped shape and create - EastEnders and Casualty - still exist some thirty years later, they do so in a very watered down, bland and acceptable state, devoid of the politics and anger that originally made them the success they were. Witness Casualty creator Paul Unwin discuss the 'Socialist, feminist, anti-racist, anti-Tory' roots of the medical drama and compare them to the vapid, kiss-among-the cubicles soap it is now and despair at how far down the road we've reached, and how a director like Bird would never even get a break today. 

The documentary, as the title implies, takes us through the entirety of Bird's career from her days at the Royal Court staging plays by Hanif Kureishi and Jim Cartwright, to '80s and early '90s TV and into feature films, including an unhappy, hampered stint in Hollywood with 1995's Mad Love, and back to TV again.  Kemp gains testaments from friends and colleagues such as Kate Hardie, Robert Carlyle, Mark Cousins, Irvine Welsh, Ruth Caleb, Paul Unwin and Ronan Bennett, with Hardie and Carlyle perhaps providing the most insightful comments, speaking with great fondness for their friend and frustration at the lack of widespread appreciation afforded her now and the many lost projects; most notably the Burke and Hare-inspired The Meat Trade, starring Carlyle with a screenplay by Welsh remains the most tantalising missed opportunity. Carlyle's appreciation of her talent is at its height when he discusses the film Ravenous, marvelling at how, when the original director left, Bird arrived (at his behest) to prep the film in just one week, commencing shooting almost instantly.

Overall, there is some suggestion that Bird's reputation as a political filmmaker may have seen her lose work as the industry became more toothless in the face of late New Labour and ConDem manipulation, whilst others address the difficulties facing female directors. Kemp herself raises the question that Bird's work was often uniquely masculine, and Carlyle confesses it has occurred to him but he is unable to provide an answer as to why, whilst Hardie believes she simply had to go where the work was, citing the projects that failed to get developed. 

If I had to make one criticism of this film it is that very little light is shed on Bird's private life, the focus is very much on the professional. However, there's no denying that the Antonia Bird Kemp presents us with is a truly admirable figure with an idealism and principles all too rare in the industry she found herself blazing a trail in.

She remains much missed.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

RIP Alan Young

English born Canadian/American actor Alan Young star of the hit '60s US sitcom Mr Ed has died at the grand age of 96.

Young died on Thursday at a film and TV retirement facility in LA and was buried at sea. He's probably most famous for Mr Ed, the sitcom that ran from 1960-'66 and whose central conceit a talking horse - writing that now, I realise how genuinely surreal that clearly is, but as a kid watching repeats on Channel 4 in the '80s you just accepted it!

Young featured quite a bit in my childhood as he was also the voice of Scrooge McDuck in Disney's Duck Tales and had starred in films like The Time Machine and Androcles and the Lion which captured my infant attention. In 1993 he starred as a Walt Disney like figure in the third and final disappointing entry in the Beverly Hills Cop franchise, Beverly Hills Cop III


Tonight's Tele Tip: BBC4's Antonia Bird Night

Following on from the BFI retrospective held earlier this month in tribute to the much missed director Antonia Bird, who passed away in 2013, BBC4 tonight will screen from 8:30pm onwards a series of programmes and films dedicated to her.

The night starts with a classic 1986 episode of EastEnders, a two-hander with Leslie Grantham and Anita Dobson as the warring couple of the Queen Vic, Den and Angie, on the brink of divorce until Angie delivers a devastating blow, followed by a new documentary, From EastEnders to Hollywood; Susan Kemp explores the life and work of Bird, from her trailblazing start at the radical hotbed that was the Royal Court in the 70s, through to the early groundbreaking days of EastEnders and Casualty in the 80s, and all the way to Hollywood in the 90s and back again. Then at 10pm there's an all too rare screening of her 2000 TV film Care starring Steven Mackintosh as a man struggling to piece together his life after a childhood of abuse in a children's care home.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Out On Blue Six : Bright Light Bright Light ft. Elton John

Ladies and gentlemen, it's Don Johnson and Jabba The Hut...

Nah in all seriousness though, that's one hell of a bright, catchy song! And just like Bright Light Bright Light's wardrobe there, very 80s! It's Miami Vice meets Miami Sound Machine!

This was the live performance on last night's Graham Norton Show

End Transmission

Dirty Pretty Things (2002)

Nigel Farage's favourite film!

I joke, of course.

Dirty Pretty Things is a 2002 thriller from Stephen Frears is set in the secret underbelly of London; a twilight nether-world inhabited by immigrants - both legal and illegal - in flight from their various homelands, for a variety of reasons, to lead invisible and unfulfilled lives in the UK. Bringing these anonymous characters together is The Baltic, a London hotel where they work in roles many British-born citizens believe to be beneath them; desk clerks, doormen, gophers and cleaners, all without union representation or the safety nets we take for granted.

The central figure is Chiwetel Ejiofor's Okwe, a man with two dead-end jobs. By night he is the desk clerk at The Baltic and by day he is a mini-cab driver. In the opening moments we see that he is expected to inspect his employer's genitalia at the cab office, and we soon learn that this onerous task is expected of him because, back home in Nigeria, he had another job - he was a doctor. Under the grey leaden skies of London however, he is an illegal immigrant having been forced to flee Lagos under an assumed name. Now he's trying to keep a hold of his moral compass, helping people where he can (like his clap-riddled boss) and in particular looking out for Senay (Audrey Tautou) whose couch he sleeps on. She's a naive asylum seeker from Turkey, working illegally as a cleaner at the hotel and gaining the attention of a pair of vindictive immigration officers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these are the only British people who actually seem to pay any kind of attention to our central refugee characters throughout the whole film. Says a lot doesn't it?

One evening at the hotel Okwe is called to unblock a toilet and makes a particularly gruesome discovery - no, not a floater of Presley proportions - a human heart. This sinister mystery leads him to the hotel's sleazy and menacing night manager, a Spaniard named 'Sneaky' played by Sergi López, who, it is revealed, exploits the predicaments of fellow refugees by working in the illegal trafficking of body parts - a spare kidney for those with serious conditions, serious money and a lack of scruples.

This is a really strong film from Frears who captures the same kind of social realism as his contemporaries like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, but employs a far more successful thriller narrative than either director could manage. He's helped by a script from Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight which takes some rather stereotypical characters (Tatou's naive waif, Benedict Wong's amiable and wise Chinese, Zlatko Buric's garrulous Russian and Sophie Okonedo's tart with a heart) yet makes them believably three dimensional, a truly accomplished cast, and some great cinematography from Chris Menges which really captures those aforementioned leaden skies to depict a London that is both a very big place, but also a very cold one too. An unromantic London where it is all too be anonymous and ignored, as this excellent piece of dialogue towards the end of the film has it;

"How come I've never seen you people before?"

"Because we are the people you do not see. We are the ones who drive your cabs, and clean your rooms, and suck your cocks"

The Day New Romanticism Died

Much is written about the fact that, when The Sex Pistols became household names, punk had died. I'm not convinced by that argument, largely because I think punk had a greater and continued history and meaning beyond the King's Road and out into the urban areas especially up here in the north.

But not a lot is said regarding the demise of the next big music and fashion craze; New Romanticism. 

Well, I think I can put a date on that particular phase's death. It's sometime in September 1981. Adam Ant's Prince Charming may well have been Number 1 that month but, if you'd been a regular at the Blitz Club for a couple of years up until that point, you must have realised it was all over the day David Van Day and Thereza Bazaar rocked up on Top of the Pops to sing their track Handheld in Black and White dressed like buccaneers... 

Never ahead of the trend this cheesy pop duo had clearly seen what Adam Ant, Spandua Ballet and Duran Duran had started to wear and decided to get in on the act - and just what is the drummer wearing?! It's all so half-hearted as to be genuinely hilarious. It was screened again on BBC4 this week.

Still, the song is a dreadfully catchy earworm thanks to the Trevor Horn production and that bass line. Proof that you can indeed polish a turd!

But yes, definitely the day that New Romanticism died.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Mute Witness (1994)

I love a good Euro-pudding, and Mute Witness is even more of a mish-mash than most; German-financed, British-Lebanese director, filmed in Moscow, made for American distribution, starring American, British and Russian actors and with a distinctive Italian Giallo flavour, the film was pretty much in development for ten years before it finally saw the light of day. 

Writer/director Anthony Waller was a UK-based director of award winning adverts when he wrote his first full length screenplay in the mid '80s; a film set in 1930s Chicago dealing with civil authority corruption and the rise of gang law. Between that point and 1993 when Mute Witness commenced filming, Waller had totally rewritten his script to set it in Yeltsin's Moscow, a city whose sociopolitical situation was, to his mind, not too dissimilar to Prohibition-era Chicago. In the bag already was an effective cameo from Sir Alec Guinness whom Waller had convinced to appear in his film way back in 1986 and whose scenes as an underworld kingpin known as The Reaper ("see his face, and die") were shot in Germany over the course of just one morning in that year, before subsequently being edited into the final version eight years later. It was to be, technically, the legendary thespian's last feature film. Hey, it doesn't matter that he's clearly dressed as a 1930s gangland Godfather, does it?

Waller's film concerns a mute American special effects coordinator, Billy Hughes (played by acclaimed and beautiful Russian actress Marina Zudina, with the language barrier being deftly handled by her character's inability to speak), who working on a low-budget slasher horror movie in Moscow alongside her sister Karen (British actress Fay Ripley) and Andy, her sister's boyfriend (Evan Richards) who is the director of the flick. There's a case of art imitating life when Andy reveals he's filming in Russia for its cheap labour costs, which is exactly the reason why Waller based himself there too.

When Billy accidentally gets locked in at the set after the production has wrapped for for the evening, she observes the local Russian crew doing some decidedly unofficial overtime, filming what she initially believes to be a cheap porno. But when the male actor pulls a knife and proceeds to brutally murder his female co-star, Billy quickly realises she's stumbled upon a snuff movie operation. 

What immediately follows is a very long, extremely effective and utterly nail biting 'stalk and chase' sequence that would be critically acclaimed to the hilt if this were a better known feature. Narrowly fleeing the scene with her life, Billy then proceeds in her attempt to convince the Russian authorities - along with Andy the director -  that the crew are a part of a crazed killer pornography ring but, as with the best Hitchcockian traditions, the bad guys are clever enough to convince everyone that a 'hysterical' Billy only saw a fictional murder as part of Andy's shoot.

Unfortunately, Waller doesn't just stick with this perfectly serviceable plot and overeggs his Euro pudding somewhat with the introduction, in the film's latter stages, of what is presumably a left over from the original 30s Chicago draft; corruption at the highest levels and an international conspiracy thriller element, complete with a stolen floppy disk and Oleg Yankovsky's undercover detective. Coming after that impressive opening 40 minutes, it is a little frustrating.

But there's much more in the film's favour overall than it's failings. Like Hitchcock, Waller isn't afraid of injecting some wonderfully quirky,  laugh out loud black comedy into the proceedings. When faced with a murderer intent on taking out their only witness for the second time, how does a young mute girl attract the attention of her neighbour across the street - why, flash at him of course! And, whilst the murderer takes apart the flat to get at her, the neighbour downstairs is thumping at his ceiling to protest at the noise that is keeping him awake! There's also the great comic support provided by Evan Richards and Fay Ripley as Andy and Karen who run around always a step behind Billy like a wisecracking and bickering sitcom/screwball couple who have just wandered in from a Woody Allen film (Manhattan Murder Mystery perhaps?). Waller clearly has fun sending up would-be auteurs of the Gen X age with Andy, whilst Ripley is both considerably tougher than her weedy boyfriend and believably supportive of her disabled sister Billy. It's just a shame Waller insisted on his siblings being American, as Ripley's accent often slips. Why they couldn't have been British I do not know. Shortly after this, Ripley would become a household name thanks to her role as Jenny Gifford in 1990s hit comedy drama Cold Feet employing the same strengths she shows here. And I always found her to be very easy on the eye and a really charismatic screen presence, so that helps too.

Ultimately though, the film's strongest character is of course it's leading lady who is not only mute, but is also further handicapped in being an American in a foreign land; she's unable to speak and unable to understand what her enemies are saying as well. Marina Zudina is great in the central role, conveying so much with her eyes and genuinely making us care for her character. You can trace the lineage of Billy Hughes right through all the populist scream queen figures  and particular homage is due to Audrey Hepburn's role as the blind heroine of Wait Until Dark, meaning that Waller's Euro pudding like all the best Euro puddings offers a convincing and affectionately postmodern critique on Hollywood and especially so considering much of the fun is had at exploring the nature of a film within a film. 

I hadn't seen this one in ages, so glad I decided to reacquaint myself with it once more last night.

Tonight's Tele Tip: Love, Nina (and Rapid Review)

Really looking forward to Love, Nina on BBC1 tonight at 9:30pm starring Faye Marsay and Helena Bonham Carter.

This is a 5 part adaptation by Nick Hornby of Nina Stibbe's bestselling memoirs of the same name detailing her time as a nanny in the 1980s to Sam and Will Frears, the children of single parent Mary Kay Wilmers (deputy editor of London Review of Books and ex-wife of director Stephen Frears)  I finished reading Stibbe's book earlier this week and it's a great read. 

Love, Nina detail the then 20 year old Nina's move from Leicester to the fashionable, literary and media world of London's Gloucester Crescent, where Mary Kay's friends and neighbours included the likes of Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, Michael Frayn and Claire Tomalin. As the '80s was an age before mobile phones, the net and skype, Nina kept in touch with her sister Victoria (known as Vic) at home via a series of letters which shape the book, and I presume, this forthcoming television adaptation.

I really enjoyed the book, which is a warm, nostalgic and very funny trip back to the '80s in which the family Nina is employed by come across, though her letters home, as eccentric, unflappable and without pretension. Their set-up, treating the two children Sam and Will (10 and 9 respectively when Nina starts to live and work there) as adults with a free rein of language including swearing, and with Alan Bennett as a nightly supper guest, is a delight to read and I can't wait to see that translated to the screen - though for television the character Malcolm Tanner played by Jason Watkins will be a thinly disguised Bennett.

And anything that gives Marsay a starring role can only be a good thing.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Fighting Back : Petitions to Sign/Demo to Attend: NHS Bursary or Bust

While we wait to see how the BMA's 'uphill struggle' to sell the new deal to junior doctors goes, it's worth remembering and acting upon the fact that the government intend to shit on the NHS in other ways.

This petition was set up by nurse Danielle Tiplady to challenge the government's decision to axe the NHS bursary for its students next year. Without that lifeline, syudent nurses, midwives, physios etc will be expected to be lumbered with debts of up to £50,000-£60,000 for their training. The kind of debt that will frankly make it impossible for many to take up their dream careers in the NHS.

The petition currently has over 54,000 signatures. Please, add your name to that list and show your support for the NHS.

You can also show your support by joining the demo outside St Thomas' Hospital which will march to the Dept of Health on the 4th June at 1pm. Y'know, the kind of demo that our completely non-biased BBC news team are bound to cover, right?* Further details of the march can be found on the Bursary or Bust Facebook page

*And yes, that is irony. Of course they won't fucking report on it. If the whole of the country came out in support and brought London to a standstill, the BBC would still ignore it to keep on Cameron's side and Whittingdale at bay.

Specs Appeal

Relieved to see it's not just me who finds Judge Rinder's court clerk Michelle Hassan adorable - there's quite a big fan base for her online

All rise!