Tuesday, 31 July 2018

RIP Bernard Hepton

The actor Bernard Hepton has died at the age of 92.

A fine character actor and a familiar face on our TV screens throughout the '70s and '80s in particular, Hepton starred in some of drama's biggest hitters during those decades, most notably Secret Army, Colditz, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Smiley's People, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Elizabeth R, and I, Claudius. He also delivered a memorable turn in the Play for Today folk horror Robin Redbreast and in the Michael Caine film Get Carter.

As a kid growing up I always felt a certain affinity with him because he was a celebrity who shared the same birthday as me, 19th October. It's probably his brilliant portrayal of Albert in Secret Army that I'll remember him best.


Saturday, 28 July 2018

Out On Blue Six: Blue Pearl

At last! The heatwave has finally broken and the rain has come down. 

I was beginning to forget what rain felt like and to celebrate its much needed return, here's this classic from 1990

End Transmission

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

A stony faced Denzel Washington killing people and shooting shit up is a movie genre in itself.

I'm all for a major Hollywood production acknowledging the fact that the wild west was not as white as the arctic. Figures suggest that a good 25% of cowboys were in fact African American, but I'm confused by the fact that Denzel is the only black face here. Whatever point Antoine Fuqua wants to make is sadly hampered by that fact, but at least his seven are an ethnically diverse bunch; as well as Denzel, there's also a Native American, a Mexican and an East Asian. 

I love the John Sturges original and I love Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, which it was of course a remake of. So what we have here is a remake of a remake, and Fuqua wisely uses his material to be both an affectionate homage to the old fashioned, highly entertaining horse operas of old, as well as a commentary on contemporary times. Unlike Sturges' film, the villain here is not a notorious bandit and his prey are not helpless salt of the earth Mexican peasants; here it is Peter Sarsgaard's land grabbing baron and an archetypal bunch of western homesteaders. This is ruthless corporate theft that ought to chime with post-crash audiences and Sarsgaard is a suitably dark, malevolent presence despite having surprisingly little screen time. There's also a good deal of references to the American Civil War and how its violence is still felt. In the original, Robert Vaughn was merely an infamous bounty hunter whose bottle had gone. Here, Ethan Hawke is an equally notorious former Confederate sniper, traumatised by the horrors he has witnessed. PTSD, corporate greed and cultural diversity? Yes this is a Magnificent Seven for the modern day. 

Fuqua is on favoured ground here, much like his earlier King Arthur, which was rather maligned but which I nonetheless loved. He delivers a rollicking adventure that is handsomely put together, but the seven on display here are not the memorable legends of the 1960 movie that we fondly recall during pub quizzes. Aside from Denzel, a wisecracking-to-the-point-of-obnoxious Chris Pratt and the gun shy Hawke, the rest of the gang are firmly in the Brad Dexter camp. Lee Byung-hun of The Good, The Bad, The Weird fame is a visually striking presence with his knife throwing skills, and likewise Martin Sensmeier's nomad Comanche is equally adept with a bow and arrow, but, given their taciturn demeanours, that's sadly where their respective characterisations end. Manuel García-Rulfo simply fails to make much of an impression beyond a charming smile, whilst Vincent D’Onofrio defies the script to deliver a larger than life eccentric frontiersman I'd like to have seen more of. The real standout in the supporting cast is arguably Haley Bennett's grieving but tough widow who appeals for the seven to help. 

I was initially apprehensive about this, but surprised myself by having quite a fun time with it, largely because it's the kind of film I imagine my western loving late grandfather would have loved too, in that it was just good, clean old fashioned fun with little or no swearing, sex scenes or nudity. However, I'd say it was more a case of The Good Seven, rather than the Magnificent.

Monday, 23 July 2018

RIP Peter Blake

The details are sketchy but I received a text message from a friend earlier today to say that Peter Blake has passed away at the age of 69.

Blake was born in Selkirk, Scotland in 1948 and had a career in TV, film, theatre and music dating back to the mid '60s. An impressive career on the stage included roles in Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Rocky Horror Show and several pantomimes, including three years as Captain Hook in Peter Pan in the mid 00s. His most famous role however is undoubtedly that of the medallion man fantasist Kirk St. Moritz in John Sullivan's classic '80s sitcom Dear John. It was a role that perhaps owed a debt to the Fonz type character he played in a string of adverts for Pepsi which ultimately led to a number 40 chart hit in 1977 for him with the track Lipsmackin' Rock n Rollin'

On film he starred in the sex comedy Intimate Games in 1976, and Panic, an effective short chiller from 1978. Other TV roles included the DJ Andy Evol in Agony, Richard Briers' smarmy work colleague Rex Tynan in Ever Decreasing Circles, Michael Vincent in Penmarric and Pretty Billy Binns in Trevor Preston's Out. He would go on to provide the score for Preston's follow up series Fox, and had guest roles in a string of popular British TV productions including Shoestring, Minder, Z Cars, A Very Peculiar Practice, Just Good Friends, Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV, The New Statesman, Taggart and Jonathan Creek. In 2010, Blake starred in several episodes of EastEnders as Ken Tate and his last on screen credit came in the 2012 film Run For Your Wife

As I say details are sketchy just now but his wikipedia has been updated to note that he passed away sometimes this month.


Thursday, 12 July 2018

Crowhurst (2017)

When Crowhurst, in the depths of manic insanity, wraps himself up within a Union Jack flag like an anxious babbling infant with their precious security blanket, it says more about the nature of the man and his thwarted ambitions than the whole of The Mercy. This is not the Donald Crowhurst that Colin Firth could ever play...Justin Salinger makes this version uniquely his own; a small man totally out of his depth against the mighty, endless oceans. His Munch-like screaming direct to the camera is as powerfully compelling as that of any victim in a horror movie. In the end, Crowhurst is a horror movie – the monster is the mind.

Read my full review at The Geek Show

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

We Almost Made it...

Ah balls.

It was not the result we wanted. Football didn't come home.

But you know what? Yeah there's a lot to be sad and pissed off about, there's a lot to feel deflated and heartbroken for, but at the same time, there's a lot to celebrate too.

I never really bought into 'football's coming home'. I didn't dare hope and anyway, what's home about it? I'm not going to kid myself that we, as a nation, invented kicking a ball. But it's worth remembering that when Baddiel and Skinner joined forces with the Lightning Seeds and wrote those words back in 1996, they were writing about the 'thirty years of hurt' since our national team last played in a World Cup final.

Tonight, our national team broke another near 'thirty years of hurt' since we last played in a World Cup semi-final and that is a great achievement. That they did that when no one dared dream or predict it is even more of an achievement and we should feel proud, not defeated. Proud. We beat the odds to get here, and we've still the third place play off to win.

Out On Blue Six: Baddiel and Skinner and The Lightning Seeds

It wasn't going to be any other song today was it?

Because hopefully...it's coming home

End Transmission

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Out On Blue Six: The Housemartins

We're into the year 1986 in BBC4's repeats of Top of the Pops and it kicked off on Friday with the documentary Top of the Pops - The Story of 1986, which featured an interesting tidbit from the Housemartins' Paul Heaton, about their single Caravan of Love

Released in time for the coveted Christmas number one slot in '86, Heaton claims the band were right on course for achieving that accolade and were even told shortly before the charts were released for that week that they had made it. However, the number one that year proved to be Jackie Wilson's Reet Petit - a rank outsider that came out of nowhere.

So what happened?

Well, Heaton claims it's all to do with the band's politics and, specifically, a disparaging comment they made regarding Margaret and Dennis Thatcher, that ultimately nixed their chances.

Did the chart people and the BBC really do the dirty on the Housemartins in the same way they fixed it for Rod Stewart to be number one instead of the Sex Pistols during the Silver Jubilee week?

Who knows - but I don't see any reason why Heaton would lie, and it's public record the song was hotly tipped racing up the charts that week, ahead of all the competition. All I do know is that Caravan of Love is a cracking song and that it is perhaps for the best it didn't get the top spot over the festive period. It's far too good a song to have the 'Christmas song' albatross around its neck, with a message that is for all year round.

End Transmission

Yellow Submarine (1968)

"Liverpool can be a lonely place on a Saturday night, and this is only Thursday morning"

It could be argued that it’s a shame that the Beatles didn’t see the possibilities inherent in Yellow Submarine; animation did not have the same restraints that even Dick Lester found himself butting against to get the Beatles distinctive talents and imagination to the screen, and the film received  a kind of widespread critical acclaim that their other film ventures failed to reach. The casting of Lance Percival and Dick Emery, as Old Fred the sailor and Max/The Lord Mayor and Jeremy Hilary Boob respectively, showcase the Beatles affection for British comedy of the seaside postcard and music hall tradition, just as much as the charabanc nature of singalong tracks such as When I’m Sixty-Four, All Together Now and the eponymous Yellow Submarine do.

Read my full review at The Geek Show

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

Smith's choice was to win the race or to run it, and he couldn't do both. Running - with its obvious connotations of the freedom Smith otherwise lacks - asserts his independence and the self he has discovered from the sport and his innate talent. Racing, or winning the competition, is to conform and sacrifice his independence.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Hard Men (1996)

There ought to be a word for that feeling you have when you can't tell whether you have seen a movie or not. That's the feeling I have watching Hard Men. I certainly recall it coming out in '96 but I didn't think I'd actually seen it. After watching it tonight, so many scenes rang a bell, that I think I may be mistaken. It feels like the eighteen year old me might have seen it with a kebab and a bottle of White Lightning and, given the brain killing properties of 'Quite Frightening', is it any wonder I can't be sure?

Then again, maybe I could be forgiven for thinking I'd seen it before because Hard Men isn't exactly original. In this tale of three lethal, sharp suited cockney hoods out on the town, chatting shit about the etiquette of oral sex and the merits of Abba over Blur whilst plotting a betrayal against one of their number, it is clear that the French born, London based writer/director J.K. Amalou is heavily influenced by Tarantino. But, despite some pretty high praise from the likes of Loaded, Maxim and Marie Claire, his low budget film struggled to find an audience, which is sadly ironic when you consider he had the jump on Guy Ritchie who would do the exact same thing to incredible acclaim just two years later, opening the floodgates of the genre for several imitators to follow.

The film concerns a trio of hitmen and debt collectors; the sensible Tone (Vincent Regan), the professional Bear (Ross Boatman) and the hothead Speed (Lee Ross), who each work for gangland boss Pops Den (played by real-life South London gangster 'Mad' Frankie Fraser). When Tone's ex girlfriend reconnects to tell him he's father to a baby daughter, he decides it is time he should retire and takes his friends out for one last carousal to announce his plans. But Pops Den isn't the kind of person to condone such a resignation and suddenly Tone's last night with the lads is potentially his last night on earth, with Speed and Bear now charged with not only offing him but also with delivering his amputated hand to Pops Den by 9am the following morning.

Amalou has a very arresting and stylised eye for the seamy side of London and outlandish violence that makes Hard Men quite a visually strong addition to the British gangster film, with a cool colour palette combined with an interesting sound design, but he's ultimately weak on getting the audience to truly engage with his characters thanks to their overall unlikeability and some occasionally poor dialogue. It's a shame though to see that his subsequent career has of late consisted of a couple of straight-to-DVD Danny Dyer flicks. For someone who beat Ritchie to it, he deserves more than that.

As for the cast it's easy to see why Vincent Regan went on to become an actor who straddles both a variety of British TV productions and the odd Hollywood blockbuster like 300, as his potential stands out in the role of the sensitive and mature Tone. Ross Boatman, marking time between leaving London's Burning and becoming a rather handy professional poker player with his older brother Barny, is perhaps even better, quietly convincing as Bear in a way that makes me grateful that he's returned to acting in recent years with his great performance as the brother in the BBC2 sitcom Mum. Lee Ross is an actor I normally admire a lot, but here I think he gets a little carried away with the opportunity to overplay Speed's character's jittery coke-fuelled intensity and cockney swagger. Someone like Marc Warren would have perhaps been a more natural and convincing fit. The stunt casting of real-life villain 'Mad' Frankie Fraser as Pops Den is again - when you consider how Guy Ritchie went on to cast Lenny McLean in Lock Stock -  another example of Amalou predicting what was to come, but it is also a deeply contentious one; the showbiz glorification that began to occur in the '90s of once genuinely violent enforcers and murderers is one that has always sat uneasily with me, and I fail to see why the production saw it fit to try and enhance his natural menace with several obviously fake facial scars. There's also an appearance from Ken Campbell that is unforgiveably all too brief - what kind of idiot employs a one-off like Campbell for such a small and insignificant role? That alone should have sealed Hard Men's fate.

Perhaps the best thing about Hard Men is the strapline; You Call. They Deliver. It Ain't Pizzas, but even that doesn't bear much scrutiny, much like the film itself. I am now fairly sure I've seen it before, but I'll mark it as a first watch nonetheless. Perhaps this inability to pin down whether I have or haven't seen it says all there is to know about Hard Men. It's not truly atrocious, but it's nowhere near great either. It's just really rather forgettable. 

United Kingdom (1981)

United Kingdom - a deliciously ironic title if ever there  was one - was the last major work for television by the socialist playwright Jim Allen. Epic in scope, this is an expansive, two and a half hour tale influenced by the political events of the day and concerns a Labour run council in the North East of England's refusal to implement the harsh cuts of housing and social spending imposed upon them by Margaret Thatcher's newly elected Conservative government. Their unwillingness to comply leads to their barring from office and a commissioner from London is parachuted in under Home Office instruction to implement the policy. In retaliation, the Labour councillors become a council-in-exile, picketing the council offices, organising selective rent strikes on the derelict housing estate they reside at and hijacking the computer files relating to the commissioner's proposed budget. Determined not to lose face and reassert their authority, the Establishment subsequently employ the usual dirty tricks; surveillance and intimidation from Special Branch, arrests of councillors on the spurious charges of theft and incitement, smears in the media with the inevitable hoary old lie of Moscow funding the protest, and finally - when the residents of the estate barricade themselves in - the brutal deployment of the SPG. 

It should come as no surprise to you to learn that United Kingdom was broadcast only once and has never been made commercially available. It's only availability now lies in the form of occasional screenings among politically sympathetic groups or, as in the case of a couple of years ago, at Home in Manchester as part of a season celebrating the work of Allen as a son of the city. However, we should be grateful that United Kingdom was made at all. Delivering a talk to a workshop for Channel 4 about the possibilities of engaging working class audiences in the 1980s, Allen explained that the play was originally commissioned by Michael Grade at LWT (presumably for the 1980 series of plays that ultimately became a Dennis Potter series) to make the play in Manchester but, with just weeks to go before shooting commences, Grade cancelled the film. His reason was that it was too costly but, as Allen points out, £150,000 was already spent on the production and it is his belief that the powers-that-be in Manchester simply didn't want the film to be made there. Undeterred, Allen and his director Roland Joffé returned to the BBC where they had previously made The Spongers in 1977, and relocated the storyline to the North East. 

Deeply critical of not only the Tory government but also a Labour party leadership who refuse to come out and pledge support to the exiled council and housing residents in their hour of need (and, as one character points out, it was a Labour government who initially began to implement cuts in social spending and housing anyway), United Kingdom is an epic story about the class struggle which seems to replicate the events such as the Kirkby rent strike (and indeed, the events depicted firsthand in Nick Broomfield's Behind the Rent Strike documentary film - there's even a moment in the film - one of its most blistering and best presented - that depicts two police officers interrogating an eleven year old boy for the names of his friends who have shoplifted that seems to owe a lot to Broomfield's subsequent Juvenile Liaison documentary too), the blacklisting of politically active workers, and the Brixton riots (much commented on throughout the play, most specifically in one scene which sees an honest copper appeal to his Chief Constable, played by Colin Welland, to rethink his plans to roll out the SPG; "It's not a race riot" he says, to which Welland replies "Isn't it? These people aren't the same race as me") as well as prophosising what was to come in its depiction of the harsher measures of policing - often from outside constabularies such as the Met - against the working class and political action, such as the miners' strike. It's not always subtle - the scenes of our heroes drinking and enjoying old fashioned barroom sing-a-longs behind the barricades are interspersed with scenes of Welland and his Masonic authority figures enjoying a grand Elizabethan banquet complete with a costumed host choir serenading them - but its authenticity is key and it boasts some damn fine performances from the likes of the aforementioned Welland, Ricky Tomlinson, Val McLane (Jimmy Nail's sister) Bill Paterson, Peter Kerrigan, Peter Copley and Rosemary Martin. United Kingdom is a play that deserves to stand alongside the likes of Boys from the Blackstuff as a searing indictment on Thatcher's Britain - a position it rightfully earns from anyone fortunate enough to see it.

Friday, 6 July 2018

The Reckoning (1970)

It's the end of the 1960s and an affluent and ruthless self made man leaves London to return to his roots in the industrial and impoverished north where he is compelled to exact revenge for the death of a close relation.  

To anyone who has watched Get Carter that must sound rather familiar. But the star here isn't the cobra-eyed Michael Caine, it is the ever compelling Nicol Williamson, the northern roots aren't Newcastle, it is  Liverpool, and the deceased is the father, rather than the brother. Lastly, the gangsterism on display here is the 100% legal, but no less corruptible and crooked; capitalism.

This is The Reckoning. Directed by Jack Gold and adapted by Birkenhead born John McGrath from a Patrick Hall novel entitled The Harp That Once, this is actually a film that feels like a cross between Room at the Top and the aforementioned Mike Hodges gangster classic. Williamson stars as Michael 'Mick' Marler, a product of the back streets of Liverpool's Catholic Irish community, now a rising young executive. 

It is the character study of a high achiever destined for even greater things and in Williamson's performance, I'm reminded  of another cinematic character apart from Joe Lampton or Jack Carter; his Marler is a 'blunt instrument' in the same vein as Ian Fleming's James Bond, a man imbued with a natural aggression and unafraid to get his hands dirty when doing the bidding of his bosses. Marler doesn't care who he has to trample on to get to the top, he's going to succeed despite of those with the silver spoon in their mouths, not because of them, and this characteristic ruthlessness is just as evident in the bedroom as it is the boardroom, as he beds his wife, his secretary and an older woman back home in Liverpool - in this last respect, it's nice to see Rachel Roberts was still turning the heads of angry young men some ten years after the height of the kitchen sink drama. 

Returning to Liverpool, Marler learns that his father was attacked by some young bikers for singing a rebel ballad in a pub and that the subsequent beating brought on a fatal heart attack. Investigating via his old haunts and his father's pals, Marler reconnects with a life and community that is just as hard and unsentimental as the business world he has left behind, but is altogether more honest, accepting and without hypocrisy. Initially he is against the traditional notion of vengeance that is expected of him, but it is perhaps this realisation that his two worlds aren't so far apart, that Marler begins to test just how much he can get away with in life and brings a little bit of Liverpool and Ireland back to stultified middle class London. 

It's a real shame that The Reckoning is so little regarded, but I guess it falls awkwardly in time and place between the two films it reminded me most off - Room at the Top and Get Carter - coming a little too late for the social mobility angst of the angry young men and ending up a little overshadowed by Hodges' ultimate '60s comedown. That said, with Marler's rediscovery of his proud Irish roots, the film is not without some topicality for 1970 as the Troubles began to brew in Northern Ireland and British troops were sent in. I have read that some believe its overlooked status may be down to Williamson's central performance, in that he was not an actor who seemed to engage cinema goers. 

There may be something in that suggestion, but I don't really like the implication that Williamson was somehow unsuccessful. Granted, he was a performer who embodied his characters so fully that he may not have left enough of himself to tip the audience the wink and encourage them to come with him, but to me this is a statement on his overall commitment to the role. His Marler is never less than the real deal; natural, authentic, utterly believable and a great anti-hero at the film's core.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018