Monday, 17 December 2018

The Stranger (1946)

I saw this earlier this month on Netflix and surprisingly it was my first watch of this perhaps overlooked entry in Welles' directorial canon. The Stranger was his third film in the director's chair, made four years after The Magnificent Ambersons. Determined to prove that he could be relied upon to turn in a picture that was both under budget and on time, Welles accepted a rather unfavourable contract from International Pictures that stipulated that he would not only defer to the studio at all times but that he would owe them any wages he may incur above $50,000 per year should he renege on the deal. He was paid $2,000 per week to both act and helm the picture.

The Stranger is a noirish melodrama that sees Welles star as Franz Kindler, a Nazi-in-hiding in the sleepy, autumnal New England town of Harper. Determined to appear as a pillar of the community, Kindler adopts the guise of Charles Rankin, a prep school teacher engaged to marry Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young) the daughter of a supreme court justice official played by Philip Merivale. Arriving in Harper is Nazi hunter Mr Wilson, Edward G. Robinson, who has his suspicions about the seemingly innocuous Rankin.

Ostensibly a genre picture, The Stranger does nevertheless have many Wellesian touches that mark it out as something subtly special. Welles insisted on long takes to blindside editor Ernest J. Nims. This approach allowed him to sneak through a four minute-long take between Kindler and his hapless fellow Nazi fugitive Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) in the woods. It passes by almost unnoticed - and it clearly did for 'supercutter' Nims too - which is surprising when you consider that it's longer than A Touch Of Evil's much vaunted opening sequence. Welles also deploys his usual flourishes of shadows and angles, whilst the decision to include genuine documentary footage of the Holocaust marked it out not only as a distinctive first for Hollywood, but also yet another of Welles' preoccupations; the notion of a film within a film. Welles personally fought to keep this footage in, arguing that it was their duty to inform the world what had truly happened in Nazi Germany.

One other thing marks The Stranger out as a Welles production and that's his decision to use Citizen Kane's production designer, Perry Ferguson. The sets he created are nothing short of brilliant, including a complete town square that can be overlooked from the drug store owned by the checkers enthusiast - and the film's comic relief - Mr Potter (Billy House). At a time when genre pictures looked studiobound and cheap, Ferguson's work gives an authenticity and depth that sets it apart from its contemporaries and again, Welles' use of long takes, ensures that he gets the most from what Ferguson created.

Of course that's not to say Welles got everything his own way. A whole sequence from the front of the film, set in Latin America and focusing on Meinike's flight, was excised, along with the meeting between Kindler/Rankin and Mary, damaging the sense of foreboding Welles had hoped to infuse the film with. He also didn't get his first choice for the role of the protagonist Wilson, who was eventually played by Edward G. Robinson. Tantalisingly, Welles actually wanted the character to be a spinster woman and had hoped Agnes Moorehead would play the role! Don't get me wrong, Robinson is great in the role but I kind of wish Welles had got his way because then The Stranger would have been quite progressive and wryly humourous too. That humour does remain though, in both the aforementioned character of Potter and in one scene that sees Welles absently doodling a swastika whilst on the phone - hardly hiding your real identity there mate!

On the whole The Stranger is a satisfying mix of genre and auteur that is reminiscent of Hitchcock, and I'm glad I finally got around to seeing it.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Out On Blue Six: The Beautiful South

Broadcast last week, the excellent Paul Heaton documentary From Hull to Heatongrad revealed much about the genius songwriter, including how disappointed he is by one particular track from the 1992 album 0898.

36D was a track written about tabloid Page 3 girls (such as Samantha Fox, pictured above), Heaton's intention was to attack the glamour industry that belittles and sexualises women, reducing the appeal of the opposite sex to their vital statistics ("36D, So what is that all that you've got?") Unfortunately, the intention was rather mixed in the song's lyrics which presented the models themselves as the primary object of Heaton's scorn. 

"We all agree that we should have targeted the media as sexist instead of blaming the girls for taking off their tops. It was a case of rushing headlong into the recording of the song" Dave Hemingway, whose vocals feature on the song, explained in 1997 to the Chicago Sun Times. But one of the band's vocalists, Briana Corrigan, was conspicuous by her absence on the track: she disliked Heaton's sexist lyric and it's decision to lay the blame at the models themselves. When Corrigan decided to leave the band for a solo career, the direction some of Heaton's songs (including Mini-Correct and Worthless Lie which would both appear on 1994's Miaow, performed by new vocalist Jacqui Abbott instead) followed seemed to be one of the deciding factors; "My reservation about some of the lyrics became like a trigger to spur me on" adding that she felt "As a woman in this business you're always in a much stronger position if you perform your own stuff", something that was not really an option in a band dominated by Heaton and songwriting partner, Dave Rotheray.

"If you're gonna offend a feminist like Briana it's always worth looking at your lyrics and looking at yourself again," Heaton said in last week's documentary."And looking back, I was right about Mini-Correct and she was right about 36D. It sort of blames the industry but to lay any blame at the Page 3 model, that's blaming the workforce. And she's right to say that wrong as a song. I've not played it since"

Heaton and Corrigan in happier times

Now, I totally agree that the sentiment behind 36D is a deeply flawed one, but I still like the song itself. That said, it wasn't as popular as some hits from the band, reaching number 46 in the UK charts in the autumn of 1992, spending two weeks overall in the Top 75, with many suggesting that the sexual connotations within the song itself led to its poor performance overall.

End Transmission

Saturday, 15 December 2018

RIP Thomas Baptiste

With peculiar, tragic timing BBC2 transmitted The Ipcress File this afternoon, which I settled down to watch for the umpteenth time. In among the cast, playing a pipe-smoking American agent, is Thomas Baptiste - who I learnt today has passed away earlier this month at the age of 89.

Born in Georgetown, British Guiana to a wealthy landowner, Baptiste arrived in England in 1950 ostensibly to study agriculture, but instead he took up a factory job and went to college to study music. It wasn't long before Baptiste began mixing with London's bohemian set, which included journalist and Labour MP Tom Driberg and theatre director Joan Littlewood. He subsequently Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, turning down the opportunity to study at the Royal Academy of Music, and a career as an actor began.

Aside from The Ipcress File, his many film credits included Sunday Bloody Sunday,  The Wild Geese, The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin, The Dogs of War, Shaft In Africa, Two Gentlemen Sharing, The Class of Miss MacMichael, The Secret Laughter of Women and Russ Myers' Black Snake aka Sweet Suzy. On television he portrayed Coronation Street's first ever black character in 1963; bus conductor Johnny Alexander (pictured above with his wife, played by the actress Barbara Assoon) who was sacked following a racist altercation with builder Len Fairclough. He also starred in the excellent Wednesday Play, Fable, which posited the notion of apartheid in the UK, with the white population as the underdogs, and in the black soap opera Empire Road, as well as guest appearances in numerous programmes such as The Saint, Yes Minister, and Till Death Us Do Part. In the theatre, he played his hero Paul Robeson in Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been, Caliban in The Tempest and the lead role in Othello, and subverted several roles; including the dustman Dolittle in Pygmalion and George in a black version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He also co-founded the African-Asian committee of the actor's union, Equity.


Friday, 14 December 2018

The Prisoner (1955)

Just a heads up/plug to say that the first pressing of the new Blu-Ray from Arrow Films of this classic 1955 film is released on 11th February, 2019, and includes a booklet featuring a new critical essay of the film written by yours truly.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Doctor Who Series 11, Ranked

Well I guess it had to happen didn't it? The minute Jodie Whittaker was announced as the new Doctor, the knives were out. It wasn't just that someone had the audacity to turn the character of the Doctor from a man to a woman, it was also the fact that two of her companions would be played by actors of colour (Tosin Cole and Mandip Gill). So, before you could say 'it's political correctness gone mad' or 'Get woke, get broke', the internet and various rags of no importance were filled with so-called 'fans' who were disgusted by the direction the eleventh series of Doctor Who had chosen to take. 

They complain that there's an agenda going on here and do you know something? They're right. There is an agenda here, but it's not coming from the show, it's coming from the critics of the show. It's coming from the Trumpy, UKIP gammons who miss the 'good old days' when ethnic diversity was nowhere to be found and when the women in Doctor Who made themselves useful by putting the kettle on and taking various items of clothing off. They complain that the show has become 'SJW' entertainment that can only appeal to 'snowflakes' but all this is, to use another buzzword, 'fake news' and I have previously remarked upon this in last month's blog post for the show's fifty-fifth anniversary. That that very post was quoted at length by non other than Keith 'Telly' Topping made this blogger's day (especially as Keith was an author whose books I devoured as a younger man, and whose writing for Who novels inspired some of my own fiction) but it goes without saying that the lad himself, says it all much better in his annual round up of good TV which places Who in at number 2 and which you can read here.

Put simply, the eleventh series of Doctor Who was one of great change yes, but its core DNA remains absolutely, 100% the same. It saddens me that a show whose entire 55 years has always been about change (with the leading actor changing every few years, to say nothing of the co-stars changing just as frequently!) is now being kicked by idiots because of change. The eleventh series of Doctor Who was not 'PC', it was not 'SJW', it had not 'broke', it was its usual glorious self and yet, at the same time, different. Just like it always had been, and always will be. Or, to quote Keith Topping, "it was great" 

But just how great? Well, here are all ten episodes from the eleventh series, ranked in order of personal preference.

1. Rosa, Episode 3

"When today isn't working, tomorrow is what you have"

Not just the best Doctor Who story this series, but one of the best ever. Rosa was a proper, impassioned and educational historical episode which approached its true-life subject matter (played beautifully by The A Word's Vinette Robinson) with care, respect and love. It reminded us all just how remarkable this fifty-five year old series can be and proved that there was no limits to what kind of story it can tell. That it chooses to tell a story that will shape the minds of its young audiences for the better is the reason I love this show with all my heart.

2. It Takes You Away, Episode 9

"Solitract? It's a theory, a myth, a bedtime story my Gran used to tell me"

Arguably the most genuinely spooky episode of the year, It Takes You Away was quite simply brilliant. An inventive, dark and atmospheric thrill ride set in the Norwegian fjords with some cracking dialogue and the courage to go to some strange places (literally!). It felt a little like a New Adventure novel at times. Rumours that Theresa May's solution to the Northern Irish backstop is the fervent hope that she can get her hand on one of those mirrors are so far unfounded.

3. The Woman Who Fell To Earth, Episode 1

"Swiss Army Sonic - now with added Sheffield Steel!"

I've already blogged about this episode previously, but I will just add that I believe it to be one of the best debuts of any Doctor, and that Chris Chibnall understands the ordinary working class experience more than Moffatt or RTD, because this was was like Barry Hines mixed with James Cameron's The Terminator - who'd have thought that would have been such a good mix?

4. The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, Episode 10

"Yipee Ki Yay, Robots!"

Some fans were quick to complain about a series of Doctor Who that contained no story arc or returning villains. These are the same 'fans' I referenced at the start of this blog post - the 'fans' who spend their time criticising the show, rather than actually watching it. Doctor Who has got by several times before without resorting to season arcs and the return of the Daleks or the Cybermen every year, and it managed it again with series 11. Or did it? Because the real arc here was a much more rewarding character arc as this finale shows that each of our protagonists have come a long way since The Woman Who Fell To Earth (which this was essentially a sequel to), the Doctor included. And as for returning villains - the reappearance of 'Tim Shaw', one of the most gruesome and chilling antagonists of recent years, was most welcome.

5. Demons of the Punjab, Episode 6

"Tread softly - you're treading on your own history"

Another emotional gutpuncher of an episode (see Rosa) Demons of the Punjab was a deeply contemplative and dignified drama that explored an all too little known  and contentious chapter of history and benefited from a timely piece of scheduling, given that it aired on Remembrance Sunday. Cast-wise, it reminded us that the performers who make up the TARDIS team is possibly one if the strongest, most talented ensembles in the show's history, whilst the fact that the supporting cast was made up of actors of colour shouldn't go unmentioned in this day and age either.   

6. Arachnids in the UK, Episode 4

"Are you Ed Sheeran? 
Everyone talks about Ed Sheeran round about now, don't they?"

It may have suffered coming a week after Rosa, but this remains one of the series highlights according to my friend Graham, and that's largely because it is so gloriously old-fashioned. Arachnids in the UK (great title, I wonder how many get that?) was very, very scary and very, very funny. OK, Chris Noth's Trump character may be a little bit on the nose but I wonder if he'll reappear in future series as this era's Harriet Jones? Speaking of reappearances, it was nice to be in Sheffield again too.  

7. The Witchfinders, Episode 8

"These are hard times for women. 
If we're not being drowned, we're being patronised to death!"

This was Doctor Who doing what Doctor Who does best; educating and scaring the living daylights out of kids, all at the same time. Hugely traditional, deliciously dark and undeniably witty.The Witchfinders benefited from two memorable guest stars; Siobhan Finneran and Alan Cumming as a fruity James I. Three if you include the hat Bradley Walsh had to wear. Talk about scene-stealing. 

8. The Ghost Monument, Episode 2

"I've never even heard of Moomenbeens"

I feel really bad putting this in eighth place, because it's a cracking adventure. Believe me, it's 'lowly' placing should only really tell you just how strong this series actually was. The second episode was a traditional adventure in the Hartnell mould and allowed our new protagonists the perfect opportunity to bed in whilst working well with a small yet impressive guest cast; Shaun Dooley, the divine Susan Lynch and Art Malik. The Custard Cream moment was inspired I might add.

9. The Tsuranga Conundrum, Episode 5

"A Doctor of medicine?"
"Well, medicine, science, engineering, candyfloss, Lego, philosophy, music, problems,people, hope. Mostly hope"

Perhaps not the most gripping of episodes, but a first-rate base-under-siege story with some very funny character moments (Graham's belief that Call the Midwife will help him with his latest challenge - being a birthing partner to an alien male in labour!) and, in the Pting, the cutest, funniest, tiniest menace since Austin Powers' Mini-Me! The 'fans' continued their scornful pile-on, deriding the 'silly' CGI Pting and longing for the days of Tennant and RTD...seemingly forgetting the Adipose as they did. Something of a reunion for many in the cast too; Jodie starred alongside Brett Goldstein in the excellent Adult Life Skills and Lois Chimimba in Trust Me, whilst Bradley was in Law and Order:UK with Ben Bailey Smith aka Doc Brown

10. Kerblam!, Episode 7

"You've just had a nap of about two hundred thousand years 
so your offers are out of date anyway"

Well there has to be a least favourite, and unfortunately it's Kerblam! If The Ghost Monument was Hartnell, Arachnids in the UK Pertwee and The Witchfinders Tom, then Kerblam! was McCoy. Now that ought to have been up my street, given that McCoy was really my Doctor (I refuse to consider Sixey my Doctor, sorry Col!) and this story shared a good deal of DNA with the kind of adventures from the late '80s; a kooky premise, notable guest stars from mainstream drama and light entertainment (in this case former Corrie star Julie Hesmondhalgh and the comedian Lee Mack), and a glittery presentation that belied the storyline's dark tones and its commentary on the modern day world. But it just didn't gel with me. I think the main problem I had with it was it had a terrible flaw at the heart of it and that was in its decision for the Kerblam system to murder the wholly innocent Kira (Claudia Jessie) in its attempt to make Charlie (Leo Flanagan) see the error of his ways. Now, this was bad enough, but to have the Doctor in no way admonish the system, in fact she simply accepts what it was doing, is just plain wrong. Away from this glaring error of judgement, Kerblam is actually quite strong and operates on several levels; you can take it as a political allegory for the mood that inspired Brexit in that a lowly human worker has turned to terrorism at those he believes has 'come over here and taken all our jobs', or you can just enjoy it as a traditional Scooby Doo story - it was the janitor that did it after all!

So that was series eleven. Not the most perfect series I'll be honest, but a bloody strong one nonetheless that rode the changes extremely well. I'm looking forward to Resolution, the New Year's Day special (yup, that's New Year's Day, not Christmas Day...they've changed it up and no, not because as one 'fan' on YouTube put it, because Chibnall hates Christianity) which looks set to be really good. And after that there's series twelve... 

Oh for a time machine eh?

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Out On Blue Six: The Beautiful South, and Tonight's Tele Tip

Here's a classic from the great Paul Heaton and my hometown St Helens' own Jacqui Abbott,

You can see more of Heaton and Abbott tonight in the Channel 4 documentary, Paul Heaton: From Hull To Heatongrad, a documentary this very blogger was briefly asked to help out with earlier this year. It should be a good watch (and, if you ask me, a long overdue appraisal of one of the UK's finest songwriters) but, if you're not a night owl you might want to set your TV planner - it's on a ten past midnight!

End Transmission

Long Shot (1978)

Long Shot is director Maurice Hatton's dryly comic independent movie about two filmmakers (Glaswegian producer Charles Gormley and Liverpudlian writer Neville Smith) who descend upon the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1977 in the hope of securing both some financial backing and veteran US director Samuel Fuller for their screenplay 'Gulf and Western', a film about the oil boom in Aberdeen.

The film was made in true lo-fi observational style in black and white, pitching the likeable Gormley and Smith as versions of themselves in the midst of the festival, where they interact with various industry professionals using whatever time and resources were available in the moment. Their chosen target, Fuller, is expected to be in town to help promote Wim Wenders' The American Friend but, when the Hollywood legend proves elusive, the pair set their sights on Wenders instead, schmoozing him with the aid of their flatmate, the beautiful actress Ann Zelda. Smith also shanghais Susannah York for the role of the leading lady during her rehearsals for a stage production of Peter Pan; "The woman's role is a little underdeveloped", "And you immediately thought...Susannah York" she ruefully chides, before Smith puts his foot even further in it by mistaking her for both Julie Christie and Lyn Redgrave! 

Initially, Long Shot is a fun runaround across the glorious city of Edinburgh as the filmmakers try to track down the elusive Fuller or indeed each other, roping in many interesting supporting characters including a cameoing Stephen Frears as a biscuit salesman. But, as the film progresses, it becomes tragically clear how so much of the duo's original vision is slowly chipped away as more and more compromises are made to get the project off the ground. Gormley has many meetings in which he finds himself begging for funding from potential backers who bring their own ideas to the production (including an unseen Amsterdam financier who repeatedly asks Gormley if there's a role for Emmanuelle star Sylvia Kristel!), before courting the attention of Hollywood in the shape of John Boorman and Sandy Lieberson who make it clear that they will ultimately wrest control from him and distort his original vision. Is it any wonder that at this stage Smith descends into a neuroses that his ineffectual GP (a scene-stealing Alan Bennett) cannot help him with. When Gormley finally gets to Hollywood in the final stages of the film, he finds himself, like Dorothy in Oz, in a world of glorious technicolour.

In short, Long Shot is a very meta movie on the declining state of the British film industry in the late 1970s, a decline that it continues to more or less operate within. The film performed well at festivals in the late 1970s before securing a theatrical release in 1980 and one solitary screening on Channel 4 just five years later, before fading into obscurity. It's a fate it didn't deserve, because Long Shot not only still has so much to say about the industry, it also says it in a remarkably contemporary manner; predating as it does so many of those meta, play-a-version-of-ourselves productions that have become so prolific in the last ten years. As such, another near-forgotten gem has been unearthed by the BFI Flipside label - extras on this release include an early short feature from Hatton, Scene Nun, Take One which also stars Susannah York, an early '80s travelogue Sean Connery's Edinburgh, and a short documentary about the EIFF, Hooray for Holyrood, hosted by Robbie Coltrane and also dating from the '80s.