Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Easter habits around the world ....

Here in the London area  (left) ...and over in San Francisco (right) ..

yes, its daffodils for Easter. - even though its -2 here, colder than Christmas, as our artic spring continues into April ... (thanks Mike).


Following Richard Briers, two more great British comic actors ...

Richard Griffiths (1947-2013), at 65, (left, with Daniel Radcliffe) the very individual Griffiths (his parents were both deaf and dumb)  leaves behind 2 great comic roles: the predatory but melancholy camp Uncle Monty in WITHNAIL & I, Bruce Robinson's 1987 cult hit (according to the newspaper obits, it seems Robinson modelled the role on his experiences of working with Franco Zeffirelli in ROMEO & JULIET!),  and Hector, the larger than life inspirational but tragic history teacher in Alan Bennett's THE HISTORY BOYS, also with amorous advances, a resounding success for Griffiths on stage and film, getting a Tony Award and Olivier - "A masterpiece of wit, delicacy, mischief and desolation, often all at once" according to Bennett. A whole new generation knew him as Uncle Vernon in the HARRY POTTER films, and he also starred opposite Daniel Radcliffe in the recent London and New York revivals of EQUUS. Heaven help you if your mobile phone went off while he was on stage ...

Frank Thornton (1921-2013), at the grand age of 92  - forever the haughty Captain Peacock on the much loved '70s BBC sitcom ARE YOU BEING SERVED, where he had to cope with Mrs Slocombe and her pussy, camp Mr Humpries, Miss Brahms and the others at the Grace Department Store, which ran from 1973 to '85. Captain Peacock (far right) was ideal casting for Thornton, who went on to appear in all 10 series. For when it came to a sense of the punctilious, the right way to do things, Peacock was your man. His deadpan manner and ability to play the straight man (including to Julian Clary in his tv series!) gave him a career that extended for more than seven decades from a debut in 1940. He was also a stalwart in the BBC series WORLD OF BEACHCOMBER in the '60s. He pops up in films like VICTIM (the other hairdresser at the barber shop) and GOSFORD PARK.

They carried on ....

More popular cinema, after those sci-fi, fantasy classics? Here's CARRY ON  ....

An hour and a half of bliss was spent just watching CARRY ON CLEO again, maybe the best of those British CARRY ON films ... which began in the late '50s with TEACHER, SERGEANT and NURSE (as the Rank DOCTOR films, twee by comparison, were running of steam) and hit their stride as the '60s developed - along with Hammer Films they were a Great British Institution and we dutifully saw most of them on general release, often groaning at the obvious jokes and gags. But in 1964 when I was new in London, something odd happened - the CARRY ONs gained a modicum of critical respectability - I remember that review by the esteemed Penelope Gilliatt in THE OBSERVER actually praising CARRY ON SPYING, in fact in was a rave review.

CARRY ON CLEO was more of the same, during their great years, with decent production values, followed by CARRY ON SCREAMING (Fenella Fielding: "Do you mind if I smoke?", Kenneth Williams: "Frying tonight"), CARRY ON COWBOY - that's the one mainly shot in a muddy field in Surrey where Joan Sims as saloon madam asks the Rumpo Kid (Sid James) for his gun and says "My, thats a big one" to which he retorts "I'm from Texas, maam, we all have big ones there...". CARRY ON CRUISING/CAMPING were fun too, and they poked fun at Henry VIII, The French Revolution etc. I didn't much care for the hospital ones and of course they began running out of steam during the late '60s/early 70s when their kind of innocent smut was no longer in vogue in the counterculture era; British cinema then was churning out CONFESSIONS OF ... and rubbish like PERCY. The witless CARRY ON LOVING in 1975 was pitifully cheap tat.
The flicks were scripted by Talbot Rothwell, produced by penny-pinching Peter Rogers, and directed by Gerald Thomas, as the films got tattier.  CARRY ON ...UP THE KHYBER in 1968 must have been the last good one, with some terrific gags and situations, not least when the wonderous Joan Sims as Lady Ruff-Diamond says "I'm a little plastered", an ad-lib as the ceiling collapses on them .... Kenneth Williams of course is The Khasi of Kalabar, Sid is Lord Ruff-Diamond looking forward to his tiffin, Charles Hawtry is Private Widdle, and they are all perfect. 
CLEO though is wonderful and works as a peplum as Kenneth's Caesar screams "Infamy, Infamy, they've all got it in for me", Amanda Barrie is a dizzy Cleo in her bath of asses milk, and Jim Dale and Kenneth Connor are the resourceful British slaves, who are sold to Roman matrons and have to drag up as Vestal Virgins; there's also Sheila Hancock as Senna Pod, a shrew wife (left, with the square wheel) , and Joan Sims is bliss again as Calpurnia, Caesar's wife. Joan was a stalwart, along with Hattie Jacques, Kenneth and Hawtry through all the series best ones - Barbara Windsor, Frankie Howerd and others popped in and out. The series of course were made for peanuts, the cast never earned very much - no repeat fees for the endless showings of them or compilations of their best bits, particularly on bank holidays, when cable channels here screen them all day (if only Barbara had a royalty for every time her bra flew off!).  
Carry On plate & BBC CD

I got Kenneth's autograph once, when he was doing a Shaw play with Ingrid Bergman in 1971; he had quite a theatrical career (working with the likes of Edith Evans, Maggie Smith, Orson Welles) before getting too identified with the series, and of course we love his ROUND THE HORNE radio shows too, particuarly those "Julian and Sandy" episodes, (now happily on cd). [Aside: I was on a train to Brighton on Christmas Eve 1986 with my christmas shopping, when I realised the man sitting opposite me was Kenneth's radio pal Hugh Paddick - I regret now I did not tell him how much those radio shows meant to us, as teenagers in Ireland]. Williams' diaries of course are compulsive reading .... The Carry Ons like the Hammers even had stamps issued celebrating them ...

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Days of future passed ...

..... no, not The Moody Blues - but musings on re-watching some sci-fi, fantasy and Roman history: 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY, LORD OF THE RINGS and I CLAUDIUS, all true epics - among the usual big movies on show over Easter - they always dig out LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, BEN-HUR and good to see BARABBAS on view again later today, its one I missed at the time and is surprisingly involving with a good De Laurentiis cast (Silvana Mangano naturally, but not for long) and that real eclipse of the sun ....

Back to outer space: coming across the brochure for the initial release of 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY the other day (left)  reminded me what an event this was, in Cinerama. My hippie pals of the time, 1968,  went to it repeatedly, and were on acid .... it seemed to be compulstory at the time ... I have of course seen it several times since. I even had a large plastic advertisement sheet (like right) which was used in a display at the WH Smith store in Kingsway, London at the time (as a friend of mine worked there at the time, thanks Joe) which would have been worth quite a bit if I had put it into one of those movie poster auctions Christies do, but when I unrolled it a few years ago it crumbled to pieces as the plastic had all cracked! The perils of keeping things too long ... ! 

The film is still magical to me (I am now going to get it in Blu-ray), I don't think any other space movie looks more believable, no other movie has such amazing visuals for its time, which is incredible when one realises it is almost 50 years old, and its 2001 date is already 12 years in the past .... so this is what the future looked like in 1968? Kubrick shot the moon scenes before the Apollo landing - It's pre-digital but has the most powerful imagery ever and has aged very little as we gaze at those space ships and modules docking and landing on distant planets, as the hostesses defy gravity.
and that amazing essential soundtrack. Kubrick succeeds in making us feel afraid by exploring the magnitude of space and the loneliness of it. Fascinating too is that voyage to Jupiter with Bowman (Dullea) and Poole (Lockwood), and the hibernating crew. One man alone in deep space, being so far away from home is a nightmare concept, especially when the controlling computer HAL reveals his own agenda ... No other movie leaves itself open to discussion like 2001. It is truly meant to be a surreal journey from that dawn of time to the magical cut of the bone and the spaceship ... It is a grand tale, that never dates, full of major human questions. I remember Arthur C Clarke's book was a stunning read too. Kubrick of course did the same with the 18th Century in the langours of BARRY LYNDON which seems a major achievement now too.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy is being repeated too, nice to return to them again, is it really a decade since they burst on the screen? I am not one for special effects or CGI movies - like TROY or KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, which like other CGI spectacles loook empty, fake and hollow. At least with the real epics like EL CID, CLEOPATRA, FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE etc - there may be some fakery and matt effects used, but mainly they look "real" - all those people and sets are usually there. The LOTR trio are an exception though, the special effects mesh seamlessly with the actors and the stunning scenery of New Zealand. It is just brilliantly done, like at the start Gandalf being so big in Bilbo Baggins' delighful home in that idealised Shire. Then there is Mount Doom and Mordar and Rivendell which all look so right. The aged Christopher Lee is amazing as Sauron taking on Gandalf. 
I remember seeing Ian McKellen being mobbed when out clubbing back around 2002 or 2003 - but he was very polite chatting to people, and I had a chat with him myself when I found myself next to him at the bar. As I said everyone wanted to talk about LOTR but I had got his GODS AND MONSTERS dvd that week, so we had a comment on that. He was at the Crash nightclub later that night too ... I can't though for the life of me see how that they (Peter Jackson) can make another trilogy from the 200 page THE HOBBIT ! That original hefty paperback tome of LOTR was an essential read during those late 60s years, when back with my hippie friends (Clive and others) - It took me months to read mine, on the train to and from work each day. This was the era of "International Times", the start of "Time Out", when Gandalf was popular in London with Gandalf's Garden, Middle Earth and other underground clubs, The Roundhouse (where we saw theThe Doors & Jefferson Airplane all-nighter, among others.... the films are a delicious wallow in all that once again. I find the second one rather a slog, with perhaps too much Gollum, but it all comes together perfectly in THE RETURN OF THE KING.

Back to Ancient Rome with the BBC '70s production of I, CLAUDIUS, being repeated once again, I have the dvd but would probably never watch it again, so ideal to record the weekly episodes and re-live it again that way. It has that overlit look of '70s television, unlike today's more natural lighting, but one can forgive it that, when the drama is this good. 
Once again we marvel at Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Sian Phillips as Livia ("don't eat the figs"), John Hurt's demonic Caligula, Margaret Tyzack, Brian Blessed, Patrick Stewart, Ian Ogilvy and so many others ...the sets may be small but it captures the Robert Graves story perfectly and takes its time ... bliss all round then.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

A freezing afternoon double bill .....

Ideal viewing for our continuing big freeze here - it will be a wintery Easter too.

THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES - another one I had not seen since its release in 1965, though its always on tv here especially around holiday time. I thought nothing of it at the time, being a teenager - but its a delight now, Ken Annakin's comedy of the London to Paris plane race in the early 1900s. All the funny little planes and all that stunt work looks great now, as is that cast - another of those star-filled films of the time (like THE VIPS, THE LOVED ONE, OPERATION CROSSBOW, AMOROUS ADVENTURES OF MOLL FLANDERS etc).

James Fox and Sarah Miles are re-united from THE SERVANT, see below, she plays her usual saucy minx in period clothes, he is the upright English chap, Stuart Whitman the brash American, Alberto Sordi the Italian, Jean-Pierre Cassel the amorous Frenchman, Gert Frobe the German, Robert Morley the newspaper owner, Terry-Thomas is the rotter, with lots of cameos from the likes of Flora Robson as a resourceful nun, Fred Emney, Cecily Courtneidge, etc.

This was followed by the Merchant-Ivory A ROOM WITH A VIEW from 1985 - how we liked this at the time (one of my date movies in Brighton), one of their best films and the first of their E M Forster triple, followed by MAURICE (time for a re-view of that soon) in 1987 and then HOWARDS END - the definition of the much derided heritage cinema,
but they are all marvellous costume dramas, like their THE EUROPEANS (Lee Remick), THE BOSTONIANS (Vanessa Redgrave), HEAT AND DUST (Julie Christie, Greta Scacchi), QUARTET (as reviewed here, Maggie Smith label), as well as their earlier oddities like SHAKESPEARE WALLAH or SAVAGES. What a fascinating team they (director James Ivory & producer Ishmael Merchant, with scriptwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala ) were and the many stories of how they made those films and attracted all those casts, on meagre budgets ....

When Lucy Honeychurch and chaperone Charlotte Bartlett find themselves in Florence with rooms without views, fellow guests Mr Emerson and son George step in to remedy the situation. Meeting the Emersons could change Lucy's life forever but, once back in England, how will her experiences in Tuscany affect her marriage plans?

Maggie Smith and Judi Dench are perfection of course as the spinster aunt and the novelist Miss Lavish, Florence looks marvellous, the period detail looks perfect, there's wonderful Fabia Drake, Daniel Day Lewis as the prissy Cecil Vyse, Rosemary Leach, Denholm Elliot and that amusing scene where the Reverend Beebe (portly Simon Callow - I almost said Cowell !) joins George and Freddy (Julian Sands and Rupert Graves) for a naked swim as the ladies walk by .....  England and Italy both look great and the soundtrack and music and captions are ideal, as of course is Helena Bonham-Carter as Lucy Honeychurch. It all ends very satisfyingly with our couple back at their room with a view and the spinster aunt happy for them in her single bed. It all though makes one want to run off to Florence right now ...
There was another ROOM WITH A VIEW, a tv version in 2007 right, scripted by costume veteran Andrew Davies (also responsible for the great BBC 1995 PRIDE & PREJUDICE and the filleted new version of BRIDESHEAD REVISITED, see Costume Drama label). There is no ambiguity about the Reverend Beebe (Mark Williams) in this one ("not the marrying kind" according to Forster), he chats up Italian youths and has a leer in his eye as joins the boys stripping off .... Cecil in this one is James Fox's son Laurence .... like the recent tv version of SENSE & SENSIBILITY it amuses but is not as good as the film. It did though tack on a meaningless coda showing Lucy back in Florence in the '20s, George having perished in WW1!

THE SERVANT (see below) bandwagon rolls on - Wendy Craig is now on morning television tomorrow discussing the movie and its revival ..... will Miles and Fox also be seen more drumming up publicity ... ?

Monday, 25 March 2013

The Servant + Q&A

New covers for the 50 year old Servant!
That turned out to be a fascinating Sunday afternoon, heading off into a blizzard to see THE SERVANT again on a large screen - see post below. I had forgotten so many little details and the three leading players James Fox, Sarah Miles and Wendy Craig were interesting afterwards on the film; interesting too seeing 3 great British players and '60s survivors, now in their '70s, together dicussing their work and memories of the film. They were interviewed by film critic Peter Bradshaw (of "The Guardian") who had interesting points too. As "The Guardian" put it:

A well-aimed blow to 1960s Britain's class structure, Joseph Losey's The Servant assembled an embarrassment of talent and didn't squander it: Harold Pinter on the screenplay and a cast led by Dirk Bogarde, James Fox, Sarah Miles and Wendy Craig. The movie stands as one of the great dramatic provocations of the era, an unsettling domestic web of manipulation, exploitation and decadence. The assembly for this special 50th- anniversary screening is no less remarkable. Incredibly, Fox, Miles and Craig will all be on stage to reminisce, talking to the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, plus there's an introduction by another Servant fan, comedian Richard Ayoade.

Even at the Curzon Mayfair though one has to waste half an hour enduring 15 minutes of adverts and then trailers for movies one has no interest in ... Seeing THE SERVANT again one realised how dominant that Dankworth score is, it pervades the film, as does the Cleo Laine song "All Gone" (Dankworth himself is glimpsed playing in a nightclub scene). Fox also commented on the great Richard MacDonald design for the house. Fox, Craig and Miles also had only pleasant memories of working with Losey and Bogarde. Sarah (a "Person We Like" on here, see label) excels in her second film (she had also done some shorts for her brother Christopher), and was very eloquent on the film, as were Craig and Fox (still with all his hair and still working!).

On being asked how gay they thought the film was when making it, Fox commented that the subject was never mentioned by Losey, but they knew there would be a gay sub-text. That restaurant scene was filmed in one day, with friends of Pinter brought in to play out those funny moments with the Irish bishop (Patrick Magee), the bickering lesbians and others. Miles reminded us of the long takes in the film, some of over 5 minutes - like when the fiance (Craig) who dislikes the servant, brings the flowers to the house and that whole scene plays out in one take, and also that scene where she and Fox return late to find the servant and his "sister" in the master's bedroom, or the scene in the pub where Barrett and master Tony meet again, shot with a minimum of camera movement and the actors strategically placed within the frame; the re-installed Barrett then imposes his real intentions on the house, turning the tables and switching position with his master (an indolent and not terribly bright aristocrat ready to be corrupted) whom seems to be plied with drugs and alcohol, absinthe perhaps ? - as much decadence as they could show in 1963, as the two men develop that odd relationship.

The film is being re-released and out on Blu-ray for its 50th anniversary.with cast interviews etc (which I have had to pre-order along with a Blu-ray of BILLY LIAR, also spruced up with new interviews etc for its 50th year). Its certainly a key '60s film, up there with DARLING (where Bogarde is equally terrific in a totally contasting role) and Antonioni's BLOW-UP (a less happy experience for Sarah). A key Losey film too, one becomes fascinated by the house and those gliding camera movements. It always seems to be raining or snowing outside the house too - just like our weather here now! All the interiors were on a studio set as the actual house was too small for cast, crew & camera equipment, and people lived in it at the time!

The Blu-ray blurb:
A tale of manipulation, class conflict and sexual jealousy, Joseph Losey’s classic, adapted by Harold Pinter from Robin Maugham’s novel, is one of the finest British films of the 1960s. Dirk Bogarde plays Hugo, a manservant recently employed by a bored aristocrat (James Fox). Surly at best, Hugo gradually takes over the house, reducing his master to a state of complete submission. Pinter’s sparse dialogue allows Losey to create a taut, unsettling psychological drama.

Child actor Fox of course went on to KING RAT, THE CHASE, DUFFY, ISADORA and from teaching Millie to dance the Tapioca in THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE to that ferocious gangster drama PERFORMANCE - as per Fox label - then he was off the screen for over a decade and returned as a character actor of note .... Craig was also in films like THE NANNY with Bette Davis, Oliver Reed's wife in I'LL NEVER FORGET'IS'NAME (Reed label) and then became a much loved tv comedy star - she was in the first play I saw in London: RIDE A COCK HORSE with Peter O'Toole in 1965 (when she asked 19 year old me if it was still raining), and I have already appraised Sarah's career, as per label ...

Guardian Interviews with Sarah Miles & Wendy Craig: 
There is also a gallery of pictures from the set: scenes-gallery?INTCMP=SRCH
Child actor James Fox in 1950: footage from Ealing film THE MAGNET used in this pop video ( "My Boyish Days" by Care).

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Hollywood ! - an occasional series ...

For all you people out there in the dark: That astounding Buster Keaton stunt in STEAMBOAT BILL JR, and a few Norma Desmond and Margo Channing moments from SUNSET BOULEVARD and ALL ABOUT EVE, both 1950 at the dawn of THAT decade (as like PSYCHO, L'AVVENTURA, LA DOLCE VITA and THE APARTMENT ushered in the '60s), Billy Wilder's and Joseph Mankiewicz's tributes, curdled cocktails both, to the movies and the theatre - Bette and Gloria should have jointly won the Best Actress Oscar, and both movies replay endless re-viewings ...
"Fasten your seatbelts ..."
Both films of course were turned into musicals, successful at the time - several productions of the Andrew Lloyd Webber SUNSET, Norma is a great role for ageing divas (though not it seems for Dunaway, whom The Lord dismissed).  EVE became APPLAUSE, which seems dreadfully dated now with that '70s look and Bacall was, frankly, miscast. I saw the '73 London production, and seeing a recording of it recently was GRIM! - as per post on it (Bacall label).

Friday, 22 March 2013

Movies I love: The Scarlet Empress (Jet Pilot is O.K.!)

Or MOROCCO, SHANGHAI EXPRESS, BLOND VENUS, or THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN - all as spell-binding as Von Sternberg/Dietrich's 1934 classic THE SCARLET EMPRESS - and lets not forget THE BLUE ANGEL or DISHONOURED ...

Young Princess Sophia of Germany is taken to Russia to marry the half-wit Grand Duke Peter, son of the Empress. The domineering Empress hopes to improve the royal blood line. Sophia doesn't like her husband, but she likes Russia, and is very fond of Russian soldiers. She dutifully produces a son -- of questionable fatherhood, but no one seems to mind that. After the old empress dies, Sophia engineers a coup d'etat with the aid of the military, does away with Peter, and becomes Catherine the Great.
That's the bones of the story, as delirious as Marlene emerging from the gorilla suit in BLOND VENUS, or the journey on the SHANGHAI EXPRESS, or that mythical Spain of THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN... or the exotic settings of Von Sternberg's MACAO or THE SHANGHAI GESTURE ....

THE SCARLET EMPRESS was the sixth and most expensive of their 7 films together but did not perform too well at the box office. Maybe it was too expensive, opulent, staggeringly visual for audiences just coming out of the depression and preferred simpler, most optimistic and accessible subjects? There was also that other version of the Catherine The Great story a more basic version. This one is a lurid tale set in 18th century barbaric Russia about the corruption of an innocent young girl forced into marriage with a despotic halfwit. As with all Von Sternberg films the camerawork and sets are stupendous. Dietrich ages as the young princess (her daughter Maria plays her in the early scenes). It is a stunning work full of great moments with those enormous sets.   
Marlene is dazzling, but so is John Lodge making a very attractive foil for our wilful princess.... 

JET PILOT, 1957 - Von Sternberg's last film was also screened this week and remains an odd curiosity, produced as it was for Howard Hughes. We all know Howard's prediliction for the female form and he certainly gets young Janet Leigh into all kinds of poses as she changes from her bulky flying outfit to having a shower and posing in her mini tee shirt, with that chest jutting out ... no wonder Howard kept tinkering with this material shot in 1950 when Janet was a lovely pert ingenue, until 1957 when it finally saw the light of day and Janet was a much older leading lady. (In 1958's THE VIKINGS her chest is equally eye-catching, and of course PSYCHO starts with her in her bra ...)

The airline footage is terrific of course, and 1957 also saw another defecting Russian, the equally oddly-paired Katharine Hepburn and Bob Hope in THE IRON PETTICOAT farrago, and let's not forget Cyd Charisse in the remake of NINOTCHA, that SILK STOCKINGS musical, which I like a lot. The Cold War has a lot to answer for !

Janet here looks more like Wayne's daughter than romantic lead - he fared much better with 23 year old Sophia Loren in LEGEND OF THE LOST, also 1957. So THE CONQUEROR was not the worst of Wayne's for RKO, though JET PILOT now has the Universial-International logo. It must surely have been a colossal dud back in 1957 ? Of course its main point of interest now (apart from Janet's attractions) is it was directed by the legendary Von Sternberg ... his last credit, and writer Jules Furthman (who scripted Von Sternberg's SHANGHAI EXPRESS and BLOND VENUS) only did the screenplay for RIO BRAVO after this. Left: Janet with Von Sterberg.