Monthly Archives: April 2012

Classic cinema: Beggars of Life (1928), Barbican Centre

In the Barbican’s long-running Silent Film and Music series, the silent version of William Wellman’s 1928 feature ‘Beggars of Life’ was shown yesterday with accompaniment by that peerless pianist Neil Brand, and the skiffle band The Dodge Brothers (, comprising Mike Hammond, Mark Kermode, Aly Hirji and Alex Hammond).

‘Beggars of Life’ stars Wallace Beery, Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen, and was made in both silent and part-talkie versions. It is the story of an abused female orphan who kills her tormentor and then while on the run joins up with a gang of rough hoboes who move around the country by hopping on frieght trains and live by stealing what they can get. Brooks is the girl killer who, disguised as a boy and with the help of Arlen’s hungry tramp, hopes to cross the border to Canada and get the law off her trail.

First billed but with a fairly small (if significant) part, Wallace Beery is the violent hobo (‘Oklahoma Red’) who despite initially appearing to be another dangerous predator, eventually shows himself to have a soft centre. You can see why he would go on to have a lucrative career in the days of talking pictures.

As for the music, well, we were warned at the start that it would be largely improvised, and so it may well have been, but it fitted the pictures being projected so well that it was a real marriage of the two artforms. Even using the occasional song (which I don’t really like when I’m trying to watch a film, feeling that the words detract from the plot and the performances) didn’t spoil the mood and in fact in a couple of places worked extremely well.

The film itself is not that well-known, with its only DVD releases to date being from public domain specialists Grapevine and Loving the Classics, both utilising poorer prints than the one projected today at the Barbican. Despite the high standing of Louise Brooks amongst silent cinema officiandos, it isn’t the film you immediately think of when she is mentioned, as ‘Diary of a Lost Girl’ and ‘Pandora’s Box’ are much better known. Despite her boy disguise, she is still recognisably Brooks in ‘Beggars of Life’ with the distinctive haircut and dark eyes making an appearance. Richard Arlen is less watchable as his performance harks back to the traditional silent days. He’s perhaps best known these days for ‘Wings’, another late silent, but he did go on to appear in sound films up until the 1970s.

Is it worth your time to seek out? Yes. But try to catch a screening with this particular accompaniment as it showcases five fine musicians as well as the film itself.

Archive TV review: Much Ado About Nothing (1967)

Part of the UnLOCked series of screenings at the BFI Southbank, showcasing British television plays which were wiped by the BBC (mainly) and then rediscovered in prints sent to American for showing on public television, this adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is notable as it was the first time the entire play had been adapted for television.

In 1965 Franco Zefferelli had directed this production for the National Theatre, and most of the cast reprised their roles for the screen (with one exception – Ronald Pickup replaced Albert Finney as the evil Don John). This is part comedy, part mistaken identity – and there are some delightful performances here, notably Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens as the sparring Beatrice and Benedick (they would soon become a married couple in real life), Caroline John as the unjustly accused Hero, Frank Finlay as dumb policeman Dogberry, and Derek Jacobi, oddly accented, as the good Don.

Using a mix of extreme close-ups and clever sets (including a number of ‘living’ statues) to highlight the text, the audience is pulled right into the action, and despite a poor print which has muddy picture and sound, the play transfers across with all the wit and energy it must have had when first staged. It’s also a good game of ‘spot the familiar face’ including Graham Crowden (‘Waiting for God’), Christopher Timothy (‘All Creatures Great and Small’), Michael Gambon (‘Harry Potter’) and Barry Evans (‘Mind Your Language’).

This play though belongs to Smith and Stephens. Even in her youth she has the imperious vocal tones we recognise from her recent stint in ‘Downton Abbey’, while he has all the buoyancy and energy of an actor who was at that time feted as the new Olivier.

Hugely enjoyable, although whether we will get a chance to see it again in any form is debatable. But I’m glad it has been found, if only for the wonderful way bushes and a washing line are employed while Beatrice and Benedick are teased of each other’s professed affection!

Concert review: The Yeoman of the Guard, conducted by John Wilson

Yesterday afternoon’s concert at the Royal Festival Hall was Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera ‘The Yeoman of the Guard’, with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by John Wilson. Wilson is best known for his recreation of popular musical film scores from the Golden Age of Hollywood and has presented a number of concerts with this music, and at least one previous semi-staged production, that of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’.

Another review of ‘Yeoman’ I have just read praises the production for not using microphones, but, as someone with a cheaper ticket two thirds back in the stalls, I can report that many of the singers were unintelligible, with the subsequent loss of the wit, humour and wordplay of Gilbert’s lyrics. As this wordplay is particularly key to the enjoyment of the G&S oeuvre, the decision not to use microphones was a great shame.

However, some of the vocalists did transcend the amplification issues – Oliver White as Colonel Fairfax, Jill Pert as Dame Carruthers, Heather Shipp as Phoebe, Richard Angas as Shadbolt. But Sarah Fox as Elsie disappointed from a distance, and Simon Butteriss’s tragicomic turn as Jack Point was lost in places. Having said this the score was rendered superbly by the Philharmonia, and the afternoon was enjoyable. I just wish that everyone in the hall had been considered when the decision not to use amplification for the singers was taken.

The story is one of changed identities, broken promises, and comic situations. In its semi-staged form the plot is easy to follow and the songs are well-written and move the story along with some energy. Wilson’s conducting of the orchestra was also done with fun and pep, which served the material well.

The man from The Establishment: a tribute to Peter Cook

Born on 17 November 1937, Peter Edward Cook was one of the brightest lights in British satirical comedy in the 1960s. Born in Torquay and educated at Radley College and Cambridge University, the young Cook was set for diplomatic service but during his undergraduate studies he discovered a flair for both writing and performing skits, and so eventually followed the lights of showbusiness.

His club The Establishment, which opened in 1961, showcased many comedians from other countries, such as the USA’s Lenny Bruce and Australia’s Barry Humphries (perhaps best known now as Dame Edna Everage). He also provided financial backing for the magazine Private Eye, which remains Britain’s best-selling news and current affairs magazine, again with a satirical slant.

By the middle of the 1960s, Cook had started a partnership with Dudley Moore which led to a number of television, film and other projects including ‘Not Only … But Also’, ‘Goodbye Again’, ‘Bedazzled’, and ‘Derek and Clive’. These projects allowed both Cook and Moore to venture into music – Moore with his jazz band, and Cook with his single ‘Spotty Muldoon’. However this partnership came to an end once Moore found some success on screen in Hollywood in projects such as the film ’10’. In many ways it was curious that the diminutive Moore found success in leading roles – he was by far the most talented of the two when it came to music but Cook was very much the pin-up of the moment and looked far more of a Hollywood lead during his twenties.

It seems clear that Cook’s alcoholism and rocky personal life (divorce from Wendy Snowden and subsequent marriage to actress Judy Huxtable) affected his career which went in odd directions during the 1970s, with appearances on punk programme ‘Revolver’ and a couple of brilliant, but uneven, performances for the ‘Secret Policeman’s Ball’ stage franchise in support of Amnesty International. A 1970 film in which he starred, ‘The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer’, showed flashes of brilliance but was a failure at the box office.

By the 1980s, following an abortive and unsuccessful TV series in the USA, ‘The Two of Us’, Cook’s star had begun to rise again as he was acknowledged as a comedy leader by his younger followers – an appearance in ‘The Black Adder’ as King Richard III was inspired, as was the eponymous role in the Comic Strip’ ‘Mr Jolly Lives Next Door’, a black comedy about a serial killer.

Settled in a happy third marriage to Lin Chong at the end of the 1980s, the 1990s saw a further resurgence in the career of Peter Cook – performing as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling for radio, and portraying a range of characters in a special edition of ‘Clive Anderson Talks Back’. Sadly, it was the final hurrah, as death came to the funnyman on the 9 January 1995, at the age of just 57.

Peter Cook was the golden boy of 1960s British comedy, and eventually came to be regarded as a high point of satirical wit to aim at. His television programmes and films are timeless, and there is still a lot of fun in watching the Devil, George Spiggott, proclaiming the magic words “Julie Andrews” while sending Stanley Moon on a never-ending quest to win his ideal girl.

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