Monthly Archives: June 2012

Cinema review: Hitchcock’s The Pleasure Garden – restored

The BFI’s ‘Genius of Hitchcock’ project launched this week with the restoration of the director’s first film from 1926, ‘The Pleasure Garden’, now with original tints and extended to a length of twenty minutes more than has previously appeared on DVD releases.

The setting for this first screening (with live accompaniment from the Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble, to a new piece composed by Daniel Patrick Cohen) was the charming but dilapidated Wilton’s Music Hall, in Whitechapel, just a short walk from Tower Hill tube station. Given the young Hitchcock’s love for the theatre (which is shown by the opening shots of this film, featuring blonde chorus girls) it was the perfect venue, and it was fitting that with the launch of this season the announcement was made that Wilton’s has gained Lottery funding – of £56,000, as it turns out.

The film itself is a potboiling melodrama with a leering villain (Miles Mander), a sweet chorus girl (Virginia Valli), a gold-digging bitch (Carmelita Geraghty), and a nice but dim chap (Hugh Fielding). There’s also a cute dog to rival ‘The Artist’ and Uggie. Although it isn’t top drawer Hitch, there is much to enjoy in this piece from the fledgling director, and from this beautiful restoration.

The remaining eight silent features are to be restored for this year’s Cultural Olympiad (The Ring, The Lodger, Blackmail, Downhill, Champagne, Easy Virtue, The Farmer’s Wife, The Manxman), and donations can still be made via the BFI website .

Theatre review: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show Live

Off to Woking last night to see the latest stop of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show, featuring original cast members Simon Jones (Arthur Dent), Geoff McGivern (Ford Prefect), Mark Wing-Davey (Zaphod Beeblebrox), Susan Sheridan (Trillian), with Stephen Moore providing the voice of Marvin the Paranoid Android.

The idea of this show is to provide something of a ‘greatest hits’ from the five radio series. In this, it is partially successful, but doesn’t really have much appeal to those who have no prior knowledge of the original plot(s) whether from the radio, TV, books, or the film. For committed fans, it is a pleasure to see the original cast at work, and there are several delights within the show (Marvin’s songs, Milliways, the making of a Pan-Galactic Gargle-Blaster, the singalongs from the drinks machine and the Krikket superstar, Colin the Security Robot, as well as many key lines from the first two series in particular).

The show opens with the resident band leading from some Dr Who strains into the ‘Journey of the Sorcerer’, the theme used for the series, accompanied by flashing lights. Clive Anderson, the ‘Voice of the Book’ for Woking, takes up his place in a comfy chair, and then the show starts proper. Simon Jones of course wears the dressing-gown, even if the Vogon fleet lines are now a bit stale with over repetition. Mark Wing-Davey as Zaphod briefly appears with two heads but soon ditches the prop, but remains in coloured socks and a skirt in keeping with the Galactic President’s terrible dress sense. Susan Sheridan is a glamorous granny.

The idea of staging the radio show for a live audience has paid off and pleased its core audience, and as the ‘Share and Enjoy’ corporation might say, if you don’t enjoy – stick your head in a pig! Now I’m off to make a nice cup of tea …

DVD review: Jerry Lewis in The Jazz Singer

Recently restored and released to DVD, this television version of the three-times-filmed story of the cantor’s son who rebels and becomes a popular singing star was made for NBC’s ‘Lincoln-Mercury Startime’ series in 1959, and survives both as original black and white kinescope, and restored colour version. Both are presented on this DVD.

Jerry Lewis remains an acquired taste when it comes to musical comedy, and continues to polarise audience opinion. I regard myself as a casual fan; that is, I can watch most of his films, but recognise that sometimes his work can be embarrassing and mawkish. However, this being a largely serious piece, it at least proves that Lewis can act, and in his supporting players (Eduard Franz and Molly Picon as father and mother, Alan Reed as his agent, and Anna Maria Alberghetti as his young lady friend) he is surrounded by professionals who keep the story moving.

In 52 minutes the story is necessarily truncated to a few key scenes, but the message remains the same, and the closing scenes where ‘Joey Robin’ takes his father’s place in the synagogue are no less moving than in the versions featuring Al Jolson, Danny Thomas, or Neil Diamond.

Released by the Inception Media Group on Region 1 DVD.

Archive TV review: Greek tragedy on the small screen #3, BFI Southbank

The third instalment in the ‘Classics on TV: Greek Tragedy on the Small Screen” season at the BFI Southbank teamed a serious piece with a parody, to very good effect. First, the opening instalment of ‘The Serpent Son’, called ‘Agamemnon'(starring Diana Rigg at Klymenestra, Denis Quilley as Agamemnon, Helen Mirren as Kassandra, Nickolas Grace as a messenger, and a chorus including Alfred Burke, John Welsh and Geoffrey Toone; directed by Bill Hays); then a comic piece called ‘Of Mycenae and Men’ (starring Diana Dors as Helen of Troy, Freddie Jones as Menelaus, Annette Crosbie as Kassandra, and Bob Hoskins as the delightfully named Mr Taramasalataopoulos; directed by Hugh David).

In 1979 ‘The Serpent Son’ presented the whole of the Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus across three weeks, which were then followed by the parody. Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish translated the Oresteia and wrote ‘Of Mycenae and Men’. The opening part of ‘The Serpent Son’ includes some outlandish costumes (Kassandra isn’t very covered up, the armour worn by Agamemnon is ridiculous, and the chorus have oddly painted faces) and sets, but the basic story survives – Klymenestra swears revenge on her husband on his return from war because he sacrificed their daughter Iphegenia to the Gods. Diana Rigg shows an affinity with this material and is very good, but the acting honours here go to Nickolas Grace, who proves he doesn’t always have to roll his eyes and overact.

To move from such serious fare to comedy may seem odd, but for those who know the story of the fall of Troy, ‘Of Mycenae and Men’ is a lost delight. Hoskins’ slave puts us in the picture about his loud-voiced master Menelaus retrieving his busty wife Helen from the Trojans and bringing her back for a second honeymoon, but it is clear when they arrive that the ‘face which launched a thousand ships’ is simply bored with her husband and given to sly asides to the camera, while he stares with frustration into her bosoms. A dull messenger (Derek Godfrey) and an endearingly batty Kassandra (Crosbie) help push this sitcom of Ancient Greece (which has a telephone ‘to save time’ and a Swedish au pair) along with many wonderful in-jokes and saucy double endentres.

Concert review: Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra (Royal Festival Hall)

The rise of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela (formerly known as the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra) has inspired young musicians across the globe to get involved in classic performance, and under the directorship of their flamboyant conductor Gustavo Dudamel, they have fast become one of the most crowd-pleasing orchestras on the tour circuit today.

To open a four-day residency at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank, the orchestra performed a mix of Beethoven (the Egmont overture, and the Eroica Symphony) and Britten (the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, here without its optional narration). All three pieces were performed with verve and joy, and if there were points where the music could have taken a bit more flight, the enthusiasm of these young and talented players cancelled out any yearning for the depth of feeling in the Eroica that one might find from a more mature group of musicians.

El Sistema, which allows disadvantaged youngsters to follow their dreams through music, was the brainchild of Jose Antonio Abreu, who was in the audience, and he should be applauded and revered for his vision which has led to hundreds of thousands of young Venezuelans taking part in music through a chain of teaching centres known as Nucleos.

This orchestra has fun and has fire in their bellies, and the music sings with hope and happiness because of it. If you get a chance to see them (and you have to book quickly) don’t miss out. The Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra with Dudamel are definitely going places, and any audience going with them will enjoy the ride.

Concert review: The Manfreds (Millfield Arts Centre, Edmonton)

Last night’s concert in the Millfield Theatre at Edmonton (which seats just over 300 people, resembles a lecture theatre, and is named the Bruce Forsyth Auditorium after one of the town’s most famous sons) was the fourth time we have seen The Manfreds live, and the first time they’ve carried the show on their own.

Manfred Mann was formed in 1962 by Mike Hugg and Manfred Mann, and once they found their bluesy singer Paul Jones (born Paul Pond but quickly renamed) they became one of the foremost groups of the 60s, providing the catchy theme tune for TV programme ‘Ready Steady Go’ (5-4-3-2-1), and having a string of hit records including ‘Pretty Flamingo’, ‘Come Tomorrow’, ‘Do Wah Diddy Diddy’, and ‘Watermelon Man’. In 1966 Paul Jones left for a solo career, including a spell as an actor in films (notably the recently re-released-to-DVD ‘Privilege’) and stage roles in musicals, and the band enrolled a second singer, Mike D’Abo, with whom they had hits with ‘Ha Ha Said The Clown’, ‘Fox on the Run’, ‘The Mighty Quinn’ and ‘Ragamuffin Man’.

We heard all these hits and more last night – including a couple of Paul’s solo songs (‘I’ve Been a Bad Bad Boy’, and a song from his recently released album), and some contributions from Tom McGuinness, notably his McGuinness-Flint crowd pleaser ‘When I’m Dead and Gone’. As for Mike D’Abo, he’s known as a songwriter as well as a fine singer, and a couple of his creations were shared last night (‘Handbags and Gladrags’, and ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’). Both Jones and D’Abo are fine blues singers – D’Abo’s voice has grown richer through the years, while Jones seems to have found an upper range he didn’t have in his early years.

The Manfreds put on a great show – allowing the whole band to shine with Mike Hugg’s piano, Paul Jones’ harmonica, Tom McGuinness’ guitar playing (and he’s very good), and much more. The Millfield sound system wasn’t the greatest, and a rather over-enthusiastic fan determined to make her voice heard screeched badly and tunelessly throughout, sometimes drowning out the singers (was it deliberate? if it was, go to karaoke or moderate the volume, please), but we don’t let such things spoil a good performance. If you like quality popular music with a bluesy edge, then this show is for you, and yes, the singer still looks sweet in his Armani suit!

Theatre review: Antigone (National Theatre)

Sophocles seems to be in the air this week, following the BFI Southbank screenings of Oedipus the King/Oedipus Tyrannus on Thursday night, and now this current production of Antigone, the third of the ‘Theban Trilogy’, at the National Theatre next door to the BFI.

This production of Antigone, directed by Polly Findlay, uses the same translation by Don Taylor which also featured in the 1986 BBC broadcast of the play (with Juliet Stevenson as Antigone and John Shrapnel as Creon). Here, in a modern dress production which opens with a scene reminiscent of the much-reproduced photograph of President Obama and his close followers watching the death of Osama Bin Laden, where Creon and his ‘court’ are summoned around a flickering television on which we suppose is the depiction of the final battle between the two sons of Oedipus and Jocasta.

These sons are proclaimed, one a hero, one a traitor, and the traitor will be left unburied and to pollute the atmosphere, much to the consternation of Antigone, who sees her correct course in obeying the decrees of the Gods only, and not the King, her uncle Creon. Creon sees the State and the Statesman as one, and any relaxation of authority to be weakness – even the urging of his son Haemon to listen to others and take counsel falls on deaf ears, and through the words of the Chorus (here arranged as in a press room) and the predictions of the soothsayer Teiresias, we see how even the mightiest of men can be wrong, and therefore fall.

Antigone is played by Jodie Whittaker, her Northern accent jarring with her pleas for being the last of the daughters of Kings – but she is very good, especially in the scene where she calls to the Gods to protect her against the cruelty of man. As Creon, Christopher Eccleston is full of misplaced pride – and in reflecting on this character as he appeared in the first Theban Play (Oedipus Rex), wanting a quiet life only until forced to become Regent for the small sons of Oedipus, when that mighty King fell from favour, it is fascinating to see him here making the same mistakes of pride that afflicted his brother-in-law. He sees himself as supreme and above the power of the Gods, he pre-empts them, and he will pay for it.

In modern dress the play still works within a setting rich with politics and corruption, and the use of glass rooms and mirrors allows characters to wander in and out of settings where they do not belong, and for the audience to see multiples of the same character as they soliloquise. At a spare ninety-five minutes, this production zips along, and although the storyline may seem unbelievable now, it feels relevant, as the playwright still has something to say after all these years.

Archive TV review: Greek tragedy on the small screen #1, BFI Southbank

The BFI Southbank has a new series showing during June 2012 showcasing productions of Greek tragedies made for television, and this is the first screening in that ‘Classics on TV: Greek Tragedy on the Small Screen’ season, curated by Amanda Wrigley.

Two productions of the first Theban play by Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, opened the season last night. First up, a BBC Play of the Month from 1972 entitled ‘King Oedipus’, in a translation by E.F. Watling (the same one which is used in the Penguin Classics Theban Plays collection); and following that, a production for the Open University in 1977 called ‘Oedipus Tyrannus’, which abridges the play to the closing act only, in a translation which is rather more up-to-date (notably where Oedipus states he was told he was a ‘bastard’ rather than ‘not his father’s son’.

‘King Oedipus’, then, is a modern dress production – which is timely, given the National Theatre’s current stage production of another of the Theban plays, Antigone, which also has a modern setting – and stars Ian Holm as the central character, Anthony Bate as Creon, and Sheila Allen as Jocasta. All are excellent but I was especially impressed with Holm, who is perhaps underrated these days as an actor.

In the early scenes he invests the king with quiet military dignity, but becomes more troubled and disturbed as the play progresses until, finally, in one deep exhaled breath, all his world comes crashing down. It is a tour de force performance. The play as produced here also doesn’t flinch from the scenes which Sophocles originally intended to be ‘off-stage’ (the suicide of Jocasta, the blinding of Oedipus), and in a modern depiction of the chorus uses recurring musical motifs in different settings to show the increasing chaos in Oedipus’ adopted land. Also of note within this case are Alan Webb as blind prophet Teiresias, wheelchair bound and with thick dark sunglasses denoting his blindness, Alan Rowe as a Corinthian ambassador who seeks to do good but brings calamity and destruction, and George Coulouris as the shepherd frightened to reveal the secrets only hinted at by the Gods.

I was familiar with the play from studying it at school, and from the film with Christopher Plummer (Oedipus the King, 1968) and the television production with Michael Pennington (Oedipus the King, 1986). I cannot therefore comment on whether the play would make sense to a new observer; however, the modern setting works well, with the marches and dancing of the soldiers standing in for a more traditional chorus, and the contrast between Creon as the king’s brother-in-law, content with a quiet life, and later as the military leader, calm in uniform and following the rules in condemning the now blinded Oedipus to exclusion and eventual exile (‘I do not come to mock’).

This production, now almost entirely unknown, is a superb version of a play which can now seem ridiculous with all its coincidences and oracles, but in the expert hands of director Alan Bridges and producer Cedric Messina, never becomes so.

The second screening of the OU’s ‘Oedipus Tyrannus’ could have been more problematic – Patrick Stewart is the king, Rosalie Crutchley the queen, Ronald Radd the man from Corinth, John Citroen the shepherd, and John Forbes-Robertson Creon. There is also an early appearance from Roy Marsden as a herald. But all are half masked and wearing woollen wigs, and there is a simple set of a door, a walkway, fronted by a chorus who perform as the Ancient Greek theatre would require, with measured words and fluid movement. For all the traditional look, the translation is more akin to contemporary speech in places, and undoubtedly the sight of blinded Oedipus with red mask, painted stripes on his neck, and flowing red ribbons, is touching indeed. I felt that Stewart shouted the part rather than inhabited it though; Crutchley did better, more suited to the mounting frustration and desperation of a Queen who simply wishes to snatch at happiness in ignorance, whatever the cost.

There is no denying that the staging is distracting and the wigs and masks not needed; however, the play survives undamaged, albeit with the first scene-setting act missing. The production clearly has a much smaller budget that the 1972 ‘King Oedipus’, but was aiming at a different auidence, one who pored over the text rather than sitting down for an evening’s entertainment. It was directed by Richard Callanan with music by Judith Bingham.

A pair worth watching then (although I suspect this play may be on school syllabuses again judging by some of the audience, especially the one who could not quite suppress the urge to text and email throughout!), although opportunities to do so will probably be slim, given the BBC’s track record for commercially releasing their treasure trove of television dramas.

A companion website including this season can be found at, which features John Wyver’s project on televised plays from 1930 to the present day on British television, which is based at the University of Westminster and funded by the AHRC.

Archive TV review: The Winter’s Tale (1962), UnLOCked, BFI Southbank

As part of both the World Shakespeare Festival (for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad) and the UnLOCked season (showcasing material thought lost from the archives which was located in the Library of Congress in 2010), this adaptation of Shakespeare’s 1623 play ‘The Winter’s Tale’ was the first done for television, transmitted on Good Friday, 1962, on the BBC.

Running 144 minutes, there is little pruning of the original play, which centres on the kingdom of Sicilia, where the jealous King, Leontes (Robert Shaw), accuses his Queen, Hermione (Rosalie Crutchley) of adultery with his good friend and neighbouring monarch, Polixenes (Patrick Macnee). In his murderous hate he attempts to have Polixenes murdered by his faithful servant Camillo (Nigel Stock), and casts Hermione’s baby daughter into the wilderness to die as he is convinced she is not his. As for Hermione, when she comes to trial her innocence and piety causes her to expire in front of the court, sending a penitent Leontes into a sixteen year period of repentance and sorrow.

Don Taylor directs this sparse version of the play, which employs minimal settings, close-ups, and a set of excellent performances to put across a play which has its difficulties (coincidences, Apollo, statues, and a bear). As well as the principals, there are comic turns from Ron Moody (Autolicus), Norman Rossington (Clown), and a measured performance from Brenda Bruce as Hermoine’s faithful maid, Paulina. Other memorable turns include an Antigonus from Geoffrey Bayldon and a Perdita from Sarah Badel which fit the next perfectly, and there is an early appearance from William Gaunt in a minor role.

Although Crutchley might not be everyone’s first choice as the wronged Queen Hermoine, she does well here and convinces, especially in her trial scene – less so in her early, flirty scenes with Macnee (perhaps because he doesn’t really go well with Shakespeare). And despite being missing from screen for a whole act of the play, Robert Shaw is an excellent Leontes, with his Northern grit and desperation adding to the portrait of a King possessed, and finally, (‘O, she’s warm …’) lost for words and emotion.

These BBC recoveries are real gems, and another restored piece in the history of Shakespeare on screen. With only one other production of this play having been made for television (during the BBC Shakespeare season of the 1970s-80s), this is surely a valuable and fascinating recovery. A pity, then, that there were so few to watch it in the BFI Southbank cinema last night – audiences are missing a treat.

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