Monthly Archives: September 2013

Surrealists, storytellers, and the Radio Times @ 90

Spending a Friday evening and an afternoon/evening at the BFI Southbank is always worthwhile.

As part of the Comedy strand, Dick Fiddy put together a programme loosely related to ‘Surrealists and Storytellers’, ranging from a 1935 clip of Robb Wilton (wondering why he missed the end of the Great War, and bemoaning the fact that just as he reached the only pub ‘over the top’ it got blown up leaving the door handle in his hand), through Max Wall (a fun piano duet and his famed funny walk, in a clip which looked as if it was from The Good Old Days), Marty Feldman (a brilliant surrealist playing golf and a henpecked husband who makes interesting trips while he is supposed to be putting the cat out or making cocoa), Spike Milligan (the great, unclassifiable, king of the surreal comedian), and Eddie Izzard (an early clip from the days in which he was a genuinely funny and unassuming performer, with pink nails and blusher, musing on what Star Trek stun guns could accomplish if they had a ‘limp’ or a ‘sudden interest in botany’ setting – I would have included the bird migration being led by a member of the flock who failed to map-read, but all Izzard’s early stuff was good).

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Looking at King Lear and its variants

In this post I want to look at film, television and video versions of King Lear, whether straight adaptations with Shakespeare text, or modern stories based on the characters or situations in the play.

In 1909 an American silent short was filmed by J Stuart Blackton and William Ranous (who also played the lead), for the Vitagraph company.  It only exists today in fragments.  Ranous (1857-1915) also appeared in other Shakespeare adaptations – Macbeth, Julius Caesar, but was perhaps more suited to the role of the ageing monarch displaced from his kingdom.

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Masterpiece Theatre: Shoulder to Shoulder (1974)

Shoulder to Shoulder (1974), directed by Waris Hussein and Moira Armstrong.

Starring Siân Phillips as Emmeline Pankhurst, Patricia Quinn as Christabel Pankhurst, Angela Down as Sylvia Pankhurst, Georgia Brown as Annie Kenney, Sheila Allen as Mrs Pethick-Lawrence, Maureen Pryor as Ethel Smyth, Judy Parfitt as Constance Lytton, and Fulton Mackay as Keir Hardie.

6x episodes, written by Ken Taylor and Midge Mackenzie.

This series, based on the birth and progress of the suffragette movement, has been sadly unavailable on commercial video for years and only one episode, the one focusing on Annie Kenney, has been broadcast in the past fifteen years.

It’s a sad fate for a series which is both celebratory and controversial about issues such as force-feeding, the death of Emily Wilding Davison at the Derby, and the in-fighting between the Pankhurst family themselves. The actress-singer Georgia Brown came up with the idea and also sings the theme, Ethel Smyth’s stirring anthem ‘March of the Women’. Her Annie Kenney – the working class mill-girl whose blunt speaking balances the cultured speeches of Christabel Pankhurst and her call to arms.

Covering the whole period of conflict and change, this production from Verity Lambert retains the power to engage a viewer, to shock and even at times amuse, and to put across the facts (as they were understood in the 1970s) of this life-changing era of the women’s movement.

Great performances across the board, but a nod must go to Parfitt who only features in one episode but who is deeply convincing as the aristocratic invalid who barely survives her treatment in prison. Also good is Phillips as the redoubtable Mrs Pankhurst, who starts off a reasonable person and almost becomes a heartless monster in search of personal glory at the expense of her daughter Sylvia and friends the Pethick-Lawrences.

Great character: a tribute to Dinsdale Landen

Dinsdale James Landen was born on 4th September 1932 in Margate, Kent, one of twin boys (his brother Dalby practised as a solicitor).  From his first appearance on television as a juvenile lead playing Pip in ‘Great Expectations’ (1959), through to stage and screen roles over the next four decades, he became well-regarded as a character player in drama as well as an accomplished comedy actor, especially in farces.

In recent years much of Landen’s work has become available on DVD or been shown in archive cinema screenings, which has allowed this unusual performer’s talent to become ripe for assessment.  An early film role in ‘The League of Gentlemen’ and a leading appearance in the Edgar Wallace Mystery ‘Playback’ show promising screen presence, but it seems to me that it was when his roles allowed him to drop the ‘mockney’ accent and take on a more cultured persona that he came into his own.

One exception to this run of comedy silly-asses which could be seen to great effect in productions from Marty Feldman’s ‘Every Home Should Have One’, TV plays ‘Absent Friends’ (by Alan Ayckbourn) and ‘What The Butler Saw’ (by Joe Orton), and the flamboyant detective Matthew Earp in two episodes of Brian Clemens’ anthology series ‘Thriller’ is Landen’s appearance as a bisexual pub landlord in John Mortimer’s play written for ‘Thirty Minute Theatre’, called ‘Bermondsey’.  In this play Landen and Edward Fox share a lengthy screen kiss, and the play is disarmingly frank about this character’s love for his wife and his old friend Pip, during a Christmas Eve where lots of secrets tumble into the open.

If Landen was vulnerable and touching in ‘Bermondsey’, despite his obvious weakness for infidelity, he could play darker characterisations too, none more so than the abusive stepfather in Henry Livings’ play for ‘Plays for Britain’, called ‘Shuttlecock’.  Here the gifts he used in comedy make the character more frightening and grotesque.  This also gave strength to his wheelchair-bound possessed scientist in the ‘Doctor Who’ story ‘The Curse of Fenric’, an episode from the Sylvester McCoy era which seems to divide viewers.

Landen was not an unattractive man, so often played lotharios (and lushes) – the bored lecturer in ‘The Glittering Prizes’ who eventually returns to his loveless marriage, the adulterous and boozy executive in Simon Gray’s ‘Two Sundays’ (for ‘Play for Today’), Diana Rigg’s unreliable lover in ‘After You’re Gone’ for ‘Three Piece Suite’.   Eventually he got a comedy lead, in ‘Devenish’, and was torn between Liza Goddard and Joanna Van Gyseghem in ‘Pig in the Middle’ (he’d been a sitcom Alfie-type in the 1960s series ‘Mickey Dunne’ but sadly no episodes survive).

By the time the 1980s came around character parts (mainly military) in long-running series (like ‘Lovejoy’) and period dramas (Catherine Cookson’s ‘The Wingless Bird’ and Edith Wharton’s ‘The Buccaneers’) were more the norm but he was still seen in the classics like Bernard Shaw’s ‘Arms and the Man’ and the acting workshop series ‘Shakespeare Lives!’.

There was even a foray into the musical stage, alongside Michael Ball in ‘Aspects of Love’.  Watching the production from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sydmonton Festival, it is clear that although Landen might not have been able to hit the notes required for George’s songs,  as an actor his portrayal even in a ‘reading’ of the part gets to the heart of the character.

In the mid-1990s an enforced break from the stage and screen due to oral cancer pretty much ended the long career of this versatile player – just one rather sad swansong appearance in an ‘Inspector Linley’ episode was to follow.

Long married to classy Welsh actress Jennifer Daniel (they’d met on ‘Great Expectations’ and wed within weeks), Dinsdale Landen passed away just after Christmas 2003 from pneumonia.  There are few character players with the range he had displayed throughout his career – whether as a blustering military man in ‘Morons from Outer Space’, the eccentric Uncle in children’s series ‘Woof!’, or a chilling assassin in ‘The New Avengers’.

Incidentally, that ‘Great Expectations’ from 1959 survives almost complete.  The missing episode is right in the middle.  Frustrating, isn’t it?

The Mayfly and the Frog (1966, The Wednesday Play): review

Written by Jack Russell, directed by Robin Midgley.  With John Gielgud (Gabriel Quantara), Felicity Kendal (The Girl), Isa Miranda (Madame Roo), Jeremy Rowe (Tepich), David Stoll (Mario), Timothy Bateson (Barnet).

This 75 minute play, broadcast on the BBC as part of the Wednesday Play strand, is mainly a showcase for the young Felicity Kendal’s sassy Sixties scooter girl, and John Gielgud’s jaded art-loving millionaire, after a chance meeting leads to them spending an evening together in his house.

Kendal was definitely showing her star quality during this production, whether bantering with the (unseen) Barnet on Quantara’s intercom, teasing Quantara by referring to him as ‘the frog’, or displaying a form of sweet innocence when she almost gets caught in the spider’s web.

Gielgud of course was something of a scene-stealer, whether in Shakespeare (remember his Cassius in the 1954 ‘Julius Caesar’) or in broad comedy (the delightful butler Hobson in ‘Arthur’).  He does his best here, but Kendal is his cheeky match.

An absolutely charming piece of drama which doesn’t force home any big ‘issues’ but just focuses instead on one evening between two lonely people from different worlds, who just “connect”.


The demise of, and that thorny torrent question

So it is goodbye to, the private file sharing site which specialised in TV shows, old and new.  Unlike The Pirate Bay before them, who were legislated to (almost) oblivion by ISPs being forced to block them, thebox is calling it quits themselves.

Copyright legislation protects rights-holders from unauthorised copying and sharing of their work, whether for profit or not, for up to 70 years after the death of the last of those rights-holders (so for a film, it can be screenwriter, director, composer).  This means that in the UK at least not many titles are in what might be termed ‘public domain’.  In the USA, some lapsed copyrights have left titles in legal limbo, which probably explains the dime-bin DVD collections of film and TV titles which are widely available there (yes, Mill Creek, I am looking at you!).

But what of bootleg DVDs and torrent files?  What of the hundreds of full films and TV series which can be found at YouTube, and which are unlikely to ever be made available for commercial purchase (especially if they are from the BBC)?

Technology constantly challenges copyright and bites at the heels of the requirements of the letter of the law.  It is very easy to rip a DVD or dub from VHS and put the file on the internet.  I recall about ten years ago when music files and short videos might have been hidden in a directory tree which you could stumble across, or someone might share the link if you’re lucky.  That’s where my Bonzo Dog Band journey began, and led to many CD/DVD legitimate purchases.

Torrents though have left me a little bit torn.  I think there is a distinction between the material you would never see otherwise (orphan episodes of largely wiped TV shows, films with no obvious owner, series seen to have little value by their creators), and material which has been commercially released and/or broadcast and is offered by means of file transfer or DVD-Rs to other territories.

I have bootleg titles in my collection, both films and TV.  Years ago I had a library of VHS heavy metal concerts, all bootleg recordings from German TV or similar.  If I really want a title, I’ll pay a small amount for it, or I’ll download it from YouTube.  If it then gets released ‘for real’, I’ll buy it. didn’t just make their audience passive viewers of material, though, but because of their seeding policy (to ‘leech’ or watch, you had to ‘seed’ or share an equal amount) it made their audience bootleggers, and therefore tipped into potentially infringing activity.  Whether this is different from the eBay shop which sells DVD-Rs of ‘titles in the public domain’ is a moot point, but I think that both are now here to stay – the torrent is only going to grow because it is easy, it is simple, and to a younger generation, it is second nature.

So … the grey market.  Good, or bad?  “Discuss.”

My DVD Library – a gallery!

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Classic movies, Classic stars

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