Monthly Archives: December 2013

2013 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 6,700 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

See you in 2014 and thanks again for visiting this blog.

Christmas television round-up

There have been a few ‘events’ on television over the festive period, including a new Marple, the return of the traditional Ghost Story for Christmas, and a sequel to a Jane Austen classic.  We also saw the return of a classic sitcom, and a Christmas special of an ITV comedy which was a cult hit earlier in the year.  And finally, a twist on the meaning of Christmas and life from a new perspective.

Death Comes To Pemberley adapts the novel written by PD James, continuing the story of the characters from ‘Pride and Prejudice’ six years on from the wedding of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy.  They are leaving peaceably at Pemberley with Darcy’s sister Georgiana, their two small children, and a retinue of servants, and everyone is busy preparing for the annual ball – until disaster strikes and murder shakes the very foundations of this noble family.  The bringer of bad tidings are of course the Wickhams (Darcy’s childhood friend and Lizzie’s sister Lydia), and soon Wickham is suspected of that most heinous of crimes, the murder of his good friend Captain Denny.  The novel was a fairly decent read, mixing some familiar turf (Mrs Bennet’s hysteria, a handful of flashbacks to the original novel and the almost aborted courtship of the Darcys) with material more likely to be found in a murder mystery, but this adaptation proved to be painfully slow and suffered from questionable casting (Matthew Rhys is no Darcy, and Anna Maxwell-Martin portrays a Lizzie who is not enjoying her marriage or new found status as mistress of such a great house) and some over-acting (Trevor Eve, in a rather silly wig, is rather too ripe as the local magistrate).  The solution is also rather exasperating, after bringing several disparate characters and plotlines into the mystery.  This book could have been adapted in half the time rather than taking nearly three hours.

Endless Night is not a Miss Marple book, but rather a standalone Agatha Christie psychological murder novel.  As the run of original Marple stories now seems to have run dry, we have had Julia McKenzie’s amateur sleuth shoehorned into stories meant for Tommy and Tuppence before now, but here she did not seem to belong.  The action flowed in a much more interesting way when she was off-screen, and she wasn’t really required for the ‘big reveal’.  I am familiar with the 1970s film adaptation with Hywel Bennett and Hayley Mills so could remember who the murderer was, but despite a few good set pieces this new version would have been fine simply as it was.  Good to see Wendy Craig back on screen though.

The last ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’ was several years ago, and this new adaptation of The Tracate Middoth, written and directed by Mark Gatiss, promised some chills and atmosphere, and almost delivered on both.  John Castle plays the man who is constantly searching for a particular volume in a dusty old library, only to find it always in use by a mysterious, malignant force who prevents him from even venturing into the stacks.  This character doesn’t have a name but is given a face (always a mistake, I feel – look at the classic film ‘Night of the Demon’ when what you don’t see is a lot more frightening than the monster itself).  However this adaptation of the MR James story is not played for laughs, and although some of the characters feel and look too modern to convince in a plot like this, it was a reasonable half an hour.  Whether it becomes a classic like the original 1970s run is a another question.  I’m glad this series seems to have been given something of a resurrection and look forward to seeing whether a tale is in development for next Christmas.

Still Open All Hours reunited the surviving cast members of ‘Open All Hours’ with Grenville (David Jason) not only running his uncle’s shop now, but also seemingly channelling his voice.  He has a son from a mysterious one-night stand who doesn’t seem to do very much, and even the presence of Nurse Gladys Emmanuel and the Black Widow couldn’t save this unfunny shambles.  I’m rather sad to report that a series seems to be in planning.  Twenty years ago this might have been a goer, but I fear not now.  However it seems to have achieved the highest TV ratings of Boxing Day, so the pull of Jason to viewers obviously hasn’t waned.

The other returning sitcom (from earlier in 2013) was Vicious, which was given a Christmas special in which Freddie and Stuart play hosts while their new friend Ash cooks dinner.  If you enjoyed their pantomime sniping in the series (and I did, after a shaky start) there was much to enjoy here, as the veteran pairing of Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi make withering comments to each other while horny neighbour Violet jettisons her huge new boyfriend on the doorstep and continues to lust after the hapless Ash.  The rather vague Penelope also had an important secret to reveal during a name of ‘Truth or Dare’.  This sitcom might not have attracted critical acclaim or huge audiences, but it is fun and puts older characters at centre stage, behaving disgracefully, which can only be a good thing.

The Fir Tree was an import from Denmark, taking a Hans Christian Andersen film to present the story of a tree from first shoots to the Christmas season at centre stage in a happy house, to eventual destruction into firewood, from the point of view of the tree – with the eventual message that we only have a limited time in which to enjoy life.  Very unusual and well-produced.  If you missed it, find it here



Richard II (Barbican Centre), review

This new production of ‘Richard II’ is the first in a new, three-year partnership between the Royal Shakespeare Company and its old London base, the Barbican Centre, and if it suffers a bit from ‘show casting’ with David Tennant in the lead, it actually acquits itself fairly well by the final curtain call.

Edmund Wiseman played the part of Bolingbroke at both shows yesterday in place of Nigel Lindsay, and he was absolutely excellent, displaying a certain amount of chemistry between himself and Tennant.  Reviews of Lindsay’s performance have compared him to Rory Kinnear’s Iago in the National Theatre’s recent ‘Othello’, and if this is so, Wiseman is quite a different type of Bolingbroke, young and hungry for power but no thug on the make.

Tennant’s Richard has been publicised heavily as the main draw here, and he is very good in places, although for me he didn’t quite convince as either the vain and arrogant king led on by flatterers in the first half, or the pathetic man stripped of his power and the divine right of kings after the interval.  His fans have a habit of laughing at moments which should be serious and affecting, and although this is probably not Tennant’s fault, it does harm his performance a little bit.  The choice of a long wig as well has perhaps given his Richard a touch of effeminacy which colours his depiction of the king deposed in the second half (and his white smock and bare feet emphasise a link with God/Christ in a rather heavy-handed way).

The sets are superb, although on the surface, minimalist.  A chapel setting which opens the play with a choir and the grieving Duchess of Gloucester (Jane Lapotaire) with the coffin of her murdered husband gives way to open ground, castles, courts, and halls with a clever use of lighting, music, video projection and a few stage tricks.  This is a Richard with spectacle, where something is always going on and even the smaller roles and walk-ons are in the thick of the action (Elliot Barnes-Worrell stepping up to play Harry Percy, Keith Osborn as Scroop, Joshua Richards in a number of roles including the palace gardener, Jim Hooper as the Bishop of Carlisle, Oliver Rix, impressive as Aumerle).

In supporting players, we have a quartet of senior actors (Lapotaire already mentioned – her grief stricken Duchess may be a little over the top for this production but it is good to see her fighting fit again following her stroke and rehabilitation; Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt, his ‘Methinks I am a prophet’ speech beginning in an almost conversational way rather than the speech with gravitas some of his predecessors such as Gielgud have chosen to interpret this dying Royal princes final words of blessing for his country; Oliver Ford-Davies, superb as York, playing at times for comedy and at times for tragedy, as all gifted actors do, keeping their performance balanced; and Marty Cruickshank as the Duchess of York, bringing a touch of light relief after the deposition scene).

Gregory Doran’s production takes a couple of liberties with the plot, notably near the end where the ‘reveal’ of Richard’s murderer is distracting, and a weird addition to the original play.  His adaptations have often been described as ‘safe’ and I think I would agree that this Richard takes no real risks, but it is a good evening out, and although I would still not describe David Tennant as an accomplished Shakespeare actor (he plays to the gallery, as they say, as his old ‘Doctor Who’ role a bit too much), he’s improved markedly from the days I saw him at Stratford in The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night.

While watching this Richard I was thinking of the production I saw at the RSC some years ago, with Samuel West in the lead and David Troughton as Bolingbroke – very much a case of the delicate, spoiled prince opposite the rough warrior duke – and noting that this new production is much more traditional, opulent and showy.  It isn’t as emotionally engaging, though, although there are moments I’ll remember – the queen and her king’s last farewell, Richard’s descent in full regalia despite the knowledge he has lost his support and his kingdom, the soundless depiction of father/son dynamics (Gaunt and Bolingbroke, York and Aumerle), the nuggets of comedy where they are required.

Fascinating Aida (Queen Elizabeth Hall)

The UK’s funniest and filthiest comedy cabaret act are back with a tw0-week residence at London’s Southbank with their new show, ‘Charm Offensive’.

If you’ve seen these three ladies (Dillie Keane, Adele Anderson and Liza Pulman) before, then you’ll know what to expect.  If not, then look up their YouTube sensation, ‘Cheap Flights’.  There are songs about coping with grown-up children (‘Boomerang Kids’), shared hobbies (‘Dogging’), the poignancy of the passing of time (‘Look Mummy, No Hands’), the story of Adele’s gender reassignment (‘Prisoner of Gender’), old classics (‘Taboo’), and in place of last tour’s go at the HSE, this time OFSTED are in the firing line.

With fast-firing wordplay mixed with beautiful harmonies, these ladies look almost angelic, even when sharing off-colour thoughts about Michael Douglas.  And their Christmas song is utter fun.

Don’t miss.

Reviewing some Christmas films

In which Grouchy Smurf learns the true meaning of Christmas. These modern smurf films are not as fun as those with the Father Abraham tunes but as a version of the Scrooge tale, this doesn’t outstay its welcome.

This is a film which grows on you with rewatches. My first viewing in 2003 left me a little disappointed and feeling the film was clogged with sugar.

However, I now view this film differently, and perhaps with more than a touch of the Christmas spirit. Judy Garland plays one of three sisters of a family who are set to leave St Louis and the life and neighbours they have known, including her beloved ‘boy next door’ (Tom Drake, who is a weak link in this film).

From her parents (Leon Ames and Mary Astor), sisters (Lucille Bremer and the scarily accomplished Margaret O’Brien), grandpa (Harry Davenport), and maid (Marjorie Main), the cast is largely stellar, and the musical numbers are memorable, from The Trolley Song to The Boy Next Door, to the touching Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

Directed by her husband Vincente Minnelli, Garland glows with happiness and is possibly the most beautiful she ever appeared on screen. Her Esther is a more defined creation than her close cousin Margy Frake in State Fair, and therefore her despair at having to up sticks with her family is more believable than Margy’s pouting at her perceived loss of love after the fair.

I do think that the actual ‘fair’ in this film is a disappointment, though, as if it was an afterthought after the family drama that has gone before. This film may be a bit saccharine, and the family certainly appear very civilised, with the parents duetting at the piano, but as a whole it works.

Many adaptations of Dickens’ Christmas book have been and gone, but this is generally thought to be one of the definitive films of the story.

Brian Desmond Hurst directs a fine cast, headed by the incomparable Alastair Sim (a man who can play both malevolent and humorous) as the about-to-be-redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge. Sim’s reactions are priceless and he settles down well in the role. Michael Hordern is a less successful Marley, certainly when he visits as a ghost, but the three Ghosts of Christmas are just as you imagine – Christmas Past is a wise old sage, Christmas Present is a jovial party-giver …

Strengths of this production include the opening out of events of the past into a linear narrative (George Cole plays young Scrooge for the early segments), and the playing of Mervyn Johns and Hermoine Baddeley as the Cratchits.

It is a film which has holly, plum pudding, and carol singers written all over it, from the use of Christmas tunes in the music track, to the roaring fires and snow-strewn streets in which everyone makes merry for the festive day.

A charming Christmas film which also served as the pilot for the long-running ‘Waltons’ TV series. Here, Patricia Neal plays Olivia – her subsequent ill-health would necessitate re-casting – she’s a little sharper with the children than Michael Learned would be in the series. Here there’s also a different John Walton (Andrew Duggan) who was rightly replaced by the far-better Ralph Waite.

The children – John-Boy, Mary-Ellen, Jason, Ben, Erin, Jim-Bob and Elizabeth – all made it into the series, and here their relationship and the interplay between them, their parents and grandparents, and neighbours in the village, takes hold to the background of Christmas.

It’s all very sweet. A very enjoyable film.

This is the film which takes the faith children have in the existence of Santa Claus and weaves it into a lovely little fable which gives little Natalie Wood (aged 8) a great starting role, and a life-long association with the man in the red coat for veteran character actor Edmund Gwenn. In fact so linked in people’s minds was Gwenn to this role that he was regularly drafted in to movie parties to play their Santa in years to come.

‘Kris Kringle’ becomes Macy’s Santa Claus quite by accident and following a psychological assessment and an altercation he is committed to trial to determine whether or not he is insane (or really the one and only Santa Claus). Defence lawyer John Payne (always a colourless lead, but bearable here) and prosecutor Jerome Cowan (undone by the honesty of his small son) vie for the attention of judge Gene Lockhart. On the sidelines is Wood’s mother Maureen O’Hara, at first the epitome of cynicism, but even she partakes of the spirit of the season by the end.

Quite lovely.

This short animation was created to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of that Christmas classic, ‘The Snowman’, and mimics much of the same techniques which were used to create that much-loved film.

This time, a new little boy wants nothing more than a new canine friend for Christmas, and in finding an old box full of coal, a hat and scarf, and a picture of a snowman, puts into being a semi re-run of the original tale, whereby he is taken to the North Pole for the snowmens’ party and to meet Father Christmas, this time accompanied by the little snowdog he has created with a couple of twigs and socks.

This film slightly lacks the magic of the original, and doesn’t have an iconic song to match ‘Walking in the Air’. However it does still have the ‘sniffle factor’ and is done well enough to be both a tribute and companion piece to the original ‘Snowman’.

This musical special has Big Bird searching for quite how Santa delivers his presents, while Bert and Ernie find the perfect presents for each other to have a ‘Merry Little Christmas’.

All your favourite characters are here, from Oscar, Cookie Monster and Kermit to the children and adults who keep Sesame Street going. A perennial Christmas treat for the young at heart.

Remembering the great Peter O’Toole

Peter O’Toole passed away a week ago, the last of the group of actors flippantly referred to as ‘the hellraisers’.  He outlived them all.

I thought straight away of ten film and television performances which define this talented and eccentric actor, and wanted to use this post to talk about them, and to try and pin down what it was about O’Toole which made him one of the ‘greats’.

I’ve reviewed Lawrence of Arabia before, and it is perhaps his most definitive role, and the one which brought him to screen prominence.  If he had never made another film, the role of TE Lawrence would have made him iconic.

In How To Steal A Million, he partnered Audrey Hepburn in a fun romantic comedy from William Wyler about art thieves.  Here’s my review from 2003:

“This movie could have been more fun that it is, but I still liked it – Audrey Hepburn, swathed in the height of chic as usual, tries to save her art forger father (the incomparable Hugh Griffith) from exposure as a fake, by stealing a statue of Venus carved by her grandfather for an art exhibition.  To help her in this she enlists the help of a society burglar (the young and impossibly blue-eyed Peter O’Toole) and in the course of all this, they fall in love.

It’s predictable but enjoyable to watch (and it helps that the two stars are extremely easy on the eye), but with few surprises and some slow moments, it isn’t up to William Wyler’s better efforts.  Really just a one-dimensional story of the 1960s beautiful people, like so many other movies of its time.”

These days I find more in the film than I did a decade ago, and find O’Toole and Hepburn a sparkling pair who make the most of a slight script and situation.

The Ruling Class is quietly ridiculous, hilarious, and disturbing, and it is one of O’Toole’s least restained performances.  Here’s a snippet of delightfulness from it:

There have been several screen versions of George du Maurier’s 1895 novel ‘Trilby’, and all have been retitled after the male lead, Svengali.  O’Toole stepped into shoes previously filled by John Barrymore and Donald Wolfit in 1983, when his Svengali moulded the career of young pop star Jodie Foster.  Foster was a little miscast, but sings well.  O’Toole was excellent.  Apparently Jodie Foster told People Magazine in an interview “Peter O’Toole could charm any girl into singing her brains out.”  Here’s a snippet:

Then there is Venus, in which an elderly and frail O’Toole finds a connection with a much younger lady, Jodie Whittaker.  She may well be another Trilby (or another Eliza Doolittle – there’s a lovely filmed Pygmalion featuring O’Toole as Higgins with a tedious American Eliza from Margot Kidder).  It was heartbreaking to see this vital and attractive man looking so unwell in this difficult film, but it was a valuable and intriguing film, and his last great screen performance, which rightly won him an Oscar nomination (his eighth, with no wins, unless you count the honorary lifetime achievement one in 2003).

My review of this film from 2007:

“Before seeing this I avoided reading reviews and had seen one trailer, which gave a flavour of what the film would be like. But – I am a great fan of Peter O’Toole, and of course did not want to miss what has been mooted as the best role of his twilight years, and certainly his first leading role in a film since ‘My Favorite Year’.

Here O’Toole plays Maurice Russell, an ageing actor who has had past successes (we see his wife watching an old movie of his on TV) but is now playing corpses in hospital dramas or ageing roués in costume drama (O’Toole himself played the old Casanova on TV recently). Maurice is on his last legs, impotent and incontinent after a prostrate op, but finds some solace in the great-niece of his fellow thespian, Ian (played with aplomb by Leslie Phillips). Jodie Whittaker plays this girl, Jessie, Maurice’s ‘Venus’, with some skill – it cannot have been an easy role and I believe she is something of a newcomer.

The best moments however for me were not the relationship between Maurice and Jessie – that, because of the huge age gap, was funny at times, poignant at others, and plain distasteful at some points (I felt his attraction to her could have been treated with more sensitivity, although audience sympathy does go with him and not with her) – but rather his scenes with Ian, and with his estranged wife (Vanessa Redgrave, excellent as ever). Here there are scenes of friendship, of life affirmation, of tenderness, that cannot even be approached in the slightly seedy ‘theroretical’ interest Maurice has in Jessie.

Does O’Toole deserve his recent Oscar nomination for this role? Absolutely. He dominates the film with ease and, even frail, elderly, and ravaged, there are flashes of the vibrant blue-eyed heart-throb who wowed the screens in the likes of ‘Laurence of Arabia’. Interestingly, once Maurice has died (as we know he must), his friends peer over his Guardian obit, jealously noting the number of columns he’s got, and show an old photo to the café waitress – not the best vintage O’Toole photo they could have got, but enough to show that Maurice had a life before old age got him. And whether Maurice is frustrated with his age ‘Come on, old man!’ he chides himself, or regretful with the passing of time and his libido (either with his wife or with Jessie), dancing with Ian in the actor’s church, or having his last paddle in the freezing sea, O’Toole is never anything less than mesmerising, and that is the mark of a true actor.

I imagine this film will grow with repeated viewings. The script has a few profanities (it was amusing hearing Leslie Phillips utter the f word) but is largely literate as you would expect from Hanif Kureshi, who last wrote ‘The Mother’ for the screen (where Anne Reid and Daniel Craig had a rather more physical relationship – which would have been totally wrong in every respect for ‘Venus’). The music is perfectly suited to the film and works extremely well.

In all, a good effort. And in places extremely funny – but it is the two old men dancing which you will remember, and this was rightly the image carried by the film festivals which first presented this charming and unusual film.”

A couple of years before Venus, he’d had a small role as Priam, father of the doomed Hector, in Troy.  Although the film itself was overrated and featured ridiculous posing and pouting from Brad Pitt in the lead as Achilles, to my mind the best person in the cast was O’Toole, in a tour-de-force performance as the doomed king – probably a role he could do in his sleep, but nevertheless engaging.  In his brief appearances it was clear this man could act – a similar scene-stealing role was played in Gladiator by O’Toole’s drinking buddy and close contemporary, Richard Harris.

O’Toole moved into voicing animated characters as the snipy and fussy food critic ‘Anton Ego’ (what a fabulous name) in Ratatouille.  This fun tale of a cordon bleu chef who just happens to be a rat was a major hit in 2007, and I think that the voice artists (who also included Ian Holm and Brian Dennehy) helped a lot.

In 2005, O’Toole played the elderly Casanova, for television (the younger version of the character was a pre-Doctor Who David Tennant).  This was a mini-series with the production values of a film, and I feel it was a lot more successful than the movie version which came out the same year with Heath Ledger.

My review from the time this series first aired:

“This version of ‘Casanova’ is worlds apart from the one which ran on UK TV some twenty plus years ago. Now, in 2005, Russell T Davies (in demand at the moment as the key writer of the new Doctor Who) has developed a Casanova for our times, with modern phrases and references (there are National Lottery slogans; Casanova sings ‘the wheels on the carriage’ to his young son), while still devoting attention to the serious aspects of the story …

Peter O’Toole is the old Casanova (‘an old librarian in a damp castle’), reduced to little more than a servant with his memories. As usual, he is magnificent in a complex role. Funny and charming, but with a painful past. The old Casanova makes you laugh and tugs at your heartstrings too …

Inventively filmed (repetitions, odd angles, slow motion, extreme close-ups) and with a lively (if silly at times) script, this is an entertaining three hours.”

Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell was a successful stage play by Keith Waterhouse, based on the life of the notorious Spectator journalist.  It’s a funny snapshot, more of less a one-man show, as the other characters really just waver on the sidelines.

My review from 1999:

“What we have here is an abridged version of the play which has previously starred Tom Conti, amongst others.  Bernard was a permanently sloshed, cynical reporter, who was renowned for his excesses with drink and women – for all his faults, this play presents the character with some affection.   Peter O’Toole couldn’t be more perfect for the role – largely carrying the piece on his own, with few other characters as occasional cyphers to re-enact past experiences, he gives Bernard a range of emotions and perspectives to draw the viewer in.

My favourite scene by far is the one about the cat-race, but of course the egg-in-the-cup routine has had a fair share of attention, too.  Highly recommended – I guarantee you’ll have a good time watching this little gem.”

In Fairytale: a True Story, the faked fairy photographs by the Leeds children Elsie Wright and Frances Griffith, O’Toole played the writer and spiritualist Arthur Conan-Doyle (he also provided the voice for Sherlock Holmes in half a dozen animated films), a man who believed the photographs to be genuine.  In his belief for the mystical mysteries of life he is challenged by Harry Houdini (Harvey Keitel), but the film comes down very much on the side of the fairies.  O’Toole’s charming and understated performance reminded me of his ‘Mr Chips’ in the 1960s musical, in which he was gentle and genuine as the shy schoolmaster of James Hilton’s novel.

I feel that in the death of Peter O’Toole, we have lost of our best actors.  His was a talent that shone even in poor material (like Caligula), and when he was given a meaty role to play, like the lead in My Favorite Year or Uncle Silas in The Dark Angel, he outshone everyone.  He could be, and sometimes was, guilty of an inclination towards ham, and this was usually because he was not reined in enough by directors, but these lapses were rare, and even when chewing the scenery he was never less than interesting.

So RIP to one of the greats, and one of my favourites – and I couldn’t resist sharing this again (I believe it is from Comic Relief in the 1980s):

Remembering Leeds cinemas

When I first moved to Leeds in 1995, there were many cinemas to choose from:

  • The Odeon, Headrow (5 screens)
  • The ABC, Vicar Lane (3 screens)
  • The Lounge, North Lane, Headingley (single screen, stalls and balcony)
  • Cottage Road Cinema, Headingley (single screen)
  • Hyde Park Picture House (single screen, stalls and balcony)

The Warner Village multiplex in Kirkstall at Cardigan Fields (now Vue as of 2006, with 9 screens) opened in 1998.  It was a little bit soulless but had projections in the foyer of the likes of Bugs Bunny at the time of opening.

The 13-screen Ster Century cinema in Leeds Town Centre opened in 2002, and became part of the Vue group in 2005.  This effectively killed the Odeon Headrow (which is now a branch of Primark).

abcleeds  The ABC (which was a little cinema with a lovely atmosphere and by far my favourite of the city centre options), closed in February 2000.  It had been open since 1934 (originally called The Ritz).  It has since been demolished.

odeonleeds  The Odeon (opened as the Paramount in 1932) closed in October 2001.

odeonmerrion  There is also a ‘ghost Odeon’ in the Merrion Centre, which was open from 1964-1977, closing after the Odeon Headrow became a twin cinema and just as it was about to become a triple screen.  This area on the 1st floor of the centre has not been used since.

loungeleeds  The Lounge, which had lost much of its audience when the Cardigan Fields cinema opened, closed without any warning in January 2005.  It had now been demolished apart from the façade, which is due to be incorporated into any future development.  A pity, as this was a place I spent many happy hours when I lived in Headingley and visited the cinema every week.

cottageroadleeds  The Cottage Road (opened 1912) remains open.  In July 2005 Cottage Road was taken over in a last-minute deal by Charles Morris, after the staff had been issued with redundancy notices.

hydeparkleeds  The Hyde Park Picture House (opened 1914) remain open in 2013.

My grateful thanks to Vad Falcone, who took the photos in 2002.  They were used for my live poetry performance of ‘Lost Cinemas’ which played at the Sheffield Showroom and Bradford’s Theatre in the Mill in 2005.

The 24 films of Christmas …

Here are my picks to watch as we celebrate the festive season.  Enjoy 🙂

  1. Mickey’s Christmas Carol
  2. Miracle on 34th Street
  3. Holiday Affair
  4. Christmas in July
  5. It’s a Wonderful Life
  6. The First Snow of Winter
  7. The Nightmare Before Christmas
  8. How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
  9. The Homecoming: A Christmas Story
  10. The Muppet Christmas Carol

…plus 14 more. View the full list on Letterboxd.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Cinema review: Napoleon (1927), Royal Festival Hall

Abel Gance’s ‘Napoleon’, a French film from 1927, has achieved almost mythical status due to its continued unavailability to audiences on home video or DVD in a version which matches as closely as possible the vision of its director. You can of course obtain the Zoetrope sanctioned release, butchered in length and speeded up so it runs just four hours, and with a frankly obvious and pedestrian score by Carmine Coppola (which was the only version you could see live in the United States until last year, when the full restoration finally got its premiere) – but that’s not what we are looking at here.

The Royal Festival Hall, all day yesterday, showed for the third time since 2000 the full five and a half hour restoration of Gance’s film which has represented nearly fifty years of dedication and work by Kevin Brownlow, bringing together elements thought to be long lost, assembling them in the right order by means of consultation of a shooting script which has survived through the years, and presenting the finished work with a score by Carl Davis which mixes original themes with borrowings and arrangements from a range of classic composers to provide an emotional punch which really cannot be equalled as a cinematic experience.


The film itself is presented in several parts – the first has the young Napoleon as a boy at Brienne-le-Château, a military school where he spent his formative years, a proud exile from Corsica disliked by his peers. His only friend is an eagle he had been given as a present, and his days are spent in an angry combination of writing and fighting – Gance allows us two set-pieces in this first section, both stunning: a snowball fight with some clever photography and superimposed images between Napoleon and a rival faction of boys; and a pillow fight in the dormitory which leaves the room and the film frame covered in feathers. Vladimir Roudenko plays the young Napoleon, his expressive face showing his pride and resourcefulness, and in one arresting image, his happiness in the company of his beloved eagle. He is a wonderful little actor who doesn’t seem to have appeared on camera again following this film.

Secondly, we have the seeds of the French Revolution. A section where Danton, Marat and Robespierre plot becomes a fully-fledged recital of “La Marseillaise” – at the close of this, we see a solitary figure at the edge of the crowd, in the familiar hat and profile; this is the adult Napoleon, now played by Albert Dieudonné. He will become linked with the Revolution throughout the rest of the film. The playing of the revolutionaries (Alexandre Koubitzky as Danton, Antonin Arnaud (deliberately exaggerated) as Marat, Edmond Van Daële as Robespierre) may be a little on the broad side, but this serves to place focus on Dieudonné’s quietly authoritative army lieutenant. In his close-ups and emotional responses, we see flickers of greatness – and this being a French film, it very much presents its subject as a hero figure, a saviour who eventually grows to be the one who saves France from doom and degradation. However, as the film shows, it was an uphill struggle, with Napoleon in poverty in indifferent lodgings (from which in one impressive sequence he watches the mob take over Paris).

The third part of the ‘first epoch’ is set in Corsica, where Napoleon visits his family and aims to save the island from betrayal to the English. This is perhaps the slowest sequence, although it has its moments, notably the sea-bound central figure heading for France with just the Tricolour for a sail. The pomposity and preposterous nature of this sequence is nicely underlined by a shot showing the English Admiral Nelson proposing to blow up the ship which eventually rescues Napoleon from the waters, to be told not to waste ammunition on ‘such an insignificant target’.

The second epoch is mainly the siege of Toulon, and Napoleon’s triumph as a military commander. This is the sequence mainly missing from the available version on DVD, and it is a pity – there is humour (the little boy in the inn mimicking Napoleon’s walk as he follows him), action, and a storm sequence which uses the full potential of camera tricks available to Gance at this time. By the time we find Napoleon asleep with his head on a drum, with an eagle again landing to push home the point, we are ready, if you like, for the main events to come.


The Terror which has taken hold of Revolutionary France is presented in part three, from the quiet gallows humour of a clerk who eats indictments to prevent executions, to the unholy trinity of Robespierre, with his cruel and pinched face; Saint Just (an appearance from Abel Gance himself, his handling of a rose and wearing of earrings somehow enhancing his cruel streak); and Couthon (Louis Vonelly), a villain worthy of Bond film in a wheeled chair with a pet rabbit. We see a claustrophobic prison where Josephine de Beauharnais (Gina Manès) cheats death by the chivalry of her husband’s sacrifice. Later we see the same setting as the venue for a decadent ‘Victim’s Ball’ where despite the charms and nudity on offer, Napoleon prefers to play chess in a corner, with Josephine as the obvious prize, flirting behind a fan.

The romance between Napoleon and Josephine is perhaps the weakest part of the film, although it has clever sequences (Josephine’s face appearing on a globe caressed by her suitor), the military genius almost forgetting his own wedding. Gina Manès is a rather obvious leading lady, in typical style for the silent screen, she’s pretty, conniving, and not much more. Still, she captures our subject’s heart and his great love for her pushes him on to the final section of the film, and the one people who have seen it will talk most about, the conquest of Italy.

Not content with using camera tricks, image overlays, mirror images, and other things not tried before in silent cinema, Gance uses the final section of his film to introduce a new system of projection, Polyvision, in which images are shown on three screens at the same time, side by side. It’s a little like Cinerama in the 1950s, but with the crucial difference that where the widescreen process presented one image across a wide area, Gance’s film often presents three different images at the same time, which is almost overwhelming, and by the end, with the eagle soaring, the colours of the French flag painting the frames, and the climactic music of the Davis score, is the last word in patriotism.

According to the programme which accompanied this screening, when the restoration was first presented on an outdoor screen in 1979, Gance (at nearly ninety years old) watched from his hotel window and stood throughout. The standing ovation this screening received last night was a tribute to him just as much as for Photoplay and Brownlow, and for Carl Davis and the Philharmonia Orchestra. The greatest film ever made? Perhaps – perhaps not. But as a cinematic experience, and an example of live silent cinema, it cannot be equalled.

Happy Thoughts, Darling

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