Monthly Archives: August 2016

The Threepenny Opera (National Theatre)

This new translation of the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill has been polarising audiences at the National Theatre, but it is a vibrant and lively production, entertaining and bawdy, and – some diction issues aside – a well-sung musical black comedy.  I’m pleased to report that Weill’s music has definitely stood the test of time.

Rory Kinnear (showing versatility with fairly successful vocal work) is Captain Macheath aka Mack the Knife, who carries round a large blade and dispatches people who cause him trouble.  He marries Polly Peachum (Rosalie Craig, last seen in the dreadful, much better here) for her brains and to get one over on her gangster dad and her horny mum. But is his chequered past about to catch up with him?


This production, by Rufus Norris, uses a translation by Simon Stephens which focuses on a run of profanity and the ‘filthy language’ promised in the National’s publicity, alongside the ‘immoral behaviour’ which includes Mackie and Polly making their first appearance in coitus which being lowered down from the flies on a crescent moon.

Brechtian theatre shows all the nuts and bolts of the stage, and this production doesn’t disappoint, with lights, ropes, and a busy set of steps, paper doors, and liberal use of the National’s drum revolve, all contributing to the overall effect.

There are some aspects of this musical that are muddled: Haydn Gwynne’s Mrs Peachum using a fire extinguisher to mimic vomiting after a heavy night, all of Sharon Small’s songs as heavily Scots-accented Jenny, some of the lyric changes, the gay angle, and Peachum’s wig, but they are generally overshadowed by successful innovations, including Paule Constable’s lighting design.

Debbie Kurup does well as a feisty and aggressive Lucy Brown, and George Ikediashi is a camp balladeer, but Peter de Jersey disappoints in the duet with Kinnear (‘A Soldier’s Return’) and I struggled with one of Mackie’s gang being severely disabled and almost played for laughs.

Edit: I would like to expand on my final sentence following a comment I have received on Twitter, specifically honing in on the fact I had a problem following the speech of the member of the cast with cerebral palsy (his name is Jamie Beddard, and he plays the member of Mackie’s gang called ‘The Shadow’).

The Telegraph’s review claims that this casting was inspired and makes the audience implicit in Macheath’s eventual frustration and mockery, but for me this didn’t work.  I was frustrated enough with not being able to follow the lyrics at times without having to decipher a speech impairment as well; nonetheless, Beddard did well and was particularly amusing in the black scene where Polly, the new bride, seems in danger of a nasty assault from the gang.

I am afraid, though, that I felt this particular piece of casting was a stunt which did not work in the context of the whole musical, and it weakened the fabric of a show which was already not entirely successful, by overbalancing scenes and musical numbers with an additional burden on an audience who were already dealing with an assault on the senses from the revised lyrics and situations, and could do nothing but react with uncomfortable laughter.  I hope this makes my comment clearer.


Young Chekhov: Platonov (National Theatre)

David Hare’s adaptations of Chekhov’s early plays is presented at the National Theatre as single plays as well as a day-long trilogy, but having seen both ‘Ivanov’ and ‘The Seagull’ before, I chose to go on Saturday morning to see ‘Platonov’.


A difficult play to characterize, Chekhov wrote his first play in 1881 as a large-scale, eight-hour untitled piece, but it was never staged.  This is the play which eventually became came known as ‘Platonov” (as well as being adapted under titles as different as ‘Wild Honey’, ‘Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano’, ‘Firework on the James’, ‘Don Juan’ and ‘A Country Scandal’).  It was adapted for television under the present title, starring Rex Harrison, in 1971.

We meet the group who are the main characters in this drama in the garden of Anna Petrovna (Nina Sosanya), including doctor Nikolai and his wife Maria, his sister Sasha and her husband Platonov (interestingly only he is referred to by his last name from all the younger members of the group).  Anna’s stepson Sergei is bringing back his young bride, Sofya, but she and Platonov share a past.   In the meantime rich landowner Porfiri loves Anna and seeks her hand, but his feckless son Kiril has other ideas.

This play has moments of laugh out loud comedy, melodrama, financial skullduggery, adultery, and eventual tragedy, but the whole is an uneasy mix.  In the title role, James McArdle, in broad Scots accent, gives the role of a heel, a drunk and a rotter some humanity, although I found Olivia Vinall’s Sofya a little on the hysterical side.

As Anna, Nina Sosanya is graceful yet playful, and the rich man who wishes to call in his loans, Pavel, is played with gleeful malice by David Verrey.  Joshua James’ sniffy and sarcastic Nikolai is fun, while Jade Williams’ Sasha has the right mix of naive wife and distraught mother, and Nicholas Day’s red-faced Colonel is nicely comical.

Even though the programme states these plays are ‘new versions by David Hare, this particular adaptation of ‘Platonov’ was first staged in the West End in 2001.  This set of plays are directed by Jonathan Kent for the Chichester Festival, and running at the National Theatre into early October 2016.



Deep Purple studio albums revisited – part one

I’ll open this look back across the studio output of Deep Purple with a disclaimer: I have not followed the band with any interest for the past twenty years, so I will not be discussing the most recent four albums by the band.

The live and compilation albums, too, are out of scope of this post.

Instead I will look at the relative merits and demerits of the fifteen studio albums between ‘Shades of Deep Purple’ in 1968 to ‘Purpendicular’ in 1996.

Mark One

  • Vocals – Rod Evans
  • Guitar – Ritchie Blackmore
  • Bass – Nick Simper
  • Keyboards – Jon Lord
  • Drums – Ian Paice

This line-up produced three studio albums in 1968 and 1969.  Their sound was closer to the pop and psychedelic sound of the time than anything approaching heavy metal/hard rock.  This being said, Evans was an excellent singer whose work on covers of The Beatles’ ‘Help’ and ‘We Can Work It Out’, Neil Diamond’s ‘Kentucky Woman’, Joe South’s ‘Hush’, and Ike and Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ has worn well over the years.  Original material which stands out from this period includes ‘Shield’, ‘Lalena’, ‘Blind’, ‘April’, ‘Why Didn’t Rosemary’ and ‘Mandrake Root’.

The albums

‘Shades of Deep Purple’, released July 1968 (US), September 1968 (UK)

  • And The Address (instrumental)
  • Hush
  • One More Rainy Day
  • Happiness/I’m So Glad
  • Mandrake Root
  • Help
  • Love Help Me
  • Hey Joe

High point: ‘Hush’.  This was the band’s first single and filmed footage from the time shows how full of energy they already were.

Low point: The album doesn’t hang together as a whole and often feels like a random grab-bag of material.  ‘I’m So Glad’ suffers from poor lyrics and repetitive melodies.

Marks out of five: two and a half.

‘The Book of Taliesyn’, released October 1968 (US), June 1969 (UK)

  • Listen, Learn, Read On
  • Wring That Neck (instrumental)
  • Kentucky Woman
  • Exposition/We Can Work It Out
  • Shield
  • Anthem
  • River Deep, Mountain High

High point: An accomplished album with a more assured feel, but ‘Kentucky Woman’ and ‘Shield’ are my favourite cuts.

Low point: I never quite warmed to ‘Listen, Learn, Read On’ with its constant refrain referencing the album’s title.

Marks out of five: four.

‘Deep Purple’, released June 1969 (US), November 1969 (UK)

  • Chasing Shadows
  • Blind
  • Lalena
  • Fault Line/The Painter
  • Why Didn’t Rosemary
  • Bird Has Flown
  • April

High point: ‘April’ is lengthy, and beautiful, and wonderful.  But ‘Lalena’ is a sweet ballad.

Low point: I could live without ‘Fault Line’.

Marks out of five: three and a half.

Mark Two

  • Vocals – Ian Gillan
  • Guitar – Ritchie Blackmore
  • Bass – Roger Glover
  • Keyboards – Jon Lord
  • Drums – Ian Paice

This line-up was the most commercially successful, releasing four studio albums between 1970 and 1973.  This period showcased their change of style to hard rock with the addition of their new vocalist, screamer Ian Gillan.  His chemistry with guitarist Ritchie Blackmore was a high point of this line-up’s work, especially live (which is another story, another blog post).

The albums

‘Deep Purple in Rock’, released June 1970

  • Speed King
  • Bloodsucker
  • Child in Time
  • Flight of the Rat
  • Into the Fire
  • Living Wreck
  • Hard Lovin’ Man

High point: ‘Child in Time’ is an epic, glorious piece of music.  And it isn’t the heaviest track on the album.

Low point: This album has not aged well at all.  Gillan’s histrionics now seem false and fake, although I have a soft spot for ‘Speed King’ and ‘Living Wreck’.

Marks out of five: two.

‘Fireball’, released July 1971 (US), September 1971 (UK)

  • Fireball
  • No No No
  • Demon’s Eye
  • Anyone’s Daughter
  • The Mule
  • Fools
  • No One Came

High point: Gillan’s vocal work on this album is superb, especially on ‘Demon’s Eye’.

Low point: ‘No One Came’ sounds rushed these days.

Marks out of five: three.

‘Machine Head’, released March 1972

  • Highway Star
  • Maybe I’m a Leo
  • Pictures of Home
  • Never Before
  • Smoke on the Water
  • Lazy
  • Space Truckin’

High point: The first great Deep Purple album.  Wall to wall excellence.

Low point: There isn’t one.  Honestly, this is the peak.

Marks out of five: five.

‘Who Do We Think We Are’, released January 1973 (US), February 1973 (UK)

  • Woman from Tokyo
  • Mary Long
  • Super Trouper
  • Smooth Dancer
  • Rat Bat Blue
  • Place in Line
  • Our Lady

High point: This was the beginning of the end for the line-up as both Gillan and Glover would be gone from the band by the end of 1973, but the cracks just don’t show.  ‘Mary Long’ is subversive, ‘Rat Bat Blue’ sparkles, and ‘Smooth Dancer’ is delightfully playful.

Low point: ‘Our Lady’ goes on a bit, but that’s a small quibble.

Marks out of five: four and a half.

Mark Three

  • Vocals – David Coverdale
  • Guitar – Ritchie Blackmore
  • Bass – Glenn Hughes
  • Keyboards – Jon Lord
  • Drums – Ian Paice

With new blood in the shape of Redcar-born David Coverdale and Cannock-born Glenn Hughes, the band’s direction took a blues and soul feel, which reached its apex with their appearance at 1974’s ‘California Jam’.

The albums

‘Burn’, released February 1974

  • Burn
  • Might Just Take Your Life
  • Lay Down, Stay Down
  • Sail Away
  • You Fool No One
  • What’s Goin’ On Here
  • Mistreated
  • ‘A’ 200 (instrumental)

High point: ‘Lay Down, Stay Down’ and ‘Sail Away’ are the best cuts on this.

Low point: This is just a disappointing and flat album overall, despite having ‘Mistreated’ on it.  That track would just blossom live when Coverdale hit his blues stride.

Marks out of five: two and a half.

‘Stormbringer’, released November 1974

  • Stormbringer
  • Love Don’t Mean a Thing
  • Holy Man
  • Hold On
  • Lady Double Dealer
  • You Can’t Do It Right
  • High Ball Shooter
  • The Gypsy
  • Soldier of Fortune

High point: Blackmore’s guitar work throughout this, especially on ‘Hold On’.  And ‘Soldier of Fortune’, probably Coverdale’s best studio vocal performance.

Low point: ‘You Can’t Do It Right’.

Marks out of five: four.

Mark Four

  • Vocals – David Coverdale
  • Guitar – Tommy Bolin
  • Bass – Glenn Hughes
  • Keyboards – Jon Lord
  • Drums – Ian Paice

Drugs and another turn of fortune into funk makes this far from a typical Deep Purple album, and this line-up’s life was truncated by the death of Bolin in 1976.

The album

‘Come Taste The Band’, released October 1975

  • Comin’ Home
  • Lady Luck
  • Gettin’ Tighter
  • Dealer
  • I Need Love
  • Drifter
  • Love Child
  • This Time Around/Owed to G
  • You Keep On Moving

High point: ‘You Keep On Moving’ and ‘Lady Luck’.

Low point: A dull album without much life or thought.

Marks out of five: one and a half.





Theatre exhibitions in London

The British Library is the venue for a rather unusual but interesting exhibition displaying material from original texts in Shakespeare’s hand, costumes (note – Vivien Leigh’s beautiful Lady Macbeth costume from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production does not, sadly, make it into the illustrations in the accompanying book), photographs (again excluded from the book are stills from the Stratford 1959 production of Othello with Paul Robeson and Mary Ure, as seen at, and letters (Olivier extremely snidey about Robeson’s Othello and dismissing a chance to offer an invitation to the American actor, stating he would ‘like to have a bash’ at the role himself).

The ‘ten acts’ are each related to either a play or an aspect of cultural change – so we get sections devoted to Hamlet, The Tempest, King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, as well as sections around performance, the introduction of female and black performers, and the future of Shakespearean scholarship.  Along the way you will see a mix of portraits, original printed texts, ephemera, and audio-visual presentations: I especially enjoyed the chance to compare and contrast a selection of ‘To be or not to be’ declarations from the likes of Herbert Beerbohm-Tree, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud and Daniel Day-Lewis, and video discussions from the likes of Samuel West, Simon Russell Beale, Harriet Walter and Hugh Quarshie.

The Lady Macbeth costume you can see at close quarters is this one:


What struck me about it is the delicacy and the slightness of the form which would have worn it, quite a contrast with the description of Leigh’s Lady M as an earthy and sensual creation.  Later in the exhibition another costume of Leigh’s can be viewed: the headdress from her appearance as Titania in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, and it is very beautiful.

Other items of interest include Ted Hughes’ attempt to adapt King Lear for Peter Brook’s film, and a handwritten MS from Angela Carter of ‘Wise Children’, about the twin sisters who grow up obsessed by the Bard.  There is a montage of photos and clips from film versions of Shakespeare’s works including Asta Nielsen’s ‘Hamlet’, Fairbanks and Pickford’s wedding scene in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, Tony and Maria’s meeting across a crowded dance floor in ‘West Side Story’ (based on ‘Romeo and Juliet’) and a 2006 Chinese version of ‘Hamlet’ I wasn’t aware of called ‘The Banquet’.

The fake and abridged Shakespeares are here too: Nahum Tate’s ‘King Lear’, and a whole section (which seems disproportionate) on ‘Vortigern’.  At times the audio pieces bleed into and overpower each other: the Globe’s ‘Twelfth Night’ with Mark Rylance drowns out the montage, and the (albeit hilarious) Peter Sellers parody of Olivier reciting ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ can be heard well after it has been seen.  Do stop and watch some of the short pieces demonstrating Shakespeare around the world, and pause to hear the glorious Paul Robeson in the Stratford ‘Othello’.  In portrait you can see Ira Aldridge, Sarah Siddons, and John Philip Kemble.

The exhibition plays with gender, too, not only noting the first women to play the formerly male parts of Desdemona and Cleopatra, but also including a discussion by Maxine Peake of her ‘trans Hamlet’ and a piece implying Derek Jarman’s ‘Tempest’ dealt with Prospero’s hidden homosexuality (something which completely passed me by, to be honest).  There is a whole gallery on Peter Brook’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (see, radical, influencial, and androgynous.


Over at the Victoria and Albert Museum, another exhibition which touches on Shakespeare (and a wider celebration of theatre), is the ‘Curtain Up’ installation which celebrates forty years of theatre in London and New York.

Covered in a series of compact galleries are musicals, ballet, plays, and opera.  The exhibits are busily displayed and curiously curated, but this is definitely worth a look, with high points for me including a series of set models from ‘An Inspector Calls’ to ‘Arcadia’, a handful of costumes including Nureyev’s Romeo doublet from the Kenneth McMillan ballet, models from ‘War Horse’ and examples of stage lighting including ‘The Curious Dog in the Nighttime’.

Remember to look up to see the programmes and posters displayed overhead.


Curtain Up is on until Wednesday 16th August – for information see

Shakespeare in Ten Acts is on until Tuesday 6th September – for information and to book see



The 39 Steps, 1935 – ★★★★½

#38 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

John Buchan’s novel puts our hero Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) in mortal danger when a mysterious female spy in black finds herself with a dagger in her back, in his flat, shortly after he has met her at the music hall.

On the run, he meets sulky blonde Madeleine Carroll on a train, but has to break and escape when she threatens to give him away. Events across the country conspire to reunite them, though, where they eventually become handcuffed together to their mutual discomfort – and the audience’s amusement at that scene with the stocking.

This is such a rich film, with a wide array of characters populating the fringes (notably Peggy Ashcroft as the unhappy crofter’s wife, dreaming of the well-dressed ladies in town, but cowed by her Bible-bashing and domestically violent husband – played well by John Laurie).

It’s a wrong man theme, and one which Hitchcock referred to again and again over the years. Donat gives Hannay an air of strictly English bewilderment at his predicament while keeping a sense of amusement.

The scene where Hannay addresses a political rally due to a mistake of identity prefigures Holly’s book club appearance in Reed’s ‘The Third Man’.

Incidentally the bad guy’s distinguishing feature has been used several times in lesser films which followed this, while the Mr Memory close (not in the novel) is a clever twist, and the spy theme cropped up in comic fare such as ‘Let George Do It’ (1940) and ‘The Goose Steps Out’ (1942).

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

The Scarlet Tunic, 1998 – ★★★

A disappointing adaptation of one of my favourite Thomas Hardy stories, ‘The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion’.

The love story between the lonely German hussar and the girl trapped into an unwanted engagement should simmer with passion as it moves to the eventual tragedy, but this all feels just a bit too chocolate box and safe.

Emma Fielding, as the girl whose head is turned, looks and sounds too modern and isn’t my idea of the character of Frances at all. Jean-Marc Barr is slightly better as Matthaus. There are character actors a-plenty in the cast: Simon Callow (too much bluster), John Sessions, Jack Shepherd, Lynda Bellingham, Gareth Hale, Andrew Tiernan.

Perfunctorily directed by Stuart St Paul, best known for his 1980s pop videos and as a stuntman, this was an attempt to cash on the period boom which followed ‘Pride and Prejudice’, but it failed to provide the requisite happy ending – there are few of those in the works of Hardy.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Wuthering Heights, 1967 – ★★★½

I’m giving this an extra star on today’s rewatch as it is a lot better than I remembered. The outstanding performance in this is that of the late Angela Scoular as Cathy, who is quite remarkable in her hysteric passion for the Gypsy boy Heathcliff (a smouldering and petulant Ian McShane).

The Lintons are a bit dry (Edgar, played by Drewe Hedley, and Isabella, by Angela Douglas, although she has a moment or two of presence) but play their part in this tragic tale. William Marlowe’s Hindley is more roundly characterised than usual and his grief at the death of his wife is well portrayed, as is his eventual drunken collapse.

Directed by Peter Sasdy (who directed Countess Dracula, the Adrian Mole TV series and the creepy Viktoria for the ‘Supernatural’ TV anthology), and adapted by Hugh Leonard (who also dramatised the 1978 version of this story), this is a superior television drama which benefits from being one of the last shot in black and white, giving the wild moors and dour Yorkshire setting a focus you might not have got in colour.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Two Sundays – ★★★★

Two Sundays’ is Simon Gray’s companion piece to ‘Plaintiffs and Defendants’ – both were presented in the Play for Today series in 1975, with roughly the same casts.

Some characters are mirror images of those they played in the earlier play, some lines appear in both works, and there are areas in which they – the characters and the situations – overlap.

This play involves flashbacks into a past which two middle-aged friends can’t quite acknowledge, as well as some more mundane family things with wives and children. Memories fade into each other, thoughts bring back things which are buried.

Really, this is a two-hander between Alan Bates as Charles, with a pregnant wife but putting his guilt at a wasted life into a first novel, and Dinsdale Landen as Peter, a boozy, bored, adulterous executive who can’t quite reconcile what he was with what he is.

Of the two plays, this is the most accomplished, although as a pair they are very interesting. And with support from Georgina Hale, Simon Cadell, and others, it has a cast which keeps you watching through its tight one-hour running time.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Plaintiffs and Defendants – ★★★½

‘Plaintiffs and Defendants’ was the first of a pair of plays written by Simon Gray for the Play for Today series in 1975. Both plays share the same casts but in different roles, some mirroring each other – a fascinating idea.

This play introduces us to Peter, a solicitor who is embroiled in a case of child custody. His wife Hilary is remote and irritated with him and their life together with teenage son Jeremy, while out of hours Peter has been carrying on with the unstable Joanna. The other characters are Charlie and Alison (who we don’t actually see as such), friends of long-standing of Peter’s, and Sallust, a quiet and dour legal pupil of Peter’s who can easily beat him at squash.

In a wordy 60 minutes, we find out about the state of mind of Peter and about things in his past that have impacted on his life – it is one of those plays which includes the type of conversations you’d only ever find in plays and not in real life. This being so it still feels very real and the characters stand up as fully-rounded.

Alan Bates (Peter) and Joanna (Georgina Hale) are probably seen on screen the most, although Simon Cadell (Sallust) and Dinsdale Landen (Charlie) also make a memorable impact. This is a tale of lost opportunities, of giving up things and starting them again, of boredom and routine, and it is played extremely well.

Followed by ‘Two Sundays’ in the same series, although the two plays can stand as separate works as well as a linked pair.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Gigi, 1958 – ★★★★½

One of my favourite musicals, and MGM’s last great hurrah of their Golden Age, this Lerner and Loewe score might suffer in places by not having traditional singers, but makes up for it by the charm and exactness of the casting.

Leslie Caron is a girlish delight as the would-be courtesan, being coached by her grandmother (Hermoine Gingold) and aunt Alicia (a spirited Isabel Jeans) to become the passive sport of kings. Louis Jourdan is the attractive leading man, Gaston, full of ennui and a lack of interest in the glorious females at ‘Maxim’s’ – his rendition of the title song is a high point of many in the film.

The film still belongs to that glorious Gallic ham, Maurice Chevalier, though, still playful and sparkling into his seventies (even though according to Caron in an interview I saw her give at the British Film Institute some years ago he was ‘grumpee’ throughout filming). His Honore welcomes us into a Paris full of lovers, thanking heaven for little girls, and he’s adorable.

Many have said this film is problematic because of its attitude towards women, and indeed perhaps creepy in its pursuit of the young, but I let that pass. I like to watch Chevalier and Gingold as they ‘remember it well’, and see Gigi’s blossoming from a sulky young thing into a beautiful woman, and the excellent score, even when it is mangled by talk-song.

Directed by Vincente Minnelli for the Arthur Freed Unit, in vibrant Metrocolor, this is well worth watching, and deserved the eight Academy Awards it was given.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

The Imitation Game, 2014 – ★★½

I doubt very much that the Spartacus-like scene which appears halfway through this film: ‘if you fire Alan, you’ll have to fire me too’ really happened.

However, I have visited Bletchley Park and I have become quite familiar with the story of Alan Turing, who was probably our cleverest scientist here in Britain in the war, and who fell foul of the indecency laws in place in the time against practising homosexuals.

The story was covered in an earlier play for television called ‘Breaking the Code‘ – itself adapted from a 1986 stage play – in which Derek Jacobi played Turing, and in which his eventual death was definitely flag-posted as suicide.

Here, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing in his usual detached and mannered style, and the chronology hops and skips from glimpses of Turing as a child, of his war work at Bletchley, and of his eventual persecution by the police (who initially believe him to be a spy).

Some of the artistic licence is ridiculous though – Turing was not a solo worker at Bletchley, nor was his machine creation named after a childhood friend he had a crush on; there was no conflict with commanders who wanted to fire Turing and his collaborators; his relationship with Joan Clarke was not a romantic one; Turing was not autistic (perhaps Cumberbatch is so stuck on his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes he got confused?); no-one ever thought he was a spy; and it is by no means clear that Turing’s death was suicide, despite it being stated as such here.

Perhaps the worst changes to the historical record are the blackmail plot involving John Cairncross (now thought to be the fifth ‘Cambridge spy’) and the depiction of Turing’s mental deterioration following his chemical castration. These are regrettable, but the fact that a major film was produced about a major LGBT figure and received Oscar nominations should be cause for celebration.

Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Turing, for what it is worth, is a better performance than that of Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking, which was the winner of the Best Actor prize in competition.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1934 – ★★★★

#39 in Reverse Hitchcock project.

A handful of Swiss maps. A slimy and snake-eyed Peter Lorre in fur coat and hat. Leslie Banks and Edna Best are the couple in the Alps (good use of back projection in the absence of location work), with their growing daughter, Nova Pilbeam.

You may know this film title better by its remake over twenty years later, and by Hitch’s remark that the earlier version was the work of ‘a talented amateur’ rather than the 1950s ‘professional. In that, Doris Day saved the day by singing ‘Que Sera Sera’ to locate her kidnapped child. This time, the corresponding character uses the skills she displays early on in sport to dispatch the bad guy, again using the iconic setting of the Royal Albert Hall.

Here, there’s a lighter touch from the start, with the dancers trapped by a wool thread leading quickly into something much darker (a dance rather than a market scene as in the remake). There’s more inventiveness, too, with a smashed window and a mysterious message.

Leslie Banks would work for Hitch once more, as the wild and violent smuggler in ‘Jamaica Inn’, and you may recall him from his pivotal role in ‘Went The Day Well’, directed by Cavalcanti, or as the police inspector in ‘The Arsenal Stadium Mystery’.

Here he is far more British and reserved than James Stewart was in the same role, hesitatingly requesting the presence of the British Consul, and getting flustered in a dinner jacket. He’s more convincing in the role of someone getting tied up in international problems than any American would be.

Edna Best (and what a sequence where she spins, faux faints, and pitches a vital clue into the fire is) was a fairly pretty girl who had an undistinguished career, better known these days as one of the wives of actor Herbert Marshall, who had also collaborated with the Master in films. She does well enough in her only Hitchcock appearance, and is perhaps the first of the classic blondes.

This film has such an array of interesting shots and flourishes – a model train set, camera angles looking down, looking up, smoke filled rooms, the sun-worshippers’ temple – but the stand-out performance is from Lorre, in his first English-language film following his emigration from Nazi Germany.

He is a skin-crawling, repellent, borderline evil character; from his work in Germany, especially in ‘M’ (1931), he demonstrates a wide range which was not always apparent away from the Continent, but here he is well-cast as the ringleader of a deadly murderous plot.

Even when speaking his lines phonetically, having little command of English, he dominates the sequences in which he appears. He would be far less restrained in his second Hitch film, ‘The Secret Agent’.

I prefer this film to its remake as it has less gloss and more intriguing plot, not to mention a particularly nasty dentist, many years before Laurence Olivier’s ‘Is it safe?’.

At seventy-five minutes, it is a lean example of a superior British thriller, and a good example of the Master of Suspense in embryonic form.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Waltzes from Vienna, 1934 – ★★★

#40 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

What’s this, a curious observer may ask. It is a romantic musical comedy directed by … Hitchcock?

A bit of explanation might be necessary. In the 1930s there was a real vogue for operetta in British film, many of which started leading lady Jessie Matthews, who also appears here. So it would not be unknown for a rising director to be assigned a film like this.

It was Hitch’s only project during 1934, and he has said he only made it in order to keep working. However, together with his wife and constant collaborator Alma Reville, he still worked out a meticulous shooting schedule and screenplay, including the inclusion of musical interludes.

Music matters in this surface biopic of the creation of Johann Strauss II’s seminal ‘Blue Danube’ (in an elaborate and comical bakery scene). It isn’t just there for pretty scene accompaniment, but also for dramatic effect here and there. And of course, being Strauss, the music is fabulous.

A note on the casting – the aforementioned Matthews is a spirited Resi, Edmund Gwenn (in his second appearance of four for Hitch) is an effective if brusque Strauss the elder, while Esmond Knight is almost unrecognisable – being so young and before he was partly blinded in the Second World War – as a floridly romantic Strauss the younger.

In terms of a successful biopic, ‘The Great Waltz’ (1938) covered similar ground (and was even sillier – a horse and carriage ride provides musical inspiration), and as a Hitchcock film, this could be filed under ‘minor’, but I enjoyed watching it again.

Watched on the French DVD (Le chant du Danube) released in 2005, which has better picture and sound quality than the one in Network’s Jessie Matthews series.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Mad Jack, 1970 – ★★★★★

“I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest.”

The first half of a double bill at the BFI Southbank of TV dramas directed by Jack Gold, this one focuses on poet-soldier Siegfried Sassoon and his 1917 declaration that he wishes to serve no longer in the British Army, risking disgrace and court martial.

In Tom Clarke’s excellent play, Michael Jayston (a man who in his youth had a beautifully expressive face, described in a contemporary review quoted in the notes at the cinema today as ‘sensitive yet masculine’) is note-perfect as Sassoon, a man of bitter conscience who sees the first-hand waste of men under his command, and the fallacy of the reasoning behind continued conflict, despite being awarded the Military Cross himself.

Much of the play is a solo effort, where Jayston recites poems of Sassoon’s in voiceover, either over scenes of otherwise contemplative quiet, or over conversations.

One particularly good juxtaposition is over a scene between Sassoon and a senior officer played by Clive Swift, while the poem (I think, ‘The General’) plays over the event; and another is where the poem ‘Does It Matter’ is heard just after the ill-fated Ormand, who dreams of a return to a life with no surprises, a wife, three children and a job as a bank manager, gives the matter-of-fact revelation that he has seen a man shot by his own officer ‘just to get the others out of the trenches’.

There are other character parts who do less: David Wood as Ormand (who has a fun singing number in the mess); Michael Pennington as a brother officer, Cromlech, who has a hang up about class; Jonathan Cecil as a waspish Lytton Strachey; Donald Sumpter as the stammering, piano playing Wilmot; and a lively bosom-bouncing Ann Beach as a music-hall artiste who recalls Maggie Smith’s turn in the film ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’.

The play does not shy away from the horrors of trench warfare – there is a prolonged sequence in which Sassoon and Cromlech head out to the barbed wires where dead comrades are stripped of their greatcoats, trousers, and boots (Sassoon dislodges one man’s leg during this operation and is promptly sick), and other dead men are seen rotting in the open, or floating under water with staring eyes.

It also makes clear the cost of any loss of courage, quoting and showing a notice which describes, dispassionately, the execution of three deserters.

Sassoon’s statement of defiance is only précised here, although it is quoted in three different points throughout the film.

Our sympathies are purely with him, although his motivation is less clear than it may appear – is a personal, emotional, matter as Cromlech alleges, or is he indeed insane due a nervous breakdown as the Army supposes in order to quiet any insurrection from the ranks?

This is an excellent piece of work, which may benefit from some knowledge of the subject and his poetry, but which stands alone as a document of anti-war drama.

Gold directs well, with many scenes of Jayston in shadow, or on deserted beaches, or simply reacting in close-up to memories or thoughts in his head. Jayston is one of our best actors (these days you’re more likely to see him in a guest role in one of our medical or crime dramas) and in the 1970s he did some genuinely excellent work, of which this is a prime example.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about the title, Sassoon was called Mad Jack by his men because he was reckless, and one assumes, indeed courageous.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Faith and Henry – ★★★★★

The second film on the BFI Southbank double-bill of TV dramas directed by Jack Gold, this is a charming tale of Lancashire lad Henry (John Baron, last seen in a bit part in ‘When The Boat Comes In’) and his growing friendship over a walk home by the canal with Jamaican girl Faith (Hilary Baker, who seemed to appear only once more on screen, in ‘Short Cuts’ in 1976).

What it catches perfectly is the more innocent days where children could walk through fields and do simple things like toss stones in streams, look at the view, jump across streams and where young lads go skinny dipping. It’s a time I remember well.

It is a nostalgic piece in which a world we have lost is closely depicted, and in its young and untested cast it has a pair of performances which show a growing friendship.

In 1969 attitudes to immigrants from the Caribbean (Faith’s father is a bus driver) were not entirely positive, which makes the acceptance of the girl by Henry, and of Henry by her parents, all the more surprising, but refreshing. (Incidentally Henry’s home has central heating which, in a 1960s Lancashire, must have been unusual indeed!).

This aside, it is a touching and well performed tale, and the location work gives the sense of an industrial and natural landscape (the rocks on which Henry and Faith first sit at the top of the hill are ‘chemical waste’ he informs her in a matter-of-fact tone) which has long gone.

There’s a running joke around a 9lb piece of cheese Henry buys from a shop shortly after the two leave school (having lived above a butcher’s shop for years, his family cannot abide meat), and around the smells of the landscape (cheese and molasses).

Aside from Faith and Henry, we meet both sets of parents – Faith’s loving couple who call each other ‘lover’ and ‘queenie’, she does evening classes and revises for her O levels while cooking fried herring for tea’; Henry’s middle-aged pair who still enjoy a bit of loving flirtation which bothers their maturing son.

Julia Jones, who plays Henry’s mother Ada, wrote this perceptive and interesting play, which is quiet, gentle, and very successful. Notably Faith is not destined to be a housewife but dreams of being a pilot; she’s very much her own woman, declining to be Henry’s ‘girl’ but instead offering to be his ‘friend’.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Number Seventeen, 1932 – ★★

As part of my side reading during the Reverse Hitchcock project (of which this is #41), I have been dipping in and out of Patrick McGilligan’s marvellous ‘Alfred Hitchcock: a life in darkness and light’, which I highly recommend as a step by step study of the director’s career.

Anyway, from McGilligan one can glean some explanation about this project, including the fact that Cockney actor Leon M Lion was a stage ham who was forced upon Hitch along with the play he had made a public hit, ‘Number Seventeen’. He clutters up the film with his over the top close-ups and poor reactions.

Hitch viewed the project as an elaborate ‘tease’: he exaggerated everything, from plot twists to music, chase climax to literally dumb heroine. The special effects and play opening (from the leaves blowing up to the old house, where man with hat enters to find a vast space of shadows, all accompanied by exaggerated music, are stretched to a silly point, deliberately.

Again by McGilligan’s account, the model work in the final chase (a chase to end all chases) was not done to look cheap for the sake of being cheap, but to show what could be done with miniatures. Hitch was of course a whizz with miniatures, notably in ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Strangers on a Train’.

‘Number Seventeen’ is a nothing when put against Hitchcock’s more elaborate work, but as a knowing practical joke on his bosses at BIP, who had given him the project after removing him from the romance ‘London Wall’, it is fun to watch.

Lion is absolutely terrible, though, and it is beyond comprehension these days how he could ever have been a success to theatre audiences, proving only how tastes have changed over the years.

John Stuart (his last appearance of three for Hitch if you count ‘Elstree Calling’), Donald Calthrop (a final appearance of five) and Anne Grey (her sole appearance) fare slightly better – but only just.

This is a thriller set largely in an empty house, with mistaken identities, lost valuables, dingy shadows, and creaky settings. It just isn’t very thrilling, or very accomplished, despite the obvious farcical and mischievous tone throughout.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Rich and Strange, 1931 – ★★★½

#42 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

“Someone just pinched me.” “Where?” “You know where.”

We open in a busy office where termite-like workers beetle and wait for the clock, then out in the rain they go with umbrellas and bowlers, down into the underground.

It’s a busy and inventive opening as the hero of the hour, Fred (Henry Kendall), people-watches and tries to read his newspaper in the busy carriage. Such is the dull and routine existence of our daydreaming worker bee.

Home to rain-soaked streets and a loving wife, Emily (Joan Barry, who had provided voice dubbing for Anny Ondra in ‘Blackmail’). She has a cut-glass voice and a blonde coiffure, and is completely annoying.

Within the first ten minutes Fred and Emily are given a large sum of money from a relative to allow them to experience ‘life’, and their fortunes look set to change. What happens when they decide to up sticks and cruise the Orient sets the scene for the rest of the film, with scandalous nightlife, broad farce and covert infidelities the order of the day.

The trouble is, fun though this material is, it is rather thin – and although a persistent myth states that Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville concocted the story in memory of their own honeymoon adventures, it is in fact based on a novel of the same name by Dale Collins, an Australian writer who specialised in sea-based romances, one of which was filmed as ‘His Woman’ in the same year as ‘Rich and Strange’.

Kendall is a dull leading man and one wishes for a Robert Donat, a Ronald Colman or a Gary Cooper to liven the material. A prolific actor in quota quickies, Kendall is perhaps most memorable in ‘Death at Broadcasting House’ (1934) or ‘The Mysterious Mr Davis’ (1939).

He was a highly accomplished stage revue artist, who deserves some kudos for appearing successfully in a show with those two scene-stealing Hermoines, Baddeley and Gingold, in 1941. Some of this comic gift is evident here and there during the lighter passages of this film, and I wish more had been made of it,.

Barry had a fairly break screen career before retiring on her marriage in 1934. She appears here without distinction, and is not particularly attractive, failing to convince in her on-ship flirtation. Hitch would be on surer ground with someone like Madeleine Carroll or Carole Lombard later in his career.

The tone of ‘Rich and Strange’ is a playful one and this is reflected here and there in the camera work and in the score, while the couple embark on their adventure. As the gentleman who makes a play for Emily, Percy Marmont appears sympathetic rather than predatory, in a role which seems a perfect fit for an actor like Ian Hunter, but Betty Amann’s fake princess (‘Fred had met a Princess!’) seems just that, exotic but rather annoying.

I must mention the marvellous Elsie Randolph as a twittery ship passenger, a spinster forerunner of characters played by the likes of Esma Cannon in later fare. She’s plain as mutton but effortlessly snatches what crumbs she can from the whisper of plot. You may recall her as the receptionist many years later in ‘Frenzy’.

‘Rich and Strange’ is a rewarding comic romance which, while not in top echelon of Hitchcock films, is certainly not without interest. It’s a solid effort a cut above similar British fare, and although it tanked at the box office, and caused the termination of Hitch’s relationship with BIP, it would seem ripe for re-evaluation.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Mary, 1931 – ★★★½

#43 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

“Blood on her hands!”

This is perhaps the most obscure of the feature films of Alfred Hitchcock, sometimes even omitted from his list of works: however, this is not simply ‘a German version of ‘Murder!’ as it has a different cast, runs at least twenty minutes less in duration, and changes some of the character names (notably the accused woman, Diana Baring, is called Mary here, and even gives her new name to the film title).

Not only does ‘Mary’ remove the comic elements which lifted ‘Murder!’ from the mundane, it also, strangely, removed some of the elements one might suggest as expressionist in nature (the shadow of the noose, for example). It is true that the same sets were utlised, people by a different set of performers: only Miles Mander was used in both productions, having some ability in speaking the German language, but his role is relatively small.

Where we had Herbert Marshall in ‘Murder!’ playing the Henry Fonda-like dissenting voice on the jury, here we have Alfred Abel, who is something of a dry stick (he is perhaps best remembered as Joh Fredersen in Fritz Lang’s classic ‘Metropolis’). I liked Olga Tschechowa’s performance as Mary, though, a pretty girl who may yet sway the men on the jury by her physical charm.

The source print I am watching – on an unofficial DVD, with English subtitles, as the only official releases remain resolutely Germanic – is from the National Film Archive and so is watchable, although as with many early sound features there are audio glitches.

Because on previous viewings I was struggling with my basic German and finding the film a chore to watch, this re-viewing gets an extra star. The new cast are richly delineated and although it is odd to see this as a Hitchcock film, despite his own reservations with the language, it is not a complete disaster, although it omits a major twist which is present in the ‘Murder!’ film.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

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