Category Archives: books

Black Sheep by Gabriel Hershman (book review)

Gabriel Hershman now has three biographies to his name, all of actors who achieved prominence in the 1960s. The first, on Ian Hendry, and the second, on Albert Finney, were well-written and researched, and now with a step up to an ‘authorised’ biography, this book profiles Nicol Williamson (1936-2011).

NicolWilliamson

Williamson was a firebrand of an actor both on- and off-screen, coming to prominence in a dual screen and stage career which took off in the late 1960s. Yet by the end of the 1990s ennui had set in, with a retreat from performing, and this great actor just fell off the radar. By the time of his death – which was not announced until some weeks later – he was almost forgotten by all but his most devoted fans and admirers.

This book, authorised and supported by son Luke and former wife Jill Townsend-Sorel, sets out to redress that balance. In the acknowledgements Hershman describes his book as aiming to be a “truthful, balanced portrait of a complex man, neither coffee-table saccharine nor a hatchet job”. Luke Williamson describes his father as “the front seat of an exhilarating, terrifying rollercoaster”. Those who met Nicol Williamson, however fleetingly, would agree that he was infuriating, mystifying, and an incredible creative force.

As with the other biographies, Hershman dissects the best of Williamson’s performances as well as touching, where appropriate, on the man behind the actor. On Inadmissible Evidence, a film adaptation of the John Osborne play, where Williamson had created the role of Maitland, far older than his own age, he showed signs of dissatisfaction and vulnerability with his performance, asking the cameraman for his view on whether he “was as good as Spencer Tracy”.

By the 1970s this coiled spring would burst into violence during the Broadway run of Rex, the Richard Rodgers musical in which he played Henry VIII, a show in which his dominance of the role must have been something of a strain. By the time he completed his last notable screen role in The Hour of the Pig, he was idly teasing his colleagues and appearing bored, cast only after “the usual suspects” of his generation (Harris, O’Toole) were found to be unavailable. Pig was not treated well in terms of distribution, and is rarely revived now, but the balance of farce and straight-faced interpretation was handled well by Williamson, and rightly treated as a career highlight by this book.

MBDIMDA EC001

Personal issues – alcoholism, two divorces, arrogance, self-obsession, misogyny – continued to blight what can only be described as a troubled life. Hershman addresses these concerns with tact and diplomacy, with perceptive comments from Townsend-Sorel and others who knew him best.

This may well be a tale of a life which didn’t reach its potential in many ways, because the subject was his own worst enemy, and the final chapters inevitably have the sheen of sadness across them, but there are also pockets of celebration. He may have never been good enough for his own standards (by them, better than anyone else!) but the body of work left behind speaks for itself.

This is a very entertaining book, which casts the net widely to locate the man, the ‘black sheep’, which was Thomas Nicol Williamson, a Scot, a grammar-school boy, a boy who loved his parents but resented his sister, a young man who sang Al Bowlly songs but struggled with real love (an odd relationship with Sarah Miles, who seemed to relish his working-class roughness; the hook-up with his stage daughter from Inadmissible, Townsend-Sorel, which turned into marriage and high living), the performer who could essay tormented characters from his jaded older man in Laughter in the Dark to his tense gay lodger in the fantastic TV play Horror of Darkness (which visitors to the London’s National Film Theatre can view in the on-site Mediatheque).

On a personal note I found the Nicol I came to know and admire springing from every page, and it was an emotional read. The occasional glimpses of softness in screen and stage performances (Robin and Marian) were close to how he could be when introspective, caring, and kind. The novel Ming’s Kingdom, conversely, in its pornographic sex scenes and confused situations, showed the bile, the sharpness, and the loathing of women which was a troubling facet of his life (whether the novel is about his second wife Andrea, or a composite of characters affecting his equilibrium).

Hershman’s book is essential reading for biographic connoisseurs, for fans of 60s screen culture, and for those specifically interested in underrated and neglected British performers. It is an open question whether the subject would have approved of the final work, or collaborated with it had he still been alive (Finney did not contribute to Strolling Player). I’d like to think yes on both counts.


The Illustrated Vivian Stanshall – book review

Vivian Stanshall was his own peculiar creation.

Born in 1943, and named Victor, this artist, musician and unique personification of the English dandy, free spirit and eccentric, proves hard to pin down.

His widow, Ki Longfellow, has had this book in planning for a long time. Her history. His history. That of friends and collaborators, family and fans, and more.

From the early days as a member of the Bonzo Dog Dada Band – the quirky mix of Studdy drawing and creative canvas – the renamed Vivian excuded a virile and dangerous charm in the most simple of songs. If his Intro was via affectionate spoofs of old 78s, it would be the route to a drunken Viking flame, all consuming much of his legacy in his Muswell Hill flat.

This book is not a biography. Not a memoir. Some of it we’ve seen before (Vivian and Ki’s first date, with him in green with his beard tied with a ribbon, and her, the American who had no clue who he was, regarding him so closely they clicked and understood each other; notes on his solo albums Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead and Teddy Boys Don’t Knit), some is new – the drinking, the chemical experimentation leaving to a broken, brilliant brain and a sensual sensitivity alongside the behaviour one might charitably describe as quirky, but those who lived with it might have felt they were screaming into the void.

The book, which runs to 320 pages of beautiful perfect-bound paperback (and did I say it smells great? Well, it smells great), is, as promised by the title, illustrated, lavishly so with drawings by Ben Wickey, personal photographs from many aspects of Vivian’s life, and writings and paintings by the man himself – he threw his torment and his sense of fun into his art, and wrote love notes to his wife on single sheets of toilet paper – musing while straining?

There’s love on each page. Frustration, too. Loss. Admiration. Regret. It’s a happy book. It’s a sad book. It’s an honest book. There are lyrics – Strange Tongues, Arc of a Diver – which belie the mad and odd image many carry of Stanshall, if they remember him at all. They speak of a perceptive visionary who looked at life and the world so askance that it probably gleamed crystal clear.

Keith Moon, Who drummer, fellow imbiber, partner in frivolities, dead just past thirty. Vivian Stanshall, at thirty out of the Bonzos, creating Sir Henry at Rawlinson End for radio, album, movie. Hubert the hurt who lost his shirt.

Ki opening herself wide open to pull his into that world, sticky, tricky, prickly – the boats, the art, the exploitation, the obsession with cock which made the artist honest and unabashed as addictions removed inhibitions and lifted the Crank into something wider.

Sadness. When Vivian Stanshall died, he was still only young but in that physical shell there was so much strength. That beauty on page 22 (and he was, however curio-bat-crazee that sounds) became the genius, the push me pull me which came apart and reassembled in a shape which couldn’t operate within the normal.

This book is a triumph. It’s pricey for sure, and will cost you the same as a decent West End theatre ticket, or all of the recorded oeuvre of VS put together, but if you are any kind of fan – and it is squarely aimed at the fan – you will feel a connection to the man, or as close as you can get through one woman’s reality of his reality of himself. Or something.


Book review: Strolling Player by Gabriel Hershman

Albert Finney was one of the young Northern actors who gained fame in the so-called ‘kitchen sink’ dramas of the 1960s.  From Salford, and blessed with a memorable name few would associate with a movie star, he has shone in a parallel career on the stage, starting after RADA graduation with a spell with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Gabriel Hershman’s book is the second of three books focusing on British actors with interesting careers and private lives; we have already seen Ian Hendry profiled in Send in the Clowns – and next year we will see Hershman’s authorised biography on Nicol Williamson.

Strolling Player puts Finney centre stage, with an appraisal of his acting CV alongside anecdotes of a more personal nature; with this being a living subject you might have anticipated cooperation and an interview, but sadly that’s missing from the book: however, colleagues and friends fill the gap nicely and try to shed some light on the elusive actor.

Highly recommended to theatre and cinema fans, and those who have caught one of Finney’s rare television appearances. Hershman’s writing style is accessible and interesting and this is a fine addition to anyone’s biography shelf.

Strolling Player: the life and career of Albert Finney is available from The History Press, Amazon and some bookshop chains.


Book review: The Wacky Man

wacky man

From the Legend Press website:

“Lyn G. Farrell is the winner of the 2015 Luke Bitmead Bursary and The Wacky Man is her debut novel.  Lyn grew up in Lancashire where she would have gone to school if life had been different. She spent most of her teenage years reading anything she could get her hands on. She studied Psychology at the University of Leeds and now works in the School of Education at Leeds Beckett University.”

“The Wacky Man” is by no means a comfortable read.  Its story of Amanda (part drawn from the author’s real life) is one of a disturbed and damaged young woman who rages against her mother, her situation, and sad of all, herself (she smashes mirrors which reflect her ‘pig’ face, she hides her face under her hair so people do not look at her, she classes herself as ugly even when we hear in other parts of the book about what a beautiful child she was).

Amanda’s father, Seamus, is brutal, unfeeling and systematically tyrannical around his wife and children.  His abrasive manner and distorted way of showing a connection or affection for his children through violence (a social worker asks a young Amanda ‘do you love your daddy?’ and she replies ‘yes, but I don’t think he loves me’) is hard to stomach, but he is in no way presented as a monster.  This is a book which gives its characters a fully-rounded approach, and in doing so, makes them believable.

Aside from the chapters which have Amanda’s account of her life in the 1st person, we also have chapters which look in from the outside, including her mother Barbara, who was trapped into marriage with Seamus after a drunken sexual romp which led to him wanting to ‘do the right thing’.  These give a different perspective on the woman who, we might feel when reading the daughter’s account, has failed her child and become a bad mother: conversely, we may feel some sympathy for both Barbara and Seamus, no matter how they have conspired unwittingly to create a daughter who relies on shrinks and self-harm to survive day by day in the world.

I did approach this book with some trepidation given the subject matter, also because I know the author personally having worked with her some years ago and when you know someone, sometimes it feels a little odd spooking into their private memories, even if they are publicly shared in this manner.  Of course Lyn G Farrell is not Amanda, but in reading around her biography I see there was physical abuse in her childhood at the hands of her father, and those issues and those of mental illness and collapse, are portrayed extremely well, while still presenting stories of a growing and evolving family life with some moments of humour.

This book will reward any reader willing to give this the time and attention it deserves.  I found it a very emotional experience in places, a disturbing one in others, but somehow I developed a liking for Amanda in particular, as despite her troubles she shows a deep self-awareness and strength which keeps her going.  She’s a fighter, a survivor, she is plucky and when she rages, she bubbles with life.

The title, incidentally, refers to Seamus as both a violent man and, perhaps, one with some mental issues himself, so ‘wacky’ as in the walking stick he uses to beat his young son across the back, and in the definition of a person as ‘wacky’ in terms of their peculiarity or eccentricity.  This is a book which plays with names, with definitions, and ultimately with memories, which is where the mix of voices is so relevant and poignant in a way.

I felt hints of JD Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and Holden Caulfield in the anger of the narrator, but that is very much a teenage-focused book for angry young things, just like the contemporary films featuring James Dean.  The strongest links I got from ‘The Wacky Man’, and they are just hints of the books I have loved on topics relating to mental disintegration in particular, are Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood in ‘The Bell Jar’ (who could be a close cousin of Barbara, or her sister), or Susanna Kaysen’s autobiographical ‘Girl, Interrupted’.

Having said this, Farrell has very much developed her own style and tone and I am very pleased to hear that a future novel is in development.  I recommend this title to you wholeheartedly, and thank Lucy Chamberlain at Legend Press for the gratis copy in return for an honest review on this book’s launch blog tour.

 


Six books which shaped my life

The #9albums meme on Twitter made me think about how this might impact on the books which mean the most to me (and which have followed me for a long time, so no recent titles will appear here).  Dates are for the edition I have to hand, not necessarily original date of publication.

Watership Down, by Richard Adams.  Puffin, 1973.

watershipdown

This story, of a group of rabbits finding a new home, is a bona fide classic, which was later made into a rather scary animated film.  Fiver has psychic powers and can sense bad vibes in the warren in which he and his brother Hazel live, but as he is the runt of the litter and not that powerful in the pecking order, the Chief Rabbit doesn’t listen to him with, as we see later, horrendous consequences.   I try to re-read this book each year and never get bored with it.  The rabbits are given distinct personalities and even their own religion, as the Black Rabbit is their demon of death, and El-ahrairah is almost their Christ figure, or at least comparable to that of Aslan in …

The Chronicles of Narnia, by CS Lewis.  Fontana Lion, c.1980.

narnia

Across seven books (The Magician’s Nephew, in which a young boy and girl find themselves witnessing the birth of Narnia; The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, in which four children become kings and queens and see the death and resurrection of Aslan the Lion; The Horse and His Boy, set within the reign of the Pevensie children with a Prince and Pauper theme; Prince Caspian, which deals with a usurper and a rightful king; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in which a valiant mouse joins a crew to find a number of lost Lords; The Silver Chair, in which a prince is enchanted; and The Last Battle, which deals with the end of Narnia as a world), CS Lewis’ fantasy series is an endlessly fascinating piece of fiction with prose which generally vivid visually stunning images, and a strong storyline in which talking animals and mythical creatures live alongside swordsmen, warm-hearted dwarfs, and a London cabbie who becomes the equivalent of the Biblical Adam.

The Houses-in-Between, by Howard Spring.  Reprint Society, 1954.

housesinbetween

This sprawling saga follows Sarah Undridge, who tells the story in first person, and her family, friends and acquaintances through many years.  It starts in the Victorian age and ends with the Second World War, and the characters and situations crackle with life, across time, class, and legitimacy.  This book has been comfort food for me for many years, and remains my favourite of Spring’s novels.

Flush, by Virginia Woolf.  Penguin, 1977.

flash

Elizabeth Barrett Browning had a little dog.  A cocker spaniel, to be exact.  And Virginia Woolf was his biographer.  This is slight on first glance, but absolutely delightful, and very perceptive on all manner of external forces which impacted on the poet and her pet.

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath.  Faber and Faber, 1989.

belljar

Plath’s fictionalised account of her own teenage years is a tour de force of confessional writing, and in her character of ‘Esther’ we can follow her dreams, ideals, depressions, sexual awakening, suicide attempts, shock therapy, and more.  This book may have influenced Susanna Kaysen’s own work drawing on her own life and experiences, ‘Girl, Interrupted’, which is in itself an excellent book.  But Plath, being essentially a poet with a great eye for detail and sense of the power of the written word, wrote the stronger of the two novels, and even though it was published more than fifty years ago, it remains a gut-punching read today, while also retaining flashes of black humour which are very refreshing.

Silences, by Tillie Olsen.  Virago, 1994.

silences

From a time when I myself was a writer, and discovering a wide variety of female voices, from the Brontës and Austen through to Ruth Fainlight, Jackie Kay, and my historical fiction writer of choice, Jean Plaidy.  Olsen’s book focuses on the invisibility of the woman writer in the context of wider politic views such as race, class, and ultimately gender.  It is a highly feminist book which is very readable and even now, very perceptive and relevant.

 


Book review: Avengerworld

avengerworld

I’ve been spending quite a large chunk of February reading through this charity anthology which gives fans and followers of The Avengers (and The New Avengers) centre stage, from those who have created websites on the topic, contributed to the DVD sets and series 1 reconstructions, or attended conventions around the world, to dedicated collectors of all things Mrs Peel, Steed-fashion-followers, admirers of the adventurous Miss Tara King, and those remembering an adolescent crush on Mrs Gale in her leathers and kinky boots.

I’m a casual Avengers fan myself, fond particularly of the Emma Peel era, and the surviving episodes from the lost lamented opening series with Dr Keel, but I am also intrigued by how people around the world come together in praise of a particular fandom, whether through TV showings and video releases, the lure of a particular character, the recording of audio from shows pre-VHS (which I did myself, but for Sherlock Holmes, which was my youthful fandom alongside Monty Python), or the borderline obsessive devotion to the cause enough to set up regular location hunts, episode synopses, or indeed, a collection like this one.

Very readable and full of references to pop culture and the TV culture of the 1980s (which spoke to me closely as I was growing up in that decade), this volume, tightly curated and edited by Alan Hayes, who has concentrated in print until now on that early, out-of-reach, set of 1961 episodes, is entertaining and full of anecdotes from the personal (James Spiers’ diaries and thoughts about Mrs Peel) to the professional (Jez Wiseman’s recollections about Patrick Macnee).

Buying this volume – from Lulu.com – will allow proceeds to be donated to Champion Chanzige, a charity organisation that exists to improve conditions for underprivileged children at a primary school in Southern Tanzania.  You can almost imagine the dapper Mr Steed and his sidekicks appearing there to do their bit to improve the common good, seeing off the bad guys while always having time to stop and show off those marvellous clothes and exquisitely furnished rooms.

 


London Literature Festival: Terry Gilliam and Tom Jones

Two very different nights out last week in the company of two very different chaps, both born in 1940, at the London Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre.

‘Inside the head of Terry Gilliam’ was a conversation between the American film director, artist, and ex-Python; and Arts Editor of the BBC, Will Gompertz.  Starting with the young Gilliam’s childhood in Minneapolis and working through his start in animation, through to his breakthrough at forty years old as an international film director, this conversation – supporting the publication of ‘Gilliamesque: a pre-posthumous memoir’ – was engaging, informative, and funny.  It also included a rather beautiful montage of scenes from his feature films, and a chance for audience members to ask questions.  Sad to say, with John Hurt’s recent illness it seems that the Don Quixote film is again stalled.

‘A conversation with Tom Jones’ was a night of two halves; first an opportunity for the Welsh singing legend to talk about his life and work, with Matt Everitt from BBC Radio 6, using photographs displayed as slides on a big screen to illustrate the tale and promote his ghostwritten autobiography, ‘Over the top and back’, and then a concert in excess of an hour which opened with ‘It’s Not Unusual’ and then settled into tracks from his new album, ‘Long Lost Suitcase’, proving that the ‘Voice’ was very much present and correct.  We even got an outing of his 80s hit, ‘Kiss’, but thankfully not with the thrusting around of old.  My favourite tracks of the night were Gillian Welch’s ‘Elvis Presley Blues’, Bob Dylan’s ‘What Good Am I’, Leonard Cohen’s ‘Tower of Song’ (and I’m a big Cohen fan, but this was a good version), and John Lee Hooker’s ‘Burnin’ Hell’.


Book review: With Umbrella, Scotch and Cigarettes – an unauthorised guide to The Avengers series 1

I well remember my first viewing of a series 1 episode of ‘The Avengers’, in fact the only one in existence at that point, which was 1993.  Channel 4 showed this episode, called ‘The Frighteners’, and my perception of the series as being around Steed with his bowler hat and umbrella, with a lady sidekick who wore leather and displayed some keen karate moves, was dispelled completely.  Also shaken, and just a bit stirred, was my perception of Ian Hendry, the actor who had died a decade earlier and who I only really knew from his guest appearances in ‘Jemima Shore Investigates’ and ‘Brookside’.  Here, as the main man in ‘The Avengers’, as Dr Keel, was this young, vital, and rather attractive chappie.  And thus was my interest piqued.

Sadly, since that day twenty-one years ago only an episode and a half from the first series have come to light, both in 2001 (‘Girl on the Trapeze’, which did not feature the character of Steed at all; and the first act of the opening episode, ‘Hot Snow’, which gave us the answers to the questions “Why is the show called ‘The Avengers’ at all?” and “What is ‘hot snow’ anyway?”).  They are good enough to leave the question ‘if only’, regretfully hanging in the air, and in some ways the missing Series 1 episodes are only just behind ‘Doctor Who’ in the holy grail of archive television’s ‘most wanted’ titles.

Fast forward to 2014, and this book has been released, written by Richard McGinlay and Alan Hayes, both devoted enthusiasts of the series, who previously collaborated (with Alys Hayes) on a sister book, ‘The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes’.  This time ‘With Umbrella, Scotch and Cigarettes’ (what a great title!) looks at production, transmission of and reception to the twenty-six episodes taped as Series 1, and as such is brim-full of facts, figures, opinion, insight, and line drawings (one has to go to books like Dave Rogers’ ‘The Complete Avengers’ to see still photographs from the show, even if one or two of those were mistakenly identified as belonging to episodes where no archive exists).

Those of us who eagerly purchased the Optimum DVD release of ‘The Avengers’ series 2 just to get the surviving series 1 episodes as extra (and the wonderful accompanying book of John Cura telesnaps from the missing episodes) are aware of the work which has gone into restoring many of the episodes from still photographs and from-script narrations.  More on this particular activity can be found at The Avengers Declassified, where Hayes goes into detail of the work he and Jaz Wiseman put into bringing 14 of the missing episodes back to life.  (A minor quibble on this might be that one has to purchase the whole of ‘The Avengers’ series on disc to get to see all of them, but a true fan would not begrudge the expense).

So Hayes has proved his credentials before this book made it to press, along with fellow fan McGinlay, and together they have produced a piece of work that will make any fan of ‘The Avengers’, however casual, hungry for more.  Those missing episodes are brought to life using a system of sectioning for the chapters – from ‘production brief’ and ‘field report’ to ‘matters arising’ and ‘mentioned in dispatches’ (where contemporary sources such as interviews and articles are discussed).  The sections on the stars themselves are interesting, but peripheral – Hendry fans can refer to the engrossing book ‘Send in the clowns: the yo-yo life of Ian Hendry‘, by Gabriel Hershman, to gain more insight on ‘the original Avenger’, while Patrick Macnee has written his own autobiographies which touch on his long association with the character of Steed throughout ‘The Avengers’ and its successor ‘The New Avengers’.

If you are at all interested in the genesis of a series which many simply associate with Steed and Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), Emma Peel (Diana Rigg), or Tara King (Linda Thorson), this book should make you look again,  If you watch one of the surviving episodes, with the John Dankworth score, you can almost smell the cigarette smoke and feel the smog of a city in conflict, where the doctor and the stranger who is slightly aside of and above the law start by ‘avenging’ the murder of a girl who has simply been in the wrong place and the wrong time, and then put themselves in various dangerous situations throughout the series. The same feeling comes across as you read this book.

The character of Dr Keel was written specifically as a vehicle for Ian Hendry when his previous TV outing, ‘Police Surgeon’, was cancelled (a series which has fared even worse, with only one surviving episode) – when he left to try his luck on the big screen it must have seemed as if the big time was calling, and while it never did, the body of work he left behind does prove there was a gifted actor who was simply passed by (see ‘The Lotus Eaters’, made for TV in the 1970s, for proof of that).

This book brings us back to a time when ‘The Avengers’ was a very different series, with Steed as second fiddle and a far grittier style than that we saw in the Gale-Peel-King days.  Both styles have their place, but it is a real shame that we cannot properly assess the contribution of the Dr Keel years.  So hooray for this book, which fills the gap in an entertaining and informative way.  Highly recommended, and available from www.hiddentigerbooks.co.uk.  Incidentally, an ad at the end of the book hints at a similar venture in planning for the missing episodes of ‘Police Surgeon’ – they have an interested buyer-to-be right here.


Grab-bag book reviews #1

 

RhettButlersPeople

McCaig, Donald. Rhett Butler’s People – the authorized novel based on Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind.  London: Pan, 2008. 

McCaig’s novel should appeal to those who can’t get enough of Rhett and Scarlett’s romance during the American Civil War.  We find out what happened in Rhett’s past, about his family, and about his meeting with Scarlett.  It’s a new perspective, well-written, and will make GWTW devotees see their beloved characters in a different light.  At 514 pages of text, this is a read which will engross the casual reader and delight the fan of Mitchell’s original novel.  I find it more successful that the official sequel, ‘Scarlett’, by Alexandra Ripley.

AcademyAwards

Piazza, Jim & Kinn, Gail.  The Academy Awards: the complete unofficial history.  New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2006 revised ed.

This book presents the story of the Oscars year by year, in ‘Chronicle of the Cinema’ style.  Alongside an array of photographs, there are details of all major winners, a commentary on each year’s awards, and notes on ‘sins of omission’, ‘unmentionables’, ‘firsts’ and so on.  From the 1927 awards (Jannings, Gaynor, Jolson, Chaplin) to 2005 (PS Hoffman, Witherspoon, Weisz, Clooney, Ang Lee), most big names are covered, and along the way we hear about the honorary awards, the nominees and also-rans, and a little bit of gossip.  This is my favourite Oscars book of the three or four I have in my collection, and it is the most accessible if you want quick, well-illustrated statistics and comment.

IllHistoryOldhamsRailways

Hooper, John.  An illustrated history of Oldham’s railways.  Pinner: Irwell Press, 1991.

Now a definitively historical document with Oldham’s railway network now completely replaced by trams, this short history of Oldham’s stations and routes from 1842 through to the 1960s, this study is a little dry when it comes to the text, but has a huge amount of photographs, which not only show the tracks, stock, bridges, and buildings of the railway infrastructure, but also the factories, mills, and viaducts which surrounded them.

PleasureTripsByUnderground

Riddell, Jonathan. Pleasure trips by Underground.  Harrow Weald: Capital Transport, 1998.

This book celebrates the poster artists who were engaged to promote the Underground as a means to travel to work, home, leisure and entertainment.  Published in association with the London Transport Museum, this is a sumptuous coffee table book which has full colour illustrations of the pick of transport poster art, split into sections on shopping, night out, sport, open air, day in town, ceremonial London, the countryside, the Thames, and holidays.  The vast majority of posters featured are from the 1920s and 1930s, with their bold colours and art deco feel.

 

 

 

 

 


Mr Sherlock Holmes

The much-hyped third series of ‘Sherlock’ has come to an end and I have to say, I wasn’t that impressed.  When Benedict Cumberbatch hit our screens with his sociopathic amateur sleuth in the clever ‘A Study in Pink’ back in 2010 we all thought “wow’ and were blown over by the mix of modern situations and locations, technology, and the central friendship between the detective who keeps clear from people and the doctor invalided out from Afghanistan.   The first series picked elements from Conan Doyle’s stories like ‘The Dancing Men’ and brought a believable dynamic between characters we knew (Mrs Hudson, Inspector Lestrade) and those created for the series (Molly the nurse) and our central duo.  And despite being an extremely annoying character as played by Andrew Scott, the swimming pool stand-off between Sherlock and Moriarty at the close of the third episode, ‘The Great Game’ (with plot elements taken from ‘The Bruce-Partington Plans’) was excellent.

The second series had our heroes escaping from their nemesis, meeting the famous ‘Woman’, Irene Adler (here a dominatrix), doing their revision of ‘The Hounds of Baskerville’, and eventually came to a close with ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ in which Sherlock falls to his death from St Bart’s Hospital … or did he?  Our expectations of finding out just how he escaped was thwarted by the non-revelations of ‘The Empty Hearse’, the opener to series three, which had a throwaway reference to the ‘Moran’ of the Conan Doyle story, a nice bit with a video dealer which echoed the bookseller’s “bargains” of Jeremy Brett’s Holmes three decades earlier, but little else.

Cumberbatch was never going to be my favourite Holmes – half a dozen names would make the list before his (Brett, Arthur Wontner, Douglas Wilmer, Peter Cushing, Rathbone, and Eille Norwood in the Stoll silents).  His tedious pseudo-autism is wearing thin after the charming cleverness of a fish out of water of the early first series episodes, and I hope that the planned series four gets him back on track and stops our ‘Great Detective’ being the tedious show-off you want to avoid at parties.  There have been many actors who have tackled the role of Sherlock Holmes: some excellent one-shot performances of which I would have loved to see more, including Nicol Williamson and Robert Stephens, Jonathan Pryce and John Neville, Raymond Massey and Tom Baker.  Of series level Holmes, the Russian Vasily Livanov is excellent, while in cheap 1950s and 1980 TV series retrospectively I rate Ronald Howard and Geoffrey Whitehead very highly, even if they have to work with scripts of the calibre of ‘The Baker Street Nursemaids’ or ‘Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard’.  John Barrymore made a decent stab at the role in the silent era, just the once (in a play remade less successfully years later with Frank Langella).

Of the trio of modern Holmes brought to the screen (not two, as the recent Timeshift documentary had it, ignoring the US reboot named ‘Elementary’ in which Jonny Lee Miller is proving an excellent 21st century Holmes), I haven’t much time for Robert Downey Jnr, as he is only really good at playing himself and his own personality is miles away from the complex contradiction needed to depict Sherlock Holmes.  His Watson (Jude Law) is good though.  Miller’s Watson is a woman (not the first – Joanne Woodward was a Dr Watson to George C Scott’s delusional Sherlock character in ‘They May Be Giants’ and Margaret Colin was the granddaughter of the original John Watson in 1987’s ‘The Return of Sherlock Holmes’) played by Lucy Liu, and she’s brilliant, easily a match for her strange friend.  Cumberbatch is blessed with Martin Freeman as Watson, although I still find his acting technique limited – his Watson is the same as Bilbo Baggins, is the same as Arthur Dent, but it hardly matters.

So who failed to present the creation of Conan Doyle as we would expect him to be?  Christopher Lee may be a devotee of the stories, but his trio of films in which he plays Holmes suffer from bad dubbing (‘The Deadly Necklace’) and poor scripts and Watson (‘Leading Lady’, ‘Victoria Falls’, with Patrick McNee, himself a terrible Holmes in ‘The Hound of London’).  Stewart Granger looked as if he belonged in the Wild West in his ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’, and the less said about Peter Cook’s Jewish Holmes and Dudley Moore’s Welsh Watson in their ‘Hound’, the better.  Reginald Owen was poor in ‘A Study in Scarlet’, Charlton Heston may have played the role on stage in ‘The Crucifer of Blood’ but was far too old for the film.  Richard Roxburgh and Rupert Everett were miscast opposite Ian Hart’s solid Watson in a TV ‘Hound’ and an original story ‘Case of the Silk Stocking’.  John Cleese was, well, John Cleese for Comedy Playhouse’s ‘Elementary, My Dear Watson’ and ‘The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation as We Know It’.

I like my Holmes, and I’ll watch any of them, from the odd defrosted versions of Michael Pennington and Anthony Higgins, the pouty youth of James D’Arcy, the clipped tones of Clive Brook, the teenage sleuths of Guy Henry and Nicholas Rowe, and the intensity of Christopher Plummer in ‘Silver Blaze’ and ‘Murder by Decree’.  And although the third series of ‘Sherlock’ has made me lose the love and admiration I had for Cumberbatch’s performance, just a little bit, I will be back to watch him when he returns.

There’s something about our detective that brings us back time and time again.  Long may he live to be adapted and enjoyed, and long may his intellect and odd view of the world endure.


What’s coming up on loureviews …

Now we are in 2014 let’s take a look at some of the things I will be blogging over the next few months:

Cinema – several screenings at the BFI Southbank which I will be talking about; in the next week alone there are screenings of a ‘Wuthering Heights’ from the 1960s and a ‘Jane Eyre’ from the 1950s, and a Sweeney special.  In February there is a rare big screen outing for the 1970s classic ‘The Godfather’, a TV double of ‘Miss Julie’ (featuring a favourite of this blog, Ian Hendry) and ‘Let’s Murder Vivaldi’ (with Glenda Jackson), and a screening under the Passport to Cinema banner of ‘Black Narcissus’.

Theatre and concerts – the National Theatre’s production of ‘King Lear’ with Simon Russell Beale opens this month, and Heaven 17 play in Birmingham on Valentine’s Day.  Christy Moore and Joan Baez both play at the Royal Festival Hall this year.

Television – ‘Mr Selfridge’ is returning for a second series, ‘The Musketeers’ return in yet another version for the BBC, a biopic about the life of Ian Fleming is showing on Sky Atlantic, ‘Father Brown’ is back in the daytime, and I’ll be looking at series 1 of ‘House of Cards’ as the second series airs on Netflix.

Books – a new occasional series of posts will look at some of the books in my collection, starting with Carl Rollyson’s ‘Hollywood Enigma’ about Dana Andrews, which was first mentioned on here in my post about the film ‘Laura’.

Review projects – I will continue to dip in and out of reviews of the archive television productions aired as part of ‘Masterpiece Theatre’, ‘Play for Today’, and ‘Armchair Theatre’. 

Tribute profiles – for his centenary, the next profile will look at 1940s film favourite John Hodiak.

See you soon.


Publishing a book – a cautionary tale

I have one book out there which was published by a commercial publisher, back in 2000. I won’t name the book or the publisher although those of you who are able to make the connections, you may do so.

I’d like to share my story of how this book, a collection of poetry, was first started, developed, and ended up in bookshops and on the likes of Amazon.

I was interviewed for and accepted on a writers’ project run by Yorkshire Arts Circus (RIP), which was called ‘The Opening Line’. As part of this project we attended regular workshops and were mentored, in groups, by a professional writer who would guide us towards putting together a full-length manuscript ready for publication. And so it was with my book, which I worked hard on, and developed with care over a two year period, through many workshops, shared conversations, one to ones with my mentor. There was a linear storyline to which the poems would cling as you progressed through the book. The finished manuscript would have been a volume of over 100 pages, and over many drafts I came to care about my book and to feel it was very much ‘the finished article’, as did my mentor.

Things started to decline when we were allocated publishers. My publisher was Yorkshire-based and yet was not interested in the aims of the YAC project, or in the views of my mentor and the manuscript we had worked on together. The editor – I pause here rather than calling him ‘my’ editor – jettisoned half of my book and butchered some of the other poems in the volume (now a third of the size) to such a degree that now, with a distance of thirteen years, I would not accept them as my creations or allow them to be reproduced in any other volume. I was told in no uncertain terms that unless I accepted all his changes there would be no book.

So my mutiliated opus made its way into the world, with a fairly small print run. It has turned up in places as far flung as Hawaii, Greece, and Sydney. It was remaindered in Borders Books and Video when they were still active in the UK (I bought one of the remainder copies). It has reached the dizzy heights of ten times its price on ABE Books. We launched it with a reading and book signing at the end of 2000 – the only time I have been bothered by any level of attention for my creative writing; and eighteen months later I was invited to the Poetry Cafe to promote it and my second book-in-planning, by doing a reading. After this, and positive reviews in Poetry London, Orbis, and Stride Magazine, it all went quiet. I think one reviewer suggested I was a name to watch in the future and that readers should ‘write my name on a bus ticket’ in case they come across it in future years. Come to think of it, he’s the one who made the invitation to the Poetry Cafe, and then offered to mentor me through the next book. Strangely, he didn’t deliver on that after we met, perhaps because I was not a willowy fragile blonde who could be manipulated!

My second book was taken up by a publisher who later went bankrupt – I eventually published it myself via Amazon Kindle, where it hasn’t exactly set the world on fire. But – this second book is all my work, and all my editing. I’m not saying you should never take suggestions or criticism, but the heavy-handed and mean-spirited attitude of my first book’s publisher has rankled so much in the intervening decade that – one or two pieces apart – I am actually ashamed of the way the book turned out, of the dismissive attitude of the editor, and the lack of discussion of the meaning of the book in the first place.

One major theme which was completely removed on the grounds that it was ‘rubbish’ was the theme of angels watching over us. This had a special resonance because the book of poems was written for a friend who had died ten years before, someone who I had promised a book to many years prior to writing it. I even dedicated it to her – to ‘Corky’ – but even that dedication was not allowed by my publisher, perhaps because he thought I was addressing my words to a cat or a dog?

So my words of advice at the end of this. By all means, as a writer, murder your own darlings. But DO NOT allow anyone else to do so. If it means you miss out on an opportunity, so be it. I never made money from my book, and I would rather have kept my artistic integrity.

Oh, and my mentor disappeared as soon as all this happened. It seemed that his interest only lasted as long as YAC’s pay cheques. I have never bought a volume of his poems since.

NaBloPoMo November 2013


Doctors and Jane Austen

The daytime soap opera ‘Doctors’ recently spent a whole week of episodes based on the works of Jane Austen, using a patient with selective mutism who lives in her own fantasy world as Lizzie Bennet of Pride and Prejudice fame for the Monday and Tuesday instalments, titled ‘Austenland’, with other books such as Northanger Abbey and Emma dealt with later in the week. Lizzie (and Emma, the two characters seem to be merged) are played straight which makes a strange disconnect with the usual hospital shenanigans.

A parody of Austen’s books is nothing new (we may think of ‘Lost in Austen’) but this amusing idea of changing the doctors and nurses into bodices and crinoline works well enough as throwaway entertainment.  A daytime audience made up of lovers of period drama is obviously the target for this soap, and some of the actors look as if they are enjoying the change of scene and script.

Doctors is usually a busy daytime drama set in a Midlands hospital and following the lives of the staff and patients, but it is fun watching the familiar faces portraying Darcy, Lady Catherine, Mr Collins, and Mrs Bennet!  It does have a bit of ‘out of school’ feel though, or one of those Morecambe and Wise specials where Eric and Ernie and their hapless guest runs through one of the classics.

Read more about the special Austen week at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/galleries/p01hs8f1.

NaBloPoMo November 2013


Charles Dickens: Hard Times adaptations

There have been two adaptations of Charles Dickens’ novel of a Northern industrial town, ‘Hard Times’, both for television.

The 1977 version (ITV):

In 1977 Granada transmitted a four-hour version starring Patrick Allen, Timothy West, Jacqueline Tong, and Alan Dobie.  I first saw this back in 2006, on VHS, and this is what I thought:

“At nearly four hours, this version of ‘Hard Times’, made by Granada TV, scores highly, moving along at a much slower pace than, say, the 1990s version made for children’s television.

The novel by Charles Dickens is not one of his best known; however, in the tale of the mills of Coketown, the pompous self-made mill-owner Bounderby, and the miserable Gradgrind children, worn down by their father’s insistence that facts are the only things one needs in life, he portrays an interesting set of characters that lend themselves well to film adaptation.

As Gradgrind and Bounderby, Patrick Allen and Timothy West are both excellent. Jacqueline Tong is a feisty Louisa, who handles most of her scenes well, while Edward Fox is an oily Harthouse. Alan Dobie completes the main players as mill-hand Stephen Blackpool, a man confined and crushed by fate.

Long unavailable on home video, this adaptation deserves to be seen by a new generation and it is a pity that Dickens’ collections on DVD have generally included the later version which is much shorter and has much less depth.”

Since then a DVD has been made available of the Granada version, distributed by Network.

The 1994 version (BBC):

Made for BBC children’s television, this version was shorter, sparser, and featured Bob Peck and Alan Bates.  My thoughts, also from 2006:

“A basic adaptation of ‘Hard Times’ is lifted above the ordinary by the impressive cast – Bob Peck as Gradgrind, Alan Bates as Bounderby, Dilys Laye as Mrs Sparsit, Richard E Grant as Harthouse, Bill Paterson as Stephen Blackpool, and Harriet Walter as Rachel.

Of course the story is somewhat compacted in a running time not much over an hour and a half, but the omissions are not that puzzling and the story is left easy to follow. The quality of the acting and the script mean that this adaptation isn’t taking its young audience for granted.

Now available as part of a DVD set of Dickens’ works, and well worth buying.”

I didn’t credit Beatie Edney, who played Louisa.  I don’t recall her as much as I do Tong in the Granada version, which may explain why I didn’t refer to her when I first looked at the 1994 adaptation.  The ‘DVD set of Dickens’ works’ I refer to is an American release,  It is also  available on its own and in a Dutch box set if you are looking for a Region 2 version.

 


Book review: Inside Updown (new edition)

This sumptuous revised edition of Richard Marson’s book, ‘Inside Updown’, published by Kaleidoscope, covers the original series of London Weekend Television’s ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’, with appendices on its official sequel, ‘Thomas and Sarah’, and, new to this edition, the complete script of the proposed film (which would have featured Richard Chamberlain alongside key members of the television series cast).

A large hardback back running at over 300 pages, filled with photographs, episode synopses, and interviews with cast and crew, this is an essential tribute to one of ITV’s greatest period dramas.  Originally broadcast in 68 episodes from 1971-1975, it has become a popular ratings winner during repeat showings, and has also become successful in other countries, notably the United States, where selected episodes ran in the Masterpiece season.

One chapter which was considered too large to include in this edition – on the BBC reboot of the series in 2010 – can be downloaded via the official website for the series at http://www.updown.org.uk/.


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