Category Archives: cinema

The Snowman Experience (Hyde Park Winter Wonderland)

In honour of the 40th anniversary of the publication of the Raymond Briggs book of The Snowman, this new “experience” has been created by Backyard Cinema.  It claims to be a fully immersive experience in which fans of both book and the 1982 television film can enjoy the story in a “3-D” setting, as “if you are flying with the Snowman”.  In short, it claims something special: but is it?

The attraction begins with the now obligatory photographs which you can buy later in the gift shop.  Then to a waiting area where a trailer promises great things ahead, before you are ushered into a screening room to watch the first part of the film.

This area is dressed with sets of both the living room and the kitchen, plus windows leading to the outside.  A snowball hits the kitchen window in virtual form when the little boy throws it. The Christmas tree lights and the TV come on and off in synch with what we see on the screen.  When the Snowman turns on the hot tap, steam comes out of the one on the set.

But sadly no magic feeling when the Snowman comes to life at midnight, other than the spotlighting of a grandfather clock.

snowman 3

Then to room two, which you reach through a forest of branches and crunchy ground, to stand and watch the bike ride and the  Walking in the Air flying sequence.  At the point the Snowman and the boy take off, the 4:3 ratio film is zoomed in and stretched to widescreen, and I’m sorry to say the quality suffered, spoiling many of the sequences such as the man with the bottle, and the appearance of the whale.

Finally, the North Pole party is viewed (back to original ratio, happily) in a set dressed with a party table, lights, and a brief appearance of the Snowman himself.

snowman 2

This experience is an interesting idea, but to me it was a three-star experience showcasing a five-star film.  The power is in Briggs’s story and how it was adapted for the small screen.  That does come across – just – but the extras just aren’t magical or special enough for me, and I left a little disappointed.  Immersive experiences are thriving in the theatre and this needs to up its game to compete with them.

In the gift shop the best value items are a small Snowman for £9, one of the photos from the start for £10 (or four for £25), and small badge pins.  You can splash out on a beautiful Stieff Snowman for £69, or a large cuddly version for £26.  Or if you would like the anniversary editions of the book or film, these are here too.

Tickets for The Snowman Experience are £13, and the experience takes 45 minutes to complete, with shows starting every 20 minutes.  Entry to Winter Wonderland itself is free.

 


DVD audit 2018 – part 1

By no means my entire collection, here is a peek at some of the films and TV series which make up my DVD collection.

Check back for more and for some book shelfies during the next few weeks.


Shakespeare 400: Film and TV

There have been many, many screen versions of Shakespeare’s plays – please follow the links below to my lists on Letterboxd to find a range of straight adaptations and versions inspired by the Bard’s work.

Such a rich store of films, television and recordings from the RSC, the National Theatre, the Globe, and Digital Theatre exist to prove the Bard remains relevant 400 years after his passing.

tragedieshamlet

Shakespeare – The Tragedies (http://boxd.it/8yDy), covering 11 of the 37 plays: Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Timon of Athens, Titus Andronicus, Troilus and Cressida.

Five to try:

  • Antony and Cleopatra (1974, dir Jon Scoffield, with Richard Johnson and Janet Suzman).  This will be released by Network Distributing later this year.
  • The Bad Sleep Well (1960, dir Akira Kurosawa).  A Japanese loose version of Hamlet.
  • Macbeth on the Estate (1997, dir Penny Woolcock, with James Frain).
  • Othello (1990, dir Trevor Nunn, with Willard White and Ian McKellen).
  • Romeo and Juliet (1984, from the Royal Ballet, with Wayne Eagling and Alessandra Ferri, to Kenneth Macmillan’s choreography).

comediescomedydench

Shakespeare – The Comedies (http://boxd.it/8yDS), covering 12 of the 37 plays: All’s Well That Ends Well, The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Measure for Measure, Merry Wives of Windsor, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing.

Five to try:

  • The Comedy of Errors (1976, dir Trevor Nunn, with Judi Dench, with music by Guy Woolfenden).
  • McLintock! (1963, dir Andrew V. McLaglen, with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara).  A Western inspired by The Taming of the Shrew.
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935, dir Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle).  A Hollywood fantasy with Mickey Rooney as Puck.
  • Much Ado About Nothing (2012, dir Joss Whedon).
  • The Merchant of Venice (1972, dir Cedric Messina, with Frank Finlay as Shylock and Maggie Smith as Portia).

historiesrichardshaw

Shakespeare – The Histories (http://boxd.it/8yEc), covering 10 of the 37 plays: Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Henry V, Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3, Richard III, Henry VIII, King John.

Five to try:

  • Richard III (1995, dir Richard Loncraine, with Ian McKellen).  Set in the Nazi era with a modern feel.
  • Henry V (1944, dir by and starring Laurence Olivier).  A stirring version made during the Second World War.
  • King John (1984, dir David Giles, with Leonard Rossiter, for the BBC Shakespeare).
  • Henry VIII (2010, dir Mark Rosenblatt, for Globe on Screen, with Dominic Rowan).
  • Richard II (1978, dir David Giles, with Derek Jacobi, for the BBC Shakespeare).

romancestempestglobe

Shakespeare – The Romances (http://boxd.it/8yEw), covering 4 of the 37 plays: Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest.

Five to try:

  • Prospero’s Books (1991, dir Peter Greenaway, with John Gielgud).  Inspired by The Tempest.
  • The Winter’s Tale (1999, dir Gregory Doran, with Antony Sher, for the RSC).
  • The Tempest (1908, dir Percy Stow).
  • Cymbeline (2013, dir Michael Almereyda, with Ethan Hawke).  With an urban gang setting.
  • The Winter’s Tale (1910, dir Thanhouser).

 

 


Shakespeare 400 in images

  • Marlon Brando plays Mark Antony in the 1953 film of ‘Julius Caesar’;
  • Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in the 1968 film of ‘Romeo and Juliet’;
  • Kenneth Branagh in his 1996 film of ‘Hamlet’;
  • Laurence Olivier in his 1944 film of ‘Henry V’;
  • Wendy Hiller, Cyril Cusack, Michael Kitchen and Roger Daltrey in the 1983 BBC Shakespeare TV version of ‘The Comedy of Errors’;
  • Simon Russell Beale in the National Theatre’s 2012 production of ‘Timon of Athens’;
  • Dumaine (Adrian Lester), Berowne (Kenneth Branagh), Longaville (Matthew Lillard), and Ferdinand (Alessandro Nivola) in the 2000 film of ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’;
  • Philip Quast as Achilles and Jeremy Sheffield as Patroclus in the RSC’s 1996 production of ‘Troilus and Cressida’;
  • Jonathan and Phoebe Pryce in the Globe Theatre’s 2015 production of ‘The Merchant of Venice’;
  • Judi Dench as Titania in the 1968 film of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’;
  • Antony Sher as Falstaff in the RSC’s 2014 production of ‘Henry IV Part 1’;
  • Ian McKellen in the 1979 TV version of the RSC’s production of ‘Macbeth’;
  • Guy Henry in the RSC’s 2001 production of ‘King John’;
  • Robert Shaw (Leontes), Rosalie Crutchley (Hermoine) and Patrick McNee (Polixines) in the 1962 TV production of ‘A Winter’s Tale’;
  • Paul Robeson in a 1942 stage production of ‘Othello’;
  • Christopher Benjamin as Falstaff in the Globe’s 2010 production of ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’;
  • Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore in the 1953 film of ‘Kiss Me Kate’ (based on ‘The Taming of the Shrew’);
  • Gary Bond and Irena Mayeska as Benedick and Beatrice in the 1970 Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’;
  • Anthony Hopkins in the 1999 film of ‘Titus’;
  • Heathcote Williams as Prospero and Toyah as Miranda in the 1979 film of ‘The Tempest’;
  • Romola Garai as Celia in the 2006 film of ‘As You Like It’;
  • Ben Miles as the Duke and Anna Maxwell-Martin as Isabella in the 2010 Almeida Theatre production of ‘Measure for Measure’;
  • Derek Jacobi in the BBC Shakespeare TV adaptation of ‘Richard II’ (1978);
  • Ian Charleson and cast of the BBC Shakespeare TV adaptation of ‘All’s Well That End’s Well’ (1980);
  • The National Theatre of Greece at the Globe in their 2012 production of ‘Pericles’;
  • Tom Courtenay in the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 1999 production of ‘King Lear’;
  • Alan Howard in the RSC’s 1978 production of ‘Coriolanus’;
  • Alan Bates and Frances de La Tour in the RSC’s 2000 production of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’;
  • William Houston as Prince Hal and David Troughton as Henry IV in the RSC’s 2000 production of ‘Henry IV Part 2’;
  • Mark Rylance in the Globe’s 2012 production of ‘Richard III’;
  • Richard Johnson in the BBC Shakespeare TV adaptation of ‘Cymbeline’ (1983);
  • Tommy Steele as Feste in the 1969 TV adaptation of ‘Twelfth Night’;
  • Dominic Rowan as Henry with Amanda Lawrence as his fool in the Globe’s 2010 production of ‘Henry VIII’.

Shakespeare 400: The Complete Walk and Shakespeare Live! (RSC)

The 23rd April is both St George’s Day and the anniversary of both the birth and death of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), and as we have now reached 400 years since the poet/playwright’s death, both the Globe Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company have created projects which happened this weekend.

completewalk

The Complete Walk presents all 37 plays in chronological order in a route starting at St Thomas’ Hospital with The Two Gentlemen of Verona and finishing at Potters Fields Park with The Tempest.

We saw eleven of the plays between Hungerford Bridge (Titus Andronicus, with Peter Capaldi, rather battling against the noise of the trains above), to the back of the Oxo Tower (The Merry Wives of Windsor, with Mel Giedroyc).  Three screens (The Comedy of Errors, Henry IV Part 2, and Much Ado About Nothing) were not working as we passed, and I understand technical issues have plagued this project a bit on a windy, cold and showery day yesterday – hopefully today will have more of a hit rate.

  1. Titus Andronicus (under Hungerford Bridge).  Filmed in Rome, this shows a different side of Capaldi than is familiar to most these days from Doctor Who.
  2. Henry VI Part 2 (under Golden Jubilee Bridge).  Filmed at Spitalsfield Market, this was a very modern take of a little-known history play.
  3. Romeo and Juliet (opposite Royal Festival Hall).  Filmed at Verona with Jessie Buckley and Luke Thompson in glorious blue tints in the closing tomb scene, this was well acted and also featured scenes from the Globe’s production with Ellie Kendrick and Adetomiwa Edun.
  4. Richard III (next to Waterloo Bridge).  Filmed in the Tower of London, with a glorious monologue from Claire Higgins, Queen Margaret’s speech from Act 4.
  5. Love’s Labour’s Lost (in front of the National Theatre).  Filmed in Navarre, with Gemma Arterton and David Dawson.  Beautifully shot but the volume made it hard to follow.
  6. King John (in front of the National Theatre).  The Hubert and Arthur scene, filmed a the Holy Sepulchre, with the right amount of murderous intent and tension.
  7. Richard II (Observation Point).  Filmed in Westminster Hall, with James Norton in the abdication and ‘I have wasted time’ scenes.  An actor I don’t care for, but I wanted to see more of this.
  8. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Gabriel’s Wharf Bandstand).  Filmed at Wilton House, with the Theseus and Hippolyta scenes, and the wall scene with ‘the rude mechanicals’.  Funny but lacking the play’s magic.
  9. The Merchant of Venice (Riverside Slice).  Filmed in the Jewish Ghetto, Venice, with Jonathan and Phoebe Pryce reprising their roles as Shylock and Jessica alongside scenes from the Globe production.  Looks great but the sound was drowned out by an adjacent screen.
  10. Henry IV Part 1 (Bernie Spain Gardens).  Filmed at the George Inn, Southwark, with Toby Jones as a drunken Falstaff we first meet passed out in a cubicle in the Gents.  Very funny but far too loud.
  11. The Merry Wives of Windsor (behind the Oxo Tower).  The scene between the Mistresses discussing Falstaff and the basket, with one of them in drag.  Plays like a comedy sketch.

It’s a varied project, and an accomplished one.  The YouTube channel for Shakespeare’s Globe includes trailers for Timon of Athens (with Simon Russell Beale) and King Lear (with Kenneth Cranham).  I hope this project – which also ran in Liverpool this weekend, but mainly in interior locations – has an additional life beyond the opportunity to see the films in situ.

shakespearelive

In the evening, there was a television broadcast live from Stratford-upon-Avon which mixed music (excerpts from West Side Story and Kiss Me Kate, opera and ballet, jazz and hip hop, and appearances from Rufus Wainwright and tenor Ian Bostridge), comedy (a delightful ‘nine Hamlet’ sketch which includes Cumberbatch, McKellen, Dench and others, including Prince Charles, advising on how to speak the classic ‘To Be or Not To Be’ soliloquy), speeches (Ian McKellen as Thomas More, Roger Allam as Lear, Judi Dench as Titania with Al Murray as Bottom, Rory Kinnear and Ann-Marie Duff as the Macbeths) and filmed inserts (Joseph Fiennes within the Shakespeare Trust properties at Stratford, and Simon Russell Beale doing part of the John of Gaunt speech from Richard II).

Uneven at the start, this settled into a classy piece of live theatre, although it was not quite as good as the earlier ‘National Theatre at 50’.  Appearances from the likes of Helen Mirren, David Suchet, and the aforementioned Dame Judi and Sir Ian interested me more than a group of students performing Bernstein or a poorly spoken Juliet in the balcony scene.  Still, there was a good range of plays represented, and a strong sense of how Shakespeare has moved into many areas of popular culture.

olivierhamet

To close this post, I will share the costume from the 1948 film of Hamlet, starring and directed by Laurence Olivier, which can be found in the BFI Southbank’s small Shakespeare on Film exhibition in their Mezzanine (above the box office), which accompanies their rather populist season of screenings.


Review of 2015

This is the point where, now 2016 has started with the traditional fireworks and hangovers, we have a look back to the good (and bad) of 2015.

Theatre

In January I saw two productions, the frankly disappointing ‘Potted Sherlock’, and the excellent ‘Taken at Midnight’, in which Penelope Wilton excelled as a woman whose son was in the hands of the Nazis.

February brought a new Tom Stoppard at the National, ‘The Hard Problem’, which tried to mix academia with personal relationships, but didn’t really do either justice.

In March I enjoyed the revival of ‘Harvey’, starring James Dreyfuss, which stopped off at Richmond before a run in the West End, and I travelled to Hampstead for my first visit to the theatre there to see Zoe Wanamaker in the revival of ‘Stevie’ (a piece I know well from the Glenda Jackson film).

April brought three top-class musicals associated with Stephen Sondheim: first, the show on which he wrote lyrics, ‘Gypsy’, at the Savoy, which some of you will have seen and enjoyed when it was on television over the Christmas break, and second, the transfer of ‘Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ at the ENO, with Bryn Terfel, Emma Thompson, and the welcome return to these shores of Philip Quast.  Finally, the concert version of ‘Follies’, at the Royal Albert Hall, which was ridiculously overpriced but certainly star-studded.

In May, a silly but perfectly-pitched tribute to the Bonzo Dog frontman, Vivian Stanshall, who died twenty years ago, was on for one night only at the Bloomsbury.  ‘Radio Stanshall’ teamed old hands with a fun reboot of the Sir Henry at Rawlinson End tales.   Meanwhile, over at the Globe Theatre Jonathan Pryce impressed as Shylock in ‘The Merchant of Venice’, and on transfer from Stratford-upon-Avon, Antony Sher and Harriet Walter reteamed for the first time since the late 90s Macbeth for ‘Death of a Salesman’, which was a definite highlight of the year.

June at the Barbican heralded the Beckett International Festival, of which I chose to see the starry ‘Waiting for Godot’ with Hugo Weaving, Richard Roxburgh, and Philip Quast (again!).  I love the play, and this production seemed to polarise audiences, but I found it very good indeed.

In July, there was comedy at the National in ‘The Beaux’ Strategem’, and a major misfire at the Young Vic with a head-scratching version of ‘The Trial’, in which a conveyer belt set and Rory Kinnear were excellent but the translation was not.  Closer to home, Julian Clary headlined the Ealing Comedy Festival, while in town, David Suchet donned a dress for a hilarious take on Lady Bracknell in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.

August brought us one of the year’s total turkeys, at the Charing Cross Theatre, where the dreadful ‘Dusty’ had cast changes, delayed press nights and worse.  Back at the National, ‘Three Days in the Country’ was a new and truncated version of the Turgenev play, which had a bit of overacting from John Simm but a finely judged comic bit from Mark Gatiss.

In September, the delightful Rattigan play ‘Flare Path’ stopped by at Richmond, while ‘Mr Foote’s Other Leg’ did well at Hampstead before a West End transfer – I especially liked Dervla Kirwan’s delicate actress-whore.    And the month ended with the new version of the Bristol production of ‘Jane Eyre’, a high-energy adaptation which was a total joy to watch.

October saw a trip to the Bridewell Theatre for an excellent version of ‘Sunset Boulevard’ by the amateur Geoids Musical Theatre, an ensemble I would happily watch again.

In November the final piece of the RSCs King and Country puzzle fell into play with the showing of ‘Henry V’, which I liked a lot, and which, coming so soon after the Paris attacks, felt oddly relevant and very moving.

Meanwhile, December brought the undoubted un-highlight of the year, with the National’s jaw-droppingly terrible ‘wonder.land’.   I would recommend a trip to the National’s Shed instead to see the fun ‘I Want My Hat Back’, and New Year’s Eve brought the year to a sentimental close with ‘Goodnight Mr Tom’.

Concerts and live cinema relays

The Southbank Centre hosted a special ‘Friday Night is Music Night’ in February which I really enjoyed: with the Light Programme being represented with everything from Max Miller and Roy Hudd to Flanders & Swann and Gilbert & Sullivan.  The concert a week later in the same series, looking at post-1959 music, was fun, but not quite in the same league.

On Valentine’s Day the Berlin Philharmonic with their conductor Sir Simon Rattle was in residence at the Royal Festival Hall, with a programme showcasing their splendid rendition of Mahler No 2.   And on the big screen there was a live relay from the Royal Opera House of ‘The Flying Dutchman’, with Bryn Terfel, which was another of the year’s highlights: he really had made this role his own.

In April Daniel Barenboim was at the Royal Festival Hall with the Staatkapelle Berlin, playing Elgar, and it was an honour to be there, especially to see him awarded the Elgar Medal which he dedicated to his late wife, Jacqueline du Pre.   This month also saw a live musical accompaniment to a little-seen Lillian Gish film, ‘Annie Laurie’, at the Barbican.

In October, the London Literature Festival gave us both Terry Gilliam (with a video retrospective of some of his films), and Tom Jones (who sang, and by heck, is he still good).  The end of the month had a return visit to the Royal Festival Hall from Randy Newman, who with just a piano, was rather marvellous.

December was the month of NT Live screenings, with the Broadway production of ‘Of Mice and Men’ and the Barbican ‘Hamlet’ (which I didn’t add here for some reason, but which can be seen in my review over on Letterboxd).  We ended the year in concert mode with the professional gloss of Andre Rieu and his Johann Strauss Orchestra at Wembley Arena.

Film

Letterboxd (where I post as loureviews) tells me I watched 451 films – including shorts and miniseries, in 2015.  Eight of those merited a full, five-star score, and all were rewatches: Mary Poppins, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Lifeboat, I Know Where I’m Going, Guys and Dolls, Witchfinder General, Rebecca, and The Snowman.

There were, however, some four and a half star films I had seen for the first time, so these are my picks of the year: Night Will Fall (2014), Laughter in the Dark (1969), Her (2013), Maxine Peake in Hamlet (2015), Mr Axelford’s Angel (1974), The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), Contempt/Le Mepris (1963), Shylock’s Ghost (2015), Night and Day (2015), and Tony Benn: Will and Testament (2014).

The turkeys of the year, the true stinkers, number ten: Carry on England (1976), Happy Hooligan (1903), Ride Along (2014), Sherlock Holmes (2011 – and it isn’t the Asylum one), The Other Woman (2014), Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015), The Nut Job (2014), Annie (2014), Bed and Breakfast (1938), and The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978).

Tributes

I marked a trio of anniversaries this year.  Twenty years since the death of Vivian Stanshall, thirty-five years since the death of AC/DC frontman Bon Scott, and twenty-six years since the death of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman.  You can find links to all these in the ‘Index to tribute profiles’ at the top of the page.

Exhibitions

In January, the London Transport Museum was the venue for ‘Goodbye, Piccadilly’, which I loved.  Later in the year, the Hayward Gallery hosted the thoughtful ‘History is Now’, which was odd but engaging.

 


Highlights of 2014

I want to share my personal cultural highlights of the year, especially when living in the capital where so much goes on and so many opportunities are around to visit the theatre, the cinema, and exhibitions (I haven’t done many this year, so I haven’t ranked them).  I don’t work in this field (I’m a senior manager in academic libraries), but I like to see as much as possible, and with the BFI Southbank, the National Theatre, the Southbank Centre, and the Barbican, we are extremely lucky, as well as being able to make the occasional excursion into the expensive West End.

Theatre:

1 The Crucible, at the Old Vic.  Richard Armitage was superb as John Proctor in Arthur Miller’s still-powerful play.

2 Ballyturk, at the National Theatre.  This divided audiences but I really liked it and came away thinking about Enda Walsh’s absurb creation for a long time afterwards.

3 Happy Days, at the Young Vic.  Juliet Stevenson was heartbreaking as Winnie in the Samuel Beckett classic.  More Beckett to come in 2015 as I see ‘Waiting for Godot’ at the Barbican.

4 Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, at the Barbican.  The RSC brought Antony Sher as Falstaff and Jasper Britton as Henry in this pair of classic Shakespeares.

5 The Importance of Being Earnest, at Richmond Theatre.  I liked this gentle parody of the Wilde classic, seen through the eyes of an ageing amateur theatre company.

Honorable mentions go to the revival of Miss Saigon, at the Prince Edward, and Twelve Angry Men, at the Garrick.

The disappointments of the year were Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and Richard III, at Trafalgar Studios.

Film:

1 NT Live – there were some excellent performances transmitted to cinemas this year – War Horse, Skylight, and A Streetcar Named Desire.  This is fast becoming a much cheaper alternative to forking out London theatre prices.

2 Jane Eyre (1956).  The BFI Southbank showed the entire Stanley Baker/Daphne Slater series as part of its Gothic season back in January.  It is absolutely terrific.  Whether it will ever see the light of day on DVD (it is a BBC production) is doubtful, but if you get a chance to see it, it is a definite must-see.  It is now my fourth favourite version of the eleven films/miniseries I have seen adapted from this book.

3 Monty Python Live – 1 Down, 5 To Go.  I saw this at the cinema, live from the final night at the O2.  I am a long-time Python fan but was sceptical about whether this reunion would work.  It was a musical comedy extravaganza.

4 I was very pleased to get a chance to watch the original Django (1966) on one of those cheapo Sky channels.  The gorgeous Franco Nero in an ultra-violent (for its day) Spaghetti western.

5 I got twelve films into my Reverse Hitchcock marathon.  With 44 more films to go, I might finish this in 2015, but then again I might not.  Psycho and Frenzy were particularly brilliant.

Honorable mention goes to my discovery of the 1919 The World and Its Woman, which I thought was lost.  Now I have seen three Geraldine Farrar films!  You can see it, and many other films from European film archives, here.

Television:

1 Peaky Blinders (series 2, BBC).  The television event of the year as far as I’m concerned.

2 CBeebies commemorated the anniversary of the Great War with a very touching short called Poppies.  Quite superb in its simplicity, geared to its young pre-school audience.

3 Grand Hotel continued its mix of murder, secrets and period drama in the Spanish series running on Sky Arts.  It returns for a final run in the first week of January 2015.

4 The viral video that was Too Many Cooks took everyone by surprise with its quirky take on American sitcoms.

5 We got the first series of The Vikings, which ran, curiously, on History, with an American and Irish cast and creatives.  It was a TV highlight while Gabriel Byrne appeared as the warrior leader (he also appeared with less fanfare as the alcoholic pathologist in Quirke), but tailed off thereafter.

Honorable mentions go to Remember Me, a creepy ghost story starring Michael Palin, and the Victoria Wood play That Day We Sang.

DVDs:

1 My purchase of the year has to be the 1965-69 series The Power Game.  Intrigue in the boardroom (and implied in the bedroom) this series from half a century ago is sharp, engrossing, well-acted, and has a marvellous opening sequence where all the main cast assemble in Paternoster Square in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral.

2 The Dutch release of Who Pays The Ferryman was well worth watching.  I like Michael J Bird’s dramas and was similarly impressed with his earlier series The Lotus Eaters.

3 Young Anthony Newley made his debut in The Adventures of Dusty Bates, a TV serial that has made it to cut price DVD.  He was around 12 or 13 here and wasn’t quite in Vegas mode, yet.  He was a decent little performer.

4 The wonderful set of Ealing Rarities from Network Distributing came to an end with volume 14.  This series of discs has brought 56 films back into distribution, some for the first time since their release.  Network continue with their companion series of British Musicals of the 1930s, which is about to reach volume 3.

5 The BFI, as part of their Sci-Fi season, released Out of the Unknown, which presents all the surviving episodes of the BBC landmark series.  I have had these episodes on bootleg discs for years but this set makes them look as great as possible with a sumptuous booklet.  Well worth a purchase, and will be the subject of a more in-depth blog post in 2015.

Sport:

The only event worth noting really is the surprising rise of Brentford FC in the Championship, which is good news for the other member of our house, a fan of some 40+ years standing.  May they stay in the top half of the table for the remainder of the season.

Concerts:

Chrissie Hynde and Joan Baez both impressed, independently, at the Royal Festival Hall.  Chrissie gave us her new album but saved the best of Pretenders material to last, and Baez performed a rounded set of classics.


Dr Watson: ten memorable portrayals

There have been many arguments about who is the ‘best’ Sherlock Holmes on film or television, and I have mentioned a few of my favourites on this blog.

What of Dr Watson?  Here’s my starter for ten, those gentlemen (and lady) who have most memorably played the good doctor.

10.  James Mason.  Film: Murder By Decree, 1979.  Holmes was played by Christopher Plummer. Continue reading


Jane Eyre (1996) ***

The first time I saw this Zeffirelli version of the famous Bronte classic, I wasn’t particularly impressed with either Charlotte Gainsbourg’s feisty interpretation of Jane, or with William Hurt’s over-sensitive version of Rochester.

This Jane is the one with dark and brooding tendencies (played as a child by Anna Paquin, this side of her comes across well); while Rochester is damaged by his past but not quite right in the characterisation, less a gothic hero than a damp squib.

A second viewing put both in a more favourable light, but the problem is that ‘Jane Eyre’ has many other, much better, adaptations out there and this version adds very little. In the cast we have Billie Whitelaw as a creepy Grace Poole, the reliable Joan Plowright as Mrs Fairfax, Samuel West as the colourless St John Rivers, and Maria ‘Last Tango’ Schneider as the imprisoned lunatic, Bertha.

One or two scenes stay in the memory – Josephine Serre as the very French Adele; Jane’s sketching; the wedding sequences; Jane and Rochester’s first meeting (but this scene has been done much better before) – but as a whole it is pretty throwaway and forgettable.


Jane Eyre (2011) ****

A radical shake-up of the plot shows Jane’s flight from Thornfield before anything else, before returning to her childhood story.

Australian actress Mia Wasikowska, previously known for the lead in Alice in Wonderland, is a very different Jane to those we have seen before. She is so quiet and delicate the wind could blow her away. My only gripe would be that her accent wanders and can’t quite decide where to stick.

German-Irish actor Michael Fassbinder is a traditional looking Mr Rochester, but his first interview with Jane is disappointingly truncated.

Having said this, the 2011 version is excellent and the changing around of plot points to make the adaptation more cinematic gives this version some bite. I know that Fassbender has made his name since this as an actor who generally plays complex low-lifes or undesirables, but in this he is everything a Rochester should be.

Good support, too, from Jamie Bell (little Billy Elliot, as St John Rivers!), Sally Hawkins (as nasty Aunt Reed), and Freya Parks (as tragic Helen Burns).


Jane Eyre (1943) ****

Orson Welles, for me, is the definitive Rochester, handsome, egotistical, unpredictable. He’s also more subtle and touching than other actors who have played the role.

A real weepie, despite the weak central performance of Joan Fontaine as Jane. Watch out for a very young Liz Taylor as Helen Burns.

One of my all-time favourite period dramas, even if all the mists and stuff are more of Emily Bronte’s country than sister Charlotte’s!


Jane Eyre (1971) ****

This version suffers from its continued unavailability in a decent print or DVD release. A great shame, as the music (by John Williams) is lovely, there are beautiful landscapes and scenery, and George C Scott is wonderful as Rochester. His heartbreak as he doesn’t understand how Jane can leave him after the aborted wedding is very powerful.

Susannah York is a beautiful and passionate Jane, although she doesn’t have the youth the part requires. Also in the cast, and doing well, are Ian Bannen (Rivers), Jack Hawkins (Brocklehurst, dubbed but still memorable), Jean Marsh (an affecting cameo as Bertha, trapped in her own little world).

This may be viewed as a second-string film for Scott, but it did get theatrical release in the UK and, despite the poor quality prints we see now, did have a decent budget. I like it a lot.


Jane Eyre (1934) ***1/2

This creaky Monogram cheapo, running at just over an hour, manages to change the Bronte novel to such a degree that after the first ten minutes I had to stop laughing, forget about the book, and enjoy the film for what it is – essentially a film using characters from ‘Jane Eyre’.

Jane Eyre is a wilful child who is happy to go to Lowood and eventually is fired after calling her employer a ‘wicked old crocodile’. So the whole point of abuse of Lowood is lost with this flippant treatment and the complete removal of Helen Burns. Oh, and Jane swans off with ‘the inheritance she has from her uncle’. Eh? On her way to Thornfield with a comedy cart driver (added character, husband of Grace Poole) she steps down and gets in the way of Mr Rochester’s horse. OK, this is from the book, but her response to his questioning what she does at Thornfield is not! Once at the house, Adele is the English niece of ‘Uncle Edward’, so removing the point of illegitimacy and neglect of the child, who is now doted on.

Even the first scene of conversation between Jane and Rochester is off-kilter, especially when she takes to the piano and sings to him! Blanche Ingram is a matronly woman who couldn’t possibly compare with Jane’s ringlets; Adele does imitations of party guests for Blanche’s dad; and there is no Mason, no gypsy scene, no tension. There is the burning bed scene but that falls flat and has none of the drive we expect to see from that situation.

Rochester is waiting for an annulment to come through, so no obstacle to marrying Jane and no potential bigamy here. In fact Adele suggests he marries Jane and so he rushes to propose! The ‘mad’ wife seem strangely lucid, although Jane still leaves when she sees her and almost immediately it seems the house burns down.

John Rivers is included briefly as Jane goes to work for his mission and even agrees to marry him before meeting Mr Poole again and discovering about the Thornfield fire. Now her affections seem to change again and she goes back for the reconciliation with the now blind Rochester.

As Jane, Virginia Bruce is far too pretty but she was a good actress and, putting aside the book and other interpretations, is watchable and engaging. Colin Clive, best known for Frankenstein, plays Rochester with some skill but does not have enough to work with.

This version is too merry, too happy, without the complications and the discontent you would expect to see from a man disappointed with his lot and damaged from an inappropriate marriage to a madwoman.

I was glad to see it and have rated it fairly high because as a film on its own, it is quite good. As an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s complex novel it is a disgrace.


NT Live Encore: A Streetcar Named Desire (Young Vic)

streetcar

From the screen of the Curzon Richmond, I watched the Encore performance of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, recorded live at the Young Vic.  As this space can be configured in any way to suit the production, designers and directors always have a free hand, and here Magda Willi’s revolving set allows the audience to eavesdrop on the action within the Kowalskis’ home, a minimalist, clinical pot where poker, Chinese lanterns, and the kindness of strangers mix into the plot.

Benedict Andrews directs this production, and updates the costumes and music to give an additional kick to the potency of Tennessee Williams’ play.  So you will hear Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’ and PJ Harvey’s ‘To Bring You My Love’ (also used in the series 2 opener of Peaky Blinders), alongside Patsy Cline’s ‘Stop The World’ and an original score by Alex Baranowski.  Although some reviews have stated this is a minus, as Stanley, Stella and Blanche can only exist in the past, I think it balances out the plot well and makes key scenes in the action more relevant and accessible.

Gillian Anderson’s Blanche Dubois makes her entrance dragging a large pull-along suitcase and wearing shades, tottering into an area she clearly despises, having come from better things.  She is a surprise guest at the home of her sister Stella Kowalski (Vanessa Kirby) and Stella’s husband, the brutish Stanley (Ben Foster).  Theirs is a passionate relationship fuelled by violence and desire, and Blanche is walking straight into hell.

Corey Johnson as Mitch is a strong supporting character, who you may remember was essayed brilliantly by Karl Malden in the old film.  He’s the sympathetic one at the card table, the one with the sick mother, the one who sees a beauty and innocence in Blanche which hides any doubt about her age or past.  In one knowing scene which could not have been used in 1951, Mitch and Blanche discuss her marriage and issues around her husband’s ‘degenerate’ nature and eventual suicide.  In parallel scenes in each half of the production Mitch hangs up a pink lantern for Blanche, and then rips it down when he discovers her true nature.

The film’s use of close ups occasionally jars when aspects of the revolving set get in the way, but they are used to great effect in places, especially involving Anderson’s transformation from the cool and calm schoolteacher to the lipstick-smudged doll on the edge of insanity.  It’s a towering performance which will infuriate, amuse and eventually break your heart.  Her interplay with Foster’s Stanley is also very good, and he does not over-dominate proceedings – you know he is there, and you know there is danger when he is about, but he is also content to take second place to Miss Dubois.

Stella is a more problematic character, who seems turned on by domestic violence and who eventually abandons her sister and her principles for the man who has caused everything to collapse, but in Kirby’s portrayal she is very well-rounded and you can see her struggles and her love for her family conflict with her animal passion for her husband.

It’s difficult to fault this performance in any way, and this NT Live production is definitely well worth watching.


Monty Python’s 40 finest moments

Following on from the recent O2 stage shows, the Monty Python team have been much on my mind, and I wanted to bring some of my favourite sketches of theirs to your attention.  I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but here are my picks.  No ranking (that’s FAR too hard), but these are the moments I would not want to see wiped from the archives.

Sharing links only to spread the joy, copyrights remain with the creators, etc, etc.  You can buy the series episodes, the films, and the German specials on DVD, as well as the other programmes referenced here.

Enjoy!


Monty Python Live (Mostly), 2014

Watched on Sunday July 20, 2014.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

We elected to watch this final show from the now septuagenarian Python team at Vue cinemas, where proceedings were unfortunately transmitted with a weird yellow hue throughout (but kudos to the cinema, who gave everyone in the audience a voucher to come back to a screening for free).

However, on making that choice we got to see the ‘naughty’ song and dance number snipped from the live TV broadcast, which was replaced by Palin in drag wittering on about sheep. What the TV audience missed was a glorious celebration of naughty bits (but why slang names for female genitalia could not be broadcast and slang names for male ones could is a bit of a mystery, as it would have been simple enough to bleep the offending c-word).

The show begins with orchestral overture with John Du Prez, long time musical collaborator with Eric Idle, conducting, before we see a headshot of the late and much-missed Python member Dr Graham Chapman kicked like a football into space to welcome a ‘re-tardis’ holding the five remaining members of the team. ‘One Down – Five To Go’ is the nominal title of the show.

All the classic sketches are present and correct – Parrot/Cheese Shop crop up in the second half with Nudge, Nudge (which turns into a sleazy hip-hop number leading into the ‘Blackmail’ show), and we have the Spanish Inquisition, The Death of Mary Queen of Scots, The Argument, and a reboot of the Silly Walks idea with the song ‘money is the root of evil’ (ironic given the Pythons are all millionaires who will make another cool £2.5m each from these shows).

First up though was Four Yorkshiremen, perhaps a little creaky now but still funny, and a queerly poignant Lumberjack song (probably Palin’s last hurrah in this role, and he did it well). Whizzo Chocolates was a blast, especially Gilliam’s ailing policeman, despite a bit of corpsing and losing the thread of the sketch. Anne Elk, not performed on stage before, suffered from the absence of Graham Chapman IMO, although Cleese’s spluttering theorist was amusing.

This show sometimes felt like it was ‘Eric Idle and friends’. He’s clearly in good form and has the bulk of the songs (The Galaxy Song, I Like Chinese, etc.), and of course ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’. Terry Gilliam has more to do than usual and seemed to be enjoying himself, although Terry Jones was muted and his line deliveries were not what they were at his peak – John Cleese though was better than I expected, growing into the rhythm of the sketches and especially good in the Michelangelo sketch: ‘what in God’s name possessed you to paint three Christs?’ – a sketch which segues into the Roman Catholic/Every Sperm is Sacred piece from ‘The Meaning of Life’.

The energy of the young singers and dancers give this show the life which might be missing had we simply been watching a quintet of pensioners reliving their greatest hits, although all the team have their chance to shine, as well as rib each other (Palin and Idle’s camp judges discuss ‘the Cleese divorces’; the two Mary Queen of Scots pepperpots talk about Palin’s travel programmes, suppressing yawns).

Carol Cleveland was here, too, and for a while it almost felt as if we were back in the 1970s at the peak of the show. The team were on fine and cheeky form, from the Bruces song through to the final ‘piss off’ slide letting the audience know it was over. Nice reference to Graham too in the Parrot sketch, accompanied by thumbs up to heaven from Palin and Cleese for their absent colleague.

I enjoyed this. I was in two minds about whether it would work, but Idle’s decision to stage this as a huge spectacle was inspired, as was Arlene Phillips’ choreography (for those who missed it on GOLD, the sailor’s dance had British Sign Language accompanying the naughty words). What a lovely and fitting way to say goodbye – my only change would be to run the ‘Christmas in Heaven’ film in its entirety as a tribute to Graham, whose presence was felt throughout this show even though he was not physically there.


National Theatre Live: War Horse – ★★★★★

There doesn’t seem to be much love for the Spielberg movie of this play (which uses real horses) but in the case of this theatre production I have to say that Handspring and their horse puppets deserve all the plaudits that have been given to them.

In rural Devon, 1912, young Albert acquires Joey the foal thanks to his drunken dad’s attempt to outshine his brother. During the process of caring for the horse a bond develops between boy and animal that even their parting by the Great War can’t break.

The use of minimal sets and staging (a torn piece of paper for projections, lights, music and of course the puppets – including a comic goose for light relief) all contribute to the sense that we are seeing the world through the eyes of a real animal in real locations.

The battle scenes are superb in their depth, Albert grows from a naive farm boy to a lance corporal who has seen the horrors of war, and if the good German is a little shaky in accent, then it just adds to the balance given here between friend and foe, as experienced by the horse.

This play feels cinematic even though it is sparsely staged, and some moments are emotionally draining, especially the scene in No Man’s Land. Most of this is due to the skill of the puppeteers who make the objects real.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


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.


Remembering Leeds cinemas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Defining ‘the film musical’

Ever since the birth of ‘the talkies’ at the premiere of ‘The Jazz Singer’ in 1927, the genre of film referred to as ‘the musical’ has been strongly represented in the type of material brought to the screen.

But what IS a musical?

Films developed from Broadway and West End hits are easy to classify (‘Guys and Dolls’, ‘How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying’, ‘Hello, Dolly’, ‘Sweeney Todd’).  Alongside these there may also have been concert versions of the same material (‘South Pacific’, ‘Camelot’, ‘Follies’, ‘Les Miserables’), or versions made expressly for television or video (‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’, ‘Wonderful Town’, ‘Peter Pan’, ‘Cats’, ‘Into The Woods’).

Alongside these are the concert films featuring rock bands (‘The Last Waltz’, ‘Woodstock’, ‘Festival!’, ‘Message to Love’, ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’), and musical versions of popular plays or films (‘Silk Stockings’ – Ninotchka, ‘High Society’ – The Philadelphia Story, ‘My Fair Lady’ – Pygmalion, ‘Legally Blonde’, ‘My Sister Eileen’).

There’s a third group which are more problematic, films which have songs included in them, but which are not generally thought of as musicals – but they could be (the 1940 ‘Thief of Bagdad’, ‘The Wicker Man’, even ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ or ‘Pillow Talk’).

Then we have the operettas (‘The Mikado’, ‘Rose Marie’, ‘The Student Prince’) and the full-blown operas (‘Tosca’, ‘La Boheme’, ‘Das Rhinegold’).  These are musicals, too, if having characters breaking into song counts – and if the argument against an opera being a musical is ‘no dialogue’ then where does that leave ‘Les Miserables’, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, or ‘Phantom of the Opera’)?

Some musicals have simply been written for the screen, although in some cases, they have made it onto the stage later – ‘State Fair’, ’42nd Street’ – some have been comedies with music attached (‘The Cuckoos’, ‘Buck Privates’, ‘Way Out West’).  And if Rochester and Blanche share a duet in one of the many versions of ‘Jane Eyre’, is that a musical too?  What about Westerns with a bit of music, like ‘Rachel and the Stranger’?  (Singing Westerns of course are a genre all on their own, with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and even John Wayne and Vaughn Monroe contributing to titles often dismissed as ‘horse operas’).

For me all the above fit the definition.  You could also stretch the definition to fit the dance or ballet film, although music without words becomes something else.  But some ballet versions of ‘A Christmas Carol’ brought to film give Tiny Tim his song.

If it sings, is it then, that thing – the musical?

NaBloPoMo November 2013


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