Category Archives: classic cinema

DVD audit 2018 – part 2

More titles from the collection. Film, TV, documentaries, music. There’s more to come!

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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’.

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.

 


Wuthering Heights, 1992 film ***1/2

Wuthering Heights, directed by Peter Kosminsky.  Ralph Fiennes as Heathcliff, Juliette Binoche as Cathy/Catherine, Jeremy Northam as Hindley, Robert Demeger as Joseph, Jason Riddington as Hareton, Simon Shepherd as Edgar, Janet McTeer as Ellen, Jonathan Firth as Linton and Sophie Ward as Isabella.  105 minutes.  1992.

I’m a Brontë nut, and ‘Wuthering Heights’ was my Gothic go-to book as a teenager. However when this film came out I was nineteen, it had several poor reviews, and I dodged it rather than going to have a look.

Therefore I didn’t see this film until about four years ago for the first time, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it is not at all bad – Juliette Binoche is unquestionably French, but she does portray the sense of a Cathy who veers between being lost in the emotions of her strong connection to Heathcliff, as rough and as wild as he is, and her need to become a respectable woman of means, as Mrs Edgar Linton.

Ralph Fiennes might not be an obvious choice as Heathcliff, but he has the romanticism of a Gothic hero, and if there is a slight misstep in the casting of Sophie Ward as Isabella (not the right type of woman for the role), it is balanced by Janet McTeer’s Nellie Dean, Jeremy Northam’s pathetic Hindley, and Simon Shepherd’s snooty Edgar. Kudos too for Jonathan Firth (brother of Colin) for his portrayal of the sickly Linton Heathcliff, child of a destructive and loveless union.

You get a sense of the Linton parents, too, in the persons of Simon Ward (father of Sophie, so perhaps a bit of stunt casting) and Jennifer Daniel. They are refined enough to see beyond Cathy’s dirty face to her family’s reputation and breeding, but too inward looking to accept the bond she has with her friend.


Remembering Graham Chapman

graham

The wildest, funniest, most bizarre of the Monty Python team left us on 4th October 1989 when he died of cancer at the age of 48.

The most talented actor in the group – he played the title role in Life of Brian and King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Chapman was also a hedonist who overindulged in many things, notably alcohol (gin was his drink of choice) and, according to his tongue in cheek book, A Liar’s Autobiography, sex.

molluscs

Openly gay, he was something of an activist, funding the fledgling publication Gay News.  He was also sharply intelligent behind the silliness: a qualified doctor and a man who, in an appearance on the Channel 4 show Opinions, railed against gender stereotyping and dealt with the issue of death in a matter of fact way.

His contribution to Python has been downplayed over the years, with writing partner John Cleese claiming he ‘carried’ Chapman: yet many of the quirks and ideas which made Python sketches special came from the quiet and contemplative pipe smoker in the corner.

grahampipe

His outrageous side was legendary, whether sticking a part of his anatomy into a stranger’s drink in a pub, appearing full frontal nude as Brian, or fully embracing a spoof advice page on masturbation for the team’s second book, The Brand New Monty Python Papperbok.  (This last item was said to be ‘upsetting to Gray’s fans’ when I shared on a Facebook page yesterday, which surely misses the point that this chap pushed the boundaries each and every day of his life).

naughty

An attractive man, Chapman was probably just as aware of his appeal to fans of both sexes as he was of his ability to appear outrageous (he was the Python who looked best in a dress). His enduring (but open) partnership with David Sherlock lasted more than twenty years, during which time they adopted teenage runaway John Tomiczek.

After Python his career was not that successful,  although he starred in two feature films – The Odd Job, which had previously been a vehicle for Ronnie Barker; and Yellowbeard, a sort of mad pirate saga.  His last professional appearance was in an Iron Maiden video called Can I Play With Madness.

Chapman died on the eve of Python’s 20th anniversary – a true case of ‘party pooping’.  At the memorial service his colleagues took the opportunity to be outrageous and offensive on his behalf.   Since then he has been a regular participant in their shows right up until their ‘farewell’ shows at the O2 in 2014.

He will always be my favourite of the Pythons: the one who makes me laugh, and makes me think.

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My Network DVD collection

TV Comedy

  • The Complete Adrian Mole.  Capsule review: An excellent comedy-drama adaptation of Sue Townsend’s first two books about Adrian Mole.
  • Agony: The Complete Series.  Capsule review: Maureen Lipman is a scatty agony aunt with romantic problems.  Tries too hard to cover ‘issues’.
  • All Star Comedy Carnival.  Capsule review: a waltz down memory lane, with lots of laughs.
  • An Audience with Jasper Carrott.  Capsule review: Carrott’s breakthrough series before an audience; still very funny.
  • Beadle’s About series 1.  Capsule review: Very much of its time, this raises the occasional smile but hasn’t worn well.
  • Catweazle: Series 1 and Series 2.  Capsule review: A classic children’s series with a strong central performance and clever storylines.
  • Cilla’s Comedy Six: The Complete Series.  Capsule review: Hit and miss sketches which prove Cilla Black was not a strong comedienne.
  • Classic ITV Christmas Comedy.  Capsule review: A good sampler of half-forgotten comedy programme festive specials, many from the 1980s.
  • Dawson’s Weekly.  Capsule review: Les Dawson in a set of comedy characterisations which are very entertaining.
  • Doctor on the Box.  Capsule review: every Doctor series which ran on the BBC, good for dipping in and out, but the earlier series are the sharpest.
  • End of Part One: The Complete Series.  Capsule review: a quirky and obscure delight in Pythonesque mode.
  • Frost on Sunday.  Capsule review: Frost goes variety in his lightest of the three weekend 60s series.
  • The Galton and Simpson Playhouse.  Capsule review: a set of amusing comedy plays.
  • The Goodies … At Last, A Second Helping.  Capsule review: time hasn’t been kind to this silly sketch series.
  • If There Weren’t Any Blacks You’d Have To Invent Them.  Capsule review: two versions of the same black comedy play, both very effective.
  • Law and Disorder: Complete.  Capsule review: gentle comedy with Margo in a wig.
  • The Morecambe and Wise Show: The Thames Years.  Capsule review: not as good as their BBC series, but this duo were always good fun.
  • Mrs Merton and Malcolm.  Capsule review: not entirely successful, but now and again this is as much comedy gold as the Royle Family.
  • The New Incomplete Complete and Utter History of Britain.  Capsule review: a lovingly compiled package of a variable comedy series.
  • Outside Edge: The Complete Series.  Capsule review: the pilot play and the whole series, a joy from start to finish.
  • Paul Merton in Galton and Simpson’s … series 1.  Capsule review: disappointing, especially the Hancock reboots.
  • Pipkins: Volumes 1-4.  Capsule review: legendary children’s series, with subversive puppets.
  • The Rag Trade: The Complete First LWT Series.  Capsule review: laugh out loud on occasion, but the original BBC series is stronger.
  • Rik Mayall Presents.  Capsule review: a series of comedy plays, cleverly written.
  • Ripping Yarns: The Complete Series.  Capsule review: superior comedy plays in the old yarn style and with a Python twist, with the Secrets play as a dark and funny extra.
  • Romany Jones: Complete Series 1 and 2.  Capsule review: James Beck’s only starring role following his success in Dad’s Army – but it is creaky fare!
  • Sadie, It’s Cold Outside: The Complete Series.  Capsule review: worthwhile character led comedy.
  • Shillingbury Tales: The Complete Series.  Capsule review: excellent writing, good performances.
  • Six Dates With Barker.  Capsule review: a set of comedy plays with Ronnie Barker in the lead, very nicely done.
  • Spitting Image: The Complete Series 1-7, Series 8.  Capsule review: of its time, and very dated, but now and again very sharp indeed.
  • The Strange World of Gurney Slade: The Complete Series.  Capsule review: a hidden gem with strange and surreal twists and turns.
  • Sunday Night at the London Palladium: Volumes 1 and 2.  Capsule review: variety and music show from the 50s and 60s.
  • Tingha and Tucker.  Capsule review: odd jumble of remaining items from a forgotten children’s series.
  • Two’s Company: Complete Series.  Capsule review: a well-remembered two header with flair and fun.
  • Victoria Wood: Screenplays.  Capsule review: early series of comedy plays which stand on their believable characters and situations.

TV Drama

  • The Adventures of Black Beauty: Best of.  Capsule review: children’s drama inspired by Anna Sewell’s novel, great theme tune and good production values.
  • Adventures of Robin Hood: Complete.  Capsule review: high adventure and many early appearances from familiar faces make this series a winner.
  • Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel: Complete.  Capsule review: affectionate piece of whimsy with a great central performance and enjoyable storylines.
  • Alan Plater at ITV.  Capsule review: a good overview of one of television’s best playwrights.  Includes some taster episodes of series like Flambards.
  • Anglo Saxon Attitudes: Complete
  • The Arcata Promise
  • Armchair Cinema: The Collection.  Capsule review: a solid set of standalone dramas from Euston Films with strong characterisations.  Some films miss the mark but all are worth watching.
  • Armchair Theatre: Volumes 1-4.  Capsule review: a range of episodes from the long-running series of standalone plays.  The older titles are more innovative but as a whole they are interesting to compare with the BBC’s ‘Play for Today’.
  • Armchair Theatre Archive: Volumes 1-4.
  • Armchair Thriller: Complete.  Capsule review: lengthy tales of chills and terror, hit and miss as a series.
  • Band of Gold/Gold: Complete.  Capsule review: hard-hitting series about a group of prostitutes in Bradford; the follow-up series isn’t a patch on the original.
  • The Bass Player and the Blonde
  • Beasts: The Complete Series.  Capsule review: a range of horror tales which linger in the memory; two outstanding and the rest very good indeed.
  • The Beiderbecke Trilogy/Get Lost: Complete
  • Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire
  • The Blackheath Poisonings: Complete
  • Bloody Kids
  • Brass
  • The Brontes of Haworth: Complete
  • The Buccaneers: The Complete Series
  • The Caesars: Complete
  • Casting the Runes
  • Cause Celebre
  • Children’s Ward: Complete Series 1 and 2
  • Chiller: Complete Series.  Capsule review: surprisingly good series of spine-tinglers with a great opening sequence.
  • A Choice of Coward: Complete
  • Clayhanger: Complete
  • Codename Kyril
  • Crown Court: Volumes 1-8
  • The Crunch … and other stories
  • Danger UXB: Complete Series Special Edition
  • The Dark Angel: Complete
  • Dennis Potter at LWT: Volumes 1 and 2
  • Dick Turpin: Series 1
  • Disraeli: Complete
  • Dramarama: Spooky
  • Dramarama: Volume 1
  • Edward and Mrs Simpson: Complete
  • Enemy at the Door: Complete
  • Espionage: Michael Powell
  • Fireball XL5: Complete
  • Flickers: The Complete Series
  • Floodtide: The Complete Series
  • The Four Just Men: The Complete Series
  • Framed
  • Fraud Squad series 1
  • The Frighteners
  • Gideon’s Way: Complete
  • The Gold Robbers: Complete
  • The Good Companions: Complete
  • The Hanged Man: Complete
  • Interpol Calling: Complete
  • The Invisible Man: Complete
  • ITC 50
  • It’s Dark Outside: the Complete Series
  • Jack Rosenthal at ITV
  • Jamaica Inn: Complete
  • Jemima Shore Investigates: Complete
  • Jennie, Lady Randolph Churchill: Complete
  • Justice: Complete Series 1-3
  • Killers
  • A Kind of Loving: Complete
  • The Knock: Complete Series 1
  • Ladies in Charge: Complete
  • Lady Killers: Complete Series 1-2
  • The Last Place on Earth: Complete
  • Laurence Olivier Presents
  • The Life and Times of David Lloyd George
  • Lillie: The Complete Series
  • Look-Back on 70s Telly: Issues 1-4
  • The Main Chance: Complete Series 1-4
  • The Male of the Species: Three Plays by Alun Owen
  • Mr Axelford’s Angel
  • Mr Palfrey of Westminster: Complete
  • Mr Rose: Complete Series 1-3
  • Mystery and Imagination
  • Napoleon and Love: Complete
  • The Nation’s Health
  • The Nearly Man
  • Nightingale’s Boys: Complete
  • New Scotland Yard: series 1
  • The Organisation
  • Philby, Burgess and Maclean
  • Piece of Cake: Complete
  • The Plane Makers: Volumes 1-3
  • Plays for Britain: Complete
  • The Power Game: The Complete Series
  • The Protectors: Complete Series
  • Red Letter Day: The Complete Series
  • Redcap: Series 1
  • The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Complete Series 1-2
  • Robin of Sherwood: Complete
  • The Sandbaggers: Complete
  • Scoop
  • Scorpion Tales: Complete
  • Sergeant Cork: Complete Series 1-6
  • Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance
  • Shadows of Fear: Complete
  • Six Days of Justice: Complete Series 1-2
  • Smuggler: The Complete Series
  • Soap Box: Volume 1
  • South Riding: The Complete Series
  • Storyboard: The Complete Series
  • Strangers: The Complete Series
  • Tales of the Unexpected: Complete
  • Tales Out of School: Four Films by David Leland
  • Thomas and Sarah: Complete
  • Thriller: The Complete Series
  • Travelling Man: Complete
  • Twelfth Night
  • The Tyrant King: Complete
  • Upstairs Downstairs: Complete
  • Van Der Valk: Complete
  • A Very Peculiar Practice: Complete
  • Village Hall: Complete Series 1 and 2
  • Warrior Queen: Complete
  • The Widowmaker
  • Will Shakespeare: Complete
  • William Tell: Complete
  • Wish Me Luck: Complete
  • The XYY Man: Complete
  • Yesterday’s Dreams: Complete
  • The Zoo Gang: Complete

TV Other

  • 56 Up
  • Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow
  • Charley Says: Limited Edition
  • Coronation Street: 1972
  • Emmerdale Farm: Volume One and Two
  • Frost on Coward
  • Frost on Friday
  • Frost on Saturday
  • ITV 60
  • Six Centuries of Verse: Complete
  • The Story of Film: An Odyssey
  • Tempo: Volume 1
  • Unknown Chaplin
  • World in Action: Volumes 1-4

Films:

  • British Comedies of the 1930s Volumes 1-2
  • British Musicals of the 1930s Volumes 1-6
  • The Ealing Rarities Volumes 1-14
  • The Jessie Matthews Revue Volumes 1-6

 


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.


Sherlock Holmes: ten favourite portrayals

Following yesterday’s look at my choice of Watsons, today I turn to the Great Detective himself, Sherlock Holmes.

It’s a much harder choice to restrict my list of Holmes interpreters to just ten, as probably thirty actors are worth careful consideration.  However, having reflected on my choices, and leaving out a few honorable mentions who might have made a longlist on the topic (Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Stephens, Geoffrey Whitehead, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Barrymore), here’s the final ten.

10. Jonathan Pryce.  Television: Sherlock Holmes & The Baker Street Irregulars (2007).  His Watson was Bill Paterson.  Although only a one-shot appearance, Pryce was a very memorable detective.

pryce holmes

9. Ronald Howard.  Television: Sherlock Holmes (1954-55).  His Watson was Howard Marion-Crawford.  Across the 39 episodes of this low budget series, and helped by an extremely good doctor, Howard was an energetic, keen and young Holmes.

howard holmes

8. Nicol Williamson.  Film: The Seven Per Cent Solution (1976).  His Watson was Robert Duvall.  Nervy, eccentric, and tormented, this one-shot appearance was a keeper, although Duvall’s accent stopped his Watson from being top notch.

nicol

7. John Neville.  Film: A Study in Terror (1965). His Watson was Donald Houston.  Elegant, sardonic, and very tough, Neville’s stage presence comes through in this single appearance of the great Detective.

neville holmes

6. Eille Norwood.  A series of silent films for Stoll (1921-1923).  His Watson was Hubert Willis (and Arthur Cullin in The Sign of Four).  He’s pictured here with Conan Doyle himself.  Norwood was an excellent choice to portray this most complex of characters.

norwood holmes

5. Basil Rathbone.  A Baker’s dozen of films (1939-1946). His Watson was Nigel Bruce.  Although the films might sometimes fail to work, and Bruce’s Watson may be a little on the dozy and comical side, Rathbone was a superb, calm, and sometimes calculating Holmes.

rathbone holmes

4. Peter Cushing.  Film: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959).  Television: Sherlock Holmes (1968).  TV movie: The Masks of Death (1984).  His Watsons were André Morell, Nigel Stock, and John Mills.  Three attempts at the character over a twenty-five year period cannot be ignored.

cushing holmes

3. Arthur Wontner. Five films between 1931 and 1937.  His Watson was Ian Fleming (and Ian Hunter in The Sign of Four).  Although often overlooked, and a little bit old for the part, Wontner was nevertheless excellent, especially in Murder at the Baskervilles aka Silver Blaze.

wontner holmes

2. Douglas Wilmer.  Television: Sherlock Holmes (1965).  His Watson was Nigel Stock.  Only in one series of this BBC classic, Wilmer (who is still living and very astute on the subject of his portrayal of Holmes) was very watchable, if a dour and sarcastic portrayer of the genius sleuth.

wilmer holmes

1. Jeremy Brett.  Four series on television and some TV movies (1984-1994).  His Watsons were David Burke and Edward Hardwick.  It is no exaggeration to say that Brett’s wildly variable performances as Holmes are as definitive as any actor can be.  Simply, he was Sherlock Holmes for a decade, and his films stand up to many rewatches.

brett holmes


Magical Mystery Tour, 1967 – ★★½

‘Magical Mystery Tour’ sees the Beatles on one of those dull, dull, bus trips around the countryside.

Except of course this trip keeps getting interrupted by strange happenings and visions, and has some classic Beatles tracks including ‘Flying’ (with lots of colour filter changes which would have really looked rubbish when this film first aired on TV, in black and white!); ‘Blue Jay Way’ (in which George drones on while playing a keyboard drawn on a rock); ‘Your Mother Should Know’ (with the cheesy ‘coming down the stairs’ bit); ‘The Fool on the Hill’ (where Paul stands on a hill, natch); and, best of all, ‘I Am The Walrus’ (with eggmen, walruses, and other strange beings, and some funky spaced out camera work).

The fab four also appear as some irritating magicians, all big hats and silly voices, and not that funny, while Ringo’s ‘aunty’ dreams about hitting it off with Buster Bloodvessel (played by the very odd Ivor Cutler). Nat Jackley gets in there too, as well as Victor Spinetti playing a manic Sergeant major who talks so fast thatnoonecankeepupwithawordheissaying…

If you’re bored with The Beatles, you can always catch the Bonzo Dog (Doo Dah) Band near the end doing ‘Death Cab For Cutie’ while singer Viv is distracted by a stripper (the very alluring Jan Carson).

Is the ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ worth your time. Well, it’s different.

I can just see a 1967 audience watching this on the box and thinking ‘what the…?’. It’s on a par with ‘Yellow Submarine’ although I think this time they didn’t take themselves quite so seriously.

The ‘Magical Mystery Tour’, with its tent, muddy spaghetti on the restaurant table, very white beaches, and static cows, is a candy coated, multi-coloured, goggle-eyed, very silly bundle of fun.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Angela Lansbury double: Driving Miss Daisy and Blithe Spirit

Last week I was at the BFI Southbank to see a recording of ‘Driving Miss Daisy’, filmed live in Australia and featuring Angela Lansbury, James Earl Jones and Boyd Gaines.  I’d previously seen the same production on a London run with Vanessa Redgrave as Daisy, but it is curious and instructive to see what a change of just one cast member can do for the dynamics of a play, and so it was here.  Redgrave may be a theatre grand dame and one of an illustrious dynasty, but Lansbury is A Star.   Her scenes with Jones are an absolute joy.

The play was hugely enjoyable and Lansbury, making a rare personal appearance afterwards on the cinema stage, talked frankly about her time at MGM (which she clearly hated, finding the studio cold and impersonal in contrast with Paramount’s friendly vibe when she was loaned out for ‘The Court Jester’), how she felt when she triumphed on the Broadway stage in ‘Mame’ but lost the role in the film to Lucille Ball, and the twelve-year run on television of the popular crime series ‘Murder, She Wrote’ which gave employment to so many of her old colleagues.  At 88 years old, Lansbury is still bright and glamorous, and even if she didn’t quite appreciate the level of film knowledge of her audience (‘you won’t have heard of Boston Blackie/Greta Garbo/Robert Taylor’), she appeared fairly warm even if she was dismissive of the talents of most of her contemporaries.

Today I was in the same ‘room’ as Ms Lansbury again, but this time at the Gielgud Theatre for the matinee performance of Noel Coward’s sparkling comedy, ‘Blithe Spirit’.  With Charles Edwards, Janie Dee, and Jemima Rooper acting alongside Lansbury, this is a vibrant production with a wicked second half (the first takes a while to warm up), although I hesitate to agree that front stall and dress circle tickets are worth in excess of £100.  Madame Arcati to many will always be Margaret Rutherford, but Angela Lansbury with her expressive glances, dotty dancing, and sense of timing, does entertain with a level of professionalism which comes from a seven decade career.

 


Tom Thumb, 1958 – ★★★

This slightly disappointing film from George Pal takes the famous fairytale as a starting point when a tiny chap (played with some flair by Russ Tamblyn) arrives at the house of childless couple Jessie Matthews and Bernard Miles, following a meeting between the man of the house and a woodland fairy.

It all starts well enough and one particular scene, where Tom’s toys come alive and put on a display for him, is fabulous, but the introduction of some token bad guys (Terry-Thomas and Peter Sellers) slows up the action and doesn’t really work.

I imagine this film is entertaining for kids in fits and starts but as a feature it is far too long and sags badly in places. Tamblyn is good value but there are slim pickings to be found in this stodgy saga.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Archive DVD labels #2: BFI

The DVD publishing arm of the British Film Institute (BFI) has been very active in recent years, not just releasing quality editions of films from a variety of countries and timespans (including the Free Cinema and Lotte Reiniger sets), but also a series of documentary releases which includes focus on the mining, shipbuilding, and steel industries; public information films; the output of the British Transport Films and General Post Office Film Unit; a three volume set of the works of Humphrey Jennings; a collection of films around the British pub; and two explorations of social documentary in Land of Promise and Shadows of Progress.  There have also been discs focusing on London – the Wonderful London and A London Trilogy sets.

The Flipside label has focused on forgotten gems from the past such as The Bed Sitting Room, Privilege, Lunch Hour, and The Party’s Over; while the recent Gothic season on the big screen led to a number of archive television releases including the long sought-after series Dead of Night (sadly incomplete), Supernatural, the Play for Today Robin Redbreast, and Schalcken the Painter.  The upcoming Sci-fi series will include a release of the legendary series from the 1960s, Out of the Unknown, across six discs.

Finally, children’s and silent cinema has not been neglected.  The Childrens’ Film Foundation sets have been very popular, including two serials from the Famous Five books of Enid Blyton.   In terms of silent cinema, The Epic of Everest and The Miners’ Hymns joined the roster recently complementing releases such as South and The Great White Silence.

The BFI DVD label is a wonderful enterprise releasing affordable gems other labels probably wouldn’t touch.  My favourite recent release of theirs is probably the Ghost Stories for Christmas compilation, bringing together in particular the 1970s classics such as The Treasure of Abbot Thomas and The Ash Tree, plus a few more recent entries into the genre.


The Reverse Hitchcock Project

In the spirit of list-making and viewing challenges over at Letterboxd, I have tasked myself with watching all of the surviving films directed by Alfred Hitchcock, but instead of doing it the conventional route, starting with his silent features, his early British talkies, and finishing with the big Hollywood titles, I’m doing it in reverse, starting with ‘Family Plot’ and finishing with ‘The Pleasure Garden’.

That’s fifty-seven films to get through, and should you want to follow my progress, here’s the link to the Letterboxd list. I’m rating and reviewing them as I go along.

Those titles are also listed here, for reference.  As of today, the 29th January, I have watched the first two.

1 Family Plot
2 Frenzy
3 Topaz
4 Torn Curtain
5 Marnie
6 The Birds
7 Psycho
8 North by Northwest
9 Vertigo
10 The Wrong Man
11 The Man Who Knew Too Much
12 The Trouble With Harry
13 To Catch a Thief
14 Rear Window
15 Dial M for Murder
16 I Confess
17 Strangers on a Train
18 Stage Fright
19 Under Capricorn
20 Rope
21 The Paradine Case
22 Notorious
23 Spellbound
24 Bon Voyage
25 Aventure Malgache
26 Lifeboat
27 Shadow of a Doubt
28 Saboteur
29 Suspicion
30 Mr & Mrs Smith
31 Foreign Correspondent
32 Rebecca
33 Jamaica Inn
34 The Lady Vanishes
35 Young and Innocent
36 Sabotage
37 Secret Agent
38 The 39 Steps
39 The Man Who Knew Too Much
40 Waltzes from Vienna
41 Number Seventeen
42 Rich and Strange
43 Mary (German version of Murder!)
44 The Skin Game
45 Elstree Calling
46 Murder!
47 Juno and the Paycock
48 Blackmail (sound version)
49 Blackmail (silent version)
50 The Manxman
51 Champagne
52 Easy Virtue
53 The Farmer’s Wife
54 Downhill
55 The Ring
56 The Lodger
57 The Pleasure Garden


An American gentleman: a tribute to John Hodiak

A few years ago, I made a purchase of a book online from a bookshop in Hollywood.  The book, one ‘Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver’, by J Frank Dobie, was written in 1939, and was about the Adams gold diggings of the early 1860s.  If you are wondering what this has to do with our subject, it just so happens that the copy of the book which is now in my collection once graced the shelves of John Hodiak (1914-1955) and has his handwritten ownership marker inside as proof.  Even more charming is the fact that the bookseller sent it out with a pressed rose and a red ribbon!

Hodiak is not that well remembered these days.  He was born in Pittsburgh on the 16th April 1914 and so this is his centenary year.  Through his father and mother he had Ukrainian and Polish descent, and occasionally he would play characters from these countries, or with this background, in his films.  On radio during the 1930s Hodiak created the character of Lil’ Abner, but it would be as soldiers, cowboys, or gentleman gamblers that he would be shown on the screen.

Through thirty-four films in Hollywood in what was a tragically short career, Hodiak would appear opposite some choice leading ladies, including Judy Garland (in ‘The Harvey Girls’; their duet in this frontier musical sadly did not make the final cut – where he is at his most charming as the gambler who steals Garland’s heart and finds reformation in the process), Greer Garson (in the sequel ‘The Miniver Story’, which received a mixed reception), Lana Turner (in the enjoyable ‘Marriage is a Private Affair’, where he is the stuffed shirt she marries in youthful madness), Tallulah Bankhead, for Hitchcock (in ‘Lifeboat’, his first real leading role and probably his best, flirting and sparring with the gravel-voiced lady who made few films but always left an impression), Gene Tierney (in the flagwaver ‘A Bell for Adano’, as a sympathetic major), Lucille Ball (petty criminals in ‘Two Smart People’, in a fun film), Hedy Lamarr (more criminal activities, in ‘Lady Without Passport’, a film which should have a stronger reputation than it does) and Anne Baxter, who he would marry in real life (in ‘Sunday Dinner for a Soldier’, the film on which their romance blossomed).

Other memorable roles were in the confusing ‘Somewhere in the Night’, ‘The People Against O’Hara’, the disappointing oater ‘Ambush at Tomahawk Gap’, as a charming gangster in ‘Desert Fury’, and a wartime major in ‘Dragonfly Squadron’.  It seems to me, though, that this attractive leading man never really developed into a first rate marquee name and I’m puzzled as to why.  He was also one of MGM’s ensemble cast of Dore Schary’s realistic war film, ‘Battleground’, a film which grows in reputation over the years and proves that screen idols like Van Johnson and Ricardo Montalban were effective actors.

His early death at just forty-one years old from a coronary thrombosis took one of the leading crop of actors who emerged when their peers were away at war (Hodiak was unfit for service due to problems with hypertension).  His films are occasionally revived and shown of television or at festivals, but it seems almost an accident that they are films featuring this actor and not packaged because he is in them.

His daughter with Baxter, Katrina Hodiak, a musician who bears a striking resemblance to her father, appeared in the Merchant-Ivory film ‘Jane Austen in Manhattan’, alongside her mother.


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.


Remembering the great Peter O’Toole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My review of this film from 2007:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My review from the time this series first aired:

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

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

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

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

My review from 1999:

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

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

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

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

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


Cinema review: Napoleon (1927), Royal Festival Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Quick Saturday post

At the Southbank Centre today for a live with orchestra screening of Abel Gance’s Napoleon – the Photoplay restoration with music by Carl Davis (who conducts the Philharmonic Orchestra today).

Full review here tomorrow.


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