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.
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.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s we had regular variety shows as television entertainment, attracting large audiences and affection. This was the era of sitcoms like Hi de Hi, comedy duos like Cannon and Ball (a couple of lads from my own home town of Oldham), stand-up shows like The Comedians, and a gentler, easier style of music.
Last Laugh in Vegas carries on where The First Marigold Hotel left off, with nine entertainers between the ages of 64 and 82 taking a chance on appearing live on stage in Las Vegas. Over four shows on ITV, and a final episode on ITV3 which gives us the full 90 minute show, we meet the seven men and two women whose names may have been familiar back then, but which have become less well-known in recent years.
Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball have performed together as a double act for more than half a century (even if a couple of decades of that time was spent ignoring each other off the stage), and their natural chemistry and ability still shines through, although Bobby can be a bit of a stirrer and Tommy a bit of a grumpy old man. I even found myself remembering the words to their theme song, and it’s a long time since their series was on the box.
Bobby Crush won Opportunity Knocks as a teenager, and has spent most of his career impersonating the larger-than-life Liberace. He’s an emotional old boy, easily pleased or upset, but his story is perhaps the most touching, as we see in the episode where he watches his younger self tinkling the ivories, reflecting on his need to stay closeted while dealing with the pressures of sudden fame – those large TV audiences I mentioned earlier were huge for talent shows in the 1970s.
Anita Harris was a pop star for a while, but she appears delicate now (although looking fantastic for 75); I last saw her in the Royal Albert Hall one-off concert performance of Follies where she performed a duet with Roy Hudd. During Last Laugh in Vegas we see her vulnerability and learn about her husband’s memory problems, and if she can no longer sing she can still put across a song, which shows professionalism.
Kenny Lynch may have been Jimmy Tarbuck’s stooge in ITV’s Live at Her Majesty’s for years, but he’s a reasonable crooner on stage, and an hilarious foul-mouthed grouch in private. Now in his 80s, he has the feel of an old, well-worn overcoat which has a classy past. His close friend (so close he calls him “Kipper”) is another former pop singer (self-obsessed, and described by himself as an ‘icon’), the heavily Botoxed Jess Conrad, the elder of the group. I saw Conrad in the 1980s in a 60s show alongside such luminaries as Tommy Bruce, Terry Dene, Mike Berry, Cissy Stone, and Screaming Lord Sutch, and he came across then as he does now, a deluded lounge lizard. Is it an act? The jury is still out.
Su Pollard may always be Peggy from Hi de Hi, but she has a past in musicals, and I was impressed by her in the musical Shout at the Arts Theatre some time ago. She’s larger than life and the only one of the group who looks as if she would just slot in perfectly in Vegas, and it is no surprise in the final episode to see her get a video message from a drag queen friend.
Bernie Clifton was a fixture on variety shows way back when with his ostrich act – which, if you’re not familiar with it, is hard to describe – and he reprises that here, while showing a softer side with a decent singing voice, and a sense of fun when rescuing Anita’s errant knickers. His obvious joy on receiving a standing Vegas ovation for his singing was touching indeed, and on the evidence seen in this series he seems a genuinely nice chap.
Finally, Mick Miller, the comic with the bald head and straggly hair. You may remember his drunken entertainer act from the past, or his laconically delivered funny lines. Disappointment as a boy when he wanted to be a professional footballer led him to the stage, and it was good to see his act go down a storm.
The reason this show worked – and sadly, it didn’t get the ratings it should have, hardly reaching 3 million – was the blend of ‘reality’ and careful scripting which set up conflicts, introduced the sentimentality of the past and connection with families, and made us laugh at the sight of goat yoga or Jess Conrad attempting to make a cup of tea.
And if that doesn’t float your boat, there’s always Frank Marino, one of the richest drag queens in the world, who acts as the Vegas show’s producer, and who looks like a bizarre hybrid of Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor.
Last Laugh in Vegas episode one expires from catch-up TV next week.
My take on the year’s outings:
A Christmas Carol (Arts). A hit, nicely performed by Simon Callow.
Hedda Gabler (National). A top ten smash, an engrossing version of a favourite play.
She Loves Me (Menier). A hit, with a bouncy score and obligatory Strallen.
Round the Horne (Richmond). A muddle, with some laughs and a fab Kenneth W but a lot of it felt forced.
Twelfth Night (National). Another definite hit, lifting the play to something new and fresh.
Lost With Words (National). Improv with aged thesps, which I loved. It seems to have been overlooked by many.
Honeymoon in Vegas (Palladium). Concert version, which suffered from unsure leads but had moments which did justice to the original film.
Amadeus (National). A play I love, but I disliked this production’s Mozart too much to class this as a highlight.
Shirley Valentine (Richmond). A hit, in a role Jodie Prenger was surely born to play.
An American in Paris (Dominion). I loved it with its dancing and its sweetness. It should have had a longer life.
The Goat, or Who is Sylvia (Theatre Royal Haymarket). An inventive hit and a black as pitch play.
Carousel (Coliseum). Dreadful leads couldn’t mar the superior material, but when the supporting cast is what you remember, there’s something wrong.
42nd Street (Theatre Royal Drury Lane). Opulent hit, nicely done songs and red hot tap.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Harold Pinter). Sensational and brilliant but Conleth Hill beat Imelda to the acting gold.
Lettice and Lovage (Menier). Quaintly dotty but quietly fun.
We saw Rainbow with Sweet at the Stone Free Festival, O2 Arena. The former were great, the latter were better than expected.
Penn and Teller (Eventim Apollo Hammersmith). A new show with old favourites and quirks. Always a pleasure.
Half a Sixpence (Noel Coward). Joyous fun with great songs, even on Charlie Stemp’s week off.
The Tempest (RSC at the Barbican). Video projections and holograms were gimmicky but worth it for SRB.
IAAF World Championship Athletics with my Sport Personality of the Year, Hero the Hedgehog.
The Mentor (Vaudeville). A strange play, but one I enjoyed.
Follies (National). Musical of the Year, beautifully done and almost perfectly cast.
Girl from the North Country (Old Vic). A stunning Dylan score made up for any story deficiencies.
Wings (Young Vic). Loved it, and Juliet Stevenson was terrific in that flying harness, remembering a tricky script.
Heisenberg (Wyndham’s). Two actors at the top of their powers in an engrossing and curious romance of uncertainty.
Beginning (Dorfman). Another strange romance in real-time, nicely played and well-written.
Big Fish (The Other Palace). Superlative in every way.
And we saw Bananarama, who were far better than expected.
Glengarry Glen Ross (Playhouse). A mini-hit, but not spectacular.
Moscow State Circus (Ealing Common). It’s got a big top and suspension stunts. What’s not to like?
Mother Goose (Questors Theatre). Fun and boos and don’t look behind you!
We also saw Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott – formerly in The Beautiful South – and they were excellent.
Shows missed due to illness this year – Art, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Grand Mort, Salome, Julius Caesar and Ant & Cleo.
Albert Finney was one of the young Northern actors who gained fame in the so-called ‘kitchen sink’ dramas of the 1960s. From Salford, and blessed with a memorable name few would associate with a movie star, he has shone in a parallel career on the stage, starting after RADA graduation with a spell with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Gabriel Hershman’s book is the second of three books focusing on British actors with interesting careers and private lives; we have already seen Ian Hendry profiled in Send in the Clowns – and next year we will see Hershman’s authorised biography on Nicol Williamson.
Strolling Player puts Finney centre stage, with an appraisal of his acting CV alongside anecdotes of a more personal nature; with this being a living subject you might have anticipated cooperation and an interview, but sadly that’s missing from the book: however, colleagues and friends fill the gap nicely and try to shed some light on the elusive actor.
Highly recommended to theatre and cinema fans, and those who have caught one of Finney’s rare television appearances. Hershman’s writing style is accessible and interesting and this is a fine addition to anyone’s biography shelf.
Strolling Player: the life and career of Albert Finney is available from The History Press, Amazon and some bookshop chains.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Those of you who can remember the tradition of the television Ghost Story for Christmas might well welcome this three-part chiller which represents Michael Palin’s first acting appearance since GBH back in 1991.
Tom Parfitt is leaving his home after a tumble down the stairs to live in a care home, and quickly events start to unravel around him when his friendly social worker, Alison, takes a tumble from his bedroom window. He has brought no luggage but has an old photograph which over the first two episodes becomes pivotal in breaking through a mystery which cannot possibly be true.
In depicting a man who is ’80-odd’ on the surface but far older, it transpires, Palin does well throughout the two episodes in which he takes centre stage (the first and the last). The other main parts are a policeman, Rob, who has recovered from a breakdown following the collapse of his marriage, and who starts to doubt his instincts (played by Mark Addy) and a young girl, Hannah, who finds some focus in the attention she can pay to the old man and his songs of Scarborough which intrigue her (played by Jodie Comer).
Hannah and her young brother Sean (Jamie Rooney-West) are neglected by their mother (an almost unrecognizable Julia Sawalha) and she only finds a weird purpose when she starts to be pulled into the mystery of what really happened in the past of the mysterious Mr Parfitt.
Remember Me is an atmospheric piece with superior cinematography and great sound balance with water drips, ghostly singing, and echoes of dialogue. Ashley Pearce directs Gwyneth Hughes’ screenplay, and Noreen Kershaw, Rebekah Staton, Sheila Hancock, Mayuri Boonhamn and Eileen Davies are amongst a good cast.
You need a certain suspension of belief to swallow the twists in this tale, especially those which hark back to Imperial India, but that was the same in the days of the old MR James adaptations. This doesn’t quite reach their heights, but I liked the watery ending, and the final singing of Scarborough Fair by Palin over the credits. That is, I would have done, had the BBC announcer not jumped in straight away to tell us about the next programme.
When series one of Steven Knight’s ‘Peaky Blinders’ was shown this time last year it ended with what seemed like a cliffhanger setting up a second run with the Shelby family. My take on that final episode was ‘Setting up a second series?‘ and of course, that was the case.
Endings which leave questions hanging and the fate of others open are always the most infuriating in a way (consider the way the stunning final episode of Sherlock series 2 morphed into the disappointing splutter of the first episode of series 3). So it with a resounding thumbs-up that I report that no such problem has blighted ‘Peaky Blinders’.
We’re back on the railway station early on in the episode where Major Campbell (Sam Neill) aims a gun at spy Grace (Annabelle Wallis), and with the outstanding question of ‘who fired the shot’ quickly answered, we are ready to move on.
The BBC have offered up a new Musketeers on Sunday evenings, inspired by the characters, and some situations, of the Dumas novel (by coincidence, I have just started to re-read it).
We have seen Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan before on the screen of course – the silent swashbuckle of Fairbanks, the clunky RKO cheapo of 1935, Gene Kelly’s joyously energetic D’Artagnan, Oliver Reed and co in the Lester triple, Kiefer Sutherland’s boyish swordsmen, Jeremy Brett’s brazen Gascon.
Even as old men they have made a showing – let’s set aside the embarrassment of a quartet of great actors (Irons, Malkovich, Depardieu, Byrne) misfiring and think of Warren William’s oily Gascon protecting the Man in the Iron Mask.
As you can see, I know my musketeers! This new series shows promise, and Tom Burke’s Athos caught my eye. Already we know his secret, and D’Artagnan has met the sweet Constance. Casting Peter Capaldi as a very nasty Cardinal will get his face a familiar sight to a Doctor Who audience ready to see him take on the role.
There’s a bit of sex in the Musketeers, but not as much as we saw in Camelot. A family audience, and Dumas purists, may well enjoy.
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.
There have been a few ‘events’ on television over the festive period, including a new Marple, the return of the traditional Ghost Story for Christmas, and a sequel to a Jane Austen classic. We also saw the return of a classic sitcom, and a Christmas special of an ITV comedy which was a cult hit earlier in the year. And finally, a twist on the meaning of Christmas and life from a new perspective.
Death Comes To Pemberley adapts the novel written by PD James, continuing the story of the characters from ‘Pride and Prejudice’ six years on from the wedding of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. They are leaving peaceably at Pemberley with Darcy’s sister Georgiana, their two small children, and a retinue of servants, and everyone is busy preparing for the annual ball – until disaster strikes and murder shakes the very foundations of this noble family. The bringer of bad tidings are of course the Wickhams (Darcy’s childhood friend and Lizzie’s sister Lydia), and soon Wickham is suspected of that most heinous of crimes, the murder of his good friend Captain Denny. The novel was a fairly decent read, mixing some familiar turf (Mrs Bennet’s hysteria, a handful of flashbacks to the original novel and the almost aborted courtship of the Darcys) with material more likely to be found in a murder mystery, but this adaptation proved to be painfully slow and suffered from questionable casting (Matthew Rhys is no Darcy, and Anna Maxwell-Martin portrays a Lizzie who is not enjoying her marriage or new found status as mistress of such a great house) and some over-acting (Trevor Eve, in a rather silly wig, is rather too ripe as the local magistrate). The solution is also rather exasperating, after bringing several disparate characters and plotlines into the mystery. This book could have been adapted in half the time rather than taking nearly three hours.
Endless Night is not a Miss Marple book, but rather a standalone Agatha Christie psychological murder novel. As the run of original Marple stories now seems to have run dry, we have had Julia McKenzie’s amateur sleuth shoehorned into stories meant for Tommy and Tuppence before now, but here she did not seem to belong. The action flowed in a much more interesting way when she was off-screen, and she wasn’t really required for the ‘big reveal’. I am familiar with the 1970s film adaptation with Hywel Bennett and Hayley Mills so could remember who the murderer was, but despite a few good set pieces this new version would have been fine simply as it was. Good to see Wendy Craig back on screen though.
The last ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’ was several years ago, and this new adaptation of The Tracate Middoth, written and directed by Mark Gatiss, promised some chills and atmosphere, and almost delivered on both. John Castle plays the man who is constantly searching for a particular volume in a dusty old library, only to find it always in use by a mysterious, malignant force who prevents him from even venturing into the stacks. This character doesn’t have a name but is given a face (always a mistake, I feel – look at the classic film ‘Night of the Demon’ when what you don’t see is a lot more frightening than the monster itself). However this adaptation of the MR James story is not played for laughs, and although some of the characters feel and look too modern to convince in a plot like this, it was a reasonable half an hour. Whether it becomes a classic like the original 1970s run is a another question. I’m glad this series seems to have been given something of a resurrection and look forward to seeing whether a tale is in development for next Christmas.
Still Open All Hours reunited the surviving cast members of ‘Open All Hours’ with Grenville (David Jason) not only running his uncle’s shop now, but also seemingly channelling his voice. He has a son from a mysterious one-night stand who doesn’t seem to do very much, and even the presence of Nurse Gladys Emmanuel and the Black Widow couldn’t save this unfunny shambles. I’m rather sad to report that a series seems to be in planning. Twenty years ago this might have been a goer, but I fear not now. However it seems to have achieved the highest TV ratings of Boxing Day, so the pull of Jason to viewers obviously hasn’t waned.
The other returning sitcom (from earlier in 2013) was Vicious, which was given a Christmas special in which Freddie and Stuart play hosts while their new friend Ash cooks dinner. If you enjoyed their pantomime sniping in the series (and I did, after a shaky start) there was much to enjoy here, as the veteran pairing of Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi make withering comments to each other while horny neighbour Violet jettisons her huge new boyfriend on the doorstep and continues to lust after the hapless Ash. The rather vague Penelope also had an important secret to reveal during a name of ‘Truth or Dare’. This sitcom might not have attracted critical acclaim or huge audiences, but it is fun and puts older characters at centre stage, behaving disgracefully, which can only be a good thing.
The Fir Tree was an import from Denmark, taking a Hans Christian Andersen film to present the story of a tree from first shoots to the Christmas season at centre stage in a happy house, to eventual destruction into firewood, from the point of view of the tree – with the eventual message that we only have a limited time in which to enjoy life. Very unusual and well-produced. If you missed it, find it here http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b03mv09c/The_Fir_Tree/.
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):
Since the start of 2013, BBC2 have been showing double bills of old RKO movies on Saturday and Sunday mornings, starting at around 6am. They’re hidden in the schedules, but have included some gems, some turkeys and even some TV premieres.
I can only assume the BBC has finally decided to exploit this rich archive of early films! So far we have had westerns, musicals (two with Frank Sinatra), dramas (several with Ginger Rogers), a Hildegard Withers mystery with Edna May Oliver, and comedies (including a brace with theatre agents Alan Mowbray and Donald MacBride. We’ve had Bette Davis, Anna Neagle, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck and Rosalind Russell films too.
A great way to start the weekend, or to record and keep to enjoy whenever you have a spare hour or so.
Here’s more about it from the Digital Spy forum earlier in the year: http://forums.digitalspy.co.uk/showthread.php?t=1777326
Thank you BBC – I hope this continues into 2014.
While ‘Sherlock’ is heading towards its third series in its home country of the UK, we are a few episodes into the USA’s attempt at bringing Sherlock Holmes into the modern day. Their version is called ‘Elementary’ and is set in New York. One twist with this new series is that Holmes’ companion Dr Watson is now a woman, Joan, a struck-off surgeon who teams up with the detective when she becomes his counsellor to get him clean of drugs.
By the end of series one, we had met Moriarty, but that great foe of Sherlock’s did not turn out to be who we thought they were. It’s got complicated. In series two we have now met Lestrade (first name ‘Gareth’) and Mycroft. More twists and turns are likely. In Jonny Lee Miller we have a complicated man who has frustrations and eccentricities, but also had a sexual past, very different to previous incarnations of Conan Doyle’s character, and unlike Benedict Cumberbatch’s asexual sociopath on the British version.
Lucy Liu is a much better Watson that would appear from her initial casting. I was worried she would simply be a action heroine as she has been in films like ‘Charlie’s Angels’, but her doctor is an intelligent and grounded woman who grows to like and understand her charge, as well as becoming more formally involved in the complex cases he has to crack.
Over in ‘Sherlock’ we have Martin Freeman as a straightforward Dr John Watson, invalidated out from Afghanistan. We have met Lestrade (first name here is ‘Greg’), and Mycroft, a government agent. And we have met Moriarty – we think – and seen his death – we think. It’s complicated.
One thing I have noticed though is the similarity of opening sequences, which seems just a little bit cheeky. Note the New York skyline in Elementary, and the London skyline in Sherlock, with much the same font for the title.
Despite this, ‘Elementary’ seems to be similar to a routine police programmer based in New York, with an eccentric genius helping (and sometimes hindering) the authorities. ‘Sherlock’ has more nods to the Canon, with even the episode titles being based on Doyle’s stories (‘A Study in Pink’, ‘The Hounds of Baskerville’).
There’s room for both. Who is watching either or both of these? What do you think of them?
Last night we said goodbye to an old friend on television, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Over the past 25 years David Suchet has played the fussy little Belgian, the genius with the little grey cells and the wax moustache, and ‘Curtain’, the 70th film in the series, was his final farewell.
At first the episode took a while to get going. Although still mentally alert, our hero was confined to a wheelchair and suffering from a heart condition which left him gasping for breath at moments – we knew the end was near, just as mysterious deaths surrounded him and his faithful friend Hastings, and shadows visited from his past.
The second half of the episode though was considerably stronger, with loose ends (and a few surprises) being tied up in the form of a letter from Poirot delivered some months after his death to Hastings. Here we got the measure of the man, and he got the farewell he deserved.
And, of course, we can always see the episodes right from the start again, either in the sumptuous new 35-disc DVD set, or in the form of repeats on the smaller satellite channels.
Suchet’s portrayal of Christie’s favourite character (she also created Miss Marple, of course) has been spot on. The mincing walk, the look of disdain, the vanity, the sniff, the eyes of sadness at what might have been. It might have even overtaken the uneven performance of Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes which was previously the longest commitment between actor and role on television.
Farewell old friend, and we will miss you.
The daytime soap opera ‘Doctors’ recently spent a whole week of episodes based on the works of Jane Austen, using a patient with selective mutism who lives in her own fantasy world as Lizzie Bennet of Pride and Prejudice fame for the Monday and Tuesday instalments, titled ‘Austenland’, with other books such as Northanger Abbey and Emma dealt with later in the week. Lizzie (and Emma, the two characters seem to be merged) are played straight which makes a strange disconnect with the usual hospital shenanigans.
A parody of Austen’s books is nothing new (we may think of ‘Lost in Austen’) but this amusing idea of changing the doctors and nurses into bodices and crinoline works well enough as throwaway entertainment. A daytime audience made up of lovers of period drama is obviously the target for this soap, and some of the actors look as if they are enjoying the change of scene and script.
Doctors is usually a busy daytime drama set in a Midlands hospital and following the lives of the staff and patients, but it is fun watching the familiar faces portraying Darcy, Lady Catherine, Mr Collins, and Mrs Bennet! It does have a bit of ‘out of school’ feel though, or one of those Morecambe and Wise specials where Eric and Ernie and their hapless guest runs through one of the classics.
Read more about the special Austen week at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/galleries/p01hs8f1.
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