Something Immortal


Though I remember well the first few It’ll Be Alright on the Nights, before the really funny bloopers started to run thin, I hadn’t thought to mark the passing of Dennis Norden, at the age of 96. A very talented man, but not someone about whom I thought I had anything worth saying.

But reading his Obituary tonight, I found to my surprise that I have one immortal moment by which to celebrate Mr Norden’s life and humour. It comes from the 1964 film, Carry On Cleo, which was scripted by Talbot Rockall. It is a moment I have long since cherished as the second greatest pun of all time (the greatest one comes from Spike Milligan, and is in The Goon Show).

You know which one I mean, so flare your nostrils and in your best Kenneth Williams voice, repeat after me: “Infamy! ‘Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me.”

Written by Talbot Rockwell, yes. But stolen, with permission, from the radio script-writing team of Frank Muir and Dennis Norden.

Thank you, gentlemen.

 

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Film 2018: The Kentucky Fried Movie


Before Airplane!, before Animal House, there was The Kentucky Fried Movie (usually spoken of without the definite article), the first film written and produced by the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrahams, then and previously performing as The Kentucky Fried Movie. I first learned of it via Barry Norman and Film 77, on which he had to be very careful about which extract to feature, and went to see it in the cinema after I’d moved to Nottingham the following year.

I came out of it with my face aching from laughing so hard, videoed it off the television the first chance I got (must have been BBC2, nobody else would have dared), was one of the first DVDs I bought once we had a player, and is spot-welded to any list of films to take on retirement to a desert island. In short, I like this film, people.

What it is is a low-budget sketch compilation played by a cast of unknowns, which includes both Zuckers and Mr Abrahams in several small parts, featuring multiple sketches of various lengths, the centre of the film, but by no means overshadowing what is around it, being a 20 minute spoof Kung Fu movie titled ‘ Fistful of Yen’. There are a handful of cameos from established personages such as Bill Bixby, George Lazenby, Henry Gibson, Stephen Bishop, and Donald Sutherland, but basically no-one you’d ever see again, except from Stephen Stucker, who had a larger part in Airplane!

For those who don’t know the film, it’s structured around a pseudo-television schedule, with news shows, ads, promotions and the feature presentation, all of which are skewered with merciless precision. In some places there’s a Spike Milligan/The Goon Show style satire by extending an idea into absurdity, in others there’s just absurdity, throwaway gags (one literally) are piled up until the pips squeak, and all the way through there’s a delightfully outrageous eagerness to be crude, filthy and hysterically funny.

Kudos too to Director John Landis for marrying up the various perfect film stocks for each segment.

Forty years on, and a couple of dozen viewings, I still laugh my head off every time I watch this. it’s so tempting to fill this review up with quoting my favourite gags, a couple of which are just punchlines to a tiny sketch that exists just to build up to them, but on the off chance you’ve never seen the film, and are going to do so now – you must, you must – I don’t want to spoil the moment. There’s at least one I could ever quote properly to friends because I couldn’t deliver the punchline without cracking up all over again. (It’s the air-freshener ad, you’ll know what I mean when you see it).

Given the exuberance of the film – a future presentation for ‘Catholic high School Girls in Trouble’ proudly boasts that “never has the beauty of the sexual act been so crassly exploited” – there’s a great deal of difficulty in finding a scene to promote on  TV, and Barry Norman went for ‘Feel-A-Round’. That was a riff off the Seventies idea of immersive sound in certain cinemas, Sensurround, which during disaster movies like Earthquake would shake the cinema and make yoou fel you were in the middle of an earthquake.

‘Feel-A-Round’ is its much cheaper cousin. A hapless schlub goes to watch an afternoon movie. After he settles in his seat, a uniformed commissionaire comes to stand behind him and provide a sensory experience. We hear the dialogue, the guy provides the actions: “I see you’ve started smoking again” (lights cigarette, blows smoke in guy’s face), “You haven’t noticed my perfume” (sprays guy and his popcorn from cheap bottle) etc. You can imagine where we’re going with the line “Put down that knife”… The punchline is the (notorious) title of the next feature…

Which leads me to the film’s only weakness. ‘Feel-A-Round’ is funny in itself, but it’s funnier if you get the reference to Sensurround, and it’s like that throughout. So much of the film builds upon things instantly recognisable in 1977 that an audience not old enough to remember will miss a lot of it. Who the hell is Stephen Bishop anyway? Or Henry Gibson? I know, and I get it.

But I think the film rises above that (or slithers under it, depending on your take). Think how much of Alice in Wonderland is a detailed parody of things popular when the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson wrote it, and who since the Victorian era has cared? More pertinently, take ‘A Fistful of Yen’.

As I said, it’s a spoof of a Kung Fu movie. Now I escaped the Kung Fu fad of the early mid-Seventies so I had no idea what was being taken off but even I could recognise that this was coming from someone who knew their stuff and I was laughing my head off. It was at least fifteen years later that I found out, through watching part of the latter one evening when there was nothing else on, that it wasn’t generic, but actually a dead-on accurate parody of Enter the Dragon. You don’t need to get what they’re piss-taking when the piss-take is so spectacularly funny.

And I have an indelible memory of watching ‘A Fistful of Yen’ the first time. it’s the final confrontation between the hero, Mr Loo, and the villain of extraordinary magnitude, Dr Klarn. It’s a spectacular fight with its comic edges. The cinema is silent, tense, until one lone voice bursts out in raucous laughter, all alone. It was me, suddenly realising what other, even more famous film this was disbelievingly morphing into, about five seconds ahead of everyone else in the cinema. It got pretty near the biggest gale of laughter in the whole movie.

Once again, I’m not giving it away. Go watch it, if you haven’t already. Especially if you’ve seen and loved Airplane! or Animal House, because this is the pure stuff, baby, the uncut, unsoftened crystal. Though, if you are an Airplane! or Animal House fan, you’ve probably found that out for yourself all those years ago and, like me, Kentucky Fried Movie runs are welcome nostalgia.

And forever funny.

The Lion in the Sixties – Part 2


The Lion dated 19 January 1963 can’t be described as a revamp, not with only one feature disappearing and two new series started, but it has to be classed as a relaunch, eleven years into the comic’s existence. There was a high-profile, front-page promoted free gift, with further instalments over the next four weeks, and every single series starting new stories simultaneously.
The main newcomer was another of those series that I mistily recalled before launching into the first of these Lion DVDs, ‘Zip Nolan – Highway Patrol’. The title says it all: Nolan was a motorcycle cop in the American city of Pensburgh (was this a disguised Edgar Allan Poe pun, Pittsburgh to Pensburgh, The Pit and the Pen-dulum?). Nolan took over the complete-in-two-pages slot, although every now and then one of his adventures would be serialised over two weeks, never longer.
The stories was very formulaic. Practically every week, Nolan would let something get past him that he couldn’t realistically have been expected to stop, be chewed out for it by Captain Brinker, and would charge off alone to bring in the crooks, pretty much single-handedly.

Zip Nolan by Reg Bunn

I’m not sure why I remembered this series ahead of others with more elan, individuality or flare, because it’s pretty routine and Zip Nolan has the personality of a post-box. Probably it was the name: to this day, I have heard of no-one else being called Zip, not even as a nickname. The series also suffers from never having a regular artist for more than a couple of weeks running. Captain Condor’s dismayingly crude artist of the time served up a few episodes, Rory MacDuff’s Reg Bunn elevated the strip a few times with his customary atmospheric approach, but Nolan’s artistic level was up and down continually, and some weeks it was execrable.
But every other series was refreshed with what would nowadays be called a jumping-on point: new serials all round.
And for most of the rest of 1963, Lion offered a regular, unchanging set of features, jut as Eagle had in 1957. Except for Paddy Payne, on the cover, still drawn by the expert Joe Colquhoun and enjoying Lion‘s sole page of colour, the order would vary from week to week. But the readers, amongst whom I was now to be counted, could rely upon Robot Archie, frightening superstitious natives somewhere primitive; Karl the Viking, superbly executed by Don Lawrence; Zip Nolan; Spot the Clue with Bruce Kent; Captain Condor, whose artistic duties were, like Zip Nolan, never settled upon one artist for more than two stories running; Tales of Tollgate School, which had not forgotten Sandy Dean but which was mainly dominated by Bossy Bates; Rory MacDuff, for whom Reg Bunn delivered a credence the ghoulies’n’ghosties stories couldn’t; and the return of the prose series with an ongoing character, Tuff Dawson, yet another bloody Secret Agent.
I should also mention the two half-page comic feature. ‘The Backwood Boys’ was already established, a highly-stylised cartoon about PC One of the Mounties which was strangely charming and actually sporadically funny in a quasi-surrealistic manner. The other, which was Lion’s second new feature in January 1963, ‘Commander Cockle’, drawn in a more realistic manner except that heads were out of proportion to bodies, making everybody look like overgrown children. The Commander built a 14” dinghy on an upper floor of a block of flats, launched it out of the window and set off to sail round the world. As humour goes, the only possible word is feeble: feeble comedy featuring a feeble-brained character.

The Priceless Puss

This line-up lasted without change until 28 September 1963, when Lion was half-revamped, re-extended back to 28 pages, put up to 6d, with new stories again simultaneously, though only for Condor, MacDuff, Archie and Tollgate School, and three new features. Only one of these, ‘The King’s Musketeers’, a relatively short-lived adaptation, drawn with fragile detail by Arturo del Castillo, and with a surprising seriousness, freely but sympathetically adapted from the final third of the Alexander Dumas novel, The Vicomte of Bragelonne, pertaining to The Man in the Iron Mask, which gave its name to the later part of the story, was a comics series.
The others were a half-page boxing cartoon serial, ‘Bud and Boss’, which was not worthy of anything more than a cursory mention, and, replacing Tuff Dawson and leaving Lion without a prose serial for the first time since its inception, ‘What’s in a Name?’, brief life-stories of famous men as nominated by readers.
Though only three weeks would elapse before the line-up was joined by another short-run feature, ‘Morg of the Mammoths’, set in the Neolithic age, nine thousand years ago. Young hunter Morg spares the leader of a herd of Mammoths threatening his village, is thrown out as a consequence, brings its leader, who he names Karga, under his control and teamed up with him for two serials before the series was cancelled after six months, to nobody’s regret.
This stable period underwent one unwelcome disruption, when Don Lawrence took a sabbatical from ‘Karl the Viking’ for the story starting on 17 August. Practically any other artist would have been a disappointment, but the crudity of his temporary replacement was next to an insult, the art being little better than the worst and crudest art being wished on Captain Condor.
Ah yes, the Captain. Among old fans of British boys comics of a certain generation, Condor has a reputation second only to Dan Dare himself. Not that there were many such rivals, the only other serious contender being Tiger’s Jet Ace Logan. But after a decade plus of his adventures I have to ask why. Neither Condor nor his longstanding assistant Quartermaster Burke (what is an officer who organises stores doing as Condor’s assistant troubleshooter?) have an atom of personality, their stories do not rise above space opera, and there is neither continuity, logic nor any consistency between adventures.
Dan Dare lives a very full afterlife and has for decades: I’m not aware of any efforts to bring back Captain Condor, nor any reason to.
Lion‘s steadiness was not affected by the September 1963 semi-vamp, complete with more free gifts spread over a month, but once the comic had sailed on into 1964, its pages suddenly became prey to change after change after change, starting with the issue of 1 February.
The shift was not propitious. ‘Tales of Tollgate School’ was renamed ‘The Rock that Rocked Tollgate’, the serial format giving way to 2½pp short stories. The ‘Rock’ was a meteorite that landed in Tollgate’s grounds, with the power to grant the wishes of whoever touched it each week, wishes that faded away three panels from the end, leaving no memory of the disruption.
The following week saw the end of Commander Cockle after just over a year of wasted space and the debut of the long-lasting ‘Mowser, the Priceless Puss’. Mowser would appear sporadically over the next few weeks, as did ‘PC One – Top Cop of the Mounties’, the re-branded ‘Backwoods Boys’, as nobody seemed able to make up their mind what half-page laughter riots should appear.

breath-takingly good art by Arturo del Castillo

One more week, and Paddy Payne was booted off the front page, to be replaced by ‘Badges of the Brave’, a front and back cover feature on the histories behind famous badges, usually but not exclusively British Army Regiments. After a couple of episodes that I remembered, Joe Colquhoun was pulled off Paddy Payne to take the series over.
Rory MacDuff exposed one last supernatural event as being produced by more mundane means and he and Barney Lomax went back to being film stuntmen and having down-to-earth villains to overcome. This lasted until 22 August, when the feature disappeared for good.
A new one page comics serial, ‘Spy-Smasher Smith’ made its debut, about a middle-aged man who looked like a mundane Civil servant but who was Britain’s top spy, foiling the plans of the evil Doctor Skull. Needless to say, it was down to half a page in just over a month, and then re-named ‘Mr Smith of MI51/2’, competing with Mowser and the soon-to-disappear PC One.
Captain Condor was reduced to 1½ pages per week, and would go down further to a single page before being killed off as a comics series on 4 April, though he would return after six weeks absence, with the weekly prose story resurrected to tell the space hero’s ongoing issues, withut Quartermaster Burke but with Sergeant Willis.
‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ was faithful to the end to the spirit of Alexandre Dumas, if not the actual novel, in having the four Musketeers all die in the service of restoring Louis XIV to the throne of France. Re-reading those deaths reminded me of how how disturbing they were to a boy just turned eight, who was completely unused to the idea that the hero could die, even as he achieved his victory.
Morg and Karga ended after two serials. Bruce Kent’s appearances also became sporadic, until one Monday he pointed out his last clue to his perpetually oblivious assistant, Jim, and never came back. Zip Nolan merged with the concept on 9 May. Even Robot Archie finally came out of the jungle, battling crooks in a Thunderbirds-esque Mole in Paris and New York.

A powerful, ongoing serial

But amongst all this chopping and changing, Lion did gain a new major feature, on 29 February, that I had long forgotten but instantly remembered. Titled originally ‘Britain in Chains’, and renamed ‘Public Enemy No 1’ on 15 August, the series starred top secret agent Victor Gunn, and his West Indian assistant, Barrel. Gunn was assigned to investigate a group run by the seemingly eccentric Baron Rudolph, who was dedicated to ancient times. Gunn found that not only was Rudolph planning to overthrow Britain’s government and install himself as Dictator, but that he has been planning this for years, has very influential adherents everywhere, and a well-developed plan to paralyse the entire country whilst he takes over.
And the evil Baron succeeds. Gunn and Barrel become wanted men, threats to the new regime. They succeed in getting the real Government out of the country, to set up in exile in Canada, which was the climax of the first serial, under the original name. The pair then stayed on, to organise the fitful, passionate but incoherent Resistance, the serial hanging its name to suit. I remember further changes of name for later phases, but not how the series was ultimately resolved. I am very much looking forward to getting to that point.
But still the changes kept coming. On 11 July, ‘The Rock that Rocked Tollgate’ finished its pathetic run by being thrown down a well, paving the way for a return to serials, starting with ‘Tollgate at Sea’, and then ‘The Tollgate Treasure-Seekers’ as the entire school took to the waters and decided to sail round the world. After a dozen years, this latest switch starts ringing the alarm bells as to whether the series should be put out of its misery.
Another new series, ‘The Silver Colt’, debuted three weeks later, with no little potential. It centred upon the eponymous gun, made for a famous lawman, which had the unfortunate habit of being lost or stolen: the series followed the gun and its several owners, and what luck it brought to them. Though a strip, this series replaced Captain Condor (again). Don’t worry, the Captain was back on 14 November, albeit for a single week.
Whilst Victor Gunn and the Silver Colt were major series, and well-executed, the next new feature was considerably troubling. ‘Outcasts of Storm Island’, starting on 29 August, was a reprint of one of those awful stilted serials of the Fifties, complete with its dull, drab art. Lion had lasted twelve and a half years without needing to repeat any of its unworthy past. Doing so now seemed to be a very bad omen.
Worse still was the end of Karl the Viking, on 26 September, to be replaced by ‘The Hand of Zar’. Fears however were relieved when the new series appeared and was found to be more work by Don Lawrence. The series would be better known under its later name, ‘Maroc the Mighty’, but under either title, it starred Devon Yeoman John Maroc, outlawed during the Crusades for saving a man from his rapacious master, who came into possession of the hand of Zar, an amulet that,when exposed to the rays of the sun, gave him superhuman strength.

Maroc the Mighty

But John Maroc was no substitute for Karl the Viking, nor were the Holy Land’s desert landscapes as fertile for Lawrence’s skill with atmosphere and landscape. The Hand of Zar amulet took the series too far into American superhero territory with that half-heartedness that characterised such a move.
In contrast, Zip Nolan benefited from Rory MacDuff’s departure by acquiring Reg Bunn as his full-time artist. The Tollgate series nostalgically returned Sandy Dean to the title, with two successive stories featuring, first, a Ghost Ship and then Pirates. A new comic feature with very old-fashioned roots arrived on 28 November 1964: ‘The Lion Street Mob’ harked more to ‘Lord Snooty and His Pals’ than its class contemporary, ‘The Bash Street Kids’, with a formulaic three panel set-up leading to a half-page multigag cartoon that to my eyes is overcrowded and confusing, but I rather think would have entertained my younger self very much more.
But this phase of Lion was now nearing its end, with another relaunch, like that which starts this essay, planned for early 1965. Before that, Robot Archie took over the cover from 9 January, replacing ‘Badges of the Brave’, and Rory MacDuff made a brief return, without his sidekick Barley Lomax, in a five week short serial with an artist I don’t recognise but practically every panel of which jumped out at me from my memory.
Sadly,DVD2 misses the last two issues of this run, mistakenly reprinting two recent issues, denying me the end of ‘Public Enemy No. 1′, which was a loss, and the last of Sandy Dean, Bossy Bates and Tollgate School afloat, which wasn’t. When the latest relaunch his the newsagents’ on 13 February, despite the persistence of Robot Archie, there were no Lion features left that could claim to have been there from the beginning.

Treme: s03 e04 – The Greatest Love


Indians

I don’t know if it was me or the episode but I found it hard to get engaged with this week’s Treme. In many ways it was simply how the series operates, a disparate group of people, each representing strands in the afterlife of a city of distinctive cultural heritage after a massive disaster, with only minimal and most often passing links between them. And as usual it was distinguished by superb acting, some of it overt, as in the case of Khandi Alexander: brittle and angry in the search for a house, confident and strong negotiating with Big Chief Albert over space for the Tribe to practice and play, then slipping into the background as they do their thing.

But I couldn’t engage properly. I think that, more so than in its predecessors, third season Treme is taking more time to just simply witness lives being lived than in sharpening stories towards any kind of dramatic point. Lives are just going on, everybody is in the middle but without any better aim than tomorrow.

I know that’s unfair. Several of the cast are building towards things: Annie T., over in Austin again, working towards the successful music career that is hers by the right of abundant talent, Davis feeling lonely without her in New Orleans, hitting an obstacle in building towards this Jazz Opera of his.

We intercut again, like last week, between Janette interviewing chefs for her restaurant whilst her business partner Tim interviews pretty but not necessarily skillful girls as ‘waitresses’, and Toni trying to get potential witnesses against Officer Wilson to testify.

Melissa Leo deserves mention in the acting stakes for a typically aggressive performance rounded out by firstly inviting L.P. Everett to dinner and then going along with Sofia (whose boyfriend is turning into a right little shit, refusing to go with her too anything she wants to do that doesn’t tickle his fancy) to a street performance of ‘Waiting for Godot’, rewritten for black voices, that brings Toni to barely restrained tears.

The harrassment of the Bernettes, and its potential spread to L.P. (this initials affectation has quickly become irritating) becomes more than a shadow, and a Police car following Sofia giving the reporter a lift to a gig by Goatwhore (I am not googling that because I know they won’t have been made up and I’d rather not find out any more) is the closing scene.

Going back to Toni, and keeping in with the Police, there was another neat little juxtaposition. Terry Colson’s having a downbeat thing. He’s getting nowhere trying to clean anything up in Homicide, his FBI contact can do nothing with the files Terry handed over and, when he books a room at a decent hotel so his boys can stay with him, they dump him for dates. On the other hand, manageress Megan, clearly an old friend, upgrades him to a suite free, persuades him to use it anyway and the two jump each others bones enthusiastically.

Which contrasts with Janette and Jacques when she summons’ him to the walk-in store, except that, unlike his expectation, it’s not to jump his bones but to discuss a planned local recipe.

Returning to Albert, he’s revealed his lymphoma to Delmond, but wants it kept from his daughters, thus far. It’s a mark that a shift has taken place in their relationship, which has been closer to equals this season already, that when Delmond says he’s going to get medical assistance for his Pop, Albert doesn’t argue, or resist.

And Antoine engages in a bit of a fiddle over a bill to get money to his favourite marching band pupil Cherise to get her family’s electric bill paid, whilst Nelson’s growing disenchanted about his limited participation in the money game and talking about finding a better (i.e., more easily monetized) disaster to move on to.

Bits and pieces: either I or they are not quite cohering, and next week is halfway.

There is one thing I do want to record, and I’ve been wracking my brain to try to remember if it’s happened before in Treme: the Indians are in LaDonna’s bar, Albert and Delmond, and Antoine’s at the bar, watching, and I think that’s the first time, in the twenty-fifth episode, that we have had as many as four cast members appearing in the same scene. Three at a time, like Toni, Sofia and L.P., often. But i can’t remember four simultaneously.

It’s almost like an ensemble show…

Deep Space Nine: s07 e14- Chimera


Love-making, Changeling style

We’re now into the back half of the last season and, knowing about the long end-game, I’m growing impatient of these last few, more-or-less self-contained episodes prior to the beginning of the end. Which is a shame because ‘Chimera’ turned out to be a very strong episode throughout, as well as being a fundamental set-up for one of the very few things I (unfortunately) know about the end. This is why I try to be spoiler-free.

The objective of this episode was to undermine Odo’s commitment to his existence as Odo, Constable of DS9, senior staff and lover of Colonel Kira Nerys. This is done by the simple ploy of introducing another unaligned Changeling, in the form of Laas (played by J.G. Hertzler under a variation of his full name, as Garman Hertzler).

Laas is one of the Hundred, like Odo sent into the Alpha Quadrant as an infant to live among humanoids (or monoforms, as he prefers to call them), to return to the Great Link bringing back information. Like Odo, he has grown up isolated, having met no other Changelings: Odo tells him for the first time about the Great Link, the Founders, the whole set-up. The pair Link.

But Laas has been conscious as a shapeshifter for about two hundred years to Odo’s thirty. His abilities and attitudes have evolved considerably further, and he sees Odo as going to follow the exact same path, and he tries to save the Constable the other one hundred and seventy years of it. For Laas has developed a powerful dislike of humanoids, whose limitation of only ever adopting one form has led them to hate metamorphs.

Laas is insulting to Odo’s friends, wants Odo to join him in searching for others of the Hundred, to create a new Link and live as Changelings are meant to live, expressing every facet of their abilities instead of the single form Odo wears.

The ‘problem’, if you like to call it that, is that every word of what Laas says is true and irrefutable. Even the directly insulting ones towards human beings, from an environmentalist stance, are practically impossible to argue with. From the Link, Laas identifies that Odo only stays because of Kira. The problem, on a personal level, is that Kira, knowing the pair have linked, identifies that herself.

So the episode sets itself up for a conclusion by having Laas shift into a low-lying fog on the Promenade, two Klingon hotheads attack aggressively and Laas kill one in self-defence. The Klingons, in the form of an off-screen Martok, who can’t come to the visiscreen just yet because he’s playing Laas, step madly out of character by demanding extradition and deploying legal technicalities (a shameful lapse in the plotting) but Laas is allowed to escape and follow his quest, not by Odo but by Kira.

It’s a demonstration of love, albeit one with a cliched aspect: the lover loves so much that she will enable the loved one to leave if what they leave for outweighs the importance of that love. Nana Visitor plays this all in the face, and very effectively too. And she’s rewarded in a lyrical ending as Odo balances within himself the conflicting desires to find his own and really be a Changeling, and his love for Kira, and comes to the unenforced decision that that is more important to him. And in order to come closer to the effect of the Link that she can never enter, turns himself into the Aurora Borealis and surrounds her, a moment of great beauty.

But on every objective level, what Laas has said breaks the bond between Odo and the Solids. Only an irrational decision, brought on by emotion, acts to restrain his following the inevitable, and what will be becomes the only possible outcome. Very powerful stuff indeed.

Two more thoughts: at the height of the extradition crisis, Quark, of all people, comes to Odo to give him a very effective speech defining the genetic predisposition of humanoid lifeforms to trust only that which is like them. It could read like a defence of racism, although it’s not presented as a justification but rather as an evolutionary given, as impossible to fight as is the Changeling nature to try all forms. It’s cold, its practical, and it gains from coming from Quark (little though I want to acknowledge that), both in the Ferenghi’s status as unsentimental, and in it being Odo’s longest-lasting enemy who attempts to let him down easy.

And there’s a whacking great plothole in the midst of things when Kira, gaving switched off the containment field to let Laas out of his holding cell, and given him specific instructions on how to get off-station without being detected, tells Sisko that he turned into some kind of plasma form that forced its way out, without so much as the slightest suggestion of her tongue being in her cheek, and Sisko doesn’t call up the surveillance tapes to prove her a liar, because there are none, in a cell block, and yeah, right, sure.

Just because an episode is a great success doesn’t mean we can shut our eyes to blatant plot-fudges like this.

Film 2018: Local Hero


Local Hero was Bill Forsyth’s third film as writer and director and his first to move beyond working with the Scottish Youth Theatre (though the connection is not entirely forgotten, with John Gordon Sinclair and Caroline Guthrie having minor but amusing roles). It stars Burt Lancaster, in a typically graceful role, though the film actually belongs to the unlikely duo of Peter Reigert and Denis Lawson, the latter of whom doesn’t even get billed as a star.

Like Forsyth’s first two films, the story is about, and largely takes part in Scotland, in the fictional fishing village of Ferness on the West coast. Knox Oil, a big American company owned by Felix Happer (Lancaster), plans to build an oil refinery in the only suitable place, Ferness. ‘Mac’ Macintyre (Reigart), a skilled negotiator, is sent to buy the place, everything between both headlands and up to a mile inland.

Mac is your fish out of water, complaining from the outset at having to actually go to Scotland: he calls himself a telex man (seriously dating the film or what?) and that he could wrap up the deal in an afternoon by telex. In Aberdeen he finds local Know representative Danny Oldsen (a young and fresh-faced Peter Capaldi) wished upon him as an assistant. They also meet and admire, Oldsen especially, a marine biologist named Marina (Jenny Seagrove in a dark-blue swimsuit).

The pair drive westward to Ferness. Forsyth adds a Brigadoon touch, having the pair stuck in mist after hitting a rabbit with the car (Oldsen names it Harry, Mac Trudy, after his ex-, and whilst they think they’re nursing it back to health, they end up with it being served to them as Casserole de lapin). After a night in the car, in the mist, they wake to a beautiful coastline and clear air. The nod to the magical village, which is accessible only once a year, sets the tone for the externally idyllic village, set in a place of immense beauty, and gives us expectations that Forsyth will quickly puncture.

You see, this tine, enclosed village, this home to families whose roots in the land go back centuries, this backwater of peace and stillness, where people do all that’s needed and time ceases to be a concern, can’t wait for the Americans to buy them out and make them stinking rich.

That’s the central joke of the film, and one that negates the traditional tension that stories of this kind tend to portray. Mac and Oldsen book in to the hotel, run by Gordon (Lawson) and Stella Urquhart (Jennifer Black), a married couple with a healthy appetite for each other that, in keeping with Forsyth’s approach, is treated as a semi-comic, semi-admirable joke. Gordon also turns out to be the Chartered Accountant Mac’s here to negotiate with, playing things cool on behalf of the village, who all want the money: Gordon’s just doing everything he can to make sure that they squeeze out everything they realistically can, rather than undersell themselves.

But it all takes time, and that’s the point. Mac begins as the fish out of water, chafing at having to work to Scottish pace, with nothing realistically to do except to hang around and wait, and gradually let the atmosphere of Ferness seep into him. His problem becomes that Ferness is unspoiled, that he is there to spoil it irrecoverably, that he doesn’t want to see that happen, but that the villagers want it passionately.

Typically, Forsyth throws in a Russian fishing boat captain, Victor (Christopher Rozycki), a regular and celebrated visitor, not to mention a closet capitalist whose portfolio Gordon manages, to remind Mac that the villagers lead a hard life, that the money he represents is a godsend to them, making life incredibly easy for them, and that at the end of the day they have the right to make decisions for themselves. Mac remains troubled however. He even offers to swap lives with Gordon: Gordon can have Houston, the Porsche, the salary and the stocks, Mac will have Ferness. And Stella, of course, don’t forget Stella.

I’ll come back to Stella, and Marina, and Caroline Guthrie’s part, but the story demands a twist. We’ve been expecting all along, because there’s always one in real life, and stories like this demand one to make them into stories as opposed to still pictures, but with everything going swimmingly, Gordon discovers the hitch; the beach itself, four miles of seafront, is owned by old Ben, the beachcomber, Ben Knox to give him his full name. Ben is played by Fulton Mackay, the third named star, in gently obtuse bucolic manner. And Ben won’t sell. There has to be one.

Ben’s attitude is that he needs to work the beach for its benefit, and it is his living. The idea that the money he could make by selling it would make him secure for the rest of his life doesn’t seem to penetrate. Not need to work: We  all have to work, he chides, gently.

We’ve already had the nod to Brigadoon, and without being in any way explicit we’re being invited to see Ben in a mythical light too, a protector of the beach, its guardian. He’s not the only figure we’re invited to see in such a subtle light: Marina keeps popping up out of the water, in ankle to neck wet suit, appearing to the faithful and besotted Danny. She’s proposed a marine biology study for the bay, and is convinced Mac and Danny are there to study its financial aspects. Even after Danny confesses about the refinery, she’s blithely convinced it won’t happen. And, like the water goddess we’re meant to see her as, she has webbed feet.

Everything’s being set up for a fairy-tale ending. Mac has a second task, direct from Felix Happer himself. Happer’s obsessed with astronomy and his legacy (which is played on in an unfortunately weak and unfunny strand in which his psychiatrist practices humiliation therapy). He wants a comet to name after himself and wants Mac studying the skies in Scotland. Mac starts off ignorant and bemused, but ends ignorant and enthused by the sight of meteor showers and the Aurora Borealis, the latter of which triggers the film’s denouement.

Again, there’s a gentle hint towards the mythical. Ben’s refusal to sell threatens the whole deal. The villagers start to converge on his beach hut at eve: give them pitchforks and flaming torches and the place could be Castle Frankenstein. Something bad could happen, but not in this film. Enter Happer, Burt Lancaster, arriving by helicopter, literally the deus ex machina, which means ‘the God in the machine’.

Happer’s here to see the skies Mac has raved over, and to talk to Ben, Ben Knox. We don’t get to hear that talk but when Happer emerges, the onshore refinery is dead. An astronomical institute instead. The gangling Oldsen seizes his chance to push Marina’s proposal, inverting the whole prospect: a happy ending. Ferness will remain unspoiled, there’ll still be money in it, though we sense that that will be less all round than for the refinery. Oldsen will stay on with Happer to plan things, Mac is sent back to Houston. That day. Danny, the non-swimmer, commits an act of propitiation, swimming out to greet his goddess with the glad tidings of her worship (though she promptly dives beneath the water).

The ending is deliberately downbeat, with a comic twist that is never more than wry. Mac, who’s come to love Ferness, is wrenched away. We sense it will be his Brigadoon: once gone, he can never return. Clean-shave, suit-and-tie, refusing a private farewell with Stella, helicopter, plane, return to his empty, modern, cold apartment in the Houston night: it’s overbearingly miserable which makes the last touch – the Ferness phone box ringing unanswered, impliedly Macs call – too slight to overcome the melancholy.

It’s not that the ending is bad: like the irony of the title, which makes the ultimate stranger Mac, who isn’t even of Scottish extraction despite his name, the ‘local’ hero to the villagers of Ferness, the ending is an ironic inversion of the theme: the village is not spoiled but Mac is. Completing the under-structure of myth, Brigadoon has been saved. Mac is the sacrifice that preserves the way things should be.

Watching Local Hero the first time, I eagerly expected more of the fun I’d had out of Gregory’s Girl, but these are two different films. Forsyth is dealing with adults and a much more adult situation, and whilst there’s a mild comic inflexion to much of the film, especially in the background, the humour aims more for irony than out and out laughs. The film’s deliberately slow, which sometimes, especially in its American sequences, drags. I’ve already mentioned the abusive psychiatrist, Moritz, which is a crashing mistake, and I’ve got to be honest and say that I don’t find Peter Reigart convincing, especially in his voice: for an American, his American accent sounds like a bad attempt at faking it. Reigart’s lack of energy plays true to the overall feel of the film, but given what he is, it’s unconvincing, especially in the American segment, at the beginning. Reigart has no dynamics, which detracts from his absorption into the life of Ferness less impressive: he comes over as ready for a rest, making the village’s quasi-mythical conversion of him less impressive.

I said I’d return to the ladies, MesDames Seagrove, Black and Guthrie. Watching the film this time, I was struck at just how much a male-dominated film it it (and by extension Forsyth’s first two films are). Apart from a middle-aged shopkeeper with an implied relationship with Victor, these are the only female roles of any note in the film and Guthrie (who was Carol in Gregory’s Girl) has a minimal part as the village’s spiky-haired punk girl who tries to get off with Danny at the ceilidh.

So that leaves two women. Of the two, Seagrove gets the better deal, as the biologist-cum-water goddess. The lady was a beautiful young woman, long hair, clear blue eyes, a slim figure, but she’s out of the loop as far as the story is concerned. With the exception of a few seconds in a lab-coat, and a slightly longer scene in a beautiful gown, she’s only ever seen in swimsuit or wet-suit, in the water. Seagrove looks lovely, plays otherworldly, and after her introductory scene, interacts with  nobody but the gangly, inexperienced Danny (Capaldi makes him into a miracle of loose-limbed unco-ordinated movement, a gem of a performance).

And Jennifer Black gets even less. She’s ever better than a background figure, cool, composed, always fully in control, but she’s nothing to do with the story, despite a last minute attempt to portray her as the Boss. All Stella has to do is stand around, looking pretty, at which she excels, with a natural understated charm that shines through big cardigans and ankle-length practical skirts.

Whereas Seagrove’s Marina was always intended to be a slightly unrealistic character, the film does fall down in failing to capitalise upon Stella, or indeed offering any kind of substantial female role, even though it suspends itself between two very masculine cultures.

So: a film mostly of parts that, for me, never quite wholly coalesce. Still, I wouldn’t get rid of Local Hero, even despite its bloody soundtrack, lauded by many but not me because I mostly cannot stand Mark Knopfler. It was the third of four Scottish films by Forsyth, that led to David Puttnam taking him to Hollywood and basically crashing his career terminally. I think this film stands testament that, limited as it sounds, Forsyth was at his best as a Local Hero.

 

A Musical Oddity


When I was first listening to music, in that far-distant land called 1970, there was an Australian band, a duo rather, going by the name of Tin-tin (whose cartoon adventures in stilted five minute bursts I absolutely loved), whose single “Toast and Marmalade for Tea” was a turntable hit, a record played heavily by Radio 1 that nevertheless didn’t chart. The following year, they came back with a follow-up, “Is That The Way?”, using the same distorted piano sounds that made their first single so distinctive. The story was the same: heavy airplay, no sales. Not even a Top of the Pops appearance, on which the signature sound could not be reproduced with even a fraction of fidelity, did the trick. End of story.

But years and years later, I found a rare Tin-tin LP, including “Toast and Marmalade for Tea”, downloadable as an mp3 from YouTube, which I planned to break down into individual tracks and burn to a CD-R for my preferred kind of listening. Tonight, feelingly massively tired, I let it play, and now I shalln’t bother recording it.

It’s too light, too wimpy, too featherweight in melody and instrumentation, too unoriginal except in that signature track, which stands out. And yet, in a weird way, it’s a near-perfect album. Because almost without exception it is an album of perfect intros.

Each songs begins with a tight, individual sound, a strong melody, the perfect cue-in that draw your ears… and then fails to live up to it in any way.

I’ve never heard that before. An album of songs whose intro makes you crave to hear what springs from it… and then disappoints unfailingly when you do.