Film 2020 Revisited: Chroniques Sexuelles D’Une Famille D’Aujourd’hui


A couple of months ago, I used the last of my Sunday morning film-watching slots on Sexual Chronicles of a French Family, a serious 2012 film taking a philosopical look at the sexual mores and practices of a contemporary French family stretching over three generations. At least that was what it was supposed to be, but the film does not have a high reputation, nor did I think much of it myself.

The film was supposed to be one of the most explicit films ever released outside hardcore porn, but it was soon clear that, despite its billing, I had hold of the North American version, with English subtitles, and heavily bowdlerised.

Curiosity will out, however, and I wondered what difference the uncut version made to the story or the experience. I wasn’t interested in buying another DVD, even if I could guarantee getting the original (I wasn’t that curious), but things can be found online if you know where to look and I have now added to the sum total of my human knowledge by watching the French version.

As far as I can tell, the film, in the sense of its minimal story, isn’t changed in any real way. This version was some six minutes longer, the extra made up mostly of two troilism scenes, more implied than depicted in the overseas version. The rest o the scenes are shot more explicitly: no shaded angles to obscure things like penises and vaginas, oral sex and penetration.

First time round, I joked that you could tell the film intended to be serious by what it didn’t show, namely nothing full-frontal, so the first and most obvious change was that penises were in with a vengeance: in hand, in mouth, in vagina. Every bloke in the film gets his out, soft or erect, and often more than once. And the sex is unsimulated.

Does this improve the film in any way? The standard defensive answer would be to say that it makes it more authentic, because nobody’s simulating. The film automatically becomes more open and honest. That’s if you’re then prepared to categorise a hardcore porn film as open and honest. As far as I was concerned, the explicit scenes served only to point up what they always point up, the pretension of the film’s ‘philosophy’.

Without sub-titles, I could not parse what was being said, which made ot much harder to follow the film except in its general course. I was glad I had seen an ‘English’ version first as it would have been very hard to pick up the drift if I had been coming to it new. Then again, I don’t remember much in the dialoguer that I would describe as invaluable: true, Romain didn’t come over as quite so much a whiner when you didn’t know what he was saying so there was at least one step up.

Nor, on the purely prurient level, was it any hardship to see even more of Valeria Maes or Adeline Rebeillard. But the explicit version only serves to satisfy curiosity and, once seen, can be left to be covered with dead leaves in the memory.

Lou Grant: s05 e18 – Law


The moment the episode started with a slow shot of a dripping tap, I had the feeling I was looking at an unwelcome symbol.

In that, I wasn’t completely wrong but the episode was a bit mono-direction, being about law and lawyers and lawsuits and anything else beginning with the letters l-a-w that the writers could think of.

Thankfully, the episode took three-cornered approach – actually a four-cornered approach – so that there was enough going on to ring the changes but the heavy bearing placed on one single thing that rarely comes up as even a part of other episodes was a bit too much.

The dripping tap belonged to Lou: his water’s off. Lou call’s in Chuck’s Plumbers, Chuck himself. Estimates the job is $300 for a proper job, $100 if you want a temporary bodge whilst you sell the house to some poor unsuspecting schnook. Lou goes for the proper job but when he get’s home, Chuck’s gone, not to be contacted, having smashed up the kitchen, cracked the sink, wrecked the pipes and broken a gas pipe. A real, professional plumber estimates $1,200 to fix it.

Partway through, Chuck returns, claiming to have had a mystery, protesting at others stepping on ‘his’ job, and gets thrown out by Lou. Lou’s furious. He hires The Animal’s brother, Kenneth Price (James Canning) to sue (cue a surprised ‘you have a brother?’ from Donovan that evoked a warm memory of a private joke between me and a once-loved one).

But Chuck counter-sues for £15,000, headaches and nausea from Lou’s unsafe home with its gas-leak, superior court stuff, five year delay for a hearing, legal fees kill. Chuck’s got sixteen similar lawsuits already. So Lou has to drop his suit, due to malicious manipulation of an inefficient legal system…

So that’s one corner. Of larger moment, and altogether more serious, was the story involving Billie. Though Rossi’s spent so much time investigating (offscreen) the clearly venal Councilman Garbers (Charles Cioffi), Billie gets sent to cover his Press Conference. Garners’ is being investigated by the Grand Jury and attacked by the local Citizens Action Committee, a group of amateurs who’ve started a Recall Petition. Billie and Animal get a photo of three people signing the Petition, two women organisers and the inoffensie, unconcerned delicatessen owner Mr Gruber (Harold J Stone).

But when the Grand Jury exonerates Garbers, the slimeball turns vicious. He claims the Petition was raised with Malicious Intent to Defame his Reputation and his Standing in the Community, and sues for $7,000,000, picking out just seven of over 15,000 signatories to make examples of. His chosen defendants include the two organisers and the apolitical Gruber.

It’s pretty clear intimidation, stifling of dissent and basic being a shitty bastard – Reagan was President, so the attack on Democracy should come as no surprise. The trio’s high-flying lawyer, who has much more in common with Garbers and his attorney than he does his clients, and about the same amount of sympathy, cuts a deal. The suit is dropped, in return for the withdrawal of the petition (even though it’s dead in the water by now) and the disbandment of the Citizens Action Committee. Cheer up people, the lawyer says, you won. but that’s just as much a lie as everything else a lawyer says and does.

But it spurs Mr Gruber into creating the 14th Street Committee, Headquarters his store, membership, him, because someone has to stand up.

Corner number three involves Charlie, Mrs Pynchon and the Trib’s Attorney Ryan Lindstrom (Richard Sarradet). Lindstrom’s a good, clever lawyer wjo’s immersed himself in the Trib’s business these past two years, and done very good work. But he’s only an Associate with Bauman & bauman, the firm on retainer. And he and some like-minded colleagues are considerung setting up themselves and Lindstrom is not very subtly touting to take the Trib with him. Charlie’s coldly disgusted at the open lack of loyalty towards Jacon Bauman, who’s given Lindstrom his opportunity, though Mrs Pynchon unwillingly concedes that Lindstrom has a point in saying the Trib is not Bauman’s biggest client, but would be in his firm.

The whole thing’s settled over lunch with Bauman himself (Barlett Robinson), admitting that a lot of his clients have gone with Lindstrom’s team, so much so it sounds like his very successful practice is being cut in something like half. And Mrs Pynchon is contemplating… But Bauman is an old friend, and besides he’s offering his personal attention and, if after a year she’s not satisfied, a return of half his retainer. Deal done.

Lawyers, what can you say, eh?

But I said there was a fourth corner. Rossi’s only got a minimal part in this episode, assigned a human interest story about a dying boy given his heart’s desire, to visit Disneyland. And the follow up about heartwarming donations. And the second follow up, about the dicovery that he’s not dying after all, it was a misdirection.

Then the third follow up: about the parents suing the Hospital for $6,000,000…

Lawyers, what can you say, eh? The dripping tap was apt.

Danger Man: s02 e05 – The Colonel’s Daughter


I don’t want to start sounding like I’m overpraising Danger Man but each week so far I’ve not only been completely hooked on the story being told, but I’ve been incredibly impressed at the sophistication, intelligence and sheer variety of each episode. And instead of repeating the fact that this series is 56 years old, let’s focus on another figure: this series was made only nine years after ITV started.

What impressed me so much about this episode – though I do have one major criticism to level later – is how story-dense it was. Without the least sensation of feeling rushed, I was amazed by how much happened in a mere fifty minutes, when in reality it felt as if it should have taken nearer ninety.

The episode was set in Delhi, India, which meant mixed stock footage of monkeys in the trees and a very elaborate jungle set. It also meant several English actors ‘browning-up’ to play Indians, which was unwelcome, even when one of them was the future Alf Garnett, Warren Mitchell. It opened with a less-than-welcome scene of a man gently pinning a dead buttefly to a block, which I shall work to forget, but then dying when he accidentally knocks over and breaks a cylinder of cyanide.

Cue the theme music, over a shot of Drake in bed, under a mosquito net, and being awoken at 2.00am by being arrested. It’s a joke, but Major Khan of the Delhi Police (Zia Mohyeddin – not everyone browned-up) wants the assistance of the London Policeman he met whilst training there. Drake’s pursuing a man who’s gone to ground, but Khan can find him faster and more easily with his resources, if Drake deals with one of his problems.

The problem is Colonel Blakely (Michael Trubshawe), a relic of the Raj, an imperialist and potential troublemaker, living in the jungle outside Delhi. The Colonel is a butterfly collector, and dealer, and it will be easier for a fellow Englishman to get close to him. He’s a bit of a recluse, however, so Drake decides on a better tactic – make himself known to Joanna, the Colonel’s 27 year old, unmarried daughter.

This was the aspect of the episode I was most uncomfortable with. Joanna was played by Virginia Maskell (Cobb’s ‘girlfriend’ in the first episode of The Prisoner) as a very English sort of proto-spinster, attractive but inexperienced, making the most of things. Her father has ‘spoiled her chances’ by marooning her out here, without men to meet, though she brushes that off, not entirely convincingly, as not mattering. She’s certainly responsive to a handsome man like Drake, showing interest in her (without the least suggestion that such interest is physical. In a way, her portrayal is a cliche, though ot entirely out of date, I’d wager, but Maskell’s light touch, with its undercurrent of nervousness, was very effective and, in contrast to my comments last week, she was as slim andlight as you’d wish an attractive actress to be, despite the interest-depressant of the below-the-knee skirts.

The problem is that Joanna is a passive figure, a neutral element, being played upon and exploited in her nascent romatic wishes, to get Drake closer to the Colonel. The good guys are taking asvantage of her, with little or no repentance when the time comes to come out in the open. It has a nasty, almost mysoginistic undercurrent, but that too is a neutral element: the name of the Cold War game is foiling the enemy, with little regard for what happens to innocents who are in between.

Because Blakeley is involved in passing Indian military secrets, involvng British Military arms, to the Chinese. Drake identifies the ‘drop’, a hollow tree in the jungle. Blakeley collects papers, photographs them and turns them into microdots (I wish we still had microdots) and sends them hidden in butterfly wings to Hong Kong.

Once Drake has identied this, including the individual making the drop, he passes the information to Khan, who in turn takes it to Defence Ministry senior official Chopra (Mitchell). In an unexpected twist, Chopra commits Khan to silence: this is a disinformation ploy. The papers are a mixture of fact and fiction, meant to mislead and misdirect. Khan must not repeat this to anyone, including Drake.

Which puzzles the latter, who will not give up the pursuit, esp[ecially now his country’s interests are being threatened. At which point, people start trying to kill him, three in the jungle – with kris and strangling wire – and another in his hotel room at night with a rather less country specific gun. He calls in the Police – but Khan is dead, shot through the heart.

But the game is up. Drake is allowed to lead the rest of the operation. He speaks to the Minister, accompanies him to speak to Chopra. Chopra claims the traitor has fled but thirty seconds before he was in the outer office. The noose tightens. First Petel, the traitor, then Chopra are exposed and arrested, the latter still protesting that it is disinformation. Blakeley sets off into the jungle. Joanna is arrested trying to pot another package, and the microdot is found. Drake and the Police invade the house, disabusing Joanna of her notions. Drake is doing his job, which meant lying to her, and shows no remorse, for which there is a good and sufficient reason. He persuades her to take him to find her father, on the grounds that his presence will spare her father a roughing up. Her father has just slung a canvas case containing all his cameras, into the river.

Drake seizes the Colonel’s shotgun but he hears a click behind him. Joanna has a gun trained on him. So she wasn’t all tht innocent all along (or was she?) Drake advances on her. She warns him to stay back. Her nerve wil crack, she won’t shoot. Except that she does, at point blank range. No, not innocent. The thing was, when she was so careful to leave her purse in the car, Drake checked it. He found the gun… and removed all the bullets.

As he leads them back to the Police, the canvas bag sinks into the river…

What can I say? This is just so bloody good.

The Infinite Jukebox: Hunter Muskett’s ‘Silver Coin’


It was all Mike Harding’s fault, although I don’t suppose fault is the way I would want to describe it. My mate Alan discovered him with the live album, Mrs Hardin’s Kid which we all found hilarious, and we wanted to see him live as often as the opportunity presented itself.
We managed that a time or two, including sets at the Free Trade Hall, and years later my mother joined me and my sister on a night at the Davenport in Stockport, laughing her head off as much as her kids.
But that was much later. In 1975, Harding led us to other local folk acts that combined comedy and song, most notably the celebrated Oldham Tinkers, whose slow and lugubrious ‘Come Wom to thee childer and me’ had, did I but know it, moved John Peel to tears and reached his first ever Festive 50.
And from there we started going to folk clubs around South Manchester and North Cheshire, before settling on the Sunday Night club at the Deanwater Hotel, out in the country beyond Wilmslow, going most Sunday nights for at least eighteen months, until its organiser moved away down south.
Though we saw The Watersons on one uncomfortable occasion (for some reason I’d gone in suit and tie and this was not the best clothing for a night of non-stop wassails), our tastes and the club’s was much more contemporary. Most lead acts were soloists, a man (and occasionally a woman) and an acoustic guitar, playing a mixture of self-penned songs and covers that permeated the current scene.
One song that kept cropping up, that had a closing couplet that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, was ‘Silver Coin’, a song written by Terry Hiscock for the one and only Hunter Muskett album, which was long deleted, fabulously rare and damned expensive, if you could even find a copy to buy.
I hunted around for something, anything, that had ‘Silver Coin’ on it, and found it on a Bridget St John album, Thank You For, that I struggled to buy because, this being a Saturday in the era before plentiful cash machines, I was short on actual readies and the guy wouldn’t accept a cheque.
This was the version I knew first and best for a long time, bright, cheerful, forthright, but turned about, because ‘Silver Coin’ was a man’s song, sung to a woman, a younger woman, he loved, and who constantly surprised him by being interested in him, and St John had to turn it around to a woman loving a younger man. It’s wasn’t so much the change in dynamics, in an era where women and younger men was almost a taboo subject, but the actual lines that had to be changed, at least one rather awkwardly, to reverse the genders.
Eventually, I found a copy of the album that didn’t put too big a dent in the mortgage payment, and was surprised to find that it’s quiet, undemonstrative sound didn’t sit well with me, except for ‘Silver Coin’: in the absence of any other alternative, I taped the track and sold the rarity (can’t remember if I made a profit on it, but then this was still a decade or two before eBay).
The band’s quiet approach to the song was strange after Bridget St John’s version, which approached stridency without getting in real range of it. I had to adjust myself to a version that was a lot closer in fact to the ones I’d heard at the Deanwater and elsewhere, which was odd.
‘Silver Coin’ is a simple love song. Now that I’m older, Hiscock sings, I know I’m not old enough to know what it is to be lonesome, what it is to be without a home. But Hiscock isn’t there yet, he has a friend, a younger friend, who loves him rain or shine, and whilst he doesn’t understand how, to him her younger eyes are much older eyes than his.
The second verse is much on the same theme, that though Hiscock thinks of himself as well read, his woman’s natural instincts means she knows more than he will ever learn from books, and that he has nothing to teach her: which is why he’s penning these words to everyone who cannot find a woman like this.
But it’s that final verse that creates the shivers, Hiscock first of all running to see the rising star. He’s not the first, other are here before him, because the sound of beauty travels far, and the hairs rise as he sings that he hears it sweet and clear… and it rings like a silver coin thrown down on stone, and for a moment my heart stops as I imagine what that must feel like, and we glide into that final, immense line: Though I’m lost in a crowd, I just know she’s around me somehow.
Love like that, that homes in like a pole star on the one who is loved, whose presence can be sensed from afar. What must that be like? Can I ever know that?
Which is why I love the song so much, for that momentary flash of awe at how strong feelings can be, for the words that explain that with so few words, the sound in your heart. And all because of Mike Harding, the Rochdale Cowboy. It was his fault, if you call it fault, which I don’t.

Sunday Watch: The Best of Smack the Pony


What a wonderful age we live in (well, some bits are).

A week ago, I was watching Victoria Wood at her best, laughing my head off and reminiscing about Friday nights of bringing my girlfriend, Mary, back to my house, to curl up on the couch and laugh ourselves silly. Victoria Wood As Seen On TV, on repeat on Friday nights on BBC2. And I remembered the same thing with Channel 4’s Smack the Pony, starring Fina Allen, Doon McKeechan and Sally Phillips. Ah, those nights, I remember them well.

Later that Sunday, I did an impulse search for Smack the Pony DVDs on eBay. There were three series, each released as boxsets, only to now be unavailable or incredibly expensive, but there was a Best of… for just a couple of quid, buy it now. So I bought it then, the seller posted it on Monday, it arrived Thursday and I’ve watched it this morning, relishing the absurdity, the strangeness and the absolute joy of funniness.

Apart from the fact that both were sketch-based shows, written and performed by a largely female cast, there’s no real point of correspondence between the two shows. Victoria Wood was not entirely a traditionalist, but she came out of, reflected and modernised a history of sketch and stand-up comedy, based in human foibles and thoughts that, made specifically Northern by her, were universal. Victoria wood’s comedy will not date, not until so much time has gone by that the specific reference points she builds in are forgotten for what they were. And even then she will only be slightly dimmed.

But Smack the Pony was very much more of its times, the Nineties, and whilst it hasn’t dimmed for me, I found a lot of it to be dependent upon my memories of the decade, especially when it came to the musial parodies. When you know that the songs aretaking the piss out of the likes of Bananarama, Shania Twain and The Corrs, when you can summon the original songs out of the back of your head, you can lean into the curve and feel the fun.

Smack the Pony was treated by the Press as some kind of semi-feral anomaly because it was the first all-female (shock! horror!) sketch show. That automatically made it dangerous: who knew what those wacky women would get up to if not guided, moderated, shaped by a steady, masculine hand, guiding them away from their flibbertigibbet, unfocused female ideas, to what was truly funny. According to men.

But Mesdames Allen, McKeechan and Phillips knew what they were doing. They were inspired by the absurd, the unlikely, the initially normal situation gradually expanding into can’t-believe-your-eyes implausibility. And by bringing a woman’s perspective to things, suddenly we got situations that focused upon insecurity, over-confidence, innate combativeness and a whole horde of short sketches that ploughed the same joke but made hilarious by the fabulously OTT reactions of the cast. Oh, and let’s not forget chief collaborator, Sarah Alexander, the perfect fourth foil.

Closest to being my favourite are the Video box clips, dozens of them, women describing themselves on dating videos, every single one rooted firmly in real people but blowing out into fantastic creations of impossibility. The wigs, the costumes, the way each clip opened with a still-shot of the next fantastic creature and how you could almost read their characters from how they dressed, how they sat, the look on their faces.

Obviously, three attractive women (especially Sally Phillips) in the Nineties, in the eyes of a Press that couldn’t accept an all-female cast without intimating secret lesbianism, were going to play with such cliched conceptions. I have to admit that the two funniest sketches on the DVD played hilariously with that conception. In one, Phillips and Allen play actresses filming a scene in a pub where they end up kissing, reasonably passionately. the moment the director calls cut, Phillips is smiling, comfortable, relaxed, and alle is gagging, drinking to take the taste away, demanding someone call her boyfriend to tell him she loves him. Ok, right, compare-and-contrast, but the joke is that Phillips’s character, in a seemingly humble manner, is willing to do another take if it’s wanted, feels she could do more, is suggesting embellishments that all lead one way… the development of the idea is perfect.

And the other is a Video Box, with Allen and Phillips again, as a gay couple seeking a third party, a male, to participate or watch, to educate them in pleasuring him, well, you can go on youyrself. the key to this is the stumbling naievete of the pair, using this medium as a last resort but ultimately convinced that it is such a long shot that they might find a guy interested in two lesbians making out because, well, what are the chancs?

I know, I know, I repeat this line so many times, but it never stops being real. All these sketches, however, absurd they became, are built on conviction. The ladies and their cohorts play everything absolutely straight, with not the least suggestion they know it’s a spoof, and that’s what makes it brilliant.

Obviously, one 80 minute DVD, covering only the first two series, can’t do more that scratch the surface of three series of six half hour episodesat a time, so there’s a lot more Smack the Pony out there, waiting to be re-watched, and if I can get more of it, I will. But, like I said, seven days ago was just a passing mention and here i am, watching highlights and laughing happily.

What a Wonderful World.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Waitresses’ ‘Christmas Wrapping’


Without doubt, ‘A Fairytale of New York’ is and always be my favourite Xmas record, not just because it is sung by poor, lovely, much-missed Kirsty McColl, killed twenty years ago this month. I have lived a very long time, long enough to have witnessed the Xmas novelty single era phase into the Xmas single era with a vengeance, in 1973, with the triple assaults of Slade, Wizzard and Elton John. So, basically, I’ve heard a lot of Xmas songs, good, bad, badder, even worse than that. There are not many that can be classed as indifferent.
It’s taken me until this December to realise what my second favourite Xmas record is, and it’s the Waitresses, and their wonderfully dismissive, cynical but ultimately redemptive 1981 release, ‘Christmas Wrapping’, which is touched by some of the same darkness as ‘Fairytale’ but which runs on its own tumbling-out-of-the-mouth energy from singer Patty Donohoe, coupled to some brilliant sax breaks and a fantastic solo.
I have no idea when I first heard this record. I certainly don’t think it was 1981, more likely later in the decade. I thought its story was great, but I had no idea that it was by a rock band of any kind. Actually, based on the name, I kind of assumed this was a girl group, three girls, singing in unison: that’s what a bit of double-tracking and hearing stuff on the radio can do to you.
The Waitresses were an American new wave band, led by guitarist and songwriter Chris Butler, and ‘Christmas Wrapping was a deliberately cynical attempt to write a Xmas song from the other side, the ones who want nothing to do with an overblown, overhyped festival that has no meaning other than crass commercialism and glutinous expressions of emotion. Yes, I know, it’s practically heresy, but it’s nonetheless true. It is decades since I have attached any religious significance to the event.
So Butler conjured up a young woman, brought to life by Donohoe’s robust vocals, who’s had a crazy 1981, who’s got no time or energy for the crush of Xmas, and intends to spend the day alone, unwinding by herself and trying to get a handle on things.
Though the song’s not actually a rap, the rush of words, long lines racing out as Donohoe switches busily between what she is doing this snowy Xmas Eve and what’s been going on this unworkable year, are more rhythmic that fluid, though Donohoe injects the emotions the words express: exasperation, frustration and the grim determination not to get involved in other people’s festivities.
You might think from this description that the song’s a downer, but far from it. A crisp beat, those rip-roaring sax injections by Mars Williams and Donohoe’s personality see to that.
The story of the year has been a failed hook-up with a cute guy Patty met in the spring at a ski shop. They liked each other, he gave her his number, but time and commitments got in the way. Other chances pass up with an almost comic reliability – an invite to the beach and his boat, impossible because Patty’s contract third degree sunburn, an invite to a Halloween party at which he fails to turn up because his car wouldn’t go. It’s just one of those things that isn’t meant to be, forget it, just switch off for Xmas.
But Xmas is Xmas and not to be denied. Patty’s cooking the world’s smallest turkey when she realises she’s forgotten something pretty fundamental. So it’s back into the snow, queue at the only all-night grocery, ‘and what to my wondering eyes should appear/ in the line is that guy I’ve been chasing all year!’ Guess what? Why are you… you mean you forget cranberry too?!
It’s a gorgeous punchline, and turns the world over in an instant. It’s gonna be a Merry Xmas after all, and it isn’t going to be spent alone. That Xmas magic has brought this tale to a very happy ending.
It’s wonderful fun, it would be great to dance to, especially if, after four minutes or so of happy bopping around, the route to the mistletoe is unobstructed. Even the cynic can’t help but be defeated by the charm of the season, and we shall live happily ever after, or at least until Twelfth Night, and who in 2020 can demand more?
But at base, ‘Christmas Wrapping isn’t a jolly singalong (you can, but you’ll be pretty breathless before half way), nor a cozy celebration. Like ‘A Fairytale of New York’, it gets closer to the true mixture of emotions that underlie the day for the masses who do not hold it as a religious festival,the light, the dark, all the shades of our lives, and it reassures us that there are things worth living for as the year ends and we look forward to a sense of psychological renewal. Happiness is possible, is achievable, things can go right.
And after this year of turmoil, loss and restriction, may they go right for all of you who read this.

Lou Grant: s05 e17 – Blacklist


Blacklisted

There was the core of a decent, and quite possibly very good episode in this week’s story, but in typical Lou Grant fashion it all went for nothing for the series’ refusal to give their set-up an ending. Then again, give that the title indicates quite clearly that we’re going to be dealing with the infamous Fifties, Joe McCarthy, HUAC and the Red Scare, and this was being broadcast in Ronald Reagan’s America, anything remotely pro-Communist was off the table. And how do you treat with the blacklist without condemning it for the sick, ugly thing it was?

For the episode, two new Trib reporters were introduced. Freddye Chapman guests as Abby McCann, introduced out of nowhere as not only working alongside Joe Rossi but also going ut with him. The exact extent of the relationship is blurred, mainly because rossi is white but Abby is black. It doesn’t bother them, but it might bother the audience (according to the imdb review, they share a ‘chaste kiss’: not in the syndicated version I’ve just watched they do). The other can wait his turn in the story.

Rossi and Abby are just two of many frustrated by late responses to requests under the Freedom of Information legislation. They are investigating why a certain physicist was refused a project headship for which he was eminently qualified, on security grounds, but the bulky file is ninety percent redacted. One thing that is left in is a name: F. J. Obler, interviewed in 1952, interview itself redacted. Could that possibly be Frank J. Obler, Trib reporter (William Schallert)? Would I be mentioning him if it wasn’t?

But first we have to go to the source. Abby’s father, Price McCann (Graham Brown) is in LA, to play at a folk concert. Mr McCann is a practical man (is this just a bizarre coincidence or did someone on the writing stuff really want to tip their hat to The Move’s ‘Curly’), a house painter. Thirty years ago he was a folk singer, of growing reputation. Until he was dragged before HUAC as a Commie, refused to name names, and was blacklisted.

The same thing happened to his friend Larry Hill, once an actor, who played Macbeth, and then a teacher of photography. With a certain amount of deliberate poignancy, Larry was played by Jeff Corey, an actor who was blacklisted.

Abby’s sensitive to what happened to her Dad – she was seven at the time, which would make her 37 now, and Freddye Chapman didn’t look 37: it seems impossible to find her age online – and it makes her sensitive to job situations. she’s the only reporter on the Trib who hasn’t applied for the investigative Reporter role that’s come vacant. She’s loathe to approach Obler over her and Joe’s story. When they do, however, Obler denies absolutely knowing the man or ever hearing of his name, but you know he’s lying from his thoughtful air of puzzlement.

Meanwhile, Price and Larry discuss everything and finger Franklin J Obler as a Fink, who hung out with everyone only to give secret testimony to the FBI. To use the terminology of the times, Obler was a Creep, and Abby refuses to work with him when they are abruptly paired in connection with the B story I’ll mention shortly.

Everything’s set up. The Pinko hatred is alive today. Price McCann has had a two page letter this week, in vile terms (not too vile to be read out on Prime Time TV, mind you). It’s a living problem.

And the show lets it all fall apart. The blacklisted, who were denied the careers their talent led to, are full of wise and moderate understanding towards those who ratted (I wonder if Jeff Corey really felt that way). After all, they didn’t starve, and painting houses is a perfectly adequate substitute career for a talented singer who’s still got it even now. As for the Fink, Obler starts off by defending himself: he’d gotten interested in some of the Communists’ social ideas but grew disillusioned, left the party, hated Reds, and gave evidence becauise he didn’t want to lose his job, but then is allowed to admit that he hates the choice he made, he could have fed his family some other way…

And there is no ending. Lou has admitted he doesn’t want to work with the creep but there’s nothing on what happens to Obler. Oh, we won’t see him again, but that’s because he’s a one-off guest star: we’ve never seen him before either, but there’s no outcome.

And there’s no that much of one for Price McCann. He performs at his concert, reminds his audience that America is great, America is a land to love, it wasn’t America that persecuted him (I’m calling it persecution but the episode won’t) and he launches into ‘This Land is My Land’ because ‘God Bless America’ won’t entirely fit, and everyone sings together and no doubt in the unexpurgated version this is where Joe and Abby share their intuh-racial kiss.

As for the B story, it involves Dr Valentine’s column, discussing sexual issues in direct and honest terms for teenagers. It’s controversial: concerned mothers castigate it as filth and campaign to have it removed, the Trib’s Advertising Manager wants it dropped, the paper defends it, one silly mother yelling utside blames the Trib for making her sixteen year old daughter pregnant, never knew the old dog still had it in him. It also goes nowhere, as much because it can’t be afforded a decent amount of space to enable it to breathe and develop whilst attention is being devoted to the Blacklist story that winds up being rather more Greylist, or even Beigelist, because no-one was going to offend anyone on an offensive topic.

If you want a rather more accurate picturee of the times, treat yourself to the film The Front starring Woody Allen, featuring one of the world’s most brilliant and deserved ‘Go fuck yourselves.’ File this Lou Grant under A, for Anodyne.

Danger Man: s02 e04 – The Professionals


Already, after just four episodes, I’m even more impressed with Danger Man. ‘The Professionals’ was another episode that stayed resolutely low-key, building up its story by small increments and keeping the tense atmosphere sustained. And, as so many have observed, it’s return might have been inspired by the James Bond films but it really bears no resemblance to them. This is a prime example of why.

The story is set entirely in Czechoslovakia, in Prague and the countryside around it. Joan Pearson (Helen Cherry) attends the British embassy, worried about her husband Desmond, who has been missing for two weeks. She has telegrams from him, but desmond writes,not sends telegrams. The embassy official she reports her concerns to is dismissive, calling her tiresome but the Ambassador knows better: Pearson works for M9…

So we are less than surprised to see John Drake – or Terrence ‘Terry’ Stewart as his cover is this week – faking a casual encounter with the Ambassador. The real Stewart is based at the Embassy in Uruguay and has a weakness for drink. The Ambassador agrees to ensure that the locals know this.

So the web begins to form. ‘Terrence’ is tasked with looking into Pearson’s situation and commanded to attend the Embassy party that evening. He is introduced to Joan Pearson, but his attempts to get information from her are disrupted by the constant attentions of Milos Kaldor (Alex Scott, who looks very East European). Kaldor is a friend, a good friend, though Joan doesn’t like him, or trust him.

As well she might not. Terrence attends an afternoon swim party at Kaldor’s place where he meets Ira Frankel (Servian actress Nadja Ragin, who’d been a regular on British TV since an appearance on William Tell in 1958): Ira has been having what we shall call a dalliance with Pearson and is interested in the new handsome Englishman.

It’s a set-up. Terrence gradually loosens up, even though he’s only drinking dry ginger, and the moment he accepts a ‘real’ drink, he’s drugged. He wakes up under interrogation for drunk driving and seriously injuring a pedestrian, which could cost Terrence his career if the Embassy finds out: instead, Milos and Ira get the whole thing covered up, for which Terrence will henceforth be indebted.

Having achieved his purpose, Drake gains the confidence of Joan Pearson, who confirms several details: that they met Milos a year ago, that Desmond had deteriorated in his behaviour, drinking too much,the girl. It’s a clear picture and, having been given the treatment himself ‘Terrence’ is pressed to keep things from the Embassy over Pearson. He is introduced to his fellow agent at a private hotel where it’s clear, amongst other things, that Pearson (Jerry Kovin) is being controlled by drink and drugs.

Having got all he needs, Drake suddenly speeds things up. He sends Joan Pearson and her children back to London, lying that Desmond is already there, because they’ll shortly be in great danger. He returns to the hospital, ordering Pearson to come with him. It’s urgent. In two hours time, the Embassy will release news to the hosts that, far from Pearson having gone over to their side a year ago, he has been spying on them all the time. It’s a simple choice: in London he’ll get ten years, in Prague he won’t last ten minutes.

The episode’s only hand-to-hand action comes next. Milos tries to stop Desmond leaving and Drake rabbit-punches him in the kidney. They leave by car, heading for the frontier. A tense chase, in several stages, follows, reverting, despite the gunshots, to the cold tension of the first half. Of course they make it. Desmond tries one last betrayal but is easily disarmed. The two men are professionals: they both need a drink…

Beautifully played, and resolutely unfantastic.

Two things struck me about this episode. Like it’s several years previous first series, Danger Man didn’t have the budget to go filming overseas. I suspect the opening shot of ‘Prague’ to have actually been Prague, though the swimming pool was in Middlesex and the pleasant mountain countryside – sadly drab in black and white – will have also been shot in Britain. Knowing that one first series episode scene supposedly in Romania was filmed in the Lake District, I looked eagerly for familiar ridges, peaks and valleys but in vain: must have been Wales or Scotland. Interestingly, as well as the cosmopolitan Nadja Ragin, several minor parts – receptionists etc, speaking Czech – were played by european actors and actresses, presumably drawn from the Czech immigrant population.

And speaking of Miss Ragin, she, like Lelia Goldoni, was the ‘glam’ for the week, and more obviously so. twice she appeared from the pool in a faintly tartan, and decidedly stretched bathing costume: no bikini. Both ladies, however, were a far cry from what we would now regard as the sexy girl, since both were several sizes larger all round – most notably in the leg – than the kind of slim woman we now regard as attractive.

Neither woman is being flattered by the female fashions of 1964, with their knee-length skirts and solidly-constructed dresses, and given McGoohan’s aversion to ‘immorality’, it seems unlikely he would have been comfortable with a ‘dolly bird’. Nevertheless, it makes for an odd dislocation in my eyes, given that the show is appearing on the cusp of the Swinging Sixties. It’s an aspect I shall keep my eyes on.

Where shall we be next week?

The Infinite Jukebox: Sandy Denny’s ‘Whispering Grass’


There’s always one distinct line to be drawn in music, and it’s between their music and mine. There can be different ‘them’s: my mate Steve started off with Slade and Emerson, Lake and Palmer but these days and for a very long time has been Metallica, Rammstein and their ilk. But the biggest them is and forever will be between me and my parents.
I used to tell my stepchildren how lucky they were (which always drew looks of puzzlement), in this instance because the music their mother and I liked was drawn from the same roots as the stuff they were into, as opposed to a completely separate musical culture like myself and my parents: we actually understood the music their tastes derived from, though I’m not sure how much that applied to Slipknot.
Nowadays, especially with ageing rockers anxious to show that they can actually sing, that line has gotten extremely porous but in late 1974 it still held firm and attitudes were entrenched on both sides of it.
I found that out when Sandy Denny recorded, and released as a single, her version of The Inkspots’ ‘Whispering Grass’.
I loved it from the first moment I heard it. Whilst I wasn’t familiar with the song, I knew it as something from my parents’ era. And Denny treated it with absolute seriousness, a cool, respectful rendition, surrounded by musicians who sounded at home in night clubs, backing crooners and the like. She was quiet and grave, lending her very slightly husky tones to the tale of secrets being told, a tiny reproving of the grass for whispering to the trees, who have told everybody.
It was beautiful, and it was a real outlier in the music I liked. It wasn’t as if I was a Sandy Denny fan, a follower of her music, conditioned to accept it just because it was her. I just loved the song for its atmosphere.
On one occasion, my mother was talking to me when the song began to play on the radio. I invited her to listen, thinking she’d appreciate the version, but she hated it. In fact, she was contemptuous towards it, in large part it seemed because Denny had changed one of the lines in the spoken middle eight, dropping reference to ‘(telling) the babbling trees’ for ‘told them once before’.
(I don’t remember any such condemnation of the Windsor Davies and Don Estelle version that reached no. 1 the following summer, which was a true atrocity: maybe she thought it was beneath comment.)
I was surprised and saddened. I still am. The divide between her music and mine was, on her side at least, an absolute gulf, and one not to be crossed, certainly not from over there.
It wasn’t really something I was likely to, or even wanted to cross often, if at all. There was the occasional track from their era that I loved to hear, like ‘Strangers in the Night’ or ‘When I Fall in Love’ (the Nat ‘King’ Cole version, always the Nat ‘King’ Cole version), but I had a tiny degree of flexibility in me even back then.
It let me make a favourite of Sandy Denny’s cover, and it was a factor in my willingness to explore further her singing when that four-album box set came out a decade later. Never rule any kind of music out, ever.

Sunday Watch: Victoria Wood As Seen On TV – s01 e01-03


She was just so bloody funny.

That on its own would do for a comprehensive response to three successive episodes of the first series of Victoria Wood As Seen On TV, which, may I remind you, appeared in 1984, which is thirty four years ago, when the world was not as it is today. Thirty years, and heaven knows how many times of watching, and it all still walks up to you and gives you a cheery slap in the face that has you helpless with laughter again. And again. And thrillingly again.

In absolute terms, Victoria Wood might have done things that were better but to my mind she she never did anything that was so Victoria Wood, that so wholly engaged every one of her talents, supported by a cast of friends and colleagues that she used so often because they were the perfect complement, that she trusted so generously to be players that she would complement, because Victoria did not hoard the good lines for herself. As Seen On TV was a sketch show, or rather a sketch-type show, and it would go all over the show in a carefully controlled anarchy that was a perfect fit for the carefully controlled anarchy of Victoria’s comedy: on the surface so plain, straightforward, mundane, but underneath that as surreal as anything the urrealist Masters ever produced. And surreal in a plain, everyday, commonplace manner.

And Northern. Don’t forget that, Victoria Wood was a deft exponent of northern humour, her every reference point one that I, as a northerner, as a child from a back street terrace, knew and understood, soul deep. Everywhere Victoria had been, I’d been (well, not to the girls’ toilets, obviously). Everything she’d heard of, the specificity that acted her flights of fancy to a rock solid reality, I’d heard of. I got it, got the lot, even down to the rhythms of speech. She spoke my language, literally.

It’s a mug’s game, reviewing a sketch show. There was a formula to it, if you could call such a range of humour formulaic. The opening monologue, ending with the jump off the stage, Susie Blake’s supercilious Announcer, sketches, on location and in the studio. Mad shop assistants, magazine show presenters. Spoof fly-on-the-wall Documentaries. A spoof soap opera, the legendary ‘Acorn Antiques’, that eviscerated Crossroads. Patricia Routledge, oh God, Patricia Routledge as Kitty. Kitty from Cheadle (I know Cheadle!), a no-nonsense lady of a certain age, with no time for modern silliness, played to the absolute hilt by the great Patricia Routledge. Songs, by Victoria as Victoria, love songs that take the piss out of love, that strip of its surface and show the chicken-wire and stuffing bnes that concoct it, songs from in the sketches, mocking with an accuracy that’s hidden by the energy and enthusiasm that goes into them.

And there’s the rest of the players. Victoria’s longest-standing collaborator, Julie Walters, of course, Mrs Overall in ‘Acorn Antiques’, and any old number of mad bats. There’s a bravura performance of mad battery as an assistant in a shoe shop misunderstanding everything in controlled panic when Victoria asks to try on a pair of shoes in the window. Duncan Preston as the only man in the regular cast, Celia Imrie, who i’d never heard of before but promptly took to, Susie Blake, never seen without a tasteful and fussy blouse.

These five were the core but that woul be to slight people like Kenny Ireland, and Jim Broadbent, and Rosie Collins, and Andrew Livingston playing Carl in those bus-shelter sketches with Victoria as a young couple of almost unbelievable ignorance…

But that’s it. You can’t believe Carl and his girl can be that uinknowing, but everyone, no matter their role,plays it with utter commitment and conviction. by taking what they do completely seriously, and nowhere allowing the merest suggestion of spoof, that fatal wink of the eye, to appear, they convince of the reality of these extraordinary beings they portray. And that might be a gloss on Victoria’s writing but it’s a symbiotic relationship. They ouldn’t be so good without the bizarre, unbelievable-yet-true dialogue Victoria Wood writes, but the sketches need their perfection, their ability to invest these beings with truth to work.

She was just so bloody funny.

And I have a memory problem with this series. I have indelible memories of driving over to pick up my girlfriend, Friday nights after work, bringing her home and having to be back by 9.00pm so we could cuddle up on the couch and watch Victoria Wood As Seen On TV at 9.00pm on BBC2, but this series was broadcast three years before I met her and five years before I bought the house where we used to watch it. So what, must have been repeats, and when you watched Smack the Pony that way, those were live, but my memories drag the show forward. It feels like a representative on 1989, not 1984, of what was around us then as opposed to half a decade before, but then Victoria Wood’s comedy was timeless. A Sunday morning before Xmas is a perfect time to remember that.