We never have sex…


The year I moved to Nottingham, to start my Articles, Woody Allen released his first masterpiece, Annie Hall. Co-starring Diane Keaton in the title role, critics all over hailed the film as the first complete integration of Allen’s comedic style with a consistent and coherent story.
I went to see it, a few weeks into my life in Nottingham. I think it was the first Woody Allen film I’d seen at all. It was followed by a number of re-releases in the cinema, in double-bills, each of which I watched, though I had to wait for Take the Money and Run and Play it Again, Sam on TV.
Despite the critics’ approbation, I didn’t find Annie Hall particularly funny. Indeed, given the expectations built up, it was actually disappointing, and his older films were much funnier (I had near hysterics at the opening shot of Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask) when it dissolved from a pure white screen into a couple of dozen white rabbits hopping around.)
Time passed, as it does. That long ago, given that three years had to elapse before feature films could be shown on television and that videos were still a pipe dream by a man whose wife was typing up my files for me (didn’t know that until some years later), it was common for popular films to get a second release about six months later, and thus Annie Hall came round again in the November of 1978, and I watched it again.
The circumstances were unusual. I was back in Manchester for the weekend, to watch Droylsden in the FA Cup First Round proper, drawn away to Rochdale. The Bloods won the match and I came out of the ground feeling like I could run all the way back to Manchester, though practicality reasserted itself and I took the bus instead.
Back in the City Centre about six o’clock, I didn’t feel like just heading back for a quiet evening in so, being on my own, I decided to stop off for a film. There was nothing current that appealed to me, but Annie Hall was back, and I knew I could at least sit through it, so I bought myself a ticket.
This time round, I loved it.
What was the difference? Some of it was that I was in an elevated mood to start with, but most of it was that I understood it all this time. Between April and November, I had fallen in love.
It wasn’t the first time this had happened to me. My first love had been a half decade earlier, when I had been 17: naive, immature, inexperienced, terrified of making mistakes and making the fundamental mistake of doing nothing out of fear. I had denied it to myself for years, trying to wipe the embarrassment from my memory.
And then I’d fallen in love again, equally unrequitedly, though this time it was due to external factors. But I was in love, enough so that I had been able to relax myself, to admit that my earlier feelings had been genuine and not some kind of dismissible puppy love (the amount of emotional energy I’d been using to repress that had been incredible, and I felt literally transformed by accepting the truth).
And watching Annie Hall whilst being in love, whilst having experienced those feelings, made the whole film understandable, gave me insight that opened up both story and jokes, made me laugh where previously ignorance had kept me silent.
The film is about the relationship between comedian Alvy (Allen) and the eponymous Annie (Keaton), who were then a real-life couple. It covers the beginning, the middle and the slow but inevitable end, when she goes off with Paul Simon. From the point of view of an unrequited lover, whose inamorata wasn’t interested in him as anything but a friend, there may have been nuances of which I wasn’t aware, but at the time I felt like I got pretty much everything, right down the middle.
And, with the exception of the serious one that nobody likes (not even the aliens in it) I was a regular for Woody Allen’s films in the cinema for most of the next decade. My last one was The Purple Rose of Cairo in respect of which I remember most the sober and serious atmosphere of the first twenty minutes or so of the film, until Jeff Bridges turns away from the plot of the film in the Depression-era cinema and speaks directly to Mia Farrow, in the audience, saying that she sure must love this film she’s always watching it. And he walks out of the screen and the cinema I was in erupted in a glorious gale of laughter which the film sustained from that point on.
Allen’s next film after this was the new one to be acclaimed his absolute masterpiece, Hannah and Her Sisters. For reasons I can’t recall, I didn’t fancy this one, and didn’t go to the cinema to see it. I have never seen a Woody Allen film in the cinema since, and when I did see Hannah on TV, I was by no means impressed by it. It fell even flatter with me than did Annie Hall, first time.
I haven’t seen any Woody Allen film, in any format, for a long time. Annie Hall belongs to my long ago novel in more ways than just the relationship inspiring understanding. I downloaded the film last year, but circumstances have prevented me from watching it until now.
Two scenes in particular stood out in my memory. One is the split screen scene that gives this post its title: Alvy and Annie’s relationship is slowly but certainly stumbling towards its conclusion and the mean time, each one is discussing the matter with their therapist. Alvy complains that they never have sex: three times a week. Annie complains that they are always having sex: three times a week. I have never actually had this as a direct problem (this is not a boast, just a reflection on incredible good luck) but the joke is simple but incredibly deep.
The other scene holds even more meaning for me.
Alvy and Annie have their final conversation as a couple, things slowly going wrong, the two heading in different directions even as they speak. The film goes on, showing Alvy not taking it very well. Suddenly, the scene switches to an artificial setting, two younger people, each superficially resembling younger Alvy and Annie. They speak the same dialogue as the early part of the scene we’ve just watched, a little stiffly, a little awkwardly. But, at the crucial instance, where the breach happens, ‘Annie’s dialogue changes. She gives in to him, does what he wants, preserves the relationship.
Before this, we know that we’re in a rehearsal room, that Alvy is sat over to one side, watching this performance, that it’s a play he’s written. Breaking the fourth wall, as he often does in this film, he addresses the audience, candidly confessing that he obviously wasn’t too proud to make things work in art where they didn’t work in real life.
But the real sting is that, from the moment the conversation goes in the ‘right’ direction, it ceases to be convincing, to be real or natural in any way. We don’t need to have seen the original to instantly realise that, from the moment Alvy forces his ‘Annie’ surrogate to respond against her natural instincts, she ceases to function as a believable person. For me, it’s the most impressive moment in the film, indeed in Woody Allen’s film career.
I’d like to credit Allen with all the layers I discern in that scene. There are many critics who, especially in later films, would argue strenuously that it was not intentional, but then that was the great thing about Woody Allen in those years. To me it was fully understood, inside and out, and it’s a lesson I took to heart.
When I came to write The Legendary Semi-Autobiographical First Novel, years later but dealing with the feelings that affected me when I saw Annie Hall that second time, I was too proud. I could have made things work for my character Steve, could have awarded him his Lesley in return for his being in love with her, but that’s not what happened.
Lesley wasn’t the woman I fell for but she was close enough in enough ways for it to matter inside, and it would have been false to have concluded the novel in any way different to how life had concluded things. I learned that from Woody Allen, which is why I hold Annie Hall in high esteem, even if I haven’t watched it in easily twenty years, or maybe more.
Rewatching the film after twenty years or however long it’s been, halfway back to when it was made, I only laughed occasionally, like the first time. Some of it is impossible not to laugh at: I knew it was coming but the sneezing the coke bit still had me roaring out loud. The scenes I’ve outlined above weren’t quite as I remembered them, but their essence was intact in my head.
But this time round, though I recognised the love in the relationship, how Allen made Alvy and Annie into a pair that you could understand loving each other’s presence, what I was most aware of was the incompatibility, the mismatch of this two that was always going to last longer than the things that brought them together. I’ve just had too much experience of seeing that to remain unaware.
In a way, it makes the film even greater, that Allen can show these two opposing forces blended into one relationship, so smoothly, that he can illustrate how great it is to be together with the only one you want to share things with, but that the places where the wavelength is not right, does not mesh, are the places that will endure. The sand and the rocks make an idyllic beach, but when the wide comes in, it’s not the rocks that wash out.
And I think, in a world where I have become sometimes unbearably negative that I no longer find Alvy’s negativity, Allen’s negativity towards everything to be as funny as I used to find it. They couldn’t have stayed that way, the targets in this film have been swept away by those forty years, the argument rendered invalid by time, but I’m only too aware of the utter self-centredness of Alvy’s running commentary, the ego that stipulates that only what I approve is worthwhile.
It’s still Diane Keaton’s film, though. It’s a wonderful performance, in every respect, and Annie Hall rightly made her a star. And she was ideal: an attractive woman who wasn’t unbelievably, film-star gorgeous. You believed that you could meet Annies playing tennis, and that they could fall for you. And you can get incredibly sad at the distance that grows between people when they stop being in love with each other. Which is worse, loathing or indifference? The final scene makes me think it’s the latter.
In the end, it comes back to that scene, when Alvy rewrites what wasn’t perfect for his own benefit and it doesn’t work. I’m working on the second draft now, having realised so many things that lie under the surface. I could make a plausible case, in psychological terms, for giving ‘myself’ more than I had, but I’d still know that it was wish-fulfilment. And wish-fulfilment doesn’t work: Woody Allen taught me that forty years ago, one November Saturday when I was young.

Future Perfect – if only


Back in 1990, ITV broadcast a documentary about Frank Hampson, creator of Dan Dare, co-creator of the Eagle, a figure then even more forgotten than he is today. The programme, running 45 minutes without adverts, was titled Future Perfect, and I knew nothing of it until it was repeated, late one night, in the middle of the decade.

Properly alerted to some of its contents, I videoed it at the start of a new tape, and kept it, though for many years I was unable to watch it due to the absence of a videoplayer on which to play it (the absence on a television set to watch it upon was also a stumbling block).

But, just as I did with that lovely play, The Cricket Match, adapted from A E Housman’s brilliant England, Their England, last year I had it transferred to DVD, and after many other commitments and issues, this evening I have finally won the time to rewatch it.

The documentary is far from perfect. It represents Frank Hampson’s life and career on Dan Dare fairly accurately, but in far more simplistic terms than any of the books about him have done, and it leans heavily towards crediting Marcus Morris as Eagle‘s creator, to the extent of implying that Morris had Hampson create his most famous character to order (though that may be my distinct Hampson prejudice making me over-sensitive).

It also suffers from the flaws of the time in not being sufficiently serious, a relic of the standard it’s-only-a-comic attitude that can’t somehow pretend to fully respect its material. There’s suitably ‘spacy’ music, and the talking heads that provide a lot of the air-time (meticulously identified every time they speak, as if the viewers are continually joining the episode late) may well be enthusiasts, and intelligent with it, but are still somewhat dismissable as serious opinion-makers: ex-Python Terry Jones, Queen guitarist Brian May, ex-Coronation Street actor Geoffrey Hughes. Phil Redmond, creator of Grange Hill and Brookside is the exception.

Even the choice of Tom Baker as narrator was a slight nod to the eccentricity of a comic being worth talking about.

More important are those closest to the actuality of the strip: Hampson’s son Peter, the (facial) model for ‘Flamer’ Spry, Marcus Morris’s three daughters, a copy of their biography about their father prominently displayed. But best of all, extensive participation by Greta Tomlinson, one of Frank Hampson’s original assistants.

There were even footage from Arthur C Clarke, the short-lived scientific consultant for the series, laying claim to inventing the name Treen, and a filmed interview with Frank Hampson himself, talking clearly and intelligently long after, though not comfortably, if his body-language – arms wrapped tightly around himself, legs crossed to the point of being entwined – is anything to go by.

And we kept cutting to pages and pages of Dan Dare art, Eagle covers and picked-out panels, though the same images kept returning, suggesting that there was not much variety available to the makers.

One part that clearly felt flat was the use of Chris Donald, founder of the then incredibly popular Viz comic, to provide a contradictory opinion. Eagle was an intrinsic part of everything Viz rebelled against, and Donald could have made some useful points (even if he was wrong-headed on some aspects of what ‘Dan Dare’ was) but he was clearly not allowed to speak his mind, so his contributions were incredibly diffused, to the point where they became pointless: the programme may as well have gone for all-out hagiography if it couldn’t stomach a true counter-opinion.

But there were three moments in the programme that I recalled, and for which this documentary is worth the retaining. Geoffrey Hughes’ presence was predicated on his recent casting as Digby in a proposed live-action TV series, from which some precious pilot footage, with and without blue-screen projections, was excerpted. It probably wouldn’t have worked, and the money wasn’t there to make it anyway, but Hughes’ eyes sparkled at having had even that amount of chance, and everybody involved were red-hot Dan Dare fans, so it’s a real shame because it really wasn’t updated.

And there was footage from an old Pathe newsreel feature, both colour and sepia black and white, about Frank Hampson at work, with eight year old Peter, and Max Dunlop in Dan’s spacesuit and, most uncanny of all, Robert Hampson in his Sir Hubert Guest uniform. We know Sir Hubert was based on ‘Pop’ Hampson, we’ve seen pictures of him posing that show us just how closely, and accurately, Hampson based the Controller on his Dad. But to see Sir Hubert walking around, in the flesh, was still not entirely canny, even this far on.

But the moment that moved me, and which perhaps spoke most eloquently, and silently, of those days, of what was being created and what it meant to those involved, came in the documentary’s third part. We were taken to the Bakehouse, in Southport, the first Frank Hampson studio, which still exists. Greta Tomlinson was taken too, went inside, looked around it in its much-changed state, identifying things we could not see, but she only too clearly could, her Home Counties, very matronly voice string and firm,until she started talking of the days in there, the sharing, the laughter, and her voice sped up to say it all, and she abruptly asked them to cut it there.

I’m glad to have the film available again, though perhaps having watched it now, I might never need to see it again. There is another VHS tape, somewhere in this flat, that I must find and have transferred, the watching of which is long overdue.

But the title of this DVD is nothing but ironic, given what we know of Frank Hampson’s life as a consequence of his genius. Dan’s future was, in comparison to our present, perfect, but neither we nor Frank Hampson lived in Dan Dare’s universe. If only we had.

A Knight with Honour


A man of grace, talent and courage
A man of grace, talent and courage

Initially, I didn’t think I had anything worth saying. I’ve seen John Hurt in many things, and I’ve been aware of his name since he burst into prominence in The Naked Civil Servant, though I didn’t watch it then (there was no way that was going to be on my mother’s television set) and I have seen nothing but clips and quotes from it since.

But from that point onwards, John Hurt was a serious name, and his presence in something, anything, even Alien (one of the few roles of his that I actually have seen, and in the cinema too) was a sign of seriousness, of purpose, of a level of quality.

The John Hurts of this world don’t appear in any old kind of tat.

Of all his roles, the one with which I am most familiar is that of the War Doctor in the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special, in which he was brilliant. You can say that it was beneath his talents, and despite my affection and admiration for the time when Stephen Moffat still had it, and in spades, I wouldn’t argue strenuously with you, but I can’t think of anyone else who could so effectively have conveyed the ranges of emotion that the role demanded. Without Hurt, it could and probably would have been a mess.

So as I read about his career, it strikes me that for the very limited amount of insight and appreciation I can bring, John Hurt is one of those whose passing simply must be marked, as one more loss to a world growing steadily blacker. One less figure whose very presence meant Here Be Quality. I don’t believe in Knighthoods and Knights, but he was a Knight of Quality, a Knight with Honour.

Bingewatch – I Didn’t Know You Cared, series 2


Clearly, I Didn’t Know You Cared made enough of an impact for the BBC to re-commission it for a second series in 1976, though there were only six episodes this time, and it was moved from Tuesday night. It had to have been: Tuesday Night Football would continue until 1977 but I did get to see the series this time.

There were a number of changes made to the supporting cast. Auntie Lil had disappeared without explanation and Bert Palmer as Uncle Staveley was now a member of the Brandon household. Two of Carter Brandon’s workmates from the books, Louis St John, the West Indian fitter, and Rudyard Kettle, who never went anywhere without his gauntlets, appeared in a couple of episodes. When it came to Louis, the contemporary racist epithets he attracted in the books were out of the question for a sitcom, but the vigour with which he was played by Paul Barber, many years before his role in Only Fools and Horses, was a small delight.

Unlike the first series, there was no underlying story as such, nor, despite the presence of a considerable number of lines and exchanges from the novels, did what story there was utilise any of the books. It began with Carter and Pat’s return from honeymoon in London, and dealt with their adjustment to married life, firstly under the Brandon roof, then in pursuit of the perfect new home for young executives, and lastly under the threat of moving in next door to Pat’s mother.

This gave Stephen Rea and Anita Carey much more exposure than in the first series, especially so in the second episode where, having retired to bed at 7.30pm but not for sleep, they are disturbed by a succession of visitors completely oblivious to the fact that Pat wants more than a bit of passion. And Carter’s coming round to the idea as well, if only everybody would stop telling him to put his pyjama jacket back on.

Though Carter gets away a lot to sit and moan with his Dad and two Uncles, the extra attention being paid to him and Pat as a couple has the unfortunate side effect of throwing Uncle Mort and Mr Brandon into greater relief with their unrelieved misogyny. With almost no countervailing tendencies, it tends to get a bit monotonous, and coming from the mouths of real people rather than the charged atmosphere of the book, the misogyny is far too prominent and too solid. It doesn’t work at all well.

Nor does it help that, as Mrs Brandon, Liz Smith gets correspondingly less time onscreen, and when she does she’s too often reduced to silence by Vanda Godsell as Mrs Partington, Pat’s Mum, who’s a dedicated and forceful talker.

I’ve mentioned Uncle Staveley, and can I say how brilliant Bert Palmer was in a very limited role, as a deaf and wandering old codger who’s mainly the butt of slapstick humour. Practically his first words in the series are his catch-phrase, “I ‘eard that. Pardon?”, which arrives with regularity. And Deirdre Costello gets a bit more room as Linda Preston, still gleefully overplaying her part, but allowed a little more emotional depth as she slips out of her brassy, sassy character to demonstrate a genuine feeling about Carter.

Overall, the second series wasn’t as good as the first, but it redeemed itself in a brilliant final episode, filmed mostly out of doors. In order to rescue Carter from living next door to his mother-in-law, Uncle Mort plans to persuade the widow Mrs Macclesfield (whose name no-one can remember and who gets addressed by half the towns in Cheshire at one point or another, including Droylsden) to re-marry and stick where she is. He’s planning on foisting the petrified Staveley off on her but finds himself accepted instead, without even knowing his bride-to-be’s Christian name (it’s Persephone!).

But on the day of the intended nuptials, along comes the happily litigious gas-meter reader, Mr Fallowfield, a former admirer and would-have-been husband of the fair Persephone, if only her third husband hadn’t gone and recovered. Mrs Macclesfield is torn between suitors who, like gentlemen, decided to duel for her hand by playing a game of Crown Green bowls for her.

And if you have difficulty imagining that a game of bowls can be in the least bit funny, let alone hysterical, just watch the final episode of series 2.

It made for a fine ending, but to my surprise, my favourite part of series 2 was Anita Carey’s performance as Pat. Though she’s part of the Brandon family now, she’s the outsider in every possible sense, devoted to Carter and devoted to her vision of a modern life of lounge/diners and fitted Venetian blinds, young executives sipping sweet sherry, and going up in the world. Pat’s out of place, but prepared to fight for her place. She’s not afraid to fight Linda Preston over her Carter, even though she hasn’t a tenth of the ammunition. And though Linda’s the obvious blonde with big knockers and the willingness to flaunt them, and Pat/Anita’s a sweet-faced but unspectacular girl with nothing like the cleavage, I found myself on her side throughout. Pat’s life is never going to go the way of her impossible and horizonless dreams, but she’s a nice lass underneath, and doesn’t deserve what Carter Brandon’s going to become. My eyes were on her every time she was onscreen, and her wardrobe was superbly chosen.

Unfortunately, this was her last appearance, When series 3 appeared, both she and Stephen Rea had left the series, and Carter and Pat’s roles had gone to other actors, players who were not as accomplished actors but who I always felt fitted my conception of the parts more closely. I wonder if I’m going to think the same about Anita Carey’s successor after these bingewatches?

 

Bingewatch: I Didn’t Know You Cared, series 1


This is long overdue, given when I completed my Peter Tinniswood readthrough, and it’s a shame that it was not until the death of Liz Smith last week that I finally spurred myself into action, but I have set aside this final afternoon before the great post-New Year return to work, to bingewatch the first series of I Didn’t Know You Cared, the Seventies BBC sitcom that Tinniswood made of his own Brandon family novels.

The first series was broadcast in 1975, on Tuesday nights, which meant that I never saw it until obtaining the video, a decade ago (the day meant Tuesday Night Football with the lads, and these were days when the video recorder was still just an electronic glint in an R&D Lab). It ran to seven episodes, with an underlying story thread, two, in fact, like the books, which was still very rare in 1975, despite the way having been paved by Clement and La Fresnais’s classic Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? three years earlier.

I was already a devotee of Tinniswood, and the books, and horribly disappointed to miss seeing their translation to TV, but that was the way of things back then. Television came and went. It was of the moment and for the moment, and fewer things got repeated than people seemed to think, and then only the ones that had pulled in big audiences first time round. I had to wait for series 2 to see the programme for myself.

It had a strong set-up. It had Tinniswood himself adapting, and it had a cast of tremendous strength, though few of the central cast were well known on TV. John Comer (Mr Brandon) was a veteran face in film and television for supporting roles, most notably that of Sid, of the cafe, in the then still-fledgling Last of the Summer Wine, whilst Liz Smith (Mrs Brandon) had only a prior credit in a Mike Leigh production.  Robin Bailey (Uncle Mort) had appeared in the popular ITV multi-series Sixties drama The Power Game but was only beginning his period of TV recognition.

So the older generation were strongly cast, but the two youngsters, both in their late twenties, were equally good. Stephen Rea (Carter Brandon) and Anita Carey (Pat) had to wait for the series to develop before getting room to demonstrate their abilities, but these were five fine actors and actresses.

As for the first series, though the show took its name from the second Brandon Family novel (presumably because of its sitcom-friendly title), the story was an odd conflation of elements from the first and third novels, with nothing from I Didn’t Know You Cared itself.

So, we begin with Auntie Edna’s death by falling off a trolley bus, Uncle Mort’s anticipated freedom to do what he wants and the decision, taken by the Gorgonic maiden aunts from Glossop, that he should move in with Mr and Mrs Brandon. Then we stir in the fact of it being the senior Brandon’s twenty-fifth wedding anniversary this year, and Mrs Brandon’s determination to have a Ceremony of Re-Dedication and a Second Honeymoon. Meanwhile, Pat is disappointed at the sheer number of times this week Carter Brandon has failed to propose to her, despite the opportunities she’s created. Between these two set-ups, the series takes as much as it can from the books, including large chunks of dialogue, and rumbles along.

Does it work? Watching it again, I find my answer is a lot more equivocal than it would have been if I’d just relied upon memory. It’s not as good as the books, and it was never possible that it could be. The books are dense and the humour is black, they are surreal and dark in a way that no sitcom airing at 8.30pm on a Tuesday night in the BBC summer of 1975 – a summer that was a forerunner of the Great Drought Summer of the following year – could ever have been. There was no Daniel, no Bentley, no Corporal Parkinson (apart from his ashes, that is).

The story is thus shorn of everything tending to the fantastic, and has to make its way in a reality that is only slightly bent towards eccentricity. In the books, the overwhelming relish the (male) characters had for drudgery, misery, despair and apathy can be ladled on so thick that it creates a distorted worldview that takes the reader with it. Out of the mouths of actors, it doesn’t work so complete a trick. Comer is superbly grounded as Mr Brandon, whereas Bailey is more of a caricature, and Smith is wonderfully eccentric as Mrs Brandon, but she is speaking from the wrong side of the divide.

The male-female divide is far more obvious and male-centric onscreen, and in places, because the worlds of 1975 and 2017 are vastly different in their attitudes to women generally, the misogynistic element of the former, whilst not outstanding at the time, cannot wholly be contained. Where in the books, the relish with which it is treated takes it sufficiently far over the top as to become parodistic in its overstatement, the groundedness of real voices speaking real words keep the words too much in a real word.

And it’s clear from early on that this is a sitcom in which the humour is almost entirely verbal. That’s so for the books, but in the books, when one character is speaking, you don’t have to look at the other four cast members standing and sitting around with nowt to do but react, sometimes clownishly. The words are funny, and like the books, the laughs can come along thick and fast, line after line, but the studio audience’s response are subdued, chuckles rather than guffaws.

But then comes the elopement scene in episode 6 (and it’s not who you think it is), which is performed without a word, and with a surrealisticly improbable sense of solemnity, in broad daylight, that had me rolling about.

Though the older generation get the best of it in the first half of the series, the longer the run goes on, the more time is given to Rea and Carey. Rea is clearly a superb actor, but he was never quite right in the part to me. Nevertheless, he has a central role, and Pat a dependant one, clinging to him. Their engagement is on, off and on again throughout the story, to Carter’s unwilling bemusement.

Anita Carey plays Pat a little more brittle and artificial than she is in the books, where her heart (and her ignorance) are far more firmly on her sleeve, but the longer she is given, the more Carey underlines her performance with the sweetness that Pat really does love Carter, and seriously. At the beginning, there are large chunks of Paula Wilcox as Beryl in The Lovers permeating her performance, and its testament to Carey’s abilities that these disappear so thoroughly. Carter’s not even going to get to look down the front of her blouse until their wedding night on Majorca, a wedding night she has planned in complete detail (except for what it’s going to be like to have sex), but she’s going to throw herself into that in a way Beryl will always find disgusting.

Three supporting roles should be mentioned here. Veteran Bert Palmer, who would have a greater role in later series, cameos in episode1 as Uncle Staveley, but I’d forgotten that Gretchen Franklin has a big role as Auntie Lil. I hadn’t forgotten the cheerfully vulgar performance by the buxom blonde Deirdre Costello, as the cheerfully vulgar Linda Preston: only two episodes, but memorable throughout. Yes, she’s basically playing a scrubber, and she’s pretty much a stereotype that no longer exists outside such times, but there’s a brio to her performance, a self-awareness in both actress and character that makes her delightful.

No, there are many ways in which the sitcom doesn’t work anything like as well as the books, and many ways in which it couldn’t possibly compete, and if you’re thinking of digging this out to watch, read the books first, for your own sake. But watching it this afternoon, as the equivalent of a three and a half hour movie, I laughed more frequently, at lines I could have read with as much facility as Bailey, Comer, Smith et al did, than I expected.

So I think it gets a pass from me, on balance, a qualified thumb’s up and let’s have series 2 sooner rather than later. I hope you won’t think me self-indulgent if I review these as well.

Uncollected Thoughts: Doctor Strange


The Drugs better work cos the Voice doesn't.
The Drugs better work cos the Voice doesn’t.

From the moment the first reports leaking from filming got anywhere that I could read them, there’s been¬† a good vibe about the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest offering, the introduction of Magic in Phase 3, Benedict Cumberbatch’s first – but definitely not last – outing as Doctor Stephen Strange.

And the good vibes kept mounting, up to the reviews of recent days, which have been universally favourable, except, that is, for the one coming from a comics-oriented site, which did not like it, and which slated Cumberbatch as the worst possible choice for the good Doctor.

Which did concern me a little, given that it was the only one from the comic book insider’s perception and you know that, preference for DC or not, that’s my standpoint. Was it only going to go down well with the audience that didn’t know what it was talking about? I am old enough to have encountered Doctor Strange when all was fresh and new, and very very Steve Ditko.

Rest assured however that, after this afternoon’s visit to Grand Central, Stockport, you will indeed enjoy this latest expansion of the MCU, that Benedict Cumberbatch is indeed very fitting as Stephen Strange, arrogant neurosurgeon and potential Sorceror Supreme, and if you are old enough, you too will find yourself playing air guitar in your seat as the introduction to Pink Floyd’s ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ booms onto the soundtrack.

Yes, psychedelic is the way.

Whilst it isn’t free from some tampering with the original story, Doctor Strange is a pretty comprehensive and pretty faithful effort. We have the classic story, updated into the Twenty-First Century, of Stephen Strange, gifted surgeon and all-round selfish arsehole, losing the ability to operate after damaging his hands in a car crash, unable to repair the damage by western, scientific medicine and heading east for a miracle cure that he doesn’t believe in but which has been proven effective.

We have Katmandu, and The Ancient One – controversially not the aged Tibetan of the series but instead Tilda Swinton with a shaved head, who gets referred to once, fleetingly, as a Celt and that’s it – and Wong, the Eye of Agamotto, Dormammu and Mordo. In one form or another, we get practically everything bar the Crimson Bands of Cytorrak, and not the least mention (that I could hear) of Hoggoth, let alone its Hoary Hordes.

You would expect Mordo to be the bad guy, but not so. Instead, the film has called up the obscure sorceror and minion of Baron Mordo, Kaecilius, playing a very Mordo-esque role as chief antagonist under the aegis of Dormammu, whilst the film’s Mordo, a Master not a Baron, is a trusted aide to The Ancient One. On the other hand, he did turn his back in disgust with everybody at the end, for breaking the Laws of Nature to ensure Earth wasn’t subsumed into the Dark Dimension under Dormammu’s rule for ever. Apparently, it’s not enough to save the world, you’ve got to do it in a regulation manner, so expect Mordo to be up for it as a Baddie in Doctor Strange 2.

(Which is planned,Cumberbatch having signed up for at least one more, but has no schedule, which is good because, despite being keen on seeing another film like this, I am even more keen on seeing Sherlock series 4).

These departures from the original were part of the process of de-racial-stereotyping the Doctor Strange set-up, and they were carefully and well-handled throughout. To be honest, what gave me more problems was Cumberbatch’s accent as Doctor Strange. I am no expert on English actors doing American accents but, no matter how accurate he may have been, it will take longer than this film lasted before I look at Benedict Cumberbatch and not expect to hear Sherlock Holmes.

I have to say that, for once, the CGI was one of the best things about this movie. I don’t usually go in for giving the SFX that much credit, and I subscribe to the opinion that any film that lets its CGI play a bigger part than its actors is doing the wrong job, but the opening scene, where The as-yet-unidentified Ancient One pursues Kercilius and his henches to London and starts rolling up the buildings, turning gravity on its side and interlocking old-fashioned and ornate frontages into themselves had my eyes popping out, but when it came to New York, later in the film, London got off easily.

I’m sorry not to be so energetic and articulate as I usually am at such things, not being at my best just now, but trust me on this one, Doctor Strange is well worth your time. Choose the 3D option, seriously, and if the cinema don’t do 3D screens, go to one that does.

And play yourself some Pink Floyd in advance. The early stuff, the Syd Barratt stuff. Get yourself in the mood. Groovy baby.

Gene Wilder


I’ll do it!

I first saw him in Blazing Saddles, playing the drunken sheriff and gunslinger, playing a gentle, humble, laid-back second banana role to Cleavon Little despite being the more established star.

Then he was Victor von Fronkensteen in Young Frankenstein, which i had the luck to see in the same week as Granada’s season of Frankenstein films had featured The Bride of Frankenstein, which meant I was fully au fait with all the gags and parodies.

And some time after that, I caught up with 1968’s _The Producers’_, in which he played the nervous and law-abiding accountant enveigled by Zero Mostel into the most-sure fire fraud of all time, a film that provided me with one of my all time film moments, when he finally succumbs to Mostel’s blandishments, screaming “I’ll do it!” at the top of his voice as the lights and the fountains come on, in a moment as kitsch as all get out and bloody wonderful to watch.

These weren’t his only films, but they are the ones I went to in my imagination when I learned this evening that Gene Wilder was dead at the age of 83, of complications to do with Alzheimer’s Disease.

Another victim to this most greedy of years, another light gone out of the life of the world. Rest in Peace, Gene Wilder. There wasn’t a moment you rested in any of your great films, and they were always the better for it. Go do it.