Film 2020: Sexual Chronicles of a French Family


It’s alright, I expect many of you to have raised your eyebrows at the title of this week’s film. And I expect many of you to be wondering why I’ve chosen this film, and on the level of curiosity, you might well be right. But Sexual Chronicles of a French Family (whose original title translates literally as ‘Sexual Chronicles of a Family Today’) was at least intended to be a serious film, and not just a sex romp.

Whilst watching, I was planning a line to say that you can tell that the film is meant to be serious by what it doesn’t show: breasts, yes, bums, yes, anything frontal, haddaway and get to the Internet, man. But that was before I read that the French original does include scenes of nudity and explicit sex, for which porn actresses were hired to relieve the actual stars, which would justify the box’s warnings that the film ‘Contains Strong Sex’. The north American version cuts it out and that’s clearly the print I’ve watched today: no wonder the film’s a relatively brief 75 minutes, including lengthy credits.

The story is introduced by Romain (Mathias Melloul), newly turned eighteen and miserable and whiney about not having had sex when the national average is below that (and, I was surprised to learn, the age of consent in France is 15). It’s as instantly difficult to sympathise with Romain as it is easy to understand why he’s a sexual reject at such an advanced age.

Romain’s mood is not helped by the belief that everyone around him is having it off interminably. Everyone around him consists of his parents, Herve (Stephen Hersoen) and Claire (Valeries Maes), his older brother Pierre (Nathan Duval) and his older adopted sister Marie (Leila Denio, an actual porn actress), all of whom are, indeed, having fulfilling sex lives, as we will, during the course of the film, observe. The only one Romain excludes from this file (Claire is an assistant at a law firm, used to putting matters into files, so this becomes a running gag, gag here being a word meaning that you wish someone would in relation to Romain) is Granpa Michel (Yan Brian), Herve’s widowed father, and even he;s scoring twice a month.

So, we’re put off by Romain, who is in all respects a wanker, a literal one too. That’s how things start, when he’s caught masturbating in biology class, and filming it on his mobile phone. Romain is suspended from school but gets to go back sooner than expected when it transpires that it’s a dare: everyone, boy and girl, is expected to do this and film it and send it to Coralie (Adeline Rebeillard) to be rated.

Before this happens, Claire is summoned to school. Romain’s misdemeanour becomes the stone thrown into a pool, the ripples of which are the story. Instead of dragging him home by the ear and sticking her youngest son under a cold shower for 24 hours, Claire is a liberally minded mother with an open, honest and non-prurient belief that everyone is entitled to a happy and fulfilling sex-life, as of right (newsflash: no-one gets a sex-life as of right without paying for it: as always, it takes two to make a choice of each other).

So, since no-one ever talks about sex, Claire decides to talk about sex.

Her first port of call is Michel. It’s five years since Mireille passed (this is definitely North American sub-titling) and she was the love of his life but he still needs sex, so every fortnight he visits Nathalie (Laetitia Favart), a local prostitute. It’s ideal: he doesn’t need to chitchat (as we will see when Granpa’s turn comes round and neither of them says a word to each other in an almost comic fashion).

Pierre makes it plain to his mother that he is happy with his sex-life, and that’s all she’s going to get out of him, but we know he’s into bisexual threesomes. Maria doesn’t get asked anything but we see her at it in several instances. As for Claire and Herve, the one thing I will praise the film for is that when it shows an intense scene between them, immediately followed by Maria and her bartender boyfriend, without a word being said the two scenes convey the difference between a longstanding, loving relationship lit by all the experiences of two people together, when sex is making love, and an enthusiastic shag.

Ultimately, Romain breaks his duck with the gorgeous and unconventional Coralie (her bag is filming things). This is achieved by the pair openly walking out of Michel’s birthday party to go to Romain’s room with the uimplied approval of everyone. This is the longest scene of all, mainly because it’s meant to depict Romain’s inexperience and uncertainty, and contrast it with her self-confidence, but the scene has the misfortune to come at that exact point in the ‘story’ where all this softest-core stuff is starting to get boring, besides, beautiful as Adeline Rebeillard is, I still prefer Valerie Maes.

So, will entering into sexual maturity transform Romain? You must be joking: apart from the fact he smiles now, he’s still the same little shit he’s been all along. The film jumps a year at this point. Earlier, Michel had welcomes his daughter-in-law’s enquiries about his sex-life because he was embarrassed about the possibility of conking out on the job with Nathalie and is happy now she’s prepared for the possibility.

And guess what? It’s Michel’s funeral party, family, bedfellows and Nathalie only, absorbed into the family, welcomed open-armed by Claire, and proving to be a nice, happy lady, who just likes sex (Claire approves enthusiastically).

As for Romain, it’s off to the bedroom with Coralie and her camera for some unedifying chat meant to typify teenagers d’aujordhui, though for their sakes I hope it doesn’t. And we finish on some risible guff from the little shit about Coralie not being The One (ah, romance!) but always being The First One, which, short of any major temporal displacement, is an unarguable but decidedly trite fact.

The truth is, I cannot remember what brought the film to my attention and what made me think it would be worth a Sunday morning lie-in. It’s a loose assemblage of encounters that, in its uncut original, is apparently the most explicit film ever released outside form, but even with all that stuff restored would not disguise the fact that it has no real point of view, no actual story and, as a psychological portrait of any of its cast, it’s a load of bollocks. Neither Maes nor Rebeillard can raise the film’s head above water.

Which is a shame. What began with a French film on a January Sunday morning nearly three years ago ends with a French film. There are none left, neither on DVD or download. There are, of course, films out there but none I can think of that I want to watch and blog.

So I want to thank the audience that’s checked in to this ritual. I’ve enjoyed the routine of starting the day with a film and will definitely miss it but I always knew that one day I’d reach the finish and have to find something else to do. Thank you for listening, one and all.

Film 2020: Yesterday


Firstly, I would like to make it known that I would not have gone anywhere near this film if I had realised that Richard Curtis had anything to do with it. Secondly, for this and next weekend I am watching films downloaded rather than purchased on DVD as this long run of Sunday morning cinema is almost over and I am going to have to think of something else to do very shortly. And thirdly, I only downloaded the film on the advice of a work colleague, who praised it as very funny in that other world before the pandemic, and who I haven’t seen in over seven months.

That said, let me deal with the film. It’s premise is simple: what if, one day, a struggling musician woke up to discover he was (practically) the only person in the world who remembered The Beatles? The idea originated with a writer named Jack Barth, who developed a screenplay based around the notion – indisputable – that ideas come from their own place and, most crucially, time. His struggling musician pretends the songs are his. This is one of the greatest pantheons of music ever recorded, the most widely influential pop music whose DNA is woven indelibly into the sounds that surround us.

And they flop.

Richard Curtis bought the rights and, in a completely uncharacteristic move, turned the story into a romantic comedy. Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, who’s quit his job as a teacher to build a music career. He has a small but devoted following, of about 6 people, all, like him, from that rock’n’roll hotbed, Lowestoft in Suffolk.

First, literally, and foremost among them is his manager/roadie/driver Ellie Appleton (Lily James, playing ‘Elle’ as a slightly restrained manic pixie dream girl, and who I should emphasise immediately is a delight throughout). Obviously, to everyone except Jack, Ellie has been in love with him since time immemorial, and there is a poignantly painful scene where she asks him how she got into the wrong column? Into the Friend column, not the ‘And I Love Her’ column. Public demand keeps Jack from answering a question he has never expected to hear.

Jack’s getting nowhere. It’s not that he’s bad, he’s just… undistinguished. Then, one night, cycling home having sworn off his failed musical career, there is a 12 second global blackout, at the end of which he is hit by a bus. Once recovered, he is given a new guitar by Ellie. His friends ask him to play it, so he plays ‘Yesterday’. They think it’s beautiful. They’ve never heard it before.

At first, Jack doesn’t believe them. We have to go through an unfunny this-is-all-a-complex-practical-joke-on-me sequence before Jack realises, thanks to the Internet, that this is now a world in which The Beatles never existed, that John and Paul and George and Ringo are unknowns, and that Oasis don’t exist (obvious but only marginally funny joke, easily of Curtis’s standards).

And for some reason that has no bearing on the story, Cocal Cola and the Harry Potter books don’t exist either.

How has this happened? Why has it happened? Barth’s original screenplay was entirely about this but Curtis couldn’t give a toss. There is no explanation, which some will say is sensible, not clogging up the story with unnecessary implausibility (because, let’s face it, whatever explanation there might be will be completely implausible in a supposedly grounded, realistic film), and some will say renders the whole film a total nonsense. I’m one of them.

The premise isn’t a premise. It’s a gimmick. After some early and token demonstrations of Jack being a flop even with the greatest songs of all time, he becomes a rising star of unearthly magnitude when Ed Sheeran (playing himself with a great deal of charitable humility) sees him on local TV, invites him to open for him on tour in Moscow, and hooks him up with Ed’s manager, Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon, playing a ruthless role that’s supposed to be funny, a satire on the modern music business, but which doesn’t raise any laughs because Debra acts like we expect the music business to operate anyway: you cannot satirise the exceedingly ludicrous).

So Jack, busy recalling every Beatles song he can – he’s struggling with ‘Eleanor Rigby’ – is being shaped in LA to be the biggest star the world has ever known. Ellie’s still teaching in Lowestoft and all he has to connect him to normality is his buddy Rocky (Joel Fry, played as an inoffensive but useless stoner stumbler, nothing like a cliche at all, no, really).

He visits Liverpool for inspiration. Ellie joins him for a brilliant evening that almost ends in bed, but she can’t do it. She doesn’t want a one-night stand with Jack. And his inability to choose between her and stardom is the end. He’s had half her lifetime to make a move and she’s waited, and now she needs to find a life.

Frankly, I want to pass over the next sequence. It’s unimportant to any point the story has to make, a sideshow to the romance bit. It’s taken as a given that Jack’s songs are the greatest thing since bread came sliced, that they will dominate the music scene of 2019, that they will blow Ed Sheeran away as a nobody (I told you his performance was generous), and they will change the face of music forever. There’s not a second of thought given to the fact that these songs range between 50 and 60 years old, that ‘I wanna hold your hand’ is being presented in 2019, that this music is being released into a music scene that is identical to 2019, which has long since been influenced by the very music that’s supposedly being heard for the first time ever.

Some have accused Yesterday of under-developing its premise. That would be to imply that it develops it at all.

The closest we get is Jack getting incresingly disturbed by the insanity of what he is being put through, and disturbed at the praise he’s getting for somehing he had no part in creating, that he has stolen wholesale.

Along the way, there have been hints that some other people remember. There are two, Leo, a Russian (Justin Edwards) and Liz, a Liverpudlian (Sarah Lancaster). They remember The Beatles, heaven knows why. And they’re not here to challenge Jack, but to thank him. Thank him for the chance to hear the music again, to give it life once more after it’s been torn out of history. Liz – not a stereotypical Liverpool name, no, not at all – spoils the scene by saying she thinks a world with the Beatles’ music is inferior (oh, FFS, Curtis!). She hands Jack a piece of paper.

And the film throws a sucker gut-punch at you that’s totally alien to everything that has gone on. Because the paper has an address on, a lonely, isolated cottage by the sea, the home of a man who’s had a long and contented life, living simply with the woman he loves, a man who paints. An uncredited Robery Carlyle plays John Lennon, and those of us old bastards, who sat at their breakfast tables that December of 1981, and heard the news, get a punch to the heart. John Lennon, alive, 78 years old. Oh God, to see him again, for it not to have happened. These are things that only happen on parallel worlds. is that it? Is that what happened? Curtis doesn’t care.

It’s a kicker that came at a time in the film when I was, not so much bored as wondering what the point of it was.

So Lennon is the catalyst. Jack blags a favour off Ed, interrupts his show at the new Wembley Stadium, gets Ellie backstage and on the screen, to confess his theft, his creative absence, to her and everyone at once, as Rocky uploads the entire songbook to the Internet, for free.

Oh, and he tells Ellie that he loves her, and they run off, back to Lowestoft, to the inevitable ripping-each-others-clothes-off-on-the-way-to-the-bedroom scene, followed by a montage that includes marriage, children and Jack as a music teacher getting an assembley of kids to sing ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’ but not the line about Desmond doing his pretty face.

So. But for the bit with Lennon, which made me cry again, dammit, and Lily James’ actually quite delightful perfomance, the film was a nothing, an intriguing idea given a teaspoonful’s worth of thought, having a mountain irrelevance erected on top of it. It’s a ‘juke-box’ movie too, one of those excuses for all the great hits to be layed to an unconvincing story-line. And whilst I enjoyed the songs, firstly they were just thrown at us like a wodge, with ‘Let it Be’ and ‘Yesterday’ and ‘I saw her standing there’ and ‘The Long and Winding Way’ turfed out as one, as if the Beatles’ career wasn’t one of musical development and expansion, and secondly, with all due respect to Himesh Patel, I would rather have heard them from the Beatles, ok, right? Fab.

Film 2020: Green for Danger


A late addition to the dog days of this series, Green for Danger was added after I watched School for Scoundrels only two weeks ago. I was reinded of its virtues by watching Alistair Sim, whose first film appearance this was, as Inspector Cockrill.

I have a very old memory of watching part of this film when I was young, young enough to have been sent to bed before its ending, enough to have been very frightened and spooked by the film without thoroughly experiencing the comic aspect that Sim embodied. And whilst laughing at it today, I was also well aware that Sim’s humour, and its underlying sinister side, would have been as far over my little head as the moons of Jupiter.

Green for Danger appeared in late 1946 and was one of Britain’s most popular films the following year. It was adapted from the 1944 novel of the same name by crime-fiction writer Christianna Brand, a prolific writer, and was the second of seven novels to feature Cockrill. It’s set in 1944, in a rural hospital in south east England, in the time of the V1 rockets, the doodlebugs. It’s about a murder.

The film sets things up by having a voiceover from Sim, dictating a letter to his superiors about this case. This serves to introduce a central group of six hospital members, seen around an operating table, figures in white with tight-fitting hoods revealing only their eyes. The voiceover is an old technique that works wonderfully through Sim’s delivery, slightly pompous, slightly facetious and foreshadowing the fact that before the case ends, two of these six people will be dead.

Things begin with local postman Joseph Higgins (Moore Marriot) delivering letters to Heron’s Park Hospital, an old estate converted for wartime use. Higgins is also the local ARP chief (Air Raid Protection). Their HQ is hit by a doodlebug whilst they are listening to a Lord Haw-Haw type broadcast by a slightly-accented woman’s voice and he suffers a broken leg and shock.

For much of the night he is treated by Nurse Esther Sanson (Rosamund Genn) who is still deeply stressed from the death of her mother in an air raid three months ago. The operation is to be perfprmed by Surgeon Mark Eden (Leo Genn), a womaniser with his eye on Nurse Freddi Linley (Sally Gray), whose engagement to anaesthetist Dr Barney Barnes (Trevor Howard) is not going well. Also in the theatre are Sister Marion Bates (Judy Campbell), an old flame of Eden who is still in love with him and Nurse ‘Woody’ Wood (Megs Jenkins).

Before the operation we are allowed to see that there are undercurrents to life at Heron’s Park, and these continue after Higgins dies on the operating table. We see enough hints, hints we recognise as clues but clues without, yet, meaning. They are clues, however, because Higgins’ death is not natural causes: the operation never begins because the postman dies under the anaesthetic, failing to respond to pure oxygen.

The death is a scandal and Hospital Superintendent Dr White (Ronald Adam) looks like wanting Barnes as a scapegoat. Four years earlier, a young girl died under anaesthetic administered by him. He was exonerated, but there was an anonymous letter…

The film, being made for an audience with longer attention spans than the present day, takes an inordinate length of time to reach its point, spilling out clues in a nicely natural way. It’s the old ‘as you know’ thing turned on its head: these people, this sextet, know the things that have happened before. They don’t recite them for the audience, they refer to them as you and I and him would refer to things we all recall. The clues pile up, step by step, and we sift them in anticipation: what will indicate a motive, the motive, the one that lead to a murder?

Sister Barnes knows. She’s seen, and preserved, the clue that explains not just how Higgins was kiled, but who. Unbalanced by her jealousy of Eden, making up to Freddi, she hysterically interrupts the Hospital dance to announce this to everyone, and then runs off. She has the secret, hidden where only she knows.

And she runs off throught the gardens, at night, with moonlight and winds and both Eden and Barnes about, to the cold, deserted, spooky Operating Theatre, and this is where I as young am sitting, trembling at what might happen, and then there’s another presence, a figure in white surgical gear and mask. And Sister Marion Bates screams. And this is where my instinctive memory of the film is locked in forever. I was too young then.

The film was at its most effective here, letting our imaginations in to terrify us more than any depiction could. Sister Bates is killed, stabbed twice, the first through the heart, with a surgical knife. It’s now 35 minutes into a 96 minute film. Now is the point. Enter Scotland Yard. Enter Inspector Cockrill. Enter Alistair Sim.

Sim transforms the film. Without ever letting go of the fact that it is a murder mystery and that we have been told that one more of these five survivors is going to die, Sim brings a subtly comic aspect to his performance. I vividly remember, that first time, my Dad brightening up at Sim’s arrival and ready for fun.

And Cockrill provides it, his gentle eccentricities of approach to the suspects, the glint of amusement in his eyes, his switching back and forth from suspect to suspect, never letting anyone settle, pulling threads that lead towards a solution.

Another attempt is made on another life, the lovely Freddi (Sally Gray was a very attractive woman). Asleep after night shift in the nurse’s home where the gas has run out abnd no-one has had a shilling for the meter, she is set up to die when Woods pops in a bob and the unlit gas fire in Freddi’s room starts pumping gas.

She is only saved when Nurse Sanson arrives and discovers her, smashing a window and calling for help, dragging Freddi out but dropping her head first down the stairs. A fractured skull is the outcome, Inspector Cockrill says to his four remaining suspects, an emergency operation at which all will attend and perform as they did with Higgins. The murderer will try again.

Except that Freddi is alive and well and has agreed to risk herself in an effort to bring the murderer out into the open.

All present, all masked, everything duplicated very carefully. Down to Freddi’s unexpected collapse, her laboured breathing, the approach of death, and a smear on Nurse Woods’ gown that gives Cockrill the final clue. Green stands for danger. The cylinders used by Barnes are colour-coded. Black for Nitrous Oxide, black and white for Oxygen, green for carbon dioxide. Unless a green cylinder has been repainted black and white…

A switch to the reserve oxygen saves Freddi. Who has repainted the CO2 cylinder? The clues point to Mark Eden, who is quietly preparing a hypodermic. Did he kill Higgins? He must have. But he didn’t.

Cockrill turns on Esther Sanson. Nurse Sanson, whose possessive, jealous mother was buried in the rubble of their bombed house. The search was called off after three days by the ARP Chief, Higgins. Mrs Sanson was found alive on the fourth day, but only for an hour. Esther has acted in the twisted belief she is executing the man who killed the mother she never got away from.

Eden wants to talk to her alone byut Cockrill refuses, o he grabs her, pushes her through into the other room, bolts it. He corners her, approaching her with the hyopdermic. Barnes breaks in, Cockrill strikes the hypo from his hand. Esther confirms herresponsibility, and that she wa right to do so. he feels faint, asks for water, collapses. She is dead. Four poison pills have gone mising. She had taken them. Eden recognised the signs. The hypodermic Cockrill prevented him from administering held the antidote.

That is one hell of a twist ending.

So all is done. Cockrill returns to Scotland Yard to complete his voiceover report. In view of his failure – no, make that comparative failure – I am hereby tendering my resignation… in the firm and confident expectation that you will reject it. Cue credits.

Green for Danger is an old and old-fashioned film, and all the better for it. It’s an old-fashioned murder mystery that conceals its mystery well, allows for moments of genuie fright and yet applies a level of comic genius, otherwise known as Alistair Sim, that doesn’t disturb or unbalance the film’s serious aspects. It’s a perfect example of things we’ve lost in our film-making. The only thing wrong with it is that I’ve not watching it on an old black-and-white television in the afternoon, with a solid roast beef dinner slowly digesting, at peace with the world and untroubled by nothing. It’s still bloody good on Sunday mornings as yet unfed.

Film 2020: A Month in the Country


Of the various BBC Play for Todays and C4 films I’ve used to extend Film 2020 beyond its natural and impending end, A Month in the Country is the most genuinely film-like even as its concerns and its slow pastorality identify it as a television programme. It is a (mostly) faithful adaptation of J.L. Carr’s Booker Prize nominated novel, once reviewed here, with what we would now regard as a stellar cast, Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh and Natasha Richardson, but which was then young actors, talented, destined to rise but here effective novices. And the film is better for their inexperience, as each brings a freshness to their performance, unaffected by fame.

The story takes place over the summer of 1920, in and around the North Riding town of Oxgodsby, a rural community, a place of peace, stillness, eternity and solidity (ironically, most of the film’s outdoor scenes, which are beautiful, are filmed in Buckinghamshire). Birkin (Firth) is a picture restorer, hired by bequest to uncover and restore a long-covered mural in the Church. He is also a War veteran who, like many who survived, is tortured by his experiences, which present themselves physically as a facial tic and a pronounced stammer.

Another veteran, archaeologist James Moon (Branagh) is living in a bell-tent outside the graveyard, hired on bequest to discover the bones of Piers Hebron, an ancestor buried anonymously outside the graveyard for reasons unknown that will tie into Birkin’s assignment. Moon’s torments are less visible, though they run deep: he suffers agonising leg cramps, has dug a foxhole for himself to sleep in, for safety, and then there’s the nightmares.

Birkin’s task is opposed by the Vicar, the Reverend Keach (Patrick Malahide), who fears a superstitious distraction, correctly it is implied. He is cold and distant – Mallahide conveys this superbly, just by how he speaks, in clipped sentences that seem to trail off, as if Birkin is not worth speaking to. The Church offers Birkin nothing but his payment, in exact detail: Birkin sleeps on floorboards in the belfry.

It’s not very exciting as stories go but that is the whole point. Birkin and Moon are damaged men, ruined men, men who have undergone experiences unimaginable to the men who went before them. Moon is outwardly the more cheerful, self-composed. He’s slightly shy and hesitant in talking but he talks where Birkin listens. Both keep what they have gone through within themselves even with each other.

But in Oxgodsby, Moon is the outsider, keeping himself to himself. Both men are outsiders, Londoners in what might be expected to be the insularity of Yorkshire, but in contrast Birkin is drawn into the community. First by the Ellerbeck family, who are Chapel (Methodists), whose religion is more severe and challenging that Keach’s didactic refinement, but whose immediate warmth and willingness to provide Birkin with comforts is as natural and instinctive as can be imagined.

And Birkin is taken here, there and everywhere, experiencing all of the community. It’s far more noticeable in the film than the book, but Birkin is put upon at every turn, to do this and that: umpire the local cricket match, preach at the distant Chapel, visit the dying girl.

But it’s all part of this one summer. Birkin becomes part of Oxgodsby, however temporarily. He takes part, he is treated normally, and slowly the tics and the stammer diminish. Only diminish, not disappear.

There is another reason behind this and that is Alice Keach (Richardson). Alice is the Reverend’s wife, at least fifteen years younger, and a very beautiful young woman. Even Moon – who we will learn late on in the film, spent the last six months of the War in military prison, notwithstanding his Military Cross, for “buggering his batman” – recognises her as a stunner. And Richardson is truly lovely, clear-eyed, brown-haired, slightly rounded of face, shy of manner.

What she’s doing with Keach is inexplicable and unexplained. He’s not worth her, for all his intellectual piety, she deserves someone nearer her own age. Birkin, by virtue of who he is, is the ideal solution, but that would be to trash the story. Birkin is married, to an unfaithful wife who has run off with another man but whose letter asking to try again (again) will draw him back to London at the end. But in the end, he is too withheld to make a move, and she too doe-eyed female to initiate something that will breach all her vows. The affair never reaches a single touch.

In the centre is the mural. It’s a vast allegory, the Judgement, of men and women, angels and devils. Birkin does not believe in God but the subject, and the quality of the art (created specially for the film by Margaret Noyes) fascinates him. He is drawn to a falling figure in a corner, disfigured by a crescent scar, and to a rough area not done by the artist.

The answer is simple: the artist fell and was killed before the mural was complete. And when Moon discovers the stone coffin that contains Piers’ bones, the mysteries fuse. Piers Hebron was a Muslim convert, and the artist.

Stories like this have no real end. They are epiodes in a life and thus merely phases. The end, in physicality, is moving on, Birkin back to his unfaithful wife, Moon to a dig in Baghdad. The Keach’s remain, as will the Ellerbacks, the Cloughs and Douthwaite. Emily Clough has tuberculosis: her death will follow. Perce Ellerback died in the War. Not even permanence was untouched or unchanged. We have lived through a summer that was an idyllic dream in a world where there is no longer any room for idylls: such ease will not last.

The film creates an aatmosphere into which we sink, gratefully, so it’s such a crashing disappointment to see it blow it in the last few moments. In the book, Birkin never goes back. The film endswith Birkin walking away, across fieds as dry and sunny as they were soaked and grey on his arrival. He looks back at the Church where an old man is approaching, carrying a book. The old man pauses and looks at him, before entering the Church. He is Birkin, seen across time, carrying the book in which Birkin pressed the rose Alice Keach gave him. The Church is a blaze of light in which he sees young Kathy Ellerbeck and her brother Edgar before the light suffuses everything and he walks into it and dissolves.

I shall fast forward thriough this bit next time I watch A Month in the Country.

That the film exists, and can be watched, is a matter of luck. It was neglected for decades before a random 35mm print was discovered, the same way old and wiped Dr Who episodes have been found, and the first DVD was withdrawn due to copyright issues. But, even after that nonsense at the end, I am very grateful to have the chance to watch this film, and film it is, ultimately. It deserves to be better known. It takes you there and shows you the surface, but it lets you see the writhing emotions everyone keeps hid, leaving just what they are to your imagination. And it shows you why Messrs Firth, Branagh and Richardson became stellar, when they were unspoiled.

Film 2020: School for Scoundrels


It is a truth universally acknowledged that on a bright, golden September Sunday morning there is little better than a dive into nostalgia.

School for Scoundrels was released in 1960. I don’t know when I would have first seen it, 1963 at the very earliest, these being the days when there was a bar or an agreement upon feature films being seen on television for three years after they appeared in the cinema. Whenever it was, it was Sunday afternoon, once Sunday television had been opened up to relative freedom as the grip of the Sabbath was being gently released: those quiet and uneventful Sundays of Mother cooking roast dinners, Father tuning the car, the somnolence of Britain away from the stress and activity of the six non-special days of the week.

Though it’s far from its purpose, the film captures that splendidly, sinking into its time, one I barely remember, having been a child at the time, but which is nevertheless burned into me because I was a child at that time and this was the world I was born into.

School for Scoundrels starred a fourway cast of Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas, Janette Scott and the under-utilised Alastair Sim. It’s based on Stephen Potter’s once famous Gamesmanship books, sketch books of situations turned to one’s advantage, justifying the film’s sub-title of or; How to win without actually Cheating.

Carmichael is Henry Palfrey. The film starts with his arrival at Yeovil train station and following, across abandoned and waste ground, of a series of pointing finger placards that direct him to the College of Lifemanship (prop. S. Potter) where he is going to learn how not to be a loser. Alastair Sim is Potter and is wonderful because he is Alastair Sim.

Palfrey (this is the Fifties, men addressed each other by their surnames, just as I did my schoolmates when I went to Grammar School in 1966, it was ingrained) is a gentle, easy-going and therefore put upon soul. He runs a family firm whose employees ignore him, and at which he is ruled by the Chief Clerk Gloatbridge, with constant reference to Palfrey’s ‘late Uncle’. He loves tennis but has been dropped from the weekend match. Everyone takes advantage of him.

But Palfrey has met April Smith (Scott), a nice-looking, slim-figured young woman, bumping into her as he leaps aboard a London bus from which she is alighting (the old fashioned, open-platformed buses with conductors). He invites her to dinner at a really swanky restaurant that refuses to seat them at first, because his name is mis-spelled, and then because they are late – from this faffing around. Enter Terry-Thomas, playing his usual snake-like lecherous smoothy as Raymond Delauney, who sets out to seduce April under Palfrey’s nose.

This includes inviting her to watch a ‘friendly’ game of tennis with Palfrey in which Delauney drives April in his hot-spot Bellini sports car (actually a re-shaped Aston Martin – even the car names are a glorious nostalgia) and one-ups Palfrey every step of the way, humiliating him in front of April,

The plot therefore is very simply. Palfrey enrols at Yeovil, learns all the ploys, and is accompanied by Potter on his ‘field trials’ in which he turns the tables on the crooked Welsh car dealers (Dennis Price and Peter Jones) who originally conned him into buying a total lemon of a car, getting them to take it back in exchange for a nifty little sports model and 100 guineas (guineas, ye Gods!).

He also asserts himself as the boss of his firm, by the simple expedient of introduing an error into the cash register to make a total £10 out before setting out to totally infuriate Delauney over a return match, not to mention screw him up over April. It’s beautifully played, with Carmichael investing Palfrey with a slightly artificial confidence overlaying a genuine confidence, turning up in tartan flannel shirt and old and baggy trousers, playing with an ease and deliberate slowness with one hand in his pocket to the ever-increasing frustration of the properly be-whited Delauney, getting increasingly unnerved at how everything is going against him without understanding how or why.

From there, Palfrey segues perfectly into taking April out for a drink, which metamorphoses into a drink at his flat, during which he employs a ploy telegraphed from earlier in the film to get her to spill her whiskey and soda all down her dress. April has to change into Palfrey’s over-sized dressing gown whilst her dress is being dried before the fire, from which it is but a step to decoying her into the bedroom to avoid being seen in compromising circumstances, a laugh at how sexless a woman looks in a man’s dressing room from ‘Uncle Henry’…

I’d like to drop out for a moment to coment on how backwards-looking this section is. The truly sexless atmosphere of the film, and its comedic naievete spares the film, but what we have here is a pretty basic demonstration of how to trick a woman into bed. The Potter book this is based upon is Woomanship, whose actual sub-title is quoted, being, ‘How to be one-up on a woman without actually marrying her’. It’s a precursor of the infamous book, The Game by Neil Strauss, and it’s a queasy undertaking. I confess that it’s only my nostalgia, slipping back into the time of the film, understanding its essential innocence, that keeps me from being heavily criticial of this section.

But Henry, on the point of sharing a very passionate (but still closed-mouth kiss) with an attractive woman, who is wearing only his dressing gown and her underwear, in his bedroom, not a yard from a double bed… catches sight of himself in the mirror and repents instantly. He wants April to dress and he’ll drive her home. He can’t go through with it.

Which makes all the difference. Because Delauney has seen Potter at the tennis club, trailed him and, offscreen, bearded him. Delauney pounds on Palfrey’s door, calling him out as all manner of cad, rotter and rat (for wanting to do to April what Delauney wants to do) and acting all possessive to her, here to save her, exposing what Palfrey’s done: from couch to bedroom in three easy steps.

April recognises how she has been betrayed. But Henry stopped, Henry reversed himself. And that made the difference. Potter shushes Delauney, who can’t understand why he, from so utterly winning a position, is suddenly the loser. Potter sees the birth of a new ploy but it’s not. Henry loves April, and April loves Henry. And now they’re kissing, in a room full of people, one of whom, Mr S. Potter, is seriously embarrassed. It’s the one thing that Oneupmanship cannot defeat: sincerity. And it is dreadful.

And Alistair Sim approaches the camera and addresses it, apologising to the audience for how things have turned out, and then his face twists in pain as he addresses the Orchestra, who are filling the air with romantic music as Henry and April kiss and hug and kiss and hug (lucky blighter) with Sim telling the band to stop that infernal din…

And the last shot is the train station at Yeovil and the pointing finger signs, but the man who’s gotten off the train is Raymond Delauney…

Ah, nostalgia. School for Scoundrels isn’t really a film, in the sense of a story. It’s just a string of cyncically funny ideas from three of Stephen Potter’s books given a rough shape. The film is about set-ups, sketches, and in the case of the final sequence, rather dodgy ones too. It’s heaped with familiar British actors and actresses making cameos with skill and professionalism, and it’s graced with a strong principal cast whose combined abilities elevate the film.

Like I said, Alastair Sim, a great and subtle comic presence, is under-utilised: at greater length his ability to undercut comedy with a faintly cynical aspect would have made the gamesmansip even funnier, but perhaps that would have been at the expense of the film’s essential innocence. Janette Scott, a very popular actress of the period with a wide range, whose fame has not carried on in the manner of her three co-stars, is also undercharged. She’s a perfectly lovely, fresh, self-possessed and genuine girl of the late Fifties, utterly natural, but April Smith’s role is entirely passive by the nature of the story. April is the ‘prize’ and she is acted upon throughout, which is a shame but only to be expected.

Ah, nostalgia. One definition is the art of seeing the past through rose-tinted glasses, more potently when it comes to your own past. School for Scoundrels is a film that saw the present through rose-coloured glasses so the two tie up together nicely. As I get further away from the beginning of my life I find it increasingly important to capture as much of it as I can. This still sunny, golden Sunday morning has been perfect for it.

Film 2020: Red Shift


Alan Garner’s own adaptation of his 1973 novel as a 1977 BBC Play for Today is the one remaining ‘film’ left in this series that gives me real pause for doubt. The book has been my favourite among Garner’s works since I first read it, not long after publication, and it remains one of my favourite books of all time. That I was unable to watch the film on its original, and only, broadcast due to an interview far away from which I could not get back in time was devastating.

Since first acquiring a DVD copy, initially by purchasing a private copy obviously videoed, this is only the third time I have watched Red Shift. Partly, this is because, oddly enough, the film is too faithful to the book. By that I don’t mean that it tries to capture in film what can only successfully be rendered in words – where such sscenes exist in the book, Garner sensibly doesn’t even try to include these. But the book is ninety per cent dialogue (it’s a wholly stripped down book in all respects) and to hear this spoken verbatim, with faces and bodies and settings wrapped around it, produces a strange and not entirely welcome effect.

It’s as if the film has no real life of its own because it’s shackled to the earlier, and very complete, work.

Red Shift tells a complex story that is not anchored to a single time-frame. It’s dominated by the contemporary love story of Tom and Jan (Stephen Petcher and Lesley Dunlop), but intercuts with two other moments in time: the remnants of the lost Roman Ninth Legion attampt to survive among Cheshire tribes and during the Civil War a village is massacred by the King’s Men. Both these parallels centre upon a young couple. There is Macey, the young beserker and the unnamed priestess who his fellows hold captive, pregnant from their rapes (Andrew Byatt and Veronica Quilligan). And there is Thomas Rowley, an epileptic, and his wife Madge (Charles Bolton and Myra Frances) who survive the massacre though Madge too has been raped – and possibly made pregnant – by her former suitor Thomas Venables.

In the book, all three sequences are equals, irrespective of the different lengths given to them, but in the film we are watching Tom and Jan to whom the other pairs are but slightly outre alternatives.

The film is a love story, of sorts, linked in place rather than time, with the stories centring upon Chesire, and upon the folly-topped outcrop of Mow Cop. They are linked by a votive stone axe of incredibly preserved condition that passed from one couple to another. They are linked by almost parallels reverbrating from era to era. But it is Tom and Jan, the modern age couple of the Seventies, who receive most of our attention.

The pair are teenagers of about 18, living in Rudheath, Cheshire. Tom, the son of an Army Sergeant-Major and a possessive mother, is highly intelligent, highly articulate, studying for something that’s never defined, Jan is a bright, attractive girl, dsughter of two psychiatrists, intent on becoming a nurse, which means her moving to London for her training. Though we quickly are introduced to Tom’s latent instability, it takes the film much longer to reveal that both are the product of home environments that have affected them badly.

And it’s on the very evening that Tom learns tjat not only is Jan going to London but her parents are also moving away, have already sold their house, that his parents start asking if the two of them have yet had sex.

It’s not put so bluntly but that’s what it is: have you done anything that would cause us to be ashamed of you? As it happens, the pair haven’t. They are tactile, hand-holding, hugs and kisses, but neither of them, and especially Tom, are yet ready. not that it’s any business of his parents if they have.

But the enormity of the question, prompted by his mother through his more-easily embarrassed father, strikes through the shield of Tom’s words and breaks him. Whilst his poisonous mother (an excellent performance by Sheila Tanner, a familist character actress well-siuited to harridan-like roles) accused Jan of being the unspoken equivalent of a succubus, Tom pushes a window of their caravan home until it shatters, cutting his hands.

This scene is treated as the catalyst of Tom’s link to his equivalents of the other times.

We already understand that Tom is on an edge and his words and attitude and projected self-confidence are things to hide behind. How much Jan understands of that now we can’t tell. For the moment, they establish a routine whereby they can see each other, in Crew, once a month. Their relationship is established instantly every time. Jan tells Tom she loves him several times. We notice that he doesn’t say it back. They find their way to Barthomley Church, scene of the massacre, and to Mow Cop, where Tom finds the axe whose journey to that point we’ll learn later.

To Jan, the axe is of vital importance, a ‘Bunty’. It is a thing of beauty but most importantly it’s a thing of permanence. She, like Tom, is traumatised by her childhood, a life of never being in the same place for long, always moving, never having friends, never having anything of permanence. It is theirs, it symbolises the relationship they have, that is coming nearer it being sexual, though it’s significant that she has to ask Tom if her’s alright about that. Because Tom’s not.

On Mow Cop, Macey the kid hangs around the priestess but never touches her. He is lost in confusion since using the axe to kill, sees Macey and himself as separate, with Macey gone. once the priestess poisons his mates, Macey is free and they can leave together, the axe buried in a riverbank where Tjomas Rowley will find it.

In Barthomley, Thomas has a fit and fires a shot that brings the Army down on the villagers beseiged in the Church. In pursuit of the rebel John Fowler (James Hazeldine), son of the Rector, educated man but still inferior, the men are killed and the women are raped. But Thomas Venables (Michael Elphick) only wounds Thomas Rowley before he takes Madge, sparing him to live and care for her on Mow Cop, with the axe built into the chimney where Tom finds it in its collapsed and derelict state.

These couples escape together, though one woman, probably both, are pregnant by another. Will Tom and Jan repeat the pattern? We already know they won’t.

Tom begs a lift to London to intercept Jan. He sees her arrive in a nice dress, with a well-coiffeured and eveidently prosperous middle-aged man who sees her off in First Class with a kiss. At Crewe she is in her familiar pullover and jeans. Tom pretends not to know anything but treats her in an overbright and callous manner that signals to her instantly that something is wrong. In the keep of the folly on Mow Cop everything spills out. The man was the German wine-grower where Jan au-paired last Easter. She lost, or rather gave, her virginity to him. A lonely child, unable to commit, unable to feel valued, because her parents never gave her time to be anywhere, his warmth, his appreciation, touched her. She didn’t love him, she never revealed her real self to him, but she allowed him to ground her, to learn value in herself, he made her capable of loving Tom as she does. he was passing through London, concerned that she hadn’t answered his letters, was happy for her and Tom, treated her and them.

But the explanation doesn’t take account of Tom’s own traumas, his instability, his unwordly and unrealistic attitude to sex, brought in on him by life in a caravan that rocks and has no sound-proofing. Saturdays and Mess nights, his father begging, his mother who’s directed her possessiveness towards Tom in some inverted Oedipal manner, making his Dad beg. Tom has worn headphones to shut this out since he was eight.

Maybe a psychiatrist could straighten him out but though now Tom wants sex with Jan, it’s all he wants, out to catch up on something he can never catch up to because his own insecurities, instability, will always push his goal further away. Garner wrote book and film as an expression of the myth of Tam Lynn, with Janet required to hold on to Tam Lynn, just hold out throughout all his changes, to save him.

But Tom sold the axe, the Bunty, to a museum in which it’s forever untouchable, to pay for London. Tom’s misunderstood, has failed to understand Jan so thoroughly that, between that and his change from giver to taker, grab, grab, grab and always promising ‘next time’, not even she can hold on. Not really now not any more.

It strikes me that i’ve failed to do the film justice, that I’ve reviewed the book,  not the play. That’s the peril of hewing so closely to the original. Red Shift the film falls short of Red Shift the book, no matter its qualities, because it stands so close it can’t escape the book’s shadow.

The  acting is good throughout, and the cast includes a couple of actors on their way to greater recognition. everything stands and falls on Tom and Jan, and whilst Petcher, in his debut performance,  does what he can with a near impossible role, Dunlop is fantastic, inhabiting Jan with a comprehensive naturalness, making every line the product of a young woman reacting to horrendous circumstances.

There is more to both book and film that I’m able to convey without going into such depth that I might as well just copy out the book. Ultimately, I’m not able to separate the two.

Film 2020: No Surrender


This is the first of two Channel 4 films being used to extend this series as far as it will go. Written by Alan Bleasedale when he was at the height of his powers, the film saw theatrical release in other countries but was confined to broadcast over here by the relatively new Channel. I am convinced that I watched it on the evening of New Year’s Day, probably 1986, but I can find no evidence for this. I could give you its release date in Canada, mind.

I remember loving the film. I remember being deeply affected by its ending. I answered a letter condemning it in the Manchester Evening News that demanded the writer not be told to switch it off as he had a right to watch TV, defending the film but, more importantly, reminding him he was not obliged to like it or even watch it but that there were three other Channels broadcasting at the same time and he had no right to demand that television only show what he wanted to watch, which brought forth a third letter from someone else basically slandering anyione who liked No Surrender, and you can’t answer those.

And I never saw it again, or if I did maybe once, a repeat one night, maybe in the Nineties. I have not seen it again until today. I remembered so many vivid moments and lines. I was moved again by the ending, whose quiet power will only ever lose its effect if we finally learn not to hate each other so irrationally. But I forgot something. I forgot how absolutely brilliant Alan Bleasedale was as a writer, to make a film about pain, and despair, and pathological religious hatred, about inadequacy and ineptness and violence, and make it so abso-fucking-lutely funny.

You’re going to have to excuse the language because this film is set in Liverpool in the mid-Eighties, when the City was simultaneously dying, being killed and refusing to recognise that it was dead, and they just talk that way and Bleasedale, a Liverpudlian whose best works came from his home ground, isn’t going to strike a false note by sugarcoating anything.

The film takes place on New Year’s Eve. Michael (Michael Angelis) is starting his job as Manager of the Charleston Club, a prefab nightclub in the middle of a post-industrial wasteland where you can see the Police coming from miles away but can’t see the crooks, the thugs, the crazed and the kids with no future at age 12 until they’re under your nose. The club is owned by Mr Ross (Tom Georgeson), who turns out to be a leading figure in organised crime, who insists on Michael being the perfect, seemingly-ignorant front for the money flowing through the club, which acts as a wash-tub to make it clean. It has a bouncer, Bernard pronounce Ber-nard, who claims to be ex-Foreign Legion and whose IQ is somewhere down in the Liverpool 7s (Bernard Hill, reuiniting three of Bleasedale’s Boys from the Blackstuff).

In the backroom, Michael’s predecessor as Manager is undergoing a fairly ruthless beating. He’s tried to steal from Mr Ross. Michael wants nothing to do with this: he’s a nobody, he knows that, he accepts it, but he won’t be anybody else’s nobody. Unfortunately, Mr Ross doesn’t care and his on the ground henchman Frank (Vince Earl, the future Ron Dixon of Brookside) is gently persuasive about how misguided it would be to let Mr Ross down. Frank also views himself as a comedian, and Earl is perfect as that guy who can’t help but come out with what he thinks is wit, without accepting any deflection.

So far, so thriller in its construction, set upon a very definite picture of Liverpool of the time, the football club still riding mighty but everything else about the City sliding down the pan. But what embodies this film is the other thing the unfortunate McArthur has done, and what he’s landed Michael with.

He’s gone and booked the Charleston out with three Pensioner’s Parties. Nowt wrong with that, you might think, it’s New Year’s Eve in Liverpool. But one party comes from the 12th of July Memorial Club, meaning that they are hardline Protestant Loyalists, who look up to former hard man Billy ‘The Beast’ McCracken (Ray McInally, who has never been better) and one party comes from St Joseph’s Social Club, meaning that they are hardline Catholics, who look up to former hard man Paddy Burke (James Ellis, unrecognisable from his long-standing role as Sgt Bert Lynch in Z-Cars), ex-boxer, blind but still full of aggression, determined to get Bily the Beast.

And the third party is a small group of seriously elderly men and women, suffering from senile dementia.

You think that’s bad? That that’s playing with cigarette lighters in close proximity to a serious petrol spill? McArthur wasn’t finished. For entertainment he booked a seriously unfunny comedian who’s overtly gay and hasn’t got anything remotely resembling a funny line (even Frank has more going for him), a useless magician who suffers from stage-fright and whose white rabbit, stuffed pathetically visibly under his top hat, has chosen this moment to die on him, literally, and a punk band of stunning ineptness including a McGann brother and Andrew Schofield, another regular Bleasedale player as a compulsively ‘witty’ little scrote you’d pay to watch being stuffed through his own guitar strings.

As recipes for chaos go, this is already Cordon Bleu and that’s before you complete the mixture with a Loyalist gunman on the run, Norman Donoghue (Mike Mulholland), a ‘pal’ of Billy the Beast from forty years ago, blackmailing Billy for shelter by bringing up his daughter in Ireland, the one who married a Catholic, to whom Billy never has nor never will speak, and Cheryl (Joanne Whalley at the height of her loveliness), kitchen assistant, would-be singer andOrange Lodge hater, delaying the Protestant’s food because it’s not cold eough yet.

No need to stir this mix because it’ll stir itself.

In the middle of all this is Michael, so far out of his depth he could be halfway to Wallassey without a Ferry, but determined to survive all this, intact and detached.

Bleasedale was a fantastic writer in that decade, one of the few people capable of depicting pain whilst reducing you to tears of laughter. I always had a problem with any kind of ‘don’t know whether to laugh or cry’ set-up because I would always cry, the jokes never being funny enough to cross over to the other emotion, but Bleasedale had the knack. It’s funny, very funny, but it’s also deadly serious, and increasingly so. The hatred flattens itself against your screen and leers at you. As an atheist, I watched both then and now in bemusement that the details of how to ‘properly’ worship the same God, a God of Love, generates such hatred, such venom.

The film gets more intense. The disturbing expectation of danger from the outset becomes real threat. Remind yourself that these are all old men and women. Everybody is over 60, every man over 65. You want to tell yourself that they’re old enough to know better, but they are not.

Is one side better than the other? Does Bleasedale favour Protestant or Catholic? Much as he tries to portray both sides as impossible to favour, there is a slant. The drama requires one to produce an ending and the Protestants have it. There are three reasons. Cheryl, one of the three stars, hates them and acts maliciously over their food, plus when the Loyalist Marching Band bring in their instruments, she starts the Catholic counter-singing. And there are Billy the Beast and Paddy Burke.

Ray McInally was a bloody good actor. Thiough he protests to Norman Donoghue that his father left him three things, his faith, his loyalty and his football, and they’re all true blue, it’s equally clear without words that Billy is reconsidering all the things his life, his past has been. Paddy Burke, his opposite, has gone blind, physically as well as mentally. Deprived of his sight, deprived of the chance to grow as Billy may, at long last be doing, he sees only the past, the rivalry with Billy McCracken. Paddy intends to start one more fight, to batter Billy the Beast.

Billy doesn’t want it. Everyone around him, with the exception of a sceptical old woman who won’t go on the Marches any more because she never liked shouting ‘Fuck the Pope!’ in public, are on his side, ready to back him, ready for war again at any moment. Billy wants no trouble. No trouble any more.

But Billy finds that trouble is unaoidable. First Norman, seeing the Police arrive for Michael’s scheme to drive Mr Ross clear, accuses Billy of betraying him, threatens his daughter. Billy does what he has to do, his old comrade, his old pal, a man after his own heart, once, and strangles Norman in the toilet cubicle where he’s hiding. It’s brutish, but unavoidable.

Then, tricked into a trap by Tony (Michael Ripper), made ready for paddy’s assault, with both parties trying to cram into the toilets and a hell of a lot of them achieving it, Billy has to face Paddy. He’s had a beer bottle smashed over his head, he’s been kicked in the stomach, but the Beast rises and he beats Paddy Burke, hard. One man smashing punches into the face of a blind man yet we suspend the automatic moral judgement, not overturn it just suspend it, until Paddy goes down, crashing through a cubicle door onto the lap of a dead Loyalist gunman.

It’s over, it’s all over. Billy walks away alone. The pensioners celebrate New Year’s Dave. Michael and Cheryl share a New Year’s kiss that is not going to be extended to Ber-nard. Afterwards, after one final drink in peace in a cleared but not cleaned club, Ber-nard goes home to his mother. Cheryl makes it plain she wants Michael  to go home with her for the fuck she’d proposed in the middle of the film. Michael points out he’s a happily married man. Cheryl tells him it won’t last. He puts his arm round her waist (lucky Michael Angelis) and they go off together.

But that’s not the ending, not the ending I remember, the ending that was so moving. Billy McCracken returns to the 12th of July Memorial Club alone, lets himself into the deserted office, dials the telephone. He calls his daughter Elizabeth, the one in Ireland, the one who married… They wish each other Happy New Year. Then, to her surprise, he asks to speak to Brendan. Yes, Brendan. His son-in-law, identified as such for those who are hard of thinking. He asks Brendan if he may be thought to be sentimental to wish him Happy New Year?

And the music takes over and credits run and the camera stays at a distance as Billy settles into his chair for an unheard conversation, and from the smile on his face a opleasant one, with the son-li-law, the Catholic to whom he mever will speak, and we fade away, marveling at how it is ever too late to go against your lifelong beliefs and to learn what your religion truly means.

This may seem like a fairly detailed synopsis of the film and certainly I’ve spoiled all spoilers, but there are layers and depths and individual stories I haven’t even begun to hint at. Alan Bleasedale writes like a dream and the best thing you can say for the cast is that they rise to the level of his script. There are distinguished actors and familiar actors in here and from beginning to end they cease to be actors and become the people you watch.

The film’s only failing is the gimmick of having Elvis Costello play his first acting part as the magician, Rosco de Ville. Aside from a silent entrance, crossing the background, Costello only appears in two screens and it was very noticable that whilst he said his lines adequately, both scenes were monologues, played to Angelis and Hill, who remained silent, to protect Costello. But that’s a nitpicking.

So, a TV film, but an extraordinary film whichever way. I wonder what they made of it in America? Did it have to be subtitled? There’s now very little time left for Film 2020, but I’ll try to post a little earlier next Sunday.

Film 2020: Thunderbird 6


Returning to the Thunderbirds boxset so quickly, for the final and less successful attempt to take the puppets to the silver screen is a choice forced on me by the combination of a Working Sunday and, for the first time in ages, the lack of available leave to avoid it.

Thunderbird 6 is the end. Series 2 had been cancelled when America wouldn’t buy the show – this is a common theme among series commissioned by Lew Grade – and the Andersons’ next notion, Captain Scarlet and The Mysterons was already in motion. But United Artists were prepared to fund another film, and Gerry and Sylvia had taken on board the criticisms of the script for Thunderbirds are Go and tried to write a more integrated, full-length story with fewer assembly sequences.

The plot breaks down into two parts. In his capacity as a renowned designer, Brains approaches the Airspace industry to discuss the future of commercial aviation. When he suggests a revival of airships, they laugh their puppet heads off but, two years later, Alan Tracey, Lady Penelope and Tintin are guests on the maiden flight of Skyship One. A flight subject to piracy and hijack by the Hood, still after International Rescue’s technology.

(Actually, though this is nowhere mentioned in the film, Sylvia Anderson maintained that the Hood himself was actually killed in the first film and this ‘Hood’ – given the name Black Phantom – is his son. Given the number of times Scott of Lady Penelope shot the Hood down in the series to stop him getting away with his microfilm, I and, I’m sure, most of the scanty audience just assumed he’d got away again.)

The other element of the film is Jeff Tracey’s stubborn conviction, backed with no rationality or concrete reason, that International Rescue will shortly, and urgently need a Thunderbird 6. Which is where the film collapses full-frontedly in its own length.

Thunderbirds are Go had its flaws – Cliff Richard Jr? – but one thing it got right was a sense of scale. It went for magnificence, for gloriousness and, when it couldn’t hit either of those it at least scored for expansiveness. Thunderbird 6 trivialises itself from the off: the aircraft designers laughing their heads off at the idea of a slow airship sets a tone the film never loses.

And what attempt at gravity the film wants to take is lost beyond recovery when Alan chooses to spend two weeks flying to England for the launch – in a garishly painted, yellow and red striped Tiger Moth biplane. It’s meant to be light-hearted and it is in keeping with Alan’s character but the effect is bathetic.

The Tiger Moth launches from Thunderbird 2’s storage bay. The palm tree’s flop to each side. But the plane is out-of-proportion small to all these efforts and what’s meant to be a joke is turned into a dismal appreciation of just how limited the plane is. It’s also a mistake on that it looks too much like what it is, a model, a real plane that you could have bought as an Aitfix kit model and glued together yourself.

There’s another piece of undermining it that Tintin is going with Alan. Jeff Tracey decides a two-week flight in a Worrld War 1 biplane is no place for a delicate young woman (bollocks: he just doesn’t want the pair shagging their way to England for a fortnight) and buys her a First Class jetliner ticket only she sneaks out and stows away any, plus she puts on a stunt flying exhibition above Creighton-Ward Manor in order to put the fear of God into Parker, who, as the only non-middle class figure in the film, is the butt of all the jokes.

The serious plot is about Skyship One. About half an hour before (fully-automated) take-off, a gang of men enter a security-heightened base, shoot and kill the Captain and stewards and take over the (fully-automated) ship. Their objective is to obtain recordings of Lady Penelope saying verious things that can be edited into a message instructing Jeff Tracey to send Thunderbirds 1 and 2 to a deserted airfield near Casablanca where Scott and Virgil will be killed and Brains and the vessels taken on behalf of Black Phantom. The International Rescue lot are already suspicious of the less-than-fully-knowledgeable crew (they’re not fully-automated) when Penny discovers the first bug. Nevertheless, the message is compied and broadcast and the boys on their way before Penny sends a real message of warning.

This is where I have a moment of pause to reflect on a contradiction. International Rescue exists to save lives. They go to extraordinary lengths to do so. And instead of getting out and falling into the trap, Scott and Virgil just draw their weapons and blast the entire airfield into blazing rubble, killing everyone there. It’s of a piece with the climax where Alan shoots and kills three of the imposters (three? There were five. Where did the other two go?) For International Rescuers, the Traceys were never too concerned about leaving a trail of dead bodies behind them. Snoop on us, would you? Pow pow pow.

The need for rescue arises when Alan confronts the hijackers in the Gravity Compensation room (a bewildering, eye-tricking array of revolving metal circles that the eye cannot keep straight). A stray shot smashes the controls, switching them off. Skyship One loses height and crashes into and becomes stranded on an Early Warning Tower above a Missile Base: yikes! What’s worse is that neither Thunderbird 1 nor 2 can get close enough to carry out a rescue because the turbulence from their jets will unbalance the airship and cause disaster.

But we’ve got this nonsense about a Thunderbird 6. It’s unfounded and unfoundable. Jeff Tracey wants a new machine capable of multiple rescue missions to fill a non-existent gap left by Thunderbirds 1 to 5. Brains is working to an impossible brief because the brief is as vague as the one I’ve given above. He’s spending weeks on models that are rejected, getting himself worked up in frustration. But he will have a brainwave and, even if you’ve never seen the film before, you’ve probably already guessed what it is.

However, the first brainwave comes from Gordon. Gordon Tracey. You know who he is, he”s the one who got shafted for screentime in the first film as well. They’ve got a ready-made slow air-speed, lightweight craft that can land on Skyship One and ferry people off and yes, it’s that bloody Tiger Moth.

So, we kids have gathered together to watch this large-scale last ever representation of our favourite and most imaginative TV show and what we’re going to get or the last twenty minutes or so is not the Thunderbirds but a bloody yellow and red Tiger Moth biplane. All right, we get a classic Thunderbirds explosion as the missile base blows up in the grand manner, but we also get this tiny little archaic plane flying around the Engish countryside. And even at the age of 12 and still unable to distinguish one American comic book artist from another, I could tell the difference between puppet scenes and real-life flying Tiger Moth scenes and it just felt wrong, and disappointing. I came here to see Thunderbirds!

It destroyswhat little merit the film has, and franky even when I saw it at our local cinema, the Burnage Odeon, in 1968, I was disappointed. It felt as if the heart had gone out of it, as if the Andersons had lost conviction. The Shark had been Jumped. Because Brains’ newly-revealed Thunderbird 6 was, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, the Tiger Moth.

That was the end of it. Lew Grade had cancelled the TV series, no more films would be commissioned. Only mesmerised kids like me still dreamed of future stories and how could this Thunderbird 6 fit into those? But then I’d never bought the premise: a Thunderbird 6 was never necessary, it couldn’t be more than the specialised rescue machinery Thunderbird 2 transported to the rescue zone, another Firefy, another Mole.

It was such a let down as an ending. Fifty-two years later, it has gained nothing. An adult perspective perceives no hidden depths, no subtleties that went over my pre-teen head then. Thunderbird 6 is still what it always was, a bust, and a bust I recognised for myself in 1968.

Film 2020: The Last Emperor


Big films take time, to watch and to digest. I remember The Last Emperor from 1988, Mary and I going to watch it. Memory places me once again in the old Odeon, in front of the big screen needed to absorb a big film, big not merely in time but in scope. Memory says it was a Sunday morning and somewhere in my diary for that year I can find out the truth, but I don’t want to. Emotionally, a Sunday morning outing is more true that whatever day of the week it might really have been.

It was a big film, winning nine Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Bernardo Bertolucci, and it was everywhere you went, then upon a time. So why did I and the world forget it, me until only seven days ago, enough to find and buy the DVD dirt cheap on eBay?

That I don’t know. Given the appearance in the Twenty-First Century of a vigorous Chinese film industry, working within its own culture, is it that people have turned against The Last Emperor because they see it as cultural appropriation? I don’t know. All I do know is that the world seems to have forgotten a massive, powerful film.

The Last Emperor was based upon the 1964 autobiography of Pu-Yi, who was the last Emperor of China, who ascended to the throne as a toddler of 3, who was deposed without his knowledge, who became a puppet of the Japanese as Emperor of Manchukuo (Manchuria), a political prisoner of the (Russian) Red Army, a war criminal subjected to deprivation and re-education and finally a gardener, content with the simplest of lives. Who amongst us could go through that and remain sane?

The film is a marvel. Bertolucci obtained permission to film inside the Forbidden City itself, the Emperor’s ‘Palace’ from which he was forbidden to leave. That means that the film is being filmed where these things actually happene, making the film simultaneously both real and unreal. It starts with the toddler Pu-Yi being taken, separately, from both his mother and father, to become Emperor, cuts to Pu-Yi’s arrival at the Re-Education centre and his attempt to commit suicide, then alternates between interrogations and his history to that point.

I said simultaneously real and unreal. The film is real in being filmed in concrete surroundings, but the story it tells is far from real. Indeed, it is almost incomprehensible at times. The world in which Pu-Yi, the Emperor of Ten Thousand Years, who holds the most absolute power of anyone on Earth, is aworld in which he can do nothing, in which he is a prisoner of time and fate and history and tradition. Rituals happens, alarms sound, things are done and we do not know why.

I couldn’t help but contrast The Last Emperor with Curse of the Golden Flower, though beyond featuring a Chinese Empweror the films have little in common. That film too is a mass of incomprehensible cultural moments that as unexplained but which are more of a whole at which we look. The Last Emperor is more strange, more unfathomable to Western minds because it is not steeped in these significances. It’s also a drabber picture, lacking the glint and sparkle and saturated colour of Golden Flower.

It’s also one of the most massive arguments for republicanism that I’ve ever seen. Pu-Yi is Emperor of all and impotent prisoner all at once. He cannot leave. He does not even know he has been deposed, is now only Emperor of the Forbidden City, because he cannot be told anything that would disturb him. He was to marry to become master even there. When he is forced out of China in 1924, he first becomes a decadent playboy, having nothing better to do, and is easy prey for the Japanese, plotting to take control of all Asia. Pu-Yi becomes Emperor of Manchukuo (his native province) despite the warnings that he is only being used, against China, that his desire to be an Emperor again makes him an easy mark. What happens in Manchukuo shows how much he is completely ineffectual.

The film doesn’t make a direct case for republicanism – after all, the Chinese Republic and the Warlord era is every bit as corrupt and rotten as the Empire, and when the film flashes forward to the 1960s in its final phase, we see the revolutionary devotion to Mao Zedong and his teachings and we see it as no different in that respect to the Emperor of Ten Thousand Years – but in portraying Pu-Yi’s life, and that of the people around him. Pu-Yi’s life is destroyed by becoming Emperor, it is twisted and perverted out of all recognition by his position, to the point that any sensitive viewer must ask themselves why these people have to be put through that? Why must our ridiculously naive and simplistic desire for someone to tell us what to do, take responsibility from us, be visited on anyone?

Is it true? That’s what you have to ask yourself about any historical film. What’s been made up, what’s been left out, what’s been distorted for dramatic effect? How far can we believe it? That question’s doubly important because the source material is Pu-Yi’s autobiography, written after ‘re-education’, published in a country not known for allowing ideological nonconformity, especially under Mao. How true is true? Is it what happened, or what Pu-Yi was taught had happened?

I’d like to think it true, not out of any sympathy for Chinese Communism, ut because I’d like the ending to be true, that Pu-Yi’s last years were happy and content. The simplest of things, a gardener, living the most self-effacing of lives. How much further from his childhood could he have travelled? It’s a marvellous irony. Wikipedia doesn’t point up any historical inaccuracies or deviations.

The film ends with a moment of magic uncharacteristic of the film in its whle near 160 minutes length, and a touch of sentimentality. In 1967, Ordinary Citizen Pu-Yi buys a tourist ticket to enter the cold and empty Forbidden City. Sneaking over the ropes that guard the throne he’s challeged by an officious sven year old. Smiling for almost the only occasion in the film, Pu-Yi tells the child that was where he used to sit, that he was Emperor. Chellenged to prove it, he sits on the throne, scrabbles behind it and produces a little case. The child takes it down to the light and opens it. We recall it: it contains the cricket given to Pu-Yi in 1908, when he became Emperor: still alive. In wonder, the boy turns to the man on the throne but he has disappeared. A tourist party being shown the throne room twenty years later, is told that Pu-Yi died in 1967.Not in this film. In this film he moves sideways, out of reality, to become something mystical, something mythical: The Last Emperor, and what they did to him.

John Lone played the adult Pu-Yi demonstrating an extraordinary range. Joan Chen played his wife, Wan-Rong, whose lie becomes an even worse tragedy. Peter O’Toole, tall, austere, undemonstrative, is magnificent as Pu-Yi’s Scottish tutor, Reginald Johnson. Ying Ruocheng plays the unnamed Prison Governor who is responsible for Pu-Yi’s re-education. The rest of the cast are mostly Chinese, with Japanese actors playing their nationality’s roles. All are excellent. The film deals with many incidents at an oblique angle, mirroring Pu-Yi’s lack of knowledge about what is around him, letting the audience build up a bigger tapestry out of their own perceptions.

How I came to forget The Last Emperor, I don’t know. I shalln’t forget it again.

Film 2020: Thunderbirds are Go


Some of my memories of my childhood are very specific, up to a point, the point being where the urge to construct the story introduces elements that are true so far as memory insists, but not in reality. I loved the Gerry Anderson puppet shows back to Twizzle. I loved Thunderbirds above all the television series of my childhood, Thunderbirds was awesome. Thunderbirds was so great, they made a full-length feature film of it. When it came out in the cinema, my Grannie and Grandad took me into the Centre of Manchester one morning, to the old Odeon, a proper big-screen cinema, to see it without my waiting for it to come round to the local, cheaper cinema. It was a Monday morning, the first day of the Xmas holiday from school. Xmas Day was on the Thursday.

Or was it?

It was indisputably true about Grannie and Grandad, and the Odeon. It wasn’t the first time they’d taken me to the cinema in Manchester, althugh the only other occasion had been for a reissue of The Wizard of Oz at the even older Gaumont. But December? The start of Xmas? In my memory, yes. Was it then? Aye, there’s the rub, was it then? According to Wikipedia, it almost certainly was. And according to Wikipedia it was an absolute flop.

I can’t think why. I wanted to go and see it as soon as possible and, with a house move literally only days behind us, my grandparents volunteered to take me. But up and down the country, families were failing to take their kids because, according to Gerry Anderson, the kids weren’t clamouring to go see it. Thunderbirds was a TV show. You could watch it at home, in your slippers, with a glass of Jusoda or some other fizzy orange drink without having to traipse out to the cinema and oh, yes, at home it was in black and white and this was glorious colour, but making cinema films of tv series? It would never catch on.

It was more than fifty years ago, it was a TV show made with puppets, and fifty four years later, it is still bloody magic.

Though I’m aware of the flaws and failings in the film, all of which spring from a lack of imagination in the writing, invention having been expended on the models and the sets, I am still awestruck by the size of everything. There is genuinely a different scale to the film, a sense of confidence and of relaxation in the knowledge of time to do everything properly. And here I am, contrarian as usual, for the consensus opinion is that this is padding, bloating, needlessly expanding a thin plot that amounts to no more than a tv episode writ large. The critics have a point.

Take, for example, the opening sequence. The Zero-X spaceship launches on its expedition to land on Mars. There is a massive site built, the Glennfield rocket base. Zero-X is housed in a sliding hangar. It all but comes in kit form, five separate sections that remotely track and cross to complete assembly, the aircraft-style launch, still following Fireball XL5 rather that NASA’s Apollo missions… and then the sabotage, the Hood, the infamous, inevitable Hood inadvertently causing the craft to crash at sea but escaping.

It’s over eighteen minutes in length, up to and including the mission meeting two years later, preceding the second attempt, during which the magic words International Rescue are first mentioned as being requested to guard the take-off and at last we go to Tracy Island and Jeff Tracy saying FAB, and the simultaneous launches of Thunderbirds 1, 2 and 3, which is what we’re here for, and it’s been slow going and still I watch it in utter fascination, for its stateliness, for its improbable but still believable vision of what things would be like in a future than a hundred years hence, for its refusal to go in for unnecessary haste or concern.

The Zero-X mission is the spine of the film and gives it its three act structure: take-off, Mars landing and return/rescue. The Thunderbirds have nothing to do in the first Act except set-up and watch: their job will be to rescure the five man crew on its disastrous return, the usual last-second save carried out with applomb by the youngest Tracy, Alan. Would it have been more realistic to, once in a while, have had a rescue completed with time to sit back with coffee and chocolate digestive biscuits afterwards? Of course it would, but not just ten year olds would have regarded it as a gyp if there had even been time left over to mop a sweaty forehead.

The second Act broke into two unexpected parts. The latter part, the Zero-X on Mars part, heavily foreshadowed the future Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons by having the MEV (Mars Excursion Vehicle) undergo violent attack from native Martian lifeforms, here being one (red-)eyed rock snakes hurling fireballs like spitballs. This was in keeping with the film overall, but the first part wasn’t. In fact, this part of the film is the most controversial bit of Thunderirds ever, a sequence that’s now derided, not without justification, and that even Sylvia Anderson, who conceived it, admitted was a pure indulgence. This is the bit about the Swinging Star.

It starts with Lady Penelope having successfully shot down the Hood after she’s unmasked his second attempt at sabotage (in truth, Parker’s done the hard work but Penny’s pulled the strings, even if all she does is agree with his decisions about timing). She’s congratulating Scott, who’s done nothing, by suggesting taking him out for the night at a night club. Aye aye, we thinks, is someone admiring Scott’s manly (puppet) shoulders, eh? The waters get deeper when Virgil butts in and practically begs to be invited as well. Three of them? Oh ho! I mean, someone once very close to me admitted that as a little girl she had a crush on ol’ Virgil. But poor old Alan’s gone back to base and is left out, and he’s further frustrated when his father won’t let him shoot off to the mainland for a night’s ‘dancing’ with Tintin.

All of which is a set-up for the dream sequence, with Alan, dressed up in a bizarre jacket of many colours, is taken out – on his own – by Lady Penelope (who’s decided she likes them young) to another Swinging Star entirely, in space! Where the house band are, wait for it, Cliff Richard Jr and The Shadows.

No, really. It’s Cliff and the Shads, recreated as Supermarionation puppets, having a whale of a time, playing an instrumental called ‘Lady Penelope’ and then this unbelievably cheesy song, ‘Shooting Star’ (a shooting star will shoot you, and Mars will go to war, the man in the moon will jump on you, if you don’t love me no more’.) Oh. My. God. It’s like Teletubbies: you have to believe these people are on serious drugs to conceive this.

As for Alan, he’s incredibly out of his depth. I can recognise all of it now, the callow, inexperienced youth out with a red-hot, gorgeous, sophisticated, internationally-recognised sexy blonde who might, in his dreams but just faintly possibly in reality, take him to bed and do all sorts of unimaginable things to him (and they say this film has no characterisation), who’s simultaneously enthralling him and scaring him to death, and he has no idea what to say to this almost alien creature!

The really Thunderbirds bit of the film comes in the final Act. Zero-X is descending but one of its Airfix-kit bits breaks off before the glue is set, they’re all gonna die unless International Rescue produces one of its ingenious and genius rescues. It has all the dynamics of the Fireflash rescue from the very first episode, and all is, as we knew it would be, well.

Time for a real nightclub date between Alan and Penny, just the two of them, him a bit more ready. Did I say just the two of them? At their table yes, but at the next table, all got-up in disguise, in one type of beard and/or moustache or another, all ridiculous, are Jeff, Scott, Virgil and Brains. And Tintin, beardless. What chance a glorified adolescent seducing a glamorous aristocrat in front of that mob…?

Yet I loved watching it, even if it’s only the little-boy-just-turned-eleven peeping out of my eyes, amazed at every second he’s watching, the glorious, vibrant colours, the angles not seen on television, unaware or uncaring that the film might be padded, because every frame of film is bigger, older and brighter, and this is not Thunderbirds but THUNDERBIRDS are Go, and Go they do more than half the way to that future we wanted to grow up and live in.

Thunderbirds are Go was filmed alongside the TV show’s second series. All the voices were back except for David (Virgil) Holliday, who’d returned to America and was replaced by Jeremy Wilkin. Among the Zero-X crew voices were stalwarts who’d worked for the Andersons before and would on future series, and one unexpected and unrecognisable voice, Bob Monkhouse, who’d said he’d do the job for nothing: lucky sod.

But it was a flop. And Lew Grade failed to sell Thunderbirds to America, his goal with every ATV series except possibly Crossroads and shut down production, which is why the second series has only six episodes, telling the Andersons to gear up the next one. Which was Captain Scarlet.

But the film was carefully entwined in the Anderson Universe. Captain Black would be part of the next Martian Excursion Vehicle to explore Mars, uncovering an enemy far more hostile and dangerous than rock snakes, and in the weekly comic TV21, Mike Noble would switch from Fireball XL5 to a Zero-X series that lasted years.

For all its flaws, Thunderbirds are Go is still in demand a half century later, and has already continued to be far longer than the live action Thunderbirds film of 2004 that I was so right in refusing to go see. There was a sequel, a much less successful thing, that I’ll be watching and discussing before long. But for today I’m going to stay happy about one of the greatest imaginative icons of my childhood, that holds up in full force today.