Thursday, November 29, 2007

What Will They Get Up To Next?

You Mean a Woman Can Open It?: The Woman's Place in the Classic Age of Advertising, the postcard book from Prion Books is getting another push; obviously in the sort of newspapers where the reporters have given up scrabbling for good stories and started trawling through Amazon for Christmas presents.

With the AMC drama Mad Men, set in the advertising world of 1960’s Madison Avenue, due to arrive on these shores next year, it’s a chance to be reminded of how slightly politically incorrect some of the campaigns from that era could be.

Here are a few examples to have a jolly good laugh at. Laughing ironically of course, just so the little darlings don't get all in a tizzy about it.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Second Of The Twelfth

The second concert by Twelfth Night went down an absolute storm. Deptford wasn’t exactly a part of London I was familiar with. I missed the street to the Albany because the remnants of an outdoor market, which looked like an abandoned internment camp ready to have the bulldozers rumble in, was being taken down.

Inside I met up with a few people I’d crossed paths with before, watched the end of the sound check. The crew who had filmed the previous gig were already set up and ready, which meant I only had the roving camera to keep my eye on when it all kicked off.

Scrambling around between the lights and the speakers, blasted by the heat and sound, I knew I'd picked an interesting angle to film because the official photographers would decent on my vantage point, getting in the way. How it all looks we’ll know when it comes to the edit.

Last week I’d missed the end of the concert to make sure I got the train home. This time, there for the whole two one-hour sets and three encores, because of the filming and then some, I’d forgotten to check times back.

By the time I left the Albany, I figured there might still be trains but I wasn’t sure. Work Buddy tried to set me up with a lift with friends who lived north of London but they were sensibly heading east to loop around the city rather than try and carve a way through it. I told them I’d find a way home for sure and waved them on their way.

Just gone midnight, there was a chance the tubes were still running, just, but I didn’t know where the nearest stations were this side of the river. Apparently there was a shortcut to one, through a park, which didn’t seem like a good idea at this time of night. The only other option was a bus.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had to get a night bus. I knew there was one that went to North Finchley. I presumed one went to Edgware. Living between the two, there’s a bus that goes to Central London from the top of the Broadway here during the day. That’s pretty much the only corridor down into the middle of the Capital I know. It may have been a night bus route for all I knew. As it turned out, it wasn’t.

At Elephant & Castle I got a second bus to Marylebone, skirting around Parliament Square where Big Ben was beautifully illuminated and about to strike one o’clock, then coursing its way up Regent Street, where the suspended Christmas decorations looked like the oddball alien props from a bad episode of Space:1999.

Amazingly there seemed to be more people on the streets than earlier in the afternoon. Then, across the Euston Road everyone evaporated into the night. After a wait I got a bus to West Hampstead Thameslink station, checking the timetables on the outside chance that there was one last train. In fact it had trundled through well over an hour earlier. There wouldn’t be another for about four hours, which was when the Sunday timetable came into operation.

With no cabs in evidence, nor any minicab offices, I started walking in a direction that took me out of the way, but was one I was at least familiar with. After half an hour I flagged down a black cab. The driver shook his head and pulled away before I finished telling him where I wanted to go.

Filming at the gig, skirting around the stage, it had been so damned hot under the lights, I’d prayed for the time I could get out in the cold night air to cool down. Talk about being careful what you wish for. Some time later another cab came along. Luckily the driver lived in Hertfordshire and was wending his way back home.

We had a good chat as he steered through the empty streets; about the different hours we worked and knowing when enough was enough. Perhaps most important was knowing for sure when the time was up, and having an exit strategy in place. It’s something I’ll have to remember for next time. Especially after a night without one meant not getting my head on the pillow until just after four o’clock.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Twenty-One Years Ago

I only came across the fact by chance. Nothing seems to have been made of it. A week ago, November 16th, was the twenty-first anniversary of the BBC broadcasting the first episode of Dennis Potter’s masterpiece, The Singing Detective.

Then again, it’s the past, so why should anyone really give a shit? But for all the young whippersnappers who are happy to slump in front of the television for the next instalment of processed nonsense, and wonder why the old farts bang on about how bad British television drama has become, this is as good a reason as any.

The year before The Singing Detective had seen the arrival of Edge of Darkness. A year later or two later and the likes of Tutti Frutti and A Very British Coup hit the screens. Though Playhouse and Play For Today were over, Screen One and Screen Two delivered single dramas like In the Secret State, Frankie and Johnnie, After Pilkington and The Insurance Man.

The work was innovative and inventive. Which is why I think Poliakoff’s dramas are so important. Apart from his dramas, what do we have to compare to them now? Maybe someone who grew up to be a detective should find out.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Extraordinary Joe

The past five or six weeks have been pretty crappy all told – the daily grind grinding me down. Getting my bearings at this damnable company, it didn’t take long to figure that the head of department was a total control freak, her useless assistant simply wasn’t up to her job and took it out on the staff, and neither had any fucking clue. Lovely.

Add to that a recent bout of food poisoning that was so violent in its evacuation that I pulled the muscles in my lower back, and the computer at home deciding it wasn’t happy with a range of new fonts and played silly buggers to such an extent that it compromised the work I was mean to be doing.

In the scheme of things they’re pretty trivial things really, but they succeed in doing was help contribute to the growing malaise. So I’ve looked for the little things to try and help bring the balance up: Sainsbury’s Sicilian lemonade, re-reading Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, watching Clarkson, The Hamster and Captain Slow goof around on Top Gear.

The BBC also helped out some more by screening the latest dramas from Stephen Poliakoff: the triptych, Joe’s Palace, A Real Summer and Capturing Mary. Having caught the first two the nights they were broadcast, I missed the third and only just bought the DVD, just in case you’re wondering why I’m mentioning them so long after their transmission dates.

Poliakoff’s work certainly divides audiences. Judging from the vitriol spewed across the television pages of the broadsheets leading up to the dramas’ broadcasts and directly after, it’s obvious which camp the TV critics and various “media commentators” fall into. Well, fuck them. If I’m in the minority for loving Poliakoff’s work, so be it.

Most critics zeroed in on the fact that the dramas reused the same themes as his earlier works. Back at the one-day Television Scriptwriting Workshop held at De Montfort University, Keynote Speaker Tony Marchant reminded the assembled audience that Dennis Potter one remarked that writers have only two stories or themes that they constantly rework, fixating on them perhaps in much the same way that Monet was driven to paint his series of grainstacks, poplars and the façade of Rouen Cathedral, in the 1890s.

Since 1999’s Shooting the Past, Poliakoff has concentrated on his obsessions with the past, with families and the secrets that lie therein, and the distance family members can put between themselves – a change from the earlier Close My Eyes, which showed the perils of them getting too close. Just as Friends and Crocodiles and Gideon’s Daughter had the character Sneath, played by Robert Lindsay, as a linking device, Joe’s Palace and Capturing Mary both centre on an empty, elegant house and two characters frozen by the past, and past events, left to decide whether there was a reason why their lives and careers stalled or whether it was merely an excuse they were using to exist in a perpetual limbo.

The stunning performances by Michael Gambon as the reclusive billionaire Elliot Graham, fearful that the fortune his father had amassed was tainted, and Maggie Smith as Mary Gilbert, the young writer whose talent slips away from her, were a given. Then there was Danny Lee Wynter, as Joe, the young doorman on the now empty house who, without an agenda of his own, is the one person both characters can open up to, Ruth Wilson as the young Mary – who also appears in A Real Summer - and David Walliams.

I’ve never been a particular fan of Walliams. Little Britain, for instance, is something I can easily do without. But he did turn up a while back, albeit briefly, in an episode of Waking the Dead playing some shady Whitehall-type twonk. His darkly sinister turn as the charming and manipulative Greville White, the keeper of secrets, was quite remarkable.

Love him or loathe him, at a time when mainstream television drama is so utterly fucking dull and predictable, unique voices like Poliakoff’s are what we desperately need. The wonderful thing about Poliakoff is the control that he has over his creations. Both Joe’s Palace and Capturing Mary were co-productions between the BBC and HBO, with the US premium cable channel onboard on the understanding that there would be no interference allowed.

In 1999, the year that Poliakoff stood firm against the BBC executives that wanted Shooting the Past trimmed - a drama that, we should remember, audaciously made its audience repeatedly sit and stare at a succession of still images - we lost one of the greatest filmmakers when Stanley Kubrick passed away in his sleep. Anyone looking for his successor, and looking to cinema to provide the answer, may have been looking in the wrong medium.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

First Of The Twelfth

I went out last night – a Saturday night – which is quite unusual. Even more unusual, I went to a gig of all things – which makes it twice in one year.

It was a small venue near Kingston Upon Thames. Luckily, I could get the train from here straight to Wimbledon and change there, rather than hack my way through to Waterloo.

To show how rock ‘n’ roll I was, I bought a Latte while I waited on the platform and that was pretty much my drink for the evening. For a Saturday it was a quiet, ordinary journey, although on the train from Wimbledon the carriage filled with a large party of raucous school-age girls dressed as schoolgirls.

Wearing white shirts, short grey skirts and black tights – presumably for a themed party – bubbling with inane chatter, and leaping onto each other, suddenly striking frozen poses reflected in the windows until the stuttering flash of their small digital camera set them free, they acted like the brainless fuck-holes-on-legs their future would lead them to be. If it was a school outing the teacher in charge would have sternly told them to sit up straight and please put their clitorises away, at least for a few more years.

The band was Twelfth Night, playing for the first time in twenty-one years. I hadn’t heard of them until a couple of months ago, but that doesn’t mean anything because my extensive musical knowledge is pretty much next to nil. The only reason I knew about them now was because, with only four of the five members of the original line-up able to get back together, Work Buddy – who had his own band back in the day – had been invited to play guitar and keyboards for the reunion.

The intimate locale was already crowded with expectant long-time fans, including a wandering poodle-permed gentleman in black jeans and a black Van der Graaf Generator tee-shirt, along with new fans unsure of what to expect until the band came on stage the room erupted.

Leading up to it, Work Buddy had said that it should simply be about a bunch of middle-aged guys having fun. And he was right. It was just that. They were up on stage having an absolute ball, as was the enthusiastic crowd.

Of course the weekend train timetables dictated that I couldn’t catch the end of their performance, having to wander back through the darkened streets to find the station. But next Saturday they’re playing the second gig, at The Albany Theatre in Deptford. Come along.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


By the time I got back home on Friday it was late and there was nothing much to watch. I stuck a shiny disc in the player and slumped on the sofa. Even then I realised I couldn’t stay up all the way through.

It had been a tough week. Just when I figured it was over, as the DVD went off, the goddamed Doctor Who titles appeared on the TV screen. What the fuck?

Of course it was Children in Need night. I’m all for worthy charitable causes, but these telethon nights that take over the whole schedule are pretty ropey at best. Personally, I’d pay good money to have them put something else on rather than watch some BBC sportscaster with a tin ear murder a decent show tune.

I don’t know whether this sequence was the second part of the piece or simply a late-night repeat. Either way, it was two different Doctors from two different eras and one good joke. Asking about The Master, the old version asked, “Has he still got the beard?” The new version replied, “No, he’s got a wife,” or something close, but that was pretty much it.

I finished with the show as a regular viewer when Tom Baker was still in residence. I would say the reason for giving up was that I grew up, but if you say things like that the little wieners who love it with a religious fervour get into a real froth.

Instead, I simply found better things to watch, and while that was happening the actors that succeeded Baker... maybe they weren’t thought of as the real deal. Maybe, through no fault of their own, they became the George Lazenby and Timothy Dalton of Doctor Who.

The short sequence last night seemed to be nothing more than a salute to Peter Davison for his tenure in the role. Possibly it was certainly deserved, I don’t doubt that. But with virtually nothing else in terms of plot or involvement, in the end all the back-slapping and arse-kissing made it feel like swimming in a pool of perfumed sick.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Respect The Silence

Not long after the two-minute silence, while wreaths were still being laid at Edwin Lutyens’ Cenotaph memorial in Whitehall, the telephone rang. I muted the Dimbleby to find a telemarketer on the line, asking if it was a convenient time to ask me some questions about my leisure time.

I told her now wasn’t the best of times. Instead she could call back in the week, preferably when I’d be out. I put the phone down. Just before midday the telephone rang again. A different voice asked pretty much the same thing. No, not now. When could she call back? I checked my diary. How about... never? That would suit me fine.

The third caller, not long after, wanted to talk about conservatories and whether I wanted one. I asked if she had purloined my address along with the phone number. The question threw her. Because if she had the address, she would see a letter immediately after the street number.

What does that suggest? I asked. She still didn’t get it. How about an apartment that’s not on the first floor? Silence. Which means...? No garden and therefore... no need for a sodding conservatory. Okay? Good. Goodbye.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

It's a Sin

Funny that after voicing my dismay at film adaptations straying too far, or simply dumbing down elements of the original source material, I finally caught up with Sin City. Which, if anything, was the polar opposite.

One of the dumbest things anyone can ever do is make the grand pronouncement that comic books make great movies because the panels are like storyboards, you see?! Obviously there is an element of truth there, but there has to be more than just that. Not in the case of Sin City.

Back before I gave up reading comics and sold off the collection, I’d read pretty much all of Frank Miller’s work, from his first issue as penciller on Daredevil, back when I was at school, right up to Sin City and beyond so I was more than familiar with the material: a rocket-fuelled, hard-boiled noir that takes the essence of Chandler, Hammett and especially Spillane and reduces it beyond the bone to the absolute marrow.

That’s all very well for a quick read, which the comics were because to be honest there wasn’t much to linger over. But as a film? Not really.

Even if I wasn’t aware of the material, Sin City didn’t do it for me. First it’s almost all interior monologue, reminding me of the Coen Brothers’ dour, sullen The Man Who Wasn’t There, their nod to James M. Cain, after joyfully tipping their hats to Hammett and Chandler with Miller’s Crossing and The Big Lebowski, respectively.

Ultimately the material was too faithful, and far too reverential. Rather than an adaptation of the comic books, it was more of a direct translation. Which meant that it just didn’t work off the page and on the screen. In The Customer Is Always Right – a three-page story purloined from The Babe Wore Red and Other Stories – “The silencer makes a whisper of the gunshot” may be poetic on the page, but utterly redundant voiced on screen. It ultimately had me screaming “For the love of God, will somebody please just speak to somebody else!”

After that it was just so fucking flat and one note: black and white, literally, without any light or shade. The characters were just different variations of the same archetypes: hard-bitten and hard-boiled tarnished knights relentlessly plowing their way from A to B on more brawn than brain. With no change in tempo it was like they were dutifully going through the motions, handing out their own brands of justice with the same casual sadism that permeates the whole film.

The DVD was the two-disc ‘Recut & Extended’ edition which meant that I also had the quartet of stories separated as well if I ever wanted to watch them again. The one thing that was interesting was the “All Green Version” – a speeded-up, ten-minute version of Sin City showing how much of the film was shot on the green-screen stage with minimal props.

As a purely technical exercise, Sin City works, but that doesn’t stop it being an empty experience. If I want a comic-book movie, I’ll stick to the joyful exuberance of Rocketeer.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

What's It Really Like?

With the release date getting nearer, a new trailer for The Golden Compass is up on the Apple site. (It may already be showing in cinemas for all I know but being in a large room full of sniffling, shuffling proles is something I’m still trying to avoid. At least until the release of American Gangster).

Some scenes in the trailer look utterly fucking spectacular – Polar bears in armour duke it out! What’s not to like there? A couple of instances, though, made me wince.

Nicole Kidman’s performance as Mrs Coulter, obviously. Pullman may have had her in mind for the role, but in one scene in particular her line reading wouldn’t have pasted muster in a rural village hall am-dram audition. Any more footage of her and I’d probably have tried to swallow my own tongue.

Then there were the references to alethiometer, in which the word “alethiometer” never comes up. The US publishers must have had a good reason for re-titling Northern Lights as The Golden Compass for the American market. Obviously, given the sales and enough popularity generated for a film adaptation, it paid off. But was the cosmetic change simply on the cover and title page alone?

Calling the dæmons “animal spirits” is fair enough as it comes up in the voice over, which has to help sell what is expected to be a two-and-a-half hour film in just over two-and-a-half minutes. But to reduce the alethiometer to “the Golden Compass” – which is what Jack Shepherd’s Master of Jordan College calls it when he entrusts it to Lyra - seems to be a case of dumbing down a little too much. Still... there’s always the armoured polar bears laying into each other.

Watching the trailer, the overriding impression I got was the sell. Fantasy in a visual medium needs explanation. How they’ll set the narrative up remains to be seen for the audience to quickly process all the information to follow without it becoming a distraction.

Star Wars had the now famous opening crawl, which worked. David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune, on the other hand, had poor Virginia Madsen spout off about how “The known universe is ruled by the Padishah Emperor Shaddam the Fourth... blah, blah, blah” which landed with a dull thud and never recovered. The best, in recent times, has to be The Lord of the Rings, which employed a range of talent that managed the impossible feat of selling the exposition throughout the films without it sounding like utter twaddle.

Original ideas, it’s obvious to say, are a difficult sell. It may be new and unlike anything have people have ever seen before which means that the tentative consumer – whether a reader or viewer – needs to be given something to compare it to. Even if the product is ultimately devalued by being shoehorned into a category, it gives them comfort in knowing that if they liked one thing, they’ll like this.

New Line have spunked a load of money into adapting Northern Lights. The budget is suggested to be around $180 million before prints and advertising eat up a whole other chunk of change. Not a sequel, or based on a range of toys, amusement park rides, or old TV shows, it’s still a gamble. Especially if they haven’t completely excised the anti-religious sentiment/overt attack on organised religion in the books which is bound to offend some blinkered Bible-thumpers.

With Christopher Lee popping up in the trailer, and Ian McKellen brought in to replace Nonso Anozie as the voice of Iorek Byrnison, call me a cynical sonofabitch if you want but the trailer has everything but a sign at the end that reads: IF YOU LIKED THE LORD OF THE RINGS, YOU’LL LOVE THIS!

Still, armoured polar bears showing who’s the daddy...