Thursday, December 31, 2009

Too Soon?

It may be a heretical admission but I really enjoyed those five days away from the computer. Just that alone made for a strangely relaxing experience. And while there were a few ups and downs due to familial concerns, it meant that this year, rather surprisingly, Christmas wasn’t that bad overall.

The unfavourable weather conditions meant that the trek west took far longer than expected but at least I had the book to bury my head in and there wasn’t some doofus onboard with a strip of blue touch–paper sticking out of his trouser leg looking to ruin the whole journey for everyone. While I thought I had it bad with the ear infection, it was easily trumped by my father having been into hospital the day before I pitched up so the surgeon could cut close to a dozen tiny suspected skin cancers from his back.

Pulling up the shirt to reveal the multiple dressings, he looked like Sonny Corleone at the tollbooth. I suppose this was the shitty payback for retiring in his early fifties and then pissing off to live in sunnier climes for well over a decade. Added to the new drug trial in an ongoing endeavour to contain the prostate cancer he was certainly taking any number of body blows. To go under the surgeon’s knife in the Christmas week; that goes well beyond the whole naughty or nice deal, instead rocketing you to the top of Santa’s shit list. What a total white–bearded bastard!

Early afternoon on Christmas Day, my sister and I snuck out into her garden for a crafty gasper to try and get our heads around what was going to happen. But for my folks – now just reaching their eighties – the mindset seemed to be keep calm and carry on. Illness aside, the pair still remain particularly vital, keeping active by regularly playing tennis, bowls and bridge, as well as nailing the cryptic crossword in the broadsheet on a daily basis.

After that recent operation, the old man’s biggest grievance was that he had to step away from his regular early–morning rounds of golf. Since me and sis didn’t get anywhere in the first of what will no doubt be many conversations, the big Christmas Day panic was that her husband accidentally pre-heated the wrong oven for the big bird to go in, thereby pushing dinner back by half an hour. She gave him merry hell. We almost gave him a medal.

Typically the television for the festive period was predominantly rubbish so we didn’t watch much. Worst was Victoria Wood’s Midlife Christmas, which we sat stony faced throughout waiting, fruitlessly, for some semblance of a joke. Best was a repeat of The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special from 1973, which says a lot about the quality of current television. Runner up was BBC Four Christmas Session: Fire and Ice on Christmas Eve in which contemporary folk artists performed a variety of ballads and seasonal songs before an invited audience at Shoreditch Town Hall.

Once various relatives had come and gone, stopping by for long lunches and walks along the front, the festivities were over and it was time to move on. Just to show how quickly we were done with Christmas, early Tuesday morning before making my way onto the station platform I dropped by the newsagent to pick up a paper for the journey back to London. As I waited to pay I noticed a small stand beside the counter promoting a range of chocolate bunnies. Already?!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Play And Make Good Cheer

That’s me done. The few presents I needed to get have been got, and even wrapped. The painkillers and drops for the ear infection that has stopped me from having a coherent thought for most of the past week, are packed. The pages filled with words has been printed up so that hopefully and at some point during the festivities there’ll be an opportunity to bitch slap them with a red pen. If not, it’s no big deal.

Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, I hope you enjoy the festivities. Play nice if you’re supposed to, but if there’s no parental supervision whatsoever go as crazy as you like. Depending on how the rail services are working during the strangely inclement weather for this time of year – and as long as I survive my sister’s cooking – I should be back here around this time next week of you feel like stopping by. In the meantime have fun.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Trying To Be Of Good Cheer

Accuse me of being a grumpy old bastard all you want but for a long while now I’ve thought this whole Christmas ritual would be a lot better if the build–up didn’t start around mid–August or September. In recent years the arrival of the winter solstice now seems to be an opportunity to celebrate the fact that there’s only a week to go before all this bloody nonsense is over.

Purposefully trying to blot out any thought of Christmas, I can never remember what damned day it all falls on so that it suddenly creeps up on me, which probably isn’t what I intended because that always puts me in the unfortunate position of having to cope with last minute shopping. I suppose it’s not too big a deal because as a family we only give each other nominal presents, but I could still do without it. The shopping isn’t the real problem, it’s the bumbling idiots always getting in the way that makes it as welcoming as a jalapeño enema.

Saturday morning, ready to get out and get everything done, I was low on cash and needed to hit the ATM first. So I join the queue and wait, and wait, and wait as people line up behind me. Usually it’s a simple process. The only time I’ve ever been held up is when there have been a couple of girls together who, between punching in their personal code and selecting the cash total decide to have a conversation or make a phone call. This time was much worse. At the machine was a mother with a baby in a pram and a daughter of maybe four or five years old. The problem was the child had hold of her mother’s cash card and was attempting to put it into the slot.

Unfortunately, at this particular location, the little fucker just wasn’t tall enough to reach however many times she tried. Maybe she insisted upon doing it or maybe it was some kind of stupid treat, but rather than take the card away from her and get on with the transaction the mother turned to everyone kept waiting in the freezing cold and gave us one of those, “ah, isn’t she cute,” looks. I don’t know if the mother noticed, or could even tell, but the look I gave her said, “get the card, get your cash and fuck off or I’ll be wearing your fucking skin as a coat when I drop kick the body of your irritating kiddie through a storefront window.” In the end I didn’t have to.

If the day started badly at least it ended well. My second and final Christmas party was held upstairs in the Nash pub where we could actually sit on leather sofas in front of the logs blazing away in the fireplace rather than be standing up against the bar, being jostled by strangers. And as well as the healthy selection of snacks from the kitchen spread out on the tables there was even a specially made cake. Although I didn’t miss it entirely, I even made it back home before the snow seriously started coming down.

Sunday, having offered to help the actress friend run an errand, I was relieved to find my services weren’t required, especially since it gave me the chance to stretch out and listen to all three parts of Radio 4’s dramatization of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with Simon Russell Beale continuing in the role of George Smiley. If BBC television drama hasn’t been particularly brilliant this year, the plays on radio have certainly gone some way to make up the deficit. Jeremy Howe, the radio channel’s Commissioning Editor for Drama should certainly be congratulated for going ahead with The Complete Smiley season that began, back in late May, with Call For the Dead and A Murder of Quality.

Continuing through the summer with rather fine adaptations of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Looking Glass War, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy made a perfect end to the year, especially knowing that it carries on early next year with The Honourable Schoolboy, the second part of le Carré’s Karla Trilogy, broadcast towards the end of next month. If you missed any of them, shame on you! But if we’re not naughty but nice, maybe the BBC will eventually put the whole series out on a CD set once they’ve transmitted The Secret Pilgrim, the final drama, in June of 2010. I can’t thing of a better gift for next Christmas.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Failing To Be Healthy, Wealthy And Wise

I seriously need an early night. It’s not that I’ve been out on the razzle all this week as part of the typical festive tradition of going out and getting bladdered all the time, although Wednesday evening it was time Christmas drinks with the regular circle of pals. Reminded of it on Monday morning, I was looking to get some good sleep in preparation for that. Yeah, that didn’t happen.

Late Monday evening, during the most recent half–hearted attempt to clear up the clutter amassed on my desk, I came across the scrap of paper noting that the deadline was coming up to give the BBC Trust, which is currently reviewing BBC One, BBC Two and BBC Four and eager to hear public opinion, my thoughts on the channels. There were only seventeen questions, and one was tailored toward audiences in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, which meant I could give that one a miss. How hard could it be?

If I’d had any sense, I would have copied the list of questions into a Word document, made a few brief notes then slept on it and written up my full answers the next day. Instead I ploughed on thinking it wouldn’t take too long, especially when it came to asking my opinion on BBC One’s Saturday night programming. I’m sure there are people with limited brain capacity who enjoy the weekend schedule but I avoid it like the frigging plague. In fact the more I thought about it, there’s very little on One that I do watch, even preferring to watch the likes of Question Time or QI on iPlayer.

While some questions asked about BBC television in general, others were more specific, regarding individual channels or thoughts on BBC drama, comedy and entertainment. Once I started to express my general disappointment in BBC drama – giving examples where required – and then seriously bigging up BBC Four, which deserves the highest praise, the time just ran away. Three hours later, having finished answering the questions, I was filling in the few personal details required before sending it off.

I suppose three hours doesn’t seem that long when you’re giving your full consideration. The problem was that it was just before eleven o’clock at night that I first opened the online form, so that was one early night knackered. Anyway, the closing date is today, the 18th of December. No time of day is given for the deadline so I assume it’s open up right up until midnight. If you feel like giving your views of the three BBC channels the online survey is here. If you’re quick it may not be too late.

Unlike BBC Three, which is like a blocked toilet continually filling up with fresh turds that you just can’t get rid off, I’d consider Four to be the new jewel in the BBC’s crown with its evening schedule bulging with seasons of the most beguiling arts and factual documentaries. And it shows Mad Men. Late Tuesday evening, I was a hair's breadth from turning in when I noticed Four was repeating the documentary All About Thunderbirds and then following it up with The Fantasy Worlds of Irwin Allen. How could I turn either of them down, even with the latter starting at midnight and having a 90–minute running time?

The pair made a fascinating double bill. All About Thunderbirds had a misleading title because it wasn’t actually all about Thunderbirds, instead covering pretty much every show made by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson with International Rescue’s adventures as the centerpiece. For people of a certain age, those numerous ITC productions played a big part of their childhood, whether it was the programmes themselves or the fine selection of Dinky toys. Many who had been influenced by their work, including Nick Park, joined a number of the designers, puppeteers and directors who had started out working in a rather tatty studio in Slough, to enthuse about the varied puppets shows. The only dissenting voice came from Gerry Anderson himself.

Almost two decades ago now I worked, albeit briefly, on a new Gerry Anderson show. His star had waned by then, the Lew Grade money was long gone and whatever had been scraped together simply wasn’t enough. It was an awful project, this time realized in 2D animation and I was sitting in for the character colour model artist who had gone off on holiday, no doubt to try and regain their sanity. Handed all the turnarounds of various human and alien characters, there was no other additional material to indicate who these figures were or what kind of environments they were appear in. Having to decide on their colour palettes in total isolation was idiotic.

When I was shown some of the finished footage, produced overseas – which amounted to a selection of incredibly brief and hapzard clips that continually popped – it was obvious that nobody else was really caring about it, so why should I. As it mercifully drew to a close one of the sweaty money men cozied up to me, asking what I thought of the material on screen. I told him it should sell a lot of toys and he staggered off happy. Not long after Anderson appeared, checking in to see how things were going, and proved to be a miserable old bugger. It may have been because he had an inkling that the project, which would ultimately never see the light of day, was a real clunker, but then I bumped into him some years after and he was similarly glum.

In All About Thunderbirds, while everyone raved about the Anderson shows, Anderson himself sat on the bonnet of a full scale mock up of Lady Penelope’s FAB 1, whining about how the marionettes had derailed his career as a live–action director and stopped him from being Britain’s Steven Spielberg. Anyone who has seen the opening episode of UFO, which Anderson directed, knows he proved to be a mediocre director at best, whereas the distinctive puppet fantasy shows were unlike anything else on television. In the end Anderson came across across as someone who had found a place in television history and sadly didn’t enjoy it one bit.

Irwin Allen on the other hand seemed to have enjoyed every minute of his long career. Put together something like fifteen years ago, unlike English documentaries that are perfectly serviceable with a voiceover, The Fantasy Worlds of Irwin Allen had to employ presenters who would, at various points, indulge in rather laborious badinage. Apart from that it was a pretty decent look back at the career of Hollywood’s self-styled “Master of Disaster”.

Along with Quinn Martin, Allen was probably one of the first American producers I became familiar with, well before the likes of Aaron Spelling, Stephen J. Cannell and even Gene Roddenberry entered my sphere of interest, recognizing the name as it came attached to his fantasy quartet of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel, and Land of the Giants. Later came The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, two of the best disaster movies of the 1970s that remain infinitely better than the current empty–headed disaster porn from Roland Emmerich.

A lot of current producers could learn a thing or two from Irwin Allen. Without compromising the dramas he actively looked for ways to saving money, either by famously raiding 20th Century Fox’s vaults and using hefty amounts of stock footage for The Time Tunnel, or sneaking onto the sets of Fantastic Voyage when they weren’t in use to film an episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. With the productions of all but Land of the Giants overlapping, original costumes specially made for one show found their way into another to keep costs down. Luckily the godawful Space Hippies and vegetable people didn’t venture beyond Lost in Space.

As fun as it was to relive those childhood memories, the best footage was material shot during the making of The Towering Inferno. With the party guests trapped by the fires raging through the skyscraper, the scene involved the water tanks being blown to douse the flames. With actors like Paul Newman, William Holden, Steve McQueen and even Fred Astaire, along with extras and stuntmen, lashed to the set’s fixtures, Allen announced that he was going to count to ten and at some point during the count the numerous charges would be detonated. When the explosions went off water flooded in and almost everyone went flying.

Knowing what was going to happen but unsure of when exactly, the cameras caught their real sense of fear. Obviously nowadays the insurance would be through the roof and Health & Safety killjoys would through an absolute hissy fit, but it showed how much filming with practical effects, even if they don’t always live up to expectations, is still so much better than using a green screen that will be replaced with overblown CGI filler. Anyway, that was a big chunk of Tuesday night gone.

Wednesday was the Christmas drinks. It turned out to be a more relaxed affair. There were a few absentees but the core group was there and even our delightful Persian Princess made a very welcome, early appearance before she had to scoot off, late, to attend a concert at the O2 Centre. When we got together there was some business to discuss, which will be interesting if it comes off, and then it was catching up and making each other laugh with outrageous anecdotes.

Somehow I ended up drinking a bizarre cider shandy concoction at the end of the evening, which meant I made an absolute hash of the cryptic crossword on the journey home. And I forgot to neck down a glass of water before stumbling into bed, so when I woke up Thursday morning not only did I have a blinding hangover but when I glanced over it the next morning it looked like I had shoved a biro up the arsehole of a baby spider monkey and let it throw a complete mental over the newspaper.

Perhaps it’s a good thing I blew off some additional invites, sticking to only two Christmas parties this year. The second is set for Saturday late afternoon and early evening and should be far more sedate, taking place in a listed Georgian pub that was designed and built when John Nash redeveloped Regent’s Park. Yesterday evening, with snow flurries swirling down the Broadway, I figured it was the best time to finally get my well–deserved early night.

Except that in preparation for next week’s journey down to Devonshire I had bought The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest to read. At 600 pages, making it an absolute brick of a book, I figured that as well as helping eat up the journey time there and back again it could also be used to lamp any recalcitrant members of South West Trains’ staff. With the temperature dropping last night and buried under both the duvet and an additional pile of blankets, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to read a chapter or two.

When I eventually closed the book and turned off the bedside lamp, the bookmark was wedged a quarter of the way in. So having planned for early nights and having been eluded every time, this evening I’m taking no chances... Is that the time? Goodnight.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

"Gone To Earth!"

So farewell Jennifer Jones, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s wonderfully spellbinding country girl, Hazel Woodus.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Pre-Christmas Cracker

With the rush to get everything squared away before wasting a week with all this festive nonsense there hasn’t been time to think of much else. Still, amongst all the chaos I got to spend one day last week down on the south coast at the holiday home of an actress friend, helping her sort through the accumulated storage boxes filled with a jumble of publicity photographs and contact sheets, scripts and contracts.

It was a shame we couldn’t have done this earlier in the year. Back then, stepping out onto the wooden deck and down the short flight of stairs, straight onto the wide swath of sand, we could have stood there at our leisure, bathed in the heat from the summer sun. Instead, wrapped in thick jumpers and fleeces, we clutched mugs of hot tea to help stave off the bitter cold as we briefly gazed out across the calm waters of the English Channel, then hurried straight back indoors.

The night before More4 broadcast the penultimate episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm’s seventh season. This has been an astonishingly good year, what with the incidents of vehicular fellatio, the unsightly bare midriff leading to the image of Christ weeping a tear of piss, the clubbing of the black swan, and Larry David in ladies’ underwear, but the real highlight has been the Seinfeld reunion and The Table Read was an absolute masterpiece.

As filming the episode got closer Julia Louis–Dreyfus and Jason Alexander were sniffing around as to why Cheryl had been cast as George’s ex–wife in the reunion episode then, after abusing the loan of a pen, Alexander and David continued their rancorous one-upmanship. With cameos from the actors who played Estelle Costanza, Kenny Bania and Newman, the Seinfeld reunion script referenced many of the pickles David has gotten himself into during the previous seasons of Curb, and there was even time to craftily parody Michael Richards’ unfortunate meltdown at a comedy club three years ago.

For most sitcoms that would be more than enough material to be getting on with, but the episode also managed to include a maître d’ that expects to be tipped every time he meets Larry David, and LD reluctantly befriending the nine–year–old daughter of a Seinfeld staffer who has “a rash on her pussy”, which leads to all kinds of trouble. It all pretty much kicked off with an unwelcome Marty Funkhouser telling Jerry Seinfeld a spectacularly tasteless joke.

So when you’re home for Christmas, in the warm embrace of friends and family, and there’s an awkward pause in the conversation, this could be the perfect remedy. Of course if you’re easily offended now may be the time to go to Google and look for pictures of cute kittens. Otherwise, enjoy...

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Veg Out

Being violently ill during the pre–dawn hours of Monday morning perhaps wasn’t the best start to this week. By late yesterday afternoon, stretched out on the sofa and still feeling utterly ragged, I flicked on the television to watch the BBC News at six o’clock. Even before the main headlines were announced I had flaked out and didn’t come around until The One Show was on, which was unfortunate.

I’d watched the odd edition in the past, usually just to see how much of a gooseberry the studio guest is made to feel, introduced and then virtually ignored as the show rattles through the various human interest stories and other inconsequential nonsense on VT. Sometimes these reports could be quite entertaining but more often than not they turned the magazine programme into something akin to the Daily Mail Lite. I woke to some pinched–faced harpy explaining that she had stopped eating meat to "save the planet". Really?

With the UN climate summit in Copenhagen kicking off we were back to that old chestnut that farmed cattle and the methane they emit is chiefly responsible for global warming. I suppose if I’d been feeling well enough I would have sourced some hard facts to support this theory, but why bother. On screen, a restaurant critic had been roped in to represent the “other side” (i.e. irresponsible meat–eating bastards) and every time he asked her a direct question that would require things like troublesome facts to back up her stream of bullshit the material hurriedly moved on to something else entirely.

A minute or less of the running time touched on how such a drastic measure would affect economies and rural communities, but in the end it boiled down to this notion that we all give up eating any kind of meat so everything can be right with the world and we can live happily every after. So how do we do that exactly? What were the real solutions? Of course none were actually put forward. Instead it was pure ignorant scaremongering from a harpy who, while off beef, looked like she would enjoy life more if she had some available cock.

Poking around the internet for a few brief moments I came across information from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Science that revealed western cattle produced 120kg of methane per year, non–western cattle half that, sheep and pigs emitted 8kg and 1.5kg respectively, and, just in case you wanted to know, a human produced 0.12kg. So obviously by comparison cattle were very, very bad. But what about goats or deer, rabbits, ducks, geese, turkeys, pheasants, ostrich or kangaroo? What about fish? Why a blanket ban, unless it’s just to whip up foolish hysteria?

And if we’re not going to eat beef what do we do with the existing livestock? Leaving them to graze into old age isn’t the best bet if they keep up their burping and farting. So do we destroy the lot? Incineration wouldn’t work for health and safety since they’re obviously stuffed full of a flammable gas. Maybe shot them in the head with a bolt gun and dump them in a ditch. But that’s a real waste of meat, when there are people starving in the world. So maybe, just maybe, we eat them. How does that sound?

And if we work out a workable process to gradually phase out cattle it’s not just beef that has to go but dairy as well. So along with the prime ribeye, that’ll also mean milk, butter, and cheese are also off the menu. Obviously that’s no biggie because there’s goat’s milk, which is actually a more healthy option, unless the goats have to go as well. Can you make cheese from soya milk? Maybe we start milking cats. It may not taste great but that’s what sacrifice is all about, right?

One other thing I found, which I had obviously missed earlier in the year, was this idea for Meat Free Monday, which seems just as pointless. Worse it turned out that this bright idea was backed by the likes of Chris Martin, Sheryl Crow, and Paul–bloody–McCartney. I would only pay attention to Sir Macca if he announced a raffle where the winner gets to pour drain cleaner down his throat while the five runners–up kicked him until his vital organs burst. Harsh perhaps, but deserved.

Maybe there is a real answer to this problem, one that the great brains trust in charge has chosen to overlook. With this real concern of increased farming to feed the growing population, perhaps the answer is we simply resort to cannibalism. It makes as much sense. What I have learnt is that having grown up on two farms, the first beef, the second beef and arable, apparently I’ve played a small part in your impending doom. No need thank me all at once; you’re very welcome.

Anyway, after two days being rather poorly I’m now back on my feet and hungry as hell. So I’m off across to the butchers on the Broadway when it opens to get a nice juicy steak for dinner.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Telling Tales On Television

The first weekend of December and already people are entering into the true spirit of Christmas. Couples that set off, arm in arm and all lovey-dovey, eventually make their way back from a long and tiresome day of being jostled along the High Streets, walking apart and weighed down by shopping bags, their faces like thunder.

It also seems to be the time when some quarters start bitching and moaning about the number of repeats that will apparently fill the holiday’s television schedules of the main terrestrial channels. I haven’t seen them yet so I can’t comment but no doubt Channel 4 will stick The Snowman on again and there’ll be the usual festive editions of old sitcoms kicking around, which in the case of Porridge wouldn’t particularly be a bad thing.

Irritating as repeats can be if they’re simply shown ad nauseam at any time of the year, there are occasions when audiences should be happy that long–forgotten gems have finally come up for air. Yesterday evening the BBC began a week of programmes to celebrate Alan Bennett’s 75th year as an undisputed national treasure (whether he likes the title or not), mixing repeats of his best–known television plays and monologues with a new, specially commissioned, documentary and interview.

With each programme briefly introduced by the writer, the short season kicked off with his 1988 documentary Dinner at Noon, which took a witty look at the temporary inhabitants and staff of the Crown Hotel in Harrowgate. It was a perfect introduction to Bennett as the camera eavesdropped on the guests and briefly overheard their conversations, whether it was an elderly couple turn picking which horses to bet on into a romantic interlude, residents of a nursing home enjoying tea, or young children entertained by a local conjuror.

In the hotel’s function rooms managers solemnly attended a bizarre meeting that instructed them on how to hold meetings, rehearsals for a Dr Barnardo’s fashion show were in progress, and then later the French mayor from one of Harrogate’s twinned towns looked suitably bemused by the proceedings as the wife of one of the local dignitary’s bent his ear. In the reception the daily agenda announced a conference for the Institute of Explosives Engineers.

When Bennett wasn’t listening in to the beautifully observed goings–on he reminisced about the holidays taken with his parents, revealing their numerous social faux pas that would leave him feeling humiliated. Whether it was his father’s inability to find the right time to tip the bellboy, or his mother – used to eating dinner at noon – perusing the restaurant’s evening menu and enquiring if she could have a poached egg on toast, as they years went on and they tried their best to aspire to be parents of an Oxford scholar, Bennett admits that in the end all he wanted was for them to be themselves.

Later in the evening came Being Alan Bennett in which a camera crew simply followed him around during this, his 75th year. There were trips to the Bodleian Library where his archive of papers, manuscripts and diaries now reside. Previously in the press Bennett had stated he donated them free of charge as payment for his free state–funded education, but on camera he admitted with a sigh that no other institution had asked for them. After stopping by the National to check up on the rehearsals for The Habit of Art he then pottered around Camden, gave a speech at the opening of a new health centre in Kentish Town, and finally got to address the womenfolk at his local village hall in Yorkshire.

With anyone else the documentary might have seemed aimless and a wasted opportunity but with Bennett’s running commentary of unique observations, with his droll, self–deprecating humour and a deadpan delivery that makes him sound as if Eeyore had left the Hundred Acre Wood to tour the comedy circuit, the programme was an absolute delight. The only problem was, like a good comedy I immediately wanted to see it again simply to catch everything I had missed from laughing so hard. When he suggested a song that puts Philip Larkin’s This Be The Verse to the theme music of Last of the Summer Wine and then started to sing it the laughter turned into an extended coughing fit from which it was difficult to recover.

This evening came the more formal interview with Mark Lawson Talks to Alan Bennett on BBC4 covering aspects of his life and career from Beyond the Fringe to The Habit of Art. Earlier in the day, over on BBC2, there had been a screening of A Day Out, Bennett’s first television play, broadcast in 1972, following a local cycling club as they spend one Sunday in May of 1911, riding from Halifax to the ruins of Fountains Abbey for lunch and a spot of cricket. The two big dramas of the weekend were An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution, Bennett’s pair of dramas concerning the Cambridge spies Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt.

The former, set in Moscow though filmed in a wintry Dundee, was Bennett’s fictional account of actress Coral Browne’s real life encounter with Burgess in the late 1950s. Having fled to Russia with Donald Maclean earlier in the decade, Bennett’s Burgess has gone from being a traitor to an exile, trying to convince himself that he doesn’t miss the Old Country as he yearns for proper soap, cigarettes and a new suit from his London tailors. Although entertaining with great performances from Alan Bates playing Burgess and Browne as herself, if An Englishman Abroad suffers in comparison to A Question of Attribution it's only because the linear storyline lacks the wonderful complexity of the later drama.

First broadcast in 1991 and dedicated to the recently deceased Innes Lloyd who had produced all of Bennett’s television plays, A Question of Attribution is set during the lead up to Blunt’s eventual exposure as the Fourth Man. A Director of the Courtauld Institute and Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, as Blunt is pressured to name names by his new MI5 handler, Bennett cheekily juxtaposes their meetings with an investigation into a painting previously attributed to Titian that begins to reveal more and more hidden characters beneath the surface. Meanwhile, at the very heart of the drama is an encounter at Buckingham Palace between Blunt and “HMQ” in which the pair discuss fakes and forgeries after which he drily comments, “I was talking about art. I’m not sure she was.”

A simply astonishing piece of drama, just showing A Question of Attribution alone would have been enough to showcase Bennett’s talent. But also dotted throughout the schedules of both channels were five of the monologues from the two series of Talking Heads, each achieving a marvellous balance between laugh out loud comedy and a dark, almost clinical dissection of the various characters’ frailties and shortcomings.

All combining to creating a weekend of exemplary television drama, you would have thought that a lot of new writers looking for their first proper screen credit would have been glued to their sets, furiously taking notes. Instead, according to comments left on facebook and various blogs, most of the silly fuckers were watching The X–Factor instead. As a proponent of gallows humour I suppose he would see the funny side.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Battery Is All That’s Included

I’ve made no bones about liking Michael Bay movies. So much so, in fact, that I wouldn’t even deign to consider them guilty pleasures simply because that would be too denigrating. They’re certainly not going to be mistaken for the films of Kubrick or Hitchcock or Powell & Pressburger, but that’s no bad thing.

Between watching acerbic comedies, poignant dramas, labyrinthine thrillers and hardcore pornography there are times when I’m happy to sit back and watch guys running around and blowing shit up on a massive scale, probably because it takes me back to when I was a little kiddie, taken to see Where Eagles Dare at The Savoy cinema in Exmouth not once but twice. And Bay really knows how to point a camera at shit blowing up on a massive scale really well.

Of course there’s a little bit more to it than that. Most of the films have quite a nice vein of humour running through them so that they never always take themselves too seriously, which makes them far better than James Cameron’s more po–faced boys–with–their–toys movies. But really it’s all about finding a really cool location and then letting the mayhem begin. Of course it doesn’t mean that all of Bay’s films work. On the existing evidence he really shouldn’t do historical epics that incorporate a seriously grating love story, and he really, really, shouldn’t do sequels.

Bad Boys, his first feature, was a lean and energetic cop buddy–movie. Eight years later, the belated sequel – which might have seemed a safer bet after the critical pasting unleashed upon Pearl Harbor – was a bloated and humourless mess that could have done with close to an hour chopped from the almost two–and–a–half hours running time. The same has happened with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Although only a couple of minutes longer that the first movie it felt like it went on for much, much longer.

I quite liked the first Transformers film. When the whole “Robots in Disguise” craze first hit in the mid–1980s I was well past the age of pissing around with plastic toys or watching crappy cartoons. I can’t say I felt at all left out, which meant that when the movie was announced I wasn’t exactly jumping for joy. How do you take alien robots beating the cogs off each other seriously? Obviously the answer was you don’t so while the Autobots and Decepticons bash each other about the humans skitter around providing the comic relief.

The sequel just didn’t manage to find the same balance. Like most follow–ups, because the characters are already established and, in this instance, the robots already outed, there’s very little for them to do other than go through the motions. Stretching an already thin story, regularly punctuated by robot smackdowns, well beyond its breaking point, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was like an endurance test that I barely managed to get to the end of.

Just past the first hour I figured that the film was almost at the end and was astonished to look at the timer and see that it wasn’t even at the midway point. By the time the credits rolled I was so worn down that I couldn’t remember what had happened at the beginning so didn’t know if it had reached a satisfying conclusion.

And now Michael bay is preparing to make a third Transformers film. I’d never have thought he could be mistaken for Woody Allen’s Sandy Bates from Stardust Memories, but if he carries on like this soon I’ll look back at his work and declare that I prefer his “earlier, funnier movies.”

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Not Baked In The Same Oven

All those years at the animation studios I worked on the end stages of some real ass–clown campaigns. Even when clients proved to be particularly clueless or the creatives especially barking, whether it was for breakfast cereals, pet foods, banking services, charities, automobiles, train companies, energy suppliers, fast food outlets or all manner of other foodstuffs, there was still some modicum of an idea in the material we turned out for them.

For the life of me I can’t figure out what the hell this piece of nonsense is all about and what it has to do with the product. It has all the makings of a “Friday, five o’clock” idea”, and I’d love to know how the agency sold it to the client.