Sunday, May 30, 2010

In The Hood

Just a solitary post in over one month is, quite frankly, a poor showing, I know. I could blame the researching and writing I’m still happily ploughing through or the wild adventures with the Luminous Beauty for eating up all my time, but there have been stray pockets here and there where it would have been easy to cobble together something. The only problem is that since I’m enjoying both of the above so much I can’t find anything in life to really growl about.

At any other time just the sight of those godawful 2012 Olympic mascots would have had me blowing a plug, but I figured that since so much money had already been spunked on the utterly horrendous logo that it seemed only fitting that a whole lot more was further flushed away on this pair of animated idiots. As for the poor bozos playing dress–up in the life–sized suits, you can only hope that they’re getting their Equity card or some such handsome reward for fannying about in the costumes in public.

Then recently I saw a post from the little twerp in Los Angeles trying to make it as a screenwriter who couldn’t make head nor tail of The Eagle Has Landed. This time she was asking folk what their favourite movie car chases were. When someone mentioned the famous chase between the car and elevated train through Brooklyn in Billy Friedkin’s The French Connection, her response was, “Does French Connection have a car chase?” What can you really say to that, other than suggest she gives up the writing and gets a job working the checkout at her local Ralphs.

So if I haven’t got any major gripes and I’m now finding it easy to ignore the sheer stupidity of youngsters when there’s opportunities to make merry, what the hell am I doing here? There are still things that rankle and are worth making a fuss about, although some are so damned horrific it’s difficult to even talk about. A few months back, attempting to get back into the habit of making regular trips to the cinema I set out to see a double bill of The Princess and the Frog and Ponyo. If I had seen both I’m sure it would have been a great evening, except I got the times mixed up. So excited to catch the new traditionally drawn Disney picture, I saw it first rather than second, and when I got back to the box office after sneaking out for a welcome gasper I discovered the new Miyazaki film shared a screen with some other movie and was being shown any more that day.

Perhaps it would have been best to shrug it off and head back home, but since I was there I figured I could find something else to watch. I knew it was a big mistake going in but I plumped for the film version of Edge of Darkness simply because I was intrigued by how badly they would screw it up. I know I could have waited until now, when it’s coming out on shiny disc, but I figured it was better, and less expensive, to just make a scene in the auditorium if I started screaming uncontrollably rather than put a foot through the television and throw the DVD player out the window at home. In fact when it became apparent that the political machinations were simply being replaced by repeated mentions to the Massachusetts gun laws I probably would have torched the whole apartment.

Instead on burning myself alive I sat through pretty much the whole thing slack–jawed and incapable of making any sound amazed by how they had taken that spectacular BBC serial and turned it into the noxious, easily forgettable, ill–conceived pile of dog toffee. If there was any doubt about how great an actor the late and much lamented Bob Peck was, all you have to do is compare his marvellously nuanced performance as Ronnie Craven in the original to Mel Gibson’s bug-eyed and empty turn in the film version. Finally stumbling out of the cinema and tottering home, I’d meant to post about how utterly wretched and traumatizing the experience was but whenever I sat down to write my mind just blotted it out and I’d draw a complete blank every time.

Although that was months ago, a couple weeks back I’d been trying to fit another double bill into my schedule, this time Iron Man 2 and Robin Hood. Obviously not paying attention, I’d forgotten that the summer movies are arriving sooner and sooner. Give it a couple more years and no doubt they’ll be tripping over each other to reach the screens just as soon as we’ve recovered from the New Year celebrations. And now that the films big holiday movies are starting to come out thick and fast there’s only a small window of opportunity to catch them on the bigger screens of the average plastic multiplex.

At one point, just for a few brief days, it looked like everything was going to work out, except that I couldn’t find a way to watch both movies. Even though the pair were playing on two screens apiece, wanting to see them on the larger screens rather than in one of the pokier little theaters – which would be not much bigger than watching them at home – with their running times constantly overlapping I couldn’t work out to way to see them without there being quite a long time lag between the screenings. In the end I was just too late and the arrival of Prince of Persia put paid to any plans I had. Having to ditch Iron Man 2 and await its arrival on shiny disc, I went to see Robin Hood.

On numerous occasions in the past I’ve stated that for me Robin Hood starts with Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood, ends with Dick Lester’s elegiac Robin and Marian, with just enough space between them to squeeze in the Disney version. I was too young to have watched Richard Greene in ITC’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, written by many of the fellow travellers who came to these shores to escape the hectoring of the HUAC, and couldn’t really be having with Robin of Sherwood, Richard Carpenter’s 1980’s take on the legend that leant heavily on the Green Man mythos, or the BBC’s recent sullen hoodie version. Unluckily I was in the generation who got Rocket Robin Hood as a kiddie, so any take on the legend on television pretty much put me off.

Except from now on I’ll have to revise that opening statement to include this new Ridley Scott version because, quite frankly, I bloody loved it. I suppose that puts me in the minority. After some initial good reviews everyone then seemed to start in on Russell Crowe’s wavering English accent. Even though I had already listened to his confrontational interview with Mark Lawson on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row by the time I was settled in with my bucket of popcorn and cup of fizzy pop, I can’t say that I really noticed or even cared.

For all its perceived faults – and to be honest I wasn’t too keen on the yellow subtitling – the script, rewritten by Brian Helgeland during the course of development, was a whole lot better than the original, written by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris. As I mentioned back in January, their script Nottingham started a bidding war between the studios and was initially described as a revisionist take on the legend with the newly appointed Sheriff of Nottingham the benevolent character and Robin of Loxley the real outlaw. Except after reading it back then, and discovering that Loxley appeared in only a handful of brief scenes at most, ultimately it seemed utterly pointless.

Much in the same way that Christopher Nolan delved into the origins of Bob Kane’s Batman years after the quartet of awfully overblown pantomimes directed by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher, this version of the Sherwood Forest legend could have easily been dubbed Robin Begins. There’s always a danger when Hollywood messes with our folklore – when Touchstone Pictures removed the lyricism of Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur from the 2004 King Arthur the results were woeful and dull – but I thought that replacing the familiar romanticism of men in tights with a more grounded reality actually worked in this instance, especially with the suggestion that the northern barons were responsible for the origins of the Charter of the Forest. And it just looked sumptuous.

If I had any problem with the experience it was with the damn multiplex. It probably didn’t help that I unwittingly chose to see the film at a time when a massive shipment of popcorn had just arrived. So that meant the box office was closed up so two young staffers could lark about as they put the huge popcorn bags, which looked about the size of a flattened hay bale, in storage. To get a ticket I had to queue at the Ben & Jerry’s counter, which wouldn’t have been a problem if the lone kid didn’t have to deal with an elderly European couple, for whom English probably wasn’t even their third language, as they kept changing their minds over which goddamn flavour to go with. With the minutes ticking away I asked them if they could just make their minds up. The people queued between them and me heartily agreed, but then they weren’t the ones who got the stink eye.

Worse, in these plastic palaces the projectionists never seem to take any due care and attention with the prints. When I saw Robin Hood the film was only a week old, if that, yet from start to finish the print had been badly scratched leaving short horizontal marks that started at the top of the left hand side of the frame, bounced their way down to the bottom of the screen over the course of a quarter of a minute and then jumped back to the top to start out all over again.

Obviously something in the projector had nicked the emulsion from the get go and was simply made worse with each screening. No wonder dear old Stanley K used to send his assistants out to cinemas to check that the prints were looked after and the films were shown in the correct aspect ratio. Although a distraction on occasion, it was still better than having to watch the film in 3D.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Formation Flying

According to a report from the marketing body Thinkbox UK viewers currently watch an average of four hours (and 18 minutes) television a day. If that’s the case then there’s some couch potato out there with their eyes glued to the goggle–box making up the time for me because over the last fortnight or so I doubt I watched that many hours each week, let alone per day.

Last Friday, deciding to knock off relatively early, I dug the listings magazine out from under the clutter on the desk to find it still open on Monday’s schedule. I think I’d only turned the set on for Thursday’s Have I Got News For You only to find three complete plums flapping their mouths at the camera, so that went off pretty darn quick. Although to be fair I hadn’t been stuck in every evening, deciding what not to watch as I cracked on with the work.

Midweek I’d scooted out in the afternoon to join an actress friend celebrate her agent’s birthday, then hooked up with the Luminous Beauty for a drink in Covent Garden’s piazza before we headed off to the Cartoon Museum for Collaborative Visions, Brian Sibley’s excellent, authoritative and entertaining talk on Ronald Searle’s career as an illustrator, as part of the museum’s season celebrating Searle’s 90th birthday. From there it was on to meet friends for dinner at the Italian restaurant within St Pancras International. Then during the long May Day weekend a 31–hour power cut had left me rotating between cleaning, exercising and reading before everything was eventually sorted out.

This week I hadn’t even bothered with perusing any TV listings in advance, simply watching NCIS on Wednesday, Lost on Friday and, sandwiched between the two, Wallander to blot out all the flapdoodle surrounding X Marks The Box Day. When I did flick over to the BBC’s reportage, Andrew Neil was asking Bruce Forsythe for his insight on the election at some Thames–side bash, which had me comment to an equally incredulous friend of facebook that they should have spiked the partygoers’ drinks with the rage virus and had them paint every inch of that boat with Neil's and Brucie's blood.

There had been the odd evening when I’m absently flip through the channels, alighting on various programmes here and there to catch up on shows I didn’t have the slightest interest in. That past Friday, if I remember rightly, I did alight on the usually torpid BBC3 to catch the odd few minutes of an old edition of Top Gear, where the Hampster, behind the wheel of a Bugatti Veyron, faced off against an RAF Typhoon jet fighter in a drag race. Watching that particular challenge reminded me that it was a shame they hadn’t reformatted the show sooner, turning it from the initial, rather dry, consumer programme to three overgrown boys dicking around in expensive cars and all the stuff and nonsense that came with it.

Back in the Spring of 2003 I’d been sent along to interview the Wing Commander in charge of the Directorate of Corporate Communication (RAF). Calling to arrange a time to meet up, unfortunately I’d caught him at a bad time. “I’m a bit busy with the war!” he explained, which initially threw me, having spent the day at the Imperial War Museum’s Archive before heading off to the rather unimpressive wrap party of the last major animated series I had worked on. My first thought was, what’s he talking about the war’s been over for ages? But once the penny finally dropped he suggested I call back the following Thursday when things would be a little quieter. On the Wednesday, while working from home, I watched as tanks entered Baghdad and marines from the “Thundering Third” helped topple the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square.

At the time the DCC (RAF) was housed in the old Grand Metropole Hotel on Northumberland Avenue. Requisitioned by the government in the lead–up to the Second World War, the building had been the home of MI9 and the SOE before they moved out to Wilton Park and since the early 1950s it had been wholly taken over by the Air Ministry. Formed three years previously from RAF PR, the role of the DCC (RAF) was to provide all manner of assistance to television and film companies, producing everything from short news broadcasts through to light entertainment, documentaries and dramas.

Although they continued to provide assistance to Eon Productions’ series of James Bond films, recently granting them access to RAF Odiham in Hampshire where a hanger stood in for the US Army base south of Korea’s DMZ in Die Another Day, and supplied Chinook helicopters and safety advisers for the scenes in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider shot on Salisbury Plain, the department didn’t simply acquiesce to every request that landed on their desks. Looking to raise the profile of the third branch of the armed services, the DCC (RAF) have to carefully assess each project in turn and decide whether it is a good thing for them to do. Even if an idea passes muster with the department, the chances of it making it to the television screen are still slim.

At the time the main body of work presented to the DCC (RAF) were documentaries coming from independent production companies rather than the major broadcasters themselves. During the initial stages the department would work on spec to help flesh out the idea, providing the necessary background to help try and get the programme commissioned. If it reached the next stage and development money was forthcoming they would do a lot more research and come up with a solid plan. If the project passes all the hurdles and gets the full funding, then the DCC (RAF) becomes intimately involved and adds a lot of value to the production.

The ideal subject for the department is one that mixes the old with the new. A purely historical documentary relying more on archive footage needs little assistance from the DCC (RAF). “There are always benefits to doing historical perspectives,” the WC explained, “but obviously when we look at it in terms of what’s in it for us, we want to get the modern Air Force in there as well.” A case in point was the 2003 documentary The Dambusters made by Tigress Productions for Channel 4 and The Discovery Channel to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of Operation Chastise, carried out by bombers of 617 Squadron led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson.

A number of documentaries had already been made about their raid on the Ruhr Valley in Germany’s industrial heartland dams raids so the project was never going to be a simple historical account. Although telling the story through the eyes of three surviving crew–members of one of the Lancaster bombers would provide a centre piece, not least because they successfully breached the Eder Dam, the initial idea was to try to recreate the raid to show how difficult the job their squadron had to perform was.

Still considered one of the most technically difficult pieces of flying ever attempted, the Lancaster crews had to navigate their way to the targets for almost seven hours, at night, flying at an altitude of only 100 feet. “From our point of view we were not interested in the strategic moral elements of the story,” explained the programme’s producer. “I only wanted to know one thing: what was it like to be there?” Throughout the filming, the DCC (RAF) proved to be incredibly helpful to the production team, opening many closed doors and dealing with unexpected issues.

When a physical reconstruction proved unfeasible, the DCC (RAF) suggested the production company meet with flying instructors at RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire to use a specially created flight simulator. Because the RAF couldn’t afford to take anyone out of training or operations, the programme-makers were offered a selection of holding officers who were between courses, choosing a mixture of non-commissioned officer air-crew and officers that reflected not only the situation sixty years ago but also the modern air force of today.

While documentaries continued to raise the RAF’s profile by focusing on past and present achievements, the DCC (RAF) were still eager to see the service portrayed more in television drama. At one point Kudos Productions were looking to insert footage of RAF fighters in a second series episode of Spooks where a microlite flying toward Chequers sparks fears of a terrorist attack, though ultimately they relied on existing stock footage instead. Where the department did score a minor victory was with the BBC’s Red Cap, starring Tamzin Outhwaite as a member of the army’s Special Investigation Branch. Although the drama involved no flying sequences whatsoever, the department took the programme–makers to a training area and put four Harriers in the air for inclusion in the opening title sequence.

“No doubt the army were extremely upset about that,” the WC gleefully explained. Once the new Top Gear got going and began to involve the armed services, the rivalry between them certainly came to the fore. It began late in 2003, at the beginning of the show’s third series, when the original black–suited Stig in a Jaguar XJS attempted to reach 100mph on the 200 metre–long runway of HMS Invincible, ultimately driving off the deck and sinking into the water below. Two episodes later the new white Stig, driving a Saab 9–5 competed against a naval Sea Harrier to see which could post the fasted lap time.

A year after I had spent the morning in Northumberland Avenue, the new series began with Clarkson driving the super–lightweight Lotus Exige while a WAH–64D Apache attack helicopter tried to get a missile lock on him. In recent years the show has upped the ante with the armed forces involvement, having Clarkson take part in one of the Royal Marines’ beach–landing exercises on Instow Sands while road testing the Ford Fiesta, and later playing British Bulldogs against the army’s latest military hardware on their Dorset testing grounds.

Back in the DCC (RAF) offices the Wing Commander had explained that when it came to reviewing requests they had to ask themselves, what’s in it for the RAF? Is it going to be interesting and exciting? What are the resource implications? After an initial assessment, around seventy–five per cent of the submissions go straight in the bin, especially with the ideas that ranged from the really daft to the totally barking. Probably the most ridiculous request had come from the team behind LWT’s Saturday challenge game show Don’t Try This At Home, hosted by Davina McCall, who asked “Can we land a Harrier on the Millenium Dome?” His curt response was, “Yes, but only once.”