Monday, May 19, 2008

England, My England

Pretty, isn't it? This is where yer actual Keith Telly Topping lives. It's called the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland and it is, basically, couple of small fishing islands in the Mid-Atlantic. This blogger actually lives in the red bit. That's called England. It's where all the history comes from.

Truth be told, it's not a bad place to live - despite the weather and the crushing disappointment that is our national football team. I could - after all - have been born a Welshman and that would have been terrible. But I do sometimes wonder what me being born and raised in England actually says about me to the wider world. And, it seems that this blogger is not alone in this wondering. There is something of a hot debate currently taking place in some political circles - and in the media at large - about that most vexed of subjects the nature of 'English identity' and what relevance it can have in this day and age.

Here's a true story. Keith Tely Topping was in a record shop - Tower Records, I think it was - in Sherman Oaks near Los Angeles a few years ago buying some cheap CDs. I knew that I was likely to be asked if I had any photo-ID so I took my passport along with me. I was chatting to the geezer on the counter and, when requested, pulled out my passport to prove that I was who my credit card said I was. 'How come you've got a British passport when you're Irish?' he asked. I've grown somewhat accustomed over the years to many people - many English people at that - thinking Newcastle is a small suburb of Edinburgh, but I'd never before realised it had moved to become a small suburb of Dublin as well.

In a Saint George's essay in 2002, the songwriter, activist and author Billy Bragg called for the English to 'reclaim' their national identity from the racists and xenophobes who have become so hatefully associated with the English flag. He followed that up with a - genuinely - excellent book on the same subject The Progressive Patriot: A Search For Belonging (London: Bantam Press, 2006). Now, I respect Bill greatly - both as a songwriter and as a human being - but I think he's barking (s'cuse the pun, Bill) up the wrong tree with this whole 'English National Identity' malarkey. I don't believe such a thing exists or that it ever has existed (except as an artificial construct of cosy jingoistic nostalgia to be sold as patriotism in times of war or perceived national crisis). And that, even if it did once exist, it certainly doesn't now. At least not in the way that most people would understand the concept of 'a national identity.'

If I'm ever asked how I define myself - not that I ever am, but let's just suppose for the sake of argument - then I would say, first and foremost, that I'm a Tynesider and, secondly, that I'm British. And, that I'm very proud of both of those classifications. One is all about who I am and the region that spawned and shaped me and gave me a sense of belonging and the other is about who I came from and what my history is. Because, as the reggae band Misty In Roots perceptively noted 'Without knowledge of your history you cannot determine your destiny.' By contrast, I have absolutely no idea what 'being English' is supposed to represent - as defined by something that is specifically separate from 'being British.' I can understand the Scots, Welsh and Irish having, and celebrating, their own national identity because all three have a very definite and unique aboriginal culture that is completely apart from the generic 'British culture' which was imposed on them by English invaders who subsequently absorbed massive chunks of Scots, Welsh and Irish culture into their own. But, what culture should we aspire to from the English and the English alone? The race itself is - and has always been - a polyglot tribe, made up of lots of bits and pieces of different pre-Norman European invaders.

The English language is also an artificial construct, glued together from various Dutch and Germanic languages, along with a bit of Latin, and then given a distinctive Gallic flourish post-1066. England's vision of itself was largely shaped in the Middle Ages by a variety of romantic ideals for some mythical age that never even existed (King Arthur, Robin Hood, Jesus at Glastonbury). And, since the Nineteenth Cenutry, English culture has magpie-like, consumed and digested whatever new ideas it could find from first its Empire and then, when that crumbled, from its immigrants (from Ireland, from the Caribbean, from the Indian subcontinent, from Africa, from Eastern Europe).

Everything - and this is genuinely not a criticism, it's something to be celebrated as far as I'm concerned - from our food, to our language, our music and our architecture takes freely from others to produce something that is ultimately described as 'English.' However much the Daily Scum Mail may hate the very idea, 'being English' does not, necessarily, mean being a middle-aged, midde-class Tory Miles Cholmondeley-Warner clone from Berkshire who is disgusted because the Wogs and the Poufs and the Reds are conspiring to take over the world. But, of course, that then begs the obvious question if "being English" doesn't mean that what does it mean?

Yes, this is the indeed nation of Shakespeare and Shelley; of William Blake and Christopher Wren; of Tony Benn and Oswald Mosley; of Jane Austen and Hanif Kureshi; of John Peel and The Beatles; of Bobby Charlton and Douglas Jardine; of Bill Oddie and Jeremy Clarkson; of Thomas Beckett and Basil Hume; of Abi Titmuss and Jade Goody. But does that mean that any of these people were specifically shaped by their uniquely English heritage in the way that, say, Rabbie Burns or The Bay City Rollers were shaped by their Scottish heritage?

Whenever one sees a representation of what is supposed to be 'Englishness' in the media - and I fully realise this is the kind of crass stereotype I normally rage against with much bile, but bear with me - it's usually a very 'Home Counties' one: It is tea, cricket, the Queen, Stonehenge, Last Night Of The Proms and 'Land of Hope and Glory' and England's Green and Pleasant Land. (A side-note: It's remarkable, is it not, just how few commentators bother to read the first verse of Blake's poem before skipping straight to the second - straight past all of those 'dark Satanic mills' - to get to the quaint, Middle-Class-friendly stuff?) Now, most of the above are totally fine in their own context (I love cricket, for instance) but still, most seemed very alien to me when this blogger was growing up as a fat schoolboy on a council estate in Newcastle in the 1960s and 1970s.

Some writers - I'm thinking mainly of Simon Sharma in A History Of Britain and Andrew Marr in The Modern History Of Britain - have attempted to address this challenging dichotomy but, the very fact that the word 'Britain' is prominent in the titles of both of those works says much. We cannot divorce ourselves from the rest of the British Isles - however much some of us would like to - because, quite simply, they are us and we are they ... and we are all together, goo-goo-goo-joob. When Terry Collier delivers his famous rant in Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? about never being able to stand the Irish or the Welsh 'and the Scots are worse than the Koreans' it is comedy pointed, wholly, at the insularity and small-minded nature of the Little Englander. The rest of the world (right up to, and including, 'the people who live next door' whom Terry also can't stand and who provide the joke's punchline) can be divided into neat little boxes. I'm presuming Dick Clement and Ian LaFrenais implicitly understood that a sizeable chunk of the viewing audience would be laughing not at Terry but with him and that, in and of itself, is part of the joke.

Let me ask this question: The average person - an average working, tax-paying, TV viewing, newspaper reading, CD listening, we're-going-on-holiday-to-Fuetreventura-this-year man or woman - in, let's say Newcastle, or Liverpool or Sheffield, to use two other fine Northern cities. Does that average Northern person have more in common with the average man or woman in London or the average man or woman in Glasgow? I would suggest the latter, no question - we share a similar history of industrialisation, a similar sense of humour, similar traditions, similar - predominantly Working Class - forms of identity and social interaction, similar tastes for beer and football, or whatever and a similar chip on our collective shoulders about how much we dislike London and Londoners. That kind of destroys the idea that a format for being 'English' can be written down as a set of shared ideals for all of The English, when a good half of them have much more in common with our Celtic neighbours to the North or the West than we do with other Englishmen.

So how does one define 'Englishness'? The major influence on almost all of our pop groups - and, indeed, the vast majority of our post-war films, television, literature and other media - are just about exclusively American; our railways and most of our major cities were built by Irish immigrants; our Patron Saint was Turkish and we've got a monarchy that's mostly German with a bit of Greek thrown in. I dislike the wretched bellowing yobs who've already tarred one of our great national games and who are in danger of tarring the other as much as the next man but, in all seriousness, are they any less of an example of 'Englishness', whatever that is, than some haughty red-coated huntsmen from the Countryside Alliance singing 'Jerusalem' on Songs Of Praise? It was, after all, the scum of the back streets and the sewers of London and other British cities (not exclusively English, please note) that won the battles of Cressy, Agincourt and Waterloo, that drowned in the mud of Passchendaele and drove the tanks through the desert of El Alamain and the carnage of Monte Cassino.

I imagine yer average skinhead numbskull, his tattooed knuckles scraping the concrete as he chants another drunken chorus of 'Come & Have A Go If Y'Think Yer Hard Enough' at some helpless Belgian shopkeeper, Portugeuse barman or Italian waiter genuinely believes he's following in the gloriously violent footsteps of the soldiers whom Henry V called his band of brothers. (It's noticeable, of course, that when they all went home, Prince Harry didn't seem overly keen on having any of them round his gaff for tea and crumpets. I'll give his Twenty First Century namesake that much - at least he seemed to remember who his mates were once he got out of Afghanistan.) In short, are the teenage hoodies and pikeys and chavs who drink their alcopops on our streets and seem intent on stabbing each other to death with such abandon any less of an example of 'Englishness', per se, than Hugh Grant and Keira Knightley sipping tea on the manicured lawns of Thomas Hardy's Wessex?

I've always thought of 'Englishness' as being more of a casual ethnic tag rather than a national identity in and of itself. What was it Benjamin Zephaniah said? 'Me come from afar but me live here/And all me want is an equal share.' Rite on, brother.

On a, slightly, linked subject I'm putting up an extended version of one of my Top Telly Tips for tonite. Because, it's something this blogger feels rather strongly about. You might've noticed. Comments are welcome, as always. Especially from the lady herself if she happens to stumble across this whilst scouring the Internet for unkind comments about her daughter's girth.

The Duchess In Hull – 9:00 ITV
Quite possibly the most single offensive show on television this year as Sarah Ferguson moves into a council estate on Humberside ('errr, nerrr') to help (I say 'help') the Sargersons - a family of overweight smokers. Or, since this is Hull, smirkers. It’s not just the crassly smug and self-delighted nature of the pre-publicity blurb for this show or the fact that the highlight (I say 'highlight') of the Duchess in question's previous TV career being It’s A Royal Knockout, but rather a comment she made about her hosts last week: 'Tonia [the mother] and I have identical views on certain issues, but we're not the same. I come from a privileged background and have been educated.' Because, of course, nobody who crawled from the primal sludge of a council house ever progressed beyond finger painting, did they Fergie? Sorry, remind me again how many O Levels you and Diana managed to get between you? It's 2008 - this used to be a free country, these days you can't even have a cigarette or a bacon sarnie without some member of the bloody royal family coming around your gaff and telling you to cut it out. But, what I really object to most is the fact that I spent several years my life watching my taxes - and everybody elses, for that matter - being used to subsidise the Duchess of York's lifestyle. A lifestyle which, let us remember, seemed to consist largely of her going on skiing holidays every other week between 1987 and 1992. Why anybody with an ounce of self-dignity or pride in themselves or their identity would want to watch this crass abomination - for either entertainment or information, the two things which television is supposed to be there for - is completely beyond me. But some readers may like to give it a go. For novelty - or, indeed, car-crash - value if nothing else. If you do tune-in then please let me know what it was like because I, myself, won't be watching it. I'll be over on Channel Four checking out tonight's Team Team special. Because like, I'm from a council estate, me, and as a consequence, am as ignorant as pigs shit. According to royalty, no less. If I watch enough TV I might, therefore, learn something from it - like wot my betters with their education and their privilege have.

And she was crap in that episode of Friends as well.

I must remember to post-angry more often.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The J To Q Of Groovy Movies

Yeah, I know, three updates in a week.

What's all that about, then?
Jaws (1975): “Cold eyes! Dead eyes!” An awesome, suspense-filled Spielberg blockbuster about a shark terrorising a coastal community and the three men (Roy Scheider, Richard Dryfuss, Robert Shaw) who sail off to kill it before it kills them. Full of memorable set-pieces (if you didn't jump out of your seat when the face appears in the hole at the bottom of the boat, you have no nervous system) and lots of memorable one-liners ("you're gonna need a bigger boat!")
J.F.K (1991): 'You're a goddamn liberal, Mister Garrison. You don't know shit cos you've never been fucked up the ass.' Oliver Stone's riveting, obsessive, preachy, maddeningly self-righteous but fundamentally pulsating journey into the dark heart of US conspiracy theory. One of the most technically dazzling film experiences ever (the Oscar-winning editing and cinematography should be studied closely by anyone who wants to know how to put a film together). There are moments in J.F.K where the viewer genuinely doesn't know if he's watching real archive footage or not. As a piece of dramatic storytelling, it's superb but ... it's also got faults and one of the biggest is not knowing when to say 'stop!' The Donald Sutherland character is a case in point (based on genuine conspiracy fruitcake, Fletcher Prouty, he almost derails the movie). Great acting (Costner, Oldman, Joe Pesci, Laurie Metcalf and many others). Stone never made a movie a tenth as good as this again (and The Doors and Nixon are both fine films). With J.F.K, though, there's always a 'but' lingering around the corner of ever compliment. The Director's Cut is almost four hours long but is, marginally, a better movie than the cinema version (thirty five minutes shorter).
Kids Are Alright, The (1979): Jeff Stein's exhilarating, non-linear history of The Who, told through archive TV and concert clips and interviews with the band. It could have gone all pretentious and serious (like Marty Scorsese's The Last Waltz), but the humour that the band (and, especially, Keith Moon) inject into the movie manages to put a break on Pete Townshend's more arch pronouncements. Too many great moments to list (but the bit of The Smothers' Brothers Show that opens the movie is worth its weight in comedy gold). The DVD release restores about ten minutes of footage edited out of the original European cinema release (including half of the astonishing performance of 'A Quick One While He's Away' from the - at the time, still unreleased - The Rolling Stones Rock N Roll Circus. Sadly, Keith died before he got old and missed the movie's premiere.
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949): One of the greatest comedies ever made as Dennis Price sets out to murder numerous members of his family (all played by Alec Guinness) to gain an inheritance. Urbane, witty, full of punning social comment and wry observation. Ealing Studio's finest hour.
Knack And How To Get It, The (1965): Inventive Dick Lester commentary on Sixties Mod London. Quick-paced, stylish and with some keen observations on sexual politics. Rita Tushingham remains disturbingly alluring throughout.
LA Confidential (1995): Vivid, lithe and atmospheric recreation of the film-noire genre in the sleazy underbelly on 1950s Los Angeles. Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey and, especially, Kim Bassinger are fabulous in James Ellroy's celebrated tale of corrupt cops, prostitution and human degradation.
Last King Of Scotland, The (2006): Incredible feature debut for documentary film-maker Kevin MacDonald based on the novel of life in Idi Amin's Uganda in the Seventies. Some brilliant performances (James McAvoy, especially) but nothing can compete with Forrest Whittaker's extraordinary, manic, eye-bulging and Oscar-winning turn as the mad-as-toast dictator. A staggering achievement for all concerned. Even Gillian Anderson’s English-rose accent is passable.
Last Of Sheila, The (1973): With a script by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim this film is worth it for curio value alone. But, this madly inventive thriller about the games played by a bunch of the international jet-set idle rich, leading to murder is clever and witty beyond its station as a kind of cut-price Sleuth. Brilliant cast (James Coburn, James Mason, Ian McShane, Raquel Welsh) and assured direction by Herbert Ross and one of the cleverest last twenty or thirty minutes of any film ever made.
Lavender Hill Mob, The (1951): Charles Crichton's beautiful and hilarious heist movie concerning a gang of inept bank robbers in post-war London has matured well and is, if anything, even funnier these days than it was the Fifties. A key-note example of Ealing comedy with a terrific cast (Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, Sid James, Audrey Hepburn). 'Twenty five thousand pounds? Enough to keep me for one year in the style to which I was unaccustomed!'
Lawrence Of Arabia (1962): Towering in scope, conceit and blatant homoeroticism(!), David Lean's epic - in every sense of the word - biopic of TE Lawrence still stands as a monument to those who said that he would never be able to match Bridge On The River Kwai again. O'Toole, Guinness and Omar Sharif are great in this - the latter's arrival in the movie, in an agonisingly-held long-shot through a mirage, being one of cinema's most imitated shots.
Let It Be (1970): A voyeuristic look at the process of a rock and roll group breaking up, Let t Be began with great intentions - The Beatles rehearsing and then performing an LP's worth of new material. But the rehearsals, at Twickenham in January 1969, were a disaster – Ringo was bored, Paul had his bossy head on, Lennon was strung-out on smack and distracted by Yoko's presence and George got so pissed-off with the whole deal that he walked out half-way through. With hindsight, Michael Lindsay-Hogg's editing decisions often seem to highlight the tensions within the band and some of those present have suggested that the atmosphere wasn't nearly as bad as Let It Be makes out. Still, if its only contribution to The Beatles archive was the exhilarating version of 'Get Back' as the police arrive to break up the rooftop concert, Let It Be is a worthwhile document of a painful month. 'I'll play whatever you want me to play…'
Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, The (1943): Another brilliant, original gem from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. A darkly funny and touching memoir of the title character (Roger Livesey) through fifty years and three wars and which manages to be sentimental without ever resorting to mawkishness. Made at a time when war movies were largely crass propaganda, this one has a genuine sense of pacifism (perhaps that was why Churchill, reported, hated it so much and refused to let Laurence Olivier out of the army to participate).
Likely Lads, The (1976): 'Working class sentiment is an indulgence for working class people who've cracked it through football or rock 'n' roll!' Just about the only TV-to-movie adaptation ever to stand an even vague comparison with the show that spawned it. A key text to the 'sober and unemployed' 1970s Britain, a world of unwanted change, class consciousness and harsh realism after the joyous abandon of the Sixties. James Bolam and Rodney Bewes reprise their TV roles in a comedy with laughs, touching moments and some sharp and bloody teeth. 'In the chocolate box of life, the top layer's already gone and somebody's nicked the orange crème from the bottom!'
Live And Let Die (1973): Roger Moore's debut as 007 followed the brash, sleazy, over-the-top template of Sean Connery's last outing, Diamonds Are Forever, in this complex narrative mixture of gangsters and Caribbean voodoo that could, perhaps, be best described as The Saint Gets Shafted. Brilliant, pithy Tom Mankerwicz script and it features one of the series' best villains (Yaphat Koto) and sexiest Bond girls (Jane Seymour). Full of quotable dialogue ('Names is for tombstones, baby. Y'all take this honky out an' waste him!') and terrific set-pieces (the boat chase). Roger's Bond was never quite this hard or callous again.
Local Hero (1983): Bill Forsyth transplants a 1930 Frank Capra 'feel-good' movie to the remote Scottish Islands in the 1980s. Enchanting and very funny, with a stunning Mark Knoffler soundtrack and great performances (Denis Lawson, Peter Riegert, Burt Lancaster, Fulton MacKay, a very young Peter Capaldi). The sequence with the rabbit pie is as dryly funny as British comedy ever gets.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998): Guy Ritchie's feature debut is a astonishingly pacey and often amusing Pulp Fiction-style clash of numerous storylines all surrounding the seamier side of Cool Britannia London. Jason Flemyng, Dexter Fletcher, Nick Moran and Jason Statham are terrific as four mates caught up in one ridiculous cock-up after another. Vinnie Jones simply astonishes as the psychotic Big Chris ('it's been emotional!'), Lenny McLean is wonderfully foul-mouthed and even Sting couldn't screw this one up. Though he does try his best. Great soundtrack too. Many of the same cast returned in Ritchie's follow-up Snatch – which is twice as long and half-as-good.
Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner, The (1962): Tony Richardson's grim and gritty adaptation of the Alan Sillotoe play about the shackles society places on rebellious youth. Tom Courtney (in a career-defining role), James Bolam and Michael Redgrave at their absolute best. Keep your eye out for a cameo by a hideously young John Thaw. 'I'm going to let them think they've got me house trained, but they never will, the bastards. To get me beat, they'll have to stick a rope around my neck.'
Longest Day, The (1962): Probably costing far more than the actual Normandy D-Day operation, The Longest Day works on several levels - the most obvious being the 'don't blink or you might miss several' nature of the star-studded cast. Most of the actors works very well (Sean Connery's comedy double act with Norman Rossington is an unexpected highlight). Some less so, and some are just downright tokenism - Rod Steiger getting all of forty three seconds on-screen for example. But overall, it's always a highly watchable and beautifully shot movie. It's also an admirably balanced film - far from the expected conceits of John Wayne and Robert Mitchum taking on the Third Reich virtually single-handedly - how many other WWII films include both German and (almost uniquely) French perspectives of the war to such an extent that almost half of the dialogue is in a language other than English? The Longest Day is a film about five beaches, many battles, and many men - some, as Richard Burton says, dead, some crippled and some lost. Epic in every sense of the word.
Long Good Friday, The (1980): John MacKenzie's violent London gangster movie (with political overtones) set a new benchmark for British cinema and spawned a generation of imitators - most with about a fiftieth of the dazzling wit and outrageous passion of this. Bob Hoskyns and Helen Mirren in, literal, star-making performances. 'What a diabolical fuckin' liberty!'
Looking For Richard (1996): Highly personal documentary following Al Pacino's attempts to stage a production of Richard III that is both relevant to modern audiences and faithful to the text. A wonderful dissection of a brilliant text - contributions from Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh and James Earl Jones, amongst others. Hugely original.
Loot (1970): Farcical, yet curiously satisfying adaptation of Joe Orton's cause celebre stage comedy about bank robbery, sex and death. Roy Holder and Hwyel Bennett are terrific as the cosh boys with a problem of where to hide their haul, although the gorgeous as ever Lee Remick is badly miscast as their partner and Richard Attenborough only works spasmodically as the epically inept police inspector, Trubshaw (the stage role,written for Kenneth Williams, brought Michael Bates into the Premier League). Nice outré Mod trappings and some hilarious dialogue cover most of the cracks.
Lost Boys, The (1987): The film that made Kiefer Sutherland a star and without which Buffy The Vampire Slayer would probably never have happened. Joel Schumacher's testosterone-charged movie kick-started the concept of a modern urban-horror stripped of its Gothic roots but with a vital ingredient added, humour.
Love And Death (1975): Woody Allen takes the piss out of War & Peace with a wit and genius that he was seldom able to match thereafter (when that famous line in Stardust Memories talks about his 'early, funnier movies,' this is probably the one to which it refers). Loads of stand-out moments and hilarious one-liners ('Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death ... Actually, make that I run through the valley of the shadow of death, cos you get out of the valley quicker that way!') and with a stunning use of Prokofiev's music. 'Funny', a word Woody would soon forget he ever knew the meaning of.
Magnificent Ambersons, The (1942): Not quite the film Orson Welles wanted to make (he hated the obligatory 'happy ending' inserted after he'd been forcibly removed from the project and described the eighty weight minute version as 'edited with a lawnmower') but still a quite extraordinary achievement. An ambitious retelling of the Booth Tarkington novel. Agnes Moorhead won an Oscar for her role as the headstrong Fanny.
Manchurian Candidate, The (1962): Based on Richard Condon's novel, John Frankenheime's tingling tale of post-Korean War political paranoia and assassination plots was, reported, one of John Kennedy's favourite movies, which makes the assassination climax all the more horrendous. A career highlight for most of those involved (Laurence Harvey, Frank Sinatra, Janet Leigh and, especially, Angela Lansbury - it's impossible to watch the manipulative bitch she plays here and believe it's the same woman in nine hundred and seventy three episodes of Murder, She Wrote!) Cool, sophisticated, menacing and with some very harsh things to say about parental love; forget the crappy remake with Denzil Washington, this is the real deal.
Man Who Fell To Earth, The (1976): Shit-weird Nic Roeg adaptation of Walter Travis's novel which saw David Bowie, essentially, take his Thin White Duke stage-persona to the movies and emerge ... sort of bald and with funny eyes. Three quarters of The Man Who Fell to Earth is riveting, original, and features one of the greatest moments in movie history (when Thomas Newton reveals his true self to his girlfriend and Candy Clark pisses her own pants). Sadly, it all falls apart towards the end and gets muddled as the CIA subplot takes over. But, it's still a stunning movie experience.
Man Who Would Be King, The (1975): John Huston's last great movie, loosely based on a Kipling short story about two British soldiers mistaken a God and his priest in Northern India by the local tribes. High adventure of the kind you'd expect from the man who directed The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre and double-dealing inevitably follows. Michael Caine and Sean Connery are an unparalleled double act (it's such a shame they didn't make more movies together). Full of magnificent dialogue ('Listen to me you benighted muckers, we're gonna teach you soldiering. The world's noblest profession. When we're done, you'll be able to slaughter your enemies like civilized men!') and a stirring, passionate ending. A masterpiece.
Masque Of The Red Death, The (1964): One of the most colourful and least boring films ever made! Everything is right in this handsome and majestic movie. The titles, splattered Technicolour-red, point the way to the literate, almost Shakespearean, tragedy that follows. The cast respond to Charles Beaumont and Wright Campbell’s accomplished screenplay, whilst Nic Roeg's camerawork is the stuff of legends. The Masque Of The Red Death rejects many traditional horror-movie clichés to deliver a powerful and well-observed essay on the culpable depths of human depravity. It is also an admirably balanced film; Prospero (Vincent Price), for example, is told that each man creates his own heaven and hell – a cunning rejection of the, somewhat shallow, orthodox good-thumping-evil climax that the genre traditionally demands. Most memorably, there is the final scene, depicting death's weary messengers trudging ever onward. A morally satisfying end to what is, undoubtedly, Roger Corman's finest ninety minutes.
Ma Soeur!, À (2001): Catherine Breillat's tense, unusual story follows the sexual development of two French sisters in their early teens. Their middle-class family embody the social mores and protective attitudes that, they feel, stifle them. Terrific performances by both two girls - Anaïs Reboux and Roxanne Mesquida. However, nothing will prepare the viewer for the absolutely shocking conclusion which comes completely out of left-field. English title: Fat Girl.
Matter Of Life And Death, A (1946): 'What's your name?' The films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger should be studied, closely, by anyone who has a wish to understand the complexity, strangeness and reassuring warmth of the British psyche. A studded allegory of war, love and loss, this remarkable movie gloriously slaughters many sacred cows in its clever construction. Even real-life accidents seem serendipitous in hindsight - the lack of enough Technicolor stock meant that half the film (the 'Heaven' sequences) had to be shot in black and white. David Niven's finest performance. A thing of fragile and intricate, romantic beauty nd, this blogger's favourite film of all time. Belatedly released in the US under the horrid alternate title Stairway To Heaven (talk about missing the point).
Melody (1971): Sweet and charming portrait of adolescent romance in early Seventies Britain starring Jack Wild, Mark Lester and Tracy Hyde. A beautiful movie full of naively wonderful middle-class takes on teenage rebellion and defiance wrapped up in a love story between thirteen year olds. The magnificent soundtrack (by The Bee Gees) is also worthy of considerable praise. Also known as S.W.A.L.K. Directed by Waris Hussain.
Modern Times (1936): Charlie Chaplin's pointed satire on the mechanisation of modern life and industry is well realised and occasionally hilarious. The last great silent movie.
Monty Python & The Holy Grail (1975): A film that manages to poke fun at - and the list of not inclusive - BBC radio sound effects, swallows, the French, left-wing politics in Britain in the late 1970s, the French, the monarchy, religion, traditional notions of bravery and cowardice, the French, rabbits, medieval justice, the historian Kenneth Clark and, most notably, the French. A wildly ambitious movie, particularly given its frugal budget, full of hilarious set pieces (The Knights Who Say 'Ni', Arthur's fight with the spectacularly brave-but-stupid Black Knight, the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch et cetera) and some of the most quotable dialogue in movie history ('your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries!') Daft, from start to finish. And brilliant.
Monty Python's Life Of Brian (1979): Controversial, challenging, a hilarious knee-to-the-groin of organised religion by Chapman, Cleese, Gilliam, Jones, Idle and Palin. As with Holy Grail, the targets are scattergun (you can see the glee in John Cleese's eyes as he gets to poke fun at his old Latin teacher in the 'Romani ite Domum' bit: 'If it's not done by sunrise, I'll cut yer balls off!') Again, a script that can be chanted along with by 'guys of a certain age' ('what have the Romans ever done for us?' 'Splitters!' 'Biggus Dickus' et al.) and who else but these fellahs could have even thought about getting away with a crucifixion scene being accompanied by 'Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life'? Spike Milligan appears in a cameo, as does Executive Producer George Harrison as the man who loaned them the money for the sermon on the mount. Any film that can provoke a reaction like this one got deserves all the success this one achieved. 'Tenth-rate movie,' my arse!
Monty Python's Meaning Of Life (1983): Often overlooked in the light of previous triumphs but in many ways, Meaning Of Life is the Pythons most ambitious movie. A caustic variant on The Seven Ages Of Man, it's got some cracking jokes (the machine that goes 'ping'), accurate observation on the delicious ironies of life and some downright effing weird bits ('Fishy, fishy!'). And, a handful of terrific songs - indeed, it is, essentially, a musical (with the Arlene Phillips choreographed 'Every Sperm Is Sacred' sequence a particular highlight). You have to see it with the hugely enjoyable - and rather moving - support feature, Gilliam's 'Crimson Permanent Assurance'. Just, you know, stay away from that wafer-thin mints.
Mummy, The (1959): Terence Fisher's use of Technicolor literally smacks the viewer in the face in this handsomely designed and well-scripted film. He had a tough time playing the role, but Christopher Lee's performance is one of the best of his entire career - a silent, unstoppable killer, the literal stuff of nightmares. Jimmy Sangster's urbane script catches the mood perfectly, presenting the strange customs of an alien culture transplanted, seamlessly, into Hammer's omnipresent rural Victoriana. It was also part of a significant trend in British cinema of the late 1950s which commented upon the horrors of Britain's colonial past and how the disintegrating Empire was, frankly, ready for some payback. Fantastic photography by Jack Asher, matched by Bernard Robinson's designs and Roy Ashton's make-up for Lee. A lavish, groundbreaking production, and one of Hammer's very best.
Murder By Death (1976): Neil Simon spoof whodunit notable for an amazing cast (Alec Guinness, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith, Peter Falk, Elsa Lanchester, Truman Capote). Taking the piss out of every genre cliché imaginable makes it a must for fans of detective movies.
Murder By Decree (1979): Intriguing mixture of Sherlock Holmes (a great performance by Christopher Plummer), conspiracy theory and Jack the Ripper (the idea that the murderer was the queen's doctor Sir William Gull as part of a Freemason plot had first appeared in Stephen Knight's 1976 book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution). Beautifully filmed by Bob Clark with loads of intricate period detail and a fabulous cast (James Mason goes down the Nigel Bruce route for inspiration for his Watson, though he still gets some lovely one-liners, particularly 'you squashed my pea!')
My Darling Clementine (1946): John Ford's stunning dust-bowl Western retelling of the OK Corral legend. Henry Fonda is a great Wyatt Earp although Victor Mature's Doc Holliday chews scenery with the best of them. Historically questionable but a work of considerable merit.
My Fair Lady (1964): One of the most loved musical comedy's ever made - even people born twenty years after it was made will know most of Lerner and Loewe's classic songs (‘One the Street Where You Live’ – sung in the film by Jeremy Brett – is this blogger's particular favourite). Occasionally flat, stagy and faüx naïf direction by George Cukor by Audrey will simply melt your heart as Eliza Doolittle (and, despite rumours to the contrary she did do her own singing).
Night Of The Demon (1956): From its opening shot of a desolate stone circle, Night Of Tthe Demon is an eloquent and subtle exercise in minimalist suspense. A horror movie in which little remotely horrible occurs on-screen, but which conspires to make its audience feel genuinely uneasy. It is amazing just how much of this film takes place at night, with Jacques Tourneur's well-noted and exquisite use of shadow heightening the film's already impressive tension. There is much wit in Charles Bennett's script too (when William Holden picks up the phone, having been discussing Karswell, and hears the cult-leader's voice, he notes, pithily, 'Speak of the devil!'). Adroitly capped by a pseudo-realist aesthetic, the film - despite its trappings of archaic magicks - is defiantly modernist in approach with a mood that matches the swaggering materialistic confidence of the post-war era. The climactic appearance of the demon itself is, given the limitations of the budget, superbly effective. Even as an example of a horror oeuvre that would soon be passé, it still works. US title: Curse Of The Demon.
Night Of The Generals, The (1967): A rather ordinary thriller raised to a higher level by its pointed critique on the base inhumanity of Nazi war crimes. Outstanding cast (Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, Donald Pleasence, Christopher Plummer). Fine Paul Dehn script.
Night Of The Hunter, The (1955): Charles Laughton's only movie as a director sees Robert Mitchum in the role of a lifetime as hate-filled bigot with murderous designs on a family. One of the most genuinely scary and unsettling movies ever made with many terrifying moments. One of a kind and a film that's undeserved contemporary failure has been dwarfed by the massive reputation it now affords.
O Lucky Man! (1973): Lindsay Anderson and Malcolm McDowell's sequel to If ... finds Mick Travis cast adrift in early-Seventies Britain in a travelogue which juxtaposes the new found freedoms and hedonism of youth with the crushing weight of conformity and the establishment. A brutal satire on the pitfalls of capitalism, society's need for a scapegoat and, horrifyingly, the sinister advances of medical science (the 'pig-man' scene), with one of the greatest casts ever assembled for a British movie (Ralph Richardson, Arthur Lowe, Helen Mirren, Geoffrey Palmer, James Bolam ... et cetera. Don't blink or you might miss six). Fantastic incorporation of Alan Price and his band into the narrative and the songs, like the movie, are a wry and pithy comment on the world Travis finds himself a part of. Resolutely angry ('There's nothing to smile about!') and, horrifyingly, as relevant today as it was forty years ago.
On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969): George Lazenby's only outing as 007 is one of the best Bond films of the lot. Great direction by Peter Hunt, excellent villain (Telly Savalas's Blofeld), stunning Bond girl (Diana Rigg), amazing stunts (the ski-sequence), great pre-titles and Lazenby is really rather good (if, somewhat understated) in the role.
Ooh ... You Are Awful (1971): Endearingly quaint and cheeky vehicle for British comedian Dick Emery. A con man, released from prison finds that his partner is dead but has tattooed a Swiss bank account number on the bottoms of four of his girlfriends. Hi-jinx, inevitably, ensue. Lots of cameos from people you'll know from Doctor Who and The Avengers and some genuinely funny moments amid the seaside postcard naughtiness. Recommended for a wet Sunday afternoon with a curry and a bottle of wine!
Outlaw Josey Wales, The (1976): A jaw-dropping directional debut for Clint, who also stars in this tough, observant, elegantly authentic civil-war era Western. Has any screen cowboy ever been cooler: 'Are you gonna pull those pistols or whistle Dixie?!'
Paperhouse (1988): Insightful fantasy about the vivid dreams of a young girl on the edge of puberty. Tense and occasionally terrifying, psychologically interesting and very well acted (Charlotte Burke was just nine when the film was made). Based on Catherine Storr's classic novel Marianne Dreams (which had previously been adapted as the TV series Escape Into Night). Screenplay by Matthew Jacobs.
Peeping Tom (1960): A controversial, complex, brilliantly-made psychosexual thriller. Now, justly regarded as an influential masterpiece, Peeping Tom virtually destroyed Michael Powell's career. Why it should have been such a commercial and critical failure, is a complex question to answer. Powell's film was released six months before Psycho, but Hitchcock's movie was a huge box-office success, perhaps because audiences expected the macabre from Hitchcock whereas Powell was identified with more elegant and stylised conceits. To the critics who piously smeared it, Peeping Tom wasn't hated so much for its subject matter as for the tenderness with which Karl Böehm played the killer. Shy and lonely, the movie despises Mark, yet it also sympathises with him. He is working, he says, on a documentary. Only in the film's final moments do we realise that this is a documentary about him sharing the fate of his victims rather than, as most murderers do, hiding from it. Filled with Powell's usual traits - shimmering colour, fluid movement, acerbic wordplay - Peeping Tom proved a biblical truism: There's none so blind as those who will cannot see.
Perfect Friday (1969): An otherwise enjoyable, if somewhat standard, heist caper (see The Italian Job et al) raised to quite unexpected and even dangerous heights by one of the most brilliant pieces of casting imaginable; David Warner absolutely makes the film with a lithe, arrogant flourish in what could, in lesser hands, have been a cipher of a role.
Performance (1968): 'You're Jack The Lad, son!' The world's first punk-movie, made a decade before the term had any meaning. Performance, co-directed by Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg, is a dazzling psychodrama about London's gangster underworld in the late-Sixties and how it interacts with the emergent counterculture of drugged-up pop stars and groupies. A dangerous, sometimes infuriating but, ultimately brilliant film with a notoriously hedonistic story behind its shooting (the sequence of Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg, ahem, getting it on became so realistic smuggled outtakes formed the basis of a porn movie a few years later!) James Fox's finest role but Johnny Shannon - in his first movie - steals the movie from under everyone else's noses. Old Jagger's properly good in it too, and the soundtrack is terrific. Full of quotable dialogue ('we've been courteous!', 'I like that. Turn it up!') and with an influence that stretches from pop videos to episodes of Waking The Dead. Essential.
Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975): One of the most gloriously weird, moody and atmospheric films ever made. Peter Weir's shimmering adaptation of Joan Lindsay's novel of sexual awakening and mysterious schoolgirl desires and disappearances. The stunning Australian outback locations and dazzlingly poetic dialogue ('everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place') make this one a must. And, Annie Louise Lambert is way-hot it in!
Pink Floyd: The Wall (1980): Disappointingly literal - and rather mean-spirited and sadistic - Alan Parker adaptation of Roger Waters' concept LP about, you know, alienation, war, school and other stuff that regularly pisses Yer Man Roger off. Bob Geldof is laughably bad in the main role and a bunch of reliable character actors are wasted in minor parts. Has subsequently acquired a cult reputation in a kind of 'so bad, it's brilliant' way.
Premature Burial (1962): The second best of Roger Corman's 'Poe cycle' movies for AIP, with great performances from Ray Milland and Hazel Court. Don't watch this one if you suffer from claustrophobia.
Prestige, The (2006): Dazzling, complex, frighteningly clever movie about prestidigitation and malarkey in Victorian London and the rivalry between two illusionists (Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman). Michael Caine is also outstanding (as is David Bowie in a small, but scene-stealing role). 'Man's reach exceeds his imagination!'
Prick Up Your Ears (1987): Funny and touching biopic of the playwright Joe Orton (Gary Oldman) and his lover, Ken Halliwell (a brilliant performance by Alfred Molina). Alan Bennett's script is based on the excellent John Lahr biography of the same name. Lovely period feel and many great lines ('I always wanted to be an orphan. I could have, if it wasn't for my parents!') You just wish the ending wasn't so upsettingly downbeat but, sadly, that's the way Joe and Ken lived and died.
Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes, The (1970): Tragically neglected Billy Wilder take on the Conan Doyle oeuvre with one of the best Holmes/Watson partnerships ever (Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely). The sequence in which Holmes convinces a Russian diplomat that he and Watson are gay to get out of a proposed liaison with a ballerina is comedy at it's finest ('Doctor Watson? He is your ... glass of tea, yes?') Christopher Lee is a brilliant Mycroft, too. Now, finally, beginning to acquired the reputation that it always deserved.
Psycho (1960): The definitive Hitchcock black joke and a movie phenomena that far outstripped its humble origins to becoming one of the most influential and often quoted movies of all time. Tony Perkins is the obvious standout in a fine cast but it's the director's characteristic trademarks of wry, off-beat humour and dazzling camerawork (the shower scene) that still astonishes nearly five decades on. 'We all go a little mad sometimes.' Oft sampled, seldom equalled.
Psychomania (1971): One of the most insane films ever made. Where else, but Britain in this era, could you find a cast of this exceptional quality camping it up in what is, in effect, 'Night Of The Living Dead Psychedelic Bikers'? A hilariously incompetent, rather sanguine, piece of trash-horror, the subsequent years have not been kind to Psychomania. Nevertheless, for many of the wrong reasons (see also, Tower Of Evil, Dracula AD 1972, et cetera.) it has acquired a genuine cult status and not an entirely undeserved one either. Psychomania's peculiar quasi-comedy structure reaps some anarchic rewards if you stick with it and put up with the logical stupidity of the piece and the dialogue, which is frequently dreadful. George Sanders and Beryl Reid look as out of place in this environment as it's possible to be and Mary Larkin is wasted as a love interest, but the rest of the young biker gang are mostly impressive (Nicky Henson, in particular) and the whole thing rattles along at a furious pace with a well-aimed knee to the groin of the older generation. Groovy, baby. Oh, and watch out for a perfectly hilarious cameo by John Levene as a bemused policeman.
Quadrophenia (1979): Britain's best ever youth movie, based on The Who's concept LP about the 1964 clashes between the Mods and the Rockers leading to the infamous Whit Bank Holiday weekend riots. A young cast of then-unknowns made their names in this accurate, witty, affable and occasionally dazzling movie (Phil Daniels, Lesley Ash, Phil Davis, Ray Winstone, Mark Wingett). Even Sting's quite good in it. Very violent in places but told with an honesty and perception often missing from 'issue' movies. Brilliant direction by Franc Roddam. And, needless to say the soundtrack's quite decent too.
Quatermass & The Pit (1967): Blessed with a wonderful ensemble cast, reasonable scientific concepts, naturalistic dialogue and numerous memorable set-pieces, Quatermass & The Pit remains one of the finest films made in Britain in the last forty years. A bold, wildly ambitious and dangerously subversive movie, it displays a grasp of fundamental humanism that is a key to understanding all of Nigel Kneale's work. The film's subsequent influence on the future of science fiction is beyond any real dispute (The X-Files being one of numerous high-profile projects to openly acknowledge Kneale's impressive narrative and groundbreaking ideas).
Quest For Love (1971): Astonishingly well done adaptation of John Wyndham's classic alternate universe drama Random Quest. Intelligent and rather moving with performances of a lifetime from Tom Bell and, amazingly, Joan Collins (yes, really!) Denholm Elliott is terrific in a supporting role too. Proof that it is possible to make a SF love story that makes sense and touches not only the brain but also the heart.
Groovy Movies will return. Eventually.