Thursday, January 18, 2018

Peter Wyngarde Remembered

Sadly, it seems that Peter Wyngarde has died at the age of ninety.  For many of us, he was a cherished childhood TV memory: the very epitome of late sixities/early seventies campness in his portrayal of Jason King, both in the character's own eponymous series and its predecessor, Department S.  I remember watching both series when they were rerun in the afternoons during school holidays in the late seventies.  Despite only a few years having passed since their production, they seemed to come from a completely different era, so different were the late seventies to the early seventies.  But despite the apparent campness of Wyngarde's characterisation, the fact was that extravagant moustaches, frilled shirts and velvet smoking jackets were all considered fashionable accessories for the man-about-town circa 1970, (just look at Jon Pertwee's costume in Dr Who if you need further confirmation of this).  Before becoming Jason King, Wyngarde had given many plamboyant performances in various TV series, including The Saint and The Avengers, usually playing the guest villain of the week and more than holding his own performing opposite the likes of Roger Moore and Patrick MacNee.  Prior to TV fame, Wyngarde had notched up some interesting film credits, including The Innocents and the lead in the interesting but relatively neglected horror film Night of the Eagle.

Wyngarde's early life seems shrouded in mystery, with confusion as to his actual year of birth and place of birth, something he happily contributed to.  Sadly, his career took something of a knock in the mid seventies after a pair of well publicised convictions for what would now be known as 'cottaging'.  But he managed something of a comeback in the eighties, with roles in Flash Gordon , Sherlock Holmes and Dr Who. Wyngarde's performances weren't confined to acting: in 1970 he released a self-titled album full of some truly bizarre spoken word tracks.  Most notorious of these was 'Rape', released as a promotional single.  Listening to the latter today, it seems unbelievable that a major label could ever have thought it a good idea to release a jokey record about rape.  But hey, the early seventies were a different country.  A different planet, in fact.  A planet where gay actors playing heterosexual ladies' men like Jason King, had to hide their sexuality for fear it would damage the character's reputation.  In the final analysis, Wyngarde might never have become a major star of either film or TV, but he gave many highly entertaining and memorable performances, justifiably making him a cult favourite.  I'll remember him fondly, not just for the likes of Jason King, but also for that amazing LP.
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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Land That Time Forgot Revisited

As I've mentioned here before, I'm something of a sucker for dinosaur movies.  When I was a dinosaur obsessed kid, there weren't too many dinosaur movies around - not only were they considered a specialised interest, but they were difficult to represent on screen.  Men in suits, and puppets were unconvincing while photographically enlarged lizards (usually with fake horns, spines and frill glued to them, were completely inaccurate.  Stop motion animation was undoubtedly the best way to portray dinosaurs realistically (well, as realistically as classic reconstructions of their fossilised skeletons allowed them to be), but was time consuming and relatively expensive.  With modern CGI, dinosaurs can be recreated relatively cheaply, which is probably why dinosaur pictures seem to be two a penny these days.  But to get back to the point, my soft spot for films featuring these long extinct leviathans undoubtedly explains why I found myself watching The Asylum's 2009 version of The Land That Time Forgot.  The fact that it was produced by The Asylum should have rung alarm bells, but hey, they have produced some reasonably entertaining 'mockbusters' over the years.

To be fair, this remake did add some interesting ideas to the Edgar Rice Burroughs source novel, although bringing in the whole Bermuda Triangle angle was somewhat hackneyed.  But, taking the 'Time Forgot' part of the title and presenting the island of Caprona as a location that exists outside of normal time and where groups of characters from different eras of history find themselves simultaneously stranded, isn't a bad plot device.  The problem is that the makers then fail to really make anything out of it, with the plot eventually retreading the familiar plot elements of the novel: the stranded U-Boat whose crew are eventually forced to work with their American adversaries to try and escape the island, the two characters left stranded on the island, their journal thrown into the ocean in a bottle.  However, the way it is set up, there is next to no conflict between the characters and consequently no dramatic tension.  Most crucially, though, the biggest thing lacking from this version of the story are dinosaurs.  Apart from a couple of Pteranodons, a briefly glimpsed giant sea reptile and a Tyrannosaurus (the main antagonist to the human characters), there basically aren't any, leaving me feeling seriously shortchanged.  To add insult to injury, the CGI used to create them was clearly done on the cheap, rendering them barely convincing.

Really, what is the point of an adaptation of The Land That Time Forgot which isn't chock full of dinosaurs?  Surely they should be the movie's main selling point?  I've seen versions of The Lost World with a similar lack of dinosaurs, trying to pitch themselves as primarily adventure stories.  Unfortunately for this version of Land That Time Forgot, the human characters are simply not interesting or engaging enough to carry the dinosaur-light story.  Indeed, it compares very unfavourably with the 1975 film version which, despite having technically inferior special effects, is hugely enjoyable.  It's dinosaurs might be a combination of full size mechanical models, puppets and men in suits, but they are at least present in significant numbers.  Moreover, its cast of second rank but solid and talented actors - including Doug McClure, Susan Penhaligon, Keith Barron, John McEnerey and Anthony Ainley - give full justice to a surprisingly literate script (Michael Moorcock worked on it at one point).   The World War One period of the novel is evoked to good effect, providing plenty of tension and dramatic conflict between the U-Boat crew and the Anglo-American survivors it picks up from the freighter it sinks.  Most of all, despite being a relatively low budget Amicus production, the 1975 film understands that audiences expect this type of movie to deliver spectacle.  Which it does: U-Boats, dinosaurs and climactic volcanic eruptions!  Believe me, it's all a lot more fun than the 2009 version with its dull characters, dull dinosaurs and dull plot mechanics.

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Monday, January 15, 2018

Tabloid News

Today was the first day of The Guardian's new tabloid format - it was surprisingly successful.  Not to mention far more convenient to read - I didn't feel that I needed a clear fifteen square feet to open it up in.  Mind you, I can't help but feel that many down and outs will be disappointed at the loss of another broadsheet format newspaper - those big pages were as good as bed sheets when you were sleeping on a park bench.  Those tabloid sized pages just don't cut it when it comes to insulation from the cold.  One thing about the new Guardian which left me mildly disappointed by the lack of an attractive female philosopher displaying her intellectual assets on page three:  "Phwooar!  Look at the Double Firsts on her!"  Still, times change and there's no doubt that the tabloid format is the most convenient size for modern print newspapers.  That said, the last large size newspaper to go tabloid - The Independent - floundered and died, now existing only as a website. I hope that's not a portent for the future of The Guardian.

Not that there isn't plenty of news for the new sized paper to report on right now, what the ongoing implosion of the political right on both sides of the Atlantic.  There isn't much more to say about Trump and 'shithole' countries, besides, that new book does a far better hatchet job on him than I ever could.  So, let's look closer to home: the collapse of Tory-supporting Carillion (whose support of the Tories had nothing to do with it getting all those government contracts, of course) has been the icing on the cake of a week which has seen that odious right-wing creep Toby 'Look at me, I'm being daring and outrageous by consorting with eugenicists'  Young get his comeuppance, the current UKIP leader having to disown his girlfriend over her racist comments about Royal bride-to-be Meghan Markle and, best of all, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage calling for a second referendum on EU membership.   The latter development has probably amused me most.  Clearly, being part of the mainstream of political discourse, since the UK's suicidal decision to leave the EU, doesn't suit perennial 'outsider' Farage.  The solution?  Reverse the referendum decision with another referendum and Hey Presto!  Farage and UKIP are outsiders again with something to fight against, thereby justifying their existence! 

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Friday, January 12, 2018

Willard (1971)


A film I remember only vaguely from late night TV showings in the late seventies, Willard was a popular independently made horror film which, at one time, had something of a cult following.  Not only did it boast an above average cast, decent direction and production values, but it was also based around a reasonably original idea.  Oppressed and alienated young man Willard (Bruce Davison), forms a bond with the rats living in his mother's decaying mansion and trains them, turning them into a private army with which he can take revenge upon those oppressing and bullying him.  Obviously, it eventually all goes horribly wrong for Willard. 

It's easy to see the appeal of Willard - it is a classic empowerment fantasy, with a down trodden anti-hero able, if only temporarily, to turn the tables on his tormentors through the acquisition of extraordinary powers.  It is a fantasy repeated across many genres, its most common modern manifestation being the superhero fantasy, with mild mannered ordinary guys (and girls) transformed by super powers into world saving titans.  Older versions might see the hero empowered by being able to harness supernatural agencies to their cause.  Willard presents a more practical and, on the surface, realistic version of this fantasy - the harnessing of natural forces in the cause of vengeance.

Willard is one of the earliest examples of the horror sub genre which sees an individual's affinity with a particular species allow them to take revenge on their enemies.  Thanks to the film's success, a number of imitators appeared, (Stanley, for instance involved a snake obsessed weirdo using his scaly friends to foil the plans of villainous developers, unfortunately, it is deadly dull).  Alongside these appeared the related 'revenge of nature' cycle of films, such as Day of the AnimalsWillard also spawned a direct sequel, Ben, featuring the independently minded chief rat from the previous film (he even had his own theme song, performed by Michael Jackson), effectively transformed from villain to anti-hero.  There was also a 2003 remake of Willard, (although not billed as a remake, but rather  a 're-imagining of the original source material, Ratman's Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert, it still followed the original movie's plot quite closely). 

Just writing this 'Random Movie Trailer' has left me feeling that I really should try and watch both Willard and Ben again.  As mentioned earlier, they were, for their day, reasonably original in their central ideas, marking the horror film's gradual move away from the supernatural, which continued apace through the seventies, culminating in the dominance of the 'slasher movie' from the late seventies and throughout most of the eighties.

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Thursday, January 11, 2018

Winter Past


It seems that even Winters were better back in the day.  Or at least they were reported by the media in a more positive light.  Nowadays, snow is a complete bastard who prevents us getting to work, but back in the sixties it was simply seen as an opportunity for fun.  As for Hogmany, well now we'd have to endure all sorts of dire warnings about the damage all that excessive alcohol consumption would do to our health.  As for those revellers in London - now it would be reported as a drunken riot. 

It's interesting the way in which these old newsreels always try and put a positive spin on Britain and the British, in stark comparison to today's media which always seeks, it seems, to most pessimistic possible spin to put on events.  Of course, back in 1962, the UK still had the last vestiges of an empire, which encouraged the delusion that we were still a force in the world.  Consequently, the pressure was always on to present a positive image of Britain and Britons to the rest of the world: we couldn't be cowed by bad weather, in fact we laughed in the face of snow, we could hold our drink like no other nation on earth could, but still behaved ourselves when drunk and raucous.  All that drunkenly jumping in fountains was just a bit of boisterous fun in the true blue British tradition.

Nowadays we can't even get trains to run in the snow, so much have we declined as a nation.  (Actually, to be fair, back in 1962 the railways probably did cope rather better with snow than they do now.  Most trains were locomotive hauled, predominantly by steam locomotives, whose great weight allowed them better traction on slippery rails than the multiple units which tend to form most modern passenger trains).  Joking aside, I do love these sorts of news reels and public information films.  They allow a glimpse into a world gone by.  A world which might not be that  distant from us in temporal terms, but which look increasingly archaic.  The people we see in them are us, but not us and the world they inhabit is ours but not ours.  We recognise it all, but it just seems a more primitive version of  our world.  The past truly is another country.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Playing With Fire

So, apart from planning to quit my job, I have been doing other things.  Yesterday evening, for instance, I conclusively proved that I'm not safe to be allowed to play with fire.  To cut a long story short, I was using my garden incinerator to burn some rubbish (this is part of a clear up at home and has been going on for several days) and nearly succeeded both in setting myself on fire and burning the house down.  The problem was that the wind was much stronger than I expected and kept whipping the fire up so that huge orange flames kept leaping out of the incinerator.  Now, I know that these incinerators come with a lid, (basically an old-style dustbin lid with a metal chimney on it), which is supposed to allow you to burn stuff safely, without huge flames and sparks by protecting the fire from things like high winds.  Which is all very well, but I had a lot of stuff to burn and having the lid on all the time just got in the way of my constantly stoking up the fire.

The result was that, at one point, just as I was putting some more rubbish into the incinerator, the wind gusted in my direction and I was chased to my back door by a huge sheet of orange flame.  Then the wind changed direction and the sheet of flame set fire to some ivy which was crawling up the kitchen wall.  (OK, I will concede that I might have placed the incineration too close to the house).  Somehow, I got the lid back on the incinerator and put out the ivy fire.  Of course, I had to to take the lid off again to shove more stuff in - this time some papers (trust me, burning stuff like old bank statements is far more effective than shredding them) - and everything was OK until, just as I was poking the fire with a bit of metal, so as ensure that everything was burning evenly, there was another gust of wind and bits of blazing paper were flying everywhere: the garden, the path, even through the open back door.  Once again, I managed to get it all under control and apart from scorched hair and a singed shirt, I survived the ordeal.  I think I'll be giving the incinerator a rest for a while, though. 

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Monday, January 08, 2018

Sitting in the Departure Lounge

I'm afraid that I'm finding coming up with anything to post today difficult - I'm more than a little distracted.  Things are going on at work which, I think, will finally result in my departure from the snake pit it has become.  I thought for while that I could reduce my working hours and carry on for a while that way, but it is clear that I was deceiving myself - the job is making me ill and will continue to do so, no matter how many, or how few, hours I work at it.  I've actually got a doctor's appointment scheduled for next week, during which I'm hoping to address several outstanding medical issues currently plaguing me, as well as the issues the work related stress are causing me.   In fact, I'd like to confirm that the way I'm feeling is down to the stress and doesn't have some other underlying cause.  Pending the outcome of this appointment, I'll make a firm decision on my future at work.  The facts is that I have no mortgage to pay anymore, no dependents and money in the bank.  Financially, I'm secure for the foreseeable future.  So, really, there's nothing to stop me from walking away.

I must admit that, over the past few days, I've been guided by the things I've said here, over the past three years or so, about my future at work.  Past me was quite consistent: once the mortgage was paid, I was walking.  Yet I haven't - more recent me has betrayed past me.  Part of the problem is that I've listened to too many people who have cautioned restraint, urged me to be 'sensible'.  But the fact is that none of them have any idea of just how sick the job is making me.  There are, of course, a select number of friends and family who have consistently advised me to quit.  I should have listened to them and acted on their advice sooner.  A couple of years ago, after yet another attempt to force me out of my job, I went AWOL for an afternoon - at one point I drove past a cafe called 'The Departure Lounge' (it's still there, as far as I know).  I thought at the time how apt that was as, with only a couple of years to go to pay off the mortgage that, effectively, was where I was: in the departure lounge.  Well, I've tarried there too long and I think, at last, that my flight is being called.

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Saturday, January 06, 2018

Local Schlock

Well, it seems That's Crapchester and its sister stations still can't make their minds up as to whether they local news channels or repositories of vintage movies.  After having switched back to their regular news programming yesterday evening, I found that, this morning, they had switched back to the old movies.  By six o'clock this evening they had switched back.  According to the TV's electronic schedule, they should now be permanently back to their regular schedule.  But it was claiming that yesterday, too.  I'm now eagerly waiting to see what they actually end up showing tomorrow.   Now, I'll be perfectly happy if they maintain a daytime schedule of old movies of the kind they showed over Christmas and New Year: they're my kind of schlock.  However, it would rather undermine the basis upon which their broadcasting licences were awarded: the provision of local TV service, primarily local news.

Unfortunately, as most of the UK's local news franchises have found - regardless of their ownership - finding sufficient locally produced content isn't easy.  Finding such content which attracts sufficient viewers to generate decent advertising revenues is even more difficult.  I recall that when That's Crapchester launched, we were promised all manner of local programming.  So far it hasn't materialised.  Instead, we've had continuous local news programmes, which tend to recycle the same half dozen stories continuously over a twenty four hour period.  I know that several other local franchises resorted to deals with Talking Pictures TV to simulcast their content during the daytime and at one point the That's family of channels was planning to do this, also.  This was good for Talking Pictures TV as they weren't available nationally on Freeview when they deals were struck, so it would increase their audience reach whilst providing the local channels with content which might attract viewers.  But that situation changed when, late last year, Talking Pictures TV achieved near national coverage, so viewers in those areas it didn't previously reach no longer need the local TV  simulcast to view its content.

Which, presumably, is why That's Crapchester and its sisters have been running those public domain films - sourced via an Australian content provider, interestingly - instead.  Of course, some of these local channels have long been running non-local content, most notably the London franchise (where you'd think there would be more than enough news to fill the schedules), which shows all manner of old TV series on the basis that they are based in London.  They also regularly show all manner of British sex comedies from the seventies.  Again, my kind of content.  I can only dream of That's Crapchester adopting such a schedule, (OK, there aren't any TV series filmed here, but none of the movies they've been showing of late were made here, either).  But it is a curious thing that ancient movies have lately proven more popular than local news.  Which, not surprisingly, calls into question the basis upon which these franchises were created: that there existed a hitherto untapped demand for local news which wasn't catered for by either the BBC or ITV regional news output.  You would have thought that the decline of local newspapers - most of which can barely fill their pages with local content, would have been a clear indication that this was not the case.  So, here's hoping for some more old movies tomorrow.

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Thursday, January 04, 2018

Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952)



I see that the That's TV local news services have returned to normal and are back to broadcasting their normal output.  Which is a pity - I was enjoying all those old movies and cartoons they had been showing over the Christmas period.  I have to say that the quality of the prints they were using improved markedly toward the end of their festive schedule.  The films themselves varied wildly in quality: one day I would be watching the hugely enjoyable 1950 Cyrano de Bergerac with Jose Ferrer, the next I found myself viewing the abysmal The Boys From Brooklyn.  I say 'abysmal', but it is actually curiously entertaining in a perverse way.  I know it better under its alternative title of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, which pretty much sums up the plot. This 1952 B Movie is notable as being the only film to star Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis impersonators Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo- it was meant to be start of a series of low rent cash ins on the popularity of the real Lewis and Martin's films, but for various reasons, including legal threats from Paramount Pictures and Jerry Lewis, and the fact that it is a stinker, it was also to be the last.

The plot is straightforward: nightclub performers Duke and Sammy are stranded on a desert island when the plane taking them to entertain US troops in Guam crashes, there they encounter friendly natives and local mad scientist Bela Lugosi.  The latter tries to resolve a love triangle involving him, the Chief's daughter and Duke, by turning the latter into a gorilla.  With hilarious results, of course.  But don't worry - it is all just a dream which Sammy wakes up from to find himself in his dressing room in New Jersey, where he and Duke are about to go on stage, following a jungle act.  Whilst the film, directed by the notorious William 'One Shot' Beaudine (so called because he was renowned for never shooting more than one take - it didn't matter how bad it was, he would supposedly always shout 'Print it!'), is predictably bad, it retains a certain delirious charm.  Moreover, to be fair, Sammy Petrillo does a pretty good Jerry Lewis impersonation.  So good that I found him as irritating as I do the real Jerry Lewis.  It isn't just that he looks like Lewis, but he also has both the voice and all the mannerisms, tics and pratfalls down pat.  Duke Mitchell, on the other hand, well, he sings a bit like Dean Martin, but neither looks nor speaks like him.  The person I felt bad for, though, was poor old Bela Lugosi a once proud star of the Hungarian stage reduced to headlining a fake Lewis and Martin picture.  He tries to conduct himself with a modicum of dignity and turns in a professional performance, but he does look mortified to be in this farrago.  Although, to be absolutely fair, it is slightly better than many of the dreadful movies he'd previously been making for Monogram.

In the final analysis, it's difficult to decide what is more surprising about the film - the fact that Lewis and Martin were sufficiently popular that the producers thought that audiences would be willing to pay money to see a fake version of the duo in a tatty B Movie, or that said producers had so little faith in this notion that they decided that a declining Bela Lugosi would be a better draw.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Knight Rider Revisited

You know, Knight Rider is nowhere near as cheesy as I remember it.  I speak, of course, of the original TV series with David Hasselhoff and his fruity voiced 1982 Trans Am.  There were several later spin offs, including Team Knight Rider and a sequel Knight Rider series, which starred someone I can't remember and in which KITT had turned into a late model Mustang voiced by Val Kilmer.  They were all pretty awful.  Thankfully we at least haven't been subjected to one of those big screen 're-imaginings' of the series.  Give it time, though.  There's nothing Hollywood likes better these days than trashing your childhood memories by destroying your favourite TV series' in this way.  But to return to the point, the original series is actually still quite watchable.  Well, series one is, at least.  Forces TV have been re-running Knight Rider for a while now, but only seem to have the rights to the first series, every episode of which they seem have shown at least a dozen times over the past few weeks. (True Entertainment seem to have a similar situation with The Man From Uncle: they keep showing series two over and over again).

Sure, it's all very generic plot-wise, but that was the norm for episodic TV series back in the eighties.  This was the era before the concept of 'story arcs' had become entrenched.  Each episode was a self contained story, the only references to earlier episodes lying in the title sequence and accompanying narration, which, as briefly as possible, re-iterated the series' basic premise.  The idea being that it didn't matter if viewers missed an episode, there was no continuity to be disrupted (an important consideration in the days before home recording was common).  Moreover, it meant that it was easier for new viewers to pick up a series mid-season (too much backstory crucial to the narrative could easily put prospective viewers off  - certainly, that's the reason I never got into the X Files: by the time I became aware of it, there was so much back story that I just couldn't be arsed to catch up with).  Back in the day, US TV series used to get all of their backstory out of the way in the pilot episode - Knight Rider's pilot, for example, established the whole background of the Knight Foundation, KITT the car and the lead character's change of identity to become Michael Knight, as played by Hasselhoff, leaving the subsequent series free to get on with chronicling his adventures.

Although these adventures were pretty generic and interchangeable with those experienced by the protagonists of similar series, Knight Rider survives better for a number of reasons.  Most notably, it has a far lighter touch than contemporaries like Street Hawk or Air Wolf., which now come over as incredibly po-faced.  (Air Wolf, in particular, seems badly dated, with its cold war focus and stilted dialogue).  Also, unlike Air Wolf (again), Knight Rider isn't an obvious attempt to cash in on a movie with a similar set up (Blue Thunder - which also had its own, official, TV version, was clearly the inspiration for Air Wolf).  Most of all, Knight Rider benefits from a god leading performance.  And yes, I mean David Hasselhoff, not the car.  Here, early in his career, (before the singing), he gives an easy going, charismatic performance, seemingly knowing not to take himself or the series too seriously.   That said, it stays on the right side of camp, never becoming too ridiculous.  Sure, if you watch enough episodes over a short period of time, the repetitiveness of the scripts becomes apparent, but that's true of any TV series of its kind, but Knight Rider remains a reasonably pleasurable and undemanding way to while away an hour or so.

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