Tuesday, March 31, 2015

An Audience with Nick Clegg

The burning political question of the moment, for me at least, is why Nick Clegg thought it was necessary for him to have a separate audience with the Queen after Cameron had had his in order to formally tell her that he was dissolving parliament and calling an election.  Cameron's audience I can understand - constitutionally, as Prime Minister, he has to inform the Queen of the dissolution of parliament, but Clegg isn't Prime Minister.  Indeed, he doesn't even hold a post that is officially recognised in parliamentary terms.  Deputy Prime Minister is a courtesy title and, more often than not, the holder simultaneously held a senior ministerial portfolio.  The fact that Clegg came away from his coalition negotiations with Cameron five years ago only with this meaningless title and none of the major offices of state (Foreign Office, Home Office or Chancellor) either for himself or any other senior Lib Dem MP, demonstrated just how badly he'd handled the negotiations. So desperate was he to get into 'power', that he was prepared to ditch all of his manifesto promises, not to mention principles, in exchange for a meaningless title and a handful of minor ministerial appointments for some of his MPs.

But getting back to the issue at hand:  what was the point of that audience with Her Majesty?  Clegg doesn't have the authority to dissolve parliament, so why was he there?  Indeed, did he even have a real audience with the Queen?  For all we know, he might have been refused entry to the Palace on the grounds that the Queen didn't know who he was.  I have visions of him creeping around the back of Buckingham Palace, tapping on the French windows, calling out 'Your Majesty, it's me, Nick, are you there?  Hello?  I know you are in there - I saw the curtains twitch'.  I can only assume that Clegg's visit to the Palace was, like his job title, simply an ego stroking exercise, designed to convince both himself and the electorate that he is an important and powerful player on the political scene.  Which, if he ever was either of those things, he has ceased to be since his coalition with the Tories.  But Clegg's confusion over his role as party leader during a general election campaign knows no bounds, as witnessed by his declaration a few weeks ago that if Cameron wasn't prepared to meet Ed Miliband one-on-one in an election debate, he would be prepared to stand in for Cameron in order to defend the government's record.  Which would, surely, somewhat hamstring any election campaign by the Lib Dems as a separate party, as he would effectively be defending the Tory record in government as well and presenting himself and his party as being inextricably bound to the Tories both in and out of government.  His only viable tactic in such a debate would be to defend his and his party's record of restraining the Tories from implementing  their more extreme policies. Which, of course, he couldn't, because they didn't.  Ah well, we've got another six weeks of his delusions to go...   


Monday, March 30, 2015

Depressing Ignorance

The level of ignorance with regard to mental health issues - particularly depression - displayed by the media in this country never ceases to appal me.  In the wake of the recent plane crash which killed 150 people, the press have focused on the fact that the co-pilot ,(who has been held entirely responsible before the investigation into the crash has been completed), had, in the past, suffered from - and been treated for - depression, as if, somehow, depression causes sufferers to commit murder by flying planes into mountains.  As someone who has had personal experience of suffering from clinical depression, I think that I can say with some authority, that it isn't a condition which moves sufferers to harm others.  In some cases it might move sufferers to harm themselves, but usually it simply incapacitates them, robbing the sufferer of any motivation to do anything.  But, as already noted, media coverage of depression and other mental illnesses are characterised by ignorance.

In the case of depression, the biggest problem is that there is a tendency for people to presume that it is simply that temporary state of 'feeling a bit down' which everyone experiences from time to time.  Believe me, that isn't the same thing as clinical depression, which is far more serious.  At the same time, there is also tendency to associate the term 'clinical depression' with the other extreme: bipolar disorder, or, as we used to call it, manic depressive behaviour, (an excellent description of the symptoms as it happens).  In reality, most of who suffered from clinical depression have experienced a far less extreme (and newsworthy) manifestation of the disorder, which has the lows, but not the highs, of bipolar.  Speaking from my own experience, depression undermines your self confidence and sense of self worth, destroying your motivation and leaving one generally incapable of any form of sustained constructive activity.  It's surprisingly easy to hide from everyone around you - I always found it relatively straightforward to put up a public front, so that, externally, I appeared to be carrying out all my normal work tasks and routine interactions.  In reality, these were all conducted on auto-pilot whilst, internally, I was in anguished turmoil. locked into seemingly endless dark thoughts about my own mortality and the utter pointlessness of doing anything as everything is doomed to crumble and die with time.

 A bit like alcoholism, you can only really begin to turn the depressives state around when you finally admit that this isn't normal behaviour and concede that you have a problem.  I was lucky, I didn't need medication: the 'talking cure' helped me get the depression under control.  Which brings us to another misunderstood aspect of depression: it isn't a transient mental state, like 'feeling a bit down' - it's always there, lurking in the background of your mind.  The secret is to devise strategies to deal with it and keep it on the peripheries of your conscious mind.  Which isn't always as easy as it sounds.  However, we've strayed somewhat from the original point.  The fact is that the co-pilot of that airliner might or might not have been suffering from depression.  He might or might not have had 'suicidal thoughts' as the press have reported.  But neither of those things necessarily had anything to do with his apparent decision to deliberately crash his aircraft.  Simply being depressed doesn't make you a dangerous lunatic hell-bent on killing yourself and taking everyone else with you.  Although, according to the way the press are reporting this tragedy, that's what they want their readerships to think.  The fact is that we don't know what actually motivated this young man to do what he did - and we probably never will.  But trying to brand anyone who has ever suffered a mental health (which a lot of people) issue a dangerous psychopath really isn't helping. 

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Friday, March 27, 2015

Doing It Myself

I'm going to see if I can exceed last weekend's excitement quotient (when I bought a new kettle) by doing some DIY this weekend.  Principally, I'm looking to repair my bed, which broke a while ago.  I wish I could say that it broke because I was in the throes of passion and this was just too much for the old bed.  However, I've never found a masturbation technique that energetic.  Although I suppose if you employed some kind of mechanical device, it might create sufficient vibration to damage a bed.  Actually, to digress somewhat (quite unlike me, I know) but have I ever mentioned that I once designed a hand-held masturbation device (for men, obviously)?   It never made it off the drawing board, but would have been electrically operated and used parts, including the motor, from an old Hornby model railway locomotive.  I hasten to add that I designed it when I was in my teens and devising new masturbatory techniques weighed heavily on my mind.  I seem to recall that I'd been inspired by those ads in porn magazines of the time for devices like the 'Wanky Doodle Dandy' and was sure I could come up with a cheaper alternative.

But getting back to the bed - I've had it for over twenty years and the other week the top of one of the base units basically caved in when I sat on the edge of the bed.  It was simply the inevitable result of usage over time.  My response was to turn the bed around, so that the damaged part is now at the foot of the bed where it doesn't have to bear my full weight.  As an added measure, I've placed a piece of wood (actually the top from a defunct coffee table) between the mattress and the damaged part of the base.  Clearly, this only a temporary measure and, over the weekend, I hope to carry out a better repair by permanently fixing a new plywood top to the damaged base. Now, I know what you are thinking: why don't I just buy a new bed?  Well, I fully intend to, but as I've had several major items of expenditure forced on me already this year, notably the new hot water cylinder, and there are more to come (the car will have to be serviced next month and that's bound to cost me an arm and a leg), so I'd like to put off buying a new bed until later in the year.  Hence the planned repair job.  If nothing else, it will hopefully be more exciting than buying a new kettle.


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Gross Misconduct

When the media reports on itself, it loses all sense of proportion.  It assumes that everyone else shares its over-inflated sense of its own importance and thinks that its own internal wranglings are perceived as being of earth-shattering importance.  After all, how else can we explain the way in which Jeremy Clarkson not having his contract renewed by the BBC after punching and abusing a producer dominated the news media (especially the BBC) all yesterday afternoon and evening?  If it had been a slow news day with no other major stories, I might have understood it, but an airliner had recently crashed into a mountain, killing everyone onboard, a story which was still unfolding.  But hell, that couldn't possibly be as important or significant as the big story of the day: employee hits colleague and is dismissed after investigation by employer. The way it was being discussed on various news programmes, you'd have thought that this was unprecedented, whereas, in reality, it is standard practice in any workplace in the UK: assault constitutes gross misconduct and therefore warrants dismissal.

Mind you, not everyone seems to agree with this simple rule-of-thumb, and I'm not just talking about those moronic Clarkson 'fans' on Twitter and elsewhere who seem to think that he should be treated differently because, well, he's Jeremy Clarkson, laddish oaf and purveyor of reactionary bile, (which is somehow rendered harmless because he's 'only joking').  That loathsome excuse for a human being 'Guido Fawkes', (real name Paul Staines or, as some of us like to call him, 'Pee Staines'), self-styled right-wing political blogger and Clarkson fan, kept popping up on various media outlets claiming that the BBC had completely overreacted and that it was somehow perfectly normal and acceptable for people to go around punching colleagues in the face.  When it was pointed out that Clarkson's victim had received hospital treatment for his injuries, good old Pee Staines airily dismissed said injuries as 'just a split lip', as if that is somehow an acceptable level of injury to receive from a colleague.  I'd like to suggest to Pee Staines and his ilk that if they think this level of violence is acceptable, then they should give me their addresses and I'll come round and punch them in the face for no good reason, (other than that they are idiots).

Pee Staines and quite a few other commentators kept trying to link the incident with alcohol consumption, implying that Clarkson was tanked up at the time and that somehow excused his actions.  Which clearly implies that they think the law has been getting it wrong for decades now: if some driver mows down your loved one, then they should be excused if they were drunk at the time, after all, they didn't have full control of their faculties at the time, did they?  Obviously, it is those bastards who have accidents when stone cold sober we should be coming down hard on - they don't have any excuse, do they?  Changing tack, whilst I know that it is dangerous to read any kind of significance into incidents like this, (not that that stopped the media from doing so, most ludicrous were yesterday's discussions as to how Clarkson's sacking would affect the BBC's political balance and how it would be perceived as the 'trendy liberal lefties' purging an openly right-wing presenter for his views, which ignored the fact that he was dismissed for assaulting a producer and that, far from being left-wing, the BBC is a deeply conservative and pro-establishment organisation), I'd like to think that this development might represent a turning point for worker's rights. 

For years now, we've seen a steady erosion of our workplace protections, with managers becoming ever bolder in abusing their workers, (not literally, like Clarkson, but in terms of the way we are treated in the workplace).  Hopefully, the fact that the BBC has had the balls to sack a powerful presenter for abusing someone he clearly saw as a 'minion', will signal a reversal of this trend and the beginning of a reassertion of the idea that workers not only have the right not to be physically and verbally abused in the workplace, but that they are also entitled to expect to be shown some respect by management. Foe too long we've been told that workplace bullying won't be tolerated, but have seen little evidence of that.  Maybe, just maybe, the fall of Clarkson will result in these promises finally being made good.  But I'm not holding my breath.  However, at the very least, I hope that this will be the last time I'll feel moved to mention that violent bully Clarkson on this blog.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Nothing Happening Here...

The recent run of film-related posts here are witness to the fact that absolutely nothing of note is going on in my life.  After all, when the most exciting thing I did last weekend was buy a new kettle, then it is obvious that my life has become somewhat uneventful.  Maybe its the time of year, when we seem to be caught between two seasons with the weather oscillating between sunshine and freezing cold wind and rain, or maybe it is because I have so many other things on my mind, or simply because work has got me so stressed out, but my life seems to have become mired in the mundane.  I just can't seem to motivate myself to do anything outside of the routine.   Hopefully, things might be improving: various health worries which have been plaguing me have receded and a court case that I'd been reluctantly been drawn into has been settled out of court, which has removed a great weight from shoulders.  Best of all, I've managed to get some time off of work over Easter, meaning that I might be able to get some of my many stalled projects moving again.

Of course, I should be getting excited over the forthcoming general election.   However, so far I've found the whole business deeply uninteresting.  It doesn't help that, thanks to the Tory bastards attempts to rig the constitution to their electoral benefit, we've known the date of the election for five years.  The great thing about traditional non-fixed term parliaments is the that degree of uncertainty over the general election date - it keeps everyone on their toes once a parliament reaches its third or fourth year and the government could call an election at any time.  Damn it, back in the good old days, when a government could ask the Queen to dissolve parliament at any time, you could have multiple elections in a single year!  Some of us look back fondly on 1974, the year when we had two general elections.  In the February '74 election, sitting PM Ted Heath made the mistake of asking the country the question of who really ran Britain, him or the unions.  He didn't get the answer he wanted, but Wilson still couldn't get a clear majority, so he, as leader of the resulting minority government, went back to the polls in October and just about gained a working majority.  Those were the days!  But, as I've said, Cameron's fixed-term parliament has taken the uncertainty, and subsequently the heat and excitement, out of it all now.  Further dampening my enthusiasm for the election is the very real prospect that, whoever wins (or is able to form some kind of government), we won't see any real changes.  Labour is failing to present any coherent alternative vision to the Tories, instead just saying that they'll still make cuts, but will be 'nicer' about it than the coalition.  The Lib Dems are effectively a busted flush after their disastrous coalition with the Tories and the other options all look equally unappealing, from the dangerous idiocies of UKIP to the stumbling amateurism of the greens.  It's all rather depressing really...

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Monday, March 23, 2015

Farewell, My Lovely (1975)

After a couple of attempts to update Chandler's novels to the present day, (1969's Marlowe, based on The Little Sister, with James Garner and 1973's The Long Goodbye, with Eliot Gould), Dick Richards' Farewell, My Lovely, returned Philip Marlowe to the 1940s.  Previously filmed in 1944, (as Murder, My Sweet if you saw it in the US, but under the source novel's title in the UK), this version benefits enormously from Robert Mitchum's world weary performance.  The 1944 version has its merits, but I've always felt that Dick Powell's Marlowe was too much of a smart arse.  Mitchum, by contrast, gives us an incredibly laid back Marlowe, who feels more in keeping with the character of the novels.  Indeed, Mitchum seemed like he was born to portray Philip Marlowe - it is only surprising that it took so long for anyone to cast him in role.  Arguably, by the time he did play the role in 1975, he was far too old.  However, the film uses his age to advantage in the characterisation of Marlowe: 'I was tired and growing old'.

A tremedously well-mounted  production, which remains pretty faithful to the original Chandler novel, Farewell My Lovely is undoubtedly one of the purest Philip Marlowe adaptations ever made. Unlike Altman's The Long Goodbye, there is no attempt to reinterpret the source material in contemporary terms, or even, like Marlowe, to try and place the character in a modern context.  As the trailer indicates, it is a straightforward period adaptation of the novel.  Which is no bad thing, as it allows us to enjoy Mitchum's performance and Chandler's dialogue (much of which remains intact).  An excellent supporting cast includes a cameo from cult crime writer Jim Thompson, (author of, amongst other things, The Getaway and The Killer Inside Me, both of which have been filmed more than once), and an early appearance, in a small role, by Sylvester Stallone.   Clearly, Mitchum must have made an impact in the role, as few years later Farewell My Lovely producers ITC brought him back for a remake of The Big Sleep. Interestingly, the 1978 Big Sleep had a contemporary setting, was relocated to the UK and had Michael Winner at the helm.  Despite all that, it actually isn't that bad.  But nowhere near as good as Farewell, My Lovely, obviously.


Friday, March 20, 2015

Fraulein Doktor (1969)

Fraulein Doktor is one of those big international co-productions (in this case Italian-Yugoslav), full of recognisable actors and with high productions values which, ultimately, never fully realises its promise.  The clue is in the cast - whilst it is headlined by familiar names, they are either past their prime, with their best work behind them - like Kenneth More or they are not quite top drawer - like James Booth and Nigel Green, both excellent actors, but never really stars in their own right - or the sort of actor bigger abroad than they ever were at home - like Suzy Kendall, who starred in many such continental productions as this, but who really achieved he same status in British or US films.  Likewise, the film itself - in the English language version I saw, at least - never quite manages to rise above the level of being a competent programmer.  It clearly wants to be an epic, but lacks the substance.

Ostensibly a World War One espionage thriller, concerning the activities of Suzy Kendall as the titular character - a morphine-addicted medic who is also a mistress of disguise - as she works as a spy for the Germans, Fraulein Doktor also has ambitions to be both an action movie and a serious commentary on the futility and hell of World War One. Unfortunately, these elements never gel, with the action sequences and battle scenes feeling as if they come from another movie.   Also problematic is the film's episodic nature - we open with Kendall landing in Scotland from a U-boat, on a mission to infiltrate Scapa Flow and ascertain the course to be taken by HMS Hampshire, which is to take Lord Kitchener to Russia, so that the U-boat can lay mines on its route and sink it.  Having succeeded in assassinating Kitchener, we then flash back to an earlier mission which involves Kendall's character infiltrating the household of a French lady scientist, played by Capucine, who is developing a new poison gas for the allies.  Kendall seduces Capucine and steals her secret formula for the Germans.  This episode seems to exist primarily as an excuse to inject some mild lesbian love scenes into the film.  We then come back to the 'present' for Kendall's battle of withs with double agent Booth, who apparently succeeds in assassinating her.  But this is just a ruse to fool the allies before Kendall embarks on her last mission: the infiltration of the Belgian HQ on the Western front in order to steal vital battle plans.  This episode climaxes with a spectacular battle scenes, as the Germans use the poison gas against the allied trenches, and series of double crosses which eliminate most of the main characters.

All of this means that the film never establishes a proper rhythm - all of the episodes could have formed the basis of a film themselves, but instead, just as they seem to gather pace, they abruptly end. Perhaps the biggest problem that Fraulein Doktor suffers from is the lack of a truly sympathetic character for the viewer to identify with.  From the perspective of audiences in the UK, Us or France, for instance, the lead character is, of course, working for the enemy.  It is difficult for British viewers to identify someone who conspires to assassinate a key military figure and whose activities give the Germans access to the poison gas they use against British troops at the climax.  Equally problematic is Kenneth More's British intelligence chief.  Playing against type, More portrays him as an unsympathetic stuffed shirt, ruthlessly manipulating James Booth's double agent.  This latter character is also difficult to identify with as he continually shifts allegiances, betrays former friends and colleagues and tries to play one side against the other in order to save his own skin.  In the end, I found that I just didn't care about the fates of any of them.

But the film does have many strengths,  The characters might not be likeable or sympathetic, but they are well played.  Also, on the whole, the film has excellent production values, only let down somewhat by poor model work during the sinking of HMS Hampshire.  The climactic battle scene is spectacularly staged, with the gas attack being depicted in harrowing detail.  The scenes of the advancing Germans, with even their horses clad in gas masks and chemical protection gear give the whole sequence a suitably bizarre and sinister slant.  However, despite being well staged, the whole sequence feels as if it has been shoe horned into the film simply to provide a big climax and, to be honest, is superfluous to the plot.  Which really sums up the film's problem - whilst individual sequences are well staged and entertaining, they never seem to gel together to form a satisfactory whole.  That said, Fraulein Doktor is still an entertaining enough hour and forty minutes or so, as long your expectations aren't too high.  


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Darker Than Amber (1970)

Bearing in mind their huge fan following and the sheer number of copies sold, it seems somewhat surprising that there have been only two attempts to date to adapt John D MacDonald's 'Travis McGee' novels to the screen.  Even more surprising, it might seem, is the fact that neither of these attempts were judged to be successful.  The first, 1970s Darker Than Amber made a considerable loss on its release, despite the presence of reliable action star Rod Taylor in the lead, thwarting the ambitions of producer Jack Reeve to create a Bond-style movie series, (he also held the rights to at least one other of the novels in the series at the time).  Which isn't to say that Darker Than Amber is a bad movie.  On the contrary, it's actually a very entertaining action film, featuring terrific location shooting in Florida and Nassau and a good cast, headed by the aforementioned Taylor and ably supported by the likes of Suzy Kendall (in a dual role) and Theodore Bikel.  Even Jane Russell makes an appearance.

Perhaps one of the things which worked against Darker Than Amber was the fact that it clearly wasn't a studio backed film and consequently lacks the neat and glossy look of such movies.  Indeed, it has a rather rough around the edges quality, with abrupt edits and sometimes confused plotting.  To be fair, this might have less to do with it being an independent production than with thee style of director Robert Clouse.  All of action expert Clouse's films that I've seen, including his best known, Enter the Dragon, have this same, rough and slightly scrappy feel.   Clouse's trademark action sequences might also have alienated 1970s audiences.  Whilst superbly staged, (particularly the climactic epic fist fight between Taylor and William Smith, playing another of his patented sleaze ball psychos), they are incredibly brutal, with the protagonists left battered and bloodied in a way that audiences of the area weren't used to seeing.  Indeed, the whole film contains a far higher level of violence than was normal for films of the era and is quite ruthless with regard to the fate of its characters, (one major character is unexpectedly dispatched about half way through the film in a brutally depicted hit-and-run attack). 

Darker Than Amber proceeds at a commendably fast pace, launching the viewer straight into the action: the credits have barely finished rolling before McGee and buddy Meyer's night fishing trip is rudely interrupted by a bound girl being thrown from the bridge their boat is moored under.  Whilst this is an arresting opening and gets the movie off to a fantastic start, it also illustrates one of the film's biggest problems - a lack of proper exposition.  Although excessive exposition can fatally slow a film down, a lack of it simply confuses the viewer.  We get no explanation of who McGee and Meyer are  - one gets the impression that the audience is expected to know who McGee is, (the opening titles have already announced 'Travis McGee is Rod Taylor', the character being billed higher than the star).  We have to wait at least another fifteen minutes until we learn that he's a self-styled 'salvage expert' who recovers things for a fee.  We never get any adequate explanation of who Meyer is and what he does, (he's McGee's best friend who berths his houseboat next to McGee's and is a former economics lecturer who sometimes does freelance consultancy work for governments and corporations).

Which brings us, I think, to the core reason why Darker Than Amber failed at the box office: it seems to have been made for Travis McGee fans, or at the very least made under the assumption that the character was so well known that there was no need to explain who and what he was.  The problem with that is that successful films have to draw in a far wider audience than just hardcore fans of their source material.  The reality is that, no matter how best-selling the books had been, the vast majority of casual film goers in 1970 neither knew nor cared about the literary success of the character and had likely never read any of the books.  I have to be honest here and say that, although I've read some of the McGee novels, I'm not a great fan of them.  McGee is one of those incredibly capable heroes who are never flustered by anything and have an answer for everything.  They're never wrong and never seem to make mistakes.  Frankly, they make me feel inadequate.  I prefer my heroes flawed.  Like me.  However, I do like the film, for all its flaws.  Taylor's presence in lead helps a great deal - he succeeds in making McGee, in my opinion, a far more personable and slightly less self confident character than his literary counterpart.  Certainly, I didn't find him quite as, well, smug, as the character in the books.

It's a pity that the film was so poorly received by audiences back in 1970 - Taylor's movie career was beginning to wind down at this point and, had Darker Than Amber been a box office success, it might have revitalised his appeal as a leading man.  But it wasn't a success and McGee wouldn't return to the screen until 1983 with the failed TV pilot movie Travis McGee, starring a miscast Sam Elliott.  Over the past few years there has been renewed talk of another attempt to adapt the McGee novels for the big screen.  At one time Leonardo DiCaprio was incredibly linked to the project (surely even worse miscasting that Sam Elliott).  More recently I've seen Christian Bale's name linked with the proposed film - better casting than DiCaprio, but still, surely, no one's idea of Travis McGee?   But until this attempt sees the light of day (if it ever does), Rod Taylor remains the definitive screen Travis McGee.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Doc (1971)

Doc Holliday, the notorious western gunfighter and gambler, has fascinated me since, as a child, I saw him portrayed by Victor Mature in John Ford's My Darling Clementine.  Although beefcake Mature was physically miscast as the consumptive Holliday, and the film's writers seemed to assume that the 'Doc' nickname meant he was an MD (he was actually a dentist), his characterisation was far more interesting than Henry Fonda's straight laced Wyatt Earp.  Mature's Holliday is an enigmatic figure who, despite having suffered a fall from grace at some time in the past, redeems himself when his innate nobility finally reasserts itself and he chooses to do the right thing by supporting his friend Earp at the OK Corral, even though it costs him his life.  As I said, I was immediately gripped by this character (the 'Doc' in 'Doc Sleaze' is a homage to Holliday) and sought out every film I could find that featured him.  In the course of this I learned that whilst probably the most dramatically satisfying telling of the events surrounding the Gunfight at the OK Corral, My Darling Clementine is also amongst the least historically accurate, (Holliday survived the gunfight and died of TB several years later, for instance, also, he and Earp already knew each other, having become friends in Dodge City) .

Other film versions were often equally inaccurate - 1959's Gunfight at the OK Corral in particular - but the portrayals of Holliday and Earp all followed a clear theme: the troubled, but noble, gentleman gunfighter fallen on hard times, but ultimately rescued by his friendship with upstanding lawman Wyatt Earp.  Even Hour of the Gun, which promised a different take, focusing on the aftermath of the gunfight and Earp's quest to avenge the shootings of his brothers, didn't offer any radical reinterpretation of the characters, simply trying to portray them real, flawed, people rather than stereotypes.  However, one film on the subject always eluded me: Frank Perry's 1971 production of Doc, which, as the title suggests, puts Holliday centre stage rather than portraying him as the sidekick.  Not only was the film difficult to see, but it came with a reputation for being a travesty, reviled by western afficiondos for allegedly debasing an American legend.  Indeed, from what I could make out, it had been Perry's intent to make a film which stripped away the myths surrounding the events in Tombstone and instead tell the 'true' story of what happened.  As the trailer indicates, the impression I got when researching the film was that it rejected the heroic status of Holliday and Earp, portraying them instead as the villains of the piece.  (Not an entirely original idea: the 1969 episode of Star Trek, 'Shadow of the Gun', had already portrayed the Earps as the villains and the Clantons the heroes in Tombstone).

Having finally caught up with Doc, I can't help but feel that the trailer is somewhat misleading.  As played by Stacy Keach, Doc Holliday still emerges as something of a hero, reluctantly drawn into his friend Wyatt Earp's political schemes, he still comes over as some kind of down-on-his-luck knight errant.  He might have won Kate Elder (Faye Dunaway) in a poker game, but he still treats her with respect.  He might end up despising Earp's machinations, but he still fulfils his obligations as a friend when it comes to the gunfight.  What, I suspect, western fans in 1971 hated about the film was its portrayal of the west as being gritty and filthy dirty.  Everything looks grimy - the buildings, the interiors and most definitely the characters.  Even worse, from their point of view, was the film's portrayal of the Earps and their conflict with the Clantons.  Harris Yulin's Wyatt Earp is a glad-handing politician who will stop at nothing in order to further his ambitions - even using the murder of one of his brothers as a basis of a rallying call to help him clean up Tombstone by electing him Sheriff.  The aforementioned brothers are sketched in as a bunch of redneck simpletons, the Clantons are likewise sketched in as a band of small time crooks whose elimination becomes key to Earp's campaign to be elected Sheriff.

Despite setting itself up as presenting the 'true' version of the events leading up to the Gunfight at the OK Corral, Doc is no more historically accurate than its predecessors (indeed, we'd have to wait until the 1990s and Tombstone for a more historically accurate telling of the story).  That said, it is accurate in portraying the conflict between the Earps and Clantons as a part of a wider political struggle for the control of Tombstone and its various lucrative rackets.   These rackets included gambling, alcohol and prostitution, all of which the Earps were deeply involved with: Wyatt co-owned a saloon and worked there as a Faro dealer, whilst his older brother James also ran a saloon and a brothel.  With Virgil Earp already appointed Town Marshall by the town council, Wyatt's election as County Sheriff (the encumbant he was trying to depose was Johnny Behan, an associate of the Clantons), was the next logical step, as it would cement their control of the surrounding area and allow them to curtail the disruptive behaviour of cattle rustlers and bandits like the Clantons.  The movie also includes an aspect of the whole Clanton-Earp conflict which I've never seen portrayed in any other film (apart from a BBC docu-drama from a few years ago): the fact that Wyatt Earp had employed Ike Clanton as an informant in an attempt to apprehend the robbers of the local stagecoach - Earp believed that catching the robbers would enhance his chances of becoming Sheriff.  Clanton's fears that Earp would make this arrangement public was one of the main triggers for the confrontation at the OK Corral.

But, ultimately, it's Doc Holliday's film.  Stacy Keach's softly spoken and subtle performance provides a welcome contrast to enervated turns like Kirk Douglas or the flamboyant, yet decadent, Southern gentleman of Val Kilmer's take on the character.  Despite the trailer's claims to contrary, Doc's misplaced loyalty to Wyatt Earp and his inability to escape his reputation and image make him a tragic hero, forever caught in the middle of other people's fights.  The real villain of the piece is Harris Yulin's manipulative Wyatt Earp, a portrayal which continues to enrage many western fans.  Yet it is probably closer to the truth than the portrayals of the character presented by the likes of Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster and Randolph Scott.  By all accounts, the real Wyatt Earp was something of a rogue who outlived anyone who could contradict his version of what happened at the OK Corral.  (He died in 1929 at the age of eighty, by which time he'd pursued various careers including gold prospecting, traded on his notoriety in order to act as a celebrity referee in a championship boxing match and wound up acting as a technical advisor on western movies).  The closest to Yulin's portrayal we've seen since was probably Kurt Russell's ambivalent Earp in Tombstone, more interested in pursuing his business interests than becoming involved again in law enforcement.

In the final analysis, Doc stands as an enjoyable, if sometimes roughly assembled, revisionist western, boasting two outstanding performances from Stacy Keach and Harris Yulin.  It's weakened by an often confused narrative and its failure to anything more than sketch in the other main players in the drama: none of the Clanton-McLowery gang or any of the other townsfolk emerge as memorable characters with convincing motivations for their actions.  It certainly doesn't deserve its poor reputation and contemporary obscurity.  Whilst it comes no closer than other films to the 'truth' of the Gunfight at the OK Corral in purely factual terms, it does come closer to grasping the underlying causes: political ambitions and the pursuit of profit, rather than a clear cut conflict between right and wrong.  All of which brings us back to my lifelong fascination with Doc Holliday, triggered by Victor Mature all those years ago - just why does the character, (the mythic version of film rather than the real man who was, according to contemporary accounts, a crude and ill tempered itinerant gambler and gunslinger), fascinate me so?  Perhaps it comes down to the fact that, from Mature through to Keach, he's shown as a man who, deep down, knows what the right thing to do is, but finds it difficult to do, although he eventually always does do the right thing - something I can personally identify with (although, obviously, I don't identify with the TB, gambling, alcoholism and killing). 


Monday, March 16, 2015

Oh My God! The Bishop's a Socialist!

Back when I was a kid, it seemed that dear old Derek Nimmo spent his entire time playing bumbling religious ministers of one kind or another.  He started as a C of E chaplain in All Gas and Gaiters in the late sixties.  Simultaneously, he was also a novice Catholic monk in Oh Brother!, (which later became Oh Father! when he left the monastery and became a priest).  There was also a radio version of All Gas and Gaiters in the early seventies. which featured Nimmo, (in the first series only).  Then in the eighties the BBC had Nimmo back in a dog collar in Hell's Bells, which should really have been called Oh My God, the Bishop's a Socialist!, as that was basically the 'plot': traditionalist vicar finds that the new Bishop is more progressive in his interpretation of Christianity and - horror of horrors - votes Labour.  It wasn't a hit, failing to recapture the past glories of All Gas and Gaiters and Oh Brother!, running for a single series.  I've been reminded of all this after listening to some episodes of the radio version of All Gas and Gaiters being repeated on Radio Four Extra, (whilst the majority of the original TV episodes were wiped by the BBC and no longer exist, virtually all of the radio version's episodes are still extant). 

Listening to them, it struck me what innocent times the sixties and seventies were when it came to portrayals of the clergy - they're mostly benign bumblers.  There's no hint of scandal in any of the episodes - no extra-marital affairs with illegitimate children coming to light, no nastiness with choir boys or schisms over the ordination of women, gay marriages and the like.  Just hijinks involving the Bishop and Archdeacon putting one over on the by-the-book Dean and Nimmo's chaplain's attempts at romance.  Although, when the series first appeared on TV in 1967, there were complaints that it went too far in its portrayal of senior clerics as incompetent bunglers, nowadays it seems far too gentle, lacking any real satirical edge.  Any modern equivalent would surely have to address the issues which currently plague Western Christianity, Oh Father!, for instance, would surely have to climax with Nimmo's Catholic priest walking in on his Bishop buggering the choir boys in the vestry: "Oh My God! The B-B-Bishop's a N-N-Nonce!", he'd no doubt stammer in shocked tones.  A modern All Gas and Gaiters would undoubtedly have to explore the whole issue of the ordination of women, with Nimmo's chaplain finding that the Bishop had only voted in favour of their ordination at the Synod because he's having an affair with a lady vicar: "Oh My God! The B-B-Bishop's a S-S-Sex Maniac!" he'd undoubtedly stammer as he walks in on them going hammer and tongs in the cloisters.  Perhaps a new Hell's Bells! could tackle women Bishops -  "Oh My God! The B-B-Bishop's a W-W-Woman!" he stutters as he walks into the bathroom and cops an eyeful of the new Bishop in the shower.  Of course, the really big issue would be that of gay marriages and the ordination of openly gay ministers.  I'm sure a contemporary All Gas and Gaiters could handle it:  "Oh My God!  The B-B-Bishop's a B-B-Bum Bandit!" Nimmo exclaims as he discovers that the Bishop and Archdeacon have been a couple for the past ten years. 

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Friday, March 13, 2015

When a Chicken Dies...

Chickens are pretty big, apparently.  Not in the sense that there are giant chickens running around, obviously.  (Although there was that incident in the dim and distant past when here in Crapchester we found ourselves subjected to an attack by Chicken Kong, the world's crappest monster, but that doesn't count).  It's just that all this week there's been this magazine on the bottom row in my local newsagent which has been catching my eye: Your Chickens.  I mean, if chicken fanciers, or whatever they call themselves, have an entire magazine dedicated to their hobby, then it must be more popular than I ever imagined.  Anyway, drawing my attention to the magazine was the headline on the cover: 'When a bird dies, how do you - and the flock - react?'  Wow! Heavy stuff for a magazine about keeping chickens - grief counselling for fowl.  I have to say that my reaction to a chicken dying would be to roast it and serve it up with chips.  But somehow, I don't think that's one of the reactions they cover in the article.

To be fair, keeping chickens has a long history, with at least one Roman Emperor amongst the ranks of fowl fanciers.  OK, the Emperor on question was Honorious, who is better remembered as the Emperor who sat in his palace in Ravenna whilst Rome was besieged, then sacked, by the barbarians.  But, in addition to being an undistinguished Emperor, Honorious was also a chicken enthusiast.  According to legend, his favourite chicken was actually called Roma.  The story goes that when he was told that Rome had fallen, a shocked Honorious replied 'But he looked perfectly healthy when I fed him this morning'.  I'd like to think that's true, but it's most likely apocryphal.  I'm sure there must be other famous chicken fanciers.  Perhaps Churchill kept chickens in the back yard of Ten Downing Street, defying the Luftwaffe during the Blitz by refusing to evacuate them to the country.  Or perhaps not.  Anyway, hopefully writing this has cured me of my fascination with Your Chickens, because if it hasn't, I can see myself ending up buying it next week...


Thursday, March 12, 2015

They're Not Like Us...

What all those morons on Twitter calling for Jeremy Clarkson to be 'reinstated' by the BBC don't seem to grasp is that, as he's been accused of assaulting a colleague, the BBC really doesn't have any choice but to suspend him pending an investigation.  It's standard practice. If the allegations are found to be true then, if the BBC hadn't suspended him, they could find themselves facing legal actions from other of his co-workers for putting them at risk by allowing them to work with someone who is violent toward his colleagues.  Conversely, by removing Clarkson from the workplace they are protecting him from any further, possibly false, allegations.  If any of Clarkson's 'supporters' doubt any of this, then I suggest that they try assaulting a colleague - they'll find themselves suspended from work pending an investigation.  If it is found that they did assault a colleague, then they'll also find that such an action constitutes gross misconduct, which, in turn, will result in their dismissal.  But, of course, because Clarkson's a celebrity, he should be treated differently, these morons seem to think - normal rules don't apply to celebrities.  They're not like us, you see.

The worst thing about this Clarkson nonsense is the way he's succeeded in having himself depicted as some kind of maverick or outsider being persecuted by 'the establishment'.  Let's not forget that he's the one being accused of assaulting a colleague, not the other way around, (although, as an investigation is still ongoing, we have to give him the benefit of the doubt here and bear in mind that the allegations could be unfounded).  Moreover, far from being 'anti-establishment', Clarkson is 'establishment' through and through - just look at his friends: David Cameron.  In this respect, he has much in common with Nigel Farage, another privately educated, over privileged reactionary who tries to play the rebel.  They promote their self-interest as if it is somehow in the interests of the wider public.  Scratch the surface of their supposed 'radicalism' and you'll find a set of deeply conservative values.  It's important to remember, whatever the outcome of these assault allegations, that Clarkson isn't 'one of us'.  He isn't an 'ordinary bloke'.  Far from it.  The only thing he is 'rebelling' against is the fact that those of us he considers 'inferior' - workers, the poor, immigrants, women, homosexuals, to name but a few - have rights ourselves and the likes of him can no longer ride roughshod over us. 


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Rednecks, Repos and Moonshine

Over the weekend I final realised what it was that the alleged 'reality' TV series Lizard Lick Towing reminded me of.  As you may recall, I caught several episodes of this redneck repo show on Dave whilst waiting for the plumber a few weeks ago.  Since then, I've found it exerting a strange fascination over me and I've subsequently caught a few more episodes, (in between watching those storage auction shows I'm addicted to - I found another of those the other day: Container Wars), and I've increasingly found myself racking my brains as to why it felt familiar. Anyway, it finally came to me: Lizard Lick Towing is basically the modern equivalent of those seventies movies Burt Reynolds used to make.  You know the ones I mean: they're always set in the US South, usually Georgia or Florida, and feature lots of car chases, moonshine and Good 'Ol Boys called 'Bama', 'Skeeter' or 'Gator'.   But instead of Burt and his 'tache at the wheel of his Trans Am and Jerry Reed as his faithful sidekick, it's been cast entirely with ugly rednecks driving tow trucks.  To a Limey like me the accents seem similar enough (it's filmed in North Carolina rather than Georgia) and there are lots of car chases and hicks and hillbillies feudin' and fightin'.  No moonshine that I've seen, though.

The trigger for this revelation was watching the 1976 Burt Reynolds movie Gator last weekend.   A sequel to an earlier Burt hit, 1973's White Lightning, this piece of Southern Fried action was also Reynolds' directorial debut and, with its more laid back approach and emphasis on humour, in contrast to its predecessor, it pretty much set the pattern for subsequent Burt outings.  (That said, it is atypical in that Jerry Reed plays the villain rather than Burt's best buddy).  Despite its shortcomings, (it varies wildly in tone from scene to scene and culminates with some heavy-duty violence which jars badly with the comedic scenes which precede it), Gator is a pretty entertaining film, from an era when Hollywood seemed able to turn out this sort of relatively undemanding action movie with ease.  Obviously, Burt was the King of action flicks back then and I'm an unashamed fan of most of his seventies output.  But these days this sort of stuff seems a lost art - instead we get faux reality TV series peopled with hicks who don't have an iota of Reynolds' easy charm.  I mean, can you imagine how much better Lizard Lick Towing would be as a 96 minute film set in 1970s Florida with Burt, Sally Field and Jerry Reed in the leads (and Dom Deluise in a comic character turn as the amusing fat guy who has his car towed)?

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Monday, March 09, 2015

Null Points Again?

Apparently the Eurovision Song Contest must be coming up as the UK's latest attempt to achieve 'null points' was unveiled at the weekend.  Having heard it several times now, (the BBC News Channel insisted upon inflicting it upon us in every bulletin yesterday), I think I can say that two and a half minute recording of Sir Cliff Richard breaking wind would stand a better chance of winning the contest.  It would probably also have more artistic merit.  The sheer awfulness of the number is underlined by the way in which it was effectively sneaked out over the weekend with a minimum of fanfare, indicating that those responsible for selecting it know just how bad it is.  I'm left wondering just how dire all the other entries were if this was considered the best.  Of course, well never know, because these days the UK entry for Eurovision is chosen in secret, with no public participation.  Unlike the 'good old' days when it was a big event with the candidates being profiled on TV before a public vote to choose the winner.  Not that this resulted in better quality or more successful entries - the great British public, rightly viewing the whole Eurovision contest as a camp joke, invariably went for the quirkiest, most eccentric entries possible - who can forget Scooch, for instance?

But at least when they crashed and burned at the finals, we could feel that those entries at least represented some kind of popular choice on the part of the UK.  The problem the UK has suffered with regard to Eurovision in recent years is that the general viewing public see it as a joke, a bit of fun in which we get to laugh at the bizarre and awful entries of those crazy foreigners, and, when the choice of the UK entry is left to them, invariably try to find someone as off beat as they perceive the other acts to be.  By contrast, when it is left to the 'professionals' to select an entry, they seem to take the whole thing seriously, apparently over-analysing winning entries from previous years to identify the elements which make up a Eurovision winner, resulting in some blandness which is already out of date.  However, that still doesn't explain this year's choice, which is neither truly bizarre enough nor calculatedly 'Eurovision' enough to get anywhere.  Still, one thing which can be said in its favour is that at least it breaks the recent cycle of exhuming popular singing acts from yesteryear and sending their mummified husks to Eurovision to represent the UK.   Frankly, I was dreading the prospect of the likes of Showaddywaddy or Slade being dusted off and sent off to Austria to be ritually humiliated by being beaten by everyone except Albania,


Friday, March 06, 2015

Not the Best Policy

Despite what they say, honesty is rarely the best policy.  When someone tells you that they want you to be 'honest', they don't really mean it - they actually want you to agree with them, or simply tow the party line.  So, this week I made the mistake of actually giving my honest opinions at work - it went down like a lead balloon.  My mistake was to take one of those staff feedback exercises at face value and actually give my real opinions.  I didn't swear, rant or make personal attacks on named individuals in the written feedback I gave, but I did express my opinions about the department's mismanagement and the complete failure of current manage to grasp that we are meant to be delivering a public service.  I also offered a critique of some of the current working practices which have been imposed from above and whose impracticalities are causing me considerable stress.  But like I said, that wasn't what they wanted.  Things are still awkward between myself and my line manager, despite the fact that I actually defended him in my feedback and directed the blame at more senior management.

I really shouldn't be surprised, it isn't as if I haven't had experience of this sort of thing before.  I remember that many, many years ago when I was a student, this girl I knew asked me what I thought of her new (and rather severe) hair style.  Just to be that I understood what she wanted, I even asked her: 'you want my honest opinion?'   When she replied in the affirmative, I foolishly responded: 'Just tell me who did it to you and I'll beat the shit out of them'.  She hit me.  Hard.  Very hard.  Ever since then I've kept my counsel on women's hairstyles, and fashions generally, even when they press me for an opinion.  I've become very good at being noncommittal in my replies, (if you are too positive, they just think you are being insincere, which could also get a man hit).  Nevertheless, I don't regret my most recent outburst of honesty - if nothing else, it's made me feel a lot better.  Besides, the things I brought up needed to be said.  Ordinarily, one would expect the Union the raise these issues, but Union reps seem to have become an endangered species in my part of the world, I feel that we have no choice but to raise them through other channels.  And what better channel could there be than some management endorsed staff feedback scheme?


Thursday, March 05, 2015

Missing the Point

You know, I thought - no, make that hoped - that Hollywood had finally run out of old TV and movie properties they could do awful remakes of - then I saw the trailer for that Man From UNCLE film.  I know we really shouldn't judge films by their trailers - then again, the trailers frequently cobble together all of the film's highlights into two minutes, so maybe we should judge a movie by its trailer - but Jesus, it really looked like a heap of shit.  Then I saw the second trailer: even worse.  Not only does it not look or feel anything like the sixties TV series, but it seems to entirely miss the point of that series - it was a reasonably light hearted spoof of Bond-type spy movies, (unfortunately, by series three it had gone beyond light hearted and tumbled over into self-parody, viewing figures likewise tumbled and, despite a return to less spoofy stories, it was cancelled mid way through the fourth series).  OK, I know that, arguably, the film is being made for a different generation of film goers who will not be hardcore UNCLE fans or even have any knowledge of the original series, but nonetheless, what is the point of taking an established property and making it unrecognisable?  You could just as easily come up with an original script and characters. 

However, I suspect that, as with those recent Star Trek films - which are superficially linked to the original series via character names and the designs of uniforms and spaceships but are really just generic space operas bearing little resemblance to the series - the new Man From UNCLE film is simply using the classic series and its name recognition with audiences, to sell a generic spy movie which otherwise wouldn't have found an audience.  But, as it turns out, this isn't the worst remake on the horizon.  I was dismayed to read the other day that Antoine Fuqua was slated to direct a remake of The Magnificent Seven with Denzel Washington in the Yul Brynner role of Chris.  Now, the casting isn't the thing I have a problem with.  I certainly don't have a problem with a black actor playing Chris (in reality, a large proportion of cowboys in the Old West were either black or Mexican, something written out of history by Hollywood), and in the increasingly ropy sequels to the original he was played by far less suitable actors than Washington in the form of George Kennedy and Lee Van Cleef (both perfectly good actors, but completely miscast in the role).  The first of my problems is Fuqua, a director none of whose films I've found satisfactory and who has a track record for pointless revisionism (just look at his awful King Arthur, for instance).  The plot details of this proposed remake just confirmed my fears: small town taken over by mining company, widow of murdered man who opposes them hires bounty hunter (Chris) who then hires six more gunfighters to help him fight the mining company.  In other words, a generic western which seems to be an amalgam of plot elements from several, better, movies.  By eschewing the Mexican setting of the original, it completely misses the point of the story.  But hey, who cares? Everyone knows the title and it still has seven gunslingers protecting a small community - so it must be the same, mustn't it?


Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Portable Sleaze

I can't decide whether it's because I'm getting old or simply because my life is otherwise bereft of excitement that last weekend I found myself getting so enthusiastic about making The Sleaze mobile-friendly.  Maybe it was a combination of the two as, in the cold light of day, it is obvious that it was a surprisingly time-consuming and repetitive task involving very little actual creativity or problem solving.  One of the advantages of The Sleaze being Wordpress-based these days is that virtually any kind of modifications or improvements in functionality can be achieved via plugins.  The key is finding the right plugin amongst the plethora offered via the official Wordpress site.  Eventually, I narrowed it down to two possibilities for creating a mobile-friendly version of the site:  WP Touch and Smart WP. 

In truth, the latter had more and better-looking mobile templates in its free version and was simpler to set up, but I ended up using WP Touch instead.  The clincher was that Smart WP simply didn't report usage stats properly - when the site was viewed with a mobile device my tracking services simply showed a generic page title - 'thesleaze' - regardless of which page was being viewed.  This would have rendered my site stats meaningless, as knowing which pages are the most popular and the paths visitors are following when reading the site are key pieces of information.  WP Touch, by contrast, gave full details of the pages looked at by visitors using mobile devices.  So I installed their plugin.  Which is ironic as I'd previously removed it from the site after my last attempt, several years ago, to make it mobile-friendly, due to the fact that, back then, the plugin kept 'breaking' the stats codes, rendering them inoperative and thereby rendering mobile visitors invisible to me. It seems that this problem has been addressed in more recent versions of the plugin as mobile visitors have been fully visible since installing it.

Not actually owning a smartphone myself, I had to do all my testing using online mobile phone emulators - a truly tedious task.  However, the upshot of all this is that if you now view The Sleaze via mobile device (excepting tablets, as the regular template displays OK for such devices) you should see it in a format more suited to such media.  You might well ask why this sudden desire to make the site mobile-friendly?  Well, it all comes down to the Great God Google whom we all must appease or risk being forced off of the web, which has decreed that those sites it decides aren't mobile-friendly will be penalised in search results.  Hence the installation of WP Touch.  Hopefully, this will only be a stop-gap solution until I'm able to find a suitable fully responsive template, which will be able to provide a suitable display for any type of device it is viewed in, for The Sleaze.


Monday, March 02, 2015

You Can't Get the Staff...

Russia's President Putin has condemned the killers of prominent political opponent Boris Nemtsov, saying that they had been told to make it look like suicide.  "You just can't get the staff anymore," he allegedly raged during an interview with top Moscow journalist Igor Blimey.  "Ever since the disintegration of the Soviet Union all of the best ex-KGB operatives have gone freelance and get better pay days working for rogue states and organised crime!  We're left with the incompetent dregs!"  Former KGB chief Putin has vowed to hunt down Nemtsov's killers and punish them severely for their ineptitude.  "I ask you - shooting him in the back multiple times - how were we ever going to pass that off as suicide," Igor Blimey claims the exasperated Russian leader told him.  "I distinctly remember telling them that hanging or an electric fire in the bath - I saw that in a Bond movie - would be far easier to sell to the public and press as suicide!  Obviously, people would still have been suspicious, but they wouldn't be able to pint the finger directly at me!"

This isn't the first time that the bungling of Kremlin assassins has left Mr Putin red faced, as he explained to Igor Blimey.  "Let's not forget that business of the bloke in London they poisoned by sticking radioactive isotopes in his tea," he supposedly said.  "For God's sake, who was ever going to believe that was anything else other than an assassination?  Nobody was ever going to believe that it was a health and safety issue at the place he bought the tea.  Not even English cafes are so unhygienic that they have radioactive isotopes lying about in their kitchens to be confused with the milk!"  The Kremlin has subsequently denied that President Putin had ever spoken to Igor Blimey and maintained that the Russian leader had absolutely nothing to do with the murder of Mr Nemtsov or any other dissidents.  "Obviously, if he were to assassinate someone, as a former KGB man, Mr Putin would be able to ensure that it looked like natural causes and that there was no trail liking him to the death," a Kremlin spokesperson opined.  "Not that he ever would be involved in such activities.  Obviously."