Friday, October 30, 2015

Public Inconvenience

Over the past week I've witnessed the demolition of one of Crapchester's last remaining public lavatories.  I walk past it on my way into the office every day and have seen it torn apart by a JCB, reduced to a pile of rubble.  now, even the rubble has gone and there is only a patch of earth where the toilets once stood.  Soon, I've no doubt, this will either be grassed or concreted over (the area is surely too small to be sold to developers) and in a few years time, nobody will remember that it was ever there.  It wasn't a particularly great public convenience, although it was certainly far better than just about the only other one in the area, which is utterly disgusting, and I'm sure that the council would argue that it was poorly placed, situated in a part of the town which is no longer the thoroughfare for pedestrian traffic it once was and consequently no longer seeing the usage it once did.  One of the complaints levelled against it in recent times was that homeless people were using it to doss down in overnight.  Quite apart from the fact that the council, for several years now, have taken to locking the facility overnight, (something I discovered to my inconvenience when walking back home from the cinema a few years ago), thereby making this impossible, it is surely better that they sleep there rather than in the doorway of the local church (as they actually do now).

The main reason I lament the passing of this public crapper is because of what it represented: a public facility owned by the community which could be used freely by anyone.  This is a concept which seems to have become anathema to our political leaders.  The idea of services being free at the point of delivery is widely derided by those in power.  Everything has to be monetised - even having a piss or taking a dump.  And if you can't afford it - tough.  Presumably, nowadays taking a crap is considered a luxury that only the wealthy can afford.  Maybe it's all part of 'austerity'.  I mean, the last time we had 'austerity', back in World War Two, the working classes had to make do with food rationing and powdered eggs.  Perhaps nowadays they are to be rationed to urinating twice a week and allowed only powdered shit.  But on a more serious note, the continued closures of public toilets over the past decade has undoubtedly contributed to the increase in people pissing in the streets which we have to put up with.  There's hardly an underpass, phone box or alleyway which doesn't reek of stale urine on a regular basis these days.  It's got to the stage where people aren't even subtle about it.  The other week, for instance, I was driving down a link road which backs onto two residential streets - there in a lay-by was a guy standing by his car taking a piss, in full view of not just passing motorists like me, but also the neighbouring houses, the filthy bastard.  He was making no attempt to stand out of view behind his car, or anything.  What's the bloody matter with people these days?  Is the constant destruction of our public toilets turning us into a nation of savages?  I mean, what next?  People shitting in the middle of the road?


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Pumpkin Warfare

It must be Hallowe'en here in Crapchester - the pumpkins have started appearing.  I have to say that, compared to previous years and bearing in mind how close to the 31st we are, there are, so far, surprisingly few in evidence.  In fact, most of them seem to be concentrated here on my street. Indeed, most specifically, they all seem to be on my terrace.  For the past several years, one of my neighbours has always had a pumpkin sat on their gas meter box - sometimes they even have a lit candle in it.  But this year, not one, but two, pumpkins have appeared on their next door neighbour's gas meter box.  Could this be the start of some kind of Hallowe'en themed war?  Will the street find itself terrorised by two rival gangs of trick-or-treaters?  Will we see a fight between one kid dressed as the Wolfman and another dressed as Frankenstein's Monster?  Will there be drive by eggings?  Or could it just be down to the fact that one household has only one child and the other two, hence the disparity in pumpkin numbers?  Mind you, one pumpkin absent this year is the one from the lot who didn't invite me to their housewarming barbecue, (I know that I didn't want to go to it anyway, but it still rankles that I was snubbed), and, less than a year after moving in have moved out.  Last year they typically had some sophisticated electronic illuminated plastic pumpkin.  Pretentious bastards.

At least we don't usually get troubled by trick-or-treaters up on this terrace.  But this year Hallowe'en is a Saturday, so I suppose that the little bastards will have more time on their hands, increasing the risk factor.  Plus, there's always the possibility that the cats which have moved into number five will come round trick-or-treating.  Probably wearing scary dog masks and demanding fish.  When I say that cats have moved into number five, I don't mean that they're giving mortgages to felines nowadays.  Obviously, I mean that someone with cats has moved into the house - which, incidentally, has stood empty for nigh on twenty years.  Getting back to the subject of Hallowe'en, I'm hoping to use the occasion as an excuse to finally catch up with a couple of films I recorded from the Horror Channel over the past few weeks:  John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness, which I haven't seen in several years and  Cannibal Apocalypse.  I've also finally got around to posting the traditional vaguely supernatural themed story for Hallowe'en over at The Sleaze.  Which has made this a pretty busy week, as I also managed, at long last, to edit together a new podcast for the Overnightscape Underground.  All I need to do now is negotiate the Mexican-style 'Day of the Dead' event that's being staged in Crapchester town centre late tomorrow afternoon as I try to get to the Tesco Metro for some essential shopping. Wish me luck.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Thanks For Asking

I'm feeling much better now - thanks for asking.  The depressive crisis which looked set to overwhelm me early last week has passed - I managed to get things under control.  My state of mind was helped by effectively buying myself another six months or so at work - all I need to do in that time is to secure my position for another year, until my mortgage is paid off, and I'm home and dry.  Well, in theory, at least.  But like I said - thanks for asking.  Not that anyone did, obviously.  IT's the sort of thing which makes you wonder whether anyone ever reads this stuff.  Well, actually they do and, for what it's worth, the post about my feeling down was one of the most clicked on posts of the last week.  Yet nobody actually responded to it, (to be fair, I did quickly follow it up with a post saying how the depression had begun to recede).  But the questions of audience size and audience engagement perplex many who publish to the web.  There's no doubt that it often feels as if you are talking to yourself - even when you know that there are visitors to your site, or listeners to your podcast, they still don't respond.

Many newcomers to the web, not to mention those who don't publish online, are surprised by the lack of feedback most web endeavours receive.  But they shouldn't be - just ask yourself how many times you've actually bothered to comment on something you've read, or heard, or seen and liked?  I know that I'm very remiss in this regard.  As a site owner, you quickly learn that people are far more likely to comment if they want to be negative and this negativity is usually expressed in the most offensive, poorly spelt and unpunctuated form possible.  That said, by far and away the biggest source of comments are spammers.  Usually automated, but sometimes manual, they are prolific posters of utter gibberish linking back to whatever it is they're trying to sell.  Which is why some of us make it as difficult as possible to post comments on their sites.  Here, all comments are moderated and won't appear without my approval, whilst over at The Sleaze, I won't allow comments at all.  So I really don't know why I'm being so sarcastic about the lack of response to a post made over a week ago.  Besides, should we really be worried about visitor numbers and engagement.  Sure, if you are running a commerce site, then such things are important.  But for those of us putting out non-commercial, more esoteric content, then really our main motivation should surely be artistic - we should be doing this because we want to, because we enjoy it and because we think we have something to contribute.  If people actually read, enjoy and are maybe informed by it, then all the better.


Monday, October 26, 2015

"Old. Slow. Drunk"

No cliché is left unturned in Yesterday's Hero (1979) - top footballer with a drink problem fallen from grace, plucky Third Division club challenging football's elite in a cup final, millionaire pop star club owners, embittered ex-player turned manager, pop star ex-girlfriends and last minute penalties which win cup finals.  Oh, and just so that we know Ian McShane's alcoholic striker is really a decent guy, not only is he good to his dad, but he spends his Sundays, (these were the days before Sunday fixtures), coaching a team of kids from a local orphanage - an orphanage run by nuns.  Of course, one of the kids has a limp, so McShane makes sure he always gets a fair crack in the team.  When we first meet him, McShane is reduced to playing for 'Windsor United', which I think we're meant to assume is a non-league outfit, (certainly, these sequences were shot at the grounds of non league Windsor and Eton FC and their rivals Maidenhead FC), but the film is vague on these kind of details.  Before he knows it, McShane finds himself being offered the chance to play for 'The Saints', a Third Division team owned by pop star Paul Nicholas, who are doing well thanks to his money and are in the semi-finals of a cup competition, although which cup it is, remains vague.  The film being made back in the days before the imposition of transfer windows, when clubs could sign players whenever they felt like it, McShane, finds himself at  'The Saints' as an emergency replacement for the team's injured star striker, and facing the disdain of manager Adam Faith, an embittered former team-mate who dismisses our hero as being 'Old. Slow. Drunk'.

The problem with all sports-based films is that either they have to assume a certain level of knowledge as to the rules and set up of the sport in question on the part of potential audiences, or spend an inordinate amount of time explaining these details.  Interestingly, Yesterday's Hero does neither - the sheer vagueness of the footballing background, with regard to the actual structure of competitions or even the league system itself , will neither satisfy football fans nor enlighten the casual viewer.   Indeed, this vagueness simply gives the impression that the film's makers and particularly its writer, bonk-buster queen Jackie Collins, didn't actually know much about the game.  A feeling reinforced by the way it all unfolds like a soap opera and the pointless non-footballing sub-plot involving Nicholas' unrequited love for a US singer, (played by Suzanne Sommers, who had previously played the Sally Thomsett role in Three's Company, the US version of Man About the House), who also happens to be an ex-girlfriend of McShane, (who, in turn, had been, when in his prime, Nicholas' footballing hero).  The various pop concert and recording studio scenes involving these two just come as padding, designed to fill the movie out to feature length because the makers had no confidence in the main footballing plot.  Worst of all, the putative love triangle never actually amounts to anything, with Sommers ultimately rejecting both men after a complete lack of dramatic conflict between them.

All of which undoubtedly makes Yesterday's Hero sound like a complete waste of time.  Which isn't true.  Whilst its grasp of footballing details might be weak, it does succeed in creating a vivid portrayal of the dressing room side of seventies football, when the players were a long way from being the athletic, perma-tanned and perfectly coiffured gym-dwellers of the present day game.  Yesterday's Hero accurately depicts the dressing room of 'The Saints' as being full of pale, scrawny looking blokes with bad hair cuts, whose post-match celebrations involve decamping to a club or pub and boozing themselves stupid.  The early scenes of muddy, poorly maintained pitches, clapped out team buses and tiny crowds attending dimly lit matches on freezing cold Saturdays, perfectly evokes lower and non-league football in the late seventies. Of course, a sport-based film is always going to be judged on its recreations of the actual sport itself, which brings us to another problem with football themed films: it is next to impossible to convey the essence of a ninety minute match in a few minutes of screen time, (just watch the match highlights on Match of the Day after you've either seen the entire match or heard a live radio commentary to confirm this).  Consequently, Yesterday's Hero only actually recreates parts of two matches - the cup semi final and final - which are the only games McShane's character seems to ply for 'The Saints'.  Both sequences involve cutting together actual match footage with close up scenes of  the actors portraying the fictional players, acting out set-pieces, goals and the like.  To be fair, the film succeeds in integrating these elements quite well - the main problem lying in the condition of the visible pitch: in the real match footage it is inevitably muddy and churned up, in the recreated sequences, probably shot in Summer, it is lush and green.

One aspect of the film I find fascinating is that, for the final script, the makers must have started by deciding what match footage they were going to use for the cup final, and worked back from there.  By using footage from the 1979 League Cup Final at Wembley, between Nottingham Forest and Southampton, they ensured that there would be plenty of spectators waving banners saying things like 'Up the Forest' and 'Come on you Saints', which dictated the fact that the script then had incorporate this by calling the participants in the fictional final 'The Saints' and 'Leicester Forest'.  The latter name, of course, is ridiculous, betraying the writer's lack of football history knowledge: clubs in the UK don't just arbitrarily stick suffixes after the name of the town they represent.  There are historical and geographic factors which create these names.  Nottingham Forest, for instance, are so-called because of the city's association with Sherwood Forest and Robin Hood.  The last time I checked, the real Leicester didn't have a forest, (the real life team based there is, of course, simply called Leicester City).

Despite all of its shortcomings, I have to admit that I enjoyed Yesterday's Hero.  Not only does it offer a fascinating portrayal of the era it was made in, but it is also another of those British films, like A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, which was made at a time when the UK film industry was collapsing and film makers were desperately casting about, trying to find subjects that might bring audiences into cinemas.  The old standards of British cinema, war movies, crime dramas and gothic horrors seemed to have fallen out of favour with audiences, whilst the kitchen sink drama and detective genres had been co-opted by television.  Producers had either to try and find new spins on old subjects (like Nightingale's bank heist caper), or try to explore new territories, trying to exploit other popular British past times, like football.  Sadly, neither approach seemed to work, with the film makers unable to break away from the established tropes and structures of traditional British feature films.  Both A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square and Yesterday's Hero feel as if, (with a few modifications to their scripts to remove the expletives and nudity and shot in black and white), they could have been made two decades earlier.  That aside, what's not to like about the film which not only gave Cary Elwes his debut (as a 'disco dancer'), but also gave football commentator John 'Motty' Motson his only acting credit, playing himself.  Badly.


Friday, October 23, 2015

Hillbillys, B-Movies and Oliver Tobias

Well, the good news is that Talking Pictures TV has Las Vegas Hillbillys on this weekend.  So, having set the digital recorder up, I'll hopefully be able to bring you more hillbilly goodness in the near future, with an appreciation of the movie to which Hillbillys in a Haunted House is a sequel.  Apparently, this one involves casinos (obviously), biker gangs and Jayne Mansfield and Mamie van Doren, two of the biggest breasted female stars of the era.  I'm not sure if any gorillas are involved.  I have to say that Talking Pictures TV continues to be a marvel as far as I'm concerned.  It is undoubtedly the best thing to have launched on Freeview in an age - hardly a week goes by without at least one old movie turning up there that I set the recorder for - I now have an incredible backlog of stuff waiting to be watched.  Most recently, I was able to record The Giant Gila Monster from the overnight schedules - it was a companion piece to The Killer Shrews, which I already have on DVD.  Being a completest, I've waited a long time for this one to turn up, so that I can enjoy a double bill of incredibly cheap monster movies.

But it isn't just old b-movies which the channel has allowed me to catch up with.  One of the first films I recorded from Talking Pictures TV was the 1979 British caper movie A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.  It was a film I had fond, albeit somewhat vague, memories of and which hadn't turned up on terrestrial TV in an age.  The last film directed by Ralph Thomas, a director whose heyday had been in the fifties and sixties with popular fare like the Doctor series and whose career had floundered somewhat in the seventies as he'd moved into directing sex comedies like Percy, Nightingale is something of an oddity, very uneven in tone and seemingly unable to make up its mind as whether to be a comedy or a crime thriller.  That said, it is actually a pretty entertaining film, ending Thomas' long directorial career on a high note.  It vividly captures late seventies London, both upmarket Mayfair and less fashionable Chiswick High Street, full of bustling life.  It also boasts a fantastic cast, with Richard Jordan putting in a likeable performance as the token American lead and David Niven, cast somewhat against type as the chief villain.  Indeed, Niven's performance (whilst not quite his last film appearance, this was the last in which he was able to speak his lines himself) is very impressive, combining his trademark urbane charm with genuine menace as the local crime boss.

Despite being presented as a bank robbery caper, the crimes themselves actually account for relatively little of the running time, with the preparations and aftermath receiving more attention.  There are no car chases, no violence and very little of the action you might expect in a crime movie.  Instead, the focus is firmly on the characters, particularly ex con Jordan's attempts to first go straight, then to extricate himself from Niven's plans before realising that he actually enjoys the planning of the heist.  With Thomas' sure hand on the tiller, the whole thing moves at a reasonable pace and rarely drags, despite the lack of any real action.  Interestingly, the version of the film shown by Talking Pictures TV includes Elke Sommers' topless shower scene, which was always cut out of terrestrial TV screenings. 

Amongst the cast of Nightingale is Oliver Tobias.  Indeed, he gets second billing in the opening titles.  In spite of this, he actually has very little to do, effectively playing a supporting role to Jordan and Niven, who get the lion's share of the dialogue and running time.  Which, sadly, seems to have been his fate.  Throughout the seventies, Tobias was perpetually the 'next big thing', following up early TV success as Arthur of the Britons with lead roles in films like The Stud and Arabian Adventure.  But he never quite seemed to break into the really big time, despite even being linked to the role of James Bond before Timothy Dalton was cast.  Even when he starred in one of Cliff Twemlow's films - Firestar First Contact - his character was pretty much sidelined part way through the movie, leaving Cliff to carry the action.  All of which is a pity as, in Nightingale, he delivers a very likeable and charismatic performance - he just isn't given enough to do by the script.  Despite his career never reaching the heights many were predicting for him in the seventies, Tobias has continued to work steadily, mainly on TV. 

To get back to the point, I'm grateful to Talking Pictures TV for giving me the opportunity to reacquaint myself with A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. Like many of the films I enjoy, it might not be a classic, but it is a solidly made piece of entertainment which also provides a fascinating snapshot of its era.  It provides a fitting coda to the career of Ralph Thomas, being a kind of film (a character driven crime caper) which simply wasn't being made any more (especially in the UK), as he was a director of a kind who simply went out of fashion in the British film industry of the seventies.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Back to the Franchise

So, what's the deal with Back to the Future?  Just why do so many people obsess about this movie?  Why did the media go completely over the top the other day when the present finally 'caught up' with the 'future' depicted in the film?  I wish I had answers to any of those questions. The whole thing is a mystery to me.  Don't get me wrong - I'm not dissing Back to the Future.  I watched it back in the day, not at the cinema, but when it first came out on video and thought it was a reasonably entertaining, but not hugely original, time travel comedy.  But that wasn't enough to motivate me to watch the sequels - I really thought that they'd pretty much exhausted all of their ideas in the first one - nor was it enough to make me watch it again on any of its many, many TV outings.  But, clearly, there are a lot of people out there who disagree with me, for whom Back to the Future has become a quasi religion, in the same way the Star Wars films, for instance, have become for their fans.  There are many other examples of this kind of film fandom.  I say 'fandom', but itgoes way beyond that, to borderline obsession.  I mean, I enjoyed the original Star Trek series and still sometimes catch episodes when they turn up on TV, I'd go as far as to say that I'm a fan but, unlike many other fans, I've never felt the urge to learn Klingon or dress up as Mr Spock.  That's just taking things to a level I don't understand.

But why do some films and TV achieve this kind of cult status and others fall back into relative obscurity once their initial airings are over?  I say 'cult' status, but that implies a relatively small, but dedicated following.  Things like Back to the Future and Star Wars clearly go far beyond this both in terms of their fan bases and media profiles.  Both franchises were high profile studio products with widespread general releases.  True cult film fandoms, in my opinion, are centered around lower profile films, often independently produced, which received little or no cinematic release.  Consequently, they remain little known to the wider public and mainstream media.  Their fandom tends to focus on trying to bring such films to wider attention, eulogising their perceived merits.  (On the other hand, many cult film fans like the fact that the objects of their love are obscure, as it allows them to feel like members of a real cult: keepers of arcane knowledge that the masses couldn't possibly understand).  Despite being studio products, it is doubtful that their parent studios envisaged either Back to the Future or Star Wars having the kind of lasting popularity they continue to enjoy.  (Indeed, in the case of Star Wars, we know that they didn't).  But, their continuing success did teach the studios a lesson or two as to the value of building fan bases for their new releases and putative franchises.  If you can catch them for one film, then you've got a good chance of drawing them back in for further releases set in the same cinematic universe: just look at the success of things like the Harry Potter films or the whole Marvel superhero franchise.  That said, there's still no sure fire way of predicting what will or won't catch the public imagination and generate a huge following.  Harry Potter and Marvel, of course, have the advantage of already being popular as books and comics respectively and have a pre-existing fandom to exploit.  Other first entries in would be franchises have been far less lucky - just look at John Carter or, more recently, Pan

Clearly, though, they struck lucky with Back to the Future, despite its lack of a pre-existing fanbase.  I'm still not really sure why.  Perhaps it's popularity lies in the way in which it crosses over several genres: teen movie, science fiction and comedy.  Maybe it was the combination of actors in the main roles.  I just don't know.  If I did, of course, I'd be making a mint advising studio chiefs as to what the next sure fire hit was going to be.


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

"Leave the Monkey Alone..."

"Leave the monkey alone," John Carradine tells a booze raddled looking Lon Chaney Jr in 1967's Hillbillys in a Haunted House.  Except that it isn't a monkey, it's a gorilla.  Or, to be more accurate, it's a man in an ape suit - George Barrows (of Robot Monster 'fame') and his infamous ape suit, to be specific.  Nevertheless, it remains the most memorable piece of dialogue in the movie.  Hillbillys in a Haunted House is one of those films which 'bad movie' aficionados like to watch 'ironically' and sneer at for its ineptness and poor quality.  But really, what do you expect from a film from the Woolner Brothers, notorious distributors of drive in schlock?  Sure, the movie's cheapness and general shoddiness is evident in its next to non-existent continuity, terrible day-for-night shots, moth eaten sets, and effects which are anything but special.  Worst of all, perhaps, is the way in which every time someone bursts into song (which they do quite a bit), the sound quality switches to that of a theatre with booming reverb.  The reason for this becomes apparent at the tend of the film: the last fifteen minutes, or so, are effectively a concert at a (presumably) Nashville venue, shot from a single, locked down, camera.  Clearly, the producers were too cheap to make proper studio recordings for the musical sequences in the film, instead using recordings made during this climactic concert.

For all of its inadequacies, Hillbillys in a Haunted House isn't entirely without interest.  A sequel to the previous year's Las Vegas Hillbillys, it saw Ferlin Husky return as hick country singer Woody Wetherby, with Joi Lansing replacing Mami van Doren as Boots Malone, (or was it really Joi Lansing's sister who, as readers of James Ellroy's paranoid crime fantasies will know, replaced Joi after she was murdered), and Don Bowman (who had played himself in the previous film) as their comic relief manager, Jeepers.  Seeking shelter from a storm as they drive to a show in Nashville, the trio find themselves in a supposedly haunted house.  After shenanigans involving Lon Chaney, the gorilla, skeletons, ghosts, werewolves and the like, they find out that the haunting is all fake, designed to keep snooping locals way from the house, which is the base for a spy ring led by Carradine, Basil Rathbone and a Chinese lady, who are stealing secrets from the missile plant in nearby Acme City.  The villains are foiled and the trio finally make it to Nashville for that concert.  Along the way various country artists, including Merle Haggard and Sonny James, turn up to perform numbers. It's a bit like a backwoods version of a Scooby Doo episode, with less convincing ghosts.

But heck, where else can you find a movie that brings the likes of Merle Haggard and Ferlin Husky together with horror icons Chaney, Carradine and Rathbone?  A pretty irritated looking Rathbone, to be sure.  But who could blame him?  This must have represented a career low.  Carradine, by contrast, clearly couldn't care less - he'd be doing this kind of low rent nonsense since the forties, and would carry on doing it until his death in the eighties.  For Chaney, it would mark the beginning of the final downward slide for his career, which would culminate in the humiliation of working for Al Adamson on Dracula vs Frankenstein, shortly before his death.  Compared to that, Hillbillys in a Haunted House looked classy.  The last theatrical feature directed by Jean Yarbrough, a veteran director who had bounced around the B movie units of various Hollywood studios, turning out low budget musicals, comedies, westerns and occaisional horror flicks, (thereby making him the obvious man to helm this feature), Hillbillys in a Haunted House leaves you wondering about the late sixties drive in market - was there really a demand for hillbilly, country and western, horror and espionage crossover comedies?  The film seems determined to include elements of as many popular TV and movie hits of the time as possible: the presence of Rathbone and the horror stuff seems to reference the Corman Poe adaptations, whilst the hillbillys are obviously there to cash in on the popularity of The Beverly Hillbillies (in which George Barrows played a gorilla for a couple of episodes), whilst the spy element overtly references The Man From UNCLE (in which George Barrows played a gorilla in a couple of episodes).

It's questionable whether there ever was a demand for hillbilly movies at all.  Indeed, it is questionable whether any of the characters we meet in the Hillbillys in a Haunted House really are hillbillys - simply liking country and western music, driving cars sporting long horns as hood ornaments and talking in thick southern accents does not a hillbilly make. I'm pretty sure that sitting on porches, drinking moonshine from jugs and wandering around barefoot whilst wearing dungarees comes into it somewhere.  But the sixties were an innocent age as far as movie hillbillys went - by the early seventies they were being portrayed as murderous, sodomising, inbred banjo strummers, before transmogrifying into the good ol' boy moonshiners of those Burt Reynolds  backwoods action movies.  In the final analysis, whilst it easy to sneer at something like Hillbillys in a Haunted House, it is what it is - a cheapjack disposable b-movie intended to form half of a drive in double bill.  It was never intended to withstand close analysis or rigourous criticism - it is purely ephemeral entertainment.  It has to be said that, compared to many of its contemporaries, it is relatively slick - undoubtedly this is, in no small part, due to old directorial hand Yarbrough's steady touch.  It still represents eighty, or so, minutes of reasonable entertainment (although not necessarily for the reasons originally intended by its makers) if you are in an uncritical mood on a rainy Sunday afternoon, (or early Saturday evening, in my case, when I found it infinitely preferable to Strictly Come Dancing).


Feeling Down Part Two: The Difference a Day Makes

It's amazing the difference a bit of sunlight can make - certainly, it can succeed where the chocolate bar failed, lifting some of my gloom.  How long this revival in my spirits will last, I don't know.  But I'm grateful for any respite.  Days like yesterday, when the grey sky presses down and the colour seems to leak out of everything, are tough for me - I can feel the sky pressing down on me, squeezing all the life out of me.  By contrast, on a day like today, with a blue sky and some sunshine, everything seems possible - there are no limitations, nothing oppressing me.  How I feel tomorrow, with heavy rain forecast, remains to be seen.  Hopefully, uplift to my spirits the sunshine brought will linger on for a while.


Monday, October 19, 2015

Feeling Down

I've tried eating a bar of chocolate, but I still feel miserable. Perhaps it isn't really misery I'm feeling.  Maybe it is just melancholia.  It would certainly be more in keeping with the season.  Whatever it is that I'm feeling, the usual first line of defence (the sugar rush from the chocolate) clearly isn't working.  What I fear is the possibility of a slide into depression.  All the signs are there: the feeling of misery/melancholia without there being any obvious cause, the sudden bouts of self doubt and insecurity, the vague feeling of impending doom and waking up feeling as if I want to cry.  Worst of all is the torpor - nothing seems worth expending energy on, nothing ignites any enthusiasm.  Of course, the ability to recognise these symptoms and analyse them really doesn't help alleviate them.  I've been here before and I'm keenly aware that if I can't find some way to pull myself out of this state, then I face the possibility of a dehabilitating bout of depression. I've been lucky for over a decade now, in that I've been able to head off these depressive episodes before they become entrenched.  I don't feel as confident about this time, though.

The long and the short of all this is that I really don't feel like posting here at all.  I've already alluded to the fact that my heart hasn't been in my blogging in an earlier post, and explored some of the possible reasons for this.  Whilst I'd like to blame it all on my current slow engulfment by depression, the truth is that it predates that.  The fact is that, back in the day, it all used to come so easily - I was brimming with ideas for posts, not a day went past when I didn't have at least three or four possible post ideas.  Days lacking in inspiration were the exception rather than the rule.  But now I struggle.  Most days I just can't think of anything happening in my life remotely interesting enough to write about.  To be honest, the only things I've got any real pleasure out of writing about in recent months have been the exploitation movie stuff.   So, I suspect that this is going to become less of a personal blog, less an editorial extension of The Sleaze and more of a pop culture blog.  Which, I know, will disappoint some of my regular reader(s), who prefer the more personal stuff.  But the fact is that their views are becoming less and less regular and it is the pop culture stuff which is generating the traffic.


Saturday, October 17, 2015

G.B.H (1982)

Cliff Twemlow has been described both as 'the Orson Welles of Manchester' and 'the Ed Wood of Manchester'.  Both comparisons are, up to a point, valid.  Orson Welles was a flamboyant showman, multi-tasking his way through films, but often having his visions compromised by piecemeal financing and studio interference, often resorting to shooting parts of his projects 'on the fly', in between more profitable paid jobs.  Ed Wood, by contrast, was a far less talented, but similarly multi-tasking film maker who, in spite of his lack of talent loved the idea of film-making so much that he was prepared to make movies on tiny budgets under the most difficult of circumstances.  Cliff Twemlow falls somewhere between the two: a larger than life character with a creative vision and a determination to make movies, despite a chronic lack of resources: whilst lacking the cinematic genius of Welles, he was certainly far more talented than Wood, although, like the Plan 9 director, his films sometimes seem to border on insanity.  A nightclub bouncer, successful composer of library music, published novelist and TV extra (amongst other things), for ten years or so, from 1982 until his untimely death in 1993, Twemlow produced, wrote and starred (sometimes under the name 'Mike Sullivan') in a series of low budget films, mainly filmed in and around Manchester, encompassing a range of genres including crime thrillers, horror and science fiction.

GBH was the first of these films.  Not to be confused with the later Channel Four TV series, GBH was inspired by the recent success of the low budget London gangster thriller The Long Good Friday, starring Bob Hoskins.  Set against the background of Manchester's club scene, the film stars Cliff as Mike Donovan aka 'The Mancunian', nightclub bouncer extraordinaire, who, newly released from prison, is called in by a former associate to protect his club from London gangster Keller's attempt at a 'hostile takeover'.  Keller has already forcibly taken over several other clubs with his gang of heavies and will apparently stop at nothing in his quest to control Manchester's nightclubs.  Consequently, Donovan and sidekick Chris defend their club against all comers in a series of bloody confrontations, car chases and bar brawls, before Donovan eventually takes the fight to Keller in a final, bloody, shoot-out.  In between the action, Donovan also finds time both for romance and some male bonding with Chris.  Shot on video and aimed squarely at a post pub direct to video audience, GBH packs a lot into a running time of a shade under seventy five minutes.  Filmed entirely on location (often, I'm guessing, without permission in the case of many of the street scenes), it makes excellent use of Manchester as a backdrop.

In terms of quality, it has to be borne in mind that GBH was one of the earliest UK films to be shot entirely on video, for the rental market, (Twemlow was something of a visionary, in this regard, recognising that home video was going to be a major market for movies and that a gap in the market existed for original films in the medium).   Consequently, some of the exterior scenes suffer from looking over lit - a common problem with early video technology, it is notable that many TV productions of the era still used film for location shooting - and the editing sometimes seems choppy and crude.  Overall, the film has the feel of an episode of a television crime show, albeit a very violent one, which isn't surprising: not only is it shot on video, but the director, David Kent-Watson, had a background in TV production.  In the main, Kent-Watson handles the film well, with generally well set up shots and steady pacing, achieving a suitably 'glossy' look for the club scenes and a contrasting 'grittier' feel for the Manchester exteriors. Undoubtedly, though, the highlights of the film are the fight sequences, brutally staged, bloody and reasonably realistic.  None of which should be surprising, bearing in mind Twemlow's background as a bouncer and the fact that many of the participating heavies were played by bouncer and gym associates of the star.  Less successful is a pedestrian car chase in which Donovan's  Ford Cortina outpaces both a Lotus and a late sixties Thunderbird, and a lengthy exterior action sequence toward the end, which suffers from some confusing editing. 

The whole thing is helped along by some surprisingly decent acting performances.  Jerry Harris (a stand up comedian by trade) is actually pretty menacing as Keller, whilst Anthony Schaeffer (who did the voice overs for Ted Rogers' gameshow, 3-2-1) and Brett Sinclair, both give likeable and assured performances as Donovan's club owning associate Murray Parks and sidekick Chris, respectively.  The key performance, of course, is that of Twemlow himself as Donovan.  Whilst it has to be said that Cliff Twemlow was no De Niro or Pacino and unlikely ever to win any awards for his acting, he does have considerable screen presence and charisma, and succeeds in making Donovan a likeable and sympathetic character.  Indeed, in terms of performances, not to mention production values, direction, dialogue, music (provided by Cliff, naturally) and cinematography, GBH stands head and shoulders above many better budgeted exploitation movies of the seventies and eighties that I've sat through, (a lot of the low budget fare distributed by Crown International during that era come to mind), and is a damn sight more entertaining.  Certainly, everybody involved seemed to be enjoying themselves.

GBH's mix of bloody action, corny humour (Donovan throws out a host of one-liners during the course of the film) and Manchester locations proved popular, particularly in the North West, so it was inevitable that further films made by Twemlow and his crew would follow.  Showing admirable ambition, their next project was a James Bond-style spy thriller featuring exotic Caribbean locations.  Unfortunately, the filming of Target Eve Island was interrupted by the US invasion of Grenada.  Undeterred, Twemlow adapted the script to include the invasion and eventually completed the film.  Unfortunately, like most of his post-GBH output, Target Eve Island is very difficult to see, so I only have a promo reel posted on You Tube as a basis for my assessment, which gives the impression of a solidly made, action packed, if somewhat clichéd, spy movie, firmly aimed, once again, at a young direct-to-video audience.  Likewise, the trailer for the horror movie Moonstalker looks impressive for a low budget film.  Typically for one of his films, Twemlow's script for Moonstalker is 'ripped from the headlines', using the so called 'Beast of Exmoor' as a basis for its plot.  The Eye of Satan looks to be a truly magnificent horror/gangster crossover, which I'd dearly love to see in its entirety, whilst Firestar First Contact is, on the basis of its trailer, an Alien-inspired space opera with surprisingly good production values.  Interestingly, there are also a couple of very elaborate promos for Twemlow movies that never got made posted on You Tube.  Both The Blind Side of God and Tokyo Sunrise look very intriguing and it's a pity that financing for them never materialised.  (Although the central plot device of Blind Side of God was eventually incorporated into the GBH sequel, GBH2: Lethal Impact).  It is testimony to the professionalism of Twemlow and his associates that several of their later films even feature 'name' actors, including Fiona Fullerton, Oliver Tobias, Charles Grey and Terrance Hardiman, in supporting roles.

As you've doubtless gathered, I've become something of a fan of Cliff Twemlow.  I find it impossible not to respect and admire a man who, at the age forty five, decided to go into independent film production in order to realise his ambitions as a screenwriter and actor.  Not just go into film production, but actually produce not just one, but a whole string of features.  Sadly, like many low budget films, the later movies frequently suffered from distribution problems, (some barely being released at all), which makes them hard to locate today.  Nevertheless, many of the people who worked on Cliff's films went on to work in mainstream TV and cinema - Moonstalker cinematographer Peter Tatersall, for instance, has gone on to be Director of Photography on films like Con Air, Phantom Menace and Die Another Day, whilst John St Ryan, who made his acting debut as 'Big Nick' Rafferty in GBH, later had a lengthy stint as Charlie Whelan in Coronation Street (in which Twemlow had once appeared as an extra). If nothing else, Cliff Twemlow should be given credit for his contribution to the British film and TV industries for giving these people a break and providing them with some form of apprenticeship via his films.

When I read director Michael Caton-Jones' recent lament that film making in the UK had become the preserve of the middle class, restricting the kinds of films made and narrowing their potential subject matter, I couldn't help but think of the likes of Cliff Twemlow.  Caton-Jones' main complaint was that unless a film maker wanted to make things like Jane Austen adaptations or romantic comedies, then finance was unlikely to be forthcoming - films set on council estates wouldn't get green lit.  Yet that didn't stop proudly working class Twemlow - he simply ignored the film making establishment and went ahead and made his movies regardless, employing his own skills, ingenuity, local contacts and friends to overcome the obstacles that low budgets inevitably bring.  Really, we should be celebrating Cliff Twemlow - the British film industry badly needs more people like him.  Sure, his films are often badly flawed and sometimes ludicrous, but they knew their audience and delivered in terms of action.  Most importantly, they actually got made, at a time when British exploitation cinema had virtually ceased to exist.

If you want to find out more about Cliff Twemlow and read about his films in greater detail, then I can wholeheartedly recommend The Lost World of Cliff Twemlow by CP Lee and Andy Willis, which is still available via Amazon.  oF his films, only GBH seems to be easily available at the moment, with several versions of varying quality currently posted on You Tube.


Thursday, October 15, 2015

Feeling Exploited

I can't help but feel that the quality of my posts here have declined significantly since I went back to work following my Summer break, (with the honourable exception of my eighties exploitation movie write-ups, which I'm pretty proud of - I'm hoping to get the third and final one done soon).  They've been lacking in inspiration and passion.  Whilst there are many reasons I could cite for this - ill health, work-related stress and so on - the truth of it is that my heart just hasn't been in it, for some reason.  Perhaps my lack of enthusiasm for posting here simply reflects my lack of enthusiasm for my current work situation which, I feel, is fast becoming untenable.  But my dissatisfaction with work is long-standing (I keep telling myself that the end of my mortgage payments is within site and all I have to do is hang on for another eighteen months or so - but that still seems too far off).  Perhaps there is some other underlying cause to my current malaise.  Certainly, I've been feeling very restless of late.  To be sure, part of this feeling is fuelled by the thought of the possible freedom the paying off of my mortgage will bring.  But there's more to it than that, I suspect.  Perhaps it is seeing developments in the lives of friends which has left me feeling that my life has become too static, too predictable.

For instance, one of my oldest friends has recently become a mother, something which I find has affected me quite significantly.  I'm not entirely sure why - I've never wanted children of my own and don't regret that decision, yet the knowledge of her motherhood has left me with the vague feeling that there is something lacking in my life.  But, to be completely honest, I can't help but feel that all the exploitation movies I've consumed over the past twelve months has a lot to do with the way I'm feeling.  The fact is that all those sex comedies, low-rent horror flicks and Mondo movies offer a glimpse into another world which, although I was aware it existed, I'd never really exposed myself to before.  It's a wild world full of possibilities, a world which rejects not just most of the conventions of mainstream cinema, but also the conventions of 'regular' society.  The more I experience of it, the more I'm drawn to it.  I can't deny that it has left me with a growing urge to throw of the shackles of conventional 9 to 5 life.  I look upon the works of the likes of Michael J Murphy and Cliff Twemlow with admiration and envy.  Where most might see semi-professional film-makers toiling in the world of ultra low budget trash, I see people who actually got out there and realised their ambitions.  Damn it, they didn't just talk about films, they put their money where their mouths were and actually made films.  Films which achieved a degree of distribution and financial success.

None of which means that I'm planning to go out and shoot my own exploitation films any time soon, but certainly I need to move more toward creative activities and away from the daily grind of convention which is leaving me increasingly listless.  So, there's another charge that can be laid at the feet of exploitation movies: not only do they deprave and corrupt our youth, but they also undermine our satisfaction with everyday life and conventional living.  They should ban them. 


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Day by Day

Day by Day (Southern TV) from Doc Sleaze on Vimeo.

We're back with my childhood memories of the old Southern TV franchise.  Most specifically, we're looking at its weekday regional magazine programme, Day by Day, broadcast in the early evening.  Growing up in a 'BBC household', I rarely got to see Day by Day, as 'we' watched the BBC equivalent, South Today.  There's no doubt that the ITV programme was far more 'flamboyant' than the BBC offering, pitching itself as much as entertainment as a serious regional news programme.  Indeed, as the clip above indicates, to today's eyes, it looks like a parody of a US local TV news programme.  The title sequence, featuring various of the regular presenters doing 'wacky' things seems particularly cringe worthy to modern eyes - especially Fred Dineage and his hat on the golf course.  Dineage was a stalwart of the programme, advancing from sports reporter to anchor during the seventies.  In between presenting Day by Day and being Dickie Davies' stand-in on World of Sport, Fred could also be found presenting the long-running Southern TV produced children's TV series How (with Jack Hargreaves of Out of Town infamy).

By the early eighties, Southern had reinforced the Day by Day presenting team with 'heavyweights' Sarah Kennedy and Cliff Michelmore, as part of their attempt to retain their franchise.  Alas, the addition of such nationally recognised presenters proved to be in vain, as Southern found themselves ousted in favour of TVS.  Ever the survivor, Fred Dineage - along with a lot of the regular Southern presenters and continuity announcers - moved over to the new company, anchoring the TVS regional news programme, Coast to Coast.  (Incredibly, he's still presenting in the region today, regularly anchoring Meridian Tonight, the regional programme which replaced Coast to Coast after TVS, in turn, lost the south of England TV franchise in 1991).  Another old favourite in evidence in the clip is 'Trevor the Weather' Baker, who also made the transition to TVS, despite being renowned as the least accurate TV weather forecaster in the UK.  The era when Southern TV held the south of England franchise was also a time when continuity presenters in the ITV regions often appeared 'in vision' making their announcements.  Consequently, many became familiar faces to the viewers at home.  Amongst the most prominent of Southern's continuity announcers in the 1970s was Christopher Robbie, who was also an actor and has a certain cult status in some quarters thanks to his two appearances in Dr Who, (he was a fictional superhero in the Patrick Troughton story The Mind Robber in the sixties and the Cyberleader in the Tom Baker story Revenge of the Cybermen in the seventies).

So, there you have it - more TV memories of an era long since past.  For all the cheesiness of the likes of Southern TV, I can't help but miss the days when ITV was a network of regional franchises.  It was what distinguished it from the BBC (and later Channel Four).  I enjoyed the fact that when you visited relatives in another part of the country, you found yourself watching a completely different ITV, with its own logos, announcers, news programmes and even schedules.  A lot of the creative energy went out of ITV once the regions - all competing to get their programmes into prime time - were amalgamated, not to mention the variety. 

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Monday, October 12, 2015

Stating the Obvious

Sometimes you see a news story and just know that you have to make the obvious comment on it.  So, when I sew on the BBC News Channel yesterday that film director Michael Winner's widow had been attacked in her own home by thugs, it was obvious that Death Wish had to be referenced.  Frustratingly, the media (some of whom usually know no bounds when it comes to taste) steadfastly refused to make any references to Charles Bronson.  How I fervently hoped that at least one outlet would observe that the victim had declined police assistance as she'd decided to use 'other means' to gain justice.  But no - no mentions of Charles Bronson or gun-toting vigilantes.  I despair of today's mass media.  Perhaps we'll just have to wait for a few weeks, until the police investigation proves fruitless, for The Sun to start calling for 'street justice' for Winner's widow and organise a fund raising campaign to allow her to hire a vigilante to hunt down and rub out the criminals.  Maybe then, the Daily Mail will run a story of how Mrs Winner was helped through her ordeal by the ghost of her husband, who appeared and told her: 'Calm down dear, it's only a robbery with serious assault'.

I'm sure that if we were in Russia, we'd have been given the full Death Wish treatment for this story, (if we were in South Korea or Taiwan, we'd probably be treated to a computer animated version of the assault, followed by a computer animated Charles Bronson hunting the pepetrators down and killing them).  That said, I was mildly surprised to find that Russia Today hadn't reported that Vladimir Putin had won the Russian Grand Prix rather than Lewis Hamilton.  I was expecting them to have some footage of Putin leaping into the cockpit of a Formula One car seconds before the start of the race, providing a display of incredible driving skill as he forced his way from the back of the field to beat Hamilton to the finish on the last lap.  I thought that there'd be lots of shots of him in the car, with a bad back projection of the track behind him.  But again, no.  The Russian media really let themselves down there.  I mean, they didn't even 'whitewash' Lewis Hamilton, so that they wouldn't have to show President Putin being forced to present the trophy to a black man.  You just can't rely on anything these days, can you?  


Friday, October 09, 2015

Bloodstream (1985)

In 2004 the late Michael J Murphy (who died earlier this year) told an interviewer: "I am now in my fifties with very little to show for it, except great memories, which is maybe more than many people have."  Which is a pretty succinct summing up of what it is to be involved in low-budget, independent, exploitation film-making.  Murphy might not be a household name, but, in a career spanning more than thirty years, he became one of Britain's most prolific film directors, managing to complete (according to the Imdb) at least thirteen features, all made on miniscule budgets, most of which achieved some kind of distribution, be it on video or cable TV.   Eschewing the normal sources of film finance, Murphy instead raised production funds from family and friends, meaning that, although the amounts raised were tiny by industry standards, he was able to actually get his movies into production and retain creative control over them.  A keen film maker since childhood, Murphy never allowed his lack of resources to restrict his ambitions, with the subject matter of his features ranging from Arthurian sword-and-sorcery (Avalon), lost world fantasies (Atlantis), post-apocalyptic science fiction (Death Run), psychological thrillers (Death in the Family) and horror (Invitation to Hell).  Based in Portsmouth, his locations ranged from Wales to Greece and Portugal.

One if his most interesting films, however, remains unreleased.  Bloodstream was very much a personal project for Murphy: a reaction to his poor experiences with distributors, the film offers both a satire on the whole direct-to-video horror boom of the eighties and a commentary on the whole 'Video Nasties'  phenomena which accompanied it.  Shot on 8mm (apparently the only feature since the late sixties to use this format) and a non-existent budget (Imdb estimates it at £400!), the film focuses on film director Alistair, who finds himself sacked from his latest feature 'Bloodstream', a direct-to-video horror flick, by its producer, who invokes a clause in their contract, claiming that the film is of such poor quality that it is unreleasable.  Of course, the sleazy producer proceeds to release the film, which he believes will be a hit with post-pub video viewers, having cheated Alistair out of any royalties.  Egged on by the producer's embittered secretary Nikki, Alistair plots a terrible revenge against those who have wronged him.  In between binge-watching horror videos, the director, dressed as death, systematically murders, in various unpleasant ways, the family and close business associates of his nemesis, filming each killing.  Growing increasingly unhinged, he edits the murders together into his own 'video nasty', which he forces the producer to watch, telling him that 'this what a real horror film looks like'.

Clearly, Murphy is addressing the central thesis of the moral panic which surrounded the so called 'video nasties': that exposure to the violence depicted in these films would inevitably encourage their viewers to try and emulate what they have seen.  But in Bloodstream, the horror videos which Alistair obsessively watches after being kicked off of his own film, are clearly just cheap exploitation films with fantasy violence and obvious fake gore which would never convince any but the most naïve and uncritical viewers.  The actual murders he commits - motivated by revenge - are far nastier than anything in the clips of the videos that we see, (even the dog of one victim is burned to death), involving chainsaws, electrocution and the like, rather than mummy stranglings, blood drinking and werewolf killings.  What Alistair ultimately presents to his producer is a snuff movie rather than a 'video nasty' - a key point, as part of the moral campaigners seeking to ban the 'nasties' was to deliberately imply that at least some of them depicted real violence and, perhaps, even murder.  The two, as Alistair effectively points out, are, in fact, quite different.

In terms of actual quality, Bloodstream is ultimately compromised by its tiny budget, which undermines its ability to give its intriguing central concept full justice.  With non-professional performers, grainy picture quality and tinny sound, it sometimes comes over as a very elaborate home movie. That said, it is clear that Murphy was a film maker of considerable ability: shots are well composed, suspense scenes well constructed, the murders well realised and he generally succeeds in coaxing adequate performances from his cast.  Overall, it is certainly far better than the majority of direct-to-video horror films from the era and certainly far more intelligent.  Indeed, it's hard not feel that, with a bigger budget, better resources and an actual release of some sort, Bloodstream could well have become a minor cult hit.  But a bigger budget and more resources could well have resulted in the film's subject matter becoming compromised as a result of pressure from backers and distributors to deliver a more 'conventional' slasher  movie.  If nothing else, the world of low budget exploitation film making at least allowed movie makers like Murphy to pursue their personal visions, a point realised by contemporary directors like Ben Wheatley, who deliberately choose to work on low budgets so as to retain greater creative control.  Sadly, though, I doubt that any of Murphy's films will ever be as critically feted as Wheatley's are.

At the end of the day, the likes of Michael J Murphy should be admired: these are the people who are so in love with film making that they are prepared to work on next to no budgets, under the most trying of circumstances, in order to pursue their creative visions.  All for little or no reward.  Nothing, it seems, could stop Murphy from making films, not an eight year stint in he 1990s as a carer for his mother after she suffered a serious stroke, not Parcel Force losing most of the footage of one of his films in transit to the lab, nor the fact that in the latter part of his career he was forced to work part-time in an off-licence in order to make ends meet.  Sure, many of his films feature rickety effects and uneven acting, but at least he got out there and made them, rather than spending years trying to raise finance and dissipating his creative energies in endless meetings with studio executives and financiers in order to gain 'script approval', before losing control of his own film.  We really should be celebrating the likes of Michael J Murphy more.


Thursday, October 08, 2015

Disconnected: Tory Rhetoric and Political Reality

Jesus, it's in danger of turning into a chronicle of my dullsville life around here.  On the basis of the last couple of posts it can only be a matter of time before I start telling you what I had for lunch and how many times a day I fart.  So, let's stop the rot and talk about something other than me.  Like this week's Tory Party conference, for instance.  Yeah, I know, it makes my stomach turn as well, but I'm afraid we can't just ignore it.  If nothing else, it presented a highly confused set of messages.  On the one hand we had Theresa May screeching about the evils of those bloody immigrants, whilst, on the other David Cameron seemed to be trying to convince us that he's some kind of socialist.  Apparently this is all part of some grand strategy on the part of the Tories to seize the 'centre ground' from Labour by appealing to their traditional working class voters, whilst ensuring that they don't alienate the traditional extreme right voters who prop up the Tory vote.  Hence the bit of immigrant bashing to try and stop them from deserting to UKIP.  In between all this we've had the usual parade of senior Tory bastards (including supposedly 'caring' Cameron) denouncing Jeremy Corbyn as 'anti-British' and implying he's a traitor.

But the disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality never seems to have been greater.  Can there be any greater irony than a Prime Minister who has presided over unprecedented cuts in welfare spending and a significant decline in living standards for the average citizen, telling us that he's going to launch an 'all out assault' on poverty?  Surely people really aren't so stupid that they can't grasp that relieving poverty in the UK would cost billions of pounds worth of government spending, yet, paradoxically, the Chancellor's economic policy envisages further cuts in public spending?  Clearly Cameron and his cronies think so.  Likewise the Home Secretary and her tough talk on immigration.  It's all very well saying that there are too many immigrants entering the UK and that they are undermining British values (whatever those are), when the reality is that, over the past few years you have failed miserably to lower net migration levels, despite all your promises to do so.  It's the same with all the anti-Corbyn  nonsense - he's a threat to security and anti-British says the party which has slashed defence spending to the bone, making tens of thousands of servicemen and women redundant in the process, and who are happy to sell nuclear power stations and the HS2 rail project to the Chinese.  Like I said, a total disconnect between Tory rhetoric and political reality. 


Tuesday, October 06, 2015

There and Back

I must be getting old - today's trek to a work 'training event' and back has left me exhausted.  Time was that two changes of train getting there and two coming back - a two hour plus journey each way - wouldn't have bothered me unduly.  But by the time I got back home this evening, I was fit to drop.  Whilst the event itself was as colossal a waste of time as I'd expected, the journey there at least took me back through parts of Bristol I hadn't seen in thirty years, or so.  Whilst a lot had changed, it was surprising how much I could still recognise from my student days - much of the journey between Bristol Parkway and Temple Meades stations is still dominated by the backs of old terraced houses, all with extensions of varying shapes and sizes.  Thankfully, quite a lot of them still retain the distinctive flat roofs I've always associated with Bristol.  In another blast from the past, two of the trains I travelled on today were Class 150 DMUs - coincidentally, the prototypes of these 'Sprinter' units were just coming into service thirty odd years ago, just as I was leaving Bristol.  Back then, they were meant to be the new cutting edge of local train travel.  Nowadays, they're the equivalent of the old first generation DMUs (which had been designed and built in the early sixties) which they eventually replaced: tired looking, noisy and rattling. On days like today, I feel much the same way.

Frustratingly, despite spending most of the day on the outskirts of Weston Super Mare, I never got to see the sea - the venue was just too far inland.  It was also pretty dull - the usual tangle of roads, roundabouts and business parks which seem to make up modern towns.  The most interesting thing I saw there was the local branch of Lidl, which was proudly proclaiming the fact that they were the first UK employer to implement the 'living wage', (the real living wage, that is, not the rebranded minimum wage that the Tories are trying to pass off as a 'living wage').  To get back to the event itself, it never ceases to amaze me that in the public sector, where we've had a pay freeze for over five years and suffer constant staff cuts in the name of saving money, management still seem to think that dragging people hundreds of miles for a regional 'event' like this, with all the travelling expenses it incurs (some attendees had to travel up the day before and make an overnight hotel stay at the department's expense), is a good idea.  Personally, I can't see how the loss of a work day and all those expenses can be justified (particularly in the present financial climate) for something that lasted barely five hours and included nothing that couldn't have been delivered via email!  But I guess that's why I'm not a manager.  Roll on the day (in approximately eighteen months) when my mortgage is finally paid off and I have the realistic option of walking away from all this nonsense.


Monday, October 05, 2015

An Interlude

Whilst I was hoping to push on with my write ups of the three low budget eighties exploitation movies - which I finally got started with the last post about Derek Ford's Urge to Kill - work-related activities mean that I'll have to leave the next one until later this week as I don't have time this evening to do it justice.  Apart from work currently inconveniencing me by dragging me halfway across the country for a time-wasting meeting tomorrow, things in general seem to be improving.  Certainly my stress levels have gone down over the past few days as various of the sources of my stress have been resolved.  My apparently AWOL friend has been in touch to assure me that she's OK and that I shouldn't worry - like that's going to happen: when it comes to those I care about, I'm a born worrier, no matter how flimsy the sources of that worry might be.  Moreover, a change in some working practices have reduced significantly my workplace stress.  Consequently, the stress-related stomach problems I was suffering a couple of weeks ago have vanished completely.

Consequently, feeling more relaxed than I have since I finished my summer break, I spent a large part of the weekend enjoying some more vintage exploitation movies.  Thanks to the marvellous Talking Pictures TV (now available on Freeview) I was finally able to catch up with The Trollenberg Terror and The House on Marsh Road, both broadcast using very nicely restored prints.  Whilst the former is a Quatermass cash-in, based on a now lost early ITV serial, the latter is an intriguing and very low key ghost story.  These were followed up with Hammer's quite bonkers 1968 Dennis Wheatley adaptation The Lost Continent (courtesy of the Horror Channel), which I haven't seen in decades, before I finished my viewing with 1970s continental Witchfinder General knock off Mark of the Devil.  Although a German production, the latter was , interestingly, scripted and directed by Michael Armstrong, who, after something of a false start writing and directing Tigon's Haunted House of Horror, before the film was taken away from him, became active in seventies British sex comedies, writing and appearing in The Sex Thief and scripting Adventures of a Private Eye, for instance.  So, not only an entertaining weekend, but also plenty of material for future posts.


Friday, October 02, 2015

The Urge to Kill (1989)

For some, the world of exploitation films is merely a stepping stone to a career in mainstream film making, for others, it represents the fag end of a previously higher profile career. Many others never escape exploitation, some these, like Norman J Warren, Lindsay Shonteff or Stanley Long, for instance, embrace this world, forging successful careers there.  Others, however, resent their sojourn at the lower end of the film-making scale, feeling that they should be doing something better.  By all accounts, writer/director Derek Ford (who often wrote scripts with his brother Donald) was one such individual.  According to Simon Sheridan in his fascinating history of British smut, Keeping the British End Up, colleagues described Ford as being 'generally miserable', only showing any real enthusiasm when directing the hardcore versions of sex scenes that he regularly inserted into the foreign release versions of his films.  Apparently harbouring ambitions of working in Hollywood, Ford started as a screenplay writer in the early sixties, notching up credits for various Compton films productions, along with a number of TV scripts for high profile shows like Armchair Theatre and Z Cars. Perhaps the high point of this phase of his career was the screenplay he and his brother provided for the 1965 Sherlock Holmes movie A Study in Terror.  But with the dawn of the seventies, Ford found himself fully immersed in the world of exploitation, making his directorial debut with 1970's Groupie Girl, one of three sexploitation flicks he directed that year for producer Stanley Long.

Throughout the seventies and into the early eighties, Ford's output, both as director and writer, was prolific, and included two movies he directed in Italy.  Most of his films were at the 'upper' end of the sexploitation market, including the likes of The Wife Swappers, The Sexplorer and Sex Express, and proved very profitable.  But by the late eighties, with the traditional British sex film (not to mention the rest of the British film industry) on its last legs, Ford found himself working for US exploitation producer Dick Randall, directing from his own script what was to be his last film: Urge to Kill, aka Attack of the Killer Computer.  Presumably intended as a direct-to-video release, Urge to Kill was made on what was clearly a miniscule budget, eschewing studio sets for the actual homes its star and producer, (it appears to have no exterior shots whatsoever, with, apart from the brief opening sequence in a recording studio and a scene in a female charcter's bedroom as she speaks to the main protagonist on the phone, the action taking place entirely within the confines of the main character's flat and garage).   A truly bizarre concoction, Urge to Kill seems to be an attempt to combine elements of the sex film, science fiction and the so-called 'video nasties' which had obsessed the tabloids earlier in the decade.  Clearly trying to exploit the 1980s upsurge of interest in home computing, the plot concerns a wealthy record producer, (played by the late Peter Gordeno, an actor and dancer probably best remembered for playing the regular captain of the 'Skydiver' submarine in Gerry Anderson's UFO TV series), who has his luxurious flat's functions controlled by a computer he calls S.E.X.Y (which, inevitably, has a female voice and 'personality').  In a gender reversal of 1977's Demon Seed, the computer develops an infatuation with Gordeno's character - Bono Zorro (yes, really) -  and attempts to take over his life, finding ingenious ways of disposing of his various female companions, which the computer perceives of as threats.

These methods include boiling one girl to death in a read hot shower, doing something similar to another one in a hot tub and frying another one to death on a sun bed, (this makes her breasts explode, for some reason).  In order to allay Gordeno's suspicions, in each case no trace is left of the unfortunate victim, leaving him to assume, initially at least, that they've simply left the flat.  Eventually finding himself trapped in the flat with his friend Jane by S.E.X.Y (who controls the door locks and external phone line), the film starts to take a truly bizarre turn, with the computer manifesting itself as a green-skinned naked girl. sporting a hairdo reminiscent of Paul Wegener's in Der Golem.  In this guise, not only does S.E.X.Y begin to influence Gordeno's mind, effectively brainwashing him, but also seduces him and appears to have sex with him.  I say 'appears' as at this point in the film it isn't entirely clear as to whether the green girl is an actual physical manifestation of the computer or simply some kind of hypnotically induced hallucination on Gordeno's part.  (During the sequence where she makes love to Gordeno, I was half expecting Jane to walk into the bedroom and find him in bed alone, masturbating furiously.  There is also a later sequence, involving Gordeno watching two prostitutes called up by S.E.X.Y wrestling in his living room, which is shot in such a way that it could be inferred that only he, and not Jane, can see the girls).  The matter is finally resolved later in the film, when the green girl is not only seen by Jane, but twice tries to kill her, demonstrating in the process that she is very real and very solid.  Which, of course, makes no sense whatsoever, but marks Urge to Kill out as an example of the highest order of schlock: a film so barmy that you feel that you've stumbled into someone else's fever dream. 

Indeed, with its lack of any external 'outside' world, bland eighties interiors and green skinned naked killer computer women, the whole thing develops a dream like quality, playing out as a sexual fantasy turned nightmare.  Which seems to be the key to the film.  The female characters are all portrayed as being, to one degree or another, predatory, seeking to exploit Gordeno for their own purposes, with S.E.X.Y being the ultimate expression of the controlling and possessive women.  Whilst it might be possible to give the film some kind of feminist reading - Gordeno's character is clearly a male chauvinist and serial sexual exploiter of women who has the tables turned on him by S.E.X.Y who treats him as a sex object, callously casting him aside when she's finished with him - it is doubtful that was Ford's intention: the film comes over as overtly misogynistic in its portrayal of women. 

Originally to be titled Attack of the Killer Computer, the title was apparently changed when producer Randall realised that he had the rights to a song called 'Urge to Kill', (which plays over the titles). Despite the obviously tiny budget, the film is actually reasonably well made, (which is only to be expected from a director of Ford's experience), with the murder sequences well mounted and delivered with a reasonable degree of suspense. In terms of overall production values and performances, Urge to Kill is very much on a par with other cheap direct-to-video releases of the era, with Ford's direction lifting it above the average. Adding to film's slightly surreal and disembodied feel, (the whole thing seems to take place in some kind of limbo with only a tenuous connection to the 'real' world), although shot in the UK with a British cast, all of the female characters have been redubbed with mid-Atlantic accents, (Gordeno sported his own mid-Atlantic accent as a matter of course).  Even the telephones have had their distinctive UK ring tones replaced with their US equivalent.  Despite this obvious attempt to prepare the movie for the US market, in the event it was never released, gathering dust on a shelf for decades.  Still unreleased in either the UK or US, Urge to Kill apparently had a French DVD release a few years ago.  Something of an ignominious end to Ford's long career, it seems to have precipitated his departure from the world of film making, exploitation or otherwise.  Re-inventing himself as a novelist - he had two roman-a-clef style novels set against a Hollywood background published in 1989 and 1990 - Ford eventually expired in 1995 in the Bromley branch of W H Smiths, the victim of a heart attack.


Thursday, October 01, 2015

Out of Town

That old Southern TV commercial break I posted the other week stirred up all sorts of memories for me.  I grew up with Southern Television as my local ITV regional franchise.  It wasn't as exciting as ATV or Thames, nor did it have the immense programme output of the likes of Granada, Yorkshire or even HTV.  It also didn't have the eccentric logos of Anglia (the silver statue of the mounted knight) or Westward (the silver metal ship).  In fact, it always came across as sedate and dull, its owners apparently happy to rake in the advertising revenues whilst confining its programme output to regional news programmes and children's TV, (with the odd foray into prime time drama such as the military series Spearhead).  Amongst its regional programming it hit upon a surprise hit with Out of Town, presented by Jack Hargreaves.  Spanning several decades (or so it seemed) each thirty minute episode would find Hargreaves sitting in his 'shed' (actually a studio set) telling us about fishing tackle, rabbit snares, horse brasses and the like, in between filmed inserts of him out in various bits of the local countryside, talking to rustics.

Clearly, this must have struck a note with viewers as the series was networked for part of its existence. My father hated Hargreaves, believing him to be a fake: a middle class suburbanite who had reinvented himself as some kind of country 'guru'.  He had a point.  Prior to Out of Town Hargreaves had been a successful London-based journalist, editing Lilliput magazine for some time.  Moreover, I can confirm through personal experience that he certainly didn't ride around in that gypsy caravan that featured in the title sequence - when I was a kid in Salisbury he nearly ran me over in his speeding Mercedes once, as I was crossing a road.  As the brief clip above will confirm, he was undoubtedly the inspiration for the Bob Fleming character played by Charlie Higson in the Fast Show.  Clearly Higson had, as a child, also been subjected to Out of Town.  Looking back, I don't know why I sat through so many episodes.  I can only assume that there was something on afterwards that I wanted to watch and that back in the days of three channel TV, there was nothing else interesting enough to turn over to while I waited.  But, as I said, the show was unaccountably popular, despite its dirge-like signature music and Hargreaves' tedious tales of rural life.  Its popularity can be gauged by the fact that after Southern lost its ITV franchise, Channel Four very quickly resurrected the format, under a different title, for Hargreaves to carry on his rustic charade.  There's no accounting for taste, I suppose.

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