Friday, January 29, 2016

Low Strangeness

Sometimes people just don't see the true weirdness right in front of them.  Take, for instance, a story I read on the BBC website the other day about claims that pornography was played during a Cardiff funeral.  I must admit that, when I first saw the headline and read the story's synopsis, I thought that they meant that pornography was actually part of the ceremony, instead of music or one of those valedictory videos summarising the deceased's life.  leading me to suspect that the funeral might have been that of a porn actor.  All of which would have been pretty weird in itself.  However, upon reading the story, I realised that this wasn't the case.  As it turned out, the story concerned an incident at a Cardiff crematorium where some relatives of a man who had tragically died, with his son, in a car crash, were shocked to see what appeared to be an adult film of some kind playing on one of the screens behind the priest as he conducted the service.

All of which is still weird, not to mention pretty traumatic for the relatives concerned.  But what really struck me about the incident, as reported by the BBC, was that the priest leading the ceremony was none other than the Reverend Lionel Fanthorpe.  Yet the report made nothing of the fact that the one time presenter of Fortean TV, noted writer on the paranormal and pseudonymous author of countless pulp horror and science fiction novels, Lionel Fanthorpe, was presiding at a funeral where such an extraordinary event took place. Now that's pretty weird - that an expert on weirdness should be present at a weird occurrence.  In fact, it's exactly the sort of incident one might expect to see reported on in the pages of Fortean Times under the heading of 'synchronicity'.  But clearly, nobody at the BBC has ever read Fortean Times.  If nothing else, the story at least confirms that the Reverend Fanthorpe is still alive - he's been pretty quiet in the Fortean world for some time.  It seems only fitting that he should come to public attention again for being involved in an outbreak of what might be labelled 'low strangeness'.

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Thursday, January 28, 2016

Hate Speak

That David Cameron, eh?  What a card!  The man who is happily making hate speak legitimate.  To him, refugees aren't human beings, they're a 'bunch of migrants', or a 'swarm of people'.  Oh, and let's not forget those Muslim women who are 'traditionally submissive'.  Like a submissive woman, do you Dave?  Oh no, that's right, pigs are more your thing.  Allegedly.  But really, this, along with Cameron's attempts to brand Jeremy Corbyn as some kind of unpatriotic terrorist appeaser, mark an alarming development in the nature of political discourse in the UK.  To be sure, robust exchanges and political slanging matches have always been part of political life in Britain, but Cameron's recent utterances (and those of his cohorts) represent a new low.  As I said at the outset, it is, in effect, hate speak, no different from the bile spouted by right wing extremists.  It is the language of fascism.

Not that I'm accusing Cameron of being a Nazi - I don't expect to see him pulling on the jack boots any time soon.  I don't think that these utterances actually represent Cameron's true views, they are simply another manifestation of his political opportunism: he senses that attitudes on things like immigration are moving rightward - fuelled by the likes of UKIP and the right-wing press - so he feels he has to seize the moment and move with them.  Rather than lead opinion, as any decent conviction politician would do, opportunist Dave simply goes with the flow, hoping that he can avoid losing part of his natural constituency to the extremists by showing that he can be just as extreme and offensive himself.   Of course, there's undoubtedly another factor in play here - Cameron and co are spouting this stuff because they can.  It's a way of asserting their mastery of the current political landscape.  The fact is that there is no one to stop them, no one to hold them to account: the majority of the media are their bosom buddies, whilst the BBC has been cowed into subservience when it comes to reporting the news and the political opposition ineffective.  Don't get me wrong, I respect Corbyn's attempts to establish a new kind of political discourse, which rises above Cameron's jibes and insults, by example.  But I'm afraid that the situation requires a somewhat more robust approach.   Because, whilst Cameron might not be a full-fledged Nazi, he and his friends, with their manipulation of constituency boundaries and attempts to starve other parties of funding, do seem set upon establishing what would effectively be a one-party state.  


Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Burglars/Le Casse (1971)

Unlike his contemporary Alain Delon, Jean Paul Belmondo never seemed to go out of his way to make movies designed to crack the English-language market.  Whereas, throughout the seventies, Delon could be found in a variety of international co-productions, co-starring with the likes of Charles Bronson, Burt Lancaster and George Kennedy and speaking English, Belmondo focused on movies designed primarily for the domestic French market.  Although dubbed English-language versions of these movies would still turn up, their main audience resided in Europe, where they, and Belmondo, proved hugely popular.  The Burglars (Le Casse) from 1971, is therefore something of an anomoly in Belmondo's career, as it was clearly intended to be a big international release and was filmed in English.

Loosely based on a David Goodis novel, (which had previously been filmed as a film noir under its original title of The Burglar),  The Burglars is another of those film which, for a years, wasa regular on late night TV in the UK, before vanishing again.  As I've recently discovered, it is also just about impossible to obtain an English-language Region 2 DVD of the film right now.  Which is a pity, as my memories of the film are of a well photographed all-action crime movie with international locations.  Belmondo is the leader of a group of criminals who carry out daring heista around Europe.  After a jewellery robbery in Athens, (as I recall), they find themselves pursued by Omar Sharif's corrupt cop, who is trying to relieve them of the gems.  Naturally, this being a Belmondo movie, a spectacular car chase forms the centrepiece of the film's action sequences.  Watching the trailer (which is for an old Region 1 DVD release of the film) just reinforces my desire to catch up with The Burglars again. Sadly, as such movies no longer seem to have any place in contemporary TV schedules, I'll just have to redouble my efforts to find a DVD release.


Monday, January 25, 2016

Behemoth the Sea Monster (1959)

For many years Behemoth the Sea Monster (or The Giant Behemoth in the USA) was a tantalising mystery to me.  It was rarely mentioned in the available reference works when I first became interested in horror and science fiction films - even when it did get a mention, next no details were given other than the fact that it was a UK set monster movie.  Stills were non-existent (it was years before I located a book with a single still of the monster) and, unlike its contemporary British monster movie, Gorgo, it never turned up on TV.  Yet it intrigued me, not least because of the involvement of King Kong's Willis O'Brien in creating the stop motion title monster.  In recent years a US trailer and some clips of the monster rampaging through London have turned up on You Tube, but never the full movie.  However, thanks to Talking Pictures TV - fast becoming the essential free-to-air resource for all lovers of low-budget and obscure British movies - I was finally able to see the complete film when it recently aired .

Unfortunately, Behemoth proved to be only an average monster movie, it's main interest lying in the fact that it represents the last time one of O'Brien's monsters would be seen on film (although most of the animation was done by his assistant).  Indeed, bearing in mind the film's low budget and the even tinier amount of money O'Brien had to work with, Behemoth himself, (or herself, it's never made clear), is surprisingly smoothly animated and a lot of the model work isn't at all bad.  Sadly, however, Behemoth is too generic a looking movie monster: a quadraped giant dinosaur with no distinguishing physical features (although he/she is 'electric' like an eel and highly radioactive).  Consequently, it has no real character, like, say, Godzilla, or King Kong, with whom an audience can feel some degree of empathy.  Moreover, the creature has no real motivation for its attacks, other than a vaguely explained desire to return to its ancient spawning grounds - where modern London now stands - to die.  As a result, its rampage through London seems aimless and quite lacking in any tension - other than the Woolwich ferry and London Bridge, no historic landmarks are damaged or destroyed and no main characters imperiled. 

Not that the audience would have cared much if any main characters had been threatened by Behemoth, as they all consist of middle-aged generic scientists.  Even the usually excellent Andre Morrell, Professor Quatermass himself, can't make anything of his role.  But the film does have its good points.  In particular, the long build up to the creature's first appearance, with dead and radioactive fish being washed up by the thousand on the Cornish coast, with a local fisherman being fried to death by Behemoth's radioactivity are quite tense and well handled.  (Although, frustratingly, another fisherman who assists the scientists in their initial investigation, along with his girlfriend, the deceased fisherman's daughter, seem to be being built up as protagonists the audience can identify with, before both abruptly vanishing when the action moves to London).  The attack on the Woolwich ferry is also quite effectively staged.

The film's biggest problem is co-director Eugene Lourie's determination to turn Behemoth into a virtual remake of his previous US monster movie hit, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.  Whole scenes feel like restagings of portions of the earlier film, but with less verve - even at the climax, with the earlier movie's radioactive bullet replaced by a radioactive torpedo for a less exciting and effective denouement.  This second hand feel, along the generic feel of the monster, means that Lourie's second attempt to remake Beast in the UK, Gorgo, feels like a better film, despite having a, frankly, lousy man-in-a suit monster and less accomplished special effects.  In Gorgo at least large parts of London are destroyed by  the monster, which is given motivation for its attacks (it is trying to rescue its captured baby), although, like Behemoth, it lacks truly likeable lead characters, (other than a boy, who is imperiled by the monter's rampage).  All of which (along with the fact that it was shot in colour) is why Gorgo has been ever-present on British TV since the sixties, whereas Behemoth has sunk into obscurity.


Saturday, January 23, 2016

'Have a Good Week...'

For some reason, I've found myself lately thinking about Kent Walton and the heyday of British TV wrestling back in the 1970s and early 1980s.  A somewhat different beast to its US equivalent, British wrestling on TV was a fascinating phenomena, being, at its height, 'must see' TV.  Every Saturday, at four o'clock, it felt like the nation stopped to spend an hour watching a bunch of large, mainly northern, men, many of them in less than ideal shape physically, grapple with each other.  Why?  It's hard to say, really.  But there was something quite fascinating about these contests of physical prowess.  Whilst the results were definitely rigged, the results never seemed as obviously fixed as in the WWE, and while the outcome of the matches might have been a foregone conclusion, the participants certainly contested them is if they were for real.  The action was often brutal and the consequences frequently appeared genuinely painful.

Indeed, Black Jack Mulligan, featured in the above clip, once broke both ankles, leaping out of the ring during a match with Big Daddy and unexpectedly landing in the ringside seating.  I also recall seeing Wild Man Angus hurl Honey Boy Zimba into the third row - judging by the panicked reaction of the audience once they realised what was about to happen, (they scattered),the move wasn't pre-planned or choreographed.  It also looked to be extremely painful for Zimba, who looked genuinely injured and had to be stretchered off.  The result might have been agreed beforehand, but one got the impression that the wrestlers themselves were given little direction beyond that and were left to improvise the action in the ring.  Despite the sheer brutality of it all, most of the wrestlers involved also displayed incredible skill inside the ring, particularly with regard to their aerial moves.

British TV wrestling undoubtedly looked much grittier than the later US TV franchises.  Not only were many of the wrestlers far from being the buff body builders of the modern WWE, but each week the matches were broadcast from some less than glamourous town hall or municipal sports centre.  They lacked the glitz of the venues used by the WWE, their focus instead being on functionality.  Although there were clear good guys and bad guys, the British wrestling didn't have the complex ongoing story lines which often make the WWE seem like a soap opera.  There were certainly rivalries and long-standing grudges between wrestlers, but these never developed into anything more - that would just have slowed down the action and reduced the amount of in-ring action.  Because that's what the ITV wrestling was all about: action,  And it delivered, with four or five bouts on average every week.  All presided over by the great Kent Walton (aka Elton Hawke, producer of sex movies), who makes a rare on screen appearance in the above clip.  With his ctchphrases of 'Welcome grapple fans', and 'have a good week 'til next week', he became a household name in the seventies and eighties.  As, indeed, did the wrestlers he commentated on: everyone in Britain knew who the likes of Mick McManus, Jackie Pallo, Les Kellett and Pat Roach, amongst others, were.

But eventually TV audiences began to decline and ITV axed the wrestling, after a brief experiment of including matches from the WWF (as it was then) in the programme.  Quite why the viewers fell out of love with the wrestling is hard to say.  Certainly, by the eighties, with behemoths like Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks dominating the TV coverage, it all became more cartoon-like, with fewer actual wrestling skills on display as Big Daddy bounced opponents off of his stomach.  Whatever the reason, wresting left our screens.  The wrestlers themselves continued to ply their trade to smaller audiences in ever less glamourous venues and with no cameras present.  Many headed West to join the WCW and WWF in the US - Young David in the above clip later found fame in the WWE as Davey Boy Smith, for instance.  Others, like Pat Roach and Brian Glover enjoyed successful careers as actors.  I often wonder if my nostalgia for the wrestling derives from the fact that I was a child for most of the time I remember watching what was, in truth, very unsophisticated entertainment.  Perhaps audiences started to decline when my generation grew up and grew out of such things, with a new generation of youth, by the eighties, having more sophisticated expectations of their Saturday afternoon entertainment. 

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Thursday, January 21, 2016

Peak Beard?

Have we reached 'peak beard'?  I seem to recall reading something in The Guardian late last year claiming that this was the case, that the supposed beard growing craze allegedly gripping the UK's male population had reached its zenith and that sales of razor blades could only increase.  Despite this bold claim, I still see an inordinate number of men wandering around Crapchester sporting those bloody awful, unkempt 'hipster' beards, clearly thinking that they look incredibly 'cool' are making some kind of important 'statement' by having the facial hair of a tramp.  Let's be honest here, 'hipster' beards devalue all beards.  Because this awful facial hair is sported exclusively by twats, there is a temptation to assume that all men with beards are twats.  Which is grossly unfair.  Sure, you can't help but feel that guys with neatly trimmed goatees are likely to be pretentious and/or narcissistic, but, on the whole, you really can't make such generalisations. Except when it comes to 'hipster' beards.

I mean, what kind of person would want to wear such an abomination?   Of all the facial hair you could sport - neat goatee, manly nautical 'full set', maverick cop style close cut advanced stubble beard, for instance - why would you want to have your face covered by a mess of wild untrimmed, unstyled hair?  All it says is that you thought it would be cool to grow a beard, but are too lazy to be bothered actually maintaining it. Which isn't to say that you can't get away with a wild beard, but only if you are Brian Blessed or 'Grizzly' Adams.  However, if I see some scrawny would be 'hipster' wandering around with a mass of hairy foliage covering their face, I feel an immediate urge to assault their facial hair with a razor.  Or a pair of shears.  I have to confess a personal, as well as an aesthetic, reason for hating 'hipster' beards.  For the past few months I've been involved in a parking dispute with an idiot who sports such facial hair, (obviously, I'm in the right - I've actually got a valid permit, he hasn't).  He clearly thinks that he is so bloody cool, whereas, in reality, he's simply a hairy peasant.  A hairy peasant who, if he keeps pushing his luck and stealing my space, will risk feeling the sharp end of my razor on his beard.


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Friends Discontinued

So, Friends Reunited is to close - didn't I tell you that social media was just a passing phase?  I remember when Friend Reunited was all the rage - it was the only reason for some people going online, as they attempted to track down all those random strangers they happened to have gone to school with.  As you've doubtless gathered, I've never been a fan of Friends Reunited and certainly don't lament its passing.  I really don't understand why people were ever in such a hurry to try and get back in touch with people they knew at school - clearly, they must have happier memories of their schooldays than I do.  Which isn't to say that they were an entirely miserable time for me - I enjoyed infant and junior schools and made a good number of friends with shared interests. But when I moved on to Grammar school, that group was broken up - most went to different schools, those who did go to the same school as me ended up in different forms, so the ties of friendship were weakened.  Worse, the new school was obsessed with people being good at sports ( I wasn't, and therefore could never be 'cool') and effectively condoned bullying as long as it was being done by someone who was likely to make the rugby first fifteen.  Even worse, I found had next to no interests in common with other students, (this was long before science fiction, fantasy and the like were considered 'cool' and the web hadn't even been thought of, let alone invented).

Which isn't to say that I don't have some good memories of that period - most of them involve me setting fire to things or farting on the bullies (that's another story entirely, though).  But I really have no desire to meet any of my contemporaries from back then again.  After all, apart from having been at school with them, I have nothing in common with them.  Which isn't to say that I haven't seen some of them since - I just made out sure they didn't see me.  Anyway, none of the bullies who liked to lord it over the rest of us with their supposed superiority seem to have amounted to anything.  Most of them have aged far worse than I have, that's for sure.  As far as I can make out, none of the teachers' favourites have achieved the same level of academic success as I have, nor did any of them reach the heights I managed in public service (before my spectacular fall from grace).  I have had at least one of the bastards try to contact me, but I've covered my tracks sufficiently to frustrate his efforts.  The fact is that I'm a great believer in moving on and not looking back each time my life moves into a new phase.  Consequently, not only do I not keep in touch with people I went to school with, but I keep in touch with only a few people from my undergraduate and postgraduate days and next to nobody from previous jobs.  In fact, there is only one person I used to work with that I attempt to maintain a relationship with, (although, as she is as bad as me in respect of staying in touch, this can be pretty intermittent, but hey, we're clearly anti social birds of a feather).  All of which brings me to other types of social media, like Facebook.  As with Friends Reunited, I've never really seen the point, as Facebook seems to focus on hooking you up with people you already know - I always thought that the beauty of the web was that it allowed you to forge links with like-minded people you've never met before.  Or am I missing the point? 


Monday, January 18, 2016

Monday Miscellany

Well, I'm finally beginning to get things back on schedule after last week's power outage cost me an entire evening.  The story for The Sleaze which I had been planning to write that evening was finally completed over the weekend and appeared on the site today.  All the delays and disruption didn't, I'm afraid, improve the story, which I'm still not really happy with - I completely lost my thread when the power cut hit and never got back into my rhythm whilst writing it.  But at least we've finally got a new story up on the site for the first time this year, (other than an editorial, which counts as a feature rather than a story).  Which, in turn, means that I can finally start moving on to do the things that I had originally planned to do over the weekend, before the power cut.  I can't deny that I might have got more creative work done over the weekend if I hadn't taken time out to watch Brides of Fu Manchu and Horror Hospital again.  But hell, they're both classics in their own way, (although the Horror Channel, from where I recorded Fu Manchu, seemed to have sourced the version they broadcast from a very scratchy and slightly faded print), although both would probably be condemned for racism, sexism and homophobia if made nowadays.  Doubtless, I'll come back to both of them later to look at them in more detail.

Changing tack completely, I have to say that the latest problems with my electricity supply have left me paranoid.  Past experience has taught me not to trust the electricity company when they claim to have fixed the problem for good - twenty years of outages tell a story of bodged 'fixes' and temporary 'solutions' which just don't hold up.  Indeed, I spent some time this past weekend looking into the possibilities for setting up some kind of emergency electricity supply system for my house.  At the very least, I'd like to have some kind of battery back up supply for my router, so that I could stay online during outages, but have so far been unable to find such a thing.  I've also given serious consideration to buying a small diesel generator, so that I could produce my own electricity to keep essential stuff like heating and lighting going during a major outage.  Despite the fact that I  have genuine and practical reasons for looking into this sort of stuff, there's a part of me which worries that this interest in portable generators and the like is just the first step on the rocky road to becoming a survivalist.  Before I know it, I'll be stockpiling tinned food and converting my front room into a fall out shelter.  I'll probably start wearing tin foil hats while I'm about it.  Who'd have thought that having an insecure mains power supply could have such disturbing consequences?


Friday, January 15, 2016

Stranger From Venus (1954)

A real oddity, often dismissed as simply a low budget knock off of 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still, Stranger From Venus, when I finally caught up with it the other week, turned out to be somewhat more interesting than that.  Granted, Stranger From Venus uses the same basic plot formula of a human seeming alien from a technologically advanced civilisation being sent to earth as an emissary to warn this planet's inhabitants against continuing their war-like ways and development of weapons of mass destruction, or face extermination.  Like Klaatu, The Stranger (as he is referred to in the movie) has superhuman powers - he has no heartbeat, can heal serious injuries and can apparently walk through locked doors.  Also, like Klaatu, he is greeted with suspicion by the authorities, who regard him as a potential threat with his talk of imposing world peace through his race's superior firepower.  However, whereas Klaatu merely faced destruction by the US military, The Stranger finds himself the victim of a plot to entrap the spaceship of which he is an advance scout, in order to steal his people's advanced technology - a plot twist which seems to owe something to The Man From Planet X.

The resemblance to The Day The Earth Stood Still is emphasised by the presence of that film's female lead, Patricia Neal, playing essentially the same role - the woman whose trust in the alien ultimately rescues his mission.  That said, the ending of Stranger From Venus feels somewhat darker, with none of the hope that disaster for humanity can be averted inherent in the earlier film's climax.  Although we're aware that Klaatu's resurrection is only temporary, he is, at least, still alive at the end of the film, flying off in his saucer, presumably to inform his superiors that there are earth people receptive to their message and capable of compassion toward strangers, his demise safely off screen.  By contrast, Stranger From Venus ends with the alien mothership narrowly escaping a trap and a despairing Stranger vanishing (he has already told Neal that when his race die, their physical form simply vanishes) as he clutches Neal's cardigan.  There is no indication that he has told his superiors that there are 'good' humans who helped him and no hope that the now angered Venusians won't return to wreak havoc on the earth.

The most intriguing aspect of Stranger From Venus lies in its the details.  Whilst it appears to be set in the UK - there are plenty of establishing shots of London and, specifically, Whitehall as the seat of government - it doesn't appear to be the familiar UK of the fifties, but rather some kind of sinister authoratarian regime.  For one thing, the police uniforms are distinctly paramilitary and, at one point, a character (wearing an even more paramilitary looking uniform) is introduced as the 'Chief of Police', a rank unknown in the UK.  It is implied that he is a national police chief which, again, is an alien concept in the UK: police forces are regional with Chief Constables (or Commissioners in the case of the Metropolitan Police) as their senior officers.  There is also a 'Ministry of the Interior', a continental term - the Home Office is the nearest equivalent in the UK, spellings and terminology are Americanized ('railroad' instead of 'railway', for instance) and all the radio announcers have American accents.  The feeling of dislocation is underlined by the interior of the country inn where most of the action takes place which more closely resembles the kind of continental hostelry seen in horror films than an English pub.  All-in-all, it gives the impression that the script was originally set in the US, or on the continent.  Indeed, some aspects of the script give the impression that the original intention might have been to set the movie in some fictional middle European, probably communist, country.  The characters representing the establishment certainly behave in what, at the time, would have been seen as a very un-British manner - whilst British films of the era might have portrayed government officials as being bumbling jobsworths, here they are out-and-out villains, plotting against the aliens and endangering the future of mankind for purely nationalistic reasons.

The film's low budget is betrayed by the lack of any real special effects.  Unlike Klaatu, The Stranger doesn't have a ten foot tall robot companion and his spaceship doesn't land in the middle of a major metropolis.  Instead, all we see of his ship is a glowing light and he lands in a rural location, taking up residence at a country inn, (in this aspect, the film follows the British science fiction film convention of having most of the action consist of people talking in the saloon bar of a pub, so as to save on budget).   The obvious budgetary restrictions, however, have the effect of  giving the film a low key, yet intense, feel.  Overall, it provides seventy five, or so, minutes of reasonable entertainment, with the plot taking a few unexpected turns.  There are some effective performances, particularly notable is Laurence Naismith as a sympathetic doctor and the introduction of The Stanger - he is seen only from behind until he formally announces himself as a visitor from Venus, when the camera pans around to reveal his apparently normal human face - helps to build him up as a mysterious, Messianic, presence.  Stranger From Venus might not be hugely original, but it is more than just a knock off of Day The Earth Stood Still.


Thursday, January 14, 2016


Before I launch into today's rant - and it will be a rant, believe me - I have to say how saddened I was today to hear of Alan Rickman's death.  I've enjoyed many of his performances, both in Hollywood blockbusters and smaller independent films.  It's sad to think that there won't be any more.  Mind you, I'm not sure what his passing means for my mother's 'rule of three' when it comes to celebrity deaths - after Lemmy, Ed 'Stewpot' Stewart and Bowie, he makes four.  Unless we only count them from the beginning of 2016, as Lemmy went at the end of 2015.  Then again, I've just seen that Brian Bedford has died, (look him up kids, he was in Grand Prix with James Garner, amongst other things), which would make two if we count Alan Rickman as the start of a new trio - which means that we should be bracing ourselves for a third celebrity demise soon.

But enough of these fripperies, let's get on with the main business of this post - me venting my frustration over having my entire evening yesterday ruined by another lengthy power outage.  I'd barely got home when the power went, leaving me without light, heat, hot water or the ability to make a hot meal or drink.  It also robbed me of the ability to get online, meaning that the story I'd planned to post on The Sleaze today has had to be postponed, along with a lot of other stuff I was meant to be doing.  So instead of spending an evening in the warmth of my living room, installed on my sofa, dividing my time between watching TV and working on my online projects, I had to endure several hours of freezing misery - the power wasn't restored until past four in the morning when, like my neighbours, I indulged in a bout of frenzied activity to get washing done, take a hot bath, get hot food, try to heat the house, before trying to get a couple more hours sleep.  

This outage was the culmination of the latest series of intermittent breaks in the power supply we've been suffering here for the past couple of weeks and was supposedly the result of the electricity company's attempts to 'solve' the problem once and for all.  I say 'supposedly' as their story keeps changing, with the engineers who worked through the night to repair the cables now portrayed as heroic, despite the fact that it was their botched repair attempt during the day which spectacularly failed, resulting in a near nine hour outage.  Except that now the outages during the day (caused in this instance by their activities at the sub station) was what they were trying to resolve with their overnight work.  No mention has been made in their most recent communications that we've been suffering outages for the past fortnight, nor the fact that these problems have been going on for years.  Once again, the electricity company is claiming that they've fixed the problem permanently, just as they had before yesterday evening's spectacular outage.  And, indeed, as they have every other time we've suffered these extended periods of outages over the years, (I've lived here for over twenty years and we've suffered power supply problems for all of that time).  The reality is that, each time, instead of identifying and rectifying the underlying cause, they've simply applied some temporary, cheap, fix.  Some of these have lasted only a few hours, others for weeks or months, some for a couple of years.  But they all failed eventually, leaving us without power for hours at a time.

I wouldn't mind, but for the past twenty years the source of the problem has been obvious - the sub station is surrounded by trees, over time their roots have inevitably interfered with the underground cables.  It is surely no coincidence that the outages are usually at a peak during periods of high winds - the trees sway and their roots move around, disturbing and possibly damaging the cables.  Yet, it seems, it was only this week that the engineers decided to dig up a section of cable right beside the sub station, claiming this was the source of the problems - something we locals have been telling them for years.  The location of the faulty section of cable was obvious for a second reason - the outages affect everything on the damaged circuit, not just this terrace of houses, but also the streetlights on the main road next to the sub station and a pelican crossing right beside it.  Clearly, logic dictates that any break or damage in the cable must lie between the crossing (the first affected installation on the circuit) and the sub station - an area of only a few feet.  Quite why so much time has been wasted searching elsewhere for the problem is beyond me.   But then again, it shouldn't surprise me.  This an electricity supplier that refuses to acknowledge that there even have been previous outages and which happily has its phone advisors contradict each other with regard to the current outages.  Do I think that the problem has been solved?  Not really.  I suspect that this is another temporary fix.  The reality is that it will only be permanently solved either if the trees are removed or the cables rerouted.  But those solutions would cost money which would eat into their profits.  That's privatisation for you.


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

El Cheapo

So, I misread another headline recently and for a while was convinced that there was a notorious South American drugs baron called 'El Cheapo'.  In reality, of course, he's known as 'El Chapo' and was recently recaptured by the authorities after meeting Sean Penn whilst on the run. But just for a while I thought that he was 'El Cheapo', the low budget drugs lord who watches every penny.  Actually, if he had been 'El Cheapo' then it would have explained why he was meeting a Hollywood actor in a budget hotel - less to do with security that the fact that he was a tight wad.  Being a crime lord on a budget undoubtedly meant that he insisted that rivals were rubbed out with a single shot rather than a hail of bullets in order to save money.  Or, even better, have them rubbed out using less expensive alternatives to firearms: a pick axe handle or a piece of two by four from the local DIY store, for instance.  

Yes indeed, I thought, 'El Cheapo' was the drugs baron who never got a round in during the annual crime lord meetings these criminal masterminds undoubtedly hold, lived in a modest three bedroom semi detached house and drove a sensible family estate car.  His cocaine was probably the most diluted on offer, cut with the cheapest supermarket economy talcum powder he could find.  In fact, all his 'bling' would probably have been gold plated crap from the likes of Argos and he probably did his weekly shop at the South American equivalent to Lidl.  But sadly, of course, 'El Cheapo' turned out to be simply another artifact of my speed reading.  Which is a pity, as I like the idea of a highly parsimonious drug king pin, who instead of flaunting his ill-gotten gains, lives modestly and with an eye for a bargain, thereby ensuring he doesn't draw attention to himself and has money in the bank for a rainy day.  It would be a case of the criminal underworld mirroring the legitimate economy, where, nowadays, corner-cutting in both public and private sectors in order to save pennies is the order of the day.  But, alas, 'El Cheapo' turned out to be 'El Chapo', a common or garden fugitive drug lord brought down by his own vanity as he tried to arrange a movie deal to put his life on the silver screen. 


Monday, January 11, 2016

'They Always go in Threes'

"They always go in threes", my mother says whenever a celebrity dies.  Whether the 'three' is completed by two more deaths of entertainers of same type, or whether any type of celebrity counts for the threesome, I'm not sure.  Moreover, I've never really been clear as to where we start the count: is the latest death the start of a new trio, or are we counting from the one before that?  But if we are to take the commencement of 2016 as a starting point, then we at least have one clear celebrity death trio: Lemmy from Motorhead, Ed 'Stewpot' Stewart and now David Bowie.  Whilst I fully understand why the first and third on that list have attracted all the news coverage and public mourning, I have to say that it was the middle name - Ed 'Stewpot' Stewart - who probably had the most influence on me when I was growing up in the seventies.  I was far too young back then either to appreciate Bowie or be allowed to listen to anything involving the likes of Lemmy, but I always watched Crackerjack on BBC1 when it was on.  Which is the earliest Crackerjack presenter you remember is a bit like which Doctor Who you first remember seeing - it firmly dates your childhood to a specific era.  Whilst my earliest Who memories are of Patrick Troughton, my first Crackerjack presenter was Micheal Aspel.  But while I always slightly resented Troughton's replacement, Jon Pertwee, seeing him as a usurper, for me Crackerjack only really became a fixture in my TV viewing when Ed Stewart replaced Aspel in 1975.

I've never understood the appeal of Aspel, with his lack of charisma making him seem lobotomised - he always seemed to be just going through the motions when he presented anything, completely disengaged from what was going on around him. 'Stewpot', by contrast, was a much more genial host, looking much more at ease with the shenanigans going on around him.  To young viewers like me, he came over as a fun uncle, rather than the rather distant 'school teacher trying to seem cool' figure cut by his predecessor.  And it was much the same when 'Stewpot' was doing his day job of DJing on Radio One and later Radio Two - laid back, genial and lots of gentle fun.  He put listeners at ease.  There was nothing 'radical' or 'innovative' about Ed Stewart's presenting style: you wouldn't find him playing tracks from unsigned up and coming bands like his contemporary John Peel and certainly wasn't 'zany' like Kenny Everett.  Equally, he wasn't as smarmy as contemporaries like Simon Bates and Mike Read and never thought he was a 'comic genius' like Noel Edmonds.  Moreover, he apparently didn't grope female staff like DLT or molest children like Jimmy Savile.  He just came over as a nice guy. You got the impression that he was probably much the same off air as he was on air. Growing up in the seventies it was nice to see someone succeeding who wasn't self concsiously 'edgy' or 'whacky' or 'outrageous' - Ed Stewart's presence on Crackerjack made it seem that it was OK to be a decent, ordinary bloke.

I'm not trying to be deliberately contrary here - I'm well aware of how Bowie fans must be feeling, I felt much the same way when George Harrison died - but Ed Stewart was a big presence in my TV-watching and radio-listening childhood and I just think it important that his contribution to British entertainment isn't forgotten in the wake of the much higher profile passings of Lemmy and Bowie.

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Friday, January 08, 2016

Island of Terror (1966)

The honour of being the first 'Random Movie Trailer' of 2016 falls to Planet Film's 1966 science fiction effort Island of Terror.  Like it's companion piece, Night of the Big Heat (1965), this was directed by Terence Fisher during his temporary exile from Hammer and reunites him with the star of many of his Hammer movies: Peter Cushing.  Unfortunately, despite these promising portents, Island of Terror is no great shakes as either science fiction or horror, never really building up much tension and unfolding at a pedestrian pace. It's one of the movies used as 'evidence' to prove that Fisher was a director only really at home with Gothic horror and unsympathetic to other, more 'realistic' and 'rational' genres, like science fiction.  In truth, I'd say that the film's failure is largely down to a stodgy script that even Peter Cushing can't breath life into, and poorly realised and unconvincing monsters.

The aforementioned monsters are the 'silicates', crawling tentacle blobs accidentally created during cancer research, which feed on human bones - they suck their victims skeletons out of their bodies.  Like many movie monsters, the viewer is left wondering how the 'silicates' manage to catch and kill so many people as they appear to be very slow moving.  Consequently, they never come over as being particularly menacing.  The film falls into a couple of sub-genres of the British horror film: the lounge bar horror, (where the characters spend large parts of the film in a local pub, discussing the horrible things happening elsewhere, rather than showing them), and the isolated island horror.  The latter is quite fascinating - it's remarkable the number of isolates island communities there were off the coast of Britain in the sixties and early seventies: Night of the Big Heat, Deadly Bees and Doomwatch, to name but a few, used the same format.  In reality, of course, outside of Northern Scotland, (where none of the above are set, only The Wicker Man uses a Scottish setting), such communities are extremely rare, (the Isles of Man and White don't count as they are neither remote nor isolated).  Moreover, their inhabitants tend to be menaced by inclement weather rather than monsters. 

Once a late night TV regular, Island of Terror is another of those films which seems to have dropped out of view.  Whilst by no means a great film, it does provide ninety minutes or so of reasonable entertainment and is a reminder of the days when even tiny tin pot studios like Planet could hire a 'name' horror star and director and actually get their films into cinemas.


Thursday, January 07, 2016

Le Marginal (1983)

Dirty Harry clearly had a huge influence on the French policier genre in the seventies and eighties, with Paris suddenly finding itself policed by legions of maverick cops hell bent on bringing various psychos, serial killers and mobsters to justice, regardless of the fact that they have to break the law wholesale in order to achieve their aims.  For Jean-Paul Belmondo, in particular, Dirty Harry heralded a whole new direction for his career, as he found himself playing a Gallic Harry Callahan in a string of tough cop movies.  The name of the character he played in films like Peur Sur La Ville, Le Marginal and Le Solitaire might have changed from movie to movie, but in essence he was always the same: a leather jacketed loner with a disregard for rules and regulations and a penchant for dangerous driving.  Belmondo, one of France's biggest film stars, had already played his share of rogueish, but charismatic, mobsters by the early seventies and had always happily oscillated between art house pictures and popular action films.  Now he found himself firmly identified with the character of the rogue cop.

There are key differences between these French cop thrillers and their US inspiration.  Unlike Clint Eastwood, Belmondo's cops tend not to brandish outsize phallic substitutes, preferring their standard issue police revolvers.  Moreover, Belmondo is far more athletic than Eastwood, leaping around roof tops , crashing through plate glass windows and jumping from helicopters on to moving power boats.  And it really is Belmondo, who performed his own stunts in these films - a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that by the eighties he was in his early fifties. None of the films could be described as high brow.  They are, however, hugely entertaining and extremely well made.  Le Marginal is probably my favourite and is pretty typical of the genre. This 1983 production used to be a staple of ITV's all night schedules, in a dubbed and slightly edited version under the title The Outsider.  Rather than chasing serial killers, this one sees Belmondo's cop trying to close down a drug kingpin played by American actor Henry Silva - who has friends in high places.  All of the expected plot developments are present: Belmondo is compromised with a dead informant in his apartment just as he's about to get the goods on Silva in Marseilles and is transferred back to Paris' Pigalle District in disgrace but, despite being ordered to spend his time dealing with prostitutes, starts a new investigation into his Nemesis.  Nevertheless, every time he thinks he is about to make a breakthrough, he finds himself frustrated by Silva's political influence.

The film is packed full of action sequences, including the aforementioned helicopter stunt, a car chase through Paris involving an armour-plated Ford Mustang, a shoot out in a railway station and Belmondo's one man raid on a drug den.  The latter is one of the film's many diversions from the main thrust of the plot - in this instance he agrees to rescue the daughter of a criminal he sent down in return for information about a former associate of Silva.  The other main diversion involves Belmondo tracking down and beating up a pair of pimps who had slashed his prostitute girlfriend as punishment for hooking up with a cop.  This culminates in Belmondo pretty much wrecking a restaurant in an extended fight sequence.  There's also a sun-plot involving Belmondo's former protégé - played by a young Tcheky Caryo - who gets mixed up with Silva's rackets.  All-in-all, a pretty heady mix, all accompanied by a typically distinctive Ennio Morricone score.  The film isn't without faults - there's plenty of casual racism and a couple of grossly homophobic sequences (although, to be fair, the latter are balanced by a couple of scenes treating homosexual characters rather more sympathetically), but I'm afraid that simply reflects the era the film was made in.  Throughout it all, Belmondo is as charismatic as ever, delivering a likeable performance even through the English-language dubbing.

French policiers are probably a genre I should tackle more often here - I've watched enough of them.  Unfortunately, as I recently discovered, it is next to impossible these days to find any on DVD with English sub-titles or English dubbing, (my French isn't up to following the dialogue in the original language).  I know that such versions exist as they used to regularly turn up on TV - sadly, this is something else which never seems to happen any more.  But if you do get the chance to see any of this type of film, I'd urge you to take it - the French take on a traditionally American genre is refreshingly different and often quite subversive.


Tuesday, January 05, 2016

The Year of Reading Widely

Not a New Year's resolution as such, but at the beginning of 2015 I made a decision to abandon my normal reading matter for at least the next twelve months.  The fact was that my reading choices had become pretty much narrowed down to a diet of crime thrillers. Now, there's nothing wrong with crime fiction, much of it very well written, but after awhile it can become pretty repetitive - you can start to predict the denouement of a novel within the first few pages.  No plot twists can surprise you any more, no 'perfect crime' mystify you.  My reading matter used to be far more varied, both in terms of genre and subject matter, I used to read far more non-fiction, for instance, covering all manner of topics, not to mention science fiction, fantasy, even literary fiction.  But crime took precedence over time as the novels were simply more convenient to read - they had easily digestible formulae, character types and neat, logical plotting.  By the beginning of last year, however, I was starting to feel frustrated by it all - reading wasn't giving me the pleasure it once had.  I wasn't exposing myself to new ideas and styles as I once had.

So, for the past year I've largely avoided the crime genre, (I did try reading a seventies espionage novel during the Summer, but ended up abandoning it as I found it so pedestrian and reactionary).  Instead, I've gone out of my way to find more eclectic reading material.  On the one hand, I decided to finally get around to reading something I've been meaning to try reading for years but just haven't got around to - PG Wodehouse.  Consequently, I've read, and enjoyed, a number of his 'Jeeves and Wooster' series in the past twelve months, (I'm reading 'Code of the Woosters' right now), and hope to move on to some of his other works in the coming year.  I've also read a lot of non-fiction, including several travelogues (which is odd, as I'm not much of a traveller myself - perhaps reading about it is some kind of substitute, by travelling vicariously through the experiences of others), which I surprised myself by enjoying. I read a lot of books of film criticism and film history as well, over the course of the year, which has all fed into the movie podcasts I've started doing, not to mention the increasing number of film-related posts I've been doing here.  I've reacquainted myself with literary genres I haven't sampled in years, notably one of Michael Moorcock's many fantasy trilogies.  Perhaps the novel which affected me most was a nautical tale by a Dutch author entitled 'The Captain', which chronicled a young Dutch tug boat captain's journey to pacifism whilst on convoy duty during World War Two.

I've been aided in my quest to change my reading habits by one of my local charity shops which had a whole section of shelves given over to musty old hard backs of considerable vintage.  It has proven a rich source both for hard back novels from the forties and fifties and esoteric travel tomes.  (I was a bit perturbed when I went in there the other day, for the first time in a couple of months, to find that half of this section had vanished, to be replaced by a set of shelves dedicated to erotic fiction.  Not the sort of thing I expect to find in a charity shop).  As I've indicated, what started as a twelve month experiment has now become the norm in terms of my reading habits.  I had a look at the crime section in the aforementioned charity shop the other day, but none of the titles on offer held any allure for me any more.  I'll doubtless end up reading some crime novels in the next few months, but they'll be interspersed amongst a lot of other, more varied reading matter.  I don't know whether this exercise has resulted in me being a better person, but it has certainly exposed me to more varied perspectives than before and has returned my reading habits to the healthy eclecticism they once were.      


Monday, January 04, 2016

Night Caller From Outer Space (1965)

Apparently, last Thursday was the fiftieth anniversary of the UK release of Night Caller From Outer Space (to give the film its full UK title, although, to be honest, every print I've ever seen gives the title as simply The Night Caller), a favourite British B-movie of mine.  Night Caller is one of those movies which doesn't have a particularly original basic idea or plot, has modest production values and has nothing flamboyant about its execution, yet has that certain 'something' which makes it linger in the memory and keeps drawing you back for repeated viewings.  Produced for the incredibly obscure Armitage Films (it seems to be their only credited production), its producers had a long track record in low-budget British crime movies and TV series, which might well explain why, in its second half, Night Caller seems to turn into a police procedural.  Indeed, Night Caller is very much a film of two halves - to be honest, it feels like two different films rather arbitrarily stuck together, but that's part of its charm and, ultimately, works to its advantage, with the sudden change of format giving the plot a new lease of life and presenting viewers with an intriguing challenge in trying to fill in the gaps between the two scenarios.

The film's first half is firmly in the mould of traditional British science fiction thrillers like The Quatermass Experiment, with a mysterious object being tracked as it enters the earth's atmosphere before apparently landing in some Home Counties heathland. The military are quickly mobilised to help scientist John Saxon and his colleagues Maurice Denham and Patricia Haines locate the object - which turns out to be a football-sized globe. Taken to the scientists' nearby installation, the globe begins to behave oddly, with Saxon and co quickly surmising that it is the receiving end of an inter-planetary matter transmitter. The question is, who, or what, is using it to materialise in the locked lab and prowl around the installation?  The answer seems to be someone with unusual feet (judging by the footprint he leaves outside a window) and a claw like hand, with which he tries to grab Haines.  This section of the movie culminates with the visitor returning via the globe, resulting in the death of Denham, who is observing it's operation.  The creature then makes its escape with the globe, amidst a hail of bullets put up by the soldiers guarding the installation, eventually stealing and driving off in a Jaguar.

The film now jumps forward, into what, at first, seems to be a completely different story, with Scotland Yard detective Alfred Burke investigating the disappearances of a number of young girls, always after the mysterious 'night caller' had visited their homes.  A link with the first half of the film is provided by Saxon's appearance, as he tries to convince the police that the 'night caller' is, in fact, the alien visitor, abducting earth women for nefarious purposes.  Eventually it is discovered that all the girls had answered an ad for photographic models in a magazine - the post box address is traced to a seedy Soho 'bookshop' run by Aubrey Morris' wonderfully outrageous old queen.  A trap is arranged for the 'night caller' when he is next due to collect his mail.  Haines, meanwhile, has unilaterally arranged her own ambush, having answered the ad and arranged a meeting with the 'night caller' at the shop at the same time.  In the ensuing conflagration, Morris and, quite shockingly, Haines meet sticky ends, before the 'night caller' escapes to abduct another girl.  The film then peters out into a car chase. with Saxon and Burke finally confronting the 'night caller' before he departs, with the latest girl, in his matter transmitter.  In a somewhat perfunctory climax, he reveals to them that he is from Ganymede and that his race need earth women to breed with and renew their gene pool, which has been mutated by radiation following a nuclear war.  After showing the earthmen his face - handsome on one side, bestial on the other - he departs.  And that's it.

All of which sounds pretty standard, low budget fare.  But Night Caller is much more than a sum of its parts.  Atmospherically and efficiently directed by John Gilling - one of British low-budget film making's 'stars', he is now best remembered for his magnificent back-to-back Hammer movies, The Reptile and Plague of the Zombies, but was prolific in a number of genres, professionally turning out efficient yet stylish supporting features with limited resources), it has a genuinely weird and pulpy feel.  The realistic looking settings - from the sterile-looking laboratories and faceless buildings of the first half's scientific installation, to the lovingly filmed grimy back streets of Soho and suburban homes of the second part - contrast unsettlingly with the alien intruder and his activities.  Gilling is helped immensely by an outstanding supporting cast of British character actors, who all give convincing performances, taking the material seriously and performing it straight-faced.  In addition to the sterling contributions of Denham, Haines, Burke, Morris and John Carson as an Army captain, Warren Mitchell puts in a tremendous performance as the father of one of the missing girls.  The broken backed structure and juddering plot, which, having unfolded at a measured pace, suddenly lurches into a hurried and frantic denouement, has always reminded me of one of those pulp horror novels turned out under house names by publisher's like Badger in the sixties: each author had a set number of words and frequently they'd realise that they were running out of their allocation mid-plot, leading to similarly hurried endings.  Which isn't surprising, as the film was based on a pulp science fiction novel by Frank Crisp.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the film is its attitude toward women who, with the exception of Haines, are portrayed as essentially passive victims - and she pays a high price for her independence and intelligence.  Before killing her, the alien tells Haines that he fears what he cannot control, and he cannot control an intellect he considers almost equal to his own.  Is the message that if women want to stay safe, they shouldn't exhibit their intelligence or stray into 'men's work' like science?  Not that they are safe if they don't - they get abducted by aliens for use in selective 'breeding programmes'.  Maybe we're meant to think that is their proper place.  Bearing in mind the relative intelligence of the film's script otherwise (in comparison to similar films of the era) , I'm inclined to think that this wasn't the intent and rather that the portrayal of women is intended to undermine the alien's claims of  the superiority of his civilisation - to him women should just be cattle, if the exhibit independence, they must be destroyed.  By contrast, the earth characters played by Saxon, Denham and Burke at least respect Haines and treat her as an equal.

Night Caller turns up regularly on Talking Pictures TV.  Unfortunately, they tend to show a garishly colourised version which destroys most of the atmosphere carefully built up by Gilling.  I'd urge anyone interested in seeing to instead track down a version in the original black-and-white.


Friday, January 01, 2016

Another Year

So, here we are, 2016 at last.  Although I must say that, so far, it hasn't felt any different to 2015.  I saw the New Year in holding a pint and propping up the bar of my local - the first time that I've dome that in years.  In fact, this Christmas was the first in years that I spent both Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve in the pub.  OK, I know that going out to my local doesn't compare to spending the festive season in, say, Monte Carlo, but it made a change.  I have to say that this has probably been the best festive season I've had in quite a few years.  Not least because I didn't have a cold or some other ailment over the period.  But, sadly, just as I was getting used to those long lazy Winter afternoons on the sofa, watching old movies and drinking tea, the season is drawing to a close and I'm faced with the prospect of returning to work on Monday.  Not something that I'm looking forward to, but I'm at least inching ever closer to getting my mortgage paid off, which will open new possibilities for me with regard to work.

But until then, I'll just have to keep slogging away, telling myself that I only have to put up with this shit until April 2017, then, if I want to, I'll be in a position to stick two fingers up to the bastards.  But one thing I won't be doing this January is joining in with this non-drinking for a month nonsense.  My alcohol consumption falls well within medical guidelines and I'm damned if I'm going to deprive myself of one of the few pleasures I still have to look forward to these days.  I really do get fed up with this government-inspired 'nannying', especially when it is coming from a government  that is busy dismantling what it disparages as the welfare 'nanny state'.  All of which brings us, predictably, to the issue of New Year resolutions. Equally predictably, my only resolution is, once again, not to make any bloody silly resolutions I have no hope of keeping just because we've achieved some arbitrary measure of time.  As ever, 'm of the opinion that if you are going to do something, just do it - don't wait for some anniversary or other to roll around.