Tuesday, January 30, 2018

No More Heroes

It isn't just celebrities we should be wary of idolising and placing on pedestals.  Those individuals lionised by the popular press as 'heroes' in the wake of some disaster or terror attack are equally suspect.  Just today, I was reading how that homeless guy hailed as a hero for supposedly helping victims in the immediate aftermath the Manchester Arena bombing plead guilty to having actually robbed several of them.  Taking advantage of the seriously injured following a terror attack is about as far from heroic as you can get.  In another newspaper report, I read that a Millwall supporter, also hailed by the press as a hero for apparently taking on some of the knifemen during the London Bridge terror attack, had just been given a suspended sentence for two racist attacks, one before his 'heroic' actions, one later.  In the former, he racially abused and spat at a black photographer involved with an anti-globalisation protest, in the latter, he started hurling anti-Islamic abuse around at his local MP's offices.  Frankly, he comes across as a thoroughly nasty piece of work.  Well, let's face it, he's a Millwall supporter (he supposedly shouted 'Fuck off, I'm Millwall' at the London Bridge attackers). Which means that he probably didn't realise there was a terror attack going on - he just saw some 'darkies' and attacked them.

The problem is that the popular press is always so desperate to find some kind of supposedly 'positive' side to things like terror attacks and immediately latch on to anyone who seems to have done anything 'heroic'.  These two reprehensible characters fitted the profile for the right wing press: white and apparently selfless.  Ironically, under normal circumstances, they are exactly the sort of individuals the tabloid press likes to vilify: a homeless beggar on one hand and an unemployed benefits claiming Millwall supporter on the other.  But, in the end, the tabloids' eagerness to create 'heroes' in the face of Islamic extremists has backfired on them.  If they'd showed some restraint, they might have avoided such embarrassment.  When military personnel are awarded medals for valour, the military actually goes to great lengths to investigate the incident they were involved in so as to verify that the would be recipient is actually deserving of the accolade.  Which makes perfect sense = it avoids potential embarrassments of the kind we've seen here.  The most depressing aspect of this whole business were the comments under the story about the Millwall guy, all supporting his 'right' to express his 'opinions' - 'just like the Muslims do when they say they hate gays and women'.  For fuck's sake, where do you even start in the face of such ignorance and bigotry?    


Monday, January 29, 2018

Eighties TV Musings

I've been topping up on seventies and eighties TV series of late, mainly courtesy of Forces TV, (now available on Freeview), so, with my continued enforced absence from work due to ill health, I'll have time to write about some of them here.  In general, it is surprising that a lot of the stuff I've seen is actually better than I remembered it being.  I've already mentioned how less cheesy were the early episodes of Knight Rider than I recalled, but I've recently found that early Starsky and Hutch is actually still watchable.  Sure, these episodes - the first series ones with the slightly menacing Lalo Schifrin theme playing over the titles - are never going to win any awards for originality, but they do still provide solid, undemanding entertainment.  I certainly find them infinitely preferable to their nearest equivalent on contemporary TV: the buddy cop series derived from the Lethal Weapon films. The chemistry between the leads on Starsky and Hutch seems far more natural and the action isn't as over blown.  Moreover, the older series feels far less self conscious and 'knowing' in its execution.  Plus, that Torino driven by Starsky is something to behold - a typical seventies US automotive product, in that it is a full size coupe masquerading as a muscle car. 

Even the A-Team, in its early episodes, at least, is still reasonably watchable.  Although, it as to be said that, for a crack team of commandos, they are incredibly bad shots: every episode, thousands of rounds of ammunition are loosed off, yet nobody ever gets hit by a bullet.  To be absolutely fair, the various gangsters, thugs and terrorists they go up against are equally bad shots, it seems, leaving you wondering why their victims ever felt sufficiently threatened by them to call in the A-Team in the first place.  But hey, it was the eighties, when US TV violence had to be shown to be harmless and logic went out of the window when it came to plotting.  There is a curious innocence to these shows, especially those from the eighties.  I suppose that they reflected a need for escapism into a world where nobody ever really got hurt and existential threats to the protagonists could be resolved in fifty minutes - a welcome contrast to the threat of nuclear annihilation which underpinned the newly intensified Cold War of the early eighties. Some shows of the era did try to be more 'realistic', in their plots and political concerns - Airwolf comes to mind in this respect, with its Cold War themed plots and CIA backed super 'copter 'Black Ops'.  Consequently, it still comes over as po=faced and dull - nowhere near as much fun as Knight Rider or the A-Team.

Labels: ,

Friday, January 26, 2018

Feet of Clay

I try to avoid idolising public figure, particularly from the world of entertainment.  They inevitably let you down.  Just look at recent events with Kevin Spacey, for instance, revealed as some kind of predatory serial groper (he's pretty much as good as admitted that the allegations against him are true), or Johnny Depp exposed for alleged domestic violence.  Both seemed relatively decent characters as Hollywood superstars went, yet both turned out to be the regular type of tinsel town douche bags after all.  But it isn't just revelations of sex and violence in the past of a star whose work you have respected which can lead to your completely reassessing them.  Now, I always knew that James Stewart was politically to the right, with hawkish views on things like the Vietnam War.  But I still enjoyed many of his performances, usually playing those small town family men with a social conscience, I always just assumed that on social issues, like many Republicans, he was relatively moderate.  But the other day I was disturbed to read about how, in the early seventies, he had a black actor fired from a guest role on his TV show.

Now, the first issue to address here is the fact that James Stewart once had a TV show - back in the day, stars of his magnitude rarely, if ever, did regular TV shows.  Yet, in the very early seventies, for one season only, James Stewart appeared in an eponymous sitcom, in which he played a lecturer in a small town college.  It's short duration was largely down to the fact that, even by the standards of the time, it was considered incredibly old fashioned and out of touch with contemporary audiences.  But, to get back to the point, one episode featured Stewart's character being ordered around by a guest character in a position of authority over him.  The actor originally cast in the role happened to be black.  The role was recast at Stewart's insistence, because he felt that it would be wrong for family audiences to see a white man being subordinated to a black man!  Bearing in mind the then still recent history of the civil rights movement in the US, such an attitude, particularly from someone as prominent as Stewart, seems incredible.  It has certainly left me feeling hugely disappointed in some whose film appearances I had generally admired and respected.

At around the same time I found this out about James Stewart, I learned that silent comedy pioneer Harold Lloyd had also been involved in a race controversy. Lloyd is a somewhat lesser remembered contemporary of Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy.  His films were notable for the incredible stunts he performed in them, climbing up the sides of buildings, hanging off of the arms of the clocks at their summits and so on.  Along with Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd was one of only a handful of silent comedy stars to successfully transition to sound, with a string of successful talkies in the thirties.  Anyway, he lived in an exclusive part of Beverly Hills, which had originally barred the likes of black people and Jews from owning property there.  As the thirties progressed, however, wealthy black actors, musicians and businessmen increasingly tried to move there.  Lloyd joined other residents in petitioning the local authorities to enforce the relevant ordinances to ensure that the area remained exclusively white.  The case went all the way to a Federal judge, who ruled against the residents.  Again, I've been left disturbed by the fact that someone whose work I'd respected was some kind of racist.  Sure, I know that it could be argued that his views in this matter were commonplace at the time and that, like modern day Daily Mail readers, he just wanted to protect local property prices. Nevertheless, it suggests a highly unsavoury side to the character of a truly great film comedian.

Labels: ,

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Zombies on Broadway (1945)

Zombies on Broadway is a title everyone seems to know, but few people seem to have bothered watching.  Usually cursorily dismissed in reference books as a typically bad B movie which wastes Bela Lugosi, in point of fact, the film isn't without interest.  First up, like the later Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, it features an imitation of a then popular double act.  In this case it is Wally Brown and Alan Carney, a pair of vaudevillians who were put together by RKO as their answer to Abbot and Costello, who were earning Universal big bucks with their comedy movies.  Brown and Carney made eight movies for RKO as a team, in addition to appearing in several other movies where they didn't share scenes.  Most of their movies as a team for RKO were, to a greater or lesser extent, remakes of earlier RKO movies, reworking the old scripts.  Whilst Zombies on Broadway is nominally from an original script, it does have some connections to an earlier RKO B movie: the Val Lewton produced I Walked With a Zombie.  Not only does it feature two of the same supporting cast - calypso singer Sir Lancelot and Darby Jones recreating his zombie role from the earlier film - the name of the island - San Sebastian - the hapless duo go to in search of a zombie is the sames as the one the action of I Walked With a Zombie unfolds on.

Sadly, that's where any resemblance to the earlier film ends - Zombies on Broadway is played strictly for laughs.  Unfortunately, it doesn't really generate many.  The biggest problem lies with Brown and Carney - the studio might well have been pushing them as a new Abbot and Costello, but unlike them, or any other established double act who had spent years developing their material, there is just nothing distinctive about them, either individually or as a team.  I'm not an Abbot and Costello fan but there's no doubt that they had distinct screen characters which established clear expectations from their audience and gave rise to distinctive routines.  By contrast, even in this, their sixth film together, Brown and Carney come over like two strangers who have been randomly thrown together,  There's no chemistry, consequently no decent repartee or convincing comic interaction.  All of which leaves something of a vacuum at the centre of the film.  Bela Lugosi, on the other hand, turns in a pretty good deadpan comic performance.  Still, from his perspective, working for RKO was a distinct step up from the dreadful pictures he'd recently been making for Monogram.

To be fair, Zombies on Broadway has a half decent central premise which, with stronger comic leads, might have yielded a more memorable pictures, along the lines of The Ghost Breakers, perhaps.  Basically, a pair of press agents (Brown and Carney) make the mistake of advertising that the opening of a new York nightclub owned by a local gangster will feature a real zombie.  Initially planning to pass off a retire boxer acquaintance as a member of the undead, they are rumbled by a Walter Winchell-type gossip columnists, who threatens to expose the gangster's opening night as fraudulent.  Naturally, under threat of death, Brown and Carney head for San Sebastian in search of renowned Zombie expert Dr Renault.  The latter, of course, turns out to be Bela Lugosi who, interestingly, is trying to replicate the natives' Voodoo zombification process with a scientifically derived serum.  Unfortunately, his subjects either die or revert to normality after a few hours.  Before the film is over, Carney has become a zombie and Lugosi has fallen foul of his own pet zombie (Jones).  Brown tries to use Carney for the club's opening night, but he recovers just before going on stage, but somebody else gets a shot of Lugosi's serum just in the nick of time.

Despite its deficiencies, Zombies on Broadway is a tolerable sixty eight minutes.  Sure there are some moments which seem jarring to modern audiences - most notably when Carney blacks up with soot and pretends to be a native: 'You were so scared you've turned black' - but it boasts the sort of decent production values you'd expect from a studio produced B movie and moves along at a decent pace.  In the director's chair is none other than Gordon Douglas, then a prolific director of B movies, but post war a director of bigger budget pictures such as the giant ant classic Them, a Rat Pack movie, Robin and the Seven Hoods and a trio of pretty decent Frank Sinatra vehicles: Tony Rome, The Detective and Lady in Cement.  His direction lends Zombies on Broadway a slickness and professionalism absent in many other B movies of the era.  As ever, Zombies on Broadway is no lost classic, but it does provide a decent diversion for just over an hour.  Plus, it has one of the truly all time great titles.


Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Four Per Cent Inebriation

I was reading the other day that nearly one third of the alcohol sold in the UK is drunk by just 4% of the population - which is a staggering statistic.  It certainly puts into perspective all those recent attempts to scare us all into drinking less alcohol.  Clearly, most of us are drinking less alcohol: the problem drinkers, the ones who should be targeted, are a relatively small group.  Moreover, the kind of alcohol they are drinking is, in the main, that cheap, rough as a dog's arse, cider or strong lager you can buy cheaply in supermarkets and the like.  Apparently, the average strong cider drinker can consume around sixteen litres of the stuff a week.  Which is very scary indeed.  The damage they are risking to their health is immense and potentially fatal.  But the point I'm stumbling toward here is that the problem drinkers in our society aren't drinking real ales or expensive spirits like decent whiskys - they are drinking vast quantities of strong lager or cheap vodka.  Yet always the proposals to curb problem drinking are the same: an indiscriminate surcharge on alcohol, making the 96% of us who drink moderately pay for the problems of a minority. 

Surely, it would be more logical, not to mention fairer, to focus additional alcohol taxation on the types of drinks which are actually at the root of the problem?  (Although, arguably, upping the price of cheap alcohol to try and put it out of the reach of the 4% will either result in them turning to crime to fund their habit, or turning to substitutes, such as narcotics, to feed their addictions).  But alcohol isn't really the root of the problem, is it?  It's clear that the majority of this 4% are living in poverty, a significant proportion of them street drinkers. Arguably, their alcohol abuse is merely a symptom of their problems - what starts as a way to numb the pain of their desolate lives quickly becomes a dependency.  The real base problem is poverty, complicated, in many cases, by untreated mental illness. Now, I'm not saying that we should ignore the damage being dome here by the alcohol abuse, but the excessive alcohol consumption of the 4% can only be properly addressed by tackling their most fundamental problem: poverty.  We really need to be asking ourselves why, in the twenty first century, in a technologically advanced and relatively wealthy nation, 4% of our population live in such misery that they end up drinking a third of the alcohol sold here in a vain attempt to oiliterate the miserable, poverty stricken reality they find themselves trapped in?


Monday, January 22, 2018

In the Worst of Health

So, last time I was wittering on about having my life turned upside down.  Well, the disruptions continued today.  The long and the short of it is that I finally saw my doctor last week with, what I thought, were work stress-related symptoms and the related mild depression.  In the course of the check up, she took my blood pressure and found that it was twice what it should be - extreme hypertension is the medical term, I believe.  It was so high that I was running the risk of suffering a stroke.  Consequently, I was prescribed medication and packed off for a series of blood tests and an ECG (all of which seemed to take up most of Thursday and Friday).  Anyway, I was back at the doctor's late this morning to discuss the results and review the situation.  Well, the good news is that according to the tests my kidney and liver are functioning as normal, as is my heart and my red and white blood cell counts are normal.  Moreover, the capsules I'm taking for the blood pressure seem to be working: my blood pressure has fallen since I started taking them.  It is still far, far too high, but it is now moving in the right direction.

The bad news was that my cholesterol level was higher than it should be, not spectacularly high, though, and that I have mild type two diabetes.  Neither of these would usually merit treatment at their current levels, but because of the high blood pressure, I've been prescribed more pills to bring the cholesterol and diabetes under control.  I've also been told to avoid unduly stressful situations - so I've been signed off work for the next week, until I see the doctor again next Monday, when the situation will be reviewed.  In the meantime, I'm trying to avoid stress and get more exercise (it's good for the blood pressure).  I have to admit that I've found the whole business both scary, disorienting and worrying.  In the short term, having to manage three sets of medication is challenging enough, but in the longer term, I have the even greater challenge of making significant changes to my lifestyle if I'm to get all of my ailments under control on a permanent basis.  Inevitably, it means that my plans to leave my crappy job will move forward - while the work related stress which sparked all of this off doesn't account for just how high my blood pressure has become, it certainly hasn't helped.  It has definitely exacerbated the problem.  I really need to take some time out to relax and plan my next move.


Friday, January 19, 2018

We'll Be Right Back...

That's right - another commercial break, which can mean only one thing: I can't think of anything else to post about today.  There are actually good reasons for this, which I might yet choose to share here.  But trust me, the last couple of days have turned my life upside down and I'm still struggling to get my bearings in the new reality I find myself inhabiting.  But to get back to the matter in hand, this particular commercial break is of interest to me for several reasons.  First up, it comes from Southern Television, the ITV regional franchise I grew up watching.  Their rather strange channel ident can be seen before the ads start.  Secondly, it was originally shown during an episode of Space: 1999, a series which Southern chose not to show until several months after it had premiered on other regions.  (They never actually screened series two, as I recall - for those of us in the South, it came as a revelation that there even had been a second series).  

This makes me think that this break must have been run on a Saturday morning, which is where Southern originally scheduled Space: 1999.  This would seem to be confirmed by the presence of an ad for confectionary (those were the days when advertisers were allowed to target kids with ads for sugar filled sweets, fast food and the like), and the PG Tips chimps ad.  However, the last ad is for a wine merchant (when was the last time you saw a TV ad for a wine merchant?), which would imply a later slot (that said, as noted before, there weren't so many restrictions on what type of ad you could run at particular times).  Of course, the ad for milk is pretty harmless, but seems somewhat adult-orientated for something shown during what Southern clearly considered to be a kid's TV programme.  Regardless of their scheduling, these ads encompass a range of products and techniques that you simply wouldn't see in a modern commercial break - the targeting of children with an ad for sweets, wine merchants (now seen as too niche a target audience and superseded by the rise of supermarkets selling wines).  Likewise, the commercial selling something as generic as milk, (only specialised milk like Cravendale or Arlo get their owns now), and, in the case of the PG Tips ad, animal cruelty (quite apart from the ethical considerations of forcing animals to perform.in the service of commerce, CGI animals are much easier to direct).  Once again, the seventies truly were another country.

Labels: ,

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Peter Wyngarde Remembered

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

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


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Land That Time Forgot Revisited

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

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

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

Labels: ,

Monday, January 15, 2018

Tabloid News

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

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

Labels: , ,

Friday, January 12, 2018

Willard (1971)

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

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

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

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


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Winter Past

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

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

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

Labels: ,

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Playing With Fire

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

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


Monday, January 08, 2018

Sitting in the Departure Lounge

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

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


Saturday, January 06, 2018

Local Schlock

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

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

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


Thursday, January 04, 2018

Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952)

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

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

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


Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Knight Rider Revisited

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

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

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

Labels: ,

Monday, January 01, 2018

Another New Year

2018 at last.  Does it feel any different to you?  Nah, me neither.  It's always the same.  That said, I always find New Year's Day the most relaxing of this season's Bank Holidays: all the tension and expectations have gone.  All there is to do is to flake out and enjoy a lazy day on the sofa.  Which is what I've been doing today.  There is a tendency to see New Year's Day as the poor relation of the Christmas season.  Indeed, it only became an official bank holiday in England within living memory.  Until the early seventies, if you wanted to sleep that New Year's Eve hangover off, you had to take a day's leave from work, (unless New Year fell over a weekend, obviously - or if you were in Scotland).   I vaguely remember the first time New Year's Day was a bank holiday here in England - it might well have been 1971.   Anyway, I was very young and what I recall about it was that nobody actually had any idea how to celebrate it - in our house we ended up having a re-run of Christmas lunch.  I seem to remember the cat getting really fed up with turkey that Christmas.  I also recall that the afternoon film on, I think BBC2, that day was The Mark Zorro with Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone - it was only thirty or so years old back then, which made it fairly 'recent' in terms of the movies we got on TV in the early seventies.

In truth, of course, we still have no clear idea of how to mark New Year's Day itself - all the celebrations focus on New Year's Eve and the actual turning of the year in the early hours.  The day itself seems to be spent either in recovery mode or shopping at the January sales.  Some places have taken to holding New Year parades in recent times. (Obviously.Crapchester doesn't - something like that requires organising and financing, neither of which our local council is good at).  A lot of people would still have you believe that today marks the end of Christmas, but, as I never tire of banging on about here, it is a twelve day festival which doesn't end until Twelfth Night - so we've got a few days still to go yet.  Sadly, most people will be forced back to work for these last days of the Christmas season, so we can't really enjoy it.  As I get older, I find myself ever more reluctant to let go of Christmas and the safe haven from the horrors of work that it provides in these bleak and unfriendly weeks of Winter.  Maybe next year I'll manage to take all of the twelve days of Christmas off and celebrate them properly.  In the meantime, as with every year, I'll gradually move on - there's Spring and the Easter break to look forward to, not to mention Summer and the lazy days of August.   It's a whole new year, after all.

Labels: ,