Tag Archives: bfi southbank

Music Believed Wiped (BFI Southbank)

The news reports have largely been about the rediscovery of The Beatles’ only live appearance on Top of the Pops but it is really just a squint at a few seconds of “Paperback Writer”.

Title card with musician Ashleigh Hennessey

Title card with musician Ashleigh Hennessey

Far more interesting were clips from Ready Steady Go including a snippet of Nina Simone, a couple of high energy and vibrantly filmed numbers from The Who, and some close-up filming of lovely Paul Jones from Manfred Mann playing his harmonica in a couple of blues numbers.

Two compilations suffered a bit from not identifying the acts, although of course we knew Sweet, T-Rex, Elton John, plus Lieutenant Pigeon, Peters and Lee, and even Geordie (pre-AC/DC Brian Johnson) and a knockout performance from Jethro Tull.

Pete Murray with host David Hamilton

Pete Murray with host David Hamilton

Guests were the veteran broadcaster Pete Murray and Sweet leader Andy Scott, and David Hamilton hosted the afternoon, before the last edition of Top of the Pops to be filmed in black and white. This included the original promo of The Beatles with “Something”, oddly eschewing shots of Linda McCartney for Paul skipping about alone. A side-by-side comparison with the final version rectified this and was weirdly touching.

David Hamilton and Andy Scott of Sweet

David Hamilton and Andy Scott of Sweet

An excellent show, especially the pieces retrieved from 1960s and 1970s computer tape recordings. Kaleidoscope, now in their 31st year , of finding, restoring and curating archive TV clips, programmes and continuity, are to be applauded for their continued efforts in this sphere.

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In Conversation with Malcolm McDowell (BFI Southbank)

One of the hot tickets at the BFI kicked off the Kubrick season with an appearance from the lead actor in his most divisive film, A Clockwork Orange.

With more than forty years residence in the USA, Malcolm McDowell (slighter than I expected, bespectacled, balding, and swarthed in a showy scarf) has a Yankee twang alongside his original flat Yorkshire vowels.

In conversation with scholar and broadcaster Sir Christopher Frayling, the topics ranged from Kubrick and McDowell’s early mentor, Lindsay Anderson (director of 60s classic If…), to Caligula, the best relationship between actor and director, the high-pitched sarf London voice of HG Wells, Peter O’Toole’s joint chain-smoking, and glittery Nazi underwear.

We were treated to clips from “the big hits” – If…, A Clockwork Orange, Caligula, plus Time After Time (in which McDowell met wife number 2, Mary Steenburgen, and relocated across the pond permanently), and the underrated Gangster No 1.

It is always a privilege to listen in to our senior actors, and this one proved a charming and fun raconteur. I can’t help wondering, though, whether A Clockwork Orange has its cult status through years of oppression, and what would have happened to McDowell’s career trajectory had his first film been Ken Loach’s Poor Cow, as planned.

My personal favourite of his performances are quieter films – The Raging Moon and Aces High, and his showy return to television in Our Friends in the North in the mid-90s, when there was still such a thing as “event TV”.

The Kubrick season continues at the BFI Southbank, in tandem with a visiting exhibition on the filmmaker at the Design Museum which opens mid-April.


ITV Playhouse: A Splinter of Ice (BFI Southbank)

splinter of ice

Ian Hendry (Tony) and Judy Loe (Clemence)

Fay Weldon’s absorbing play teams a small cast headed by Ian Hendry and Annette Crosbie to explore the problems of middle-aged marriages and the preoccupations of the younger generation.

Tony (Hendry) is a writer and TV personality who has been married to Joy (Crosbie) for twenty years. She is a brittle and bitter woman of forty who regrets not having a child, and her closest friend Bridget (Zena Walker), is also her biggest irritation.

Bridget, a ‘suburban housewife’ with a dull marriage and four children, ‘two with asthma’, and a couple of weeks away puts the smile back on her face when she has a fling with Tony’s agent, Jude (Norman Eshley).

In the meantime, we know that young Clemence (Judy Loe) has got herself pregnant from her affair with Tony, fifteen years her senior, and isn’t keen on keeping the baby. Throw in a bohemian girlfriend for Jude, Julia (Amber Kammer), a randy cat, generational attitudes towards love, commitment, and abortion, and you have a provocative drama which may not feel entirely contemporary in the 21st century, but which still engages audience empathy even if the majority of the characters are dreadful, self-obsessed, selfish and stagnant.

Hendry, Loe and Crosbie in particular shine as the unhappily married couple and the ‘slut’ who the wife first tolerates, then sees as a threat, then realises her usefulness. Walker’s frumpy mother lights up when a chance to relive her girlhood offers itself, while Eshley and Kammer are quietly obnoxious twenty-somethings abjecting themselves of any responsibility.

Utilising several extreme close-ups and some clever scenes with minimal dialogue, we see the unfolding plot from each point of view, and get a measure of what the future holds for each and every character.


The Devil’s Eggshell (Play of the Month) – BFI Southbank

As part of the BFI Southbank’s “Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder” season, this rare showing of the Play of the Month of June 1966, ‘The Devil’s Eggshell’ took place last night.

It’s an odd piece, only nominally nodding in the direction of sci-fi when strange egg-shaped objects (or “POs”) seem to be the cause of disasters ranging from rail and car crashes, suicides, stock market shenanigans, and more.  Leonard Rossiter’s weirdly-accented PM (is he meant to be Welsh?) takes the whole thing very seriously, bringing the country under the military rule of the Fascist-inclined Major General Atkins (John Phillips) and ignoring the pleas of rational political observers Sir Edward Bell (David Langton) and Lord Portmanteau (Bernard Hepton, also curiously Welsh at times) to inform the public from the start.

Things take a curious turn when scientist boffin Dr Quilliam (Keith Barron) hits upon the plan which in a nutshell is to create a ‘Foe’ who can cause world domination purely to cause the general public to turn on their elected leaders.  Such a plan seems fraught with danger, and indeed as the public turn to an ugly and frightened mob it does seem that the end result will be devastating.

Sharply satirical and blackly funny, this play also addresses the notion of press freedom, mob rule, and hysteria in the face of events we do not understand.  From the early demise of the nosy journalist (Michael Culver), to the introduction of death by guillotine for those who were gullible enough to think they could influence public opinion, it is sobering to note that by the end those who survive are the old guard, back in power again, just as corrupt and just as clueless.

The play uses a lot of footage on film which looks to be from real disasters or mobs, and this adds to the pedestrian look to the in-studio pieces.  The cast, which also includes Marian Diamond (Jean), Edmond Bennett (Fowler), and briefly, Burt Kwouk as a Chinese delegate to the conference of war, are good, but the play itself, by David Weir and directed by Gareth Davies, is muddled, and falls between the satire and the unease of the portrayal of mob rule and military coups which seem eerily accurate (this was only two decades after the fall of Hitler, and at the height of the Cold War).


Angela Lansbury double: Driving Miss Daisy and Blithe Spirit

Last week I was at the BFI Southbank to see a recording of ‘Driving Miss Daisy’, filmed live in Australia and featuring Angela Lansbury, James Earl Jones and Boyd Gaines.  I’d previously seen the same production on a London run with Vanessa Redgrave as Daisy, but it is curious and instructive to see what a change of just one cast member can do for the dynamics of a play, and so it was here.  Redgrave may be a theatre grand dame and one of an illustrious dynasty, but Lansbury is A Star.   Her scenes with Jones are an absolute joy.

The play was hugely enjoyable and Lansbury, making a rare personal appearance afterwards on the cinema stage, talked frankly about her time at MGM (which she clearly hated, finding the studio cold and impersonal in contrast with Paramount’s friendly vibe when she was loaned out for ‘The Court Jester’), how she felt when she triumphed on the Broadway stage in ‘Mame’ but lost the role in the film to Lucille Ball, and the twelve-year run on television of the popular crime series ‘Murder, She Wrote’ which gave employment to so many of her old colleagues.  At 88 years old, Lansbury is still bright and glamorous, and even if she didn’t quite appreciate the level of film knowledge of her audience (‘you won’t have heard of Boston Blackie/Greta Garbo/Robert Taylor’), she appeared fairly warm even if she was dismissive of the talents of most of her contemporaries.

Today I was in the same ‘room’ as Ms Lansbury again, but this time at the Gielgud Theatre for the matinee performance of Noel Coward’s sparkling comedy, ‘Blithe Spirit’.  With Charles Edwards, Janie Dee, and Jemima Rooper acting alongside Lansbury, this is a vibrant production with a wicked second half (the first takes a while to warm up), although I hesitate to agree that front stall and dress circle tickets are worth in excess of £100.  Madame Arcati to many will always be Margaret Rutherford, but Angela Lansbury with her expressive glances, dotty dancing, and sense of timing, does entertain with a level of professionalism which comes from a seven decade career.

 


Jane Eyre, 1956 – ★★★★

This was a superb TV adaptation which was far better than expected – I had seen a few clips before.

Stanley Baker shows us a Rochester who lives in torment but who also has some humour as you see the love between him and Jane (Daphne Slater, who plays her from childhood, and is excellent) develop.

Studio bound except for one episode’s film sequences, this overcomes the technical and budgetary limitations of 1950s tv to provide a satisfying version which raises some smiles and gives a touching ending.

It starts with the young Jane screaming with fear in the locked room at her Aunt Reed’s, where her uncle had died and every noise and shadow causes her to jump.  We then see her life at Lowood with only the kind Miss Temple and the consumptive Helen Burns as friends – and later, when Helen has died and Jane has grown she answers Mrs Fairfax’s advertisement for a governess.

The story has been covered in many adaptations since, but I have only seen a handful of earlier ones, and none of them have gone into this depth (three hours and twenty minutes of episodes).  We have the gypsy scene, the fall from the horse (which can be found on the internet, one of the two clips I had seen before), the first interview (although this time Rochester does not send for Jane, she walks in on Adele unannounced and there he is), the attempt to burn Rochester in his bed – but missing the ‘friends and shake hands’ bit, the abruptly ended wedding, and so on.

There is a lot to admire here, notably the interplay between the leads and the fact that despite the actors being only one month apart in age, they portray a twenty-year age gap accurately here.  I liked the fact that Mrs Fairfax obviously knows something is hidden on the second floor as she pulls away from Jane and does not wish her happiness, and I particularly liked the ending, which was handled well.  And the pious clergyman Rivers is truly awful, all full of Christian charity.

This version is in the BFI archives and is in fairly good condition for a 1950s TV broadcast, one of the earliest to survive from the UK.  It has lovely music and interesting opening and closing credits, starting with a silhouette of Jane and ending with one of Rochester, perhaps a nod to the ‘threads between us’ speech which is missing from this version, which alludes to the pair being one being joined together at the heart.


The Sweeney at 40: a BFI celebration

The BFI Southbank was the venue on Thursday of a celebration of that iconic cop show of the 1970s, ‘The Sweeney’ which ran for 52 episodes between 1975 and 1978, preceded by an Armchair Cinema pilot called ‘Regan’, and two feature films at the end of the series run.

The series starred John Thaw as DI Regan and Dennis Waterman as DS Carter, and Waterman was present in the Q&A at this event alongside producer Ted Childs and director Tom Clegg (and facilitator Dick Fiddy) to talk about the series, the cast, the crew, and why the mix of action, realistic violence, character interplay, and humour made a successful mixture which kept the series high in the ratings.

Waterman seemed very much ‘on image’ with quips about always meeting people in pubs, annoying his then wife by boozing with the crew after a long day’s shoot, and speaking fondly about his first time working with Thaw in the 1960s.  Childs and Clegg were also entertaining and frank about the problems they encountered in making car chases through the London Docklands, and dealing with the demanding agents of cast members (‘they asked for more money so he said ‘kill her”).

An interesting set of clips as well, including the dinner party gatecrashed by Regan and Carter by mistake, presided over by a dignified ‘JR Hartley’, a chilling sequence where a family is taken hostage and the man of the house is gunned down at the door, and a drunken song and dance routine (lifted from the Sinatra/Durante film ‘It Happened In Brooklyn’) featuring the two leads in a moment of lightness.

This was a crowd-pleasing event at which even some of the cars were present (although outside, naturally).  A worthy celebration of an archive television classic.


The Deep Blue Sea, 1955 – ★★★★

The BFI have digitised the only remaining archival print of this film (faded, damaged, with splices and skips) as part of their major Vivien Leigh retrospective, which gives us a rare chance to see it as originally intended, in Cinemascope on a big screen.

Rattigan wrote the screenplay for this adaptation of his play, which was certified back in the 50s as very much for ‘adults only’, with its subject matter of adultery, attempted suicide, and dark secrets.

Vivien Leigh, faded with the years but still with the beauty she had as a younger actress, plays Hester Collier, a judge’s wife who teeters on the brink of genteel depression brought on by boredom and a marriage devoid of passion.

She leaves her perfectly decent and rich husband, Sir William (Emlyn Williams, in a lovely understated performance) for the RAF daredevil Freddie Page (Kenneth More, inhabiting the part he played on stage), who can give her little in the way of money or prestige but who presumably can give her what was lacking on the physical side in her marriage.

However, Hester remains caught between ‘the devil and the deep blue sea’, brought to desperation by – as she explains to her husband – ‘anger, hatred, and shame’. Her society name is ruined, she lives in a seedy apartment block alongside a resting actress who spends her evenings in Soho bars (Moira Lister, very good), and a struck-off doctor who now works as a bookmaker (Eric Portman, reminiscent of his Canterbury Tale role, and looking forward to his role in Deadfall).

This doctor is her conscience in many ways, her ‘white angel’ (a term which refers both to Freddie’s lodgings of choice towards the end of the film, and Miller the former doctor’s impact on both Hester and Freddie’s state of mind). Hester may be struggling with the black dog and periods of hysteria (not unlike Leigh herself at this time in her life) but she has the strength to get through this right up to the touching finale.

Anatole Litvak directed this picture with few exteriors and a sense of the seedy side of life in the flat inhabited by Hester and Freddie, in the succession of bars and nightclubs we see in the final third of the film, and in Hester’s bedraggled and desperate beauty.

Interestingly on stage this role was played by Peggy Ashcroft, and in the film was originally offered to Marlene Dietrich. Either actress would have been fascinating to watch, but Leigh is an excellent choice, a lady of quality who, as her actress neighbour says ‘belongs here (the apartments) as much as I belong in Park Lane’. She has paid a huge price for what she calls ‘love’.

There is a joyous section in a flashback part way through this film, where Hester and Freddie develop an attraction to each other on the ski slopes. It is the only time this film does not feel confined and overbearing in its surroundings.

Incidentally comedy watchers will spot Dandy Nichols and Sid James in straight parts here – both very effective.

I am now in the mood to rewatch the other two versions of this play which have been filmed (1994, for television, and 2011)!

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

NaBloPoMo November 2013


A quick London round-up …

At London’s Transport Museum, Covent Garden, you can see the exhibition of posters brought together under the umbrella title ‘Poster Art 150’.  It’s on until January 5th – more details at http://www.ltmuseum.co.uk/whats-on/exhibitions.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, has acquired Vivien Leigh’s archive and will display a selection of items from it in their Theatre & Performance galleries.  More details here – http://www.vam.ac.uk/b/blog/network/va-acquires-vivien-leigh-archive.

In its last week at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank is the World Press Photo Exhibition – http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson/world-press-photo-2013-1000455.

The Royal Festival Hall’s Spirit Level gallery is also the venue for the Koestler Trust’s 2013 exhibition of art by prisoners, offenders on community sentences, secure psychiatric patients and immigration detainees.  As in previous years this is touching, surprising, and well worth a look.  It runs until the 1st December.  http://www.koestlertrust.org.uk/pages/uk2013/exhibuk2013.html

Staying on the South Bank, the National Theatre is celebrating its 50th birthday and has a small exhibition of images in the Lyttelton Gallery of Oliver’s first company amongst other celebrations – http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/discover-more/welcome-to-the-national-theatre/50th-anniversary/50-at-the-national.

At the BFI Southbank, we are halfway through the Gothic season of films (https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::permalink=gothic), and there is currently a Vivien Leigh retrospective which runs to the end of the year *https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::permalink=vivien-leigh), including a new restoration of ‘Gone With The Wind’.

From tiny musical boxes to the Mighty Wurlitzer, pay a visit to the Musical Museum in Brentford (http://10551.easywebsiteinabox.org/contents/14), while at the Watermans just up the road the annual showcase of digital art, enter13, is running until 5th January (http://www.watermans.org.uk/exhibitions/exhibitions/enter13.aspx).

At Pimlico, the Tate Britain has had a revamp and has an exhibition on until February of ‘Five Contemporary Artists’.  For more details, see http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/painting-now-five-contemporary-artists.

The Design Museum (at Butler’s Wharf) recreates Paul Smith’s chaotic office with its collection of miscellaneous objects until the 9th March – http://designmuseum.org/exhibitions/2013/paul-smith.

Finally, over at the Barbican in the City of London, the Pop Art Movement is being celebrated at the Gallery – http://www.barbican.org.uk/artgallery/event-detail.asp?ID=14797.

NaBloPoMo November 2013


Surrealists, storytellers, and the Radio Times @ 90

Spending a Friday evening and an afternoon/evening at the BFI Southbank is always worthwhile.

As part of the Comedy strand, Dick Fiddy put together a programme loosely related to ‘Surrealists and Storytellers’, ranging from a 1935 clip of Robb Wilton (wondering why he missed the end of the Great War, and bemoaning the fact that just as he reached the only pub ‘over the top’ it got blown up leaving the door handle in his hand), through Max Wall (a fun piano duet and his famed funny walk, in a clip which looked as if it was from The Good Old Days), Marty Feldman (a brilliant surrealist playing golf and a henpecked husband who makes interesting trips while he is supposed to be putting the cat out or making cocoa), Spike Milligan (the great, unclassifiable, king of the surreal comedian), and Eddie Izzard (an early clip from the days in which he was a genuinely funny and unassuming performer, with pink nails and blusher, musing on what Star Trek stun guns could accomplish if they had a ‘limp’ or a ‘sudden interest in botany’ setting – I would have included the bird migration being led by a member of the flock who failed to map-read, but all Izzard’s early stuff was good).

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Terence Stamp in Conversation (BFI)

The BFI Southbank’s retrospective film seasons often allow us a chance to see cinema icons discussing their career in conversation. This week it was the turn of that quintessential Sixties icon, Terence Stamp. Now in his 70s, he retains much of his youthful charisma and charm (and of course, those amazing eyes) and if this discussion with Geoff Andrew was measured and cautious at times, Stamp displayed a wicked sense of humour when discussing his father’s views on acting, Marlon Brando, James Bond, and his role as transgendered Bernadette in ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.’

Throughout the event, which ran close to two hours, clips from Stamp’s career were shown (‘Billy Budd’, ‘The Collector’, ‘Superman II’, ‘The Hit’, ‘Priscilla’, and ‘The Limey’) with accompanying comments and anecdotes about those who have mentored and influcenced him (Peter Ustinov (his first director and “a genius”), Anthony Newley(his advice to Stamp was to “do nothing” to be an effective actor), Robert Ryan (who only interacted with his co-star before the camera), Suzanne Cloutier (Mrs Ustinov and Orson Welles’ screen Desdemona), William Wyler (“the greatest director who ever lived”), Fellini (“I see my career as before Fellini and after Fellini”), Michael Caine (his former flatmate when starting out), Brando (a spot-on impersonation and filthy story), and others). More personal material was skirted over (a sole mention of Julie Christie related to a planned ‘Limey’ sequel, ‘Waterloo Sunset’ rather than their well-publicised relationship in their youth), although Stamp explained his philosophy of life during his journey from East End working class boy to Indian mystic drop-out. Now he seems content, smart, fashionable, and assured.

Questions from the audience ranged from the usual fan gush through to an observation that young Stamp was ‘so little’ (in ‘Billy Budd’, presumably). Many of us were just content to watch, listen, observe, learn and admire one of the last characters of the British screen. I haven’t yet seen ‘Song of Marion’ but it is now on my list – and it gladdened my heart to hear Stamp describe ‘Priscilla’ as “a perfect film, a gem”. I absolutely agree.


Comedy grab-bag

Five entries from the world of light entertainment make up today’s post.

Peter Cook’s 75th birthday, had he lived, was marked at the BFI Southbank by a compilation of his work – some sketches with Dudley Moore, spoof interviews on the Clive Anderson Talks Back show, performing as James Last on Saturday Live, and a revealing, unbroadcast interview with Bernard Braden from the late 1960s. Cook in his prime was bright, witty, and devastatingly attractive, and even as he declined on a personal level due to alcoholism and unreliability, he still had flashes of greatness – and this celebration of his life and work was a measured tribute to a great talent.

The 50th anniversary since the first broadcast of That Was The Week That Was (aka TW3) was celebrated at the BFI Southbank in style, with a two hour retrospective of the best moments from the 1962-3 run, introduced by its presenter David Frost, followed by a couple of panels reflecting on the times of the show and how freedom of expression has moved on (or not) since the days of TW3. Millicent Martin’s musical performances reflecting news of the day (illegitimacy, racism, the assassination of President Kennedy) were clearly defining moments at the time, and the minstrel chorus led satirical swipe at the Mississippi lynch mobs still packs a punch today. On the first panel were Lance Percival, a key performer in the show; Gerald Kaufman and Christopher Booker, writers for the show, and – by Skype – Millicent Martin, now based in Los Angeles. Some light-hearted debate about who wrote the ‘Silent MPs’ sketch was balanced by a more in-depth reflection on the power of satire to strike at the establishment. Clips from TW3 of cartoonist Timothy Birdsall poking fun at Harold Macmillan, or Bernard Levin grilling Charles Forte about the state of catering across the British Isles, showed a more serious side to the show, balanced by the more comedic contributions of Roy Kinnear, Kenneth Cope, and William Rushton. The second panel, with Rory Bremner, Ian Hislop, and John Lloyd, was overbalanced somewhat by Hislop’s attack on the sentiment of the Kennedy special, rebuffed to some extent from Christopher Booker and Herbert Kretzmer, both commenting from the audience.

Hislop was in evidence again at the National Theatre in the Private Eye Live event, which – with the help of John Sessions, Jan Raven, and Lewis Macleod – poked fun in their intimitable style at the great and the good. A spoof of the proceedings at the Levinson enquiry, a few obituaries courtesy of EJ Thribb, and a couple of parodies from Craig Brown were the highlights of a tight set which pleased the fans.

Christmas came to the BFI Southbank again for Camp Christmas, a pair of Christmas turkeys from the 1970s. In 1979 Dame Edna Everage introduced Abba, The Jackson Five, Boney M, Leo Sayer, and some ice dancers, out in Switzerland. Dreadful fashions and a certain air of embarrassment all round led to a show very much of its time! This was followed by the Crackerjack Chrismas pantomime from 1974, which was Aladdin, with Dana as the innocent princess, Peter Glaze and Don Maclean as Twankey and Wishee, clowning as ever, Deryck Guyler as the policeman, Derek Griffiths as the evil uncle, and Richard Wattis, that peerless comedy actor, as the Emperor. Music, bad jokes, and a few mentions of light entertainment performers we now see in quite a different light made for an entertaining hour, of sorts.


Frieda (1947), BFI Southbank ‘Dark Ealing’ season

Basil Dearden’s 1947 film for Ealing Studios must have been quite inflammatory on its first release, being so soon after World War Two. The plot concerns the marriage of RAF pilot Bob Dawson (David Farrar) to German nurse Frieda (Swedish actress Mai Zetterling), and their return to his village home in England. Frieda saved his life, but she is still the enemy, and families within the village cannot forgive or forget the loss of their loved ones and the attempts to devastate their country.

Plot points including Bob’s brother being lost in the war, with the wife he left behind (Glynis Johns) holding a torch for the brother who lived, the sister (Flora Robson) who stands for Parliament on an anti-German ticket, and – improbably – the sudden appearance of Frieda’s Nazi brother (Albert Lieven), who at first appears friendly but shows his fanaticism, when he gives his sister a Swastika necklace, leaving her to despair …

One of the darker entries in the Ealing Studios canon, this film is little known and seen these days, perhaps because of his attitude towards the people who attempted to win a World War a second time. The Germans are demonised by the villagers but in the end, the moral of the tale is that each person cannot be held accountable for the actions of many, regardless of whether they knew of those actions or not. The standout performers in this are not the leads, but rather Johns and Robson, who provide their characters with enough subtlety to cut through the more ridiculous parts of the plot.


Lawrence of Arabia / The Boys From Syracuse: London Film Festival

The London Film Festival is always a showcase for the best in new cinema, but for me the Classics/Treasures strand is the highlight.

The David Lean film of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, about the life of T.E. Lawrence, is now fifty years old, and has been restored with in high definition, building on the 1988 ‘director’s cut’, which restored several minutes of footage. The film itself has been criticized for historical inaccuracies as well as creating fictional composites of real-life characters (notably Sherif Ali and Mr Dryden). However, it is beautifully shot and played, and well deserves to be described as one of the greatest films of the past fifty years.

Omar Sharif was in attendance at the film, and although he stated that David Lean wanted Ali to be played by an actor who was Arab/pass for Arab, Alain Delon had a successful screen test for the part and only dropped out because he didn’t want to wear brown contact lenses. As for the part of Lawrence himself, Albert Finney was first choice, with others being considered before Peter O’Toole was cast in his first film role.

Aside from O’Toole and Sharif, who were catapulted to international stardom following their appearances in this film, ‘Lawrence’ also boasts Alec Guinness as the Arab Prince Faisal; Anthony Quinn as Auda abi Tayi, a volatile Arab leader; Claude Rains as Mr Dryden, a government official; and a brief but memorable role from José Ferrer as the sadistic Turkish Bey. There are no female speaking roles, and much of the film is dominated by the beautiful score (by Maurice Jarre), and the huge desert vistas photographed by Freddie Young. The editor was Anne Coates, who was also at this screening, declaring the production was ‘fun’ to work on.

This restoration of ‘Lawrence’ is highly recommended and runs at the BFI Southbank for several weeks following the close of the festival.

The 1940 Mayfair production of Rodgers and Hart’s musical ‘The Boys From Syracuse’ runs 75 minutes in contrast to ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and its 222 minutes. Starring Allan Jones, Irene Hervey, Rosemary Lane, Joe Penner, Martha Raye, and Charles Butterworth, the original source (Shakespeare’s ‘The Comedy of Errors’) is moved to ancient Greece, with a 1940s vibe and a large dose of comedy.

The songs ‘Sing for Your Supper’, ‘Who Are You?’, ‘Falling in Love With Love’, ‘This Can’t Be Love’, and ‘He and She’ are typical Rodgers and Hart, funny, romantic, and memorable. Martha Raye as Luce is all pep and energy, while Joe Penner’s schtick, although dated, fits the new Dromios. Allan Jones and Irene Hervey, real-life spouses, play the stuffy Antipholos of Ephesus and his wife Adriana; while Jones doubles as Antipholos of Syracuse, an altogether more relaxed character, who pursues Lane’s Phyllis, sister to Adriana. Butterworth’s dour Duke (whose guard have a running gag habit of playing a trumpet fanfare whenever he passes through a door) is fun, while Alan Mowbray and the peerless Eric Blore play quarrelling, comic tailors who need money to keep themselves out of jail.


Cinema review: South Riding (1938), BFI Southbank

The latest screening in the BFI Southbank’s ‘Projecting the Archive’ series is Victor Saville’s 1938 film of the Winifred Holtby novel ‘South Riding’, which centres on council corruption and an unusual love story, and stars Ralph Richardson, Edna Best, Edmund Gwenn, Marie Lohr, John Clements, Milton Rosmer, and a very young Glynis Johns.

We first meet the main cast in the council chamber, and in the schoolroom. These are a mix of business-minded councillors and fair-minded socialists, and the core of the matter is a housing project to replace the slums (here an estate called ‘The Shanks’ where downtrodden women with large families age prematurely and die in poverty, while their children are taken out of education to support them). In contrast to The Shanks we see the palatial home of the family Carne (Richardson and Johns), and discover Cllr Carne’s secret (a wife institutionalised after a series of breakdowns – badly played in flashback by the wooden Ann Todd).

‘South Riding’ has been tackled twice for television, first in 1974 with Dorothy Tutin and Nigel Davenport in the roles taken here by Best and Richardson, and in 2011 with Anna Maxwell Martin and David Morrissey. Obviously both had more scope to develop the story than this 88 minute film, but Saville’s direction, a tight script, and – Todd aside – strong performances, make this a typical entry in the group of patriotic British films which attempted to shed light on the changing political landscape. The print shown at the BFI includes the deeply jingoistic ending which deals with the Coronation of King George V and Queen Mary, but this is cut from other versions available.


Cinema review: Hitchcock’s The Pleasure Garden – restored

The BFI’s ‘Genius of Hitchcock’ project launched this week with the restoration of the director’s first film from 1926, ‘The Pleasure Garden’, now with original tints and extended to a length of twenty minutes more than has previously appeared on DVD releases.

The setting for this first screening (with live accompaniment from the Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble, to a new piece composed by Daniel Patrick Cohen) was the charming but dilapidated Wilton’s Music Hall, in Whitechapel, just a short walk from Tower Hill tube station. Given the young Hitchcock’s love for the theatre (which is shown by the opening shots of this film, featuring blonde chorus girls) it was the perfect venue, and it was fitting that with the launch of this season the announcement was made that Wilton’s has gained Lottery funding – of £56,000, as it turns out.

The film itself is a potboiling melodrama with a leering villain (Miles Mander), a sweet chorus girl (Virginia Valli), a gold-digging bitch (Carmelita Geraghty), and a nice but dim chap (Hugh Fielding). There’s also a cute dog to rival ‘The Artist’ and Uggie. Although it isn’t top drawer Hitch, there is much to enjoy in this piece from the fledgling director, and from this beautiful restoration.

The remaining eight silent features are to be restored for this year’s Cultural Olympiad (The Ring, The Lodger, Blackmail, Downhill, Champagne, Easy Virtue, The Farmer’s Wife, The Manxman), and donations can still be made via the BFI website .


Archive TV review: Greek tragedy on the small screen #1, BFI Southbank

The BFI Southbank has a new series showing during June 2012 showcasing productions of Greek tragedies made for television, and this is the first screening in that ‘Classics on TV: Greek Tragedy on the Small Screen’ season, curated by Amanda Wrigley.

Two productions of the first Theban play by Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, opened the season last night. First up, a BBC Play of the Month from 1972 entitled ‘King Oedipus’, in a translation by E.F. Watling (the same one which is used in the Penguin Classics Theban Plays collection); and following that, a production for the Open University in 1977 called ‘Oedipus Tyrannus’, which abridges the play to the closing act only, in a translation which is rather more up-to-date (notably where Oedipus states he was told he was a ‘bastard’ rather than ‘not his father’s son’.

‘King Oedipus’, then, is a modern dress production – which is timely, given the National Theatre’s current stage production of another of the Theban plays, Antigone, which also has a modern setting – and stars Ian Holm as the central character, Anthony Bate as Creon, and Sheila Allen as Jocasta. All are excellent but I was especially impressed with Holm, who is perhaps underrated these days as an actor.

In the early scenes he invests the king with quiet military dignity, but becomes more troubled and disturbed as the play progresses until, finally, in one deep exhaled breath, all his world comes crashing down. It is a tour de force performance. The play as produced here also doesn’t flinch from the scenes which Sophocles originally intended to be ‘off-stage’ (the suicide of Jocasta, the blinding of Oedipus), and in a modern depiction of the chorus uses recurring musical motifs in different settings to show the increasing chaos in Oedipus’ adopted land. Also of note within this case are Alan Webb as blind prophet Teiresias, wheelchair bound and with thick dark sunglasses denoting his blindness, Alan Rowe as a Corinthian ambassador who seeks to do good but brings calamity and destruction, and George Coulouris as the shepherd frightened to reveal the secrets only hinted at by the Gods.

I was familiar with the play from studying it at school, and from the film with Christopher Plummer (Oedipus the King, 1968) and the television production with Michael Pennington (Oedipus the King, 1986). I cannot therefore comment on whether the play would make sense to a new observer; however, the modern setting works well, with the marches and dancing of the soldiers standing in for a more traditional chorus, and the contrast between Creon as the king’s brother-in-law, content with a quiet life, and later as the military leader, calm in uniform and following the rules in condemning the now blinded Oedipus to exclusion and eventual exile (‘I do not come to mock’).

This production, now almost entirely unknown, is a superb version of a play which can now seem ridiculous with all its coincidences and oracles, but in the expert hands of director Alan Bridges and producer Cedric Messina, never becomes so.

The second screening of the OU’s ‘Oedipus Tyrannus’ could have been more problematic – Patrick Stewart is the king, Rosalie Crutchley the queen, Ronald Radd the man from Corinth, John Citroen the shepherd, and John Forbes-Robertson Creon. There is also an early appearance from Roy Marsden as a herald. But all are half masked and wearing woollen wigs, and there is a simple set of a door, a walkway, fronted by a chorus who perform as the Ancient Greek theatre would require, with measured words and fluid movement. For all the traditional look, the translation is more akin to contemporary speech in places, and undoubtedly the sight of blinded Oedipus with red mask, painted stripes on his neck, and flowing red ribbons, is touching indeed. I felt that Stewart shouted the part rather than inhabited it though; Crutchley did better, more suited to the mounting frustration and desperation of a Queen who simply wishes to snatch at happiness in ignorance, whatever the cost.

There is no denying that the staging is distracting and the wigs and masks not needed; however, the play survives undamaged, albeit with the first scene-setting act missing. The production clearly has a much smaller budget that the 1972 ‘King Oedipus’, but was aiming at a different auidence, one who pored over the text rather than sitting down for an evening’s entertainment. It was directed by Richard Callanan with music by Judith Bingham.

A pair worth watching then (although I suspect this play may be on school syllabuses again judging by some of the audience, especially the one who could not quite suppress the urge to text and email throughout!), although opportunities to do so will probably be slim, given the BBC’s track record for commercially releasing their treasure trove of television dramas.

A companion website including this season can be found at http://screenplaystv.wordpress.com/, which features John Wyver’s project on televised plays from 1930 to the present day on British television, which is based at the University of Westminster and funded by the AHRC.


Archive TV review: The Winter’s Tale (1962), UnLOCked, BFI Southbank

As part of both the World Shakespeare Festival (for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad) and the UnLOCked season (showcasing material thought lost from the archives which was located in the Library of Congress in 2010), this adaptation of Shakespeare’s 1623 play ‘The Winter’s Tale’ was the first done for television, transmitted on Good Friday, 1962, on the BBC.

Running 144 minutes, there is little pruning of the original play, which centres on the kingdom of Sicilia, where the jealous King, Leontes (Robert Shaw), accuses his Queen, Hermione (Rosalie Crutchley) of adultery with his good friend and neighbouring monarch, Polixenes (Patrick Macnee). In his murderous hate he attempts to have Polixenes murdered by his faithful servant Camillo (Nigel Stock), and casts Hermione’s baby daughter into the wilderness to die as he is convinced she is not his. As for Hermione, when she comes to trial her innocence and piety causes her to expire in front of the court, sending a penitent Leontes into a sixteen year period of repentance and sorrow.

Don Taylor directs this sparse version of the play, which employs minimal settings, close-ups, and a set of excellent performances to put across a play which has its difficulties (coincidences, Apollo, statues, and a bear). As well as the principals, there are comic turns from Ron Moody (Autolicus), Norman Rossington (Clown), and a measured performance from Brenda Bruce as Hermoine’s faithful maid, Paulina. Other memorable turns include an Antigonus from Geoffrey Bayldon and a Perdita from Sarah Badel which fit the next perfectly, and there is an early appearance from William Gaunt in a minor role.

Although Crutchley might not be everyone’s first choice as the wronged Queen Hermoine, she does well here and convinces, especially in her trial scene – less so in her early, flirty scenes with Macnee (perhaps because he doesn’t really go well with Shakespeare). And despite being missing from screen for a whole act of the play, Robert Shaw is an excellent Leontes, with his Northern grit and desperation adding to the portrait of a King possessed, and finally, (‘O, she’s warm …’) lost for words and emotion.

These BBC recoveries are real gems, and another restored piece in the history of Shakespeare on screen. With only one other production of this play having been made for television (during the BBC Shakespeare season of the 1970s-80s), this is surely a valuable and fascinating recovery. A pity, then, that there were so few to watch it in the BFI Southbank cinema last night – audiences are missing a treat.


Archive TV review: The Last Train Through the Harecastle Tunnel + Lost Yer Tongue

The second screening in the Peter Terson “The Artisan Playwright” season at the BFI Southbank again teamed a BBC play with one from Granada Television.

In 1969 The Wednesday Play made a return with ‘The Last Train Through the Harecastle Tunnel’, a quirky piece about a trainspotter (Richard O’Callaghan) who encounters lots of oddball eccentrics during his weekend. While one his work colleagues muse about painting his house near the golf club, and another plans a dirty weekend, young Fowler simply looks forward to riding the old ‘Knotty’ line through the about to be decommissioned Harecastle Tunnel. To him the railways are a place of dreams and adventure, obvious from his enthusiasm when discussing points and railway sleepers with a suburban new money couple (Victor Platt and Noel Dyson), his delight in trying on the old railwayman’s uniform (a lovely performance from Joe Gladwin, better known perhaps as Wally Batty in ‘Last of the Summer Wine’), or his afternoon operating the replica signals in Judge Grayson’s dysfunctional house (a scene-stealing performance from the peerless John Le Mesurier). Finally this journey leads him to the house of a concert violinist with a potentially dark secret (Emmerdale Farm’s Toke Townley).

This play might be a little hard to swallow (so many eccentrics in one place, including Army personnel and a sadly stereotypical gay cruiser, not to mention Le Mesurier’s weird daughter, played by Angela Pleasence, but it is very tightly written and rather charming, catching perfectly the mood that brings railway enthusiasts together. The most curious thing about this play is the director – Alan Clarke, now best known for productions like The Firm, and Scum.

The second play showing was ‘Lost Yer Tongue’, from 1975. With a largely unknown cast headed by Ronald Herdman, Bobby Pattinson, Lizzie McKenzie, and Deirdre Costello, this is a sharp look at working class millionaires and father and son relationships, and despite the rather dark subject matter it treats the subject with humour and very well-written characters and plot. It couldn’t be more different than ‘Harecastle’ in its mood, but it is equally excellent, as we watch everything slipping away from Bernie, the man who thought he had made it big and had nothing to lose. In fact he loses everything he holds dear and realises the amount of subterfuge that has been going on behind his back with the best intentions by those who care about him. Directed by Mike Newell, who has made a big success in international cinema.


Archive TV review: The Samaritan + The Ballad of Ben Bagot

Two plays by Peter Terson showed at the BFI Southbank this week as part of their season of his work (entitled ‘The Artisan Playwright’). The first example was from Granada Television in 1972, and the second from the BBC in 1973, so we are looking at television material from four decades ago, when there were only three channels and the amount of single drama available on the small screen was much more than today.

First up we had ‘The Samaritan’, a three-hander running just over an hour which starred Tom Bell, Martin Jarvis, and Kenneth Cranham (Cranham gave a brief introduction to the piece where he recalled this play as one of his first appearances on television). Jarvis plays Godfrey, a Samaritan who seems to live to listen and do good to others. Bell plays Vic, a hard drinking neurotic poet who is given to flowery speeches and impulsive gestures, while Cranham plays Terry, a nervy young man who is recovering from some trauma which we never quite identify. Wordy and clever, this play moves between character viewpoints and therefore leaves the viewer torn between what they originally saw and what they see by the end of the piece. Although all the cast are excellent, it is Bell who really dominates the play and shows us what a great actor he was.

The second play was ‘The Ballad of Ben Bagot’, which was written for the Scene strand of plays aimed at difficult teenagers, and it runs a sparse twenty-five minutes. Director Ronald Smedley recalled in his introduction to this his unease at receiving a script which was simply poetry which he had to shape into a narrative which worked using music and locations. Peter Firth, then eighteen years old, shows what a talented young performer he was in the pivotal role of Bagot, who has chosen to leave school early and get a job to support his pregnant girlfriend, but in-between the mundane parts of his life he dreams a fantasy life not unreminiscent of Billy Liar, where he triumphs with his shoehorn sword, beats a path through the jungle, and repurposes classic poems for his own heroics (‘Ben Bagot, may his tribe increase, awoke one day from a deep dream of peace ..’). His English Lit teacher (played by a twitchy Jack Shepherd) despairs of his charge while Bags sets fire to his school uniform and aches for a freedom where he can be a pop star or a great business brain.

An interesting pairing, perhaps linked together by the common theme of the poetic soul, and of course the words of Peter Terson, who was a writer of style, wit, and quirkiness, the type of playwright who would never get a platform on commercial television today. The season continues throughout May, and a future entry on LouReviews will cover another pair of plays showing next week.


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