Monthly Archives: August 2015



The Wellington writer and critic, Simon Sweetman, recently asked his readers a couple of questions that inadvertently led to my recalling some scenes from the past. He asked if we’d ever seen a great busker. And he asked if we’d ever known anyone decent who went by the name of Travis.

In 1968, I was living in London and becoming hip. Not cool, you understand, but hip.  Mods had come and gone; Psychedelia, Hippiedom and Timothy Leary were the thing.  Except I could only embrace some of it. I dug the counter-culture stuff, some occasional weed and most of the West Coast Music (Specifically not The Beach Boys though, whose very name brings on horrific psychosomatic symptoms if spoken, written or seen. Imagine what it cost me to print it here) but the residual mod in me demanded some attention to sartorial sufficiency.

So here I am in a longish queue outside the Carlton Theatre in the Haymarket. I’m waiting to get in to see Lindsay Anderson’s If’. Grey leather shoes with patterned toe caps, by Raoul; sharply creased, black mohair trousers and a tailored, black leather jacket with a sewn-in half belt. My concessions to the zeitgeist are a button-down paisley shirt and a conservative afro. The Gauloises cigarettes are situated precisely halfway  between hip and cool.

And here’s Don Partridge, singing while we wait. Known as ‘The King of the Buskers’, he’s a familiar sight around the pubs, clubs and theatres of the West End and Soho. He sings some Dylan and his own ‘Rosie’ which he’s recorded and been on the tele with. It’s a pleasant, early summer evening and we’re pleased to have Don entertain us while we wait. The shrewdly chosen pretty young woman takes the hat round and I add some coins to the many notes. Don’s doing okay thanks.

The movie ‘If‘ is pure, anarchic counter-culture. It marked Malcolm McDowell’s  debut –  in the role of Mick Travis (Yes, a tenuous connection, I know. But sometimes any idea is a good idea) –  a role he was to reprise in two further films for Anderson; ‘O Lucky Man’ and ‘Britannia Hospital’. The structure and surreal nature of the film are much influenced by Jean Vigo’s  ‘Zéro de conduit‘ (1933) but the plot of a student revolution, led by Travis, in an English Public School is an expression of Anderson’s belief that the British cinema needed to put aside its fixation with class and be more representative of the broader community.
We discussed that in the pub later and I managed to upset a few friends with an observation that Anderson was perfectly placed to attack privilege in that way, having been educated at Cheltenham and Oxford.
What neither I nor my friends properly realised at that time though, was that I was about to resolve the vexed choice between cool and hip by moving into the more considered role of rugged left-wing intellectual. Already my frequent use of irony, a newly grown beard and the recent acquisition of a houndstooth flat cap  were pointing me toward a classless society and women called Cordelia and Vanessa.


Melbourne Noir – Jack Irish (Film Review)


Guy Pearce is an actor whose name, face, presence immediately conveys, for me,  one particular role. He is, always will be, Detective Edmund ‘Ed’ Exley in L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson 1997)  His cool, careerist counterpoint to Russell Crowe’s terrifying Officer Bud White is a thing of beauty and brought him to the attention of moviegoers everywhere.
So. How does he fare as grieving Melbourne lawyer turned gumshoe/fixer, Jack Irish, in ABC’s  telefilm adaptation of Peter Temple’s novel Bad Debts? Bloody well mate, I’d say. In Pearce’s hands, Jack’s battle with the bottle following his wife’s murder becomes a necessary rite of passage rather than just self-pitying indulgence. And when, a few years later, one of his former clients is murdered, Jack feels responsible, shakes off his lethargy and sets out to track down the killers.
I’ve read a couple of Temple’s novels, Truth and The Broken Shore, both about policemen and criminality. The central characters in those stories are men who, to some extent, live in the shadow of their fathers but eventually emerge to become their own men. Jack Irish is similarly cast. His father was a hard case Australian Rules player, fondly remembered by the old boys – characters – who Jack drinks and talks horses with at his local, The Prince of Prussia. And as Jack moves laconically around the race tracks, pubs and dark places of Melbourne’s underworld, he reveals not only an awareness of his debt to the memory of that version of Australian manliness but also a steadfast, self-deprecating attachment to principle and loyalty that evokes a different Australia. It’s entirely to Pearce’s credit that he is able to convey these complexities of his character and never allow them to get in the way of the story-telling.
I liked this movie a lot. It has a good feel for black humour, evocative locations, credible plotting and a smashing central performance. It was also great to see Roy Billing again, this time as Jack’s shady, sometime employer, Harry Strang.

There are at least 2 other Jack Irish telefilms starring Guy Pearce. Of these, I’ve seen Black Tide which is also well worth seeing.


Cromwell In Rehab – Wolf Hall (TV Review)


I recently watched the TV mini-series, Wolf Hall (BBC 2015) which is an adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. The story follows the career of Thomas Cromwell, who became Henry VIII’s chief minister, and covers the period from his service with Cardinal Wolsey (c1520) up to the time when Henry’s second wife, Ann Boleyn, was executed (1536) – although there are flashbacks to his childhood in Putney, London.

I should say straightaway that this is a high quality production and carries the full weight of the BBC tradition in presenting historical drama. The series has received many accolades and found favour with the majority of critics. It is certainly watchable and probably meets the description of ‘important’ in terms of where it sits in the pantheon of successful television dramas. Yes – you know there’s a ‘but’ coming, don’t you? And here it is; I have two caveats and I will confine what follows to a brief discussion of those concerns. I strongly suggest that you watch the series and make your own determinations as to its merits.

It does seem to me that both Mantel’s novels and this series have set out to reconstruct Cromwell’s character and therefore the motivation for his actions. In the past, biographers, historians and film makers have portrayed him as an unscrupulous, manipulative opportunist. A grasping parvenu who the king found useful to fix his personal and constitutional problems. John Colicos’ reading of Cromwell in Anne of the Thousand Days (Charles Jarrott 1969) is a good example of this treatment. But now we have a Cromwell, abused by his father when a child, who is driven to make his place in the world. A polymath adept at the law, finance, languages and diplomacy. Taken into service by Cardinal Wolsey – when his master falls from power, Cromwell is patiently determined to avenge him by destroying those who brought about that fall and then volubly abused his memory. The same process of rationalisation is evident in how Cromwell and Thomas More are brought to the screen. More is seen personally torturing a prisoner. He is unbending in his opposition to the installation of Anne Boleyn as queen, despite Cromwell’s reasoned and reasonable suggestions that he comply with the king’s wishes. Of course, both men used violence and coercion to enforce their ideas. It was the ideas that differed, not the methods. And More’s opposition to Henry’s marriage recognised that his approval of that would also signify approval of the king as the head of the Church in England.
But this rehabilitation is lubricated by a certain, currently fashionable ‘upmarket anti-Catholicism’ (George Weigel) and the subtleties and complexities of Tudor life are largely ignored in favour of this more sympathetic view of Cromwell. The need for the Reformation, for instance, is glibly explained away in a few sentences by Cromwell in a conversation with Henry.
What I believe this revisionist agenda does, is rob the narrative of a more organic flow. I didn’t get the sense of men making history and history making men. Henry was only one generation removed from the Civil War that placed his father on the throne. His overwhelming need was to secure the succession with a male heir. But Damian Lewis plays him more with a sense of libido than a sense of history. Similarly, the Reformation brought about the union of Church and State and the resultant persecution that ultimately spawned the Age of Enlightenment. But nowhere is there evidence of any historical flux or historiological context in the way the story is told. Motives are quotidian. Events are static.

Also, I’m not convinced by Mark Rylance as Cromwell. It’s a very mannered, dry reading and I do get that Cromwell was a thinker – probably calm under pressure and not easily rattled. But Rylance shows us his hand at the very beginning. The characterisation does have small differences of pitch and inflection, sure, but most of the time he succeeds in just looking rather like Bill Nighy biting his lip. So it all becomes a bit wearing and, well, boring – probably less so if you’re waiting a week between episodes – but as I suggested in yesterday’s blog, watching 2 or 3 episodes at a sitting does expose the flaws. I do need to give honourable mentions to both Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn and Damian Lewis as Henry. I particularly liked Foy’s Anne – ambitious and wilful but imbuing her queen with a sense of fate. It is a splendidly rich, detailed production with an excellent supporting cast and technically stunning. See it for yourself. But it didn’t really work for me.


Monty Python and The Fiery Cross – TV Review ‘Outlander’

As part of a recent streaming deal, we were given a gratis 3 month sub to Lightbox. This has allowed us to view some made-for-TV programmes which have received critical and popular acclaim. Amongst these is the first series of ‘Outlander’ (Sony/Left Bank 2014) which was released by Starz. This offering is based on Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’ series of novels.
The story commences in the London of 1945 at the conclusion of WWII. Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) is reunited with her husband, Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies), both of them having served in that conflict. They drive up to Inverness, Scotland where a few sideways glances, a mysterious stranger and an ancient henge of standing stones with arcane properties soon conspire to send Claire hurtling back to 1743 – and no DeLorean or Doc Brown to be seen anywhere.
Claire arrives during a skirmish between ‘rebel’ highlanders and some redcoats commanded by, wait for it, ‘Black Jack’ Randall, Frank’s ancestor and doppelgänger who promptly tries to rape Claire, thus setting the tone for everything that follows. Claire, fairly predictably, is rescued by the highlanders and in short order finds herself attracted to buff warrior, Jamie MacKenzie Fraser (Sam Heughan).
So while Claire battles with her conflicted feelings for the men in her life who are separated by 200 years, she also has to navigate her way around the mores of 18th century clan life, a Jacobite uprising and male attitudes to women that would make Woody Allen proud. And series developer, Ronald D Moore leaves no stone standing (see what I did there?) to ensure we get all the messages in bold caps. There’s a scene where Claire is hosted in a dining room by a group of British officers that far exceeds anything that Mel Gibson could cook up for either Braveheart or The Patriot by way of agitational propaganda and stereotyping of the British colonialist attitudes. So much so, that I was strongly reminded of Monty Python’s ‘Upper Class Twit of the Year’ sketch, such was the overplaying of braying entitlement. Don’t get me wrong. Given my name and long-held convictions on such matters, I could be normally expected to applaud. But I didn’t. Maybe because most of the Scots men are forever also making crude gestures and remarks about intercourse with women, farmyard animals and ‘small beasties’.
Then there are the obligatory sex scenes. Firstly between Claire and Frank and then Claire and Jamie. Most episodes have at least one sex scene and some have several.(The shag count exceeds the body count mostly) We know that Claire is libidinous because she’s been told that her fleshy Mound of Venus indicates that her man ‘won’t stray from your bed.’ But the production protocols for this kind of soft porn dictate that the soundtrack is overdubbed with the sort of grunting and yelping ordinarily associated with the final of the women’s singles at Wimbledon.
And so it’s all a bit of a trial, I think. And probably exacerbated by being able to watch 2 or 3 episodes at a sitting, rather than having to wait a week to see who’s been raped/betrayed/ murdered by who. The formula wears thin much more rapidly.

Apparently there is a second series under way and this is set in France. I’m encouraged by that news because if the stereotypes hold to form, at least there will be more interesting sexual positions.


Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits

If you search for saccharine
It isn’t hard to find
I have enough you’ll need a sieve
But if you look for ruefulness
You might as well be blind
I’ve always found it really hard to give

Irony is such an obtuse word
It’s easier to just be blue
Irony is never never heard
Mostly ‘cos I haven’t got a clue

I can try to gull someone
To feel I harmonise
If I pretend to suffer as I grieve
But I haven’t got an honest face
And cannot hide the lies
And in the end it’s just best that I leave

Irony is such an obtuse word
It’s easier to just be blue
Irony is never never heard
Mostly ‘cos I haven’t got a clue

I tried to find a lyric
Tried hard not to offend
All I got was platitudes until the bitter end
Nobody can comfort me
With royalties again
I know I know

There’s nothing deep inside of me
But I’ve never been concerned
There’ll still be nothin’ when I’m gone
I tried to fake sincerity
It wasn’t hard to learn
And so I put it in this song

Irony is such an obtuse word
It’s easier to just be blue
Irony is never never heard
Mostly ‘cos I haven’t got a clue








Thatcher’s Gangster – The Long Good Friday Film Review

The Long Good Friday (John Mackenzie 1979/80) provided Bob Hoskins with his breakthrough role. His character, Harold Shand, is a villain from London’s East End who has a grip on organised crime in England’s capital and an obsessive ambition to create lasting wealth and legitimacy by obtaining abandoned docklands property and on-selling it as a site for an 80s Olympics. To help him do this, he courts an American Mafia boss (Eddie Constantine) presenting him with a promissory corsage of ‘hands across the ocean’.

The story, and therefore the film, has a touch of genius about it. As the events of Good Friday unfold, many things are revealed. When Harold’s empire is threatened by unknown assailants, Harold reverts to type; his ’10 years of peace’ in the London underworld, of which he is so boastful, is roughly put aside in favour of torture and threats. Harold is desperate to find out who is bombing his buildings and killing his lieutenants. And although what we see is brutal, it is also very funny. Barrie Keeffe’s screenplay and John Mackenzie’s direction enable Hoskins to invest Harold with elements of both Bertolt Brecht’s Arturo Ui and Johnny Speight’s Alf Garnett. So at once, the manner of Harold’s protestation that ‘you can’t crucify people on Good Friday’ serves to destroy the notion that great killers may command respect through the device of having him complain about the car bomb in a way that a disgruntled West Ham fan might when the referee disallows a goal.
But Keeffe and Mackenzie are shrewd enough to realise that there has to be more to Harold than just a vengeful cockney vulgarian. His scenes with his lover, Victoria (Helen Mirren) are tender and their beauty and the beast relationship is complex. Her radiance and intelligence are at odds with everything that Harold is, or ever will be. But these fine actors make it work, make it credible, infuse the characters with emotional depth. Toward the film’s conclusion, the two are parted as Harold’s world collapses around him. At that moment of realisation, the shared anguish is palpable. It jolts us back into our own sometime world of unplanned consequences.

But the film’s ultimate triumph – what sets it apart – is how it resonates down the decades. Not just in the way that other characters such as Arturo Ui and Alf Garnett are invoked but in how Harold’s ambitions to make Britain great once more through exploitation and corruption so perfectly coincide with the arrival  of Margaret Thatcher, Reaganomics and the greedy eighties. The metaphors abound and, planned or not, lend the film a preternatural quality, ensure its greatness. An enduring masterpiece.
Author’s Note
On the subject of resonance, I do believe that Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is the perfect companion piece to The Long Good Friday. Made 10 years later, in 1989, this black comedy’s central character, Albert Spica (Michael Gambon), is a violent criminal who has gourmet pretensions. Helen Mirren’s presence amongst the cast lends further symmetry.

Your Time Is Up – Lament For The Blues

You are beloved
You were ordained
To conjure sunshine
On days it rained

You are remembered
You are revered
Your locks are greying
Just like your beard

Now your days are numbered
And your hand is slow
The axe that thundered
The frets that glowed
The voice that rumbled
The riffs that flowed
Your time is coming
Pay up what’s owed

You trod the stage
Played for the crowd
Contained your rage
Sang soft, not loud

Now no one listens
No one hears
And through the silence
The faintest cheers

And in the distance
A sweet sustain
Held by the Marshall
The old refrain

Now your days are numbered
And your hand is slow
The axe that thundered
The frets that glowed
The voice that rumbled
The riffs that flowed
Your time is coming
Pay up what’s owed