Saturday, 23 April 2011

My Good Friday

Despite the fact that I spent most of yesterday under the impression that it was Saturday, I can now safely record my thoughts on how I spent my Good Friday.

As the weather continued to be glorious, I went for a morning stroll, soaking up the lazy Spring sunshine. However, my feelings of equilibrium and contentment soon evaporated when I popped into the supermarket, and in my infinite wisdom opted to use one of the self-service checkouts.

I know that these contraptions are intended to speed up the shopping experience, but for many people they merely contrive to create other forms of frustration and anguish. After undergoing the ritual humiliation of calling for the checkout supervisor, and finally paying, I made a hasty exit from the premises.  My visit to the supermarket ended on a more hopeful note when I put some money into the collection bucket for Guide Dogs for The Blind.

One minute I was sampling the impersonal and arbitrary nature of a mechanised society, the next I was happily and voluntarily lending my help to my fellow citizens. The curious juxtaposition did not occur to me until later.

I spent most of my Friday afternoon watching and listening to re-runs of "Dad's Army", in film, television and radio-show format. This served to remind me of the quality of the writing and acting which makes it so enduring.

Watching the film version, I was struck by how the greater time available permitted the writers and producers to insert more considered and reflective passages, particularly about the justness of the British cause and the principles and values over which the war was being fought. These were quite moving, although the tension was always broken with a health dose of bathos!

The movie, just like the television programme, gently celebrates, and occasionally pokes fun at, both English eccentricty and the innocent idealism of the times. One has to wonder whether such things would be considered desirable, or even feasible, these days, as we live in more cynical times.

Sub-plots were all part of the fun of "Dad's Army".  There was the apparent class-related tension between the insecure, self-made Captain Mainwaring, and the dilettante and languid Sergeant Wilson. In addition, the constant bickering between the Home Guard and the ARP warden Mr Hodges also made for great comedy. These elements ensured that there was more depth and nuance to the show, in addition to the slapstick.

To complete my day, I followed the Championship match between Leeds United and Reading. A 0-0 draw was the result, and Leeds are now outside of the play-off places. Once can only hope that Simon Grayson is able to inspire his men to summon up one last push. Momentum appears to be ebbing away, just as other teams are acquiring some of their own.

And so that was my Good Friday.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Ingmar Bergman

It has taken me a while, but I have finally got around to watching and studying some of the work of Ingmar Bergman. In recent weeks, I have watched three of his most renowned films.

First to receive my attention was "Wild Strawberries" from 1957. This follows an ageing professor on a road journey to a ceremony, where he is to be presented with an award. Despite his professional and academic accomplishments, the professor appears to have alienated many people, and to have become estranged from relatives and the world at large.

As the road trip progresses, the professor encounters people and places which cause him to re-evaluate things, coming to terms with his past, and finding some peace with the present. His faith in human nature is partially restored.

With understated but well-judged acting performances, this is ultimately an uplifting movie.

Next on my list was "Hour Of The Wolf", released in 1968, and starring Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman as a couple living on a remote and windswept island.

The couple are overtaken by a series of bizarre events and personal encounters.

This is more the type of movie which the public at large would associate with Bergman, and it is indeed quite bleak, this quality being accentuated by the location. This is probably not a film to be watched with the lights off!

Most recently I watched "The Seventh Seal", one of Bergman's landmark releases, again from 1957.

A rumination on death and faith, the work stars Max von Sydow as a knight returning from the Crusades, to be confronted by a country ravaged by the plague.

The film opens with the legendary scene on a beach, featuring the game of chess between Death and the von Sydow character.

As the knight and his companions travel inland, they are confronted by various manifestations of the plague, and against this backdrop Bergman examines the contradictions surrounding death and faith, and the varying ways in which humans address them.

"The Seventh Seal" is one of those films which one probably needs to view several times over, in order to fully absorb the multi-layered messages. On my first viewing, I found myself turning over in my mind various interpretations of each scene or piece of dialogue. I kept asking myself - does my interpretation actually correspond with what the director was really seeking to convey?

The film alternates between the sinister and the optimistic, with the latter providing some relief following the grim but compelling former.

"The Seventh Seal" is by no means an easy film to watch, but it is thought-provoking and in many respects inspiring.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Sitcoms of the 1970s - My Selections

When I was a child in the 1970s, situation comedies were going through their golden age, although I appreciated this little at the time. Revisiting these shows in adult life has equipped me with an enhanced grasp of their qualities and subject matter.

One of the earliest sitcoms which I can recall watching is "Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads", the sequel to the fondly remembered "The Likely Lads" from the 1960s.

The main thrust of the story was Terry Collier's return from five years in the Army, and the chasm which had developed between his situation and that of his best friend Bob Ferris. This allowed the writers, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, to examine issues of social climbing, work/life balance and the limits of friendship. As these themes tend to be timeless, and relevant to the majority of people, "Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads" holds up better in the 21st century than most other sitcoms of its time.

There was always a hard to pin-down homely feel about the show, possibly arising from it being set in the North East of England. The interaction between Bob, Terry and Bob's wife Thelma offered a range of possibilities, and these were ably exploited by the peerless writing team of Clement and La Frenais.

After "Whatever Happened to......", Clement and La Frenais came up with another, albeit very different, masterpiece.  "Porridge" was set in Slade Prison, and followed the trials and tribulations of Norman Stanley Fletcher and his fellow inmates.

To the layman it might have seemed an onerous task to extract credible humour from prison life, but the writers accomplished this admirably, whilst also touching on sensitive issues in a mature manner.

As with any great comedy, characters and casting were vital. That "Porridge" succeeded in these respects can be seen from the pivotal theme of the show;the ongoing battle of wits between the street-wise Londoner Fletch and the stern and disciplinarian chief warder Mr Mackay.

Perhaps the most lingering memory of "Porridge" is the astounding peformance of Ronnie Barker as Fletch. A believable character, and not based on any stereotypes, Fletch engages in a campaign to win "little victories", to buck the system, and to maintain his own sanity whilst others are losing theirs.

The two main supporting characters offer intriguing contrasts of viewpoint and personality to Fletch and Mackay.  Lennie Godber is Fletcher's young and naive cellmate, and Barraclough is the liberal, malleable warder who is constantly manipulated by Fletch and his cohorts as a means of achieving those "little victories".

The more minor characters such as Lukewarm, McLaren, Warren and Genial Harry Grout all add to the rich tapestry which makes "Porridge" an undisputed classic.

Another more esoteric, but equally praiseworthy sitcom came along later in the 1970s - The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, starring Leonard Rossiter.

This particular show is regularly overlooked in the pantheon, probably because it is less immediately accessible than the others. However, if one persists, it is perhaps the most rewarding of all.

The themes covered, such as the drudgery of 9 to 5 existence, and the allure of alternative living, were part of the 1970s Zeitgeist, and are still very relevant today.

The increasing neurosis and despair of Reginald Perrin, and the emptiness of his existence, are wonderfully conveyed by the performance of Rossiter, who displays his comic talent and versatility to its fullest extent here.

There is no sugar-coated ending, and matters are left somewhat inconclusive and confused, perhaps intentionally, in keeping with the central message of the futility of aspects of modern life.

The programme has some fascinating supporting characters, such as Perrin's boss and nemesis CJ, and his brother-in-law Jimmy, ably portrayed by Geoffrey Palmer.

It is probably necessary to watch "The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin" in its entirety, as individual episodes might not make total sense on their own. However, as a whole this is a fascinating and intriguing series. A gem.

Notwithstanding the endearing and esoteric virtues of the shows detailed above, probably the most popular British sitcom when I was a child was "Some Mothers Do 'Ave Em" written by Raymond Allen.

Michael Crawford plays the accident-prone and insecure Frank Spencer, and Michele Dotrice his long-suffering wife Betty.

"Some Mothers Do 'Ave Em" follows Frank's efforts to make something of his life, and Betty's battles to endure the traumas, whilst keeping her husbands's spirits up. Crawford's natural comic talent, and his willingness to engage in bizarre stunts, are a constant driving force.

Many lists of "classic sitcoms" conveniently ignore this show, perhaps because it is not perceived as "cool". It did not possess the gritty scenarios or incisive writing of others of the genre, but it succeeds because it is basically funny and entertaining, and because of the pathos of the Frank Spencer character.

Here's hoping for a rehabilitation of "Some Mothers Do 'Ave Em"!

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Death In Venice

Just recently, I have turned my cinematic attention more towards what may be termed European art cinema. I will be blogging my thoughts on some of the films which I have watched.

I had seen clips from Luchino Visconti's 1971 masterpiece "Death In Venice" before, and also have hazy recollections of seeing the film as a child. I was latterly turned on to the film by my interest in the music of Gustav Mahler, which plays a prominent role in it.

The movie is based on Thomas Mann's novel, and centres on an ageing composer, played by Dirk Bogarde, who decides to spend some time in Venice because of his failing health. Once there he becomes obsessed with a handsome adolescent Polish boy.

One of the most striking aspects of "Death In Venice" is the relative lack of dialogue throughout. Visconti opts to let the lavish visuals (sets and constumes, as well as the scenery) and the majesty of Mahler's music drive the story along.

Bogarde delivers a remarkable performance, possibly the zenith of his career.

The final scene is probably one of the most moving and poignant in all of world cinema, played out to the strains of "Adagietto", from Mahler's Symphony no.5.

"Death In Venice" is a feast for the senses, and less a film than a work of art. Stunning.