Thursday, 28 December 2017

Lenin.....The Train (1988 TV movie)

Lenin.....The Train is a TV movie from 1988, which chronicles the railway journey made by Lenin and his associates from Switzerland,via Germany, to Petrograd, in the run-up to the October Revolution. Ben Kingsley stars as the Russian revolutionary.

The film begins with a look at the tortuous negotiations between Lenin's people and the German authorities, the Germans being anxious to help Lenin with his revolutionary programme, as a means of getting Russia out of the First World War. Of course, negotiations also took place between the various Russian factions.

In some respects this is your typical TV-movie fare, but the gravitas and the general quality are elevated somewhat by the standard of the acting, Timothy West standing out in this regard. Initially, my opinion was that Ben Kingsley should have adopted a Russian accent, and that this was necessary to imbue the picture with authenticity. However, by the end I had concluded that this was no major issue, as Kingsley's mannerisms and gestures are very consistent and believable, and convey a distinct persona.

I feel that the movie portrays Lenin as the voice of reason and moderation, his sole objective being to instigate and foment the Revolution. To him, hotheads and indiscretions posed a threat to the prospects for the entire enterprise. Lenin knew that some emotions had to be suppressed, so as not to endanger the quest for the main prize. A plus point is that this film depicts the Bolsheviks as reasonably normal people, not as overly fanatical, belligerent or obsessive.

This movie contains repeated reminders of the futility and injustice of the war. When one looks at the tasks which the troops on all sides were being asked to undertake, it is a wonder that revolutions did not break out in all of the combatant nations. Whatever one thinks of the Bolsheviks, there is a case for arguing that they did the world a favour, by forcing the "democracies" to adopt more enlightened policies and attitudes. The soldiers and the masses had been acquainted with potent new ideas, and their co-operation and deference could no longer be taken for granted.

The picture concludes with the arrival of Lenin's train in Petrograd, an the film-makers thereby cleverly avoided having to cover the October Revolution itself.

Lenin.....The Train is surprisingly good and "learned" for a made-for-TV production The acting clearly lifts it, as does a sensitive and balanced exploration of many of the crucial issues.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Solaris (1972 film)

My recently rekindled interest in science fiction and spaceflight, together with my longstanding affection for European art cinema, led me to check out Solaris, a 1972 film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.

Based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem, the movie is largely set on a space station orbiting the fictional planet of Solaris, and it examines the crew's interactions with a strange and mysterious ocean on the planet's surface. The major themes explored by the film are the psychological impact on human beings of spaceflight, and also the relationship between science, perception and conscience.

The film is long, and slow, but symbolism and meaning are there in abundance if one looks closely enough, and I found it quite gripping. I empathized with some of the characters, identifying with their alienation, distractedness and confusion. The contrast between the organic, fecund, green Earth and the clinical and ascetic environment of the spaceship is very cleverly underlined.

Special effects are employed sparingly, but where they do appear they are surprisingly good and convincing. Nothing, though, obscures the intellectual and emotional thrust of the movie.  The film looks more "modern" than 1972 somehow, and this might be down in part to the lovely cinematography.

Another element of the picture's impact is the soundtrack music, by Eduard Artemyev.  Part of it is based on a piece by Bach, an organ prelude, and this forms a recurring, and haunting, "theme tune".  Ambient sounds form a subtle, yet unsettling and disorientating backdrop.

I find films set on spaceships absorbing, no matter the overall quality or gravitas of the work. I feel the same way about movies set on submarines. The claustrophobic and captive atmosphere means that arguments are often distilled down to a basic or existential level.

This is a film which demands intense concentration and attention, and it is one where the viewer is rewarded by taking notice of nuances in the dialogue. Science fiction films occasionally emerge as excessively earnest in their examination of profound topics.  Solaris doesn't fall prey to this, and is not as literal or straightforward as many of its Western counterparts.  The movie's length means that the philosophizing is diffused, and the characters appear less anxious to ruminate on the meaning of life and the universe - interesting to note for a film produced in the Soviet Union.

Some of the minutiae of the "science" in this picture are not startling original, but they are fused into a strong and plausible whole.  The various sub-texts are addressed, on the whole, with finesse and sensitivity, and the primary themes are interwoven adroitly.

Donatas Banionis gives an assured performance as Kris Kelvin, conveying authority in addition to a reassuring "everyman" quality. One of those performances which instills confidence in the viewer, and which supports the overall believability of the story.

The film generally explores the question of humanity's purpose in space. Is this to be human, and how should this blend with cold science? One could interpret the ocean on the planet Solaris as a mirror, forcing us to confront our nature. There are also hints about the limits of rationality.

Solaris is an engrossing and stimulating film.  I am just disappointed that it has taken me this long to watch it!

Saturday, 9 December 2017

The Assassination of Trotsky (1972 film)

The Assassination of Trotsky is a 1972 movie, starring Richard Burton and, as the title suggests, it documents the events which surrounded the murder of the famous Russian revolutionary in Mexico in 1940. Also in the cast are Alain Delon and Romy Schneider.

I approached this film with some trepidation, as it has a reputation of being a poor piece of work. However, my recent interest in left-wing politics prompted me to give it a watch. The fact that it is done in something resembling a European art cinema style was also an attraction. It has a quintessentially early 1970s flavour about it, to my eyes anyway!

It has to be said that Richard Burton is always worth watching, and that voice of his invariably adds extra gravitas, gravitas which in this instance the work itself does not entirely deserve. I was relieved that he did not attempt a Russian accent, and he plays the role in quite a straightforward manner, eschewing exaggerations and outlandish affectations. Overall though I found this movie to be somewhat bland and muddled. The dialogue lacks guile, and too many scenes simply stumble along with no apparent purpose. 

On the positive side, the production values are reasonably good, but paradoxically it also feels rough around the edges in places. This might have something to do with the lack of focus in some scenes, and also the questionable standard of some of the supporting acting. 

I found faults in the film, but these pale into significance when compared with my reaction to the truly horrible bull-fighting sequence which is included.  What possessed them to have this in there is not clear - maybe it was an attempt at some kind of symbolism?

One of the scenes which I did enjoy was the Mexican May Day parade, although this looked a little like footage of a genuine event.

So, even the charisma of Burton, Delon and Schneider can't save this one.  It is worth a watch, though, for the sight of Burton at work, and for students of history and politics. 

Friday, 8 December 2017

United Red Army (2007 film)

United Red Army is a Japanese film, originally released in 2007, and directed by Koji Wakamatsu. It tells the story of the famous Japanese leftist militant group, from its origins in the student protest movements of the Sixties, to its eventual self-destruction.

I had been wanting to see this film for some time.  The first thing to stress is that the movie is long, clocking in at over three hours in duration. On reflection it is perhaps too long.  It is divided into three parts. The first section looks at the protest movements in the 1960s, the second at the training camps which they established in the remote mountainous regions of Japan, and the concluding "act" depicts an infamous stand-off with the police.

The first part of the picture was for me the most interesting, and the most impressively put together. The course of the protests in the Japanese universities is related using archive footage and narration, as well as some acted scenes. The mingling of these ingredients works surprisingly effectively, and I suspect that the rigour and scale of the student demonstrations will have surprised many Western observers who were unfamiliar with the Japanese scene from those times.

Some time is taken to explain the grievances which fuelled the anger of the students, such as the Vietnam War and the security treaties signed between America and Japan. This first part of United Red Army is done in almost a "docu-drama" style, and the dramatic nature of the subject matter ensures that the interest is maintained for a while, but after that the film becomes rather mired in an exploration of the internal squabbles and purges which bedeviled the group(s), and things only pick up again towards the conclusion of the picture, with the "siege" sequences in the mountains.

The middle part of the movie I found quite disturbing, and it is easy to imagine the terror and despondency felt by many of the people.  It is ironic, or perhaps not, that an enterprise which was ostensibly undertaken in the name of "liberation" was beset by so much misery and cruelty.

Although I found this film to be flawed in some respects, I am glad that movies like this are being made, as they throw some light on major events of the past which have been slightly forgotten, and they hopefully provoke some thought amongst people of all generations, not just about decades past, but about the world we live in today.

It seems that the budget for this movie was not especially lavish, but I didn't find this to be a problem as such. It means that there are no manufactured crowd scenes and over-lavish sets. This one is all about the story, the issues and the people.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Into The Silence - The Great War, Mallory and The Conquest of Everest - Wade Davis

Into The Silence, by Wade Davis, chronicles and examines the British expeditions to Mount Everest in the period 1921-1924, paying special attention to George Mallory, and to the experiences of various expedition participants in the First World War, and the degree to which these experiences affected how the endeavours in the mountains were approached.

What could have been another book about mountaineering is given a different, and absorbing, dimension. The portraits of the various members of the expeditions are fascinating, and I gained the impression of a Britain in a state of flux, modernity encroaching on traditional values and methods, and people confused and disorientated in the wake of the 1914-1918 conflict. The author does not flinch in his descriptions of the horrors of the trenches, and in his observations about the folly of the war.

Another strand which I discerned from the early chapters was the ambiguity in the outlook of many of these men, even those with a seemingly enlightened and liberal view of the world. It is a candid window on some prevailing attitudes, often expressed in diaries and letters. Paternalism, at the very least, was still very much alive, if this is any guide. The frank and honest nature of the portrayals is one of the things which I found so engrossing about the book. It is safe to say that the human race has progressed in many ways since the early 20th century.

Another part of the appeal of Into The Silence is the diversity of the characters, and the way that attempts were made (or not as the case may be) to mould these people into effective and harmonious teams. It is probably true to say that an environment as extreme and arduous as Mount Everest lays bare individuals' foibles, frailties and idiosyncrasies. Some flourish and rise to the occasion, whilst others are defeated and ground down by the ordeal. Davis manages to evoke these phenomena very capably.

I was gripped by the detailing of George Mallory's early life, before the outbreak of the First World War. I had not realized the extent to which he had associated with some of the leading artistic and intellectual figures of his day.

Clearly, wartime travails had affected people in subtly different ways. All had their own tale to tell, or not to tell. Part of the charm is in sensing how the personnel, and the wider public, interpreted their efforts in the Himalayas, and whether to them it represented redemption, escape, idealism or else something different.

There is always a danger that the constant referring back to, and parallels with, the Great War, could become trite after a while. However, Davis handles matters with some sensitivity and finesse, making the assertions and allusions seem plausible and credible. The meanings, where they exist, occasionally emerge as quite nuanced, sometimes even nebulous.

I did rather feel that the chapters dealing with the 1921 expedition, given over primarily to reconnaissance and surveying, were padded and excessively long. It could perhaps have been condensed. The casual observer might also consider that, by comparison, the legendary 1924 trip is documented with relative brevity. Then again, this is no ordinary book.

The quotes from letters and diaries lend a real intimacy and authenticity to the story. As so often, these snippets reveal some innermost sentiments, and occasionally some unpalatable truths. The personality clashes, behind-the-scenes intrigues and animosities, and the vagaries of the selection processes, are in their ways just as interesting as the tales of heroism and stoicism at altitude.

Above everything looms the enigmatic figure of Mallory. Some of his outpourings during the three trips do not square with his supposed inclinations and sympathies. "Mercurial" might be a good way to describe him. A complex individual, and one has to admire his single-mindedness and drive, tinged as they appear to have been with insecurity.

I think that the author builds the tension excellently, as the stakes rise during the 1922 and 1924 expeditions, and the moments of truth approach. The descriptions of the courage and resourcefulness of the climbers, and the sufferings which they endured, are very well executed. One almost felt like one was there in a tent with Mallory, Irvine or Norton, haunted by gale-force winds and plagued by exhaustion and pain.

A riveting read, then, and one marvels at what these people achieved, with such primitive equipment and communications.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

This Sporting Life (1963 film)

This Sporting Life is a 1963 British film, directed by Lindsay Anderson, and based on the novel by David Storey. It stars Richard Harris as Frank Machin, a coal miner turned rugby league player. The movie follows Machin's professional trials and tribulations, and his romantic entanglements.

This film has assumed an almost mythic reputation within these shores, but it is different from how I remember it from my previous viewings. There is less rugby league action than one might imagine. One thing which is certain is that the piece would not have worked nearly as well had it been made in colour. 

If I discerned a message from watching the film, it was one of self-expression and honesty.  It was released in 1963, at a time when Britain was emerging from an introspective and deferential period, and bright young things from all kinds of social backgrounds were coming to the fore and making themselves heard.

I know that from the distance of the 21st century, some of the working class based "kitchen sink" drama of the early 1960s can even seem like self-parody, and occasionally comes off as patronizing. However, I think that This Sporting Life is plausible and credible in the main, partly because of the acting performances, and also because it lacks excessive self-consciousness. 

The movie strikes a chord with me, in a nebulous way. I was probably never really "working class" myself, in the truest sense, although my surroundings and contemporaries were.  There is an authenticity and candour here which is quite revelatory. People struggling to contain their feelings, but sometimes "letting go". That was something which I seldom saw in my youth. The grittiness and rawness seem real to me.

The social commentary here is quite subtle and "organic", somewhere in there for the viewer to pick out and ponder upon, and the "kitchen sink" elements focus primarily on the relationship between Machin and his landlady, played by Rachel Roberts.  As the film progressed, I thought that the portrayal of the human condition was increasingly bleak. Not a "feel good" film, from that point of view. 

The characters are struggling to communicate with each other, to open up, partly because of traditional British reserve and reticence. Frank Machin seems more expressive than most, but lacks subtlety and finesse in his dealings with others. Everyone else seems to conform, and this leaves Machin looking and feeling like an outsider, often uncomfortable in this milieu. An "angry young man"?.  Perhaps...

In contrast to the dark, dimly lit scenes in the house, the rugby portions of the movie are (comparatively) bright, less subdued and insidious, perhaps symbolizing the game as a form of escape for Machin from his other demons, frustrations and concerns. The picture is done in a "flashback" format, and this is employed to good effect, imbuing the work with additional dynamism and pace, and encouraging the viewer to muse upon meanings. 

Some of the scenes, especially those accompanied by the mildly avant-garde and creepy music, remind me somewhat of European art cinema, "audio-visually" at least.

The Machin character remains impassive and stony-faced when confronted with sycophancy and shallow fawning by social climbers. His responses, expressions and attitudes are possibly more ambiguous than those of your typical "angry young man". This also applies I think to his interactions with his "superiors", such as the rugby league club's owners. Whilst complex, he lacks savvy or sensitivity.  The brooding but enigmatic countenance is brilliantly conveyed by Harris. It is good to see some "animal" emotion in there, rather than endless oblique philosophizing.

This Sporting Life embodies a collision of  traditional values and the modern, business-like approach to life, as befits a film made during a transitional period in social history. Also, philosophies of life which are not epoch-sensitive are to the fore. Those who had decided "if you can't beam 'em, join 'em" stood out to me. One or two scenes depict Machin as detached, gazing upon the superficiality and pretense around him.

This feeling of detachment and alienation I could relate to.  The world is not a perfect place, and one can be too proud, and refuse to meet people halfway, ultimately to one's detriment. 

Another facet of Machin's personality rang true with me as well. That of not knowing how to behave, and what to say, at a crucial time. Misjudging situations and other people's feelings.  There is a fine line between honesty and leaving things alone which are better left unsaid. Being too eager to impress. Being out of practice, as it were, and this rustiness leading to a crudeness and insensitivity, and much later regret.

I feel that this film also serves as a pretty good study of the human psyche and the male condition especially. People being unable to communicate effectively, being on different wavelengths. This is one of the unpleasant, and unpalatable, realities of adult existence. At the root of it all, maybe, lie insecurity and loneliness. 

A great sequence near the end may encapsulate much of the film's narrative. We see Machin on a hill, looking down on the town, which could be seen as a microcosm of the world.  We then cut to a grim, brutal rugby tussle. Summing up his, and our existence, perhaps?  Then again, the rugby-life parallels are perhaps a little too convenient and easy.

Rachel Roberts' performance I find to be a real "grower".  Early on, it can seem a little bland and hesitant, but one has to see how things develop to appreciate that this was intentional. A strong, seamless effort.

This movie has a naturalness and a believability which makes it compelling.  This is real life. People here are not pointedly or blatantly wallowing in their predicament, or chafing at any kind of social chains. It is surprisingly fresh and resonant. Some of the topics and concerns explored are universal.  If anything, the film goes on too long.  It is not exactly light or "escapist" viewing, but it is satisfying and engaging.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Rosa Luxemburg (1986 film)

The movie Rosa Luxemburg, released in 1986, and directed by Margarethe von Trotta, is a biopic (of sorts) of the German-Polish revolutionary and activist. Barbara Sukowa plays the title role.

I say a biopic of sorts, because the movie does not cover the whole of her life, although there are a few flashback sequences, referring back to her childhood.

For much of this picture, there is a dark atmosphere of foreboding and oppression, often with a backdrop of snow and overcast skies. I personally found this to be galvanizing rather than discouraging. Some of the most powerful and effective imagery is of Rosa trudging around prison yards in the snow, accompanied by her poetic reflections and commentary.

In addition to the above, a good deal of the running time consists of Luxemburg arguing (often at the dinner table) with her "comrades" regarding strategy, tactics and theory. If some of the settings here are an accurate reflection, then it seems that Luxemburg and her friends and associates lived in a good deal of comfort and luxury, when they were not locked up in prison, that is.

I like this film, partly because it deals with European history and politics, and partly because it is imbued with the notions of learning, ideas and books. The period sets, costumes, decor and so forth, are impressively, if soberly and unobtrusively, done. The scene which depicted a "turn of the century" ball was nicely effected and presented - this is an area where many similar pictures fall down.

The theme for much of the movie, as I interpreted it, was that the subject was principled but headstrong, and often despaired of her older, more pragmatic and conservative colleagues, and their more measured approach. There is almost as much focus on her emotional and romantic entanglements as on the political arena, partly because such areas may illustrate some of the personality traits which helped to determine her destiny and her fate.

I was intrigued by her advocacy of mass action, rather then relying totally on the drudgery of party politics and parliamentary procedure and compromise. She kept receiving promises from her party leaders, but one suspects that they were empty promises, designed to placate her temporarily, though there is merit in the argument that a hasty or ill-prepared "revolution" might be self-defeating.

She was wrong, initially at least, to claim that there would be no mass support for the war which commenced in 1914, but was ultimately proved correct in many of her observations about the effects which the war would have. I thought that the film dealt with this stage of Luxemburg's life quite honestly and deftly, illustrating her despair,resignation and disillusionment at the nationalist fervour which helped to propel Europe towards war, and eloquently summing up her views on how developments in the conflict could slowly turn the tide of opinion.

The chronology might confuse a few people in places, but the main thing is the overall effect. This is not a blandly hagiographic account, but at the same time it does have the effect of making one think beyond the smokescreens and bland over-simplifications which tend to dominate (in my experience) mainstream 21st century discourse and comment.

Barbara Sukowa's performance is admirable. Many movies of this type are marred by cartoonish or over-inflated portrayals of the main players, but here Sukowa delivers a reasonably plausible and convincing picture.

A good movie, not excessively preachy or partisan.  It is visually pleasing, soundly acted and adroitly presented.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

The Sweeney (television series)

When I was very young, there were certain television programmes which retained a mystique, usually because I was never, or rarely, permitted to watch such programmes by my parents!  One of these shows was The Sweeney, the highly influential and acclaimed Seventies crime-drama series.

As I grew older, I was led to understood that The Sweeney had been "ground-breaking" and "gritty", but I had been unable to judge this for myself.  When the series was first broadcast, a combination of factors meant that I was not able to view the show.  The timeslot when it was shown, parental concern over violent content, and our family's mild anti-ITV snobbery were foremost. Whenever any discussion turned to the show, I felt somehow left out.

It was not until the recent past that I was able to watch The Sweeney in any concerted form. It was a revelation to me, although from a 21st century perspective it doesn't seem as innovative or as edgy as it must have done circa 1975/76. And of course some of the attitudes exhibited would not meet the approval of a modern audience.

The series gives a very authentic and honest portrayal of the Seventies in London, and by extension of Britain as a whole during that period of time. An atmosphere of decay and gloom, maybe, but also a sense of community and certainty before technological and socio-economic developments began to change things irrevocably.

The Sweeney follows the adventures of a group of detectives in the Metropolitan Police's Flying Squad. The three main characters are Inspector Jack Regan (John Thaw), Sergeant George Carter (Dennis Waterman) and their boss, Frank Haskins (Garfield Morgan).

Regan is an intriguing and ambiguous character, superbly played by John Thaw. A proponent of unorthodox methods, he seems old-school, but in some ways he might be said to be ahead of his time. He is regularly at odds with his superiors, and even with his subordinates. The writing and the acting combine to make the concept and realisation of Regan very believable and credible, not just as some caricature. A man of contradictions, he appears cynical and jaded, but at the same time seems wholly committed to, and immersed in, his job.

Another key, in my eyes, to the success and appeal of The Sweeney is that it does not over-emphasize or excessively utilize some of the "recurring" themes. For example, Regan and his team are not uniformly at loggerheads with The Powers That Be. Sometimes they find common cause. This measured approach adds authenticity, and prevents the series from becoming stale and predictable.

Dennis Waterman has perhaps not been accorded enough praise or credit for his performance as George Carter. I have always found Waterman likeable in whatever role he happens to be playing, and this series finds him in great, assured form.

The character of Carter perhaps represents the police in a state of flux, incorporating clear elements of the "old school", but also receptive to, and embracing, new methods and tools. Carter often questions Regan's excesses and his outlandish schemes, but is sometimes placated by his "guv'nor"'s self-confidence, his persuasive manner and his track record.

The episode "Hit And Run", in which Carter's wife is killed, provides a fine showcase for Waterman's talents, going way beyond the bravado and machismo for which The Sweeney is, rightly or wrongly, renowned.

It is tempting to see parallels between Jack Regan and Inspector Morse, another detective famously portrayed by John Thaw. An older, cynical, grumpy character, with a penchant for the unorthodox, partnered with a younger, ambitious, more "domesticated" sergeant.

The plaudits extended to The Sweeney are well deserved, but this is not to say that every episode is brilliant. Like other similar television series, it suffered from a lack of continuity and consistency, partly because different episodes had different writers and directors. The ambience and tenor of each story could vary greatly from the next one, with difficulties in maintaining "back story".  Some episodes bordered on comedy - "Thin Ice", "Golden Fleece" and "Messenger Of The Gods" spring to mind. Light relief is all well and good, but not to detract from the mood which is essential to the show.

Few punches were pulled in the depiction of an escalation in the ruthlessness and violence displayed by criminals. I can see how this would have been shocking for the people in the Seventies, raised as they were on a diet of shows featuring gentlemanly, even chivalrous villains, and correspondingly placid and reticent cops. Episodes such as "Taste Of Fear" and " Bait" have the capacity to unsettle and disturb, even after all these years. The rawness set new standards.

The impression emerged that the intricacies of detective work and police procedure had been thoroughly researched, and some things are left unexplained, leaving the viewers to work a few things out for themselves. One eventually gets used to the jargon and slang!

A few episodes did over-reach themselves, and look rather silly today.  One example is "Tomorrow Man", in which John Hurt plays a computer whizz-kid. The word is that Thaw and Waterman grew finally to consider that The Sweeney had run its course. Within the remit of the squad, it was inevitable that genuinely fresh ideas for storylines would dry up eventually. That said, I don't feel that the show went particularly stale or moribund. It ended on a suitably bitter and abrasive note in "Jack or Knave", with Regan feeling highly aggrieved after being investigated for alleged corruption.

Watching The Sweeney is still a rewarding and satisfying experience, sometimes thought-provoking. Dated in some respects, yes, but still quality television.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Sebastian Coe - Coming Back - David Miller

Recently I have been going through a concerted phase of reading about the Olympic Games, and middle-distance running in particular.  This led me to delve deep into my "archives" to re-read the book "Sebastian Coe - Coming Back", by David Miller, published in 1984.

This is not a biography as such, but it documents that phase in Coe's career from the end of the 1981 season through to the aftermath of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. It examines the runner's recovery from two years of illness and injury to retain his Olympic 1500 metres title.

What makes this work doubly interesting is that it covers a period when the sport of track and field athletics itself was going through a time of transition, when commercialism was being allowed to rise to the surface, and when inevitable growing pains were being encountered. Indeed, there are several instances here where those commercial pressures seemed somewhat at odds with the long-term interests of certain British athletes.

Coe was dogged by misfortune and setbacks in 1982 and 1983, and his often turbulent relations with the British press are examined here, as he is written off, and parts of Fleet Street revert to their traditional practice of knocking sports stars when they are down. A hardening of Coe's attitude reached its culmination in his famous gestures to the press box after crossing the finishing line in the 1500 metres final in Los Angeles.

This focus on his dealings with the media is just a part of a wider look at the Coe psyche and temperament. He displayed a resilience and a resourcefulness which many were unaware he possessed, in overcoming adversity to regain past glories. By the time of the '84 Olympics, one becomes aware of a serenity, almost, mixed with a confident resolve to succeed.

Another interesting aspect of this book is its close look at the training methods employed by Coe and his father/coach Peter, and how these were modified to suit the special circumstances of 1984. It becomes apparent how consummately he had peaked for his second Olympics, although I am left wondering how much the problems of 1983 might have actually played a role, by dictating the time when the athlete could begin serious running again.

Reading a book published in 1984 allows one to be "wise after the event.".  The author, for example, assumes in his calculations about the post-1984 athletics landscape that the Soviet Union and East Germany would still exist by the centenary Olympics of 1996. Also, Coe's proposed move up to the 5000 metres event, much discussed within these pages, never really materialized.  Also, he did eventually capture that cherished major title over 800 metres (at the 1986 European Championships in Stuttgart).

An enjoyable and interesting read, this one.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Kirkstall Abbey - part 2

Further to my previous post, here are some additional photographs taken during my recent visits to Kirstall Abbey....

Friday, 8 September 2017

Kirkstall Abbey

For reasons which need not detain us here, I have recently been in a position to visit Kirkstall Abbey in Leeds a couple of times. Despite the place being in reasonably close proximity to the area where I live, this was my first time there since my school days (the early 1980s, to the best of my recollection), when it was a popular destination for day-trips of an educational and enlightening nature.

Kirkstall Abbey is a monastery which was founded in the Middle Ages, and it is situated in the northern suburbs of Leeds. Although today's tourist attraction is basically a set of ruins, it is still a fascinating and thought-provoking place to encounter, exuding some eeriness, but also considerable grandeur and spirituality.  The abbey and its grounds are now surrounded by ordinary residential streets and the normal hubbub and noise of modern commercial activity, and this apparent incongruity only makes the tranquility (both then and now) of the former monastery seem more welcome and desirable....

As I slowly made my way through the various sections of the abbey, what crossed my mind was how the scale and intricacy of the architecture and structures, impressive as it is/was, throw into sharp relief the achievements of other, earlier civilizations in terms of engineering,building, logistics and sheer human effort, ingenuity and endeavour. On the face of it, the things constructed and operated by the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and so forth, hundreds or even thousands of years before, were scarcely less advanced or complex than what was created there at Kirkstall Abbey.

The abbey is yet another of those places which makes me wish that I could have my time again, in order that I could train and work as an archaeologist or a historian! It was quite easy to visualize, looking at the ruins, what the scene would have been like all that time ago, as the monks went about their daily tasks and rituals. The state of some of the ruins also leaves plenty to the imagination, as one speculates what function such and such a row of stones might have fulfilled back when the monastery was active and vibrant.

My recent strolls around the ruins brought back memories of my childhood visits, and I sought in some respects to reproduce the atmosphere and spirit of those times, even to the point of buying myself an ice-cream (complete with chocolate flake!). Looking back, as a callow and somewhat shy youth I was insufficiently inquisitive or outward-looking to fully appreciate what I was seeing, or being told, about the abbey and its history. These virtues have only come to me in comparatively recent times. Better late than never, I'm forced to admit...

If you are staying in Leeds, or even just passing through, Kirkstall Abbey is well worth a quick visit.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Superstars (TV series)

One of the staples of my childhood television viewing was the British/European version of the multi-sports competition "Superstars". Just recently I have been revisiting the history and the essence of this programme, and I was reminded what an entertaining, worthwhile and intriguing show it was.

I have vague and misty memories of watching the likes of David Hemery and John Conteh appear on "Superstars" when I was very young, and of course the Kevin Keegan cycling incident from 1976 is almost etched into the collective consciousness of the British nation.

The BBC's "Superstars" coverage was presented by David Vine and Ron Pickering, two of the most capable and likeable sports broadcasters of that era. Vine was authoritative, urbane even, and could paint great pictures with words. Ron Pickering, on the other hand, was enthusiasm personified, and his passion for sport and its benefits always shone through in his contributions.

For the uninitiated, "Superstars" pitted competitors from various different sports against each other in a succession of events, including sprinting, cycling, canoeing, weightlifting and the famous (or infamous) gym tests. Points were awarded according to the positions attained in each event. National series thrived in the USA, Britain and elsewhere, and European, International and World championships took place.

As a boy, the European superstars finals held a particular mystique and pull and, funny though it seems now, a taste of the exotic. Vine and Pickering were very adept at conveying the atmosphere in Rotterdam's Ahoy Stadium, where the European showpiece was stage. Special emphasis was placed on the banked cycling track there. Impressionable as I was, I almost gained the perception that "Superstars" was the most important and prestigious sporting event in the world, perhaps even surpassing the Olympics!

It has become a cliche, but a large part of the charm and appeal of "Superstars" was its propensity to propel comparatively little-known sportspeople into the spotlight, allowing them to exhibit their talents to a wider audience, way beyond the confines of their chosen speciality. Classic examples of this were Kjell Isaksson, the Swedish pole vaulter, Ties Kruize, the Dutch field hockey player, and the British judoka Brian Jacks. These men regularly outshone more famous and renowned athletes in this test of all-round sporting prowess.

I vividly remember the performances of Isaksson, the remarkable little pole vaulter. His feats in weightlifting were staggering from some one of his slight build. He was also formidable in the gym tests (parallel bar drips and squat thrusts).

Of course, Brian Jacks became a national celebrity in Britain in the late Seventies and early Eighties, and appeared to receive far more recognition for his "Superstars" achievements than he did for his accomplishments in the world of judo, which were themselves considerable. Jacks' counterpart on the other side of the Atlantic was the remarkable Canadian soccer player Brian Budd, who notched up three World Superstars titles, not to mention three Canadian titles! Budd was a formidable competitor in most of the events on the schedule, and he was also quite a character.

Another hallmark of the UK version of the show was in allowing older athletes such as Hemery, Lynn Davies and John Sherwood to prolong or extend their careers in the competitive arena. Many who grew up with "Superstars" possibly knew little of their respective careers and feats in track and field athletics.

It is interesting to analyze which sports appeared best suited to supplying successful "Superstars" participants. Pole vaulting provided Bob Seagren, Kjell Isaksson, as well as Brian Hooper, who shone at the tail end of the franchise's golden age in Britain.

What made pole vaulters so ideally suited to the challenge of "Superstars" and its format? I guess it had something to do with agility, "pound-for-pound" strength, speed, all-round athleticism and technical aptitude. This ensured that they were consistently good across most of the disciplines contained in the schedule.

Amongst football (soccer) players, the aforementioned Brian Budd was perhaps the exception which proved the rule. Generally, practitioners of "the beautiful game" seemed to lack the power and the strength to compete for outright honours, although they fared very well in areas such as sprinting - Malcolm McDonald famously broke the eleven-second barrier in the 100 metres in 1975. The extra power and muscle of rugby players (from both codes) appeared to make them more suited to the rigours and the nature of the "Superstars" test.

Were there any flaws in the make-up of the "Superstars" event? To me, the UK version seems to have placed undue emphasis on strength and brawn. More skill-orientated sports, such as racquet games or even something like ten-pin bowling or snooker, might have counter-balanced things in favour of those possessing finesse as well as muscle.

The rules barring or handicapping some competitors in their alleged "specialities" also seemed nonsensical and anomalously applied. Handicapping pole vaulters in sprints and 400-metre hurdlers in a steeplechase?  It made matters unnecessarily complicated and I think that a "swings and roundabouts" argument could be justifiably made here.

Allowing people to "opt out" of some events was also wrong in my opinion. I would have just required everyone to take part in every event. This was supposed to be a test of all-round proficiency, after all. Brian Jacks in the sprints and steeplechase would have been very interesting to watch!

But these are very minor gripes. To me "Superstars" in its prime was emblematic of its time, when the innocence of the era allowed such an enterprise to thrive. A great series!

Friday, 19 May 2017

The Rack Pack (2016 film)

Having recently been immersing myself in appreciation of snooker's "golden age" - from the late 1970s through to the early 1990s - I decided to watch the 2016 film "The Rack Pack", a comedy-drama which is set in that era, focusing primarily on the rivalry between Alex "Hurricane" Higgins and Steve Davis.

The early portion of the movie introduces us to the two main protagonists, capturing and invoking the contrast between the freewheeling maverick Higgins and the more reserved and clean-cut Davis. The "retro" settings and stylings are surprisingly convincing, and there is excellent utilization of classic Seventies rock and pop music (Led Zeppelin, T.Rex, The Who, Thin Lizzy etc).

I must say that I was impressed and drawn in by Luke Treadaway's performance as Alex Higgins. Alright, some might argue that he is too good-looking, and that he doesn't always exude the mercurial shakiness of the character. However, he does nail down much of the famed truculence and swagger, and some of the on-table mannerisms. Kevin Bishop is likeable and entertaining in a somewhat "cartoonish" portrayal of Davis' manager, Barry Hearn.

As is often the case with "biopic" type projects, facts, incidents and anecdotes are packed into a condensed timespan. Any inaccuracies and distortions here will only irritate the anoraks and those intimately cognisant of the true history and chronology. Allowances must be made for the comedy element of this production.

The snooker scenes are very realistic and credible, leaving me wondering whether the actors might have been selected for their roles because they had some modicum of proficiency at the game.

In emphasizing the contrasts in temperament, approach and playing style between the two main players, the film-makers may have slightly over-laboured the supposed "nerdiness" and squareness of the young Steve Davis. This was probably done to entrench the notion that the two men represented polar opposites.

A major sub-plot in "The Rack Pack" is the increasingly corporate and commercial nature of snooker, as orchestrated by Barry Hearn, Higgins' perceived exclusion and alienation from that milieu, and the increasing bitterness and resentment which consequently built up within him. Indeed, though this is ostensibly a work which chronicles and examines the Higgins-Davis dynamic, much of the most vibrant and penetrating dialogue is that between the Higgins and Hearn characters.

The one scene which rather jarred with me was the one featuring a nightclub "altercation" between the Hurricane and Cliff Thorburn. Did anything remotely like this actually happen in reality?  A few things like this were doubtless added for dramatic effect, like they are in many similar pictures, and they didn't really tarnish my overall appreciation of the piece.

Another intriguing sub-text is a depiction of the relationship between Alex Higgins and Jimmy White, the latter gradually inheriting the mantle of "People's Champion" from the former. The narrative seems to imply that White learned from some of the mistakes of his "mentor", being prepared to make minor concessions to pragmatism and conformity in order to fit in with a changing sport and a changing world.

The decline of Higgins is, I would contend, quite deftly, touchingly and sensitively handled in this movie. It dovetailed with one of the central messages of the film, about the "cultural" tensions and the changing of the times.  Alex played a pivotal role in creating and popularizing modern snooker, but found himself being marginalized and left behind as others prospered both on and off the table.

Overall, I found "The Rack Pack" to be an enjoyable and well-produced film. It concentrates mostly on the personalities and the human aspects, rather than the intricacies of snooker itself, and largely succeeds as a result.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

The Russians Are Coming - (Only Fools and Horses episode)

Another notable episode from the first series of "Only Fools and Horses" is "The Russians Are Coming", in which the Trotters build their own nuclear fall-out shelter.

The premise of "The Russians Are Coming" is not exactly original, as lots of movies, television shows, comedies and the like were eagerly tapping into unease and paranoia about the Cold War and nuclear weapons in the early and mid-1980s. In the event, this episode contains some of the most affecting observations and passages of any of the show's plot-lines. Their impact and poignancy is perhaps heightened by the humour with which they are surrounded and occasionally clothed.

The plot stems from a business deal concluded by Del, a by-product of which results in him inadvertently "acquiring" an experimental "do it yourself" atomic fall-out shelter. The family decides to assemble it and spend some time living in it, as their own form of emergency planning.

Following an amusing effort to replicate the panic of the four-minute warning, and a simulation of the journey to a prospective location of refuge, the story really takes off when Del, Rodney and Grandad are safely ensconced in the shelter itself. The logistics and practicalities of surviving Armageddon are the source of some good, strong material. The highlight is perhaps Grandad's monologue about the true nature and horrors of war, delivered to chastise and rebuke Del for some of his excessively gung-ho and glib talk on the subject.

Whenever the subject matter threatens to become too serious and heavy, John Sullivan's comedic genius kicks in, and the mood lightens. The "captive" situation in the shelter creates an atmosphere conducive to sharp, taut and rich exchanges, and all three of the actors are on fine form, with great use of lighting to accentuate the intimacy. There is a noticeable absence of filler or padding in the script, and the shelter sequences are indeed very concentrated, fluent and absorbing. A real high point of the early days of OFAH, on more than one level.

Some speculation on the likely social consequences of a nuclear war adds to this episode's resonance and charm. Besides the humorous ruminations on the likely effects of the feared catastrophe, this is an intelligent and finely judged piece of work, addressing a difficult and emotive topic with more simplicity ,honesty and acuity than many more "serious" works arising from that era. It is also highly entertaining and funny.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Go West Young Man (Only Fools and Horses episode)

Following on from my "review" of "Big Brother", let's take a look at the episode which followed it in the first series of "Only Fools and Horses", namely "Go West Young Man".

This episode sees Del (and Rodney) venturing into the second-hand automobile arena, and also looking after Boycie's Jaguar E-Type, with fairly predictable outcomes!

The dialogue in this episode has much more charm to it, and in addition it is delivered more naturally. There is a more confident air generally, with Del's contribution feeling more rounded and convincing. Perhaps the actors were beginning to find their roles? There are a few signs of the Del Boy who we would come to know and love.

The jokes are more vibrant and potent, and the mood more relaxed, possibly because there was less pressure to introduce the characters and the back-story?  It is also true that the plot of "Go West Young Man" offered more possibilities, and was more conducive to a flowing and invigorating slice of situation comedy. 

Here we also witness the writer John Sullivan, and the production team, acquiring the knack for delivering "set-piece" scenes with truly memorable lines. The two night-club scenes in this episode are right up there in the OFAH pantheon, as is Rodney's assertion that he had "never smoked astro-turf".  Some of the most effective humour,as in later episodes, stems from their feeble attempts to impress women.

It is also possible to argue that the inclusion of more locations in this one imbues it with greater verve. The action is not confined to the Trotter flat and The Nag's Head.  The aforementioned sequences in the night-clubs provide a more colourful edge, and help to diminish the "austerity" which characterizes other early episodes of the show.

Boycie is introduced, but the character does not make as deep an impression as he would in, for example, "A Losing Streak", where we are exposed to more of his personality traits. It really needed the appearance of Marlene as a visible presence, and the "tension" which went with this, for Boycie to become a truly prominent and important character.

This episode is not perfect, as it meanders and goes flat a little at times, but it has some impetus and atmosphere of its own.  The magic formula was just on the horizon....

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Big Brother (Only Fools and Horses episode)

Recently, I have started re-watching episodes of the great British sitcom "Only Fools and Horses", and thought I would put together some articles on noteworthy or important episodes.

For the uninitiated, "Only Fools And Horses" followed the lives, loves, fortunes and misfortunes of the Trotter family from London. They eke out a living by market-trading and assorted black-market activities, engaging in various "schemes" which they hope will make them into millionaires.  The two main characters are Derek "Del Boy" Trotter (played by David Jason) and his younger brother Rodney (Nicholas Lyndhurst).

Starting from the beginning, let's take a look at the very first episode of the first series, entitled "Big Brother".....

The first thing which I noticed was the state of the characters. Del Boy in particular is nowhere near as rounded and subtle an entity in these early days as he would later become.  Del even displays signs of "sophistication", and there is not always the requisite dose of bathos to balance things out. Traits which would become familiar are under-cooked and undeveloped. There were rough edges to smooth over before the character found its comforting, natural and pleasing equilibrium. The same applies to the character of Trigger. The path to the "polished" characterizations would be uneven.

It is perhaps unsurprising that these early episodes were erratic in quality and atmosphere, as any ambitious brand new concept has to be given time to find its feet and evolve. Even the talents of David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst don't always transcend the issues.

The tone in these early days was darker and grittier than the later seasons, and the humour was not as homely. As others have observed, some of the dialogue, and its delivery, seemed forced at times, at odds with the seamlessness, freshness and naturalness which would later become one of the hallmarks of "Only Fools and Horses".

Although the plot of this opening episode ostensibly concerns a batch of "dodgy" briefcases, it is really a vehicle for introducing us to some of the elements of the "situation" in the sitcom, and to the relationship between Del and Rodney in particular. Bits of exposition and back-story are liberally sprinkled amongst the narrative.

"Big Brother" invokes one of the strands which permeates the show through all its incarnations - Rodney's yearning to escape from the shadow of Del, to achieve more independence, in this case by running away. However, Rodney usually ends up returning to "the fold".  By the same token, Del, although on the surface confident and self-reliant, is somehow incomplete and lacking in zest without his brother as his sidekick. Expediency and brotherly love both have a bearing on this.

The "Grandad" character, so beautifully played by Lennard Pearce, hits the ground running, fully formed, more than the other participants, partly because of the nature of the actor's performance, and partly because the Grandad persona was less complicated and intricate.

Making some allowances, this is still quite a weak and unsatisfying episode, not as watchable even as some of the other episodes in the first season, which betray more of the OFAH charm and depth. This is "Only Fools and Horses" in raw, incipient, prototype form.

You would have been hard pressed in 1981 to envisage it achieving classic and culturally iconic status in the UK. It must have seemed like something which might be confined to a cult following or a niche. "Big Brother" is still worth seeing, for curiosity value, and as a measure of just how far John Sullivan and his creation traveled in the years which followed.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Beautiful Team - In Search of Pele & The 1970 Brazilians - Garry Jenkins

This book had been residing on my shelves for some time, but I had never read it properly, feeling that in some ways it outwardly appeared a little on the flimsy side. I am now more than happy to retract any such verdicts.

The Beautiful Team is essentially an examination of the celebrated Brazil team which triumphed so memorably in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. As part of his project, author Garry Jenkins was able to interview most of the members of that famous footballing outfit, and also to take in the legacy and historical and cultural context of its achievements.

For some little time I have nurtured a feeling that the team of 1970 was a bit overrated, and increasingly became irritated at the "lazy", even corny, eulogies spouted by even seasoned and knowledgeable football pundits. However, this enjoyable effort has helped to partially negate some of those sentiments.

Although I think that the 1974 World Cup, and even the 1982 edition, were superior by many footballing parameters, my appreciation of the 1970 vintage Brazilians has been enriched and buttressed by learning some more about what made that team tick, and what made its collective heart beat.

There is much insight into the behind-the-scenes side of things, such as the meticulous preparation, the evolution of the team's tactical approach, and the personal dynamics within the squad. It is interesting to note, for example, the prominence of Gerson, both as a guiding influence on the pitch and as a prime mover in the cohesion of the ensemble overall.

Anyone wishing to learn a little something about Brazilian domestic football in the period prior to the Mexico tournament will also be rewarded. The cultural and social importance of the game is amply and capably illustrated.

It is worth mentioning that this work was first published in the late 1990s, so some of the observations and assertions about "modern football", and the game in Brazil itself  might not now hold as much currency or credibility, but still an intriguing read.

The Damned United (2009 film)

Some time ago I wrote a short blog post about the 2009 movie The Damned United. I recently watched the film again, and thought that I would put together a slightly more substantial and considered assessment.

The film chronicles the ill-fated forty-four day tenure of Brian Clough as manager of Leeds United football club in 1974, and is adapted from David Peace's book.

Michael Sheen delivers a superb performance in the Brian Clough role, although some may contend that the depiction of Clough's well known character traits and mannerisms is slightly exaggerated and lacking in nuance. However, as the film progresses the portrayal does become more rounded, showing frailties and insecurities.

The "aesthetic" of the picture to me brings across some of the gritty authenticity of English football, and indeed England in general, during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Images of terraced houses and so forth evoke feelings of "dark Satanic mills". There is not much sunshine and levity, but much honest toil and plain-speaking.  I find some modern films to be bland and clinical in their visual backcloth, but this doesn't fall into the trap as much as most.

A large portion of the movie is given over to "flashback" sequences which chronicle the relationship, and the animosity, between Clough and the long-time Leeds manager Don Revie. The football action sequences are deeply unconvincing, the actors being too old and not athletic enough, although these scenes do succeed in creating atmosphere and context for the overall story. The producers sensibly employed archive footage to help document the tale.

When I first viewed the film, I did not fully appreciate or take in the excellence of Timothy Spall's performance as Clough's assistant Peter Taylor.  In this depiction, Taylor was often the voice of reason and common sense amidst Clough's excesses and flights of fancy.  Assertive, pugnacious, but less egotistical.

Whether the characterization of Taylor presented here is an accurate representation of the true picture is another matter, but it makes for good drama, and occasionally even good comedy. The movie also acknowledges and emphasizes Taylor's input and contribution to the partnership - his eye for a player, his practicality, his contacts and his all-round knowledge of the game.

I won't ramble on about any technical or historical inaccuracies which spring up, because they always occur in films of this nature. Anyway, they are kept to a tolerable minimum, as far as I could ascertain.

As a supporter of Leeds United, I will try not to be overly paranoid concerning the film's portrayal of the club and of Don Revie. Overall, I would say there is relatively little to complain about on this score, and after all, some of the characteristics and tendencies which are highlighted are ones which we relish and glory in...

Michael Sheen has been lauded for his portrayal of Brian Clough's public persona, but for me the most impressive aspect of his performance was how he conveyed the sense of doom and helplessness, as the forty-four days unfolded, and as his position at Leeds gradually unraveled. Lonely, isolated and vulnerable, and missing the wise counsel and comradeship of Peter Taylor.

So, still a film very much worthy of  a watch, and praise also for the use of "Flight Of The Rat" by Deep Purple!

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Fever Pitch (1997 film)

Fever Pitch the movie is a 1997 fictionalized adaptation of Nick Hornby's acclaimed autobiographical novel, with the screenplay courtesy of Hornby himself.

I first saw the film a few years ago now, and thought that it was alright, if nothing special. Recently I subjected it to another watch, to see whether my perceptions of it might have shifted at all.

The movie centres on the character Paul (played by Colin Firth), and his obsession with football, and more specifically his beloved Arsenal. His consuming passion does not always sit easily with his personal relationships and his interactions with the "real world". This is all set against the backdrop of Arsenal's challenge for the 1988-89 League championship title.

I haven't read Hornby's book, a serious oversight I admit, but at least this didn't mean that I was constantly comparing film to book, invidious though such comparisons would have been anyway.

For me the best thing about the picture is the performance of Colin Firth as Paul. I've generally not been a major fan of his, but here he is immensely likeable and endearing as an "everyman" figure, genial but, like all of us, flawed.

Paul's new girlfriend Sarah (played by Ruth Gemmell) might initially seem like something of a stereotype, but the character injects the "tension" which is essential to making the whole thing work. I am perhaps not qualified to comment on the performance of the actress, as I haven't known many people like her character! Holly Aird, who I have always been a fan of, provides some good moments as Sarah's friend Jo.

This movie is now a bit of a time capsule, largely set as it is at a time when football was still seen by many as an undesirable, murky sub-culture. The post-Italia 90 broadening of the game's appeal, and its attendant new-found respectability, make some of the dialogue seem quaint, and I'm not sure whether this would have worked as well if it was set in the 21st century football/cultural environment.

Like so many modern films, it is well-produced and comfortable in that bland fashion. The dialogue is relatively subtle, though, even oblique, and the "philosophizing" is well-pitched and quite credible, doubtless due to the involvement of Nick Hornby.  So many similar works overdo the "meaning of life" angle, but here it is done sparingly and adroitly.

There are some retro/flashback sequences, mostly set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which help us to trace and comprehend the origins of Paul's obsession. These are quite sweet, and Luke Aikman does a good, convincing job as the young Paul, as does Neil Pearson as Paul's father.

I guess that the main themes of the film are those of "growing up", and the extent to which we need balance in our lives between the practical and the more "irrational" pursuits. Do we need both in order to be truly happy, content and fulfilled?  However much we kid ourselves, some of our impulses can never be truly suppressed. They endure, and perhaps what matters is how we manage them.

"Fever Pitch" does have very faint echoes of the romantic comedies which were so prevalent during the 1990s, but the vacuity and schmaltz are thankfully absent.  In its understated way, it is more like an art film, although elements of the ending border on the corny.

Not a masterpiece by any means, but entertaining and heart-warming.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Night of the Living Dead (1968 movie)

One of the first modern "zombie" horror movies, Night Of The Living Dead, directed by George A. Romero, has proved highly influential, in part because of the public domain status of the original film, and its consequent wide availability.

It seems trite to say this, but the fact that it was in black and white helped to "make" the film, at a time when most movies were being made in colour. This consideration I think applies especially to the opening scenes, including the one in the cemetery. Their monochrome cloak helped set the unsettling and disconcerting tone.

Consciously or otherwise, the black and white harks back to the classic horror films of the past. In more than one sense, Night Of The Living Dead has a foot in both camps, embracing aspects of previous works, but also helping to form new templates for the genre.

As others have observed, that scene in the cemetery, where Barbra and her brother are visiting the grave of their father, is integral to the film's impact. There is little or nothing in the way of exposition or back-story at that stage - we are straight into the fear and terror.

Equally, the opening "titles" sequence, showing the car driving along a lonely road, is hugely affecting, accentuated by the creepy music. This eeriness is maintained throughout the piece.

The sparse and underplayed production values and dialogue also assist in building up the "believability" of the scenario and events. Slickness all too often compromises and sanitizes horror movies. The camera angles add to the realism and the sense of anxiety and disorientation.

The violence and "gore" are not as graphic or as gruesome as would become almost standard in later horror pictures, including those directly inspired by this one. More is left to the imagination, and it is more about mood, anticipation, psychology, metaphors and imagery.  I wonder whether modern audiences might be slightly puzzled by the "slow" pace, and the relative lack of "action".

As for the acting, I think that both Judith O'Dea (Barbra) and Duane Jones (Ben) do a pretty good job. O'Dea makes her character's shock and vulnerability palpable. Some might question Barbra's behaviour after witnessing her brother's death, but I felt that a mixture of shock and the self-preservation instinct set in.  Some of the other acting is less convincing, but it is better than some people may associate with this type of film.

Part of the impact of the picture is the concentration of most of the running time in an isolated farmhouse. This way, in addition to the claustrophobia, we get to see the interaction of a group of disparate people, with their differing temperaments and fear thresholds. We see the "unity" of the zombies set against the fractious and individualistic people in the house

It is tempting to read various interpretations into the dialogue and the characterizations, given that this was 1968. Was the gathering in the farmhouse a microcosm of wider society? It is fascinating to observe and analyze the examples of human nature - co-operation, egotism, necessity, pragmatism.

Having been tense and unsettling, the film becomes much more disturbing (and graphic) in its closing stages, and the symbolism (intentional or not) becomes more pronounced.

Night Of The Living Dead is very much worth a watch.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Hot Space - Queen (1982 album) - review

Following on from my recent blog post about my attendance at Queen's 1982 show at Elland Road, Leeds,  I thought that I would take a look at the album which they had released shortly before that concert, Hot Space.

This was Queen's first "proper" studio album for two years, which in those days seemed (to me) like an eternity, but by modern standards this would be no big deal.

I can't really remember whether there were signals in advance of the musical direction which the record would signify, but in the end it turned out to be a mixture of decided funk and dance influences, with some more "traditional" Queen sounds alongside.  In some ways this was a more pronounced and decisive take on the blend which had been represented by 1980's The Game.

This album is sometimes seen as the album which triggered a period of uncertainty and soul-searching for the group. It met with a lukewarm critical (and in some territories, commercial) reception, and these factors may all have contributed to a crisis of confidence, and a lack of direction, which were not fully remedied until Live Aid in 1985.

Looking back now, to me the record stands up reasonably well. The sound, in its breeziness and exuberance, is very much "of its time", but the continuing excursions into more rhythmic styles met with mixed results. I think the inventiveness and stylishness of the production tend to obscure the lack of fresh and potent ideas in the songwriting department.

Of the "dance" orientated pieces, only "Back Chat" really works, not because it is an outstanding composition, but because of the atmospheric production, and the effort which was evidently expended on arriving at the finished article. "Staying Power" worked much better in concert, and "Body Language" remains as puzzling to me now as it was over thirty years ago.

The two Roger Taylor songs, "Action This Day" and "Calling All Girls" are likeable but minor.  "Life Is Real (Song For Lennon), has some intriguing lyrics, but comes across as rather "Queen by numbers".

"Put Out The Fire", a basic rocker, perhaps heralds the beginning of a shift in Brian May's songwriting efforts from the mainly introspective towards a greater emphasis on social commentary. The inclusion of "Under Pressure" almost occurred to me as a rather tired gesture, as it had always seemed to me as a "standalone" single, and putting it as the final track on Hot Space felt like an admission that the creative well was running somewhat dry.

So I would contend that Hot Space is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Although it is by common consent one of the weaker records released by the band, the freshness of its production, and the diversity of the material, make it an interesting listen to this day.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Queen live at Elland Road, Leeds, 1982 - my recollections

A recent internet discussion has rekindled memories of my most memorable concert-going experience, when I saw Queen perform live at Elland Road stadium in Leeds in May 1982.

In all honesty, although I am a massive music lover, I have never been one for attending big concerts in person. I have seen dozens, if not hundreds of bands in pubs and clubs over the years, but bigger venues have seldom had the pleasure of my attendance.

The first thing to mention is that we didn't even have tickets for the Queen gig beforehand. We travelled to the venue on the day, primarily with the intention of soaking up the atmosphere, and possibly standing outside the stadium to hear the music.

Anyway, partly by bus, and partly on foot, we made our way to Elland Road, and kind of mingled with the crowds. I recall that it was a bright and sunny day.  Memories are naturally rather hazy, but I guess that the support acts (Heart, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Teardrop Explodes) must have started playing around late afternoon, with Queen planning to make their appearance once the sun began to go down.

I was with my older brother and a friend, and we spent much of the afternoon and early evening standing outside the gates of the stadium, hoping to catch a glimpse of band members or assorted hangers-on.  We were eventually rewarded when none other than Freddie Mercury walked past, literally feet away from us, although we were standing on the other side of some metal railings at the time!

Eventually the time came for Queen to go on stage, and at this point we were still standing outside, although as their performance got under way, we could hear the music pretty clearly. Imagine our delight when, after the first couple of numbers, the security guys allowed some of those standing outside to enter the ground. I'm not sure who authorised this, but I've always liked to think that Queen (or their management) had something to do with it.

I can't even remember whether our friend was still was with us at this stage, but my brother and I were very lucky to be standing quite close to the front left of the stage, so we had a splendid view. This was my first experience of any kind of live rock or pop concert, and initially the sheer spectacle, and the attendant assault on the senses, rather blew me away.  Gradually, though, I began to appreciate the sheer brilliance of the performance. At the time Queen were at, or near, their peak as a live band, and there were very few acts anywhere who could rival them at the time.

The major documents of the 1982 UK/European tour are the audio and video recordings of the later Milton Keynes show.  However, I think that Brian May for one has gone on record as saying that the Elland Road show was superior.  Queen's act in the early 1980s was characterized by abundant energy and the tightness of the ensemble, and these elements were very much to the fore that night in Leeds.

I was quite young at the time, and some of the musical and artistic nuances are therefore lost in the mists of time. I recall clapping and waving my arms quite a bit, in addition to singing along enthusiastically with most of the songs. All too soon, the concert was over, and we joined the thousands filing out of the stadium. I remember that local residents were still standing on the pavement outside, soaking up the sights and sounds.

From memory, I think that the last bus had already gone by the time we emerged, so we walked the several miles home, still in a state of euphoria and well-being because of what we had just witnessed.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Stirling Moss - The Authorised Biography - Robert Edwards

In my experience, most biographies of racing drivers do not offer much in the way of searching insight into personalities, motivations and foibles. They tend to barely scratch the surface in this respect. A notable exception to these rules is Robert Edwards' authorised biography of Stirling Moss.

This book devotes unusual space and attention to examining Moss's family background, his time at school, the role of his parents and his upbringing. At various stages an effort is made to put Stirling's experiences and achievements in some kind of sociological context; again, not something one usually finds in a racing biography.  In some ways I suppose that he was a transitional figure, combining many "pre-war" values with the ethos of the more commercial age which was just beginning.

So often in books, the prowess and drive of high achievers almost appears to come out of nowhere, but Edwards lays plenty of pipework here, allowing us to gain an idea of how the subject's character took shape, and how his psyche and outlook evolved over time.

I would contend that many of the author's observations and conclusions about Moss would surprise the general observer, in that they tend to be less straightforwardly in line with the public perception. The popular image of racing drivers, especially from the era covered here, does not always tally with reality.  Behind the "heroic" facade, they all had their weaknesses, quirks and needs.

Another aspect of this biography which impressed me was that Edwards was not afraid to leave chronological "gaps" in the narrative, instead preferring to concentrate on context and an evocative and representative portrayal of the subject.  The author goes into great detail about the areas which he thinks are instructive and important, but he doesn't feel pressured to document every race of every season. In this way, one gets a more rounded and humanistic sense of Stirling's progress, as well as a richer perspective on events.

It is pleasing to see that as much attention is given to Stirling's exploits in sports cars and certain "niche" spheres as is allocated to his Grand Prix endeavours. The sport was not so "F1-centric" in the 1950s, and all of this also serves to convey the mastery and sheer versatility of Moss. 

Technical matters are also gone into, mostly as a way of illustrating which way the racing wind was blowing, and to place some of Stirling's career moves into greater historical context.  The passages concerning Maserati, Mercedes and Vanwall in particular are thoughtful and penetrating, again dispelling one or two "myths" along the way, and painting a more nuanced picture than is often painted.

A prominent feature of the latter stages of this biography is the concentration on the aftermath of the accident at Goodwood in 1962, and its physical and psychological effects on the driver. Like many areas of the book, it benefits from being "authorised", and is therefore based on good, sometimes rare source material. Again, this all goes well beyond the simplistic, cliched version which was moulded by the popular press.

I also enjoyed the chapters which looked at Stirling's life following his decision to retire from racing, and how he adapted to his new circumstances. The book is written in a pleasingly erudite but economical and accessible style.  If the test of a good biography is whether the reader emerges with an enhanced understanding of the subject, and actually learns a few things in the process, then I would suggest that this fine effort comes through with flying colours. 

Friday, 27 January 2017

Beyond The Limit - Professor Sid Watkins

Following my blog post about Professor Sid Watkins' book Life At The Limit, I re-read the follow-up, Beyond The Limit.

This "sequel" basically takes up the story from when the first book was published in 1996.  It documents the continuing search for enhanced safety in Formula 1 following on from the dreadful events of 1994, and offers special emphasis on the millennium season of the year 2000.

As with Life At The Limit, there is no shortage of amusing anecdotes and insight, but I must admit that it slightly lacks the focus, impact and cohesion of that first book. This is primarily because the charming and absorbing tales from "the old days" and the formative times of Professor Watkins' role in F1 are not there.  Also, the more regimented and corporate tenor of more modern racing arguably makes for less good raw material when writing a book.

So, this is not quite as good or as entertaining as Life At The Limit, but it is still worth checking out.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Life at The Limit - Professor Sid Watkins

Life At The Limit is a book written in 1996 by the late Professor Sid Watkins, then Formula 1 doctor/medical supremo. It is not a biography as such, but more a chronicle of his involvement in the sport. This is one of those books which the reader will breeze through quickly, and emerge with a happy, satisfied and illuminated feeling.

Although there are compelling accounts of some famous individual incidents, I was if anything more intrigued by the passages which addressed the struggles which Professor Watkins and his colleagues encountered in raising standards of medical back-up and safety, starting in the 1970s. In those early days it seems that arrangements were distinctly haphazard, and it is sobering to discover the gaps which existed before Sid and company, began to get to grips with the deficiencies.  Standardization and uniform excellence were still some way off in the old days.

In documenting his work and his experiences, Professor Watkins also shines a torch on the way of life travelling with the Formula 1 circus, and also what a small world he moved in. There are lots of amusing anecdotes and stories, and the author's dry sense of humour is a delight. In among the seriousness, the pressures and the grave matters at issue, it was still possible to have fun and be irreverent.

Some insight is given into various motor racing personalities, both drivers and non-drivers. Professor Watkins' friendship with Ayrton Senna is of course covered, and it is hard not to be moved by the chapters which deal with the events at Imola in 1994, as well as the accounts of Zolder 1982, Monza 1978 and so forth.

Life At The Limit is in places, and up to a point, a journey through the corridors of motor racing power, although the Professor is necessarily guarded, cryptic or reticent on some points. The remit of this book was really to tell the story of his own involvement.

Above all,  the reader will be lost in admiration and respect for Sid and his colleagues, for what they accomplished in helping people and in raising standards around the world. This is an entertaining and enlightening account of those times.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

1982 - The Inside Story of the Sensational Grand Prix season - Christopher Hilton

I remember that during the 2012 Formula 1 season, relative neophytes were speculating that we were experiencing perhaps the most dramatic and unpredictable Grand Prix year ever.  Those people had evidently not been around in 1982. Christopher Hilton's book, published in 2007, captures the turbulence and tragedy of that extraordinary season.

For me, the 1982 campaign was in large part coloured, and tarnished, by the death of Gilles Villeneuve, who was one of my first heroes in life. I distinctly remember crying on the day of his accident, staring into space at the end of our driveway, on a warm spring evening.  However, as time has passed I have grown to recognize how that season did have some redeeming features.

The material about the drivers' strike in South Africa is fascinating, in that it suggests that the views of many of the drivers were ambivalent. They were caught between concerns of principle and solidarity and the imperatives of ambition and avarice.  There are some interesting theories about Niki Lauda's motives, too. The strike is also placed within the context of the wider, momentous power struggle which was ongoing within the sport at that time.  A healthy selection of quotes from drivers and other personnel helps to paint the picture.

The chapter dealing with the Belgian Grand Prix in May contains much harrowing but gripping testimony about the events of that tragic qualifying session at Zolder.  Similarly, the passages documenting the Canadian Grand Prix, the scene of Ricardo Paletti's fatal accident, are moving and affecting. It is good that the author went to the trouble of researching Paletti's background and racing career.

Reading the quotes and recollections in this book, it occurs to me that in the 1980s, Grand Prix drivers were more worldly men than they are today. Maybe I think in these terms because the drivers in those days were much older than me, whereas nowadays I am many years their senior. People such as Derek Warwick and John Watson impress with their honesty and roundedness. Making allowances, one would have to say that, thirty-odd years ago, the goldfish bowl was less overpowering, and the world was a different place.

"1982" also offers a persuasive reminder that technological progress has made things too "perfect" and "infallible" to be interesting and uncertain on an "organic" level. Variables and imponderables are banished, and much of the soul and raw excitement extracted.

The heterogeneous nature of the venues, the media coverage and so forth is another part of the backdrop to this work, No identikit tracks, podium ceremonies, pit and paddock complexes, and the like.

Hilton relates some great tales, such as the Toleman "half-tanks" ploys and the Derek Daly "short cut" at Dijon. More innocent times, but in keeping with many aspects of this book, I get the impression that the people involved have been made less guarded and equivocal, and more candid, in their recollections by the passage of time.

It seems to me that, in a Formula 1 sense at least, the 1980s had not truly arrived in 1982.  I tend to see this as happening in 1984, with the full flowering of the Ron Dennis/TAG/Lauda/Prost era at McLaren.  Things became more clinical and orderly, and rough edges were smoothed over. The years 1982 and 1983, by contrast,  still exuded elements of the Seventies. A transitional, confusing, but vibrant time.

Christopher Hilton's book, lavishly illustrated and well-researched, evokes those times vividly.