Getting to the Heart of a Classic Film

Two of my absolute favourite films are Citizen Kane and On The Waterfront. Kane is a masterpiece of  visual brilliance whilst Waterfront is a masterpiece of acting brilliance. Waterfront has at its centre a heart of fire whilst Kane‘s centre is a little cooler. I thought a quick comparison of the two films might be interesting so here we go:

Citizen Kane

Back at home in my default position, in my favourite chair watching TV, I picked up the tail end of an interview with actor Gary Oldman about his new film Mank. Mank sounds like an interesting film in many ways. Firstly, it only had a limited cinema release before being streamed on Netflix. Whether this was a reaction to the global lockdown or an indication of how cinema will work in the future I’m not sure, but if cinemas are unable to open then producers must find other ways to show their films.

Gary Oldman is an English actor with an interesting array of roles behind him. He won the academy award for his role as Winston Churchill in the film Darkest Hour and played assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone’s JFK. Mank is about Herman Mankiewicz and his writing of the screenplay for Citizen Kane. Kane is one of my favourite films although I haven’t seen it for a long time.

Mankiewicz was asked by Orson Welles to write the script but without a credit, presumably so that Welles himself could use the resulting script as a basis for his own work. Later Mankiewicz changed his mind and decided he wanted a screen credit as he had come to think that the script was his best work. Welles then gave screen credit to both himself and Mankiewicz although it was Mankiewicz himself who accepted the Oscar at the award ceremony in Hollywood.

Just flipping through my extensive back catalogue of VHS documentaries I found one from the BBC about the making of Citizen Kane which I have recently copied to DVD. The documentary covered various areas including the filming, the actors and of course the script. The origin of the script was a contentious subject, especially after film critic Pauline Kael wrote an article in the New Yorker on the subject. She seemed to favour Mankiewicz as writing the lion’s share of the project. Peter Bogdanovich wrote a rebuttal in the Esquire magazine, defending Welles as the screenwriter.

The truth is that Welles, as he said himself, put together a screenplay based on both his version and the one by Mankiewicz. Elements of the story were based on personal experiences of both men, for instance Mankiewicz was friendly with William Hearst who inspired the character of Kane but Welles maintained that tycoons Samuel Insull and Harold Fowler McCormick also inspired parts of Kane’s story.

The cinematographer was Gregg Toland, one of the film industry’s top photographers. Toland asked to work on the film and Welles replied ‘Why? I don’t know anything about making films.’ Toland countered that was exactly why he wanted to work on the film because a film by a newcomer, Kane was actually Welles’ first film, would produce something new and original.

There are some fascinating elements to Citizen Kane, especially in the special effects department. A famous one is where the camera flies through a rooftop sign and then drops down through a skylight into a restaurant. That was done with a sign that came apart as the camera approached and then a fade from a model shot into the restaurant set disguised in a flash of lightning. I could go on and mention plenty of elements like that but if you haven’t seen Citizen Kane let me just explain what it’s all about. The film opens with the death of Kane, a millionaire newspaper magnate. His last words were ‘Rosebud’. The makers of a cinema newsreel decide to find out what or who Rosebud was.

To do so they research Kane’s life; his inheritance of a huge fortune, his takeover of a newspaper, his great wealth, his power and influence, his marriage and divorce and ultimately his death. The reporters never find the answers to their questions but we, the cinema audience, have the secret revealed to us right at the end of the picture. The end is what makes the film really and Welles admitted that Rosebud, and the idea behind it, was the idea of Herman Mankiewicz.

Citizen Kane is a wonderful piece of cinema with an outstanding visual style and the only criticism I can put forward is that for all its visual fireworks it is a film with a cold centre, a cold heart. Does the viewer feel sympathy for Kane? I’m not sure he does.

On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront stars Marlon Brando as dock worker Terry Malloy, brother of Charlie ‘the gent’ who is the right hand man of union boss John Friendly played by Lee J Cobb. Terry unwittingly leads fellow dockworker Joey Doyle into an ambush, thinking Doyle will be threatened to withdraw his statements to the Crime Commission. However, Doyle is murdered leaving Terry shocked and confused. Later he becomes friendly with Joey’s sister played by Eva Marie Saint in her film debut. Charlie, played by Rod Steiger, tries to get Terry back into line in the famous scene with the two in the back of a taxi but fails. After John Friendly has Terry’s brother murdered, the local priest played by Karl Malden convinces Terry to tell everything he knows to the Waterfront Crime Commission. Terry does so but is ostracised by his fellow dockers until Terry forces Friendly into a brutal fight. The dockers then stand with Terry when bruised and battered, he returns to work.

Director Elia Kazan had originally employed Arthur Miller to write the screenplay for On the Waterfront but the two fell out over various things especially the fact that Kazan had identified eight former communists to the House Unamerican Activities Committee. This was the time of the McCarthy witch hunts and careers and livelihoods were on the line when Senator Joe McCarthy asked the question ‘are you now or ever have been a member of the communist party?’

Kazan then asked Budd Schulberg to write the script. There was still some difficulty in getting the film to the screen and eventually Kazan approached Sam Spiegel to act as producer. He was able to set up a deal with Columbia Studios.

The film was thought to be Kazan’s response to criticism of his stand at the HUAC hearings. Arthur Miller in his play A View from the Bridge has his character become an informer but Miller puts a different spin on things, portraying the informing as a betrayal rather than a way of fighting back at crime as Terry Malloy does On the Waterfront.

Either way, On the Waterfront is one of my very favourite films and Brando’s performance as Terry Malloy won him one of the film’s eight Oscars. Forget about Don Corleone, this was Marlon Brando’s finest hour.

It is the performances that are at the heart of this great film. Brando is outstanding but so too are Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, Lee J Cobb and Eva Marie Saint. Kazan was a director who worked well with actors bringing out the best in their performances and respecting the way they worked. He had worked with Brando before in A Streetcar Named Desire and would go on to work with fellow method actor James Dean in East of Eden.

The cameraman, Boris Kaufman had previously worked on documentaries so perhaps that was why Kazan engaged him to film Waterfront as, in a documentary like style, the camera follows Brando as Terry Malloy and watches him become slowly disappointed in the thuggish world he has become part of.

The scene in a taxi with Rod Steiger is clearly a studio set but we don’t care because Steiger and Brando keep the viewer riveted to the screen ignoring the poor lighting and the bad set because the actors take all our attention.

In another scene Brando chats with Eva Marie Saint who plays Edie, the sister of the dockworker who Brando as Terry Malloy had set up for the kill. The two talk as they walk and Edie drops her glove but Terry picks it up and instead of giving it back puts it on his own hand. The glove becomes a focal point holding the two together as they talk. For me it is one of the great scenes in cinema. This is a film with a beating heart at its centre, a heart of fire and emotion and it is Brando with this wonderful performance who is right at the film’s centre.

Next time you see either of these films in your TV schedule, put your phone on silent, settle down and enjoy some great cinema.


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Life but Not as We know it

 

lifeThis week the lockdown has eased a little here in the UK. Groups of six can now meet together in public places and soon we will be able to go to the pub once again, as long as we stay outside. No doubt pubs who don’t already have beer gardens or some sort of outside area will be scrambling to get one set up. It will be nice to go down to the pub or restaurant again and take another step towards normality.

Once again I’ve spent a few days at my mother’s house, checking that everything is ok, tidying the garden up and so on. As I am alone here this should be the perfect time to write. After all, what could be better for a writer; quiet, solitude and my trusty laptop? One other thing that is important is a writing routine and a few ideas. Of course, if I was a professional writer, let’s say a newspaper columnist for instance, my editor would surely be on my back asking for my next article.

I can just imagine a scene like something out of All the President’s Men, the 1976 movie about the reporters who broke the Watergate story at the Washington post. There’s a nice scene there that goes like this:

EDITOR: Bernstein! Is that story ready yet?

BERNSTEIN: Yes, I’ve finished it.

EDITOR: Let me have it then.

BERNSTEIN: I will. It just needs polishing.

I tried to find the video of that scene but failed. Here’s the trailer instead:

I do have a few articles or I should say blog post drafts, that need polishing. Fifteen actually. I think of them as my stand bys. Posts I work on when I just haven’t got any idea what to write about. Sometimes I will look at one, get an idea or an angle, a new way of looking at the subject and then I’m off and I actually finish, or get closer to finishing the post. Other times I just end up adding another draft that will probably never get finished.

This week I had a plan. I always seem to wake up at 7:30 no matter what. At home I usually just nod off back to sleep but here at my mother’s house I rarely seem able to do that. So, here’s the plan: wake at 7:30. A quick clean of my teeth and splash a little water on my face. Back to bed. Check my emails and social media. Then back to the bathroom for a shave and a proper wash, downstairs for breakfast and ready to get writing. Great, there is nothing like having a plan, now to put it into action.

Sunday. I wake up and check the time. It’s 8:30. 8:30? Wow, I’ve actually had a good sleep for a change. OK. Clean teeth and back to check out my emails. Now the big mistake there is that recently I’ve subscribed to Medium. It’s a story website and there is always some interesting story I want to read. There are numerous true crime stories that I like. In particular I do like reading about cold cases; old police murder cases that are now being solved by new DNA technology. It must be great for the families and the detectives to see crimes that were thought to be finished and unsolved, now being given a new lease of life by technology.

This week I watched a TV documentary about a famous cold case, the disapearance of Suzy Lamplugh. Suzy was an estate agent who left work to meet someone wanting to look at a property. The only clue was that Suzy had left a note in her diary that she was to meet a ‘Mr Kipper’ on the 28th July, 1986 in Fulham, London. She was due to meet Mr Kipper at a property at Shorrolds Rd at 12:45. She went to meet him and was never seen again. Her car was found half a mile away from the property at Stevenage Road, also in Fulham.

suzylamplugh

Picture courtesy Wikipedia

Witnesses saw Suzy with someone at the Shorrolds Road property; a smartly dressed man with a bottle of wine or champagne with a fancy wrapping. Later another witness saw Suzy in a BMW in Stevenage Road. Nothing was ever found and despite reinvestigation in 1998 and 2000, Suzy was never traced.

In 2000 it was suggested that convicted rapist and murderer John Cannan could have been the culprit. Cannan looks startlingly similar to a photofit picture produced by Police, of the man Suzy met at Shorrolds Road. Cannan denied being the murderer but he was staying in a hostel for released prisoners not far away at the time and others at the hostel said that Cannan used to leave at night through a window. Cannan visited pubs and restaurants in the area and could have seen Suzy there, in fact she had lost her checkbook and a local pub called Suzy to say they had found it the day she disappeared.

It was all rather shocking and the programme left me fairly convinced that Cannan was the villain although the man himself, still serving time on another murder charge, denies everything. Suzy’s parents sadly never lived to see the crime solved but they did establish the Suzy Lamplugh Trust that helps people with their personal safety and also runs the National Stalking Helpline.

Anyway, back to my personal writing plan. After that late start it was nearly 10 so I dragged my lazy behind out of bed and made it down to the kitchen. I hurriedly sorted out some egg and bacon ready to eat during Star Trek, the original series on the Horror channel. Star Trek however wasn’t on. It must have just finished because I realised just then that it’s Spring and we have now moved to BST, British Summer Time and it was actually eleven o’clock, not ten!

Come to think of it, they don’t show Star Trek on a Sunday, it’s just on Monday to Friday so there’s my whole blog post blown out of the water. Anyway using the power vested in me by WordPress what I think we’ll do is just fast forward to Monday at 10. There I was eating pretty much the same breakfast -OK, I’d thrown a sausage in and a few beans but what the heck, variety is the spice of life in these highly irregular Covid 19 times.

Let’s start again. There I was with substantially the same breakfast on Monday ready to eat and watch Star Trek.

I do love Star Trek, in particular the first episodes starring William Shatner as Captain James T Kirk. Forget Captain pointy head Picard, Kirk is a proper captain and by 10:30 he will usually have blasted a number of aliens with his phaser (a sort of ray gun) and done some pretty serious kissing of any beautiful girl, alien or otherwise, within a 100 yard area. In the episode I watched, Kirk decided that the only way to get free from a planet where androids had imprisoned him was to show the androids that there was more to life than working in an underground prison. He gave the tonsils of one android lady a good work out and lo and behold, that sent her into some serious confusion. She then encountered another android who clearly was in need of some snogging software as he wasn’t so keen on kissing, so she gave him a quick blast of her ray gun, enabling Kirk to once again take control and show everyone involved that messing with James T Kirk is not a good idea.

It just so happens that William Shatner has reached the venerable age of 90 this week so it was good to read in the media that he is still going strong. Wonder if there is any chance of him playing Kirk again just one last time?

Anyway, back to the plan. You know, the one I was talking about earlier, the writing plan, up early have breakfast and then write stuff. Well after Star Trek I thought I might just check to see if any more emails had landed on my virtual doorstep. One was a newsletter from the Guardian newspaper. I’ve signed up for a few newsletters from the Guardian; one for films and another about books. I get one every week and there are a whole list of bookish articles about various book related topics. Usually I have a quick scan and if there is nothing of any interest I just hit the delete button. This week there was a post about a lady called Vivian Gornick. I’ve never heard of the lady but apparently she is a journalist and memoirist and in the book section the Guardian hit her with their regular bunch of questions so I thought I’d just see if I could answer those questions myself.

What book am I currently reading?

Well just lately I’m really fascinated by the silent film era as you can see from my Book Bag post a few weeks back. I’m reading Charlie Chaplin and His Times by Kenneth S Lynn. It’s a really interesting read about Chaplin and the author, who happens to be a really great researcher, checks out all the various stories in Chaplin’s autobiography and compares them to actual records. All fascinating stuff about the early days of film making.

What book changed your life?

Not sure about that one. Did any book change my life? Well I’ll have to say David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. That changed my life in that it opened up my mind to how an author could take his reader on such an incredible journey and manage a story in such a way that the reader could experience it and feel almost as if he was living the narrative with the writer. You’ve guessed by now I just love that book.

What book do I think is most overrated?

That’s another tough question and I’d have to answer Wuthering Heights. I read something ages ago about 100 books I should read before I die so I picked a copy up in my local charity shop, back in the days when we could go into shops, and read it. I should say tried to read because I just thought it was a little dull. Sorry, I know it’s a classic but it just didn’t do it for me.

The last book that made me laugh.

I think it would have to be The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. You might have seen the TV series with Leonard Rossiter playing the part of Reggie Perrin. I’m not sure which came first, the book or the TV show but it’s a really funny book.

The book I couldn’t finish.

This has to be Catch 22 the novel by Joseph Heller. One of my friends gave it me and said it was brilliant and I had to read it. I tried but I just couldn’t get into it.

I guess this must have taken me into lunchtime. I was feeling a little hungry round about then. I suppose that when you start working like a real writer with a writing plan you must need a little sustenance to keep you going. What I needed was a corned beef sandwich and a large cup of tea with maybe a chocolate biscuit on the side. I made my way into the kitchen to sort out that little feast but just then the phone rang and I’m guessing the call was from an alternate universe because it was my editor yelling down the phone:

EDITOR: Where the heck is that blog post you promised me?

ME: That blog post? Oh yes, I finished it.

EDITOR: Where the hell is it then?

ME: It’s just . . . er . . . I’m just . . polishing it!


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Money, the Lottery and Three Very Rich Men

Quite a while ago, I pondered in another post what I might do if I should win a lot of money in the lottery. I thought about it quite a bit and came up with the usual answers like new home, new car, holiday homes and so on. Maybe a new laptop or stand-alone PC. The fact is, not being used to money and not having particularly expensive tastes I probably wouldn’t have much of a clue. At home I have a whole lot of collectable things, model cars, antique telephones, books and DVDs so I could easily find myself being like the character in the film Citizen Kane, buying lots of things and having them stored somewhere. Would I be affected by a big win? I can see the headlines now: Northern Lottery winner says his 32-million-pound win won’t affect him. But of course, that wouldn’t necessarily be true. How did big money affect others? Let’s take a look at three multi-millionaires.

Howard Hughes.

Once upon a time Howard Hughes was the richest man in the world. In today’s society being the richest man requires some serious wealth and Howard Hughes ticked all the financial boxes you can think of. He inherited his father’s tool company when he was very young. Too young in fact to take control but he found a law that said if he could prove he was capable of running the company then he could take control. He proved he could and did just that, took control. His father had designed a tool bit that was essential to America’s oil industry but instead of selling the drill bit he patented it and then rented it out. Howard Hughes though had other ambitions that did not involve oil or drilling but the profits from the Hughes’ Tool Company were vital for his ambitions in aviation and the movies.

Hughes combined those two interests in making the WW1 movie ‘Hell’s Angels’ about fighter pilots and for the shoot he assembled the largest private air force in the world. Towards the end of the shooting, sound pictures made their appearance so what did Howard do? He re shot the entire film with sound equipment!

Another movie Hughes made that is famous, or perhaps infamous, was the 1943 Movie ‘Outlaw’ starring Jane Russell. Hughes appeared to be obsessed with Jane’s breasts, even to the extent of designing a new bra for her and re shooting a famous close up of her time after time. Hughes clearly had some psychological issues; he was a compulsive, obsessive man. He usually had the same meal when he went out with one of the many starlets he courted. Jane Greer recounted in a TV interview how Hughes would eat things in the same order, the peas first, then the potatoes and finally the meat. Once when they dined Hughes came back to the table and Jane noticed his shirt was wet. Hughes had spilt something onto his shirt so he washed the shirt in the men’s room, rinsed and squeezed it out, then put it back on.

In the 1940’s, Hughes designed and built a prototype large transport aircraft for the US military. The aircraft, nicknamed the ‘Spruce Goose,’ was made entirely of wood due to wartime restrictions on aluminium and was not completed until 1947 after the war was over. Hughes was called to testify about the project before a senate committee investigating his use of government funds. The investigation distressed Hughes enormously and led to his retreat from the public eye.

As his mental health deteriorated, Hughes retreated into a world of blacked out penthouse suites and midnight telephone calls to his army of assistants, some of whom were private investigators keeping close tabs on anyone Hughes had an interest in, particularly starlets he had signed to personal contracts and his girlfriends like Katherine Hepburn or Jean Peters whom he later married.

The incredible thing is despite his illness, he and his company produced aircraft for the US government, including the ‘Spruce Goose’ mentioned above, many of which he test flew himself. However, in July, 1946, Hughes crashed while testing his XF11 reconnaissance plane. The aircraft crashed in Beverly Hills and Hughes was seriously injured. He survived but remained addicted to morphine for the rest of his life. His company also produced the Glomar Explorer, an undersea recovery craft for the CIA and it was part of a plan to raise a sunken Soviet nuclear sub in an effort to learn the USSR’s nuclear secrets

If you want to know more about Howard Hughes my favourite movie about him is not the Aviator, the Scorcese/ Di Caprio movie, good though it is, but an old TV mini-series based on a book by Noah Dietrich, ‘Howard, The Amazing Mr Hughes.’  Tommy Lee Jones gives a great performance as Hughes in the film.

Noah Dietrich was once Hughes’ chief executive and financial advisor. He resigned after becoming more and more unhappy with Hughes’ bizarre behaviour. In later years Bob Maheau, a former FBI man employed by Howard, experienced much the same thing; numerous obsessive memos, midnight phone calls and so on.

Hughes died in 1976, cocooned from the world by morphine and the close attention of his Mormon aides. Despite his wealth Hughes was emaciated and underfed, addicted to drugs which his aides rationed in order for them to manipulate him. Surely, final proof that money is not everything.

Robert Maxwell.

Maxwell was born Ján Ludvík Hyman Binyamin Hoch in 1923 in Czechoslovakia. He escaped to France before the Nazi invasion and joined the Czechoslovakian army. After the fall of France he was attached to a British unit and fought in the allied invasion achieving the rank of captain and winning the Military cross. Maxwell was Jewish and lost his family in the Nazi holocaust. He became a UK citizen after the war and changed his name to Robert Maxwell. Using his contacts in the allied occupation, he became the British and US distributer for a series of scientific books and after acquiring a major share in the Permagon Press, built it up into a major publishing house.

Maxwell served as a British MP for a while but after losing his seat he carried on building his business empire. He bought various other companies, one of them becoming the Maxwell Communications Corporation, Later he bought the Mirror Newspapers Group in the UK and various other companies in the USA. In 1991 he bought the New York Daily News.

As well as his business activities, Maxwell was rumoured to have links with British intelligence and the Israeli Secret Service, Mossad. Maxwell denied all these claims although at his funeral many serving and former heads of the Mossad were in attendance.

In his later life he seemed to cut a sad figure. An old BBC documentary I watched recently claimed he had developed an obsession with a female assistant who later left his employ.

Beset by legal troubles he missed a meeting with the bank of England over his default on a 50-million-pound loan and instead sailed in his yacht, the Lady Ghislane to the Canary Islands. He was alone on his yacht apart from the crew. The BBC documentary showed him visiting the islands on an earlier trip and dining alone.

On the 5th November 1991 he was found to be missing from the yacht and his body was later found floating in the ocean. It was speculated that while urinating over the side of the ship as he frequently did, he suffered a heart attack and fell overboard.

After his death Maxwell’s companies collapsed owing huge amounts of money. It was also revealed that Maxwell had tried to save the impending collapse by secretly using hundreds of millions of pounds from his companies’ pension funds.

Maxwell was buried on the Mount of Olives in Israel and his funeral there was attended by the Israeli Prime Minister, various serving and former heads of Israeli intelligence and by many dignitaries and politicians.

His daughter, Ghislaine was recently in the news due to her involvement with Jeffrey Epstein and a sex trafficking scandal. She was arrested in July 2020 and is still in custody awaiting trial.

J Paul Getty.

J Paul Getty also had the dubious honour, like Howard Hughes, of being at one time the richest man in the world. I became interested in Getty after watching the Ridley Scott film All the Money in the World. It’s about the kidnapping of J Paul Getty III which I remember quite vividly from the news in 1973. Getty’s grandson was kidnapped in Italy and the kidnappers made a demand of 17 million dollars for his release.

J Paul Getty’s father was in the oil business and gave his son $10,000 to invest when he was 22. The young Getty invested the money wisely in a new oilfield and made a great deal of money. In the coming years Getty bought more and more oil companies and expanded into the middle east where his talent for languages helped enormously.

He was married and divorced numerous times and owned property all over the world including a mansion in the UK. In his fourth marriage he produced a son, J Paul Getty Jr who became the father of J Paul Getty III who was kidnapped.

In the film, and I’m not sure how true to life it was, J Paul Getty III is living the life of a hippy in Italy. He has mentioned to various people the thought of a fake kidnapping as an idea to raise money from his grandfather. He is then kidnapped for real but an investigator for Getty thinks the kidnapping might be a fake and so Getty declines to pay the ransom. After the kidnappers cut off his grandson’s ear and send it to the newspapers, Getty decides to pay but only after knocking the price down to 3 million dollars. Even then, he only pays 2.2 million (a figure that was apparently tax deductible) and loans the remainder to his son at 4% interest. Finally, the grandson, minus one ear was released.

What is quite interesting about the film, and actually this has nothing to do with millionaires and tycoons, is that Kevin Spacey originally played the part of J Paul Getty but after allegations against Spacey regarding sexual advances towards a young boy of 14, Spacey was cut out of the film and substituted with Christopher Plummer.

Getty was a major art collector although he always tried to buy at knock down prices. He was a notorious tightwad (nice to know I have something in common with a multi-millionaire). In his mansion Sutton Place in Surrey, England, he installed a payphone for guests to make personal calls. He did his own laundry by hand and always replied to letters by writing back on the reverse of the letter he had received in order to save on stationary.

Getty died in 1976 at the age of 83.

J Paul Getty III was traumatised by his abduction. He suffered from drug and alcohol addiction in the years after his release and in 1981 suffered a stroke brought on by taking a cocktail of drugs and alcohol. The stroke left him severely disabled for the rest of his life. He died at the age of 54 after a long illness.

Spend, Spend, Spend.

In 1961 a woman called Viv Nicholson and her husband won a huge prize on the football pools declaring to the press that they would spend spend spend! The couple won £152,000 equivalent to just under three and a half million pounds today.

Viv and her husband grew up in extreme poverty and true to their word they went on spending sprees involving clothes, sports cars, holidays and anything they could think of. Viv later said she seemed to be almost addicted to spending. Things went sour when her husband was killed in a car crash and all that they owned was deemed to belong to his estate. She had to sue to get a share of their purchases but her uncontrolled spending soon emptied her financial coffers.

Viv married again but eventually ended up a penniless alcoholic. In later life she wrote an autobiography called Spend, Spend, Spend. It was made into a remarkable BBC film written by playright Jack Rosenthal. I went on YouTube to look for a clip to show you and there wasn’t one but I did see that the book had been made into a musical starring Barbara Dickson. Some stories seem to just have a life of their own.

Conclusions

Looks like big money didn’t guarantee a great life for the three tycoons or the pools winner above. Still, I wouldn’t say no to a big cash win. Ages ago in another post I wrote this about my first lottery win:

When the lottery first began I would spend Saturday night glued to the lottery programme just checking my numbers. (Sad or desperate, I don’t know which.)  I’d decided to use numbers of houses I’d lived at, and one evening I was getting ready to go out, getting changed in front of the TV just in case and the first number came up; number 1. Great, give my ticket a little tick. Second number: number 4, whay, another little tick.  Third number; number 28. Whoa! A slight sweat beginning to break out on my forehead, a third tick on my lottery ticket.  Fourth number, number 38! Oh my God! Four in a row! Heart rate increasing, a nervous tension beginning, starting to breathe faster and faster!  Then the fifth number; number 6!

Of course, I hadn’t chosen number 6 so I wasn’t happy but still, that was pretty good going, four numbers on the trot. I won £100 which is better than a slap in the face but believe me, I was so excited that if I’d actually got the six numbers I’d probably have dropped dead with a heart attack, never living to enjoy my millions!

Anyway, I’ll have to go. Just got time to buy my lottery ticket for tonight’s draw.


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Pandemics and Podcasts

This blog seems to come round pretty quickly, too quickly really. Looking at my stack of blog post drafts I couldn’t see one that I could really get excited about finishing. That lethargy and tedium is of course a consequence of the lockdown. The lockdown continues to plod along, bringing everything down to its slow and humdrum pace. I’ve stayed at home like most people and pretty much done a great deal of nothing. The usual highlight of the week used to be a night in a restaurant and a visit to our local pub quiz. Now it’s a trip to the shops. What will be in the special offers aisle?

The Dentist.

A really big event this week was a trip to the dentist. I’ve not had a check up for quite a while but this one was a little different. We usually spend quite a bit of time waiting in the waiting room but no, due to Covid 19 precautions we weren’t even allowed inside the building until it was time to actually see the dentist. As Liz and I actually live together it was deemed OK for us to enter the surgery together. The dentist then changed his mind and decided no, one at a time must be the norm, irrespective of living arrangements. It was me of course who was ejected and rather than sit in the cold and rain I parked my car so it was just opposite the dentist’s doors and the nurse or dental assistant could just wave me over when it was my turn.

After a quick check of my molars, the dentist decided an x ray was in order. An old filling needed replacing so a new appointment was made for that. Oh and that crown I asked about some time ago. Yes, that was the one the dentist thought was unnecessary, well now after a few months without any income, the dentist has decided yes, we can sort that out, that will be another appointment and £280 please. Of course, the private non NHS crown is much better and will blend in much better with my current set of choppers. That will be £550.

A few moments later when the dentist’s assistant handed me a whopping great bill my inner tightwad kicked in and I thought, Whoa, steady on. Let me think about that for a while.

Two Topical Events.

Sometimes I think I should try to be a little more topical on my posts and so perhaps I should mention this week’s big news, the Harry and Meghan interview. I’ve read that in the USA it went down really well making the two really popular. In the UK it went down pretty much like a lead balloon as we Brits really don’t like anyone upsetting the Queen. Meghan was whinging that her children won’t have a royal title, well the fact is, neither do any of the Queen’s other great grandchildren and if they are so upset about publicity and want to live a quiet life, why go to the USA and court the media? Of course, now they are no longer on the Royal payroll they need to make a few quid to support themselves. After all, Harry has only got the meagre ten million his mother left him so embracing the media might be a good move for him.

Personally, I think that the royals are over paid, over privileged and over here. The flip side is that like them or lump them, the Royal Family are the glue that holds the United Kingdom together. If we had a President the country would descend into chaos and be split apart. Would Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland accept an English President? Would the Scots accept a Conservative President? Perhaps the Irish would want an Irishman but then would they want a Protestant or a Catholic? The Queen is happily above all that which is probably why she has endured for so long and kept the Commonwealth and the UK together.

The really big news this week for me was actually the death of Murray Walker the famous motor sport commentator. Murray has commentated on motor sport and particularly F1 for almost as long as I can remember. Murray used to commentate on rallycross and motorcycle scrambling back in the 1970’s and I once remember him commentating on a segment of the Le Mans 24 hour race and being surprised when the broadcast cut back to the BBC sport studio and there was Murray sat at a desk in front of a monitor with his microphone. I had just assumed he was at the race track. The BBC began a regular F1 broadcast in 1978. Before that they just used to show the odd event here and there which was not good for race fans like me. Walker became the undisputed voice of the sport until he retired in 2001. Clive James once said that Murray, in his quieter moments sounded like a man with his trousers on fire, such was the high spirits and enthusiasm of his broadcasts. F1 will never be the same again.

Podcasting

What else have I done this week? Well, a long time ago I thought about starting a podcast. Now I don’t know much about them but I thought as I’ve produced more than 400 or so blog posts, (actually this epic you are now reading is my 450th post) surely a few of those might be easy enough to convert to a podcast. I mean, I could just read out a few of them into my laptop microphone, cut out a few umms and ahs, just as I do with my video narrations and Bob’s your uncle.

A good idea to start, I thought was a post with some good turns of phrase and perhaps a good theme. Now one that came to mind straight away was a post I did yonks a go about time. Yes, time. The idea occurred to me when Liz and I visited some military cemeteries in Northern France. All the places we visited had a calm and tranquil ambience. Clearly that can’t have been the case during the First World War. Then the place must have looked like a wilderness filled with craters. The sound of deadly gunfire would have been all around along with explosions from the artillery bombardments. Time must have run faster then so now to compensate, time, or so it seems to me at these quiet and peaceful memorials, runs slowly.

What made the podcast easier to produce was the fact that I had already used some of that text in a narration for a video about the military cemeteries of France. I took the sound recordings, added a little intro, the welcome to my new podcast type of stuff, cleaned up the sound in my trusty sound mixer and hey presto, I finished up with a good five minutes of me rabbiting away as a new podcast.

Anyway, after all that, I set about working out how to actually broadcast a podcast, how to actually get it live on air. I spent a fair old bit of time trying to sort it out but failed dismally and put the whole project on the back burner.

The other day however, I opened up WordPress to find a new article titled ‘How to grow Your Podcast with Anchor’ there in front of me. I logged into Anchor and found that I could actually convert my written blog posts straight into a sound recording. I had a choice of two voices, one male and the other female. I chose the male voice which had a sort of Cary Grant quality. Not actually like Cary himself but similar, sort of like a newsreader with a transatlantic kind of tone. The resulting reading wasn’t perfect. Sadly it couldn’t differentiate between ‘it’ and ‘IT’. That’s when I remembered that earlier podcast recording about military cemeteries and time.

It was really quite fun to open up Spotify and find, alongside my favourite podcasts, the new Letters from an Unknown Author. Click here to listen to the first episode.

Click here To listen on Pocketcasts or try this link with various options.


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Monaco, TV Ads and the Problem with VHS Tapes

The F1 season starts later this month in Bahrain, in fact the race teams are already gathering there for the pre season testing, getting ready to shake down the new cars and sort out any teething issues before the actual racing. Of course, I’m assuming that despite Covid 19 we will have something of a normal F1 season once again. One of my favourite events, the Monaco Grand Prix traditionally takes place in May and even though the hi tech F1 cars outgrew this road circuit many years ago, they still come here and race fans can hobnob with the rich and famous and look enviously at the harbour when it will be choc-a-block with millionaires’ yachts.

The other day I was once again going through my old VHS tapes, selecting ones to keep, ones to copy to DVD and ones to throw out. One tape was marked Monaco 2002 qually and I was tempted to dispose of it straight away but I put it to one side and then later when the TV schedules declined to offer up anything interesting I thought why not give it a watch?

I have to say I couldn’t quite remember off the top of my head who was winning and who was losing in 2002 or even who was driving for who.

The video started off talking about what was portrayed as a controversial event in the previous race in Austria. Michael Schümacher and Rubens Barrichello were both driving for Ferrari at the Austrian Grand Prix. Rubens, the popular Brazilian was fastest in qually, fastest in the warm up and led the race. At the very last corner he came out ahead of Michael but then lifted off for a moment and it was Schümacher who took the chequered flag. Schümacher and Rubens came to the podium and Michael was not popular, facing a barrage of booing from the crowd. Michael, clearly embarrassed, pushed Rubens on to the top spot but that would not change the result; Rubens had handed the race win to Michael.

I started to fast forward through the TV ads but then saw one that always used to make me laugh. Here it is:

Back to Monaco and the TV coverage back then had passed to ITV and Jim Rosenthal was the TV anchor. He quizzed pundit Tony Jardine and guest and FIA chief Max Mosley about the Austrian Grand Prix. They weren’t happy at all that Rubens had handed the win to Schümacher. Are they bringing the sport into disrepute asked Jim. Max and Tony seemed to think so. The ITV web site was apparently flooded with complaints. Some drivers were interviewed and one I thought was interesting was the comment by Jacques Villeneuve. He said that we all knew that Ruben’s contract said he was number 2 and had to give way to the number 1 driver who was Schümacher. We all knew also that in Schümacher’s contract it said that the number 2 driver had to give way to him so why should we be surprised at what had happened in the race? Schümacher said Villeneuve should act like a man, accept what has happened, stand up on the number 1 spot and accept the boos.

Funny thing is that nowadays, Villeneuve is always in the F1 websites saying something controversial so perhaps I’d forgotten he was a straight talker even back then. Yes, that whole episode was a big scandal back in 2002 although I really don’t know why. Motor racing is a team sport and Ferrari has always been known to give team orders so why was everyone getting upset? Even Stirling Moss, who drove in an era when team orders were pretty much de rigueur felt compelled to say he had lost respect for Michael Schümacher. The thing is, as the two had led the race and Michael of course knew that Rubens would move over, then the two were hardly racing were they, as Ferrari Team Boss Ross Brawn pointed out. If there had been no team orders then Rubens would have had Michael up his exhaust pipes pushing him until he found a way past. To me the whole thing was a fuss over nothing but as I remember, the whole thing rumbled on and on for quite a while.

Anyway, I soon fast forwarded to the action, the actual qualifying which was I have to say, pretty exciting. There was a time when, as an ardent F1 fanatic, I knew race results and team personnel off by heart. Who won at Monaco in 1970? Jochen Rindt of course. 1971? Jackie Stewart. 72? Jean Pierre Beltoise in the rain. What about 1977? Was it Lauda? No, Jody Scheckter. 86? Prost? Yes, Alain Prost. 2002? 2002, there’s a question.

Time to fast forward again but then another advert caught my eye. I haven’t seen it for years but I’ve always found it rather funny. It starred the northern comedian, Peter Kaye.

Getting back to the qually; as I said before, it was all pretty exciting, especially as I couldn’t remember who was driving for whom, never mind who came out on top. Schümacher soon set the top time then David Coulthard driving for McLaren went fastest. Hakkinen his team mate, who was as you may remember, a double world champion, wasn’t doing so well but then Juan Pablo Montoya, one of my favourite drivers claimed the top spot. The cars began to get faster as the track ‘rubbered in’ and got faster. Coulthard went fastest again, in fact there were ten changes of pole sitter until Juan Pablo the Columbian driver finally claimed the top spot. I’ve always liked Juan Pablo. He was a man who told it like it was, he didn’t go in for PR led team speak and I was looking forward to seeing his post qually interview but then something happened, something that always used to happen back in the VHS age.

The other day I was idly watching an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. It was the one where Ray and Debra his wife are watching their wedding video and suddenly the screen dissolves and on comes a football match. Debra is furious because Ray has taped over the wedding. Yep, those sort of things happened back then and on my video tape something similar occurred. The race video vanished into a hail of snow only to be replaced by a James Bond documentary. I was furious for a moment but then I got interested in the documentary. It focussed on Miriam D’Abo who starred in the 007 film The Living Daylights and she interviewed various ladies who had the dubious honour of being a ‘Bond Girl.’ There were plenty of clips from the Bond films, interviews and bits and pieces of behind the scenes stuff, in fact it was all pretty interesting for a Bond fan like me.

Pity about the Grand Prix but what the heck, pause to get a bottle of lager and a few nibbles and who cares? Wonder who did win the 2002 Monaco Grand Prix though?

(If you’re interested David Coulthard won with Schümacher coming home second!)


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More From a Locked Down Blogger

The lockdown isn’t over yet but at least we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. As much as I like staying at home and watching my favourite films and TV shows I miss visiting my favourite bars and restaurants.  Our motorhome has been left quietly on the drive awaiting the day when we can once more drive off for a short or even a long break. We did take it on a run to the shopping centre a few weeks ago but that really doesn’t count.

As the weather has brightened up lately I thought it might be a good time to take my new drone for its maiden flight. It was a Christmas present from Liz but the cold and the rain have put me off venturing out to use it. Now that some nice weather has finally appeared here in the north of England I charged it up and had a quick scan through the instructions. I noticed that on the box the drone was described as perfect for 14 years and older so how hard could it be to fly one?

Flying the Drone

Down by the beach in St Annes I had envisioned some establishing shots from up on high looking down to reveal the layout of the sea front and the pier; a tracking shot showing the sturdy girders holding the structure in place followed by a flight moving up from the sand to the top of the pier. Maybe now is the time to mention that the drone also has a video camera. I’d recently watched a very poor drone video taken in the same area and I knew absolutely that I could do better.

The beach was pretty busy on the day I chose to venture out but everyone seemed to be keeping their distance. I found a suitable spot and switched on the drone. All ok so far, the correct lights were flashing but the rotors were not spinning. I went through the start procedure and still nothing happened so I went for that old computer stand by, switch off and switch on again.

A small group of locals began to hover around me. I heard a young boy tell his mother about the man that was about to fly a drone. A man called his dog to heel and he also stopped to watch. A group of lads appeared too. They all seemed fascinated by the forthcoming spectacle. The big problem was that I just couldn’t get anything to happen. Like a fool I was wearing my new pair of specs I had bought from a cheap online site. The specs were wonderful and had photochromic lenses, the ones that go dark when it gets sunny. I may have looked pretty cool but began to realise I should have worn my substantially uncool reading glasses.  Then I could have made out what was going on with the various lights that were lit up on my drone control panel. A few beads of sweat began to form on my forehead and I could feel my audience getting restless. The young lad was dragged away by his mother and the dog walker was fed up of waiting. It was time to pick up my drone and leave.

I imagined myself for a moment as a music hall performer being booed off the stage, departing before an onslaught of rotten fruit came my way.

Back at my car I pulled out the instructions, written of course in very tiny writing and with the help of a magnifying glass gave them another look. Ah ha. The drone must first be synchronised by pushing the throttle lever forward and then back. Armed with this new information I walked over to the nearby car park. It was mostly empty, although there was a big white van parked right in the centre.

This time I felt a little better as there was no audience to distract me. I went through the process a few times without getting anywhere. Another look at the instructions. Had I forgotten to press the start flight button? Ha! A press of the button and finally the rotors began to spin. Up we went to about ten or fifteen feet. Move left, fine. Move right, fine. Move back, not so fine. The drone seemed to wander away from me towards the white van and just as I thought we might have a possible impact I remembered the end flight button and the drone settled softly down. I tried two or three more flights and every time the drone began to wander towards that van but luckily I was able to abort the proceedings before the inevitable impact. Drone flying is not quite as easy as I had thought and the video of St Annes pier which I had hoped to include on this post must sadly wait for another day.

Stan and Ollie

Not so very long ago in my Book Bag Silent film edition, I talked about Stan, a biography of Stan Laurel by Fred Laurence Guiles. Since then, I’ve been pretty interested in seeing the biopic about the comedy duo, Stan and Ollie. I did hope that one day it might come up on Film 4 or some other free to air channel but alas, it has not. The only alternative for a low-tech guy like me then was to browse eBay until a suitably cheap DVD came available. There are some who will tell you that I am mean, others who will say I am a cheapskate. There are even some who might describe me as tight as a fish’s rear end. None of these descriptions really get to the heart of the matter because I am in fact a fully paid up, card carrying tightwad and I am happy to report that an ‘as good as new’ DVD copy of the aforementioned cinematic epic is now in my possession after parting with a minimal amount of my hard earned cash.

Some time ago a young TV salesman who was close to selling me a very expensive new television set told me that DVDs were ‘old technology’. Sadly for him, he lost a sale as I vehemently disagreed. The idea that the customer is always right was clearly lost on him. I love DVDs and this particular one gave me a great deal of pleasure on the evening I decided to pour myself a glass of port and settle down with a cheese sandwich, the remote control and then pressed the play button.

Stan and Ollie is about the latter days of the comedy twosome. Their film career is over and they have come to the UK with their stage act as at the time, it seemed to have been the only offer available to them. Stan is hoping that the two might be doing one final film and looks forward to the producer, Mr Miffen coming to the theatre to take in their performance. Mr Miffen sadly never appears and neither does the hoped-for film production although in real life the pair made a film in Europe called Atoll K that was beset with production problems.

In the early part of the film Stan is at odds with producer Hal Roach. I had always assumed that Laurel and Hardy were a long-time comedy duo that brought their act to the movies. Not so. They came to the Roach studio separately and it was Roach and director Leo McCarey who brought the pair together but they were on different contracts that expired at different times so they could never sit down and negotiate a contract for Laurel and Hardy together. Stan laments the fact that Charlie Chaplin owned his own films and made a great deal of money, while Stan and Ollie were only contract players. Stan thought the two should have held out for a better deal with Roach or another studio but the fact is that both men had trouble with wives, divorces and financial settlements and always signed with Roach again because they were always short of money.

Later in the film, Oliver Hardy suffers a heart attack and though he gamely carries on with the tour, the two realise after a performance in Ireland that their performing days are over.

The film correctly shows that Stan worked long hours with the director and editors of the films as well as scripting much of their work but the incident where Stan decides to work with another comedian in England but then fails to go through with it, is not true.

It’s a little disappointing that the film strays from real life in many ways and I always find it hard to reconcile this in true to life films. If you are going to portray real people and real events then why change them and add a dose of fiction? Perhaps the answer here is that it was a way to show the spirit of the relationship between the two comedians in their twilight years. The two principal actors are excellent; Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C Reilly as Oliver Hardy. They pick up the essence of the comedy duo very well although the film has a bittersweet tone rather than a funny one. The strange thing is that for me, Stan and Ollie were laugh out loud comedians and I still laugh at their antics today but I’m not sure the film shows just how funny they were. The bittersweet tone is really more appropriate to a film about Chaplin because although Charlie makes me smile, he could never really make me laugh like Laurel and Hardy.

Oliver Hardy died in 1957 and despite many offers, Stan declined to work without Hardy. Stan died in 1965. All in all, Stan and Ollie is a sad film but a highly enjoyable one and it is clear that all those involved with the production had a true affection for Laurel and Hardy.

Covid 19

A few days ago I finally had my invitation from the UK government to be innoculated against the dreaded Coronavirus. I was pleased as a couple of people who I knew were younger than me had already had their invite so I was beginning to wonder whether I had somehow been missed off the list. Anyway, I made my appointment and on the appointed day, Wednesday March 3rd, I made my way to the vaccination centre. The staff there, all volunteers apart from the NHS professionals actually giving the jab, were all cheerful and efficient. I queued for a short while at the regulation 2 metre distance and finally was asked a few questions about my health and then quick as a flash, in went the needle. It wasn’t painful and it all seemed to go ok. While we filled in some bits and pieces of paperwork the lady filled up another needle with the vaccine and for a moment there I thought maybe the vaccination involves two injections. Happily, that was for the next victim. The next day I felt a little queasy and had a mild headache, nothing more but that was one small step towards sorting out the virus and getting back to normal.


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The Secret of Writing Poetry

I’ve been looking through my poetry work lately and I started to think that I could write a blog about writing a poem. Now I’ve started I’m not sure how this is going to work out but anyway, let’s give it a shot.

For me there are two ways to write a poem. One is where I have to work at it and the other is when the whole thing just comes to me. I once read that Paul McCartney thinks that his songs and melodies are just hanging in the air and all he does is to entice them down to him. I’m clearly not on the same level as McCartney but that image just captures exactly how I feel when a good poem comes to me.

There is a particular state of mind that I enter for this process to happen. The best time is when I’m driving my car. I don’t know why, and I can only guess that driving sends me into that perfect state of mental concentration where a poem or an idea will come to me, enticed down, as Paul McCartney suggested, from the cosmos. That is the purest way to write a poem, one where either the whole thing or at least a couple of verses present themselves and then I have to sit down and work at the rest.

Sometimes an idea comes to me in odd ways. Some years ago in one of my old jobs, I used to return home from work in the mid afternoon. I started very early and usually worked through my break, getting home between 2 and 3pm. I would get changed, have a quick wash and come into the kitchen to put the kettle on. The kitchen was in the front of the house and in the summer months I noticed the cat from the house across the road would usually be getting comfy under the small tree on their lawn while I waited for the kettle to boil. I often watched that cat. I never noticed it as I reversed my big van into my drive but later, in the kitchen, I would invariably see the cat settle down for an afternoon nap.

One day I came home from work, got washed, and from the kitchen noticed the cat getting into position as usual under the tree. I took my tea and toast into the lounge and settled down with the TV. Later I heard something, a commotion of some sort but nothing that was compelling enough for me to shift my lazy butt and see what was happening. Not long after that, my partner came home and I could hear something going on. She seemed to come in and go out again. When she finally came in I asked what had happened and it seemed that the lady opposite had returned home and found that her cat was still under the tree but not sleeping, it had died.

That particular lady was someone who was a bit of a diva and very often made a lot of fuss about things that really, weren’t worth making a fuss of. Apparently, she began shouting and screaming and various neighbours came over to assist while I, in blissful ignorance, was busy dozing. Still, that little event became the inspiration for the poem The Cat Across the Road. I made the assumption, rightly or wrongly, that the cat was ready to depart his life; maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he felt he had a few more years left of sun lounging, mouse chasing and bird catching. If he did his heart must have stopped without warning during his or her feline slumbers. All in all, not a bad way to go.

 

Everything seemed in order, I suppose, to die

It was a warm enough day

Certainly

 

The sun shone and birds sung

Even though birds would cause a feline heart to race

Normally

 

I’ve had my fill of life

Of titbits and cosy sleeps, sometimes in next door’s shed

Informally

 

And I’ve had my chases and midnight hunts

And I’ve always remembered my owners and left them a mouse or two

Naturally

 

A last cuddle would have been nice

Still, all in all it’s been a good life, and I’ve loved it

Enormously

 

I’ve always liked this tree

I can keep my eye on the birds and the sun comes down

Warmly

 

So now I’ll just close my eyes and die

And go on to the next of my nine lives

Expectantly.

The other way of writing a poem is where I sit down determined to write something. Recently I saw in one of the poetry newsletters that I subscribe to, an item about a poetry contest. They wanted a poem about love. Now I am not a person who can describe himself as well qualified to write on that particular subject, but I settled down and began to play with ideas and words. After a while I came up with the beginning of a poem, one that I had to return to in the following days to flesh out. As I mentioned before, love isn’t one of my specialist subjects and I took that thought literally into the poem. As I am a cool sort of customer, not one for spouting or talking about my feelings I thought that might be a relevant message for me and others like me.

I don’t think I can remember my mother and certainly not my father ever talking about love. They loved me, I knew that. I knew it when my dad picked me up off the floor when I fell off a ride in the park. I knew it every time my mother washed my jeans and shirts and made my favourite meals. Still, there are others who need love spoken in words. I realise and respect that but for me there is No Need to Talk of Love.

To save me typing the poem out here and also to liven up this post a little, here’s my YouTube video version:

That’s about it really. Take an idea, try and boil it down into a phrase, something with resonance and some lyrical attributes and go with it. I was actually pretty pleased with the poem above. I sent it off to the poetry competition with high hopes. I have to admit, I didn’t send it off in the form it is above. Since then I’ve worked on it some more and edited it a little but sadly it wasn’t a winner or even a runner up.

As a writer though and not one who can really call himself a professional one, the fundamental result of writing and the reason for doing it has to be the pleasure of crafting something that is pleasureable to me; pleasureable to write and to read. It is the process of writing itself which is most satisfying to me, perhaps that is why I am always skimming back over my past work. Well, someone has to read this stuff, it might as well be me.

I do love it every time someone presses the like button here on WordPress or over on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube but the Ferrari, the motorboat and the Spanish villa that I expected, or more accurately hoped I might earn from all this scribbling has not arrived. Indeed, those things may never arrive but even so if you come looking for me you’ll probably find me with a notebook or my laptop in my hand, writing.


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A Week in the Life of a Locked Down Blogger

A major disaster happened to me this week. Not an actual disaster like a car crash or anything but for a writer and blogger it was the blogging equivalent.

I spent a few days at my mother’s house as usual, checking the mail, tidying the garden, giving the heating a good blast in this cold weather and so on. It’s also good, especially being a writer, to have some time alone to work on my various projects like my blog, my books and my videos. Last week I did just that. I added a few more pages to the two novels I’ve been writing and tinkered with some of my videos as well as creating some new ones.

I added a couple of my new videos to two Facebook pages, one for amateur video makers and another for YouTubers. They both did quite well there and brought in some new viewers. All my videos have a link back to this blog and all these blog posts have a link to my books, Floating in Space and A Warrior of Words so with a little luck these new video viewers might even add to my sales which in turn will add to the Higgins coffers.

The crazy thing about the pandemic and the resulting lockdown is that just lately I’ve been spending less money so I’ve actually got a little more in the bank than usual. My usual spending on restaurants, pubs and taxis has stopped completely and I do wonder how all those establishments are faring without me.

This Valentine’s Day, instead of dining out we dined in. We ordered in a full restaurant meal, including wine and settled down in front of the fire to await delivery. I’d ordered the meal a few days before from the Birley Arms, a pub I haven’t visited for many years but it does have a restaurant with a reputation for great food. The day after I ordered the food my phone rang and someone came on the line asking about my order. They didn’t say they were from the Birley Arms, in fact I didn’t actually catch their name but they started talking about my food order so I guessed it was they. All was in hand but apparently I hadn’t specified when the food was for. Now as I’d ordered the Valentine’s Day special I thought it was pretty obvious we would be wanting it for Valentine’s Day. That thought hadn’t occurred to my caller until I mentioned it but he quickly recovered, said something about just making sure and he was off.

What else has happened to me this week? Well, for a long while I’ve been after an eye test; it must be over two years since I last had one. Every time I called the opticians they gave me a date weeks into the future and as I wasn’t sure which shift I was on I always declined and said, I’ll get back to you. I tried again recently as now I have a brand new app on my phone which shows the days I am working. Great! I’ve had the app for a few months and it works fine. I tried it the other day, one hand on the app and the other poised to call the opticians and of course, it wasn’t working. Nothing I could do would get it to work again, not uninstalling, reinstalling, pressing force stop, updating my mobile phone software; nothing.

Anyway, diary at hand – manual diary that is, you know, the old-fashioned type made of cardboard and paper – I went online to the optician’s eye test booking app and lo and behold, there was a free appointment the next day. Presumably a cancellation but what the heck, I grabbed it anyway.

The opticians had changed considerably since my last visit but of course everything now has been affected by Coronavirus. Masks were mandatory as was hand sanitising. I was gradually moved to various socially distanced seating areas, finally ending up with the optician. My eye test was a traditional one using those special glasses where the optician drops in various differing lenses to adjust your vision. So much better than my last eye test at Specsavers. No offence Specsavers but I really do not like having my head in an electronic headset where the lenses are changed at the touch of a button.

Later I decided to order my new glasses from Goggles4U, an online site that I found and have since bombarded me with various offers. The new specs were cheap and were made even cheaper by various discounts. I had some problems getting my order through and then heard from somewhere that my new eyewear would be coming from Pakistan! Was this a con I thought?

Well as it happens my new specs arrived and they are just great. It always feels so good to have a new set of lenses. Everything looks so good and so sharp. People with 20/20 vision probably take perfect sight for granted but as a spectacle wearer since I have been a child, I assure you, I do not.

Okay, let’s get back to Valentine’s Day and there we were, waiting with bated breath and dangling tongues for our food. The appointed time came and went. Knives and forks had been deployed and the plates were warming and just at the point when I was searching for the pub phone number to complain, our Valentine’s feast arrived. There seemed to be quite a lot of it but then again, the meal consisted of appetisers, starters, mains and puddings. We slapped it into the oven to keep warm before nibbling on the appetisers and then it was on to the starters. One big mistake was when we put everything in the oven, we had forgotten that one starter was pâté. Warm pâté was new, not something I’d tried before but I liked it.

Round about then I realised the delivery guy had not left any wine. A quick call and happily the driver was nearby with an order for someone else so the wine came shortly after. Luckily, another bottle of red was already warming by the fire but with so much food, that second bottle came in pretty handy.

Just to make your mouth water, we had various appetisers including crab on toast and belly pork fritters. Starters were smoked salmon, prawns and scallops for Liz and duck spring roll and chicken liver pate for me. Mains were Beef Rossini for me and Rack of Lamb for Liz and a bevy of desserts, all for me as Liz isn’t a lover of sweet things.

We enjoyed the meal although I have to admit, being served at a nice table in a restaurant doesn’t really compare to a take away, even a restaurant standard one.

So what was the big disaster you might be thinking? Before I get to the main one here’s another. Back in January I bought a bundle of six CDs. They were advertised for £25 and I offered £18, the seller declined but they failed to sell and the buyer came back to me and finally accepted my offer. I waited and waited but they never turned up. I contacted the seller and she asked me to wait a little longer in case Covid had affected the Royal Mail. The CDs still didn’t arrive so ‘sorry’ I said, ‘I want my £18 back’. The seller duly refunded me and the very next day, what should turn up but the CDs!

I’m not sure PayPal understood when I asked how could I refund a refund?

Finally, back to the disaster I spoke of earlier. At my mother’s house I had done some writing and fiddled with my videos. After staying for a couple of nights I tidied up, took out the rubbish and gave the place a hoover. Outside in my car I began to wonder if I had forgotten anything but it was cold and whisps of snow were in the air so I drove off. Later I realised I had left behind my iPad and laptop! Nightmare!

Luckily, I updated my iPad a few years back and still had my old one so this blog post is my first written completely on an iPad. A number of my apps were missing so apologies for the lack of graphics.

Hopefully I’ll have my trusty laptop back for next week’s blog instalment, as long as I don’t suffer protracted symptoms from laptop separation syndrome of course!


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Movie Themes

Can music really make a good film? Can a really great theme lift a good or even mediocre film up into the lofty heights of the great films? I’m not sure but that’s today’s blog theme and here are a few examples.

Rocky.

Rocky is a pretty good film. It actually won the best picture Oscar in 1976. It’s good, actually pretty good but was it really worthy of a best picture Oscar? I’m not sure. Anyway, it’s about boxer Rocky Balboa played by Sylvester Stallone in his first starring role. Rocky is at the bottom end of the boxing ladder taking cheap weekend bouts as a boxer while he works as a strongarm man for the local loan shark. An incredible piece of luck comes his way though; Apollo Creed, the world champion finds that a multi million dollar bout has fallen through. Wanting to recoup something from the fiasco, Creed decides to fight an unknown boxer in an exhibition match in the hope of saving the event from cancellation. He randomly chooses Rocky. Rocky though, starts to wonder if he can win and backed by his old trainer he starts training and is soon on the path to fitness. Creed wins but Rocky goes the distance with Creed, the first opponent of Creed’s to do so. The second film in the series involves their re-match and is pretty similar to the first as are most of the following films. Rocky doesn’t seem to have much of a technique he just seems to get battered and when his opponent runs out of steam, Rocky usually lands the knockout blow.

The whole series of films in the Rocky saga are pretty much the same. I’ve watched 1 and 2 and gave most of the others a miss until Rocky Balboa. I’d heard it was a good one and picked up a copy of the DVD in a charity shop and to be fair it is an excellent film. Rocky has retired from the ring, his wife has died of cancer and Rocky gets by managing an Italian restaurant where fans come not only for the food but to chat with Rocky himself. Rocky then gets involved in a computer fight with the current champion, an idea based I think, on the computer fight between Rocky Marciano and Mohammed Ali. It’s a bitter sweet film but well put together. All the films use variations of the famous Rocky theme but my favourite is probably in the first Rocky where Stallone takes his fitness routine through the streets of Philadelphia, through the Italian market, finally alighting at the Museum of Art where apparently there is now a statue of Rocky himself. Did the Rocky theme tune really lift this film right up? To be fair it is a good film anyway but that theme tune gave the film, and the series, just that extra boost.

It’s not really relevant but I must add my favourite Rocky story here. Stallone wrote the script in three and a half days after apparently watching a boxing match between Muhammed Ali and Chuck Wepner in 1975. Wepner was expected to be easily beaten but made it through to the 15th round. United Artists liked the script but wanted an established star to play the role, even offering Stallone a million dollars to let James Caan play Rocky. Stallone turned them down, played the part himself and the rest is history.

Verdict: Great film, great theme.

The Magnificent Seven.

The Magnificent Seven was a 1960 remake of Kurosawa’s classic The Seven Samurai. Director John  Sturges directed this version, set in the American Wild West. Yul Brynner produced and starred in the film and the cast also included Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson and Robert Vaughn. The story concerns a small Mexican village who hire a group of gunfighters to protect themselves from bandits. Only three of the seven survive the eventual gun fight.

As much as I love a good western, I’ve never really cared for this film. It was, according to Wikipedia, a box office disappointment in the USA although a smash hit in Europe. The score was an Oscar contender but lost out to Ernest Gold’s score for Exodus.

Verdict, love the music but essentially, the film was nothing outstanding and I know it’s a bit mean but if not for Elmer Bernstein’s theme I think The Magnificent Seven would be a forgotten film today.

Mission Impossible.

Mission Impossible was a movie adaptation of the 1960’s TV show about a small team called the IMF (Impossible Missions Force) that take on, you’ve guessed it, impossible missions. This film became the first in a series of films produced by and starring Tom Cruise. Cruise plays Ethan Hunt who is sent to stop the theft of a list of agents kept inside the American Embassy in Prague. The mission fails and Jim Phelps, the agent in charge is wounded and all of his team are killed except for Ethan Hunt. There is clearly a double agent or mole at work and various things happen until we find out the mole was Jim Phelps which was just a little bit sneaky because all of us who watched the 1960’s TV series knew that Jim Phelps was a character in that show and therefore could not possibly be the mole. The fact that he was made me feel a little cheated by this film because they used my nerdy TV knowledge against me. In the TV show Jim Phelps always gets a taped message with instructions for his mission that then self destructs. Tapes are a little old fashioned now in the high tech world of the 21st century but there are a few little nods to the old series along the way.

The last instalment I saw was the fast moving Mission Impossible: Ghost protocol. It was pretty exciting and one particular part was interesting. Ethan Hunt and his people visit the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world. In one sequence Hunt has to climb outside to get to another room in the building. The sequence looked pretty impressive even though I assumed, it was shot with a green screen in a studio. It was with some surprise then to find that the scenes were shot actually on location with Tom Cruise doing his own stunts, actually climbing outside this impressive structure. He was held safely by cables which were digitally erased in post production. I take my hat off to you Tom but seriously, next time, do it in the studio!

The Mission Impossible theme is an iconic one written by Lalo Schifrin. There are many versions of the theme but personally I like the one from the TV show. Has it enhanced the films? Yes, I think so and of course it makes the connection between the TV version and the films.

Titanic.

Titanic is a 1997 film written and co produced by James Cameron. The production had a budget of 200 million dollars, a staggering amount and included a full scale replica of the ship at Baja in California. The replica was not an ocean going vessel but one built into the dockside and incorporated with a 17 million gallon water tank which provided a sea view and a ramp which could tilt the whole structure for the sinking sequence. Only parts of the ship were fully made, most of the ship itself was just a steel outer structure.

Director Cameron wanted the singer Enya to create the music for the film but she declined. Instead he turned to composer James Horner. The two had fallen out during the making of Cameron’s film Aliens but managed to put that behind them and collaborate on Titanic. Cameron did not want music with singing in the film so Horner composed My Heart Will Go On in secret and played him the demo when he thought Cameron might be responsive. According to Wikipedia, another factor was that a hit song would be a positive factor surrounding the film.

Verdict: I love the music and feel it enhances the film in many ways, so much so I bought the soundtrack CD.  Titanic is an epic production with some outstanding production elements that cement Cameron as a director of the first echelon.

So, what is your favourite movie theme?


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Book Bag: The Early Days of Cinema

My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin.

Charlie was born in 1889 in Walworth, London and spent his early life in the London suburb of Kennington. His parents were both music hall performers but separated when Charlie was about two years old. His mother was poor and the small family, Charlie, his mother and older brother Sydney, were admitted to the workhouse on two separate occasions.

In 1903, Charlie’s mother was committed to Cane Hill mental asylum and Charlie lived on the streets alone until his brother Sydney, who had joined the navy, returned from sea.

With his father’s connections Charlie secured a place in a clog dancing troupe called the Eight Lancashire Lads and so began his career as a performer. After appearing in some minor roles in the theatre he developed a comic routine and, with help from Sydney, was signed by Fred Karno, the famous music hall impresario, for his comedy company in 1908.

Chaplin became one of Fred Karno’s top comedians and Karno sent him with a troupe of other comedians on a tour of vaudeville theatres in the USA. One of the others was Stan Laurel, later to find fame with the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy.

By far the most interesting part of Charlie’s autobiography is where he talks about the beginning of his movie career. On a second tour of America in 1913, Chaplin was asked to join the Mack Sennett studios as a performer in silent films for the fee of $150 per week. He wasn’t initially keen but liked the idea of starting something new.

His first film for Sennett was called Making a Living, released in 1914. Chaplin himself wasn’t so keen on the film and for his second appearance selected a new costume. After searching through the costume department Chaplin chose a bowler hat, a jacket that was too small, baggy trousers, shoes that were too large and a cane. It almost seems as though the clothes made him become the character of the tramp which was to make him famous. The film was Mabel’s Strange Predicament although another tramp film made afterwards, Kid Auto races at Venice, was released to the public first.

Chaplin clashed frequently with his directors when his ideas or suggestions were dismissed but after exhibitors asked Sennett for more Chaplin films he was allowed to direct his own. When his contract expired in 1914 Chaplin asked for 1000 dollars per week. Mack Sennett complained that that figure was more than he was getting and refused. Another film company Essanay, offered him $1200 per week and a signing fee and Chaplin signed. He wasn’t initially happy with Essanay and didn’t like their studios in Chicago, preferring to work in California.

Chaplin was also unhappy after he finished his contract at Essaney because they continued to make lucrative Chaplin comedies by utilising his out-takes. Chaplin was however an astute businessman. In his new contracts the negative and film rights reverted to Chaplin after a certain amount of time. This was in the days when a movie had a life of months, if not weeks.

Chaplin seems strangely perturbed by his fame and fortune. He writes about an incident between contracts where he takes the train to meet his brother in, I think, New York but word has got out to the public he is travelling and everywhere the train stops, masses of people were waiting. Eventually it dawns on him that it is he they were waiting for. Many times the narrative describes meals and walks taken alone giving the impression of a solitary, lonely man.

The thing to remember about reading this book is that Chaplin tells the reader only what he wants them to know, nothing more. His various marriages are only skimmed over although when he is making the Kid, probably his most important picture, he explains how he thought the negative may have be taken by lawyers acting for his estranged wife so he takes the film and edits it whilst almost ‘on the run’ in various hideaways and hotel rooms.

Chaplin was known for being attracted to young girls and one of his conquests, a girl called Joan Barry, was arrested twice for her obsessive behaviour after he ended their relationship. She became pregnant and claimed he was the father and began a paternity suit against him. J Edgar Hoover who believed Chaplin to be a communist, engineered negative publicity against him and public opinion began to turn against Charlie. He was ordered to pay child support to Barry’s baby despite blood test evidence which showed he could not be the father. The blood test evidence was ruled inadmissible.

The earlier part of the book is by far the most interesting but the later part, where Chaplin is famous the world over, becomes an excuse for name dropping, despite there being a clear absence of any notable anecdotes involving the famous names. Even his best friend Douglas Fairbanks makes few appearances within the pages.

A fascinating read none the less.

Stan, The Life of Stan Laurel by Fred Lawrence Guiles.

I have a lot of time for Fred Laurence Guiles. He wrote one of the definitive biographies of Marilyn Monroe, the one Norman Mailer used as the basis for his classic book about the star.

Stan was born in Ulverston in Cumbria, as a matter of fact, I once visited his old home in the town. It was a small house as I remember and a little bit tatty. I remember being rather disappointed to view this old house with photocopied pictures of Stan on the walls. Either way it was still fascinating to think that Stan, one half of that great duo, Laurel and Hardy, had started life here as Arthur Jefferson. Guiles follows Stan -as he began to call himself- from northern music halls to being part of Fred Karno’s comedy circus and to the USA and Hollywood. Fred Karno was the great music hall impresario of the time and he sent teams of entertainers all over, even to the USA. In his early days touring the USA for Karno, Stan shared rooms with Chaplin although not once is Stan mentioned in Chaplin’s autobiography. Chaplin just seemed to ignore or black out anyone from his memory he either didn’t like or thought was a threat.

Stan Laurel appeared in a number of silent comedy films. He eventually signed with producer Hal Roach but decided he was going to move into scriptwriting rather than performing. One day Oliver Hardy was too ill to perform so Stan stepped in and played his part. Later the two appeared together in various films and director Leo McCarey noticed the positive reaction from the public. Together with McCarey the two worked at their comedy and after McCarey suggested they both wear bowler hats, their partnership took off and their Laurel and Hardy series began in 1927. In 1929 they moved from silent pictures to sound with Unaccustomed As We Are. Unlike many other stars of the period, the two made a seamless transition into talking pictures and are today recognised as giants of comedy.

In 1933 director Frank Capra made the first of what was an entirely different kind of comedy film and, according to author Guiles, this actually spelt the beginning of the end for the slapstick comedy type of film humour that Laurel and Hardy, and others such as Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, were so good at. It Happened One Night starred Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert and after a slow start, the film became an enormous hit, winning eleven Academy Awards. Some writers thought that film comedy had finally ‘grown up’ and sadly, just over 10 years later Laurel and Hardy would be making their final Hollywood film.

After Hardy died in 1957, Stan declined to work without his comedy partner and he retired to a modest flat in Santa Monica, California. He was listed in the telephone directory and was happy to answer calls from his fans. He spent his retirement answering his fan mail and meeting with other comedians who revered him; people like Jerry Lewis, Peter Sellers and Dick Van Dyke. He died in 1965 aged 74.

Hollywood.

I think I wrote about the 1920’s in a previous post saying that if I could go back to any time and place I’d go back to Hollywood in the 1920’s. You didn’t need a degree in filmmaking to be a director then as the whole industry was new. Hollywood was just a mass of orange groves when someone decided that with its wonderful climate, Hollywood would be the perfect place to make films. In 1910 DW Griffiths came to Hollywood to film In Old California and other film makers followed him as not only was there perfect weather and excellent light but it was a great place to avoid Thomas Edison who owned patents on the movie making process and wanted paying. In the 1980’s there was a wonderful TV  documentary series called simply Hollywood and this is the book that was published alongside the series. The TV version was narrated by James Mason and was filled with interviews with former writers, directors and stars of that bygone age. It’s a pity it hasn’t made its way onto DVD but apparently because of all the stars involved, all of whom will have passed away by now, getting the releases signed for DVD has been problematic. It just so happens that I have the first episode on VHS video and of course, the book that accompanied the series.

The book I have is subtitled ‘The Pioneers’ and concentrates on the first great Hollywood stars both in front of and behind the camera, people like director DW Griffiths and actors like Valentino, Chaplin, and Garbo who became the first ‘movie stars’. Then there were others like John Gilbert and Buster Keaton who did not make the transition to sound successfully and Laurel and Hardy, who did.

One particularly interesting thing about the TV series and the book is that many of the veterans of silent pictures were telling their stories for the first time. Kevin Brownlow who wrote the book and directed parts of the TV series says that some of the interviewees were very old but even so, they were very lively and interesting in their old age with many stories to tell about filming, editing and the beginnings of Hollywood. Back then Hollywood shunned those who worked in films. They called them ‘movies’ and many hotels and boarding houses had signs up saying ‘no movies’.

Sadly many silent films have not survived to the present day because the nitrate film of those days was highly volatile. Many of the films that have survived are made from poor quality ‘dupes’ or copies so it is not easy to appreciate how good those films originally were. This book though with its superb quality production stills does go some way to invoking the sense of what those films were like. I live in hope that one day this wonderful series will find its way into digital media.

After writing this I wondered what were the chances of an episode or two finding its way to YouTube? A quick check and I was happy to find the entire series there. That’s me sorted for the next few days then . .


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