The Cruel Sea

When I was writing my post ‘The Book of the Film or the Film of the Book’ a while ago, I did consider including ‘The Cruel Sea’ as not only is it one of my favourite films, it is a pretty good book too. I didn’t include it because I couldn’t find my copy of the book, which I hadn’t read for years and also I hadn’t seen the film for years either.

In one of those odd coincidences that always happen when I set my mind on a subject and leave ideas churning over in the upstairs room in my head, I was scouring through a charity shop in St Annes when I came across the DVD of the film. It was one of those free newspaper DVDs that seem to cost anything from a pound upwards at a car boot sale but was happily on sale here for a paltry 30 pence.

After a busy late shift at work I settled down with a glass of red in one hand and a ham sandwich in the other, compulsory on these occasions of course, and began watching.

The film starts off at the beginning of World War 2 when the Jack Hawkins character is at the builder’s yard helping with the fixing up of his new escort ship, Compass Rose. His officers begin to arrive, many of whom are easily recognisable as stalwarts of the 40’s and 50’s British film industry: Donald Sinden, Denholm Elliot, and Stanley Baker and later in the film Virginia McKenna appears as an officer in the WRNS.

The cast and characters are therefore introduced and then the ship goes off for its sea trials and crew training and soon the Compass Rose is escorting its first convoy. Nothing much happens at first as this is the early part of the war but when the Nazis over run France and the ports of northern France come available to the enemy, many U-Boats converge on the convoys and a great deal of merchant ships, along with the supplies so desperately needed by Britain, are lost.

The boredom of those early dull convoys contrasts sharply with the terror and mayhem waged by the U-boats later on. The film reveals the desperate tragedy of abandoning ship in the middle of the Atlantic, the oil and grease, not to mention the cold, are terrible. Many escort vessels could not stop for survivors as they would become easy prey to the unseen U-Boats, though some did, others returning later in the light of day as the attacks usually came at night.

Leave was a great relief for the naval crews. On one trip back to England the film shows the crew at home, some enjoying some home comforts, others struggling with failing marriages, a situation made worse by the war. One crewmate takes his friend the engineer home to meet his sister. On a later voyage the engineer tells his mate how he has fallen for the sister and plans to ask her to marry him. Later, the Compass Rose is sunk by a torpedo and as the survivors struggle to stay alive in the cold Atlantic many succumb to their injuries. As they drift in the oily water the soundtrack replays echos of their recent dialogue, a marriage proposals hangs in the air over the groom who will never wed and a petty argument haunts the body of the unhappily married officer. Happily, some survive till daylight when a destroyer returns to rescue them.

It must have been difficult living during the war, trying to get on with your own personal life when everything was wrapped up in the war effort. Manchester was a target for enemy bombers because of its industrial strength and also because of its airport at Ringway, now Manchester International Airport. My mother used to tell me stories of air raid shelters and late night cocoa when the air raid warnings were on and everyone trooped into the shelter. Everyone except my granddad who always said ‘If I’m going to die, I’ll die in my bed!’ She told and still tells stories of gas masks, bomb craters and how you could tell the differing sounds of German and British aircraft.

I’ve often wondered what happened if your house was bombed? Were you given new housing? What happened to your mortgage? Did you still have to pay it? Imagine being stuck with a 25 year mortgage and a house that was just a pile of rubble.

One other observation about films in the 40’s and 50’s: People seemed to have a different pattern of speech back then, a different and faster rhythm than today with clearer and more precise diction. Is that the case or is that just the way the actors and actresses of the time were taught to speak. Speech today seems slower and less precise and sprinkled with regular use of words like ‘awesome’!

Back to the Cruel Sea and Captain Ericson alias Jack Hawkins is given another ship which he captains until the end of the war. The producer, Sir Michael Balcon said that Hawkins was always the first choice for the Cruel Sea, even going so far as to say that without Hawkins he wouldn’t have made the film. The finished picture was the hit British film of 1953.

Hawkins was the epitome of the trustworthy British authority figure. In his obituary one writer wrote that Hawkins ‘exemplified for many cinemagoers the stiff upper lip tradition prevalent in post war British films. His craggy looks and authoritative bearing were used to good effect whatever branch of the services he represented.’

Hawkins himself was a three pack a day smoker and later became ill with throat cancer. In 1966 his entire larynx was removed however he still appeared in films with his dialogue dubbed by either Charles Gray or Robert Rietti. He died in 1973.

Just as I was writing this post, one thought came back to me about the book of the Cruel Sea. It was written by Nicholas Montsarrat and on the last page, when the war is over, the captain who has always hated his safety vest, hurls it into the sea. The vest sank like a stone!


Steve Higgins is the author of Floating in Space, a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information!

The Film of the Book or the Book of the Film (Part 2)

It’s always  a bitter-sweet experience when someone decides to make your favourite book into a film. It doesn’t always work out because maybe it was a big, thick, long book and they have cut out your favourite bit, or perhaps the cast wasn’t the one you imagined. It’s usually just the same in reverse. You see a great film and in the credits it says based on the book by so and so, then you rush out and get the book and it turns out to be a little disappointing. Sometimes it’s even better than the film!
You can read the Film of the Book part 1 by clicking here. Meanwhile, here are a few more of my film/book experiences.

Rebecca (the film)

Rebecca was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and released in 1940. Laurence Olivier plays Max De Winter and Joan Fontaine is particularly good as the shy, unworldly new wife of the rather grand Max De Winter.

Max and his new wife, who is never named in the novel as she is also the narrator, meet in the south of France, marry and return to Max’s grand country house Manderley, in Cornwall. There they settle into country life rather uneasily, as lurking always in the background is the spectre of Max’s late wife Rebecca who died in a boating accident.

Also lurking in the background is the housekeeper of Manderley, Mrs Danvers. She was devoted to Rebecca and her presence seems to cloak the house in a sinister gloom. George Sanders plays his usual suave smooth talking self; in this film he is the apparent lover to the late Rebecca. A number of incidents occur making the new wife believe her husband resents her and prefers Rebecca. Nothing could be further from the truth as we find out when Rebecca’s body is discovered in the cabin of her sunken boat just off the coast. Max reveals he had an argument with Rebecca, struck her and she fell, hitting her head on some heavy fishing tackle. He carried her dead body to her boat, took to sea and scuttled the small vessel, creating the lie of her death at sea. Now the body has come to light, George Sanders’ character comes forward with a letter from Rebecca, inviting him to visit on the day of her death and with this he decides to blackmail De Winter as this shows she could not have contemplated suicide.

There is a nice twist at the end which I won’t give away but Rebecca is a wonderful film, well worth looking out for on one of the many movie channels available these days.

One disappointing aspect of the film was the rather cheap model of Manderley used at the beginning and end of the film. If I was Hitchcock I would have been tempted to revisit the film in the 1960’s and add some better model effects.

Rebecca (the book) by Daphne Du Maurier

The book is written in the first person by the unnamed new wife of Max De Winter. It’s a very good read indeed and I enjoyed it very much, so much so I had to take it out of my work’s bag (I’d been reading at work during my dinner breaks) and take it into the garden on a lovely sunny day as I was so keen to get to the end. It is very similar to the film although in the book De Winter actually shoots his wife unlike the film where De Winter strikes her and she falls and hits her head. The ending is also rather abrupt but an excellent read, well worth picking up if you see a copy for sale.

Serpico (the film)

Al Pacino stars in the true story of Serpico, a New York City cop who tried to fight the culture of bribery and corruption in the NYPD in the 60’s and early 70’s. This 1973 film is directed by Sidney Lumet and is shot in a gritty natural style. It starts with Serpico being shot in the face and then on his way to hospital it flashes back to tell the story of rookie cop Frank Serpico and his graduation to detective and his refusal to take bribes. It is shot and acted in a very natural documentary style and the film portrays Serpico’s ongoing disappointment with his superiors and those he trusts to look into the situation very well indeed. A brilliant example of 70’s moviemaking at its best.

Serpico (the book) by Peter Maas

It’s a long while since I read the book and despite a lengthy search I couldn’t get my hands on it for a read through for this post. It was a fascinating read as I remember, reading more like a work of fiction than the true story it really was.

Serpico (the DVD)

Since I couldn’t say much about the book I just want to throw in a quick comment about the DVD. One thing I love about DVDs are those special versions with extended features, documentaries and so on. On the DVD of Serpico there is an interview with the producer Dino De Laurentiis where he tries to explain the character of Serpico this way; He and Serpico go to a screening of a film in New York. They are checking out possible directors or something, anyway, the theatre is empty and ignoring the no smoking sign, De Laurentiis decides to light up. ‘Wait a minute’ says Serpico, ‘you can’t smoke in here.’ De Laurentiis replies ‘what does it matter? There is no one here but us.’

Serpico points to the no smoking sign and replies ‘look, you just can’t smoke here’ and makes the producer put out his cigarette. That, says Dino on the DVD, was when he began to understand what Serpico was about. There were no grey areas with him, everything was black and white.

The Big Sleep (the book) by Raymond Chandler 

The Big Sleep, which refers to death in American gangster speak was the first of Raymond Chandler’s novels to feature his famous detective Philip Marlowe. Marlowe was described by one reviewer as ‘a 20th-century knight who treads the mean streets of Hollywood and Santa Monica, and who also visits the houses of the stinking rich, with their English butlers, corrosive secrets and sinister vices.’ I couldn’t have put it better myself. In the Big Sleep Marlowe is summoned to the house of General Sternwood whose daughter is being blackmailed by a seedy bookseller.

Sternwood, a crippled old man spends his time in a heated conservatory and seems to draw strength from the overwhelming heat. He engages Marlowe who sets off on a trail of blackmail and murder. I have to say the film rather confused me and it was only after reading the novel that I began to understand some of the intricacies of the plot.

The Big Sleep (the film)

Director Howard Hawks was also aware of the complexity of the novel. He once asked Raymond Chandler who had shot the chauffeur. Chandler replied that he had no idea.

The movie version from 1946 stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and I used to think that this was the film where Bogart and Bacall met although in fact it was actually another movie, ‘To Have and Have Not‘, also directed by Howard Hawks. By the time of ‘The Big Sleep’ their romance was in full swing. Later Bogart left his wife Mayo and he and Bacall were free to marry.

The opening of the film where Bogart meets the general is brilliant. The wayward daughter remarks he is not very tall. ‘I try to be’ Bogart replies. Later, the other daughter played by Bacall says she doesn’t like Bogart’s manners. He replies ‘I’m not crazy about yours. I didn’t ask to see you. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. I don’t like them myself. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings.’

My advice, get yourself the DVD, pour yourself a large glass of red, press play and relax and enjoy.

The Silence of the Lambs (the Film)

The film was released in 1991 and it’s one of those films that seemed to naturally self-publicise itself, one of those word of mouth films that everyone at the time was talking about. It’s a gruesome film in parts and not really my usual sort of film but what is appealing is the slow relentless process the FBI makes to track down the killer and the procedures and techniques they use. Jodie Foster plays FBI trainee Clarice Starling. She is sent by the head of the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit to interview captured serial killer Hannibal Lector played by Anthony Hopkins, in the hope he might give some clue or insight into helping with the capture of a new serial killer known as Buffalo Bill.

Hopkins gives a chilling portrayal of the psychotic serial killer and Jodie Foster and the other principals were given much acclaim for their performances. The film was only the third to win Oscars in the top 5 categories: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It is perhaps the only horror film ever to win the best picture award.

The Silence of the Lambs (the Book) by Thomas Harris

The book, like the film, focusses on the FBI and their attempts to trace the killer known as Buffalo Bill. Trainee agent Clarice Starling builds up a relationship with imprisoned murderer Doctor Hannibal Lector where Lector dribbles out bits of information in exchange for personal details about Clarice herself. Clarice, the vulnerable young FBI agent is a sort of counterpoint to the evil Murderer Dr Lector.

The book like the film is more of a horror story than a detective novel. I felt drawn to the passages that were chilling and gruesome in a strange way, almost like when a spider appears and I’m compelled to watch it even though I hate spiders. The relationship between Lector and Starling is intriguing and is really more of a focus than the capture of the Buffalo Bill and I did find myself wondering whether Lector might want to murder Clarice or perhaps his interest in her is something different.

I read the follow up book, Hannibal, expecting more of the same but it was even more gruesome and had a strange implausible ending. Since then I’ve steered clear of Mr Harris’ books but Silence is a great read.


Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

Brando, Alfie and the Art of Texting.

I’ve written about my mother and father in my blog posts so perhaps it’s about time I wrote about the one remaining family member, my brother. My brother Colin lives in Manchester and we see each other every couple of weeks or so when we meet up in the city centre for a pint or two.

My brother Colin is a very subtle character. He won’t ask me outright if I fancy a pint with him, he’ll tend to text me and his text will usually go something like this:

Meatballs!

Now that is subtle you’re probably thinking, is it a code? No, but the correct answer is this:

Definitely!

Still completely in the dark? Well, I suppose you might not be classic movie fans like Colin and I because a lot of the time we text in movie dialogue.

My brother sent me a text a few days ago; it read simply ‘You don’t remember me do you?

Probably a little confusing to the man on the street but I knew exactly what he meant. I responded with; ‘I remembered you the moment I saw you!

My brother came back straight away; ‘by the nose huh?’

Yes, texting in movie dialogue is what we do. Picked up on the movie yet? That particular movie is one of the movie greats of all time. It starred Marlon Brando in an Oscar-winning performance, much better, much more exciting and above all, much more human than his other Oscar-winning role in the Godfather.

Here are some more texts

ME: Do you remember parochial school out on Puluski Street? Seven, eight years ago?

MY BROTHER: You had wires on your teeth and glasses. Everything.

ME: You was really a mess.

The movie was ‘On the Waterfront’ and it’s probably famous for the double act of Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger playing brothers but there are plenty of other wonderful performances and scenes. My personal favourite is when Brando and Eva Marie Saint walk together in the park and Eva drops a glove which Brando picks up but keeps hold of and eventually pulls onto his own hand and we know that Eva wants it back. The dialogue above comes about here where Brando, playing the part of Terry Malloy, realises he knew Edie, played by Eva Marie Saint at school. He is trying to communicate with her in his oafish way and Edie begins to realise she actually likes him but, well watch the movie, believe me it’s a great scene. It finishes like this:

MY BROTHER: I can get home all right now, thanks.

ME: Don’t get sore. I was just kidding you a little bit.

I read somewhere that Elvis knew all the dialogue from Rebel Without a Cause, the James Dean movie. If so my brother Colin and I are in good company because we know the dialogue from that film too, as well as Giant and the aforementioned On the Waterfront. One day I thought I’d try a quote on Colin that he would never get.

Me: I took everything out of that car except the rocker panels!

I sent the text off feeling pretty pleased with myself. He’ll never get that in a million years I thought. My phone bleeped a moment later and I looked down to see:

MY BROTHER:  C’mon Herb, what the hell’s that!

Top marks indeed if you remember that dialogue from The French Connection.

My brother and I do text each other a lot but we also chat on the phone too. The thing is though; we talk on the phone with East European accents. We starting doing it one day then began a sort of unspoken contract to carry it on. Sometimes I’ll get a call and he might say, in his best Hungarian accent ‘ Gut Evenink my friend’

‘Gut evenink to you also my friend’ I tend to reply.

East European is the norm but sometimes we use German accents. Handy when we bounce quotes from The Great Escape off each other!

Me: I hear your German is good, and also your French . .

My Brother: Your hands UP!

The Great Escape is a firm TV movie favourite but let me finish with a 60’s classic we also frequently text about:

Me: She’s in beautiful condition!

My Brother: Blimey girl, you’re not as ugly as I thought!

Me: I saw that geezer Humphrey going off. You’re not having it off with him are you?

My Brother: I tumbled at once. Never be cheerful when you’re working a fiddle!

Me: I ain’t got my peace of mind. And if you ain’t got that, you ain’t got nothing.

My brother: It seems to me that if they ain’t got you one way, they’ve got you another.

Me: So what’s the answer? That’s what I keep asking myself. What’s it all about?

Got the picture yet? The film is Alfie. It was directed by Lewis Gilbert who also directed some of the earlier Bond films. The script was written by Bill Naughton and adapted from his own book and play. Alfie is a fascinating film on many levels. It’s a peek back at the swinging sixties; it explores the elements of comedy versus drama, something I’ve always loved and which I looked at a while ago in a post about the TV show MASH. The film features great performances from all the principal and supporting actors. One fabulous feature is how Alfie talks directly to the camera and sometimes even says things that directly contradict something he is doing or saying to another character. In the opening sequence Michael Caine as Alfie addresses the audience and tells them not to expect any titles. There are none, except for the film title itself and the closing credits feature photos of the cast and crew.

Many actors turned down the chance to play Alfie on film, including Caine’s then flat mate Terence Stamp who played the part on Broadway. Laurence Harvey, James Booth and Richard Harris all turned down the role and Alfie became a breakthrough movie for Michael Caine.

 


Floating in Space is a novel by Steve Higgins set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or to find out more.

10 Famous and Not So famous Cars!

The Batmobile.

No, I’m not thinking of the one that locks up in a sort of caterpillar way, although I’d love to have a car that does that. Nor am I thinking of the one that resembles a tank. Just in case I’ve lost you here I’m talking about the comic strip hero Batman and his motor car, the Batmobile. Batman has progressed from comic strip to TV to the big screen but my favourite Batmobile is the one from the 1960’s TV series starring Adam West as the Caped Crusader and Burt Ward as Robin, the Boy Wonder. The dynamic duo regularly leapt over the doors into the car ready for a quick getaway in their pursuit of the dastardly villains of the 1960’s such as the Penguin, the Joker and so on. I used to have a Corgi model version if I remember correctly.

John Steed’s car

Patrick MacNee played the debonair John Steed in TV’s the Avengers and his car throughout much of the series life was a vintage Bentley. Steed, just like the dynamic duo, had a habit of leaping over his car doors. Must have scuffed those leather seats with his shoes though, I wouldn’t be happy about that. If you have ever read the original James Bond novels, you’ll know that Bond’s personal car was a Bentley, although it can’t have looked too good after Hugo Drax forced him to crash in Ian Fleming’s novel Moonraker. If you are thinking well, I saw the film and I don’t remember that bit, I think it’s fair to say that the books are usually pretty different to the films!

The Saint’s Volvo.

Simon Templar alias the Saint, played by Roger Moore, drove a white Volvo P1800 with the registration plate, ST1, which by my reckoning, if that was a real plate, would be worth quite a few bob today. In fact, if I had that few bob I might be tempted to buy it for myself. ST1, yes, that’d look pretty good on my old Renault Megane!

James Bond’s Aston Martin.

One of the memes I use frequently on Twitter is one of Sean Connery, exclaiming ‘ejector seat? You’re joking!’ to his technical colleague Q in the James Bond film Goldfinger. Bond’s Aston Martin DB11 had a variety of gadgets ranging from the aforementioned ejector seat to rotating number plates, forward facing machine guns (just the job to deal with road rage issues) and oil and smokescreen ejectors to fend off any following bad guys. In a later Bond film, Die Another Day, Bond, this time played by Pierce Brosnan, had an invisible car. Pity Brosnan didn’t reprise the ‘you’re joking’ line in that film which was Brosnan’s last outing as 007.

Steve McQueen’s Car.

The movie Bullitt was a classic cop film. OK, the plot was a little complicated but the car chase was the classic movie car chase of all time. McQueen drove a Ford Mustang 390 GT. Its 6.4 litre engine making a throaty roar as McQueen gunned his car in pursuit of the bad guys. I used to think his car was a Ford Cougar which is why I got all excited when I once used a hire car and was told over the phone it was a Ford Cougar. It turned out to be a different car altogether, a Ford Kuga!

‘Back to the Future’ 1981 DeLorean DMC-12

In the Back to the Future time travel trilogy, Marty McFly ends up back in the 1950’s courtesy of the time machine installed in the car by wacky inventor Dr Emmett Brown. The car warps into the past, or future, whenever the car’s time circuits are activated and the car hit 88mph. That of course happens to Marty McFly early on in the movie and he ends up back in 1955. There he meets a younger version of Doc Brown and he agrees to help Marty return Back to the Future. A great film and a pretty nice looking motor for the mid 1980’s. I particularly liked the gull wing doors.

‘Smokey and the Bandit’ 1977 Pontiac Trans Am

Still on the subject of films, ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ was the second highest grossing movie of 1977, second only to Star Wars. It’s about a trucker known as ‘the Bandit’ who is paid a large amount of dollars to get 400 cases of Coors beer across the state boundary from Texas into Georgia. I don’t exactly know much about US State boundaries or whether it was illegal or not but anyway, Burt Reynolds plays the ‘Bandit’, who recruits fellow trucker ‘the Snowman’, to drive the beer truck while the Bandit himself drives a Pontiac Trans-Am to lure any ‘smokies’ or police, away from the beer laden truck. Along the way the Bandit picks up the lovely Sally Field and finds himself being pursued by Texas Sheriff Buford T. Justice. Sounds pretty simple doesn’t it? A Guy, a fast car, a lovely girl and a whole load of fun filled action packed car chases. It’s a great film and that Pontiac is a great looking motor car.

Number Six’s Lotus 7.

Remember The Prisoner from the late 60’s? Well if you don’t, it was a sci-fi fantasy-espionage TV show starring Patrick McGoohan. McGoohan stars as ‘Number 6’, a British agent who resigns and is kidnapped from his home, waking up in in the mysterious ‘village’ where the man in charge, Number 2, wants information. The opening sequence shows McGoohan driving around London in the rather lovely Lotus 7 and then back to his London flat where his mysterious abductors pounce. I’ve always rather fancied a Lotus 7, although I do like my creature comforts such as my CD player and my air con. Doesn’t look like there is much room in the Lotus for all my CD’s either!

Starsky and Hutch  Ford Gran Torino

Cast your mind back to the year 1975. Remember the TV cop show Starsky and Hutch? Well if you don’t then maybe you caught the movie version released in 2004. I say movie ‘version’ because the film is a sort of tongue in cheek comedy version of the TV show. Actually, neither the film nor the TV show were that great in my opinion but I did like their car which was a Ford Gran Torino in a rather lovely shade of red with white flashes down the side. Not sure if the car was much use during covert shadowing operations but hey, it looked fantastic!

My Car

If you are a big fan of film noir, you’ll have probably noticed that a lot of Los Angeles based detectives and their New York counterparts too, have a habit of parking up and leaving their cars with windows open and without any attempt at putting the roof down or locking up. If I left my car like that when I visit the council estate where I used to live I’d be lucky if my car was still there when I returned. Or if it was still there, then I’d be lucky to see the wheels still attached. TV detectives like Simon Templar for instance, also rarely lock their cars or even carry any keys for that matter. Anyway, as I’ve mentioned my car I might as well tell you more. My car is a Renault Megane convertible. I’ve always wanted a convertible and so in a way, this car is a lifelong dream. I probably would have preferred a Porsche or a Chevrolet but what the heck, I love my Renault. It’s nice to drive, supremely comfortable, well, for me anyway. Liz hates it as because of her back problems she needs a more sit up straight seat; for me, the slightly reclining position is perfect. One negative comment about the Megane: I always feel slightly embarrassed when a bulb blows because I have to take it to the garage to have another fitted. Why is fitting a light bulb so difficult in cars these days?

Just recently the weather in late April in the UK has warmed up and the other day it was time to take a drive with the ‘hood down’ as they say in American films. I do love the process of dropping the roof, hearing the smooth whine of the electric motor as the windows drop and the roof folds away into the boot. Whenever I do that I always hear the theme tune to Thunderbirds in my head and feel just a little like Scott Tracy as he slides his way from the lounge on Tracy Island over to Thunderbird 1. One interesting observation came to me today on the way to work. It was a lovely sunny afternoon and I motored along serenely with my hair ruffling ever so slightly in the breeze, the sun was warm on my head and shadows flickered lightly across my tinted lenses. I noticed a number of convertibles out on the road, some slightly more glamorous vehicles than mine, others not quite up to scratch. One thing they all seemed to have in common was that in all cases the driver was a middle aged follically challenged man wearing tinted lenses or sunglasses. Some would say that is a description that rather resembles me; surely not! Then again, perhaps certain people of a certain age and certain disposition lean towards a certain motorcar of the more open to the elements type. Oh well. . .

Now, I’m a little stuck for a video here but I did find this one, a sort of test video with my then new camera!


 Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester, 1977. To find out more click the links at the top of the page or click here to go straight to Amazon.

 

 

Two DVD’s, a TV Movie and a VHS Tape

To Rome with Love.

I do love getting a new DVD, especially when it’s one from eBay and only cost a couple of pounds. My latest buy was this one from Woody Allen. It’s quite a significant one really because it marks the first on-screen appearance of Woody in one of his own films since the 2006 film Scoop. It’s a lovely gentle relaxing film, with no car chases, shootings, murders or explosions. There are a number of intercut stories in the film, none of which ever converge together or are even related, except that they all occur in Rome. Woody plays a retired classical music producer who tries to record his daughter’s new father in law who happens to have great singing voice when he’s in the shower. Unfortunately, singing out of the shower doesn’t work for him. Another story is that of a local Roman who suddenly becomes famous and is mobbed by the media every time he appears. Beautiful women pass him their numbers, paparazzi photograph him constantly, TV crews ask him questions whenever he steps outside. One day the press attention disappears and passes to someone else. At first the fellow thinks great, I’ve got my life back. Later he starts to miss the attention. The disappointing thing is that no reason is given for this attention. Clearly the director is making a point about fame but if it was my film I think I’d have tried to explain things more, maybe the guy is interviewed on TV and becomes popular or something. Still, I doubt if Woody Allen needs advice from me!

There are two other intercut stories, one involving a young girl who gets involved with an Italian movie star while her boyfriend is waiting to introduce her, his future bride, to his parents. While that is going on a prostitute mistakenly enters the boyfriend’s hotel room and the parents mistake her for the future bride. Another story is a love triangle with a female friend moving in with a couple and the boyfriend gets the hots for her.

A great deal of the dialogue is in Italian with English subtitles which gives the film a real continental feeling. All in all, an excellent film that has its faults but I loved it all the same.

Midnight in Paris.

I’m not a great fan of Owen Wilson but this is the first film of his I’ve ever seen where I have actually started to like him. Wilson plays Gil Pender, a writer who is trying to finish his novel. He comes to Paris with his wife and the in-laws who he doesn’t particularly care for. They also bump into his wife’s friend Paul, a know-it-all character who Gil dislikes. Gil wanders away from the others at midnight and finds himself in the Paris of the 1920’s, meeting Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Hemingway and other past literary figures. The encounters with past figures continue and they help Gil to sort out both his book and his love life.

Wilson is excellent in the film and actually reminds me a lot of Woody Allen himself, playing a part that Woody would perhaps have played had the movie been made back in the 70s or 80s. All in all, a lovely film and another cheap addition to my DVD collection thanks to eBay.

Four Weddings and a Funeral

I’ve not seen this film for a while so it was great to see it pop up on my TV screen recently. I sometimes think of Four Weddings as a sort of modern Ealing Comedy, if Ealing were still making movies of course. There are a couple of elements that stop it from being perfect. One is the use of the F word. Why make a gentle comedy and then throw in a few gratuitous F words? I really don’t get it. The other thing is this, Hugh Grant plays a character who falls in love with a girl played by Andie McDowell. Andie McDowell, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t do it for me at all. She’s not, to me, that great looking and has a particularly irritating voice, all of which makes it a little difficult for me to identify with the Hugh Grant character, who, as I mentioned, has the hots for her.

In many ways I have a similar problem with the Steve Martin film LA Story. Steve’s character has the hots for a girl played by Victoria Tennant who is very pleasant, very nice but sadly, she doesn’t do it for me either. Happily, I can honestly say that in Casablanca I can fully identify with the Humphrey Bogart character, although whether I would have put Ingrid Bergman on the plane and stayed behind with Claude Rains, well that’s another matter.

Four Weddings and a Funeral is the movie that brought fame to writer Richard Curtis and actor Hugh Grant, as the announcer on Film 4 mentioned. Strangely, he didn’t mention Mike Newell, who directed the film. Funny how the credit from a successful film doesn’t always get spread equally around.

Capricorn One

I think I’ve mentioned before about staying at my Mother’s house. Upstairs is my little bedroom, so very similar to the room I used to inhabit when I was a child. In there I have lots of my books, tapes, vinyl record albums and a stack of my old VHS tapes. For those of you who were not around in the VHS era, a standard VHS cassette lasted around three hours. You could get two-hour tapes or even four-hour ones but three hours was the standard. In recording terms that meant this: You could record a two-hour movie and a one hour show onto a three-hour standard tape, or even three one hour shows, six half hour shows or any combination in between. I don’t know why but I used to really hate having an hour of empty tape left after a movie so I was always trying to fit something in there so I’d be always finding room for a sixty minute documentary or something.

On one old tape I was came across, the label had been torn off so I popped it into my old TV/VHS recorder combo to see what had been recorded. I watched a half hour segment of a news report about buses in Manchester. All fairly interesting but as I fast-forwarded through the tape I came across that great movie Capricorn One. In case you don’t remember it, the film was about the first manned mission to Mars which is faked by NASA. The crew of the space probe are forced to go along with the deception but later change their minds. The film was, I think, inspired by those conspiracy theorists that think the Apollo 11 moon landing was faked. Anyway, I stopped the film, put it on pause, nipped quickly downstairs to make a cup of tea and a sandwich. Returning quickly back to my room I settled down with my snack, got myself all comfy and pressed play. About an hour later, Capricorn One had burned up in re-entry because of a heat shield malfunction and the crew who were never even onboard were trying to escape when there was a clunk and the playback stopped. Yes, back in 1987 or whenever, I had tried to record a two-hour film and a documentary on a two-hour tape! Three into two, as they say, does not go. Oh well, back to the search page on eBay!


Steve Higgins is the author of Floating in Space set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page for more information!

The Film of the Book or the Book of the Film

It’s always  a bitter-sweet experience when someone decides to make your favourite book into a film. It doesn’t always work out because maybe it was a big, thick, long book and they have cut out your favourite bit, or perhaps the cast wasn’t the one you imagined. It’s usually just the same in reverse. You see a great film and in the credits it says based on the book by so and so, then you rush out and get the book, and it turns out to be a little disappointing. Sometimes it’s even better than the film!
Anyway, here are a few of my film/book experiences.

The Horse Whisperer.
The book.
I picked up this book in a charity sale last year. This is what I said about it in Book Bag 4:

I’m not even sure why I picked up this book; it’s not anything I would normally be interested in. I bought it for a few pence at a church table top sale and I think I bought it one, because I wanted to give something, a few pence to the church fund and two, I faintly remembered the book had been made into a film with Robert Redford, although I had never seen it. The reviews on the back of the book said things like ‘a page turner’ and ‘the hottest book of the year’. Anyway, I bought it ages ago, and on a whim threw it into my book bag. I really hate having a book and not reading it.

From the beginning the book was a page turner giving a hint that something exciting and interesting was coming. I liked the idea of a horse whisperer; someone who could train a horse without hurt or pain, merely by whispering. I envisaged a native American Indian perhaps or some mystic horse guru. The fact is that the story of the horse is nothing but the background to a love story, involving a New York magazine editor and a Montana cowboy. Written in a sort of matter of fact magazine style, it turns out that writer Nicholas Evans is a screen writer and much of the novel reads rather like that, a screenplay, and each character comes with extensive background notes like the writer’s character notes on a screenplay. At the half way point this novel lost steam for me. I read it to the end but the ending was so contrived I was just glad to have finished it. Somewhat disappointing. Wonder what the movie is like?

The film.
The other day I noticed this film was showing on the Sony Movie Channel and set my hard drive up to record it. The result was an OK sort of film although a little on the slow-moving side. I’m tempted to say it was more of a woman’s film but Liz watched it alongside me and she wasn’t impressed either. I felt the casting was not right. Robert Redford just looked too smart and tidy to be a cattle rancher and cowboy. He actually looked as though he came from the Roy Rogers school of cowboying although he also directed the film. If I was casting I would perhaps have gone for someone like Kevin Costner perhaps, and the female lead, played by Kirstin Scott Thomas, needed a stronger, more assertive woman, perhaps a native New Yorker and not an English actress.

The ending was different in the film which was a good thing as the book’s ending was so poor as I mentioned above. Rotten Tomatoes report 74% positive reviews but sadly, I think I was part of the 26% negative ones.

2001: A Space Odyssey.
The film.
I first saw this movie back in 1968, which was quite a fascinating year for me. I wrote about the experience of seeing the film in a earlier post about film music and here is, in part, what I had to say:

I first saw the film in the summer of 1968. I was only 11 at the time and I remember my Mum being surprised I had spent hours at the cinema on a lovely hot day. I watched the film in the huge movie theatre in Northenden, now a Jehovah’s Witness assembly hall. There were only a few people in the picture house that day and it was wonderful having this huge place almost to myself and seeing this incredible film in 70mm on the big screen. I recall being somewhat confused by it all, especially the jump from Neanderthal times to the future, until I bought the novel by Arthur C Clarke which explained things in a way the movie did not.

2001 is a particularly visual film. Kubrick cut out a lot of dialogue because he wanted the film to stand as “basically a visual, nonverbal experience” that “hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting.”

2001

Picture courtesy Flickr.com

According to Wikipedia, despite the few people in the cinema with me that day in 1968, the movie went on to become the highest grossing North American movie of that year.

2001 set the pace for the sci-fi movie with its depiction of spacecraft drifting slowly and silently through space. The first Star Trek movie was heavily influenced by 2001 which made it look a little dated when the movie Star Wars was released and did the opposite thing, showing spacecraft whooshing across the screen at lightning speeds.

The book.
As I mentioned above, I was rather confused by the film and there were quite a few moments when I was wondering what was actually happening, for instance the jump from Neanderthal times to the future, the moment when the monolith sends its deep space signal and various other things too. I went out and bought the book by Arthur C Clarke and went straight into a wonderfully well written,  plausible space adventure. All the technology that Clarke wrote about had its origins in science fact, both the space missions and the computer technology which make up the main parts of the story. If you have never seen the film or read the book (shame on you) 2001 is about a mysterious monolith which appears on earth in neolithic times and helps the ape men of the day to develop. Later, in the future, the mysterious monolith is found buried on the moon and when it is exposed to sunlight for the first time, it blasts off a signal to Saturn. (In the movie the destination is Jupiter, as director Stanley Kubrick thought that the special effects department would struggle to create Saturn’s rings.)

Anyway, the scientists of the day decide that the monolith is part of some extraterrestrial intelligence and set up a manned space mission to investigate. As the mission progresses, the onboard computer, HAL, decides to have something of a nervous breakdown which creates an unexpected hazard for the crew.

Verdict: The book is a wonderful read, one of the classics of science fiction and the movie has deservedly become one of the most influential films of all time.

The Great Gatsby.
The book.
I can’t really remember when I read this book for the first time. It was many years ago and ever since, this short novel has been in my personal all time top 10 reads. The story concerns Jay Gatsby who lost out in the love stakes because he was born on the wrong side of the tracks and not an appropriate suitor for the lovely debutante Daisy. Off he goes to the first world war, comes home to the USA a much more worldly-wise fellow than when he left and one way or another he becomes a millionaire.

Gatsby has a huge mansion in the Long Island suburb of West Egg. Renting a cottage in the grounds is the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway. Nick is fascinated by the lavish parties held at the mansion and soon meets Gatsby himself. It turns out that Gatsby’s parties are a device, a lure to attract the beautiful Daisy who Gatsby still loves and hopes will one day come to him like a moth to a flame.

It’s a simple story of love and desire but it becomes something much more in the hands of the author F. Scott Fitzgerald. I often think of it not as a short book, but as a long lyrical poem that has an intrinsic beauty fashioned by the most wonderful turns of phrase. In particular I love the last page and this final paragraph:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter. Tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . and one fine morning . . So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The Film.
I noticed on the Internet that there was a 1949 version with Alan Ladd which I have never seen but the latest film version was released in 2013 and starred Leonardo DiCaprio with Baz Luhrmann as director. That particular film had been lying dormant on my hard drive recorder for quite a while, just waiting for a quiet few hours for me to watch. As I was part way through this post this seemed to be the perfect opportunity to start it up. So, I settled down with a glass of French red and clicked the play button.

The first part of the movie didn’t really do it for me and the depiction of Gatsby’s famous parties seemed more like a music video than anything, especially with the strange substitution of modern techno music for the jazz music of the time.

Later on, the picture comes into its own. Leonardo DiCaprio is good, indeed very good as Gatsby. Overall, tone down the special effects and the music video feel and this could have been an outstanding film adaptation.

The film version I adore though is the one from 1974 starring Robert Redford as Gatsby and Mia Farrow as the fragile Daisy. I may have written above about Redford being miscast for the Horse Whisperer but he is perfect as Gatsby, so much so that now, whenever I re-read the book I always see Redford’s face in my mind.

The screenplay was by Francis Ford Coppola who directed The Godfather and there are some memorable moments in the film. One of the ones I like particularly is the one where one of Gatsby’s associates is introduced to Nick, thinking him one of Gatsby’s dubious business connections. Redford as Gatsby, firmly but politely indicates a mistake has been made and we get a hint at something questionable behind Gatsby’s facade. Is he a gangster or a bootlegger perhaps? Another is the moment when Gatsby and Nick meet at one of Gatsby’s parties. Nick doesn’t realise he is talking to Gatsby himself when he says he doesn’t even know who is Gatsby is!

Verdict: Brilliant book and a lovely film.

Lost Horizon.
The Book.
I picked up this wonderful gem of a book at charity shop years ago for the bargain price of twenty-five pence and if I could convert the pleasure this book has given me into pounds, shillings, and pence, it would be a figure that far eclipses that initial outlay. James Hilton has become one of my favourite writers and one of my personal writing heroes. (Check out my blog about him here!) This highly original novel reflects the fear and sadness that many must have felt in the days before World War 2. There must have been a feeling then that with new technology, the approaching conflict could be the end of civilisation.

In this wonderful book, a group of Lamas in a monastery, hidden from the world by a chance of geographical fate, decide to look ahead and make sure that the riches of the world, not gold or silver, but literature, art and music, should be preserved should a holocaust engulf the world. To ensure that their creed of respect and compassion endures they kidnap a British diplomat, Robert Conway, to carry on their work and set about bringing him to Shangri-La. Shangri La is a small community in Tibet insulated from the world by mountains on all sides and the people here enjoy unheard of longevity.

Despite his capture Conway is taken into the confidence of the High Lama and given his task of continuing the community and its traditions, but his fellow captives have differing ideas, especially Mallinson, his young vice-consul who is desperate to escape.
The story is told in an interesting way, one that enhances the mystery by a chance meeting between civil servants, one of whom is anxious to talk about Conway and his mysterious disappearance. The story is told about how Conway is found in Tibet with a loss of memory and how his memory suddenly returns and Conway tells of his abduction and escape from Shangri-la. I have to admit that this novel is one of my top ten books of all time, and one I return to time after time.

The Film.
Directed by Frank Capra and starring Ronald Colman, Lost Horizon was shot in 1936 and went seriously over budget. Issues that contributed were scenes shot in a cold storage area, used to replicate the cold of Tibet. The cold affected the film equipment and caused delays. There was also a great deal of location shooting and scenes where Capra used multiple cameras shooting lots of film. Wikipedia reports that the first cut of the film ran for six hours! Studio Boss Harry Cohn was apparently unhappy with the film and edited it himself, producing a version that ran for 132 minutes. Further cuts were made and as a result, Capra filed suit against Columbia pictures. The issue was later resolved in Capra’s favour. The film did not turn a profit until it was re-released in 1942. A frame by frame digital restoration of the film was made in 2013 and various missing elements of the film were returned, including an alternative ending. Sadly, some of the visual elements were so poor that they have been substituted with stills as only the soundtrack was useable.

Ronald Colman is superb as the hero of the film, the slightly world-weary diplomat and politician who finally comes to believe in the ideas of Father Perrault, the High Lama, who wants to keep safe the treasures of the world until the famine of war has passed by.
This movie adaptation is nothing short of wonderful, in fact it is one of my favourite films of all time.  If you see this movie on DVD make sure you take it home and settle down for a wonderful film experience.


A book written by the author which sadly has yet to be made into a film is Floating in Space, set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page for more information.

Soaps, Comedians and a DVD: This year’s Christmas TV

Now we are well into 2018 I thought I’d take a quick look back to the recent Christmas and New Year TV. I don’t know about you but for me it just wasn’t really up to standard, at least not on terrestrial TV or ‘proper’ TV as I call it. Christmas on proper TV was all about soaps, Doctor Who and old shows from the TV of yesteryear.

Coronation Street.

Eastenders has never been my cup of tea but I do like Coronation Street. What has been a little disappointing this year is that this soap, set in my home town of Manchester, has drifted away from a lot of the things I used to like about it. It’s not as ‘northern’ as it used to be, or as funny as in the Jack Duckworth and Hilda Ogden days and the current storyline about Pat Phelan which involves kidnapping and murder is just not what I want. I just wish Pat would go away and we could return to storylines about affairs, illicit relationships, and domestic issues with a large dose of tongue-in-cheek humour thrown in. In a recent Coronation Street special about Jean Alexander, who played the warbling Hilda, the many funny and amusing sides of her character were shown, including a very sad and touching  moment when she returns home after the death of her husband and opens a bag of his effects, clothes and spectacles and so on. The sight of these few simple items reduced Hilda to tears -and many viewers along with her. Those were the days when simple observations like that, some sad, some funny, took the series to ever higher dramatic standards.

Doctor Who.

Another Christmas broadcast that was pretty enjoyable was this year’s Doctor Who special which reunited the current doctor with the original, recreated by actor David Bradley and linked together their regenerations. Just to explain, Doctor Who is the UK’s longest running sci-fi show and one aspect that has helped it continue is that when the lead actor leaves the show, the doctor ‘regenerates’ into a new personality, and of course, a new actor. In this case, Peter Capaldi is leaving and Jodie Whittaker is the new and controversial female doctor. Sound a bit weird? Well, sounds very odd to me. It’s rather like those things you hear on the Internet where people call for a black or even a female James Bond. Bond of course is a white, upper class male and that is the only way to play him. A female Doctor Who? How that will work out is anybody’s guess but this year’s Doctor Who was a good episode, if a tad wordy which is the main problem for me with the modern version of Doctor Who.

Sarah Millican.

Sarah Millican, just for those who have never heard of her, is a Geordie comedian and on Christmas day Liz and I watched three of her stage performances back to back on one of the Freeview channels. Sarah isn’t for me a laugh out loud kind of comedian but she is amusing. She is one of those observational comedians, the ones who take nondescript things and make them into funny monologues. Think Peter Kaye and Garlic bread or Michael McIntyre and bad breath. I tend to prefer my comedians to just tell jokes the old-fashioned way but no, that’s not the way comics work these days. One of the funniest moments in Sarah’s routine was one in which she overheard three older ladies talking about what they would do if they became men for a day. One of the women answered, ‘knowing my luck I’d get a Tuesday –and what can you do on a Tuesday?’

As I watched these three performances, all pretty amusing, I started thinking how I could make some of my blogs into a comic routine. (They call them ‘stand up’ comedians these days so I wonder how they would class Dave Allen, the comedian who used to sit on a stool with a glass of whisky nearby?) Anyway, take one of my posts like The day the Cat War Started perhaps. That might make a reasonable comedy monologue. Introducing the neighbours, then the cats, then the confusion of the cats I was supposed to be feeding while my neighbours were away. Possible career change? Well, perhaps not!

There’s Something about Mary.

A great deal of this Christmas and New Year TV I haven’t watched ‘live’ as it were, I just pressed the record button and kept them for a quieter day so I have yet to see 50 years of Star Trek and a couple of Star Wars documentaries from BBC4 but I did watch ‘There’s Something about Mary‘ on New Year’s Eve as we declined to venture out in the face of a major rainstorm. We could have gone out later I suppose but by then the fire had been lit, the wine had been poured and the cheese was warming. The TV guide mentioned something about this film being a ‘movie classic’. Now to me, a movie classic is something like ‘All About Eve’ with Bette Davies which was shown on TV over Christmas but, sadly, I neglected to record, or ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ which I mentioned in a recent post. ‘Mary’ was mildly amusing with the occasional funny scene but was not, I must insist, a film which could now or ever be mentioned in connection with the phrase ‘movie classic’.

Harry Potter films and TV soaps seemed to be the main factor in this years TV schedule. I looked in vain to find a major new movie but the only one I could see was Spectre, the most recent James Bond film which was shown on New Year’s day. Pity really because I happened to be working then. Oh well, 50 Years of a Star Trek is still there on my hard drive so I look forward to the end of one of my late shifts when I might just start it up and relax with a glass of port.

The Intruder.

One final film, and it’s not one that you will find in the TV guide. The Intruder was a DVD that appeared in my Christmas stocking and is one of those classic British films starring the wonderful Jack Hawkins and a whole host of familiar faces from British films of yesteryear. Set in the 1950’s, former army Colonel Merton played by Jack Hawkins returns home to find he is being burgled by one of his own former wartime platoon members, Ginger, played by Michael Medwin. Ginger runs off when he thinks Colonel Merton has called the Police so the colonel decides to track the man down. He visits his former army comrades and they each tell a story in flashback that builds up a picture of Ginger, his life and that of his comrades. It must have been strange to have lived through the intensity of war and then to return home to rationing and shortages and the near normality of post war Britain. The film, directed by Guy Hamilton who also directed some of the early James Bond films, captures all that perfectly.

Despite the host of cable and satellite TV channels available these days, it’s a shame that sometimes you have to crank up the DVD player to find something worthwhile to watch.


Steve Higgins is the author of Floating in Space, a novel set in Manchester, 1977. The book is available in Kindle or paperback formats. Click the icon below to go straight to Amazon.

Floating in Space

Putting the O in Columbo

It’s hard to believe that after three years of weekly blogging, I have never written anything about my favourite TV detective, lieutenant Columbo. What made me think of Columbo for a blogging post was that the other day, after three gruelling shifts at work, I slipped seamlessly into couch potato mode and settled down for a lazy day of TV watching. Happily it was a Sunday and there are two particular TV channels in the UK that, on a Sunday, pay homage to the Los Angeles based detective; ITV3 and 5USA.

So here we go, bacon sarnie sorted and TV remote to hand, first on the list was ‘Lovely but Lethal’ starring Vera Miles as the guest murderer. Columbo, as you probably know, differs from other TV detective shows by showing the viewer exactly who the murderer is and how he, or she, did it. The whole point is not who did it, but how Columbo catches them. The essence then of a great episode comes in the clever way Columbo nails his man, or woman. Sometimes that moment is a bit of a non starter, other times it’s nothing short of brilliant. Sometimes, even if that final moment is not so great, it’s still been a great episode. ‘Lovely but Lethal’ was pretty good with great performances all round but it wasn’t quite up there in my top 10 episodes.

Mickey Spillane. Picture courtesy Wikipedia

Next up was ‘Publish or Perish’, a cracking episode with my all time favourite guest murderer, Jack Cassidy. Jack appeared in at least three Columbo episodes including one that is a contender for best Columbo ever, but more about that later. In this one, Cassidy plays a publisher who decides to bump off his top writer, played by real life writer Mickey Spillane, because he is about to jump ship to another publisher. Cassidy hires a crazy ex Vietnam veteran and explosives expert to do the job and arranges the perfect alibi; he gets drunk, has a drunken car crash at the exact time of the murder and even ends up in the local police drunk tank for the rest of the night. Of course, he makes several mistakes, including one crucial one which inevitably, lieutenant Columbo spots. A great episode and well worth looking out for.

The Columbo of the early series is an absent-minded quirky fellow although in later episodes, Peter Falk who plays the detective, seems to downplay that quirky element. The later episodes are still pretty good though and armed with a fresh brew and the opening of a McVities chocolate biscuit packet, it was time to turn over to ITV3 for a great episode entitled ‘Sex and the married detective ‘. This episode is one of the later ones, actually season eight from 1989, and it concerns a sex therapist who bumps off her boyfriend after she finds out he’s cheated on her. The episode features the usual great performances and the guest murderer is Lindsay Crouse who adopts the alter ego of Lisa, a lady dressed in black. She gets her boyfriend to meet up with Lisa as part of a role-playing fantasy. She shoots him and it’s the unknown Lisa who gets the blame. Columbo once again nabs his murderer, but with this episode being one of the later ones, it doesn’t feature the quirky Columbo I love but it’s still a great episode and it has a really good musical soundtrack with a lovely musical motif that is perfect for the ‘Lady in Black’.

That was my ‘Three Columbo Sunday’ which I was tempted to use as a title for this post except that my trusty (so far) laptop began playing up a little. The letter ‘o’ on my keyboard has always been a little sticky but as I began to write this one it gave up the ghost and ceased to work completely. I have always thought that ‘e’ was the most used letter in the English language but now I’m pretty certain it’s ‘o’, especially if you are writing about a man called Columbo. Anyway, it just so happens that because of this keyboard issue I am now pretty well acquainted with the windows ALT keyboard. In case you didn’t know, you press the ALT key on your keyboard coupled with 111 and hey presto, there’s an ‘o’. Great, except not great, especially when you’ve written C(ALT111)umb(ALT111) numerous times.

Picture credit: pixabay.com

Luckily, the Internet comes with a lot of help and over on YouTube I found an out of focus video by a semi literate computer nerd who guided me through the process of removing the keys, cleaning them and putting everything back together. OK so back to Columbo!

I thought I’d finish with my all time favourite episode, ‘Short Fuse’ from 1972. The episode stars Roddy McDowall as a spoilt young lad who plans to kill off his uncle in order to take over the family company. His uncle has the goods on Roddy and is about to use this information to force him out of the company. However, the uncle is blown up before he can show the goods to Roddy’s aunt. The murder weapon is a bomb hidden in a cigar box, timed to go off during a car ride to the Uncle’s mountain lodge. As Columbo is set in Los Angeles I can only assume that somewhere nearby is a mountainous holiday area where people have holiday cabins. Anyway, a nice film sequence shows the cigar box being opened, setting off a timer and then the bomb. Columbo has no real proof to nail the murderer but later, on a ride in a cable car, Columbo opens a bag with some new evidence provided by the local police. Yes, it’s the cigar box, apparently intact. Once again we see the taut little sequence of the cigar box and the timer and then we cut to Roddy as he scrabbles about looking for the explosive, realising too late that he has given himself away. The box, as Columbo explains to a colleague, is just another cigar box, made to look a little distressed as if it has been extricated from a car crash. This is one of those memorable endings that I so love in Columbo.

Oh, and another thing. When it comes down to it, I’m not absolutely certain ‘ShortFuse’ was my all time favourite Columbo. In fact, it might really be ‘Murder by the Book‘, starring my favourite murderer, Jack Cassidy. In this 1971 episode, Jack plays a writer, actually part of a writing double act who together produce a series of novels about ‘Mrs Melville’ who is an amateur detective. The thing is, Jack’s partner wants to ditch the partnership but Jack is not happy about it. He is so unhappy he decides to, yes you guessed it, bump off his co-writer. He does it in a rather ingenious way which foxes Columbo but not for long and to cap it all, the episode is directed by none other than Steven Spielberg!

Just one more thing . . Then again, my favourite episode might really be this one with Robert Culp, another favourite murderer. In a 1973 episode called ‘Double Exposure’, Culp plays a motivation research specialist who uses a special technique of subliminal imaging to make his victim leave a film preview where Culp shoots him and returns to the preview where he has been reading the film narration to a small audience. Actually he had sneakily used a tape recording while he nipped out and murdered his victim.

The very last Columbo episode aired in 2003 entitled ‘Columbo likes the Nightlife’. Peter Falk himself, who played the crumpled detective, died in 2011 after a long battle with dementia. Still, if you like Columbo, check your TV guide for Sunday, there are plenty of episodes to be found there on UK TV.


Steve Higgins is the author of Floating in Space, a novel set in Manchester, 1977. The book is available in Kindle or paperback formats. Click the icon below to go straight to Amazon.

Floating in Space

 

The Essential Englishman

Some time ago I wrote a poem, published on my poetry page at Writeoutloud, called Sounds like Richard Burton.

I wrote it a while ago and I was perhaps feeling somewhat dissatisfied with my accent, one that reflects my own Manchester council estate background. Someone once told me that I sounded like Terry Christian, the Manchester DJ and radio personality. I don’t dislike Terry or his voice but I sometimes feel that I’d like to sound a little more cultured. A little more refined.

So who would I like to sound like? Richard Burton? Well, I have always loved the richness of Burton’s voice, his perfect pronunciation and his rounded baritone vowels.

He was the son of a Welsh miner and his voice represented not only a natural talent for public speaking but many years of hard work and vocal training. Despite the title of my poem and my admiration of Burton’s voice, Richard Burton is not quite what I am looking for. So who has that particular Englishness that I want?

David Niven as Phileas Fogg.

I’ve always admired the character of Phileas Fogg as portrayed by David Niven in that wonderful movie Around the World in 80 days. I like the way he speaks, his easy and relaxed effortless eloquence, his perfect pronunciation and his knowledge of words. His very Britishness, his upper class Englishness is perhaps what I envy.

Fogg is something of an eccentric which surely must be part of the essential Englishman’s make up. His morning toast must be exactly 83 degrees Fahrenheit and his afternoon tea has to be served punctually. At the beginning of the film Fogg arrives at the Reform Club to find someone has read his copy of the Daily Telegraph!

“Kindly remove it and send for a fresh one.” says Fogg.
“At once, sir.” replies the waiter.
“I’m a patient man, Hinshaw, but don’t trespass on my good feelings.”

Robert Donat as Sir Robert Morton.

Another upper class Englishman is Robert Donat’s character in The Winslow Boy, the barrister and Member of Parliament Sir Robert Morton. There is a lovely sequence in the play and the movie where Morton first arrives at the Winslow home. He is received by master Winslow’s elder sister who questions Moreton about his recent cases and lets us know she does not entirely approve of him. Moreton is in a hurry. He is dining and the Winslow family wish to know if he will accept the case.

Morton answers her questions coolly and quietly and them some minutes later, displays all his powers as a barrister by apparently assassinating young Winslow’s claims to innocence.

He exits quickly asking for the relevant papers.

“Will you need those now?” asks someone.

“Of course. The boy is plainly innocent. I accept the brief !” And with that he is gone.

Rex Harrison as Charles Condomine.

Another favourite Englishman is Rex Harrison and I’ve always loved him most in Blithe Spirit, the witty and amusing comedy by Noel Coward. David Lean directed a colour version in 1945 and Rex was just as I’ve described David Niven above, effortlessly urbane and eloquent, as of course was Noel Coward himself.

Leslie Howard as Professor Higgins.

Rex Harrison also portrayed an archetypal Englishman in My Fair Lady, playing the part of professor Higgins in the musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. There was an earlier version, a non musical version made in 1938 starring Leslie Howard. Howard is probably most famous for his portrayal of Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind but his version of Higgins was to me, much superior to Harrison’s although I love both.

In Pygmalion, Wendy Hiller plays Eliza Doolittle. Hiller is much more believable as Eliza, no disrespect to Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, and Howard is a bright, eccentric Higgins. What is interesting from researching the film on the internet is that a controversial (at the time) line was included in the film: Eliza saying ‘Not Bloody Likely!’ This made Wendy Hiller the first person ever to swear in a British film. Dear me, how times change!

George Sanders as Jack Favell.

Sanders was born in Russia to an English father and Russian mother and he and his family left for England in 1917 at the outbreak of the Russian Revolution when George was 11.

He made his British film debut in 1929 and first appeared in a Hollywood film in 1936. After that he was in constant demand with his suave persona and upper class English accent. He is seen at his best as Jack Favell, the ‘favourite cousin’ of the unseen title character Rebecca, in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie.

Albert Finney as Arthur Seaton.

Finally, I must come back to what is really me, the essential northern working class man.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is set in working class Nottingham. Albert Finney stars as Arthur Seaton, a rebellious factory worker who works hard in the factory by day, but at the weekend he spends his money in the pubs and clubs of the town.

He is involved with a married woman but starts to lose interest when he meets a single girl called Doreen and begins a relationship with her.

My favourite line from the book and the movie is this: “I’m not barmy, I’m a fighting pit prop that wants a pint of beer, that’s me. But if any knowing bastard says that’s me I’ll tell them I’m a dynamite dealer waiting to blow the factory to kingdom come. I’m me and nobody else. Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not because they don’t know a bloody thing about me!”

I sometimes wonder if the essential Englishman portrayed by Niven, Donat, Harrison and Howard still exists in the 21st century. I’m sure it does somewhere, in the posh parts of London and the home counties. People who travel first class everywhere and dress for dinner. Members of Prince Charles’ set perhaps?

As for me, I’m not sure I can really aspire to be like David Niven and Phileas Fogg. Still, next time I go down to the Ego restaurant in Lytham I might dress up in my best suit and tie, pop a pocket watch and chain in my waistcoat and just . . pretend.


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More about James Bond 007, and Me.

I spoke briefly about James Bond in a previous blog and thought I might write a little more about the UK’s most famous secret agent.

I started reading the Bond books when I was a schoolboy and unfortunately the very first one I read was the only one they had in our local library: ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’, one of writer Ian Fleming’s worst Bond books. Fleming used to write his initial drafts of the novels and then write a second one, adding in all the details which make the Bond books so interesting. Things like details of Bond’s clothes, (the Sea Island cotton shirts) his food, (Bond always had scrambled eggs for breakfast) his cars, his cigarettes (the special handmade ones with the triple gold band) and all that sort of stuff. ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ was published after Fleming had died and sadly he had not revised his original draft. I persevered though, did some research, found the proper order of the books and began to read ‘Casino Royale’, the first in the series. I have loved the books, and the films ever since.

004I didn’t see the Bond films until 1969 when I saw probably my favourite Bond film ever, ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’, at the cinema. It was everything I had imagined it would be and what I liked about George Lazenby, who played 007 in the film, was that he looked pretty much as I had imagined Bond. He had the authentic ‘comma of black hair’ as Fleming had always described Bond having and not only that, Diana Rigg was probably my favourite Bond girl too.

The Bond films were not then a staple of UK TV but there was always a Bond documentary, usually on TV at Christmas time which built up, as it was supposed to do, the public interest in Bond. It certainly built up mine. There was one documentary I remember which showed the viewer how Ian Fleming suffered with back pain and was sent to recuperate at a rest home where they put him on a back stretching machine which he later incorporated into ‘Thunderball’. Aha, I thought, this is how writers think!

Sean Connery was the first movie Bond and he did a great job in setting out the 007 ‘stall.’ The Bond movies are as much about Bond’s colleagues as they are about Bond and in the original films we had some great supporting actors, Miss Moneypenny, played by Lois Maxwell, ‘M’ played by Bernard Lee, and the long serving ‘Q’, played by Desmond Llewellyn. CIA man Felix Leiter was always played by a different actor in each of the movies, which never ceases to surprise me. A good Leiter would have been a pretty good idea for US cinema goers, surely.

George Lazenby was selected to play Bond when Connery tired of the role. However, he was new to the industry and advisers told him that the Bond movies were on the way out. Friction occurred with his movie bosses when he grew his hair long and sported a beard and eventually Lazenby was sacked. Connery returned to the Bond role in ‘Diamonds are Forever’. With Lazenby that would have been such a good movie but Connery played a tired and lacklustre Bond and after the serious and fast moving ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’, ‘Diamonds’ perhaps appears a little tame. Worse was to follow however when Roger Moore was selected to play Bond. Moore plays Bond as a sort of smooth talking fashion icon and some dreadful Bond films were produced in the 1980s.

Timothy Dalton took over for two movies, ‘The Living Daylights’ and ‘License To Kill,’ and after that the film franchise was in limbo until it re started with ‘Goldeneye,’ which after OHMSS is my favourite Bond movie. Brosnan doesn’t overdo the comedy unlike Connery and Moore. He seems like a pretty tough customer yet looks good in a finely tailored suit and, like Sean Connery, he has a wonderful troupe of supporting actors to help him. Judi Dench plays a female ‘M,’ Samantha Bond plays the faithful Miss Moneypenny, and Desmond Lewellyn once again plays ‘Q.’

I was sorry to see Peirce Brosnan go because I can’t really say I’m keen on the latest Bond films although I have seen them all at the cinema except for the latest offering. The aim of the producers was to re-introduce Bond to 21st century moviegoers and to show Bond as the hard man he must really be. My feeling is that they have succeeded too well and the films have a hard edge that I don’t really care for. Let’s have another villain like Goldfinger or Doctor No. Not trying to take over the world perhaps but with a really clever criminal scheme for Bond to sort out. And give me some good espionage gadgets, please! Yes, I’m sorry to say that Daniel Craig isn’t my idea of James Bond. Fleming himself reckoned that Hoagy Carmichael was how he imagined Bond and he wanted David Niven to play the part, which he did although it was in the spoof version of Casino Royale back in 1967. And it’s my considered opinon that Bond was based on one man, yes, none other than Commander Ian Fleming of Naval Intelligence in World war II.

Anyway, it was nice to see that in ‘Skyfall’, a good set of supporting actors was established and instead of one actor departing and being replaced, the introduction of the new ‘M’ was handled well and an interesting element was the story giving some background to the Moneypenny character.

Spectre is the latest Bond movie. It was released in 2016 and although I always try to see the new Bond at the cinema, I somehow managed to miss this one. I have not seen it until now as I recently managed to pick up a cheap second hand DVD version for a few pounds. It’s a very well made glossy movie although it is a little lacking in the story department. Yes, the fights scenes are great, as are the car chases although in recent years the Bond films have stepped away from reality slightly. In one scene Bond and a young lady are having dinner on a train. A Spectre assassin comes to assault Bond and a frantic fight scene ensues in which a great deal of the dining car is destroyed. Bond eventually gets the upper hand but the next morning, Bond and his companion are dropped off at the station as if nothing has happened.

One good thing was the return of Ernst Stavro Bolfeld who comes complete with a backstory linking him to Bond’s earlier life. I suspect somehow that Blofeld will return in another Bond but will Daniel Craig?

One annoying thing about Spectre was I felt that the scriptwriters had somehow confused Bond with the character Jack Bauer from the TV show 24. As you will know, if you’ve ever watched the TV show, Bauer is a sort of maverick agent who disregards any instruction or advice from his superiors, even the President, his commander in chief. He always goes off at a tangent and is a complete loose cannon. That is exactly how Bond starts out at the beginning of this film, he is at odds with ‘M’ the head of the secret service but, just like Jack Bauer, he disappears going completely his own way and later he gets colleagues within the service, like Miss Moneypenny and Q, to follow him just as Chloe O’Brian was an insider for Jack.

Hello, Bond scriptwriter! Just remember who you are writing about, it’s Bond, former English naval officer turned secret agent and not Jack Bauer!

Final result: Enjoyable, good in parts but the next Bond would benefit from a more tangible back story.

 


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