TV, Books and the Lockdown Blues

You might think that the lockdown is heaven sent for a writer. Stay at home and write stuff, perfect! After a few weeks though I have found not only have I not written much at all. Actually, I’ve been feeling a little bit bored, just like a great deal of the population I suppose.

Television

One thing I have done is watch a great deal of TV although a lot of it has been disappointing. Back in the late 1960s one of my favourite TV shows was The Time Tunnel. It was an American sci-fi show produced by Irwin Allen who made The Towering Inferno and the Poseidon Adventure among other things and a few weeks back I was delighted to find that it was being re-shown on the Horror channel.

In The Time Tunnel two American scientists are ‘lost in the swirling maze of past and future ages, during the first experiments on America’s greatest and most secret project, the Time Tunnel. Tony Newman and Doug Phillips now tumble helplessly toward a new fantastic adventure, somewhere along the infinite corridors of time’ as the opening blurb used to go.

The Time Tunnel starts off with a Congressman coming to investigate the growing budget of the Time Tunnel Complex and threatens to close things down unless he sees results. Scientist Tony Newman decides he must therefore travel back in time to prove that the tunnel really works and save the project. Tony ends up on the ill-fated liner Titanic. His colleague Doug follows him back to 1912 and the control room struggle to shift the two in time before the ship sinks.

One episode that I particularly remember was when the pair land in Pearl Harbour, just before the Japanese attack in 1941. Tony meets himself as a young boy and finally solves the mystery of the disappearance of his father in the attack. That was one of the better ones.

Unable to return the duo to the present, the technicians back at Time Tunnel HQ struggle every week to shift the duo to somewhere new just in the nick of time. They never seem to manage to get the pair home as there is never enough power for this process despite a huge powerhouse courtesy of the special effects department which we see a glimpse of almost every week. The other thing is that if they did get back home, there’d be no show next week.

I did love this show as a 12 year old sci-fi fan but here in 2020 I seemed to be fast forwarding through all the boring bits, of which there were plenty. Some things don’t seem to stand the test of time and the big problem with the Time Tunnel is that the stories mostly weren’t good enough and many episodes seem to revolve around what appears to be stock footage that was filmed for some other project. I’m really cheesed off that I missed the Pearl Harbour episode though.

Coronation Street, like all the TV soaps is suffering because the lockdown has prevented further filming of the series. Instead of going out six times per week, we are now only getting three episodes to satisfy us and even those are looking like they are missing something. It looks to me like the current main storyline involving controlling husband Geoff and wife Yasmin has been the focus of the last filming sessions while some other content involving the minor storylines is missing. Last Wednesday’s episode seemed to have a slightly odd narrative flow, returning to the same scene when perhaps we should have cut to something else, the cafe or the Rover’s Return pub. Still, the editors can only work with the footage they have and sooner or later there will be nothing and our favourite soaps will be on hold until staff can return safely to work. I noticed also that TV quizzes like Tipping Point and Countdown are now just re runs of older episodes.

Spotify

One other thing has made my life slightly more interesting during these slightly surreal times and that is Spotify. You might not have even heard of it but it’s a music app I’ve downloaded to my iPad. I thought originally that it was a way of downloading music. I’m not a great downloader but the previous place where I used to download music was the HMV digital site, 7Digital. It had, I first thought, gone to the heavenly resting place of defunct web sites but when I finally got connected once again after many years I found it not very interesting and so in my search for internet music I came across Spotify. Now with Spotify, you cannot actually download music, well actually you probably can if you pay for Spotify premium but as the cheapskate that you know I am, I’m happy just to listen to music. On Spotify you can set up favourites and playlists and here’s the really extraordinary thing, after a few days use Spotify starts to suggest things you might like, new music that is similar to music you have already played. Now, after only using it for a couple of weeks, I have built up some pretty substantial music playlists.

Books

After finishing my last book, Michael Palin’s diaries, I looked around for something new to read and picked up three books. Bruce Forsyth’s autobiography, Khrushchev’s memoirs and a book of three Noel Coward plays. I’ve read the Noel Coward book before but the writer’s wit and humour never cease to amuse me. Blythe Spirit is one of Coward’s best known plays and was also made into an excellent film starring Rex Harrison. Having read that book before I tend to just flip through it and re read some of the best bits although in the end, I went through the entire book.

When Khrushchev’s memoirs become a little too serious and I fancy a change, something a little bit lighter, I turn to either Noel Coward or Bruce Forsyth. I picked up Bruce’s book at a church sale and although I didn’t expect much, it has been pretty interesting. Bruce was probably one of the last old time entertainers. He talks about the days of variety in the 1950’s and 60’s and about being in various shows and playing in theatres like the London Palladium and how he managed to break in to TV with Sunday Night at the Palladium which he compered for many years.

At one time he was travelling the country living in a caravan and performing in numerous shows. The latter part of the book is just an excuse to mention all his show biz chums and drop a lot of names but all in all, it was a good read. Bruce doesn’t tell us much about himself though, except in a chapter about his relationship with the UK press, where he proceeds to give the press a good telling off. Still, Bruce was a proper celebrity unlike some celebs these days who seem to make a career from being on TV reality shows.

The Khrushchev book is interesting but suffers like many books written in a foreign language by not reading quite as well as it should when translated into English. 20,000 Leagues under the Sea was another foreign language book I read a while ago but that was a new translation and actually read pretty well.

One brilliant foreign language book that comes to mind is Papillon by Henri Charrière. This, unlike the two books mentioned above is an amazing read, an absolutely wonderful book and one of my all time favourites. It was made into a film with Steve McQueen which comes out pretty poor when compared to the book. Still, the book is a pretty thick volume and there is probably enough material in there for a TV series, never mind a film.

One part of the book which is pretty relevant to the lockdown is when Papillon is sent to solitary confinement. In case you don’t know anything about Papillon at all, he was a Frenchman convicted of murder and sent to a penal colony in French Guiana and after numerous escape attempts and many adventures, he finds freedom in Venezuela.

When Charrière is sent to solitary confinement he wonders how he will fill a chapter about a time when nothing at all happens to him, locked away for 24 hours a day with a rule of silence. Every day he is made to stick his head out of a small door in his cell so the warders can check to see if he is still alive. If he is, he is given food which has little nutrient. Luckily, Papillon’s friends have bribed the warders to give him some extra food including some fruit, or I think it might have been a coconut, which helped to sustain him. After many months someone new takes over the solitary block and he lets the prisoners out every day to socialise. This easing of the strict regime helps Papillon and his fellow inmates no end. I can imagine feeling similar when the lockdown is eased.

Blogs

Just looking back at some of my old blogs for inspiration, I came across The Big 300, my 300th blog post and was surprised to find that this very post you are currently reading is my big 405! Still, I did start blogging way back in 2016 just as a way of promoting Floating in Space, my novel set in Manchester, 1977. You might possibly be thinking that this has been an excellent time to pen a sequel. If so, how wrong you are!


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Favourite Film Directors Part 3- Stanley Kubrick

This is number three in my Favourite Director series. Stanley Kubrick is one of the cinema’s great visual artists and a particularly memorable cinema moment for me was watching Kubrick’s classic sci-fi film 2001 on a hot weekday afternoon during the school summer holidays of 1968.

I was only 11 when I first saw 2001 and I remember my Mum being surprised that I had spent hours at the cinema on a lovely hot day. I watched the film in the huge movie theatre in Northenden, a suburb of Manchester, 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.”

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 standard 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.

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. All the technology that Kubrick displayed 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 Jupiter. (In the book the destination is Saturn, it was changed for the film 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.

The film came about because Kubrick wanted to make the definitive science fiction film and he wrote to Aurthur C Clarke, one of the foremost sci-fi writers of the time and asked him to collaborate on the screenplay. Stanley liked Clarke’s short story ‘the Sentinel’ and the two worked together to formulate the final script. Other works of Clarke’s were added to the timeline and while the two wrote the script together, the novel version was written by Clarke simulateously as he worked on the screenplay. The two, book and screenplay do differ slightly.

Huge amunts of research was done to find the best way to show space travel on the screen and for it to be scientifically accurate. One interesting feature was a huge centrifuge built on the set at Shepperton Studios in the UK which represented how the spacecraft duplicated artificial gravity by rotating. The huge set cost around one million dollars in total. The centrifuge enabled Kubrick to shoot the actors from various positions including a 360 complete arc of the set as the astronauts did their daily fitness jog.

Kubrick was born on the 26th July in 1928. He lived with his family in the Bronx, New York and after leaving high school became a photgrapher for Look magazine. During his time there he became interested in motion pictures and in 1950 he decided to make a short film about boxer Walter Cartier based on a series of photos he had taken for the magazine. In 1951 he resigned from Look to concentrate on making films. His first theatrical feature was Fear and Desire which he produced, directed, photographed and edited. That film was largely financed by his uncle.

An incredible leap in film making for Stanley came in 1956 when he was asked to direct Paths of Glory by the producer and star, Kirk Douglas, based on a true story of the French army in the first World War. The film showed the trenches in a different light to many films that came before and in particular, Kubrick’s tracking shots through the trenches were a revelation. Paths of Glory is a powerful film and well worth watching if you ever get the chance to see it.

Kirk Douglas later asked Stanley to take over the director’s chair on Spartacus, after he sacked original director Anthony Mann. Spartacus is perhaps the only film on which Stanley did not have full editorial control.

Stanley Kubrick acquired the film rights to Vladimir Nobokov’s controversial novel Lolita and decided to film in England. He moved his entire family to the UK where they would set up home. Kubrick first worked with Peter Sellers on Lolita and was so impressed with him, he asked him to play multiple roles in his next film Dr Strangelove. Dr Strangelove was a cold war film about a US bomber crew that decides to drop the atom bomb on Russia. Sellers played various roles, the US President, A British air force officer, and Dr Strangelove, an ex-nazi scientist. He was also supposed to play a US air force pilot but dropped out of that role which went to American actor Slim Pickens.

It almost seems as if every picture Stanley Kubrick made was something new in cinema, something that broke new ground. In Barry Lyndon Kubrick had to create new filming techniques because he decided to film in completely, or almost completely, natural light. Barry Lyndon was the film version of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon, about an 18th century rogue and adventurer. The film was shot on location in England and Ireland and many of the shots were set up to resemble various 18th century paintings. New techniques and lenses were introduced to allow the director to shoot in candle light although diffused artificial light was used as well.

Kubrick ventured into the horror genre with The Shining based on the book by Stephen King. A writer played by Jack Nicholson decides to take a job looking after the Overlook Hotel during the winter season when the hotel is closed and snowbound. During the stay the character descends into madness amidst various supernatural events and his wife and son played by Shelley Duval and child actor Danny Lloyd struggle to stay alive when Jack turns into a homicidal maniac.

Apart from second unit location shots, the film was shot entirely in England at Elstree Studios and featured extensive filming with the Steadicam, a new device which allowed for smooth hand held filming. Kubrick was apparently super keen on getting the exact shot he wanted which resulted in multiple re-takes. Today the film is considered to be a horror classic although Stephen King apparently hated the film.

Stanley Kubrick’s final film was Eyes Wide Shut starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Sadly, Kubrick died of a heart attack on the 7th March 1999 only days after screening the almost completed film to producers Warner Brothers.

Kubrick made other films which I have not mentioned here. One particularly controversial film was A Clockwork Orange which sparked great debate about violence, not only violence itself but how it had been handled by the cinema. Utimaltely, Kubrick withdrew Clockwork Orange from British cinemas and it was not available in the UK until after Kubrick’s death.

Stanley Kubrick was one of the most talented and influential directors in the history of the cinema and he leaves behind an amazing portfolio of motion pictures.

A lot of the information here was from the splendid book Stanley Kubrick: A life in Pictures by his widow, Christianne Kubrick, well worth reading if you ever see a copy.


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Films, Allegories and McCarthyism

In the 1950’s, Senator Eugene McCarthy, aided and abetted by the head of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover, began to accuse hundreds of Americans of being either communists or communist sympathisers. Hoover had designed President Truman’s loyalty and security program and his agents carried out background checks on federal employees. This information was supposed to be secret but in 1950 when the Korean War began, Senator McCarthy produced a list of supposed communist party members or supporters working for the state department and presented it to the press. Much of his information came from Hoover.

The House Committee on Un-American activities was probably the best known and most active government committee involved in anti-communist investigations and probably became most well known for its investigation into the Hollywood film industry. In 1947 the committee began to subpoena various film industry workers and force them to testify about their support for the communist party. They were asked ‘Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?’

The first witnesses brought before the committee refused to answer and became known as the Hollywood 10. They all cited the constitution’s first amendment which they believed guaranteed free speech and free assembly and therefore freed them from the requirement to answer the committee’s questions. They were wrong. The communists of the USSR may have been allies in the defeat of Hitler but now that Nazi Germany lay in ruins, the red menace was the new enemy and America was scared.

The committee questioned numerous people, actors, directors, screenwriters and many others and more than 300 individuals were blacklisted by the industry. Some like Charlie Chaplin, left the country. Some screenwriters wrote under pseudonyms to find work. Larry Parks, the star of The Jolson Story, testified in tears. He was blacklisted and left the movie business after his contract with Columbia Pictures was cancelled.

Two prominent ‘friendly’ witnesses were director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg.

On the Waterfront

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 HUAC. 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 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 commision. 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.

The film was thought to be Kazan’s response to criticism of his stand at the HUAC hearings although Schulberg later denied this, explaining how he attended actual waterfront hearings and based his film on those. Arthur Miller in his play A View from the Bridge has his character inform on two illegal immigrants but it is portrayed as a betrayal rather than the honest informing of Waterfront.

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

Spartacus

Spartacus was based on a book by Howard Fast who was jailed for his refusal to testify at the HUAC hearings. According to Wikipedia, he wrote the book while in prison. Kirk Douglas was disappointed at not getting the lead role in Ben Hur and looking round for a similar project came across Fast’s book. He purchased an option on the book with his own money. Later, financing was arranged with Universal Studios.

Dalton Trumbo wrote the script although he had been blacklisted but managed to continue working by using an alias. He had earlier been jailed for contempt of congress as he was a member of the Hollywood 10.  Kirk Douglas decided that Trumbo should be given a screen credit in his own name and this action helped to end the blacklist.

Anthony Mann was the original director but Douglas fired him after 2 weeks claiming he was scared of the scope of the picture. Douglas then hired Stanley Kubrick to direct, Kubrick having worked with Douglas previously on Paths of Glory.

The film has been said to have links not only to the McCarthy era but also to the American civil rights movement. Slavery is a central theme to the film and the fight to end segregation in America is reflected in the mixing of various races in the Gladiator school. The climatic scene where the rebels are asked to give up Spartacus and instead call out ‘I am Spartacus’, alludes to the HUAC hearings where witnesses were asked to name names.

Spartacus is a wonderful film and was restored twice, once in 1991 and again in 2015 where a version 12 minutes longer was produced as well as having a remastered soundtrack.

Kirk Douglas is excellent in the lead role and a trio of characters played by Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov and Charles Laughton work together so faultlessly they help elevate the film to an outstanding degree. Poor John Dall, who plays Glabrus is hopelessly outclassed by the British actors.

High Noon

High Noon is not a movie that I would have thought would be in any way related to McCarthyism or the HUAC hearings. However, the film was directed by Fred Zinneman from a screenplay by Carl Foreman. Foreman was called to testify before the HUAC . He admitted once being a communist party member but declined to name any fellow members and was therefore classed as an uncooperative witness. Realising he would be blacklisted, he later sold his partnership in the film project and moved to the UK.

John Wayne declined the lead role as he thought the film an obvious allegory of blacklisting, of which he was a fervent supporter. Gregory Peck amongst others turned down the role and it eventually went to Gary Cooper. Grace Kelly played Cooper’s new wife despite the age difference; she was 21 and Cooper 50.

Marshall Will Kane (Cooper) marries devout Quaker Amy Fowler (Kelly) however the Marshall gets word that Frank Miller, a vicious gunman who Kane had sent to prison years before has been released and is due to arrive on the noon train. At first Kane decides to leave town but then realises he will be caught out in the open with the gunmen coming after him. Not only that, the gunmen are making him run and ‘I’ve never run from anybody before’ he tells Amy.

Will returns to town but his new wife, whose extreme religious beliefs include an vehement opposition to violence, will have nothing more to do with him. As the minutes tick relentlessly down to noon he tries to get a group of deputies together, but for one reason or another they all fail him and he has to face Miller and his gang alone.

At the end of the film, reconciled with Amy, Cooper looks around disgusted by the townspeople who have shunned him and throws his Marshall’s badge to the ground.

The tension mounts up relentlessly in the film and builds to a wonderful climax. Another great aspect of the film was the music and the distinctive theme song, actually called ‘High Noon’ although mostly known as ‘Do not forsake me oh my darlin’’. It became a hit for Tex Ritter.

My brother and I watched this film a few months ago and afterwards he told me a story that our dad had told him years ago. Dad saw the film when he was in the army. Dad served in various places but wherever they were on this occasion, the film was projected in a big tent. Afterwards when the men dispersed after the showing, the theme tune had made such a big impression that they were all whistling or humming ‘Do not forsake me oh my darlin”.


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 for more information.

 

Things to do During a Pandemic (Part 2)

Some people are born to do certain things. Winston Churchill was a born leader, and Clark Gable was born to play Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. As for me, I was born to watch TV. My old dad used to call me ‘square eyes’ because I was glued to the television, or so it seemed to him.

During this unprecedented time -I had to use that phrase because I keep hearing it so much on TV- there is not much to do in one’s own home. Those lovely few warm days have slipped away leaving us in the northern UK a little chilly. The sun is hidden behind grey clouds and it is cold so no barbecues, no more reading out on the lawn.

I’ve have done a little reading and writing and put together a few revised videos for my various internet pages, but mostly I’ve been sipping red wine and watching TV. Some of it has been good, some of it not so good. Anyway, here’s a quick look at what I’ve been watching on TV this week . . .

Young Winston.

I’m not a great fan of director Richard Attenborough but to my mind he has made two really good films: Chaplin and Young Winston. I remember seeing Young Winston at the cinema back in the seventies. Simon Ward plays the part of young Winston Churchill and he plays a good part. He even comes across with a fair approximation of Churchill’s voice, both in his portrayal and also in the many voice overs. The book is based on Winston’s own book My Early Life. I read it many years ago and it was a wonderful read as I remember and this film is a particularly good version of it.

The film tells the story of young Winston Churchill, the son of Lord Randolph, who adores his father who sadly dies young, spoiling Winston’s dreams of working with him in Parliament. The film flips backwards and forwards in time showing Winston’s first day at school and then his exploits in the army. Winston failed to get elected as the Tory candidate for Oldham but later, after making a name for himself as an army officer, correspondent and author, he returns victorious after escaping from a Boer POW camp and finally enters Parliament.

Various familiar names play their parts beautifully including Anne Bancroft as Winston’s American mother, Robert Shaw as Lord Randolph Churchill and many others in smaller roles; Robert Hardy as a prep’ school headmaster and Jack Hawkins as the headmaster of Harrow.

Randolph died at the early age of 45 apparently from syphilis although others have suggested his illness may have been a brain tumour.

This was a wonderful film, beautifully photographed and put together from a script by producer Carl Foreman. What is rather sad is that when I first saw this film there was a scene at the end where the older Churchill falls asleep and dreams of meeting his father who appears free from illness. The scene was based on a short story Churchill wrote in 1947 but for some reason that scene has been dropped from TV and DVD versions of the film which is a great shame.

Bridget Jones’ Baby.

Another film I’ve seen during the lockdown was Bridget Jones’ Baby. The film was based on the book by Helen Fielding and I have to say, I was surprised to hear the TV announcer warning me of some ‘highly offensive language’ used in the film. Bridget Jones? Offensive? Really? Yes really! Even a scene with a child swearing. OK I do swear myself now and again but some of the language in this film was actually just as the announcer suggested and was highly offensive. The other thing was that most of the actors looked really old, really haggard. Now this may have been that we were watching on our new smart TV and the picture quality is just so good these days that it can appear daunting. Sometimes, when Liz and I are at our local pub quiz, Liz will ask why am I watching the TV when its tuned to Sky Sports news? Well, a lot of the time I am just amazed that I can see some football pundit’s pores or some hair that has escaped his razor. Still, the original film in the Bridget Jones series was made in 2001 while Baby was from 2016 some fifteen years later.

Film tends to freeze an actor in time and when you see them on TV talk shows plugging their new film it can be surprising to see just how old an actor has become. A while back I was watching Tom Hanks on Graham Norton and he had grey hair! Tom Hanks? Of course, not long prior to that, I had watched Apollo 13 which was made in 1995, 25 years ago!

Bridget Jones’ Baby finally settled down but I wasn’t totally impressed.

Storyville.

BBC Four have been showing a documentary about OJ Simpson recently. I missed the first few episodes but thank heaven for catch-up TV. The documentary is in 5 parts and won an Oscar for best documentary. Episode one details Simpson’s incredible sporting career and also showed how it was important for him to be seen just as OJ rather than OJ the black athlete. He was apparently a friendly and amiable man who made many friends in the sporting world and kept himself well away from controversy and was never involved in the civil rights movement in America unlike sporting celebrities like Mohammed Ali. Later episodes show how he made a life after sport by becoming a TV sports pundit and by courting wealthy friends in Los Angeles to advise on his investments. In particular he made TV advertisements for Hertz car rentals which were highly popular and did well not only for Hertz but raised Simpson’s profile in the USA even higher.

The series also looks at the climate of race relations in Los Angeles and the activities and methods of the LAPD who clearly were not engaging or even trying to engage with the black community. A ‘them and us’ situation evolved in LA and when Rodney King, a black driver was brutally beaten by a group of white police officers the situation become even more inflamed. The officers were taken to court but found innocent by a white jury causing riots and disturbances in the area.  This was the background of the the later OJ Simpson murder trial.

Simpson divorced his wife and married eighteen year old Nicole Brown, a blonde LA waitress. Their marriage lasted seven years and was not happy, especially in the latter years when Nicole was beaten and abused by Simpson. She called the police numerous times reporting OJ for assault. On June 13th, 1994, Nicole and a waiter named Ron Goldman were found dead. A trail of blood led away from the scene and later blood was found on Simpson’s white Ford Bronco.

Simpson was not as famous in the UK as in America but I do remember seeing the crazy car chase on TV with Simpson in his white Bronco followed by a fleet of Police cars. I have to say that this series has completely gripped me so far and the portrait of Simpson himself and the racial climate in Los Angeles and the attitude of the police is compelling. If you are interested you can still find the episodes on the BBC I-player, at least you could when I wrote this a few days ago. When I tuned in to watch the final episode it was not available! 

Rocketman.

As we are cooped up at home for the duration, why not watch a good film on pay per view? It just so happens that Liz renewed her Sky sunscription recently so we were entitled to a free film. OK, settle back, pop corn at the ready, red wine poured, here we go.

Rocketman was an enjoyable film, well mostly. In parts it was a cross between a music video and a Hollywood musical featuring, of course, Elton John’s music. The first part of the film was very good while the second part seemed to just go on a little too much about Elton’s addiction to alcohol and drugs. Elton’s songs were all presented in an interesting way, some pretty much as we have heard Elton perform them in the past, others in a sort of musical fantasy production number way. I enjoyed all of them.

Elton’s relationship with lyricist Bernie Taupin was shown to be much closer than I realised; Elton, in the film, thinking of Bernie as the brother he never had. Elton’s father doesn’t come over as such a nice character and one sad moment was when Elton was reunited with him and found him to be much closer to his new sons in his new marriage than he ever was with him. Come to think of it, his mother doesn’t come out of the film as being a great mum either whereas before I always thought Elton and his mother were close.  The family member who always believed in him according to this film was his gran. Anyway, even if you don’t like the film itself the rest of the time it’s pretty much like listening to Elton’s Greatest hits, so if Elton’s music does it for you then you should like it.


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The Almost But Didn’t Quite Make it Stars

This is a post about actors who came close to the role of a lifetime but for whatever reason, they didn’t quite get there. The film and TV business can be a fickle one as you can see . . .

The Avengers and Elizabeth Sheperd.

The Avengers began as a TV show in 1961 starring Ian Hendry as a doctor who sets out to investigate the death of his fiancée. He is helped by a mysterious stranger called John Steed played by Patrick MacNee and together they set out to solve the crime. As the series progressed the character of Steed became more important and when Hendry left the show to pursue his film career Steed became the main character.

His new assistant was Cathy Gale played by Honor Blackman; she played a female character unlike anything seen before on British TV. She was a judo expert with a passion for leather clothes. Her many athletic judo driven fight scenes made her a huge star in the UK and Steed progressed into a typical English gentleman wearing Pierre Cardin suits with a bowler hat and umbrella.

Elizabeth Sheperd as Mrs Peel.

In 1965 the series moved over from video tape onto 35mm film and with an increased budget the producers decided to try the series in the US market for which videotape was wholly unsuitable, in fact, as was the custom at the time, many TV programmes shot on video were ‘wiped’ and the tapes re-used.

Honor Blackman left to star in the Bond film Goldfinger and so the search was on for a new female assistant for Steed. After over 40 auditions, the producers chose their new ‘Emma Peel’, it was actress Elizabeth Sheperd. Shepard shot the pilot film episode and part of the next one, but the producers decided to drop her feeling she was not right for the role. With a two-million-dollar deal with the US network ABC hanging in the balance, the producers began searching for a new Emma Peel and chose unknown actress Diana Rigg.

Diana Rigg was perfect for the new crime fighter/agent Mrs Peel and wowed TV audiences with her intelligence, her judo and karate skills, her avant-garde fashion sense and her witty banter with Steed.

Diana Rigg became famous as Mrs Peel and played the part until 1967 when she left the series to become a Bond girl in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’.

Elizabeth Sheperd appeared on Broadway in 1970 and made many appearances in TV and film but never quite achieved the fame she might have done had she made a success in the Avengers.

Voyager and Captain Janeway.

Star Trek Voyager was the fifth series in the star Trek franchise, following on from the original series, the cartoon series, Star Trek the Next Generation and Star Trek Deep Space 9. The producers decided on a female captain, Captain Janeway and French-Canadian actress Genevieve Bujold was chosen to play the part.

“I am very excited about starring in the new series” Bujold told the National Enquirer in 1994.

“But I must admit that I’ve never been a Trekkie. In fact, although I had heard of Star Trek, I had never seen any of the shows of films before now.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a science fiction movie at all. But because of that I believe I’ll be able to bring a freshness to this role. I’m studying Star Trek episodes the producers sent me, so I can see how William Shatner and Patrick Stewart handled the role of captain, I want to do it right.”

“This role is a challenge, but it feels right. I am going where no woman has gone before.”

“I am 52 — a perfect age for the captain.” she declared

“52 can bring the authority with it, yet you’re still young enough to do everything that has to be done — and old enough to be wise.”

Genevieve started work on the pilot episode of Voyager, the Caretaker, then quit after a day and a half of filming. It seems that the actress was not up to the rigours of the day to day filming of a major TV series and producer Rick Berman said in 1994 that “it was immediately obvious that she was not a good fit!”

Kate Mulgrew had auditioned twice for the role, once in person and once by sending the producers a video tape. It was she the producers turned to when Bujold exited the production.

Kate played Captain Janeway throughout the run of Voyager from 1995 to 2001 and remains a firm favourite of Star Trek fans everywhere.

Indiana Jones and Tom Selleck.

The first film in the Indiana Jones series was Raiders of the Lost Ark, released in 1981. The idea for the film came from executive producer George Lucas who wanted to recreate the film serials of the 1930’s. Lucas’ friend Steven Spielberg was enlisted as director and the film was finally set for production after a deal with Universal Studios was arranged.

Spielberg wanted Harrison Ford to play Indiana Jones, but Lucas resisted the idea and wanting an unknown actor to play the role; the two auditioned many actors. Finally, they chose Tom Selleck to play the part. Selleck however had just made the pilot for the TV series Magnum PI and Universal Studios decided to pick up Selleck’s option and go ahead with the series. As filming conflicted with the shooting for Raiders, Universal declined to release Selleck for the project. George Lucas decided to give the role to Ford only 3 weeks before shooting commenced and the rest is history.

Later filming of Magnum was delayed due to strike action, so it turned out Tom could have played the part after all. The Indiana Jones role could have changed his life but even so, Selleck has had a good career in films and TV, his most famous role probably being in the movie Three men and a Baby.

Back to the Future and Eric Stoltz.

Back to the Future is a 1985 sci-fi film written and directed by Robert Zemeckis. Zemeckis co-wrote the film with Bob Gale but various film companies rejected the film until Steven Spielberg decided to produce through his Amblin Entertainment company. Zemeckis’ first choice to play Marty McFly, the time travelling youngster was Michael J Fox, but Fox was committed to a TV show called Family Ties and the show’s producers declined to release Fox. That led to Eric Stoltz being cast as Marty.

Principal photography began in November 1984 but after a few weeks Spielberg and Zemeckis decided that Eric Stoltz was not good enough in the part. They wanted someone who was less dramatic and could give a lighter touch to the part. Also, Stoltz was not good in the skateboarding scenes whereas Fox was a natural and confessed to spending much of his younger days ‘chasing girls and skateboarding.’

Spielberg went back to the producers of Family Ties and worked out a deal where Fox could star in both the film and the TV show but if a filming conflict occurred priority would be given to the TV show.  Filming continued apparently for a few weeks on the scenes at the Twin Pines Mall but only the shots with Christopher Lloyd who played Doc Brown were shot; the reverse shots with Stoltz were not done which caused some consternation with the crew. Later Stoltz’s scenes were done again with Michael J Fox.

Back to the Future and its two sequels were a worldwide hit. Eric Stoltz may have lost out on the part of Marty McFly but to date he is still in demand as an actor on film and TV.

Back to the Future and Crispin Glover.

Crispin Glover’s story is slightly different from those above. He did get the role of a lifetime and played a great part as Marty McFly’s dad, George but he was dropped from the Back to the Future sequels. He is dropped in quite a subtle way, so you don’t quite miss him although George McFly is never seen in centre stage again. Apparently, Glover asked for more money for Back to the Future II and the producers declined to cough up even though Glover was the lowest paid of the principal actors. Glover himself has said that he didn’t return because he felt that the story rewarded the characters with financial gain which was wrong. Either way, he didn’t appear in the sequels and another actor was made up to look like Glover and shot in ways where his features weren’t fully visible, in long shots and wearing sunglasses for instance. Glover sued the producers for using his image without his permission as well as unused footage from the original film and won a substantial settlement. Even so, had he appeared in the sequels he would have been much more well known today than he is.


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

Mars, Martians and Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Many years ago, and I’m talking over thirty odd years (funny how certain things stick in your mind) I remember coming home after an early shift, making a brew and slumping down on the couch for a bit of a doze. I was idly flipping through the channels and came across Robinson Crusoe on Mars. I didn’t pay much attention at first but gradually I realised this was a pretty good film. Just recently that film came back to me for some reason and I started searching for it on eBay. Then one day, quite recently, I noticed it was showing on Film 4.

I settled down to watch expecting a black and white 1950s film but actually Crusoe was in colour having been made in 1964 and filmed in Technicolor. Paul Mantee plays astronaut Kit Draper who is forced to eject over Mars and drop down to the inhospitable red planet. Fellow astronaut Adam West, star of the 1960s TV show Batman, also ejects but is killed on impact. Kit Draper faces the gruesome prospect of suffocating when his air supply runs out. He finds a cave and starts a fire and is excited to find that the Martian rocks release oxygen when they are heated. Making a rudimentary pump, he is able to top up his air cylinders.

Every day, the stricken main body of the spacecraft hurtles overhead ignoring all Draper’s remote signals to land. Later, in frustration, he presses the destruct button and blows the ship up.

He has a recording unit into which he keeps us, the audience, updated with his thoughts and feelings which of course is pretty handy in a film that is mostly following the actions of one single man. Later on Crusoe finds his Friday, an alien on the run from other aliens whose spacecraft dart through the skies above Mars looking for him.

I won’t tell you how the film ends just in case it comes up on your TV set anytime soon but Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a film well worth watching if you like sci-fi. It’s well made and interesting and even looks at the psychological side of being marooned when Kit starts dreaming about meeting his dead partner. The effects are pretty reasonable too and unlike many films of the period, they show space craft whooshing across the screen just like in Star Wars, not released until 13 years later.

The Martian

Just recently I was mooning about the house suffering from a really upsetting tummy bug so what else was there to do except slump in front of the TV? As I slipped through the channels I came across this movie, The Martian, a 2015 film directed by the renowned Ridley Scott, director of Alien and Gladiator, and starring Matt Damon.

Martian is surprisingly similar to Crusoe in many ways. The crew of a Mars mission is on the surface when a major  dust storm threatens to topple over their space vehicle. The crew decide to abort the mission and take off but one crew member is hit by debris and presumed dead and they leave him behind. Later, Mark Draper played by Damon awakes from unconciousness in the desert and makes his way back to the martian base camp. The bio-data telemetry from his space suit had been damaged and so made mission control assume that he was dead. Now the martian base camp is pretty basic and although it has computer stations and food and water and so on, there is no communication to earth. The next mission is not due for four years so Matt Damon’s character must find a way to survive until then on the camp’s meager supplies.

Draper decides to make part of the camp into an area where he can plant some potatoes and hopefully produce more food.

Just like in Crusoe, Mark Draper keeps us interested in what is happening by recording his thoughts in a video diary. Not only that but back on earth, observatories notice the activity taking place on Mars and realise Draper is still alive.

Still unable to communicate with earth the marooned astronaut decides to dig up an old space probe, drag it back to base, plug it into a power cable and use it for commumication. I won’t ruin everything for you by telling you everything but again, if you like sci-fi and perhaps even if you don’t, this is such a well made  and enjoyable film and well worth watching.

Mars.

Just to finish off this post I thought I’d give you a little info about Mars itself. It is also known as the Red Planet and is the fourth planet from the sun in our solar system. Mars has a thin atmosphere and a surface with valleys, deserts and even polar ice caps although pitted with craters like the moon. In the past many astronomers have commented on the so called martian ‘canals’. In the modern era, these have been revealed as optical illusions made by astronomers using low resolution telescopes. Modern hi-resolution photography and close up shots by unmanned spacecraft show no such features.

Mariner 4 was the first spacecraft to approach Mars making its closest approach in 1965. In 1976 Viking 1 made a soft landing on Mars. The Soviets had done so 5 years earlier but their spacecraft failed soon after touchdown. In 1997 the Mars Pathfinder arrived on Mars and released its robotic rover. Since then other spacecraft have successfully landed on or orbited the planet including one from India in 2014.

Below is a video from the Mars rover Curiosity from 2019. Technology, isn’t it amazing?


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 for more information.

Codes, Films, Christmas and John Wayne

There are two particular films that come to mind at Christmas. I’m not talking about films that are typical Christmas films, things like It’s a Wonderful life or Scrooge or even Home Alone but films that tell the true story of Christmas, the story of Jesus himself. The two films I’m thinking of are King of Kings and The Greatest Story ever Told.

King of Kings starred Geoffrey Hunter as Jesus and in the Greatest Story it was Max Von Sydow. Max was in a way an unusual choice to play Jesus, he was pale and blue eyed and had a faint Swedish accent. Even so, he played a good part, so much so that whenever I see another portrayal of Christ, I always mentally compare it to that of Max. As for being pale and blue eyed, I suppose it is inevitable that people everywhere will envisage their religious icons in their own terms.

Geoffrey Hunter you may remember from the Star Trek pilot episode where he played Captain Pike, the original captain of the Enterprise. The producers of Star Trek, not wanting to waste the footage shot in the pilot, remade it into a two part episode where Mr Spock tries to help his former captain and is court marshalled.  In King of Kings Hunter plays a Jesus a little more forceful than that of Max Von Sydow’s but both portrayals are excellent. In King of Kings the director seems to compare the life of Jesus with that of Barrabus the rebel and freedom fighter –or terrorist, depending on your viewpoint. The two lives come together when Pontius Pilate asks the Jerusalem mob who do they wish to be freed. The mob chose Barrabus.

King of Kings was directed by Nick Ray who directed the famous Rebel without a Cause, James Dean’s iconic second film.

The Greatest Story was directed by George Stevens who made such classic films as Shane and James Dean’s last film Giant. Stevens was a director who worked the way I would work if I was a director. He shot a great deal of film then sat back, reviewed everything and put his film together one brushstroke –or film clip-  at a time. He chose Max to star as Jesus as he wanted a performer that was unknown to the general public. He might have been better in choosing unknown actors for the other roles too because the many star appearances seem to stop the viewer in his or her tracks as we spot various top actors and actresses in minor roles.

I do have a personal reason for liking this film. Once, many years ago my school friends and I were taken on a Christmas school trip to watch the film. We walked it as I remember in crocodile fashion from our Junior school Crossacres, down Wiggins hill and into Gatley, a small nearby village that boasted a lovely old cinema. That trip to watch this film did more for me than any teacher or RE lesson had ever done before or since and although I cannot claim to be overtly religious, I am certainly not an atheist and my respect for the person of Jesus has never been greater.

In Dan Brown’s thriller the Da Vinci Code, Brown looks at the ideas presented in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail about the idea that Jesus was married and that his widow, Mary Magdalene went to France where her child began a bloodline that exits to this day. The Holy Grail apparently was not a goblet that caught drops of blood from Jesus but an actual bloodline, a dynasty of Meringovian Kings that can be traced back to Jesus himself.

In the Da Vinci Code, Brown reveals these things as something that could tear the Christian church apart, why, I don’t know. To me, the idea that Jesus married and had children means he is more human and more understanding of the human condition than I have previously thought, so this news, if indeed it is actual news, does not distress me, to me it is joyous news.

While on the subject of the Da Vinci Code, I read it some time ago and although the book has many detractors, I personally found it a gripping read, one that I found hard to put down. Its effect though is perhaps like one of those very bright and loud fireworks that capture the attention for a short while and then fizzle out. In a St Annes charity shop not long ago where I go to peruse the second hand books and DVDs, they had a sign up next to an entire row of Da Vinci Codes. No more Da Vinci Code please: We’ve got plenty!

At the Regent Cinema in Blackpool they recently had a showing of that Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Sadly I was working that day but I hope to catch up with the film soon as they are bound to show it again on TV over Christmas. Director Frank Capra is another of my favourite directors and the film successfully combines fantasy with real life and James Stewart plays such a good part. Pity I missed that showing at the Regent, I really fancied seeing the film on the big screen.

There are a whole lot of film versions of a Christmas Carol, 73 TV and film versions according to a BBC news item I saw a while ago but the definitive version is the one with Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge

A Christmas Carol was published over a hundred and seventy years ago. It’s a wonderful story by that master storyteller Charles Dickens. Within six days the entire print run of 6,000 copies had sold out. Within six weeks theatre adaptations had hit London’s theatres. In many ways the book is Dickens’ defining vision of a Victorian Christmas.

Going back to the film versions there’s one with Albert Finney, one with George C Scott, a cartoon version and even a version with Bill Murray as a modern-day Scrooge.. Don’t give any the time of day except for the definitive 1951 classic.

I must finish with one final anecdote about The Greatest Story ever Told. As I have mentioned, numerous star actors make guest appearances in the film from Sydney Poiter to Van Heflin, Angela Lansbury to Shelley Winters and many others but there is one I must mention: John Wayne as the Centurion who watches Jesus die on the cross. When Wayne uttered his immortal line, ‘truly this man was the son of God.’ Director George Stevens called ‘cut’ and asked Wayne to do the scene again but this time with more awe.

Wayne duly complied.

‘Action’ called Stevens.

‘Aww, truly this man was the son of God’ said Wayne.


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 for more information.

My Top TV Moments (Part 2)

As I was away last week enjoying the delights of Southport I was a little rushed when it came to putting together a new post for this week. A couple of weeks back I wrote about my Top TV moments and looking back at my notes I see I had a few ‘moments’ left over so rather than consign them to the waste paper bin I think it’s time to welcome you to my Top TV Moments, Part 2!

24

24 was an action/espionage series which was shot in ‘real’ time, the 24 hour long episodes of each series covering a full 24 hour day. Kiefer Sutherland stars as special agent Jack Bauer of the CTU, Counter Terrorist Unit. Jack and his colleagues have to deal with various terrorist threats including in the opening season, plans to assassinate presidential candidate David Palmer. The show is full of twists and turns and other plots and villains emerge and unfold. Events are shown in real time and to emphasise this a digital clock is frequently shown with split screens depicting the various elements happening in the same time scale.

Bauer is a tough hombre who stands no messing and is perhaps similar to the Bruce Willis Die Hard character. A meme I saw on the Internet went like this ‘Jack Bauer threw a grenade and killed 50 terrorists. Then the grenade went off . . .’

Homeland

Carrie Matheson, a CIA agent who also suffers from a bipolar disorder has information that Al-Quaeda are planning a strike against the US using one of their own people. When Nicholas Brody, an army officer who has until recently been a captive in Iraq is rescued and returned to the US, Carrie believes this may be the man in question and he could have been programmed or brainwashed to act against his own country. The series builds the tension quietly and is a psychological drama rather than an action series like 24. Claire Danes as Carrie produces an outstanding performance as does Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson, Carrie’s mentor in the agency.

Happy Valley

A few years ago Liz and I spent part of the winter months in sunny and warm Lanzarote and to keep us occupied on those winter nights we took along the box set of Happy Valley. I have to say I wasn’t that interested at first. Sarah Lancashire who has long since moved on from the scatty part of Raquel in TV soap Coronation Street, plays Catherine Cawood a police sergeant in a small West Yorkshire town. She is divorced from her husband and the two of them are scarred by the suicide of their daughter Becky 8 years earlier. Becky had been raped and gave birth to a son Ryan who lives with Catherine and her sister, a recovering alcoholic and heroin addict. Plenty of drama in that set up alone but a kidnapping occurs and it turns out that Tommy Lee Royce, the man who raped Becky is involved. All in all, an outstanding production.

The Avengers

Not the comic book superhero Avengers but the 1960’s TV show about secret agents John Steed and Mrs Emma Peel. Steed was played throughout all the various incarnations of the Avengers by Patrick MacNee and Mrs Peel was portrayed by Diana Rigg. Mrs Peel was the leather jumpsuit wearing judo expert and together she and the charming bowler hatted Steed foiled various villains. The series was not in the same action packed mould as 24 or Homeland but had a slightly camp and comic edge to it. Mrs Peel drove a Lotus Elan as I remember while Steed preferred a vintage Bentley. When Mr Peel returned from being lost in the jungle Mrs Peel left the series to join him, handing over to Tara King, Steed’s new assistant. The two passed on the stairs to Steed’s apartment with Mrs Peel advising Tara to always stir Steed’s tea anti clockwise!

Department S

Department S was about an Interpol department that tries to solve cases that are particularly baffling. In the very first episode the team investigate an aircraft that lands at Heathrow having been missing for 6 days, although the passengers and crew have no recollection of what has happened. Department S consisted of three investigators, Stuart Sullivan, novelist Jason King and computer expert Annabelle Hurst. Jason King played by the flamboyant Peter Wyngarde was the real star and his stylish clothes preempted the fashion trends of the early 70’s. Wyngarde loved the part and I read somewhere that he even invented Mark Caine the hero of Jason King’s novels. Wyngarde later starred in a spin off series Jason King.

Across the Lake

Across the Lake was a BBC film made in 1988. It starred Anthony Hopkins as speed king Donald Campbell in the final days of his life as he tried to raise the water speed record to over 300 miles per hour. Hopkins gives a lovely performance as Donald Campbell, a man who believed himself to be living in the shadow of his father, record breaker Sir Malcolm Campbell. He decided to take his old Bluebird boat, update her and try to break the 300 mph mark on Coniston water in the lake district. The jet boat flipped over and Campbell was killed. His body was not found until 2001.

The film shows the unglamorous side to record-breaking. Waiting in poor weather, the endless delays, the mechanical issues, the press waiting for something to happen. Something drove Campbell onwards in his pursuit of records. He was short of money and had sold all sorts of rights to his name, his films of record-breaking and so on. This was all before the days of big time sponsorship in the speed and motor racing industry and Hopkins shows us a Donald Campbell undefeated, perhaps even a little desperate but still with considerable style.

The record-breaking team disperse for Christmas and then return after the holidays. They begin their preparations again until a fine January morning appeared. Campbell powered up his speedboat and did a run of 297 mph but lost his life on his second run.

Spend, Spend, Spend

Vivian Nicholson was a british woman who became famous after telling the press she was going to spend spend spend when her husband won £152,000 on the pools in 1961. Lavish spending depleted their fortune quickly and after her husband was killed in a car crash Viv was declared bankrupt. Nicholson wrote her life story with author Stephen Smith and a copy of the book was given to TV writer Jack Rosenthal who dramatised the work for the BBC’s Play for Today. The episode was broadcast in March of 1977 and stars Susan Littler as pools winner Viv Nicholson. The film tells the story of a hard working class life in Yorkshire that is transformed when she and husband Keith, played by John Duttine, win the huge amount. Three years later Keith was killed in a car accident and Viv was declared bankrupt. The film tells the story of their early life together and their inability to deal with their huge fortune.

The Magic Boomerang

There are a series of TV adverts on at the moment for ‘Quick Quid’, a loan company which invites you to apply for a quick loan (as long as you don’t mind paying their incredible interest rates that is!) There are various versions of the ad but they all go a similar way; the boiler has conked out or the car has broken down and some hapless member of the public has no money to pay to get it sorted. Suddenly that’s the clue for time to freeze while the person calls up ‘Quick Quid’ and arranges a loan. In the Magic Boomerang, a 1960’s black and white show from Australia, a young lad comes across a magic boomerang and finds that time freezes for everyone except him, just like those aforementioned adverts, while the boomerang is in the air. I remember running home from school years ago just to watch it.

Whatever Happened to The Likely Lads

The Likely lads was a TV sitcom from the 1960’s about two young Geordie lads. The follow up colour version, Whatever Happened to The Likely Lads, aired in the 1970’s and followed the antics of those same two lads. Rodney Bewes played Bob who is now happily married to Thelma and James Bolam played Terry, still footloose and fancy free. Each is jealous of the other in their own way and together they comment on the changing nature of life from pubs closing down to high rise flats but in particular their working class roots. Bob is constantly tormented by Terry as he is keen to become part of the middle class; he has a white collar job and a new house on a brand new housing estate. Terry however constantly laments the changing attitudes of the 1970’s.

Writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais had planned a new series meeting up with the pair in their later years but James Bolam declined to be involved. The two actors apparently fell out after making the feature film version in 1976. After the death of Rodney Bewes in 2017 James Bolam denied rumours of a rift between him and Bewes saying “I think that Rodney wanted to do some more Likely Lads and I never did . .” Such a pity, I would have loved to see the pair together in later life.

Fawlty Towers

After the success of the Monty Python series and before the appearance of the Python films, the various members of the Python team set about various other personal projects. John Cleese began writing the sitcom Fawlty Towers based on his experiences staying in a small hotel, actually the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay, where he stayed while filming for Monty Python. He co-wrote the sitcom with his then wife Connie Booth although they had divorced by the time of the second series. The series is about hotel owner Basil Fawlty played by Cleese and his wife Sybil played by Prunella Scales. Other characters are the waitress played by Connie Booth and Manuel, a spanish waiter played by Andrew Sachs.

Only two series of six episodes each were made and the initial reception was only lukewarm but as the series gained popularity, critical acclaim began to follow. The show has won many plaudits including being ranked first on the BFI’s list of the top 100 British television Programmes and was named the greatest ever sitcom by a panel of comedy experts for the Radio Times magazine.


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 for more information.

My top 10 TV Moments

OK, 10 favourite TV moments. When I thought of that idea I had one particular TV moment in mind and thought I could easily come up with 9 others. I did but they are not exactly TV moments as such, they are more TV episodes or theme tunes or just generally TV stuff. Anyway if you have a spare few minutes stick with me and let’s see what I did come up with. They are in no particular order but I did save my absolute favourite until the end.

TV Moment 10

The TV show the Prisoner was produced back in 1968 and was the brainchild of its star actor Patrick McGoohan. McGoohan was fresh from the hit TV show Danger Man and he wanted to make a series about a spy who had resigned from the secret service but refused to give up his secrets. Episode number 1, Arrival, set the scene for the cult series. McGoohan, playing an unknown spy, resigns from the secret service by slamming his resignation letter down on the desk of his boss and drives back home in his Lotus 7. As he packs his belongings, he becomes aware of his home filling with gas. He slumps down unconscious and when he awakes he finds that he is in the mysterious ‘village’.

The series was filmed in the Welsh village of Portmerion. I visited the village in 1986 but when I returned a few years later they tried to charge me just to enter the village and look around. As this is against all the rules of a card-carrying tightwad like myself, I had to decline.

TV Moment 9

Do you ever wonder what happened to all those great TV western shows? Back in the sixties when I was a mere schoolboy my old dad and I regularly watched series like Branded, Bonanza, The Big Valley and many others. One of the very last western series was Alias Smith and Jones. The show was about two cowboy outlaws, Kid Curry and Hannibal Hayes. The Kid was the fastest gunslinger around and the producers used a very simple editing trick to show this. The other guy would be shown drawing and they would then cut quickly to the kid whose gun was already out of his holster and cocked, already to fire.

It was a great show but fizzled out when Pete Duel who played Hannibal Hayes committed suicide. They carried on with another actor playing Hayes but it was never the same afterwards. The show ran from 1971 to 1973.

TV Moment 8

I’ve always been a big fan of Star Trek especially the original series with Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Everything else is just a pale imitation of the original and it’s no surprise to me that the recent Star Trek films have centred on the original characters. The very best Star Trek episode ever, and it’s not just my choice, this particular episode was voted the best ever episode by Star Trek fans and also by Empire magazine, has to be City on the Edge of Forever. In this episode the Enterprise has been buffeted by waves of temporal energy and Doctor McCoy is called to the bridge to deal with casualties. This being Star Trek the antidote for any wound or disease is the wonder drug of the future, cordrazine. McCoy however accidentally injects himself with a full hypo of the drug and goes completely crazy. He escapes to the transporter room, beams down to a nearby planet where he encounters a time portal and jumps through it thereby changing the whole of time. Captain Kirk decides the only way to change time back to normal is to try and enter the time portal in the same fashion, locate McCoy and reverse whatever damage he has done. It turns out McCoy has saved social worker Joan Collins from death in a car accident which in turn has various effects, one of which delays the US entry into World War 2, enabling the Nazis to complete their atom bomb and win the war. Kirk who has fallen in love with Miss Collins has to decide what must happen, does he save her or let her die? Look it up on YouTube, it’s a great episode!

TV Moment 7

I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of time travel and another of my favourite TV shows was The Time Tunnel. The series was produced by Irwin Allen and featured two American scientists ‘lost in the swirling maze of past and future ages, during the first experiments on America’s greatest and most secret project, the Time Tunnel. Tony Newman and Doug Phillips now tumble helplessly toward a new fantastic adventure, somewhere along the infinite corridors of time’ as the opening blurb used to go. In my very favourite episode Tony and Doug arrive in Honolulu on the day of the attack on Pearl harbour. Tony lived here as a child with his mother and father and on the day of the attack, his father disappeared. The two try to warn Tony’s dad about the attack but they are not believed but they do solve the mystery of his death finding that he was fatally wounded in a control centre hit by Japanese bombs.

TV Moment 6

I might as well stay with the subject of time travel and tell you about another great TV series, Doctor Who. Doctor Who has been running since 1963 and the very first episode was broadcast on the fateful day of November 22nd of that year. When actor William Hartnell decided to leave the series the writers came up with the idea of the Doctor ‘regenerating’ in order to introduce another actor into the role. My favourite Doctor, and it’s hard to nominate one because I like them all, is probably the 1980’s version played by actor Tom Baker. Tom’s assistant back then was Sarah Jane Smith played by actress Elizabeth Sladen. She stayed with the Doctor until 1976 when he dropped her off supposedly in Croyden before he went off back to his home planet of Gallifrey. Sarah Jane returned in 1983 for the series’ 20th anniversary episode The Five Doctors.

The series was cancelled in 1989. There was the possibility of a reboot of the series in 1996 but only a one-off TV film was made. In 2005 the BBC began to produce the series once again with Christopher Eccleston in the lead role. David Tennant became the 10th Doctor after Eccleston left. In that second season of the new series Sarah Jane returned in an episode called ‘School Reunion’. It was wonderful to bring back Sarah Jane after so many years and showed that the new producers of the show were respectful of the series’ long history. Not only that, Sarah Jane has long been my favourite of the Doctor’s companions.

TV Moment 5

Andy Williams had a hugely popular TV series in the 1970’s and one of my favourite parts in it was a comedy sketch with Andy and a bear (OK, a guy dressed in a bear outfit) who always asked Andy for some cookies and then they went into a different comedy routine every week. Sounds a little crazy I know but I loved that show and Andy’s music ever since. I loved the bear sketches so much that I wrote a fan letter to Andy Williams care of Desilu productions in Hollywood California, who were mentioned on the credits of his show. Months later, a large envelope arrived and inside was a picture of Andy and the bear. ‘To Stephen from Andy and friend’ was the inscription.

I think it says a lot about Andy Williams, that he should make such a gesture for a faraway English schoolboy. Thanks Andy, I loved that picture so much!

Andy_Williams

TV Moment 4

That leads me smoothly onto this next section because Moon River sung by Andy featured in a great episode of Sex and the City. Sex and the City is a comedy/drama about sex and relationships and the episode in question was the one where Mr Big decides to leave New York as he has bought a vineyard in the Napa valley. Season 4 of Sex and the City was the season where all the elements of this great show seemed to just come together to produce some outstanding TV. Carrie, played by Sarah Jessica Parker gets involved with former beaux Aiden played by John Corbett. Aiden is reluctant to get involved again with Carrie as she cheated on him last time around with the super cool Mr Big played by Chris Noth, however Aiden decides to take another chance and the two embark on a new relationship. Miranda’s mother dies and although she tries to keep everything to herself, she is happy to see her friends at the church for the funeral. Miranda still has time though to help former boyfriend Steve with his testicular cancer problems.

Later Aiden realises Carrie does not want to get married and they split up. Its hard to compress a whole season into this short paragraph but if you ever see season 4 going cheap on DVD, it’s well worth getting it.

TV Moment 3

I’ve already written a blog post about my favourite TV detective, Columbo. I love so many of the episodes it’s hard to pick my favourite but it’s probably ‘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!

TV Moment 2

Way back in my school days Monty Python was on TV late on -I think- a Thursday night. It was certainly a week night and it was certainly late as I had a running argument with my Mum about staying up to watch it. The next day talk at school would be all about the latest episode and if you had missed it, which happened to me quite a few times when I lost that long running argument, you were just socially dead for a day.

Deciding on a favourite sketch is a difficult if not impossible task. I loved the Superman/Bicycle Repair Man sketch, thought the Dirty Fork sketch hilarious, the Lumberjack Song broke me up but the one I’ve chosen here is the ‘Is this the right room for an argument’ sketch. Enjoy.

TV Moment 1

MASH was a sitcom that ran for 11 seasons and an incredible 256 episodes. In case you didn’t know MASH stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital and is set in the Korean War. The series follows the exploits of the doctors and nurses of the MASH, in particular Hawkeye played by Alan Alda and Trapper John played by Wayne Rodgers. The episodes feature a mixture of comedy and drama expertly mixed together by the writers and performers.

My favourite ever MASH episode was one called ‘Sometimes you Hear the Bullet.’

Hawkeye’s friend Tommy comes to visit the 4077th MASH. He’s a former journalist who wants to write the story of the Korean War from the point of view of the soldier, not the journalist which is why he has not enlisted as a war correspondent. He stays with Hawkeye for a while and the usual zany humour ensues. Tommy then has to return to the war. A side story is one where a wounded young lad (played by future film director Ron Howard) admits he is under age but joined up to prove to his girl that he was a man. In one scene he tells Hawkeye that he is out to get him some ‘gooks’ and Hawkeye replies calmly that another word for gooks is people.

Hawkeye and Trapper plan to steal Major Frank Burns’ Purple Heart- he’d had an accident and because it happened in a war zone, he is eligible for the award -and pass it on to the young lad so he can impress his girl back home. Anyway, later in the episode, Tommy the journalist returns to the MASH, only this time he is seriously wounded. He was planning on writing a book called ‘They Never Hear the Bullet’ but this time he heard the bullet. ‘Never mind’ says Hawkeye, ‘just change the name. Sometimes you hear the bullet, it’s a better title anyway.’ Tommy is anaesthetised and Hawkeye gets to work. Sadly, Tommy dies on the operating table. Colonel Blake has to remind Hawkeye about the queue of wounded and Hawkeye, tragedy etched on his face (an outstanding performance by Alan Alda) has to carry on with his next patient. Every time I watch that episode, I sob my heart out, just as I did years ago when I first saw that episode on my Mum and Dad’s old black and white TV.

I couldn’t find the episode on YouTube so here’s a clip of Alan Alda who played Hawkeye, talking about the episode.


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.

 

 

Reviewing Spielberg

Not so long ago I thought about doing a post about the film director Steven Spielberg. I’d already done a couple of ‘favourite director‘ posts but the thing with Spielberg is that he’s not exactly one of my favourite directors so any post would be not really be complimentary so I didn’t want to get into writing something negative.

Anyway, I just happened to pick up a book about Spielberg in the second hand bookshop so it seems to me I can just combine my criticisms of the book and Spielberg’s works all in one post. I’ll try not to be too negative.

Steven Spielberg the Unauthorised Biography by John Baxter.

Spielberg was born in 1946 and the book glosses over his early life. His parents were divorced when Steven was at school and though staying initially with his mother and sisters he later went to stay in California with his dad. He was making amateur 8mm films as a youngster and according to the book, went on the Universal film studios tour and just stayed on wandering about the studio. At the time one of the only ways to get a job at Universal was through a relative who worked there and the book says that security guards let Spielberg through the gates on subsequent occasions, assuming he was the brother or son of one of the employees.

Spielberg apparently did quite a bit of networking at the studios showing his amateur movies around and after being rejected from the University of Southern California’s film school he managed to get an unpaid job at Universal. Later he took the opportunity to make a short film called Amblin which impressed the studio vice president so much that they offered Spielberg a seven year directing contract.

His first professional job was the shooting of an episode of the US TV show Night Gallery which starred Joan Crawford. It was apparently a difficult job for Steven, dealing with his temperamental star which gave him an aversion to working with so called ‘stars’. Looking through Wikipedia though, the website claims he and Crawford were friends until her death.

The first work of Spielberg’s that I saw was the feature length episode of Columbo ‘Murder by the Book’. At the time Universal was looking for something new to challenge the usual 60 minute episode format and the feature length episodes of their many crime shows seemed to be the answer. Spileberg’s episode is probably one of the very best of the Columbo series.

Spielberg‘s first cinema project was ‘The Sugarland Express’, a movie about a married couple chased by Police as they try to regain custody of their baby. The film received critical success but fared poorly at the box office. Producers however were impressed enough to ask Spielberg to direct the movie version of the book ‘Jaws’ about a man eating shark.

The shoot was a difficult one as the director rejected the idea of shooting in the studio and opted for a location shoot. Steven initially thought of using real sharks and midgets to make the sharks look even bigger but finally had to accept that a mechanical shark had to be made. Difficulties with the shark added delays to the shoot and some parts eventually had to be made in the studio. It was also interesting to read how the script was constantly under review with various writers adding to it and rewriting. Author Peter Benchley had added various subplots to make the book more entertaining and many of these were taken out by Spielberg who concentrated on the fundamentals of the shark chase.

At the time the movie industry was suffering because of competition from TV and Spielberg realised that a film needed to be an event, a major event in order to bring viewers out of their homes and into cinemas. The movie blockbuster was born with Jaws which was a huge hit which made Spielberg’s reputation overnight. I have to say it is probably my favourite of Steven Spielberg’s films. I’ve always enjoyed it and the performances are excellent especially those of Robert Shaw and Roy Scheider.

Spielberg went on to make a series of blockbuster films, all different in subject matter but all designed as major events in the world of cinema. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Indiana Jones films and ET were all highly successful. I can’t say they are on my list of all time great films, ET I thought was uninspired and Close Encounters was a film I couldn’t see the point of, a little like Hitchcock’s Birds. I didn’t get it at all.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a great Saturday afternoon film based of course, on the film serials of the 1940’s. My big problem with most of Spielberg’s films is that they always leave me unsatisfied. Saving Private Ryan is another case in point. What was the point of all that invasion stuff with people being blown up on the beach? Empire of the Sun was a slow moving drudge of a film lacking any sort of pace. It was a project Spielberg took over from one of his personal directing heroes David Lean and I sort of get the feeling Steven was trying to make the film as Lean might have done. Sorry but it didn’t work for me.

This isn’t a great book and concentrates mostly on Steven Spielberg’s professional rather than personal life and doesn’t really offer too many insights into Spielberg himself although interestingly it says that Steven dismisses the auteur school of directing and thinks of a film as a collaborative effort. I remember once watching an interview with David Lean in which he said that a director’s job was to ‘tickle the talents’ of his crew and cast and get the best possible effort from each person to show in the finished film. After reading this book I’d guess that is something Spielberg would go along with.

The early part of the book I found particularly interesting especially when it explains how Spielberg put his movie projects together, often filming one while beginning preliminary work on another. The author also links Spielberg to the other directors of ‘New Hollywood’, people like Coppola, Lucas, and Scorsese who were great fans of classic Hollywood and built new films and productions while recognising the contributions of classic directors like Hitchcock and John Ford who had gone before.

This is not a great book and certainly not one that really gets to the core of its subject but still a good read all the same.


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 for more information.