4 Christmas Films

I’ve had a pretty nice Christmas this year. Liz and I went to a Christmas party night in a local hotel with a huge group of friends. We had a family afternoon get together in a nearby pub and we had family over for Christmas dinner. After that it was time to relax, pour a glass of wine, break out the mince pies and settle down for some Christmas TV.

The Railway Children

I’ve always liked The Railway Children. I’ve seen it a number of times but I’ve very rarely seen it all the way through from start to finish. The film’s title sequence involves the teenage Bobbie, played by Jenny Agutter in the lounge of her home. The camera pans over various family photos and in this way the actors and their characters are introduced to us. Bobbie, short for Roberta, is the eldest daughter and has a younger brother and sister and they all live together with their parents. During Christmas their father is taken away and we think he has been arrested for some reason. Without their father, the family fortunes dwindle and they are forced to move to a country house in Yorkshire. There the children spend time watching the steam trains and visiting the railway station meeting various people including the station master played by Bernard Cribbins. They have various adventures and eventually their father is returned to the family. The Railway Children is probably the most delightful and charming film I’ve ever seen. It was written and directed by Lionel Jefferies and released in 1970. According to Wikipedia, Jefferies read the book while returning from the US to the UK en route to film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and liked it so much he bought the film rights.

Amazing Film fact number 1: Sally Thomsett played Bobbie’s younger sister Phyllis aged 11 but in real life actress Sally was actually 20 and older than Jenny Agutter who played ‘older’ sister Bobbie. Sally’s contract forbade her to be seen smoking and drinking during the shoot.

It’s A Wonderful Life

It’s a Wonderful Life is one of those quintessential Christmas films that you can always find showing on TV at some time over the Christmas period. I love that film and come to think of it, I haven’t seen it for quite a few years. It’s about George Bailey played by James Stewart who looks forward to an interesting life of travel but then finds obligations force him to stay in the small town where he has always lived. George is beset by problems and even considers suicide but then his guardian angel -literally- arrives to help him. In order to prevent George committing suicide, the Angel shows George what life would have been like if George had never been born.

The secret of this picture is, I think, the fact that despite the fantasy premise of the film, everyone plays their parts as if they were in a serious drama. The result is that the drama and emotion of the situation rises to the surface and we are left with a vibrant and dramatic piece of cinema. The director, Frank Capra, has long been one of my favourite directors and in fact directed another of my favourite ever films, Lost Horizon.

Amazing Film Fact number 2: It’s A Wonderful Life was a box office failure when it was released in 1946. It only achieved classic status after 1974 when the film’s copyright expired and it was able to be broadcast on television without royalty fees. On TV the film found a new and enthusiastic audience.

The Greatest Story Ever Told

The Greatest Story Ever Told 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 who was unknown to the general public.

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.

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.

Amazing Film Fact Number 3: 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’ declared Wayne.

Blithe Spirit

I looked forward to watching this film with some trepidation. After all, the original version with a screenplay by Noel Coward himself and directed by David Lean was and still is a wonderful film and one of my absolute favourites. Rex Harrison plays the part of author Charles Condomine who invites Madame Arcarti into his home for a séance in order to see some of ‘the tricks of the trade’ that he assumes she will employ so that he can render these into his current novel. When the medium, played beautifully by Margaret Rutherford, conjures up the ghost or shadow of Condomine’s deceased wife neither he nor his current wife are amused. Coward himself adapted his own play for the screen and the witty dialogue presented immaculately in David Lean’s production is nothing short of a cinema gem.

Anyway, this new version starred Judi Dench as Madame Arcarti and did not in any way follow the path of Coward’s original although some of the old dialogue could occasionally be detected. Dan Stevens stars as Charles Condomine and Isla Fisher as his wife. Charles’ late wife, Elvira is played by Leslie Mann. Charles is writing a screenplay and he is suffering with writer’s block. However, on seeing what turns out to be a disastrous stage performance by Madame Arcarti, he invites her to his home where, just like the original, she evokes the spirit of Elvira. It turns out that Elvira wrote most of Charles’ books and the current Mrs Condomine isn’t amused when Elvira decides to help out with his pending screenplay.

The whole thing kept me quiet for a couple of hours but was hardly a patch on the original. For a start when current filmmakers film a story set in the past like this one which was set in the 1930’s, nothing ever looks as if it has been used before. Even though everything I’m sure was authentic; the motor cars, the furniture, the clothes and so on, everything is too good, too perfect, even down to the 30’s style haircuts and the art deco home where most of the action takes place. The other thing about the late 30s and early 1940’s is that the rhythm of the speech back then was quicker and more precise. Listen to actors like Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings and Margaret Rutherford from the original film or others from the period like David Niven, Ronald Colman and many more, their speech and delivery is so perfect and effortless, it is just a joy to listen to.

I don’t have any amazing facts about this film but the review in the Guardian was rather cutting: It can only be described as an un-reinvention, a tired, dated and unfunny period piece that changes the original plot a bit but offers no new perspective, and no new reason to be doing it in the first place.

That was a small slice of my TV viewing over the Christmas period and I can’t think of a Christmas period when my TV recordings have been so few.

Oh well, another mince pie anyone?


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Favourite Film Directors Part 4: David Lean

The other day I was waiting in for a repairman to come and fix something. He was due sometime between 12 and 6pm so I nipped out early, did my shopping, returned home for a late breakfast and settled down to wait. I flipped on the TV and was pleasantly surprised to see the film Hobson’s Choice about to start. Hobson’s Choice was directed by David Lean and it just so happened that the previous night, sorting out various bits and pieces, I came across a lovely book about David by his widow Sandra so without further ado I thought it must be the perfect time to write a post about another of my favourite directors.

David was born in 1908 and spent his early life in Croydon (actually 38 Blenheim Crescent, Croydon) until his parents divorced. His father moved out and left the family in 1923 which must have been an upsetting moment in Lean’s young life. Another perhaps more significant moment was when an uncle gave him a camera when David was aged 10 and then Lean began to develop and print his own photographs.

In her book, David Lean: An Intimate Portrait, by Sandra Lean, his widow tells us that David was considered a ‘dud’ at school and his headmistress wondered whether he would even be able to read and write.

When he left school he began work as an apprentice at his father’s accountancy firm and at night spent his spare time at the cinema. The Gaumont film studios were nearby and Lean managed to get himself employment there starting out as a tea boy. He later became a clapperboy and gradually rose up to become a newsreel editor.

Later Lean moved on to editing feature films and was asked to work with Noel Coward on In Which We Serve. David asked to be credited as a co director on the film and Coward wasn’t too keen at first but eventually gave way. According to an interview with Lean I saw many years ago, Noel Coward soon became bored with the process of directing the film and mostly left the job to David.

Lean directed other adaptations of Coward’s plays including Blithe Spirit, filmed in colour and the highly regarded Brief Encounter, the latter winning grand prix honours at the 1946 Cannes film festival. The atmospheric exterior shots of Brief Encounter were filmed at Carnforth Railway Station in Lancashire which still exists today.

Lean married six times and three of his films featured his third wife Anne Todd. The last of the films with Todd was The Sound Barrier made in 1952 which has a screenplay by the playwright Terence Rattigan.

Hobson’s Choice, the film I mentioned earlier, is a film that shows a different side to David Lean. It’s a character driven comedy made in 1954 with excellent performances from Charles Laughton and Brenda De Banzie and a world away from the epics that David Lean later became famous for. It was hugely enjoyable to watch and one tends to forget that in his earlier years Lean made many films of a similar nature. His reputation though, at least in part, stems from a series of epics the director made starting with The Bridge on the River Kwai and including Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter and his final film which he directed, edited and wrote the screenplay for, A Passage to India.

His great collaborators were Robert Bolt who wrote and rewrote many of the screenplays used in Lean’s films, John Box his art director and production designer and Maurice Jarre who wrote the musical score for all Lean’s films from Lawrence of Arabia to his final film A Passage to India.

Sandra Lean muses that perhaps because of his parents’ divorce, David lived mostly in a series of hotels and a few rarely visited houses. He declared that ‘I have four shirts, two suitcases and the Rolls. I need no other possessions or a home’. In his later life he bought a warehouse property named Sun Wharf, situated on the banks of the river Thames at Limehouse in the east end of London. Architects, builders and decorators were brought in and the property was transformed by David, almost as if he were building a set for a new film. A similar thing happened to a property he and Sandra bought in France.

In 1970 he made Ryan’s Daughter. It’s personally not one of my favourite films and it’s hard to see why David Lean was so interested in the story. It is set in Ireland during the time of the First World War and tells the story of a married Irish woman played by Sarah Miles, (who was actually the wife of the screen writer, Robert Bolt) who has an affair with a British officer. Robert Mitchum played her husband but the only really outstanding performance was that of Sarah Miles. Many critics felt that the small scale romantic story did not fit with the film’s massive visual scale and long running time.

The film did however win two Oscars for cinematographer Freddie Young and supporting actor John Mills. The poor reception of the film prompted David to meet with the New York critics at the city’s Algonquin Hotel. I’m not sure if David wanted to reason with them or just find out why they didn’t like the film but they spent two hours attacking his production. David came away devastated and would not make a film again until A Passage to India in 1984.

He did try to make another film prior to A Passage to India. He was very interested in the story of Fletcher Christian and Captain Bligh and the mutiny on board the Bounty. He spent a few years living in Tahiti researching and making preparations for the film which included overseeing the construction of a replica of the Bounty but when Robert Bolt suffered a stroke and was unable to continue working on the script David backed out of the project. Producer Dino De Laurentis had ploughed a lot of money into the production and he agreed that a new director, Roger Donaldson, a friend of star Mel Gibson, could continue in David’s place. The film was later released as The Bounty.

In the late 1980’s David began to work on his last film, Nostromo, an adaptation of the novel by Joseph Conrad. Various scripts were produced including one by Robert Bolt. Sets were built and a budget of 46 million dollars was allocated but sadly, David Lean succumbed to throat cancer in 1991 and the production collapsed.

His work, in particular his sweeping visual style, inspired a new generation of film makers including Steven Spielberg who took over another unfinished project of David’s, Empire of the Sun.

In Sandra Lean’s book she tries hard to get at David Lean’s inner self; his actual character. He was apparently a man who accepted that some people would go out of his life and that would be that; they would be gone just like a cut in a piece of film. Once people were cut out, like his previous wives, he would never look back but whatever he was like, he was someone committed to motion pictures and Sandra quotes a speech given by Celia Johnson from In Which We Serve, in which she thinks if we substitute ships for film, we might get a true understanding of the man.

In 1987 Lawrence of Arabia was restored by film restoration expert Robert A Harris. David heard about the project and rushed to assist. Producer Don Siegel had cut elements out of the film to reduce its running time and Lean felt that now was the time to restore them. The producers could hardly say no to David Lean.

It just so happens that I have that restored version on DVD so as I’m feeling rather chilly on this December afternoon writing this, I might just dig out my copy, make a cup of tea and give it a viewing, or should I go for Blithe Spirit, the wonderfully witty play filmed by David Lean in 1945?

Which David Lean film would you watch?


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Almost But Not Quite (Part 3)

This is the third post in an occasional series about actors who almost got the role of a lifetime, and in some cases did, but then they didn’t. I’m getting the feeling I’m not explaining it all very well so let’s kick off with the first of four case studies . .

Frank Sinatra and Die Hard.

The Detective was a novel written by American author Roderick Thorp, and was first published in 1966. It was made into a film in 1968 also called The Detective and starred Frank Sinatra, as Detective Joe Leland. Billed as “an adult look at police life”, The Detective went on to become one of the highest-grossing films of 1968 and a great box office hit for Sinatra.

A sequel to the novel, Nothing Lasts Forever, was published in 1979 and in 1987 screen writer Jeb Stuart was asked to work on a screen adaptation of the book. The essential idea for the film according to Wikipedia was that of ‘Rambo in an office building’.

The producers were contractually obliged to offer Frank Sinatra the role although Sinatra, being 70 at the time, was hardly in a position to say yes. Various actors were considered for the role of the detective, now renamed John McLane, including Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood and many others. Bruce Willis was originally forced to turn down the role because of commitments to the TV series Moonlighting but then co-star Cybil Shepard became pregnant and filming on the show was shut down for eleven weeks leaving Willis free to star in the film, the new title of which was Die Hard.

Willis was a controversial choice for the role. He was still only a TV actor and at the time it was proving difficult for TV stars to make the transition to film. Willis himself felt he wanted to distance his character from the larger than life characters played by Schwarzenegger and Stallone in similar action films and he played McLane as an ordinary guy thrust into an out of the ordinary situation.

The film was shot at the Fox Plaza in Century City, Los Angeles which was then still under construction. It was released in 1988 and was one of the year’s top films as well as being a break out film for Bruce Willis. It’s a film I’ve always enjoyed but I still can’t see Sinatra ever playing John McLane.

George Peppard and Dynasty

I can’t really say I was ever a fan of Dynasty. I watched a few episodes but I much preferred the rival show, Dallas. Dynasty was a 1980’s TV soap opera about a wealthy family, the Carringtons, living in Denver, Colorado. John Forsythe starred as the head of the family, Blake Carrington, with Linda Evans as his wife Krystle and Joan Collins as his former wife Alexis. In the pilot episode however, George Peppard played Blake Carrington but the actor didn’t like the script and clashed frequently with the producers. Peppard felt that his role was too similar to that of Jock Ewing, the family patriarch in Dallas. Before the pilot was completed, Peppard was fired and John Forsythe took over the role and all scenes involving Peppard had to be re-shot.

Screenshot from Quora.com

The first season of the series wasn’t too good but the arrival of Joan Collins for series two seemed to bump up the audience figures. George himself wasn’t too bothered about being sacked. He got the part of Hannibal Smith in the A Team.

In his personal life Peppard battled alcoholism and cancer. He died in 1994.

Dennis Hopper and The Truman Show

Dennis Hopper was a great fan of James Dean and he appeared with Dean in two films, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. Later he was part of Easy Rider, a film which supposedly kick started the American new wave of filming in the late 60s and early 70s. Hopper directed and co-wrote the film although I remember watching a TV documentary in the 1980s in which Hopper, Peter Fonda and others all claimed credit for the film. In later life Hopper appeared as a film villain in films like Speed.

In 1997 he signed on to play the part of Christof in the film The Truman Show. Christof is the TV producer of The Truman Show, a TV reality show in which the star, Truman, played by Jim Carrey, doesn’t realise he is on TV. The show is filmed using hidden cameras and actors and is funded by product placements. Hopper was fired after only two days on the shoot as the producers weren’t happy with his performance. Ed Harris, who plays the role in the finished film was a last minute replacement.

Dennis Hopper died at his home in Los Angeles in 2010. He was 74 years old.

Elvis Presley and A Star is Born

A Star is Born is a film that has had numerous remakes. The original was released in 1937 starring Janet Gaynor and Frederic March. It had a screenplay by Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell and Robert Carson and is about a young girl who wants to get into the movies. Janet Gaynor plays Esther Blodget who meets film star Norman Maine. Maine gets Esther into the film world and Esther falls for him but Maine is an alcoholic and his star is rapidly fading while Esther’s is on the rise.

Sid Luft asked director George Cukor to take the helm of a new musical version in 1952 starring his then wife Judy Garland. Cukor wasn’t keen at first but changed his mind when he found the film would be shot in technicolour and he wanted to be part of this new process. Cukor chose Cary Grant to take on the role of Norman Maine but Grant declined. Various others were in the frame for the part including Frank Sinatra. Stewart Granger was a favourite for a while but he didn’t like the way Cukor worked and finally the role went to James Mason.

In the mid seventies, Barbara Streisand and her then husband decided to produce a new musical version of the story based on the music industry rather than Hollywood. Streisand wanted Elvis Presley for the Norman Maine role and even met with Elvis to discuss the film. Elvis who was a great film fan wanted to revive his film career but the big problem was his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Parker apparently wanted top billing for Elvis and a substantial pay packet. He was also concerned that Elvis would be playing a singer whose career is on the way out thinking that might harm the King of Rock n Roll’s actual career. Eventually Elvis backed out and Kris Kristofferson played the part.

I’ve always thought that Elvis was actually a pretty good actor. OK I know a lot of his later films were dreadful but Presley was bored with the kind of films that Colonel Parker had him making. Presley was a great fan of James Dean and knew all the dialogue from Dean’s films. I reckon he would have been outstanding in A Star is Born but sadly, it wasn’t to be.

Yes, I would have loved to have seen Presley in A Star is Born. Also, I wouldn’t have minded seeing Cary Grant in the Judy Garland version either!

Elvis died in 1977. He was 42 years old. His last acting role in a film was Change of Habit, made in 1969.

A Star is Born was remade yet again in 2018 starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga.


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JFK in Film and TV

It’s always interesting to see how film makers present historical figures to their audience. John Kennedy a was good looking and charismatic American leader and after watching the TV mini series Kennedy I thought I’d take a closer look at how JFK has been portrayed in film and TV.

Kennedy

Strolling through St Annes not long ago I dropped Liz off at the hairdressers and wandered into a nearby shop that sells secondhand books, DVDs and CDs. It was there I spotted the DVD of a mini series from the 80’s called simply Kennedy with Martin Sheen playing the part of John F Kennedy. The DVD box set had been on my shelf for a while until one cold and wet evening when I thought it was time to pour a small port and settle down to watch it.

The first episode opens on election day revealing the Kennedys at their compound in Massachusetts with Bobby and Ted and their volunteers manning the phones trying to get the latest info in from the election count. The series goes on to follow the Kennedy administration through various issues including civil rights, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, problems with US Steel, the Cuban Missile crisis and finishes with the President’s death in Dallas.

Sheen captures the president’s clipped Boston accent pretty well and Blair Brown who plays Jackie has an uncanny likeness to Jackie herself, especially when she dons the First Lady’s pink suit for the trip to Dallas. Nothing controversial is included although the film does show how J Edgar Hoover kept close tabs on Kennedy’s private life and how Bobby apparently made many efforts to keep the President from compromising himself.

This series had me hooked from the beginning and I could feel the excitement the Kennedy team felt themselves when they knew that JFK had won the election.

Martin Sheen was much shorter than the real JFK and that brought to mind the closing lines from William Manchester’s book Death of a President. One of the Dallas doctors who fought to save Kennedy looked at his lifeless body and thought what a big man the President was, bigger than he had previously thought. Yes, says Manchester, the President was indeed a big man.

JFK

After watching the mini-series over a couple of days I thought that I’d settle down to watch the Oliver Stone movie JFK. Oliver Stone’s film focuses on Kennedy’s death rather than his life. It follows the investigation of New Orleans DA Jim Garrison and his attempt to investigate the assassination. Kevin Costner plays Garrison and the film opens with the shooting in Dallas and Garrison watching the events unfold on TV. Stone uses the Garrison investigation as a framework on which to hang various theories, the main one being that the ‘military industrial complex’ was responsible. The film is well put together and expertly combines archive film with new footage as well as different film types, 16mm and 35mm, black and white and colour as well as square and wide screen film.

The centre of the Garrison investigation is New Orleans where Oswald visited and the various contacts he had there including David Ferrie, a strange individual active in the anti-Castro community who had lost his hair and wore a wig and Guy Bannister, an ex-FBI agent who ran a private investigation business. Located in the same building as Bannister’s office was one used by Lee Oswald for his fake Pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba committee.

Jim Garrison himself has a small role as Earl Warren, the chairman of the Warren Commission which investigated the murder at the behest of President Johnson.

The finale of the film involves the showing of the 16mm film of the assassination, shot by Abraham Zapruder, to the jury. Garrison tried to show that local businessman Clay Shaw was part of the conspiracy but failed.

I’ve always found the film totally engrossing but it proved to be controversial, however the film did lead to the JFK Assassinations Records Act which enabled the release of the remaining assassination documents held by the US government.

Even if you don’t have a conspiracy theory or even a viewpoint about the death of JFK this is a powerful and interesting film and well worth watching.

PT 109

PT 109 is an account of John Kennedy’s time as commander of a Patrol Torpedo Boat in World War II.  The young Kennedy was enrolled in the US Navy and was sent to the Solomon Islands to take over his command. He had suffered for a long time with a bad back and had to get his father Joe to use his influence to get him into the war. Kennedy completed his training in 1942 and after a short period as an instructor, he was finally assigned to PT Boat 109.

While on patrol one night PT 109 was hit by a Japanese destroyer which cut the torpedo boat in two. Two crew members were killed but Kennedy led his remaining crew, including one severely burned man, on a long swim to Plum Pudding Island. It took the crew four hours to swim the 3.5 miles to the island and Kennedy himself had to tow the injured man by clenching a strap in his teeth.

Later when help had still not arrived, JFK had to take his crew on second swim to another island where they met a native who took a message carved on a coconut shell to the Allied forces and they were eventually rescued.

Kennedy was played by Cliff Robertson whose casting was personally approved by President Kennedy and the film was released in the summer of 1963. I saw the film on TV a few years ago and I’d have to agree with those who weren’t overly impressed by it.

In real life the Kennedy brothers were highly competitive and Joe Kennedy junior, after hearing of his younger brother’s exploits in PT Boats, volunteered for a dangerous mission which led to his death in England flying an aircraft filled with explosives.

Thirteen Days

Thirteen Days was a 2000 film about the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and stars Bruce Greenwood as John F Kennedy. In 1962 U2 flights over Cuba doing photo reconnaissance, spotted the build up of missiles sent to the area by the Soviet Union. Kennedy created an executive committee to deal with the emergency and the meetings were recorded. The film was based on the 1997 book, The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow so it was therefore pretty accurate. The odd thing about the film is that the star is not the JFK character played by Greenwood but Kennedy’s assistant Ken O’Donnell played by Kevin Costner and the film seems to be saying that it was O’Donnell who motivated the President and saved the day and not the President himself, which was clearly not the case.

Many in the military wanted a full-scale invasion of Cuba but Kennedy himself hung on for a diplomatic solution.

Bruce Greenwood didn’t do it for me as JFK but Thirteen Days is an interesting film and well worth watching but I feel I got a better sense of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the TV series Kennedy.

Documentary

Having watched all this about John F Kennedy, I thought it might be time to take a look at the real JFK. In my VHS collection I have quite a few documentaries about him, some date back to the 1960’s and on the 25th anniversary of his death in 1987, many of these films were shown on television and I recorded a lot of them on my very expensive video recorder. One was called Crisis which looked at how the President handled the civil rights issue in the USA. Another was about the election of 1960 including Kennedy’s selection as the Democratic candidate. He competed in the primaries against Hubert Humphrey and when Kennedy utilised his entire family, brothers, sister and his mother, Humphrey complained that he wasn’t just fighting one man but an entire family. The film shows Kennedy at an election meeting with his family all shaking hands and smiling to the public.

One last film I watched was in Channel Four’s Secret Lives season. This episode from 1997 was written and directed by Mark Obenhaus and based, I think, on research by Seymour Hersh who afterwards published The Dark Side of Camelot. It showed former secret service agents talking about Kennedy’s affairs and numerous liaisons with prostitutes. The agents were forced to explain away the women as ‘secretaries’ to those around them who were not in the know. They also talked about Kennedy’s meetings with a man they nicknamed Doctor Feelgood, Max Jacobson, who was apparently treating JFK with amphetamines. In later years after the death of JFK, Jacobson lost his license.

Of course, in this short blog post I cannot hope to get close to the real character of JFK. To journalist Hugh Sidey he talked about the aristocrats of Victorian England who defended the principles of law and democracy on a weekday but retired to their country mansions at the weekend for wife swapping parties and other hedonistic diversions. Sidey explained that after Kennedy told him that, he felt he finally understood the real character of the President.

Whatever he did in his private life, as president, John Kennedy averted a nuclear war and spoke what I think were some of the most memorable phrases ever spoken by any politician. Let me leave you then with these words, delivered at the American University in 1963, a matter of months before his death. Talking about the Soviet Union he said:

So, let us not be blind to our differences but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.


As usual I’ve tried to find video links that do not start with an advertisement although it isn’t always possible.

For the full text of JFK’s American University speech, click here.


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10 Things I Can’t Live Without

Thanks for tuning in once again and if you’re not a regular reader, thanks for giving me a try. In case regular readers are getting fed up of blogs about motorhomes and travelling in France, swimming in lakes, eating fabulous food, drinking red wine and all that stuff, this week I thought I’d have a change of pace and write about something a little less serious so this week’s blog post is a homage to a similar post I saw out there in cyberspace. It had a similar title, 10 Things I Couldn’t Do Without but those 10 things were so uninteresting I just had to think of 10 of my own ideas. Anyway, let’s get cracking. I found that a lot of my 10 items I had written about before so I’ve added the relevant links to those posts. Feel free to click on them and I definitely won’t mention anything about motorhomes or holidaying in France.

Bacon.
There is nothing that could be more perfect for breakfast than bacon. Throw in a poached egg, a sausage, maybe some black pudding or a hash brown and some tomatoes, a couple of rashers of bacon and there you have it, a wonderful breakfast. If you are perhaps not so hungry or maybe in a rush or on the move, you can still enjoy a bacon sandwich, throw a fried egg on top to make it extra tasty and get yourself a fresh cup of tea. Lovely! On holiday a while ago in France (did I say I wasn’t going to mention our 4 weeks in France? Sorry!) cooking can be a little difficult on our small three burner stove so Liz made us a bacon and egg omelette which was really nice served with French bread, lovely!

TV

I’ve got TV on the list and believe me I love my TV. Just cast your eye over the many TV posts on this blog and you will realise I am a big fan of the old gogglebox so much so that my Dad, may he rest in peace, used to call me square eyes. For younger readers, TV sets tended to be square back in the old black and white days. Having said that on our holidays -like the 4 weeks we’ve just had in France– I didn’t miss TV at all and in fact, only watched it once and that was for the Italian Grand Prix.

F1

Ayrton Senna

That brings me nicely to my next subject, F1 racing. I’ve followed F1 since 1970 and back then I used to read Motor Sport and Autosport and Motoring News. I had a chart on my wall which I used to fill in with the points scored by the drivers and look forward to each new race. These days some 52 years later, I’m perhaps not as keen. I don’t subscribe to the Sky F1 channel though I still look forward to the Channel 4 highlights show on terrestrial TV. I don’t buy F1 magazines anymore but I do subscribe to various F1 fan pages on the internet, all of which I have to mute on a Sunday so I don’t see the race results before I watch the highlights. Hamilton, Verstappen, LeClerc and Alonso don’t quite measure up to the Stewarts and the Mansells and the Sennas of the past but anytime I say to myself that’s it, I’m not watching Formula One anymore, I always find myself reneging on that particular promise.

Books


My well thumbed copy of David Copperfield

I really couldn’t ever give up reading. A consistent pleasure for me that I’ve enjoyed since childhood is relaxing with a good book. I read all sorts from the classics of literature like David Copperfield and the Great Gatsby (two of my all time favourite reads) to modern fiction. On holiday I found John Grisham’s The Rainmaker highly enjoyable and the great thing about a holiday read is that you have time, the time to savour a really good long read.

Classic Films

I am a bit of a film buff, well, a classic film buff anyway. Anything with stars like Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, James Stewart, Ronald Colman or John Wayne will do it for me. Of course I like modern films too. I love the Bond films as well as the Rocky series and directors like Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen.

My iPad

One indispensable item of modern technology has to be the iPad. On our trip to France (did I mention we just had 4 weeks in France?) one big disaster was just before leaving home I took out my iPad to check something and then put it down on the chair rather than back in the bag. The bag went into the motorhome, the iPad didn’t. Quelle horreur! OK I could check my emails with my phone as well as my social media and stuff but my iPad has all the various apps I use, in particular one that I use with my foreign currency card. Luckily Liz took her spare iPad with her and very kindly lent it to me for the duration of the holiday, so I was able to use that for the sites that I could remember the passwords for. Most of my blog posts I start off on my laptop but tend to fine tune them on the iPad but anyway, I managed to write and publish three blog posts while I was away. I did miss that iPad though.,

My laptop.

That leads me nicely to my laptop. My entire life as a writer is on my laptop. All my original blog posts are there as well as my draft posts, stories, unfinished screenplays and two part finished novels. All my videos are made on my laptop and the great thing about my video editing programs is that when I want to update a video, I can just go back in to the edit file and add new video clips and take out old ones and even add new voiceovers or different music. I do back up my files but even so, if the house was on fire, my laptop would be the one thing I would have to save before jumping out of the window.

My trusty laptop, shown here in audio editing mode.

My Hair Trimmers

There are some things in life which are essential but don’t rate too highly in terms of enjoyment. One of those, for me anyway, is getting my hair cut. I’ve always hated going to the barber and coming out afterwards feeling itchy with bits of hair down my neck knowing that the same scissors the guy has used on me have been used on the heads of all sorts of other people before me. When I do actually go to the barber (perhaps I should say hair stylist) I always look inside to see if anyone is waiting because I never ever sit and queue to get my hair done. The thing is, it takes about five to ten minutes to trim my hair. I don’t have a lot of it but even so it needs tidying up and it is so annoying to see the guy in front having his hair cut soooo slooowwly and this little bit done and then this bit and then that bit and then the hair dryer comes out. I finally get in the barber’s chair and it’s a quick number 2, square up the neck, trim the sideburns and we’re off, ten minutes max and usually the barber hasn’t even had time to say stuff like ‘have you been anywhere nice for your holidays?’ (Actually I’ve had 4 weeks in France but I’m not going into that right now). Now that entire sorry experience has been almost wiped from my existence. Is there a queue in the barbers? Oh well, off back home, plug in my electric hair trimmers, trim the sideburns, clip on the comb, a quick all over the head, change comb and take all the fuzz off the top and before you can say ‘Nicky Clarke’, the job has been done. Hair trimmers, I love ‘em!

Mobile Phone

What can I say about mobile phones? They are just the perfect companion in this high tech 21st century world. You can call who you want and in fact, you don’t even need to remember phone numbers, your phone will do it for you. If you want to call your favourite restaurant to book a table and don’t know the number, your phone will look it up. You can message your friends, check social media and ‘check in’ on Facebook when you go somewhere special, even if it’s not that special at all. You can book a hotel or a flight. You can even play a game or listen to music if you’re stuck in a queue at the doctor’s surgery or at the hairdresser’s.

Bread

OK, here’s one final item I can’t do without. I started with food so I’ll finish with food too: Bread. What is so special about bread you might ask. Well bread is on this list because I just love bread. Every meal in France comes with a basket of bread (I should know because we’ve just spent 4 weeks there) It’s perfect to mop up that lovely oil or gravy. It’s great for a snack (ham, cheese and coleslaw on granary bread; my favourite sandwich) and it’s really quite satisfying to make; mixing the dough, kneading it, letting it prove and then slipping it into the oven and waiting while that lovely aroma fills the house. It’s also great toasted, just a slice with some butter or margarine is great. Add some marmalade and it’s even better. If you’re having an Italian meal chop some tomatoes and onions, add some olive oil. Brush a slice of granary bread with oil and either pop it in the toaster or on your George Foreman grill then slap it on a plate and top with the tomato and onion mixture. Wonderful.

So what ten things can you not do without?


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Reviewing the Rocky Franchise

I’ve always liked the original Rocky film but something more interesting than the film itself is the story of how it came to be made. In the mid-seventies Sylvester Stallone was a bit part actor with few acting credits to his name. One day in 1975 he watched the Ali v Chuck Wepner fight in which Wepner lost but managed to stay 15 rounds with heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. Stallone, inspired by the bout, wrote a screenplay about a washed-up fighter called Rocky who manages to stay the distance with the world champion. He passed the screenplay to his agents who took it to various producers. The screenplay was good and many producers were interested but Stallone attached one small condition to the sale, that he himself had to play the part of Rocky.

The producers who finally picked up the screenplay were Winkler-Chartoff productions. They had a contract with United Artists but UA still wanted a big name star in the title role. Burt Reynolds and James Caan were suggested but Stallone hung on and continued to insist that he played Rocky. I have always thought that Stallone was offered a million dollars to let James Caan play Rocky but according to an article I read which quoted Stallone himself, the offer went up to $340,000 and he still said no. Eventually the producers gave in and Sylvester Stallone received just $35,000 for acting and writing the screenplay plus a percentage of the profits. United Artists had a major production in the pipeline at the time, New York, New York, a big budget musical and they felt that the profits from that film would cover any losses on Rocky. In fact, the musical was a flop and those losses were covered by the success of Rocky.

The basic plot of Rocky is that World Champion Apollo Creed, played by Carl Weathers and based loosely on Muhammed Ali, is let down after planning a title bout to be held during the US Bicentennial celebrations. His opponent backs out and no other contender is available. Creed decides to rescue the fight by selecting an unknown boxer for the hugely publicised event. He chooses Rocky Balboa, a part time boxer and debt collector. The problem is, Creed thinks it will just be a demonstration match but Rocky thinks he can win.

The film was a low budget production but is still a great looking film. It was one of the first films to be shot with a Steadicam, a revolutionary camera mounting which absorbs movement. It was used in the fight scenes and the scene in which Rocky runs through the market in Philadelphia. In a sequence filmed at a skating rink, the producers had no money for any extras so they changed the script. Instead of skating with extras, Rocky and his girl Adrian bribe the cleaning staff to let them in when the rink has closed and is empty.

Joe Frazier makes a cameo appearance in the film and in fact some aspects of his life were used on the film as part of Rocky’s training regimen, running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and punching the meat carcass in a freezer.

Rocky was released in 1976 and grossed over $5 million in the first weekend of its national release and a later box office of 225 million dollars worldwide. The film was nominated for various awards and won the Oscar for Best Picture. Stallone’s pay packet has increased with each subsequent instalment of the film franchise but even today he still isn’t happy that the producers, rather than Stallone himself, own the rights to the Rocky character.

Verdict: 10/10

Rocky II

Given the huge success of the original there was really no doubt there would be a sequel. The film starts just where the last one left off except in the original the two fighters agree that there will not be a rematch. In this sequel, Apollo Creed does a quick reversal and is immediately on at Rocky about a rematch. Rocky is not sure what to do with his new found celebrity or with his money. He buys a house and a new car. He tries his hand at TV advertising but when that fails he sinks deeper into debt and begins to consider fighting again. His manager played again by Burgess Meredith is against the idea but when Apollo ups his campaign to get Rocky to fight and publicly insults Rocky, he finally comes on board. Adrian isn’t keen on the idea and Rocky trains in a lacklustre fashion until she gives him her blessing.

The title bout begins and at the end the two fighters knock each other down together but it is Rocky who gets up to claim the win.

Stallone asked to direct the film and when John G Avildsen, the director of the original film was unavailable, he got his chance.

I’ve seen this film before and always thought that in a way it was just a remake of the original. I watched it again for this blog and rather enjoyed it.

Verdict: 7/1

Rocky III

Rocky is doing well as the heavyweight world champion. He is settled with Adrian and has a son. He takes on various contenders but is constantly hassled by Clubber Lang, played by Mr T, for a title shot. Rocky agrees to meet Clubber in the ring but his manager Mickey, played by Burgess Meredith, is not so keen. On the night of the match Mickey dies of a heart attack and Rocky loses to Clubber. Apollo Creed decides to help Rocky and takes over his training for the rematch. After a tough match he wins back his title and the film finishes with Rocky and Apollo getting together in the ring for a friendly and private bout.

Stallone wrote the screenplay and directed the film and the theme song, Eye of the Tiger won an academy award.

I had not seen this before but watched it last week and thought it was pretty good.

Verdict: 7/10

Rocky IV

Can’t say I was totally impressed with this film. Apollo Creed decides to make his comeback with a fight against Russian Boxer Ivan Drago played by Dolph Lundgren. Creed is badly beaten by the Russian and dies from his injuries. Rocky agrees to fight Drago in Russia and takes a predictable win. It was again written and directed by Stallone and he and Lundgren traded real punches in the filming which ended up with Stallone in intensive care. Stallone’s future wife Brigitte Nielson played Drago’s wife, Ludmilla. Bill Conti who wrote the musical score for all the other Rocky films was absent from this one and instead Vince DiCola produced the disappointing music.

In 2021 Stallone released a new version of the film and the re-edited and re-released film was titled Rocky Vs Drago. The new version is only slightly longer but apparently was meant to add more depth to the relationship between Rocky and Apollo Creed as well as cutting some sillier elements like the robot Rocky gives to Paulie as a gift. A review I read in the Guardian felt that Stallone only marginally succeeded.

Verdict 4/10

Rocky V

This is probably the low point in the franchise. Original director John G Avildsen returned to the director’s chair and Stallone intended it to be the last in the Rocky franchise but it’s possible that because it was badly received, he went on to make Rocky Balboa.

Rocky returns from Russia but retires from boxing due to an injury. He then finds that his brother-in-law Paulie has given power of attorney to Rocky’s accountant who has then gone on to squander Rocky’s fortune. Rocky and his wife have to sell their home to pay their debts but Rocky finds purpose in training a young fighter. The relationship later sours and the two engage in a street fight which Rocky wins.

I have to admit that this is one Rocky film that has eluded me so far. Over on Rotten Tomatoes the review went like this: “Rocky V’s attempts to recapture the original’s working-class grit are as transparently phony as each of the thuddingly obvious plot developments in a misguided instalment that sent the franchise flailing into long term limbo.”

Verdict: Rotten Tomatoes gave the film only a 29% approval rating.

Rocky Balboa

I have two of the Rocky films on DVD. One is the original Rocky and the other is this one, Rocky Balboa. It’s a really thoughtful entry into the Rocky franchise. Rocky has retired. His wife has died and he has lost a lot of his money. His income comes from a small Italian restaurant in which many of the patrons come not just for Italian food but also to meet the former heavyweight champion of the world, Rocky Balboa.

The current champion Mason ‘the line’ Dixon has been criticised for fighting easy opponents. To get some positive publicity, he decides to enter into a computer fight with Rocky. It’s a fight reminiscent of the encounter between Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali in the 1970’s. At the time Marciano and Ali were the sport’s only two unbeaten champions. They were filmed sparring for various rounds and the result decided by probability formulas entered into a computer. Two different outcomes were filmed, the version shown in the UK showed Ali winning which my father was not happy about as he loved boxing and was a particular fan of Rocky Marciano.

In the film Rocky is judged to have won the computer fight and so decides to renew his boxing licence. Mason, not happy about being beaten, challenges Rocky to an exhibition fight which both men want to win. Mason emerges as the winner but Rocky doesn’t seem to mind. His day is over and he receives a standing ovation from the crowd.

This was probably the very best entry into the Rocky series. Rather than just boxing, the film looks at Rocky himself as he gets older, mourns the loss of his wife, and worries about his relationship with his son. He revisits many of the locations in the original Rocky film including his old house and the pet store where he met his wife. The only problem I had with the film was that the actor playing Mason Dixon didn’t look much like a heavyweight boxer to me. Surprise, surprise, then when I found out that actor Antonio Tarver was in fact a former light heavyweight champion! Ah, not a proper heavyweight then.

Rocky Balboa was the last in the Rocky series although a spin off series began in 2015 with Creed in which Rocky mentors boxer Adonis Johnson, the son of Apollo Creed. Although Stallone apparently contributed to the story, he did not write or direct either this or the following films. He isn’t happy about the producers owning the rights to characters he created either and publicly tweeted his unhappiness about a reported spin off film about Drago, the Russian boxer in Rocky IV.

In a lot of ways, the Rocky films parallel Stallone’s own life. He turned down big money offers to let others play what was the role of a lifetime, took it on himself and was propelled to film stardom.


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Reviewing the Mission Impossible Franchise

It was a cold afternoon in Manchester and I mumbled something to myself about the supposed heatwave and zipped my jacket up to my neck. At the left luggage office I took out the key that had been given to me earlier and when I opened the compartment I found a small package inside. I took the package and walked the short distance to the square. I sat down on the hard wooden bench and opened it up. Inside was a small tape player and a set of earphones. I put on the earphones and pressed play. There was a short burst of static and then a voice spoke.

‘Good afternoon, Mr Higgins. In the 1970’s a television show called Mission Impossible was produced that became a minor cult TV classic. Many years later the franchise was revived with a series of feature films starring Tom Cruise. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to review the TV series and the subsequent films, look at the background to the films, try to understand why they have been successful and put together a blog post revealing your findings. The blog post must be ready for publication by Saturday at 10am.

This tape will self-destruct in 5 seconds.’

I put down the earphones and placed them and the tape player back in the package, moments later the package disintegrated and I dropped the remains into a rubbish bin and walked away.

The TV series 1966 to 1973

The TV show was created by producer Bruce Geller and concerned a team of special agents known as the Impossible Missions Force. They are a US government agency which takes on hostile foreign governments, South American dictatorships and criminal organisations.

In the first series the team is led by Dan Briggs played by Steven Hill but he was replaced for season 2 by Peter Graves in the part of Jim Phelps. Other regular team members were Leonard Nimoy, Martin Laudau and his wife Barbara Bain, Greg Morris and Lesley Anne Warren. Each played a team member with a particular skill, for instance Laudau and Nimoy played agents with a talent for impersonation and disguise, Greg Morris played an electronics expert and so on.

Mission Impossible ran for 7 seasons and was cancelled because, according to Wikipedia, the producers at Paramount found they could make more money by syndicating the existing series rather than making new ones.

A revival series was made in the 1980’s also starring Peter Graves. To save money the series was not filmed in Hollywood but in Australia but it only lasted two seasons and was largely unsuccessful.

A great feature of the series was the opening title sequence which involved a match being struck and then lighting a fuse shown over quick clips of the upcoming episode to the sound of the iconic theme tune written by Lalo Schifrin. Next would be Jim Phelps listening to his tape recorded instructions which after being played would then self-destruct. Phelps would then look through his agents’ files complete with photos and choose who he wanted for the mission. Sometimes a guest star would play one of the agents who would be introduced by Jim checking out his dossier. A team briefing would then take place and the mission would get under way.

The IMF used a great deal of gadgets to accomplish their missions, secret listening devices and other electronic hardware as well as incredible masks and make up to impersonate people. One particular episode that I remember was when the team had to retrieve some stolen gold from a South American dictator’s safe. They did it by drilling a small hole in the safe, heating it until the gold melted and ran out down the small hole then a little gadget sprayed the interior of the empty safe to cover the hole. Mission Impossible was staple viewing in our household in the late 1960’s.

Mission Impossible 1996

Paramount Studios had plans to make a movie version of the series but the plans never seemed to come to fruition until Tom Cruise expressed an interest. He had been a fan of the TV series and hoped to make the film version the first project for his own production company, Cruise/Wagner Productions. The project began with Sydney Pollack as director but Cruise later decided he wanted Brian De Palma. De Palma designed most of the action sequences in the film and the final script was written around these. It just so happens that recently Channel 4 in the UK decided to run all the Mission Impossible films on consecutive nights so that came in pretty handy to refresh my memory on these films.

I enjoyed Mission Impossible much more on this recent viewing than when I had first seen it. The film uses the fabulous TV theme and opens in a similar way to the TV series.

Cruise plays agent Ethan Hunt with John Voight playing Jim Phelps. Hunt is sent to stop the theft of a list of agents kept inside the American Embassy in Prague. The mission fails and Jim Phelps, the agent in charge, is wounded and all of his team are killed except for Ethan Hunt. There is clearly a double agent or mole at work and various things happen until we find out the mole was Jim Phelps which was just a little bit sneaky because all of us who watched the 1960’s TV series knew that Jim Phelps was a character in that show and therefore could not possibly be the mole. The fact that he was made me feel a little cheated by this film because they used my nerdy TV knowledge against me.

I read recently that Peter Graves was asked to play Phelps in the film but declined after seeing his character was the traitor. Other stars from the TV series weren’t happy either.

Mission Impossible II 2000

This second instalment of the franchise was directed by John Woo. It’s about a biological weapon called Chimera. Rogue agent Sean Ambrose steals the virus from its inventor by impersonating Ethan Hunt. He destroys the aircraft on which the inventor is travelling and parachutes to safety. Hunt was played once again by Tom Cruise and his mission is to regain the virus. The opening sequence sees Cruise doing some daring rock climbing which the studio wasn’t happy about. Cruise didn’t have a safety net but did apparently wear a harness. I didn’t like the heavy metal style version of the classic theme and as a matter of fact, I lost interest in the film early on.

Mission Impossible III 2006

This third instalment was directed by JJ Abrams and for the first time the writers decided to show a little of the background to the Ethan Hunt character. He has retired from the IMF and has become a trainer for new agents but is asked to take on a new mission. He is about to get married but his fiancée knows nothing of his espionage work. The IMF team kidnap villain Owen Davian who escapes but decides to take revenge on Ethan. The film is filled with high powered action sequences and although a little implausible, I kind of liked it.

Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol 2011

The IMF are tasked to stop a man only known as ‘Cobalt’ who is trying to initiate a war between the USA and Russia. Tom Cruise as Ethan, infiltrates a Moscow prison to get to a man who has links to Cobalt. Things go wrong and the IMF is closed down by the US government when Cobalt blows up the Kremlin. The IMF team however stay on the hunt for Cobalt and follow him to various parts of the world including Dubai, where Tom Cruise has to climb up the outside of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. Cruise does all his own stunts but for a long time I just assumed that all the stuff on the outside of the Khalifa was done in a studio with a green screen and the background digitally inserted. Nope, Cruise actually swung on hidden cables outside the skyscraper. Why he should choose to risk his life in that fashion is beyond me but there it is. A good film full of action and adventure with numerous shootings and explosions.

Mission Impossible Rogue Nation 2015

This next instalment of Mission Impossible is pretty similar to the previous one. The CIA director (Alex Baldwin) asks a government committee to close down the IMF and incorporate them into the CIA which they decide to do. Ethan Hunt escapes from a criminal organisation known as the Syndicate with the help of British double agent Ilse Faust. Various exciting adventures ensue including a highly dangerous motorcycle chase and a deep underwater dive without oxygen. The IMF manage to capture the head of the Syndicate in the end. A government committee decide it would be best to reform the IMF. It’s all a little fantastic but not bad for a Saturday night on TV with a couple of beers and a pizza.

Mission Impossible Fallout 2018

After a week of watching the Mission Impossible films I’m sorry to say I missed this one which is a pity because according to the reviews it’s the best in the series. Still, sometimes it’s important to move one’s lazy behind off the couch, switch off the TV and go out and enjoy oneself. Pity there weren’t a few Mission Impossible questions in the pub quiz that night. After all this research I think I might have done pretty well.

Update

It just so happened that my brother has Fallout on DVD so he brought it round and we gave it a watch. The plot is something about plutonium and atomic bombs and the IMF guys have to swap the captured head of the Syndicate for the plutonium. The plutonium gets put into 2 atomic bombs which cannot be defused but after some highly implausible action-packed chases including a helicopter chase with both helicopters crashing, rolling down a cliff and being suspended on the edge, things finally get sorted. I reckon this would have been a good one to watch in the cinema.

Conclusion

It’s not easy to reboot a successful TV series whether it’s for the small screen or the big one but the producers of the Mission Impossible films have actually done a pretty good job. The films do have something of a link to the old TV series. They have different characters and different actors but the films have kept that opening element from the TV show with the match lighting the fuse.  They have also kept that fabulous theme tune. Then again, could they have really made Mission Impossible without the Mission Impossible theme? I don’t think so.

I did read that some of the TV actors from the original series weren’t happy with the films. Greg Morris apparently walked out of a screening when it was revealed that Jim Phelps was the traitor which was exactly why Peter Graves, the original Jim Phelps declined to reprise his old role as I mentioned earlier.

Personally, with the exception of MI2 I’ve enjoyed all the films and I look forward to the next instalment in the franchise which I believe has already been filmed.

Please step away from this blog post. It will self-destruct in 5 seconds . . .


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Birds, Barbecues and Big Steve

I had a few ideas for the title of this post. I had A Piece of My Life on the brain for a long time and then substituted A Pizza My Life (A piece of my life, geddit?) I even had a graphic sorted showing a slice of pizza. The thing with that I thought is that even though it ranges from funny to faintly humorous, I reckoned I would be giving people the wrong idea and that readers might have been expecting a post about, well pizza. Just lately I’m trying to optimise my titles for SEO (search engine optimisation) and at the same time also trying to give the impression that I know something about it. Some time ago I did a few posts titled A Slice of My Life so perhaps I should be adding part 3 or part 4 and just going with that? Nah, time for something new.  Anyway, cue new title and blog post graphic and here we go . . .

I wrote a few weeks ago about the UK heatwave. Temperatures hit record highs although the hot weather here in the northwest only lasted for two days. The day after the hottest day, it was dull and wet once again. The summer has generally been like that, a few hot and sunny days followed by more dull and wet ones. Liz and I like our barbecues so when the skies clear we tend to defrost some meat from the freezer and crank up the barbecue. A regular visitor to our barbecues is a large seabird which we have christened CBS. Nothing to do with the American TV channel but that bird is one heck of a Cheeky Bastard Seagull.

He usually arrives on our garden wall and struts around in the manner of an avian Mussolini. If he gets no response from us, he will tend to have a bit of a stretch before going into a major squawking session. Now he has made his presence felt we can expect some more strutting about until we put some bits of sausage or fat from our steak on the wall. He’ll gobble that up with the occasional foray into the sky to fend off any other birds who might be after a nibble before beginning his ritual again. When the gas goes off and he knows no more food will be forthcoming, CBS will usually have a final strut, give us a last squawk and be off into the sky.

These last few weeks however, CBS has not appeared. We’ve saved him some bits and pieces but our familiar feathered friend has not made an appearance. I’ve often wondered what has happened to him. Has he emigrated somewhere? No, surely it’s not the time of the year for birds to migrate? Has he passed away? It’s hard to tell if he was a young or an old bird. Has he been hit by a car trying to peck at some stray leftover sandwich accidentally dropped in the road?

At our last barbecue a large seabird appeared on our wall. At first, we thought it was CBS but there was no strutting or squawking and the bird did seem a little timid. He wouldn’t come close to collect his titbits on the wall. Was he a doppelganger trying to muscle in on CBS’s patch knowing the real CBS has passed away? We’ll never know.

I do love my books and when the weather is warm and sunny it’s a delight to lie outside on my sun lounger and have a good read. I’ve got quite a few books needing my attention and the first one was another book from a second-hand shop, Bette and Joan by Shaun Considine. It’s about a feud between classic film stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. After reading it I’m not even sure there was a feud between the two stars but either way, it’s a nice excuse to talk about these two screen gems and compare their personal lives as well as their screen stardom.

The book takes us back to the days of classic cinema and the big-league movie studios when stars were stars and the studio manufactured every level of their image; magazine interviews, acting lessons, publicity shots and in some cases even their personal relationships. Rock Hudson was a big star but also a closet homosexual and the studios manufactured a marriage for him to make sure he had a clean-cut Hollywood image. Not that that ever stopped Joan Crawford from bedding Rock, which according to the book, she did. Crawford had numerous affairs and also had a penchant for cleanliness. She lived the film star life to the full with big houses, cars and servants with her career starting in silent films in 1925.

Bette Davis always claimed to be an actress rather than a film star. Her career began later than Crawford’s and her first film role was in 1931. On the film Dangerous, she fell in love with co-star Franchot Tone but Crawford stole him from under her, seducing and later marrying him. That might well have been the beginning of their feud. The two only worked together once which was on the film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. The two despised each other, didn’t get on at all and their mutual hatred was evident on the screen.

I do love my showbiz biographies and autobiographies and one I picked up a while back was an autobiography by Dora Bryan, According to Dora. I love Dora from her many appearances in British films but my favourite film is probably A Taste of Honey. The screenplay was by Shelagh Delaney and director Tony Richardson, adapted from Delaney’s own play which she famously wrote when she was only 18.

Dora Bryan gives an outstanding performance at times comic but always supremely natural. She grew up on an Oldham housing estate. Dora was a great performer as a child and so her mother took her to dancing school and further encouraged by her mother joined Oldham Repertory before moving to London to develop her stage career. She had a great career on the stage as well as on film and TV and appeared in many successful West End productions. The first part of the book is very interesting but then, like a lot of autobiographies, the latter part of the book seems to wander off into lists of productions and theatre and TV personalities. Even so, it was a lovely read.

We went to a birthday celebration this week and after a meal in a restaurant we went over to the Trawl Boat pub. Inside the talk turned to a fellow called Malcolm. He was an old chap and presided over the main table in the pub. He knew everyone and everything and his table was always referred to as the ‘Captain’s table’. Even the staff looked up to Malcolm. If you ordered a round, they would ask ‘is that for the Captain’s table?’ Yes. ‘OK we’ll bring it over’. We’ve never had service like that before or since. Malcolm was a character but he passed away a few years ago.

Another of the guys we used to chat to in there was a fella we called Big Steve. I’m six-foot and Big Steve towered above me, he must have been six-foot six, easy. He was a pretty fit guy having been a former drayman, one of those people who lug big beer barrels about for a living and he was a really easy fellow to get on with. We always used to sit with Steve and have a drink and a natter and when he was due to leave he would pull his jacket on, say his goodbyes and then always say to us; “Nice to see you both again, as always.” And then he would be off.

A few years ago, we saw Big Steve sometime in December and as usual at the end of the evening we said our goodbyes, wished each other a happy Christmas in case we didn’t see each other before the holidays and Steve said his usual “Nice to see you both, as always” and left.

We didn’t see Big Steve over Christmas, nor through the New Year period and one day we both said together in the Trawl Boat, ‘wonder where Steve is?’ Anyway, we thought nothing of it and assumed we’d catch up with him soon.

Later, Liz was chatting to some of the regulars and one mentioned to her that he had been to a funeral the previous day. Liz asked idly who the deceased was and the man answered that it was someone they didn’t think Liz or I knew. It was a guy called Big Steve who used to be a drayman! Well, the words leapt up and hit Liz and I like a slap. Big Steve was gone and we’d hadn’t even had a chance to pay our respects at his funeral. I can’t tell you how sad we both felt.

Liz, being the amateur Sherlock Holmes she is, tracked down the widow and we went to see her to pass on our condolences. It turned out that Steve had died quietly in his sleep and his wife went into his room one morning to find him dead. Not very nice for her but a peaceful passing at least for Steve.

I’ve not thought about Big Steve for a long time. Funny how that cheeky bird should bring back the memory of him.  Wherever Cheeky Bastard Seagull is, and I prefer to believe he has emigrated rather than been hit by a car, I hope the locals are looking after him.


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Memory, Memories and Memorabilia

I got to thinking about memory the other day, after all memories are important. Our whole past experience is made up of memories so in effect, everything that has passed, everything that has gone before, exists only in memory.

My mother who suffers with dementia will be 93 later this year. Sometimes when I visit her she is talkative and chatty, other times not. A sad moment a few months ago was when her only words were please help me, intoned over and over like a ritual or a prayer. I left her feeling extremely saddened and upset that day but when I visited a few weeks later she was the complete reverse, bright, happy, talkative and chatty. She couldn’t remember her address, except for her childhood address, the one she left behind many years ago but still, she was bright and asked about her home and her garden and what about the rent? Was I keeping up to date with the rent?

The Auntie I never met.

I brought her a photo I had found of her sister Ada. Ada was a keen cyclist who was sadly killed in 1948 in a traffic accident on her bike. I showed her the picture and she knew Ada immediately telling me about her many achievements in cycling and also winning a place at the Manchester Central Grammar School for Girls.

The photo, as I had hoped, stimulated her memory and we talked for a while about the past and her long-lost sister.

Sometimes I wonder about my own memory. I forget names quite frequently and sometimes when Liz and I go to the pub quiz and try to identify celebrities in the picture round I end up saying things to Liz like ‘It’s the woman who was Mrs Peel in the Avengers on TV’ (one point for Diana Rigg.) Or ‘It’s the woman from the film Titanic’ (another point for Kate Winslet.) Or even ‘the guy who used to be on the breakfast show on Channel 4 with that woman who’s on Celebrity Gogglebox’. (Outstanding if you got Johnny Vaughn!)

The other day I was sorting out some of my old CDs. There wasn’t much on the TV so I popped one in the player. It was by Elton John called simply ‘Elton John’ and contains the hit single ‘Your Song’ and various other tracks. As Elton tinkled the ivories and began to sing, I realised I knew all the words despite not having listened to that album for many years. I’ve also got it on vinyl and when I was in my early twenties and discovered Elton, I played and played his records until my parents yelled up the stairs telling me to pack it in.

Memory is important too in today’s electronic devices. I mentioned in a previous post about how a shoot for one of my videos was curtailed because the camera’s memory card was full. I usually have a spare but on that particular day I hadn’t popped one into my camera bag. Result disaster! Well, almost disaster as I still had my spare camera. When I came to edit that particular video which was about Manchester Airport I also had a lot of unused video from previous visits as well as some video from the VHS days shot in the late 1980s so I was able to change direction a little bit and also to look at how the area has changed in recent years.

Going back further to the 1960s and 70s, my schoolfriends and I used to visit the airport regularly and go on to the viewing terraces to watch the aircraft land and take off. My old schoolfriend Steve used to be a real aircraft expert and when we made a video about the airport in 1986, he would comment on my photos saying things like ‘that was a 747 just arrived from Heathrow’ or ‘that was a Lufthansa 757 off to Munich’.

My mother too was pretty knowledgeable about aircraft, well, World War II aircraft anyway. Manchester was bombed in the war and mum’s suburban home of Wythenshawe was frequently hit as it was just up the road from the airport, a particular target of the Nazi bombers. The famous WWII pilot Guy Gibson did some of his training at Manchester airport, then called Ringway and mentions it in his autobiography, Enemy Coast Ahead. My mother says she could tell if the aircraft were British or German by the sound of their engines. The German bombers had a deep droning sound apparently.

A lot of my photographs are routinely backed up on Google Photos but recently they advised me about the new limits of their online backup service. From June 1st 2021, instead of free back up, that now only extends to 15 GB, after that we will have to purchase a plan with Google to continue our image storage. All my laptop images are backed up at Flickr.com but again, that isn’t a free service, I pay a yearly fee. Of course, I could just cancel but then how could I access my images? Well, it just so happens that all my images and videos are backed up on my three hard drives but Google is so much easier to use. If I want a picture for a blog post I tend to just search my Google photos rather than search around the house for my drives and then plug them in. When I went to back up my 2021 photos and videos the other day, I realised I didn’t have enough memory on my current drive so now I’ll have to get another one.

Loss of memory is a regular theme in the film world. The Bourne Identity and its sequels were about an intelligence agent who wakes and does not know who he is. Matt Damon plays the lead character who is picked up by a fishing boat near to death suffering from bullet wounds and total amnesia. The Bourne films are a series I’ve always wanted to watch but I never seen them. (Note to self- set the TV recorder next time The Bourne Identity appears on the TV guide.)

Hitchcock made an amnesia themed film in Spellbound starring Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman. A doctor, played by Gregory Peck, arrives at a mental hospital to replace the outgoing hospital director but Ingrid Bergman discovers Peck is an imposter. Peck’s character fears he may have killed the former director but cannot recall anything. Not my favourite Hitchcock film but it’s an interesting one with dream sequences designed by surrealist artist Salvador Dali.

Finally, here’s my favourite amnesiac film, Random Harvest starring Ronald Colman and Greer Garson. It’s a film not often seen on TV and now and again I’ll get out my old VHS copy if I want to watch it. Based on the book by one of my favourite authors, James Hilton, the film concerns a shell-shocked war veteran, played by Colman, recovering in a sanatorium during the latter days of WWI. The man cannot remember his past but makes a new life with Greer Garson. After they are married the man now known as Smithy, journeys to Liverpool to see a newspaper editor about a story he has written. In the city Smithy is hit by a cab and knocked unconscious. When he awakes all memory of Smithy has vanished but his true identity returns.

He returns home to his lost family but what was he doing in Liverpool. Where has he been in the years since his wounding in the trenches of the Great War?

At times a little sentimental, I’ve always loved this film. Colman is wonderful as the man who rejuvenates his family’s business, becomes a respected MP but cannot find happiness until he knows what happened to him in those few lost years.

Here’s a last thought on the subject of memory. When you are at the pub quiz and are struggling to recall the name of the guy who played Jason King in TV’s ‘Department S’, never say to yourself ‘I can’t remember’. According to Paul McKenna, the guy who produced all those books and tapes about confidence boosting which I used to use when preparing for job interviews, you are sending a message to your subconscious saying ‘don’t remember’. What you should say to yourself is ‘I’m not sure at the moment but the answer WILL come to me soon.’ That way, you’re sending a positive message to your subconscious telling it to get working on that long-forgotten name.

Now, who did play Jason King? Peter Wyngarde! Told you it would work!


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10 Great War Films (Part 2)

I was reading a post called The 10 Best War Films Ever the other day. It wasn’t a list I particularly agreed with and in fact I hadn’t seen or even heard of quite a few of the films mentioned so I thought I’d have a go at making my own list. Here we go. As this post went on a bit I published part 1 last week so now here’s part 2.

Angels One Five

Angels One Five is another WWII film this time concerning the Royal Air Force. John Gregson plays a new pilot who is assigned to ‘Pimpernel’ squadron at a small airfield in the south of England. When he touches down he crashes and damages his replacement aircraft, not making a great impression on his new colleagues. The film follows Gregson’s character, nicknamed ‘Septic’ as he begins work at the station, first in the control room and then as a novice pilot.

Parts of the film were shot at RAF Uxbridge where a wartime operations room was located. Jack Hawkins and Michael Dennison also star in the film which shows life in the Royal Air Force in the dark days of 1940 during the battle of Britain.

Paths of Glory

Paths of Glory was a 1957 film directed by Stanley Kubrick. It was set in the First World War and starred Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax. General Broulard of the general staff orders his army to attack a German position known as the Anthill. He commands General Mireau to organise the attack. Mireau says the task is impossible but changes his mind when offered a promotion. The attack predictably fails and some of the troops refuse to attack when they see their colleagues in the first wave mown down. The enraged General Mireau orders his artillery to fire on his own men but the artillery commander refuses.

Afterwards the general decides to have 100 men court martialled for cowardice but is later persuaded to have the number reduced to three. Colonel Dax, a lawyer in civilian life, volunteers to defend the men but the trial turns out to be a farce.

The Dambusters

This is one of those films that I have always loved in spite of its sometimes amateur special effects. The original Star Trek movie has been in the news lately as it has been re released with updated special effects and I often think it would be a great idea for some older films to be updated in that way too. Anyway, the Dambusters is another classic WWII film. It starts with the inventor Barnes Wallis played by Michael Redgrave who is working on an idea to breech the Ruhr dams in Germany thus disrupting the German manufacturing base in the Ruhr Valley. He works constantly in a water testing tank refining his ideas for a bouncing bomb. After a difficult process he gets his idea accepted by Bomber Command and a new squadron, 633 squadron is formed to take on the mission. Its leader is the famous Guy Gibson played by Richard Todd. Gibson and his team take on a difficult and dangerous task. The bombs must be dropped from low level at a specific height and specific distance from the dam. I’ve often felt this to be a wonderful film that not only shows the dangers of war and combat but also shows the whole process from beginning to end of the design and inception of a new wartime project. The only disappointing aspect is those poor special effects.

Platoon

OK, that’s enough of WWII, time to move on. Platoon was a film written and directed by Oliver Stone based on his own experiences in the Vietnam war. Vietnam was a different kind of war to WWII. The soldiers were younger and many were disillusioned about being in Vietnam in the first place. Charlie Sheen stars as a new recruit arriving in Vietnam and he soon learns that his life is worth less than the fellow soldiers. They have put the time in, they have fought the Vietcong and so if anyone deserves to go home safe and sound, it is them, not him.

The platoon is led by a young and inexperienced officer but the two real leaders are two company sergeants, Barnes and Elias played by Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe. Charlie Sheen’s character, Chris Taylor, respects both men but sees Barnes as someone who is a little dangerous. In an incident at a village Barnes shoots a Vietnamese woman dead while interrogating the villagers for information. Elias arrives and breaks things up and Barnes later finds he might be the subject of an investigation into the incident. During a fire fight with the Vietcong, Barnes shoots Elias dead in order to prevent him speaking up and later Taylor shoots a wounded Barnes.

Platoon is a powerful film that won many awards including four Oscars including best picture and best director.

Born on the Fourth of July

Born on the Fourth of July was another film by director Oliver Stone and the second in his Vietnam trilogy. It tells the story of Ron Kovic who was wounded in Vietnam and left paralysed and wheelchair bound. Tom Cruise gives a great performance as Kovic, showing him go from a believer in the war to the exact opposite, someone who campaigns for an end to the killing in Vietnam. He is invalided back to the USA where the poor medical care and the state of the veterans’ hospital is graphically portrayed. Kovic goes to Dulce Villa, a haven in Mexico for wounded veterans where he spends a lot of time drinking and perhaps getting the anger out of his system. Later he joins an anti-war group and the film finishes with Ron about to address the Democratic National Convention although I thought that a better ending might have been to show him actually making his speech. Even so, Oliver Stone has produced a powerful film which gave Tom Cruise his first nomination for Best Actor and another director’s Oscar for Stone himself.

So that’s my personal Ten Best War Films. If you missed Part One last week, click here to read it. What were your favourite war movies?


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