TV, Westerns and The Outlaw

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

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

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

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

Anyway, this isn’t a post about Hughes, it’s about TV and looking through my old posts I noticed a couple that caught my attention. One was about Hughes and I have to confess, I pinched the text above from that post, and another was about my life as a couch potato and avid TV viewer. A few days ago, staying at my mother’s house I once again had a few couch potato days. On the first one I was tapping away on my laptop with the TV on but no sound. On Mum’s old TV you can go through the on screen menu and choose programmes you want to watch and the TV will flip to that channel at the appointed time. It was Saturday afternoon and even though that Saturday’s post had just been published, as usual I was already worrying about the next one.

As I looked up from my laptop I could see a new film had started. I switched on the volume and was surprised to find it was The Outlaw, the Hughes film I mentioned above. I had never seen the film and everything I knew about it came from either books, documentaries or films like the Aviator, the Martin Scorsese film about Hughes himself. Hughes filmed The Outlaw in 1941 but had trouble with the film censors of the time. He had to cut half a minute from the film where the camera had lingered for too long on Jane Russell’s ample bosom. 20th Century Fox however decided not to release the film thinking perhaps it was too hot to handle. Hughes decided to build his publicity on that very idea. The film was released for a quick showing and then Hughes put the film under wraps for the next few years while his publicity people whipped up controversy and hysteria, meaning that when it opened in 1946, released finally by RKO, the film was a huge hit.

Even over half a century later people like me are still liable to be caught up in the controversy because I always thought the film was about Rio, the character played by Jane Russell and was of a risqué nature, or at least as risqué as films could get in 1941. I have to admit I missed the beginning of the film the other day and the famous scene of Jane Russell in the hay must have occurred either before I looked up from my laptop or when I was in the kitchen making a brew.

Hughes seemed to be obsessed with Jane’s breasts and wasn’t happy with the way they looked on screen, so much so he designed a new cantilevered bra for her, perhaps the first push up bra ever made. Russell later claimed that the bra was a nightmare to wear so she simply used her own but padded the cups with tissue, which apparently achieved the effect that Hughes wanted.

The action, such as it was, seemed to revolve around the friendship which blossomed between Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday which seems to make Pat Garrett very jealous as he considered himself a better friend to the Doc than Billy. It was actually a quirky sort of film. Walter Huston, father of film director John, played the part of Doc Holliday and Jack Buetel, an actor I don’t think I’ve heard of before, played Billy.

Billy the Kid has been portrayed a number of times in films, as have Pat Garrett and Doc Holliday. Paul Newman played Billy in The Left Handed Gun, a part originally earmarked for James Dean until Dean was killed in a car crash. In the 1970’s Sam Peckinpah directed Pat Garret and Billy The Kid starring James Coburn as Pat Garret and Kris Kristofferson as Billy. Bob Dylan also had a small part as well as writing the music for the film including the hit single Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.

Billy the Kid was killed in 1881 by Pat Garrett. There were rumours however that Pat staged Billy’s death so that he would be free of pursuit by the law. That scenario was used in the end of The Outlaw, although in the film it was Doc Holliday who gets the bullet but it was Billy’s name on the gravestone.

One of my favourite cowboy/outlaw films has to be Jesse James, the 1939 film starring Tyrone Power as Jesse and Henry Fonda as his brother. The film was so successful that they made a sequel, The Return of Frank James starring Henry Fonda as Frank on track to find his brother’s killer.

Two more outlaws whose fame has lasted right down to the present day were Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and the two were played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford in a film called just that: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I saw a film programme a while back on the BBC where Paul Newman explained that screenwriter William Goldman had approached him about making the film and starring as Butch. Various people were suggested for the Sundance Kid and Newman even met with Steve McQueen about the part but eventually it was Robert Redford who won the role.

The film was released in 1969 but has a very 1970’s feel about it. There is even a musical interlude in the film where Paul Newman tries out a new fangled bicycle with Sundance’s girlfriend Etta to the tune of Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head.

My two favourite westerns both star John Wayne, the quintessential cowboy hero. Wayne starred in The Searchers, directed by John Ford. Wayne stars as a civil war veteran whose niece has been kidnapped by a band of warlike Commanches. Ethan Edwards takes his adoptive nephew on a long search for the kidnapped girl until they finally rescue her.

My other favourite is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Lee Marvin plays a brilliant part in that of Liberty Valance, a mean, no good bully who terrorises a western town until lawyer James Stewart manages to shoot him dead, or so we think. Later, when Stewart decides he is unwilling to base his career on being the man who shot Valance, John Wayne reveals what really happened.

Back in the fifties and sixties was probably the heyday of cowboy films and TV shows. Today it seems that the western is a genre that has been almost forgotten. As a schoolkid I was an avid watcher of The Lone Ranger, Branded, The Virginian, Bonanza, Casey Jones and many others. One of my favourites was Alias Smith and Jones, a series about two outlaws, Kid Curry and Hannibal Hayes who are on the run but have been offered an amnesty on the condition that they give up crime and go straight. They adopt new identities, that of Smith and Jones and try to live law abiding lives. It was a great series with some excellent episodes but in December 1971, Pete Duel, the actor who had played Hannibal Hayes committed suicide. Another actor was substituted in the role but the series was never as popular afterwards.

Another great western was Kung Fu. Kung Fu was an oddball western in many ways; it was about a half Chinese, half American called Kwai Chang Caine played by David Carradine. Caine becomes a Shaolin monk after he has been taken in by the monastery as an orphan. Caine has been tutored in the Buddhist religion and martial arts by master Po. When Po is murdered by the Emperor’s son, Caine retaliates and kills him. Now with a price on his head Caine flees to the USA. In the USA of the old west, Caine encounters many situations which then cause him to reflect on his own upbringing and tutoring in China, shown in many flashback sequences. Caine defends himself in many situations with his mastery of Kung Fu and the series became not only a great success but the forerunner in a world wide Kung Fu craze with many Hong Kong martial arts films also becoming popular.

The western film and TV shows seemed to have all fizzled out by the end of the 1970’s. Perhaps these days audiences prefer sci fi series like Star Wars and Star Trek. Tastes change of course and one day perhaps audiences will once again want more westerns. For now I think I’ll settle down after a busy shift, pour myself a glass of wine and wind down with my copy of John Ford’s The Searchers.


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The Film of the Book or the Book of the Film Pt 3

Papillon by Henri Charrière

Papillon is a book by Frenchman Henri Charrière. It is an autobiographical novel about Charrière’s imprisonment in the French penal colony of French Guiana and covers a period of about fifteen years. The original novel was written on a series of exercise books and is presented in just that way. Charrière describes his experience of imprisonment as a terrible one. He escaped and was recaptured many times and ended up in solitary imprisonment twice. The first time was for two years and he was kept in solitary for 24 hours a day. In his second bout of solitary a new officer takes over the running of the area and prisoners are let out for exercise every day. At one point in his escape Charrière encounters a tribe of Indians and joins them for many months, even marrying one of the Indian girls but despite finding this apparent paradise, he leaves and is imprisoned again. He eventually escapes from Devil’s Island by jumping into the sea aboard a sack filled with coconuts. The book is an incredible read and I found it one I just couldn’t put down. It is filled with action and adventure but also with thoughtful observations about the human condition and there are many moments when simple acts of kindness stand out to the author against a background of cruelty and inhumanity.

The book was an instant hit when it was published in France in 1969 and the author, Henri Charrière, nicknamed Papillon because of a tattoo of a butterfly on his chest, became a French celebrity. He died in 1973 but always maintained the book was true and based on his own recollections despite claims to the contrary. Whatever its origins the book is a true classic adventure story.

The Film

On paper this should have been a brilliant film; Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman star, there was a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr and music by Jerry Goldsmith. The director was Franklin J Shaffner, who I’ve not heard of but there are plenty of big names involved who would normally guarantee a great film. They even had author Henri Charrière who acted as an advisor to the production. Somehow though, they managed to turn out something of a dud. It’s hard to put the finger on what went wrong but reviewer Robert Ebert said the big flaw was that the audience failed to gain interest in the McQueen and Hoffman characters. I think the big problem was that the book was a long book, packed with incident and instead of trying to cram the whole book into a film, perhaps the producers should have concentrated on just a part of it. Steve McQueen was a reasonable actor and he was good in basic action roles but I just don’t think he was good enough to play Papillon. The film skips over many interesting elements of the book and at the end of the film when Charrière is imprisoned on Devil’s Island, McQueen appears to be an old man which wasn’t the case in real life. My advice: Don’t bother with the film, read the book.

The Wooden Horse by Eric Williams

I’ve been trying to remember which came first for me, the book or the film. After some reflection, it was probably the film but I read the book soon afterwards. I found a copy in a box of paperbacks someone had given to my Father. The book is a classic escape story from World War II. It’s a great read and the story starts with a usual day in the POW camp which consists of tea making, cooking and cleaning and exercising by walking a circuit around the camp. The author, real life escapee Eric Williams, tells the reader about the everyday problems of living in a hut full of bored officers looking forward to either red cross parcels, letters from home or escaping. The problems of escaping are many. The soil is soft and sandy meaning that a tunnel would be liable to collapse and the soil cleared from underground is different to the grey topsoil making it difficult to hide from the German guards. The main problem is the distance from the huts to the camp perimeter but the author and a friend hit on the idea of taking a vaulting horse and placing it near to the perimeter fence and having a tunnel dug from there with the prisoners exercised by vaulting over the horse and masking the escape operation. The POW camp, Stalag Luft III was also the same camp where the events depicted in The Great Escape took place.

The Film

The film is pretty faithful to the book and stars the usual stalwarts of British films in the 1950’s, actors like Leo Genn, Anthony Steel and David Tomlinson. It’s a nicely paced film showing the boredom of camp life and then the idea for the vaulting horse and its preparation and use. Various problems have to be overcome including tunnel cave ins and disposal of the resulting excavated sand but all goes well. The two escapees decide to add another man to their escape team and one night the three emerge from the tunnel into freedom. Of course the escape is not over; two of the men make their way to the Baltic port of Lubeck and manage to escape to neutral Sweden with the help of the Danish resistance by stowing away on a Danish ship. The third escapee also makes his way to freedom separately and all three meet up in neutral Sweden.

On her Majesty’s Secret Service by Ian Fleming

This book as you probably know is one of the James Bond series of books and is one of the last in the series. As usual, the book is well written and James Bond 007 is on the lookout for Ernst Stavro Blofeld whose fiendish plot was thwarted by Bond in the previous book, Thunderball. In this one Bond is close to resigning but after being given some holiday leave from work, meets a young girl, Tracy, who appears to be suicidal. After saving her from one such attempt Bond is introduced to her father Draco, who is head of a Corsican crime syndicate. Draco gives Bond a lead on Blofeld who appears to be trying to establish that he is in fact a baronet. Anyway, without going on and explaining the plot in detail, the book is an excellent read, one of the best in the Bond series.

The Film

The film was notable for being the first in the film franchise without Sean Connery as James Bond. Connery was tired of playing the part and so a search for a new Bond had begun. The new actor chosen was George Lazenby whose only claim to fame at the time was appearing in a TV advertisement for a Big Fry chocolate bar. For me, Lazenby was the perfect Bond. He looked the part, in fact I’ve always thought that he fitted Ian Fleming’s description perfectly. The film is a fast paced thriller and is one of the more serious of the Bond films. Diana Rigg plays Contessa Tracy Di Vincezo who Bond saves from a suicide attempt, just as he does in the book. Tracy’s father Marc Ange Draco who happens to be an underworld boss, gives Bond a tip as to Blofeld’s whereabouts. Bond, masquerading as Sir Hilary Bray, a representative of the College of Arms meets Blofeld in Switzerland on the pretext of confirming Blofeld as a baronet. Bond arrives at the ski resort of Piz Gloria and finds Blofeld is engaged on a new plot against the UK. The film throws in some great fight scenes, car chases and also an exciting ski chase sequence. It was directed by Peter Hunt and is still a favourite today amongst Bond fans. Sadly Lazenby decided not to play Bond again and Sean Connery returned for another outing as 007 in Diamonds are Forever.

Hamish Macbeth

This last entry is a little of a cheat really as the Hamish Macbeth series of books were made into a TV series rather than a film but here we go anyway.

Robert Carlyle played the eponymous TV police officer in the BBC series which first aired in 1995. The series is about a local Bobby based in the village of Lochdubh in the Scottish Highlands. Macbeth applies the rule of law in his own way and dispenses his own brand of laid back justice. Although successful at solving numerous crimes Macbeth avoids promotion in order to stay in the village.

Three series of Hamish Macbeth were produced with six episodes each. Although the series was based on the books by MC Beaton, the TV series differs greatly from the books, with new characters devised by the TV producers and various other aspects changed. I enjoyed the series enormously and even once visited Plockton, the Highland village that doubles for Lochdubh on television. MC Beaton, whose real name is Marion Chesney, apparently hated the TV production which I can understand as they changed her work considerably, adding and changing characters. I have to say though, I’ve always liked it.

Death of A Dreamer by MC Beaton

I picked up this copy of one of MC Beaton’s books in a second hand bookshop in Skipton. At first I wasn’t sure if it was a book for me but I soon settled into the story and it bumbles along nicely with a few twists and turns on the way. A lady artist, Effie Gerrard, arrives in the village and develops an obsession with another artist named Jock. Later Effie is found dead. Was it a suicide or was it murder? The police decide it was suicide but Hamish is not so sure and he decides to make further investigations.

In the books Hamish has a dog and a wild cat as pets unlike the TV show where his only pet is ‘Wee Jock’, a highland Westie dog. The book is heavy on dialogue and light on descriptive passages but it was an easy and enjoyable read and I liked it immensely. The only annoying thing was that after finishing the book, the first chapter of the next book had been added to tempt the reader I suppose into buying that one. I read that and found myself wanting the next book in the series so it might be time to begin scouring the bookshops of St Annes for more books in the series.


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Star Trek: The Blog Post

On many of the posts in this blog you will find references to Star Trek. I’ve been a big fan of Star Trek for many years and even though I’m not an actual ‘Trekkie’, visiting conventions and dressing up as a Klingon and so on, I do love a good episode of Star Trek so it’s high time I put all my Trek thoughts into one handy blog post.

Star Trek the Original series.

Here is something that may be a revelation to you; if you don’t know it already it will vastly improve your understanding of Star Trek. It’s a simple truth and here it is, Star Trek is about three guys, Captain Kirk, Mr Spock and Doctor McCoy. Sometimes there are four, we can maybe throw in Scotty but that’s it, that’s the essential truth about Star Trek and that’s why things like the Next Generation and Deep Space 9 will never come up to scratch, simply because Kirk, Spock and McCoy are not involved. Even the Star Trek people themselves understand this, which is why Star Trek has been reinvented (re-imagined to use movie speak) with new actors playing Kirk and his crew in the latest Trek movies.

The first series of Star Trek starred William Shatner as Captain James T Kirk. Forget Captain pointy head Picard, Kirk is a proper Captain and after a good twenty minutes of any episode he will usually have blasted a number of aliens with his phaser (a sort of ray gun) and done some pretty serious kissing of any beautiful girl, alien, android or otherwise, within a 100 yard area. Mr Spock was played by Leonard Nimoy. He is the ship’s science officer and as a Vulcan rarely displays emotion, logic being his primary motivation. Doctor McCoy played by DeForest Kelley is a doctor of the old school and he and Spock frequently get into verbal confrontations. Together they are the chief officers of the starship Enterprise on its five year mission to go where no man has gone before.

william_shatnerAs a schoolboy I wrote to Desilu studios where I believed Star Trek was made, based on credits shown at the end of the show. After a while I received a set of glossy pictures of the show’s stars. They were all signed by the various actors, Shatner, Nimoy and so on but the signatures, I have long suspected, were made by a machine.

The original Star Trek, like many TV programmes of the sixties was shot on film and today it looks pretty sharp compared to shows from the 80’s that were shot straight to video. It was given a digital makeover a few years back with digital effects and new CGI spacecraft and is looking pretty good these days. Which was my favourite episode? Well I’d have to say it was the one that fans voted the best Star Trek episode ever; City on the Edge of Forever. The crew of the Enterprise arrive at a distant planet searching for the source of some time displacement. The source is a time portal, left among the ruins of an ancient civilisation which although abandoned, still emits waves of time displacement. In the meantime, Doctor McCoy is suffering from paranoia brought on by an accidental overdose of the wonder drug cordrazine which any Star Trek fan will tell you can cure any known Galactic ailment. McCoy in his crazed state bumbles through the time portal, back to 1930’s America (handy for that old 1930’s set on the Paramount back lot) and changes history. Kirk and Spock are forced to also go back in time, stop McCoy from changing history and restore things to the way they were. Joan Collins plays a charity worker at the core of events; does she have to die in order to restore normality?

Star Trek the Motion Picture

After three series the show was cancelled but was remade a few years later as a TV cartoon. The huge fan base of the series caused the producers to think again and in 1977 they decided to make a big screen version of the show to cash in on the huge success of Star Wars. Star Trek the Motion Picture was released in 1979 and was directed by Robert Wise who was one of the editors on the film classic, Citizen Kane. I enjoyed the film very much although I feel the story was a little lacking. An entity called Vega is on the way to destroy the earth and the only starship in interception range is the recently refurbished Enterprise. All the favourites from the TV series make their return with a few additions. It was a good film but not a great one.

The Next Generation

The success of the film made the producers think about a new TV series, not with Kirk, Spock and McCoy but with a new crew. The Next Generation is set further into the future than the original series. Patrick Stewart plays the Captain and Jonathan Frakes is the first officer. There is no Vulcan science officer like Mr Spock but Brent Spiner plays a similar character; Data, an android.

The Next Generation is something I have always found rather lacking. I wasn’t keen on Mr Pointy-head Captain Picard and the cocktail lounge style bridge on his version of the starship Enterprise. Why on earth does he have to run every decision by his first officer, his councillor and everyone else on the bridge when Kirk would have just sorted that situation out like a shot, fired off a few photon torpedos and would even have found a pretty girl to flirt with too? The series was filmed on video and doesn’t look as good today when compared to the pin sharp original series.

Deep Space 9.

What can I say about this series? My knee jerk reaction was that it’s a load of old tosh might sound a bit mean to die hard Trek fans, but it was never my cup of tea. The only episode I ever enjoyed was an episode in which the crew of Deep Space 9 return to the past and get involved in the old original series episode ‘The Trouble with Tribbles’ using some pretty nifty special effects.

Star Trek Voyager.

I wasn’t so keen on Voyager at first, but I have to say I do like the later episodes when Captain Janeway finally got rid of her early weird hair styles and the drippy alien Kes got the bullet from the show.

Captain Janeway was the Star Trek world’s first female captain and as she began to look more normal as far as her hair, the writers decided to shake things up with the new and pretty sexy Seven of Nine character. She was rescued from the Borg, an alien race whose catchphrase is you will be assimilated. Seven was given a very appealing tight fitting catsuit to wear instead of the Space Federation regulation uniform. Catsuits are OK and maybe they are pretty popular in the 24th century but they never seem to have any pockets. What Seven does with her handkerchiefs, lip gloss, mobile phone and purse I really don’t know. In the future people must prefer looking sexy rather than worrying about their stuff, at least they do in the eyes of the Star Trek writers.

Seven is the nucleus of some great episodes especially one where we go back and see how young Annika Hanson (Seven as a young girl), and her family were assimilated by the Borg. The Borg are a race of aliens who assimilate other species into their own and at their centre is the Borg Queen who really likes the idea of Seven coming back to her ‘collective’.

Star Trek Enterprise.

This is supposed to be a prequel to the original series. I can’t say I’ve ever got through a complete episode. My only observations are that the crew go around in overalls and the Captain is played by the guy who used to be in the time travel show Quantum Leap.

Star Trek Discovery.

The latest series in the franchise is Star Trek Discovery, which is rather like watching a very fast music video, I gave it a good 15 minutes and then had to switch off. Sorry, it’s just not my cup of sci-fi.

Star Trek Picard.

Picard airs on Netflix or Amazon or some such channel that I have no access to and have no intention of subscribing to, mainly because I am allergic to opening up my wallet. After watching a few clips of Picard on YouTube I actually found it quite appealing so I decided to search for a cheap DVD of the episodes on eBay. Picard, I have to say is a pretty amazing slice of sci-fi. It’s not perfect and in fact it is rather complicated but it’s about a mystery at the heart of Star Fleet and Admiral Picard, no longer a member of Star Fleet, is determined to find out. Along the way he meets Seven of Nine and various other favourites from the old TV shows. Some of the episodes have been a little slow and yes, I know I’ve slagged off Captain Picard before but for the most part this series has been pretty good and anyone wanting to buy my DVDs is welcome to make me an offer as soon as I have got through series one.

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

More on the Star Trek Films.

Getting back to the Star Trek films; Paramount studios decided to have another go at filming Star Trek for the big screen. For the second film they decided to employ producer Harve Bennett to make a better and cheaper Star Trek film. He apparently watched all the episodes of the TV series and decided to bring back the character of Khan who had once attempted to take over the Enterprise and was later left on a distant planet to start a new life with his crew. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan Mr Chekhov finds that the planet Khan was abandoned on has become a desert and Kahn isn’t happy; he wants revenge on Kirk. Wrath of Khan is a really good film, much more like the original TV episodes than Motion Picture. The crew all sport some new natty uniforms and clearly it must be a little chilly on the Enterprise because all the staff seem to be wearing woolly jumpers and jackets. I don’t remember the Apollo astronauts ever wearing woolly jumpers but maybe astronauts in the 24th century are not made of such stern stuff. Of course it could be that they just have never thought about turning up the central heating.

Trek III was another excellent film. In this one we find that although Spock died in the previous film, his body has been regenerated by the Genesis project. In Star Trek IV the crew return to the 1980’s in order to bring a whale back to the future for reasons which I won’t even begin to get into. Watch out for the scene where Spock deals with a guy playing loud music on the bus; I loved it.

The character of Captain Kirk was actually killed off in the movie Generations which started off pretty well, combining the usual sci-fi elements of Star Trek with an intriguing mystery; who is the mysterious Soran and what is he up to? As it happened what he was up to wasn’t really that interesting, but the film marked the cinema handover from the original Star Trek cast to the new one. Pity really because as I mentioned above, I never really took to the Next Generation.

Just as I’d got to the end of this post I thought it might be an idea to actually watch some Star Trek again for some final opinions. After a quick scan through my DVDs I came across Star Trek III in which the crew of the Enterprise are grieving over the loss of Mr Spock in the previous film. Captain Kirk finds that Spock, who knew he was about to die, had left his Katra, his soul, in the mind of Dr McCoy and the crew undertake to take McCoy and Spock’s body back to the planet Vulcan, Spock’s home. A lot of stuff happens along the way and of course they finally succeed in reuniting Spock’s body with his Katra, although sadly, Kirk’s son is murdered by the Klingons along the way. It’s a great film, very reminiscent of the original episodes but a big factor in the film is the performance of William Shatner. He really is an outstanding actor and I think the success of Star Trek is in no small measure due to him. Shatner went on to play many other roles on TV so he can hardly claim to be type cast but I wonder if he hadn’t played Kirk, would he have gone on to a better career as a film actor.

Star Trek is ultimately about three people, Kirk, Spock and McCoy and the producers probably realised that which is why, in the latest Trek films, a new generation of actors have been asked to recreate the old characters meaning that Captain Kirk lives on again for a new generation of sci-fi fans.


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A Slice of my Locked Down Life

When I used to work a nine to five job, I always looked forward to a bank holiday. It meant only working four days instead of five. Nowadays when I work shifts, I sometimes end up working the bank holiday but when it comes down to it, I don’t really care. It’s actually nicer having a break when the holiday resorts and seaside destinations are not packed. This bank holiday I wasn’t working but the weather in the UK, at least in the northwest where I live, was dreadful. It was cold and did nothing but rain so I spent the day watching TV.

The lockdown is easing in the UK and pubs and restaurants are open but, and it’s a rather big but, for outdoors only. We went to our favourite restaurant the other week. It had been a pretty warm day but it was cooling quickly by the time our table was ready. Luckily they have those outside heaters which helped but not that much. I couldn’t help comparing the situation to eating out in Lanzarote in January 2020. The restaurants over there have much more effective patio heaters but either way, it was good to be out again.

Last week we tried eating out again. This time we went to the 54 bistro in St Annes. It describes itself as a Mediterranean restaurant and it serves mainly tapas. Liz always goes for the fish platter they serve there. For me, I went for bruschetta followed by spicy pasta and some cheesy flatbread. The restaurant was still pretty busy and various potential diners got turned away while we were eating as the small dining area was either full or waiting for diners who had booked a table. There were patio heaters but up at a high level and they were not particularly effective. Maybe no one had told them that heat rises. We were dining at about six and by seven it had gone a lot cooler. Towards the end of the meal, it was actually really cold and despite my thick cardigan I was really chilled.

For some mad reason we decided to have a quick pint, our first of 2021 sat outside Wetherspoons and by the time I had supped my beer I was frozen to the bone. Roll on summer!

I don’t know if you remember but a few years back an aircraft that had just taken off from New York had to ditch in the Hudson river. For some reason Clint Eastwood decided to make a film about it and they showed it last week on BBC1.

I’ve actually always wondered how could they make a whole film about that short event. The aircraft takes off, hits a flock of birds, the engines get jammed up and this being New York, a pretty densely populated place, there was nowhere to land except in the river.

The film which was called Sully, after the pilot’s nickname, shows the plane landing in the river quite a few times. Pilot Sully played by Tom Hanks calls his wife up after the rescue to say he is OK. OK she asks? OK how? What has happened? Turn on the TV he says and you’ll see. The film then goes on to show Sully as a young pilot and later as an air force jet pilot following a colleague with a problem aircraft back to base.

Sully then has an interview with his bosses from the airline who, rather than being pleased he saved all those lives, seem to think Sully could have got the aircraft back to the airfield and the rest of the film tends to focus on that. Sully becomes a bit of a New York celebrity but early investigation reports also seem to indicate that the pilots could have made it back to LaGuardia airport. Sully says they could not have done so as both engines failed but the aircraft telemetry suggested that one engine was OK.

At the investigation hearing, a flight simulation is shown where various pilots easily turn back to the airport. Simulations are fine but as Sully points out, a simulation is just that, a simulation not reality. How many tries did the simulator pilots have? The answer was 17! Sully and his co-pilot only got one chance and after adding 35 seconds on to the simulator, for decision time, the simulator pilots all crashed. Later when the aircraft engines are raised from the river bed and checked, it is confirmed that both engines failed, just as the pilots said.

I have to say although parts of the film were interesting, as a whole it didn’t work for me. I remember seeing a film years ago where an aircraft ran out of fuel. I think they may have just changed from imperial measurement to metric and there was some confusion. Anyway the plane ran out of fuel somewhere over the USA but happily the pilots were able to glide down to earth using an unused airfield that the pilot happened to know about. That as I remember was a very good film with a really exciting build up of tension.(After some quick research I found it was called Freefall: Flight 174.)

Getting back to Sully I read somewhere that the whole incident was a tonic to New York as the previous aircraft disaster in the city, the 9/11 disaster did not have a happy ending, unlike this one.

In my draft folder I’ve got a post started called The Best Worst films of All Time. You might be confused by that at first but just think for a moment, how many crap films are there that you actually enjoy and continue to watch again and again every time they pop up on your TV screen. One of the films on the list was a film I watched last week and I must have watched it fifty times at least. It’s called Uncle Buck. I know, it’s a complete load of old tosh but I just seem to be drawn to it like a moth to a flame. Never seen it? Really? OK it’s a sort of variant on the film Home Alone and in fact one of the characters is played by that kid from the Home Alone films, Macauley Culkin.

In this movie a couple have to leave home because the wife’s mother has suddenly passed away. Who can they get to babysit the three kids? No one is available so the no good bum of a brother in law is roped in, you guessed it, Uncle Buck. Uncle Buck is played by the late John Candy and he has to contend with kids he doesn’t even know including, as well as young Mr Culkin, two screen sisters, one of them a teenage girl with a big attitude problem. She is completely embarrassed by her uncouth uncle and his smoke screen producing old banger automobile and even though the film is just a notch above rubbish, it’s actually quite fun in parts.

Buck sorts out ‘Bug’, the teenage girl’s cheating boyfriend and in doing so finally makes friends with his teenage niece. Uncle Buck is a great film to watch when you’re tired and not really paying attention and I always get the feeling it was written by a sort of committee of writers. (Probably the same committee that wrote Home Alone and Three Men and a Baby and so on.) I remember once seeing a documentary about the US sitcom Friends. The show is not one of my favourite programmes but in the documentary they showed how Friends was recorded in front of a live audience. If a bit of business didn’t quite work out, the recording was stopped while a whole bunch of writers and producers had a chat about things. Then a new line or even a section of dialogue was inserted or some of the action was changed. That was then run past the live audience. If it still wasn’t quite right the laughter track was updated to fill in. Writing by committee, interesting.

Anyway, that’s my draft post about great but crap films rendered completely useless even though I only had two other films on my list. Still by the time I finally finish it in about six months, this post will just be a distant memory for regular readers so maybe I can still use it after all.

Getting back to Sully, the actual plane crash (sorry, water landing as the pilots called it) happened on January 15th 2009. It was a freezing day and those passengers looked particularly cold when I checked out the newsreel video from back then. That was just how I felt shivering outside Wetherspoons last week. At least I was able to call a cab, rush back home and light the fire!


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Some Thoughts on Books and Reading

I really do love books and reading. My idea of heaven is lying by a pool in somewhere like Lanzarote with the sun shining and a book in my hand. What is important for a good read is time. It’s alright to read a book on your lunch break or on the bus travelling home after work but to really get into a book, some uninterrupted time is important. So, what is really so good about reading? You, the reader must like reading otherwise you probably wouldn’t be reading this but for me reading is about connecting with worlds I will never see and connecting with my own world too; finding that I’m not as unique or as different as I had thought and that other people have had similar experiences to me.

Looking through a box of my old books I found a book I had read many years ago. It’s called the Wooden Horse and it’s a classic wartime escape book. The author conveys vividly the boredom of incarceration during WWII as a prisoner of war and the feelings that time was just slipping away and also the petty arguments that arose when confined with other people. Escape was on the minds of many but digging an escape tunnel was difficult as there was such a long way to tunnel. The huts were deliberately placed well away from the camp perimeter. One day, one of the men had an idea, what if they could start the tunnel nearer the wire? They hit on the idea of making a vaulting horse, putting a couple of men inside and then digging while their fellow prisoners exercised above.

The Wooden Horse was written by one of the actual escapees, Eric Williams. He was an RAF pilot shot down over Germany and imprisoned in 1942 and in 1950 the book was made into a classic WWII film.

As a child I remember reading books at night in bed before going to sleep and arguing with my brother who wanted the light turned out. Sometimes I’d read under the covers with a torch.

There was a small library a short ten-minute walk from my old house and I used to spend many an early evening there with my mother and brother. I remember a particular series of books I used to read when I was very young about someone called Mr Grimpwinkle.

A quick search on Google showed my memory had not failed me and there was such a series of books. They were written by a lady called Joan Drake. One example was Mr Grimpwinkle’s Marrow published in 1959. The going price on Abebooks was £148.95, quite a considerable sum for a book. The author, Joan Drake, seems to have published quite a few children’s books but I couldn’t find out anything more about her. I did actually fancy buying a copy of Mr Grimpwinkle’s Marrow just for nostalgic reasons but £149 is a lot to pay for nostalgia.

Another book I particularly remember was one I got for Christmas one year. It was two stories in one book. I forget the title and the author but one part was the story of Robin Hood and the other was about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The end of both stories has always struck me. In Robin Hood, Robin lies on his death bed and fires a last arrow asking to be buried wherever the arrow lands. That could have been tricky for Robin’s merry men but as far as we know everything went to plan and Robin was laid to rest somewhere, I assume, in Sherwood forest. When Arthur lies dying, he entrusts one of his lieutenants with the sword Excalibur and tasks him to throw the sword into a lake. The knight, who I believe was Sir Bedivere, wasn’t happy with throwing away such an excellent sword so he hid it. When Arthur asked what had happened and Sir Bedivere replied ‘nothing’, Arthur knew he was lying. Eventually the knight was persuaded to follow Arthur’s instructions and saw that Excalibur was caught by the lady of the lake, brandished three times then disappeared into the waters.

Now that is a book I would like to read again and ever since that first read many years ago I have always been interested in Robin and King Arthur.

The story of Robin Hood has been made into many films. A recent one from 2010 was Robin Hood which starred Russell Crowe as Robin and was directed by Ridley Scott. I’ve only seen it once but it was a pretty good film. Another version from 1991 starred Kevin Costner. Robin Hood Prince of Thieves was a highly enjoyable film if you can overlook Costner’s American accent. Alan Rickman plays a slightly over the top Sheriff of Nottingham and the film is well worth watching.

Douglas Fairbanks made the original version of Robin Hood in 1922. It was the very first film to have a Hollywood premiere which was held at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on October 18th 1922. I’ve always thought that this was the film in which Fairbanks slides down a huge curtain by slashing it with his sword but after a quick internet check it looks like that was The Black Pirate from 1926.

Alan Hale played Little John in Fairbank’s version and interestingly, he played the same role in the later Errol Flynn version The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938.

Flynn’s version is probably the definitive film of Robin Hood. It was shot in Technicolor and starred Flynn alongside Olivia de Havilland as Lady Marian and Basil Rathbone as Guy of Gisbourne. Claude Rains played Prince John who plots to steal the throne from King Richard who is away at the Crusades. Michael Curtiz directed.

King Arthur and the legend of the Knights of the Round Table has also inspired quite a few films. King Arthur and the Legend of the Sword from 2017 was probably the latest. It was directed by Guy Ritchie and stars Charlie Hunnam (never heard of him myself) and Jude Law.

There was a version called First Knight from 1995 starring the highly over rated Richard Gere and a 2004 version simply called King Arthur with Clive Owen as Arthur. ‘A gritty attempt to update Arthurian legend’ said the one review I found on Google.

There was a cartoon version, the Sword in the Stone released in 1963 and a musical, Camelot from 1967 but my favourite film adaptation is Excalibur directed by John Boorman. Nicol Williamson plays an impressive Merlin and the film is an absorbing mix of sorcery, legend and fantasy all remaining fairly true to Le Morte d’Arthur, the book published by Thomas Mallory in 1485.

Under normal circumstances I might go on to talk further about my favourite books but I have done that already. I think I did my top ten favourite books in two parts a few weeks back. At various points in my blogging life I’ve written about David Copperfield, The Great Gatsby and Lost Horizon, my three all time favourite books. I’ve also written a few posts about James Bond, the UK’s top secret agent but I’d like to focus on one of the Bond books, Goldfinger.

Back in the early 1960’s Harry Saltzman bought the film rights for the Bond books. He formed a partnership with fellow producer Albert Broccoli and they cast Sean Connery as Bond and in 1962 produced the first Bond movie, Doctor No. I was a schoolboy back then and had never seen the films but there was a great deal of hype about them on television. So much so that I went down to the library to read one of the books. There was only one in stock at the time and it was The Man with the Golden Gun, one of the worst books in the series. The author, Ian Fleming, had passed away before finishing the final draft of the book which accounts for the poor quality. Luckily, my uncle brought round a box of paperbacks for my dad to read and one was a cheap paperback version of Goldfinger. I read it, thought it was wonderful and embarked on a mission to buy all the other Bond books.

At school in English class our teacher had asked us to bring in a book with a vivid description of someone and my choice was Goldfinger. The book is about a man called Auric Goldfinger, a rich businessman who is suspected of smuggling gold. Bond is tasked to find out more and Fleming gives the reader a particularly compelling description of Goldfinger.  Fleming describes him as having a body seemingly put together with parts of other people’s bodies. I always thought that was pretty good. Fleming used to write his first drafts of a book and then add in all sorts of details afterwards like the vodka martinis that James Bond liked so much and the Sea Island cotton shirts that Bond favours in the novels. It was actually Fleming who wore those particular shirts and who drank vodka martinis and also preferred scrambled eggs for breakfast. Many people have speculated who Bond was based on and my feeling has always been that in fact it was Ian Fleming himself.

My current read is a book I mentioned last week, Charlie Chaplin and his Times by Kenneth S Lynn. Chaplin was a music hall entertainer working for the great impresario Fred Karno. Karno regularly sent teams of entertainers to the USA and while there Chaplin was invited to make a film for Mack Sennett, the famous producer of comedy films. Chaplin’s films proved to be enormously popular and so Chaplin moved on to different studios, all for better and better money until he established his own studio. I’ve always found the early days of Hollywood to be fascinating and this book is no exception.

Which books are you reading?


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Getting to the Heart of a Classic Film

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

Citizen Kane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Waterfront

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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More From a Locked Down Blogger

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

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

Flying the Drone

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stan and Ollie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Covid 19

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


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Movie Themes

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

Rocky.

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

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

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

Verdict: Great film, great theme.

The Magnificent Seven.

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

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

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

Mission Impossible.

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

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

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

Titanic.

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

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

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

So, what is your favourite movie theme?


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Book Bag: The Early Days of Cinema

My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A fascinating read none the less.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hollywood.

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

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

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

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

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


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Kitchen Sink Dramas of the 1980’s

A while back I did a post about the kitchen sink dramas that emerged in the 1960’s but I thought I’d look now at some later films that have continued that tradition of focusing on working class life. I’m not really sure that today in the 21st century the working class still exist. Modern UK is, to a great extent a classless society. Then again, perhaps it’s just a society of the haves and the have nots. That concept relates particularly well to the 1980’s. The decade of Thatcherism and Yuppies and inner city riots. Kitchen sink dramas were almost exclusively northern, set in places like Manchester, Liverpool and Lancashire with strong no nonsense northern characters. Here are four films from the 1980’s that fit that category.

Educating Rita (1983)

This was a breakthrough film for Julie Walters and I remember Michael Caine who also stars in the film saying that this film would do for Julie what Alfie did for him. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. The film is about a Liverpool hairdresser played by Julie who wants to better herself. She decides to take an Open University course in English Literature. Her tutor played by Caine is initially confused as he has the name of Susan White on his documents and Susan explains that she has now changed her name to Rita after reading Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. Frank Bryant (Caine) is not keen on taking Rita on as a student but she convinces him otherwise. Rita finds Frank has ignited her passion for literature but has to contend with her husband who wants her to be a traditional wife and produce babies. Husband and wife finally split leaving Rita to pursue her studies. She moves in with a fellow student and gradually, as she mixes with more students and studies more, she becomes less and less like her former self. Frank becomes more and more fond of her, possibly even in love with her but his position as a university lecturer is compromised by his heavy drinking.

In a lot of ways this is such a good film. Julie Walters is outstanding as Rita and Michael Caine is excellent too. The big problem for me is that while Julie plays Rita as a typical scouser with a superb Liverpool accent, the setting clearly isn’t Liverpool. Not only that but the other accents in the film all grate with Julie’s as they are a mix of various northern accents. Caine of course as the lecturer, doesn’t have to have to be a Liverpudlian but the hotchpotch of brogues, some from Manchester, some from Liverpool just seemed to jar to my ear. The film was apparently filmed in Ireland so why not make Rita and her family Irish? That would have made more sense although filming in Liverpool with a local cast would have been the better option. Perhaps production finances made that impossible.

Shirley Valentine (1989)

Like Educating Rita, this was a film based on a play written by Willy Russell. In this one Liverpudlian Shirley is getting a little bored with her life. Unlike Rita in the film above it’s not learning that Shirley wants, it’s a good holiday. She is getting a bit fed up of waiting hand and foot on her husband and when the chance comes to go to Greece with her friend she wonders if she could really do it, really leave her husband behind and swan off to the sun? A couple of things make her decide that it is really time to put herself first. The first one is when her husband gets really annoyed when she serves chips and egg instead of steak for their Thursday evening meal. Surely she knew Thursday was steak night? The other is when her daughter comes home and like her dad, expects to be waited on so off Shirley goes to Greece. Things don’t go quite to plan when her mate finds herself a man on the flight over and leaves Shirley to her own devices. After a few days Shirley finds her confidence and begins to enjoy things alone. She meets Costas, a bar owner and spends time with him on his small boat and when the time comes to leave, Shirley decides she is going to stay.

Like Michael Caine in Alfie, Shirley talks straight to the camera and reveals she is in love. Not with Costas but with herself. At the end of the film her husband arrives in Greece and the two sip wine together by the sea. Will Shirley return with him? The film leaves the question open.

Shirley Valentine is a much better film than Educating Rita. Shirley and her husband played by Pauline Collins and Bernard Hill come across as authentic Liverpudlians and the whole film, especially Shirley talking to the camera, works very well. Both films were directed by Lewis Gilbert who directed amongst other things, the Michael Caine classic Alfie. With some better casting in the smaller roles, Educating Rita would have been just as good.

Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1987)

Like the two films above, this too was based on a play, in fact it was two plays that were adapted and merged together into a screenplay by the play’s author Andrea Dunbar. Andrea was raised on the Buttershaw council estate in Bradford, West Yorkshire and became pregnant at 15. This event inspired her first play The Arbor. It was written originally as a classroom assignment and encouraged by her teacher, Andrea developed the work into a full blown play. The film was filmed on the Buttershaw estate where Andrea continued to live, despite several residents threatening her because of the negative portrayal of the area in the film.

In the film, two babysitters Rita and Sue, begin an affair with Bob for whom they have been babysitting. Bob’s marriage later breaks down when his wife finds out. Sue later gets involved with an Asian taxi driver called Aslam who becomes violent. He attacks Sue but Rita arrives and the two both turn on the taxi driver, disabling him long enough for the two to escape. They flee to Bob’s house where Aslam turns up and pleads for Sue to forgive him. Bob arrives and then the Police, who have been called by the neighbours. The Police leave in pursuit of Aslam and Bob decides to have a bath. When he goes into the bedroom, the two girls are in bed waiting for him.

This is really an incredible film on many levels. It is funny but also shows northern council estates for what they are, a mix of rough and ready characters, some of whom take pride in their homes and the way they conduct themselves and some who do not. The tone of the film shifts quickly from humour to drama and back again and the documentary style of filming gives the film a gritty realism.

Gregory’s Girl (1981)

Gregory’s Girl was a low-budget movie made in 1981 and was written and directed by Bill Forsyth. The film is a gentle comedy about a young lad who fancies a girl who has just joined his school football team. The film was one of those special films where so many things come together to make a truly great and memorable film, in fact it is ranked number 30 in the British Film Institute’s list of the top 100 British films.

It reminds me so much of my own schooldays in so many ways even though it was filmed in Lanarkshire in Scotland. The hairstyles in the film were similar to those of myself and my friends back in 1973, the year I left school (armed with only four O levels to take on the world). The school ties and jackets were similar to mine, as were the classrooms and lead actor John Gordon Sinclair’s clumsy and shy manner both on and off the football field was just like mine.

Gregory lives on a new estate just like the one my family moved into in the mid 1970’s. He develops a crush on a new girl who has just joined the school football team and eventually he plucks up the courage to ask her for a date. He borrows his friend’s jacket and off he goes to meet her although things don’t turn out quite how he planned. Gregory’s Girl isn’t as gritty as the films I’ve mentioned above but for me it’s like a nostalgic trip back to my schooldays. Look out for the film on TV or you can even find the complete film on YouTube.


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