Michael Palin, Monty Python and a Good Lockdown Read

This week has been rather nice weather wise, apart from the last few days. On a normal week Liz and I would perhaps have started up the motorhome and driven off somewhere. Scotland perhaps or maybe even Wales. It’s a long time since I’ve been to Wales. A long, long time ago, my Grandfather and Grandmother moved to Prestatyn and lived there for quite a while. I’m not sure if my Grandfather had retired but whatever the reason, they moved to a large semi-detached house a few doors away from my Mother’s Auntie May, my Grandmother’s sister, who once upon a time ran a chip shop in the area. It might have been nice to have had a run up there to try and find their old house.

Of course, as we are currently still in ‘lockdown’ due to the Corona Virus Pandemic, that hasn’t been possible but happily due to the nice weather, we’ve been able to drag ourselves into the garden and the fresh air.

Most of the time when I’ve not been writing I’ve been watching TV or reading. In recent years I have developed some very bad reading habits. I tend to start two or three books at a time and then to concentrate on the more interesting one, and so the other ones, the slightly less interesting ones, tend to fall by the wayside.

On one of my past book posts I talked about diaries, and one diary I was reading then was the diary of Michael Palin of Monty Python fame. His diaries span a decade from 1969 to 1979 and start just as filming for the classic TV comedy show Monty Python’s Flying Circus was beginning. I’m sorry to say that I picked up something much more interesting and left the Palin diaries abandoned somewhere. Looking around for something to read recently I retrieved the book and finished it off.

The diaries begin just as Palin had given up smoking and just as the recordings of the first Monty Python TV series took place. I’m not sure how Python came together but in the introduction Palin explains how he had just finished a series called The Complete And Utter History of Everything which didn’t do very well. Palin recalls a telephone call from John Cleese commenting that as it was unlikely that any more of that series would be made, what shall we do next? Next was Monty Python. Palin never really explains the writing process for Monty Python but it appears there were three separate writing groups: Michael Palin usually wrote with Terry Jones, Cleese wrote with Graham Chapman and Eric Idle usually wrote alone. Terry Gilliam made the (apparently) funny animations for the show. The show was broadcast late on a Tuesday night which was disappointing for the Python team. They wanted it to be shown earlier for more exposure while the BBC thought it was a little risqué for earlier viewing.

I was a schoolboy in 1969 and I well remember the ritual of mithering my mother to stay up and watch it. I usually got my way as my mother soon got fed up of my moaning. One day I forgot about Monty Python completely and when I arrived at school someone came over to me, raised their hands and exclaimed ‘Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition!’ What are you on about? I thought. ‘Didn’t you see Monty Python last night?’ said my friend and with a look of disgust went over to someone else.

‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition’ he said again and a group of my schoolmates collapsed into helpless laughter. Later we went on to the school assembly and I remember feeling like the odd one out, all because I hadn’t seen Monty Python.

After assembly we went into our first class, English or whatever it was. There, one of my friends approached me and asked had I seen Monty Python last night?

I thought for a moment and then said ‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!’ The two of us rolled over in laughter and thankfully I was no longer the odd one out. Believe it or not it was years before I got to see the Spanish Inquisition sketch.

It’s hard to find a clip of the Spanish Inquisition these days because it was used to end or change the pace of a number of other sketches. Anyway, here’s one of Cleese and Palin talking about it.

Michael Palin seems to have had his fair share of lunches and cocktail parties according to his diaries but he also talks about his house and his family and his writing with Terry Jones. The Pythons have lots of meetings, especially when they decide to make the Python films. John Cleese dropped out of the final Python TV series and he and the others all started their own projects. Cleese made Fawlty Towers, Eric did the Rutles, a spoof on the Beatles and Michael Palin did Ripping Yarns for the BBC which although Palin was happy with it I personally remember it as being a little slow.

The first Monty Python movie was just a film version of their best sketches but later they made Monty Python and the Holy Grail and then the Life of Brian, a spoof on the life of Christ which didn’t go down well with various religious groups. All the Pythons contributed to the writing of the films, each of them bringing in their various sketches and ideas and if the other group members approved, the ideas were incorporated into the final screenplay. Who was in charge of that it’s hard to say as it’s not really clear from the diaries. Michael Palin took over various projects including the first Python record album. Everyone else was too busy although on the eve of its release Eric Idle decided to do some work on it which Michael wasn’t too happy about. Various disputes were recorded in the diaries but the Pythons all managed to get over any disagreements.

As well as records there were also various Monty Python books and in fact, I remember buying one. It was the ‘Monty Python Bok’ I’m not sure why it was a bok rather than a book but it was very funny. The dustcover was white and when I went to buy a copy the top one had dirty fingerprints on. So did the next one and the next. Just then the shop assistant came over and explained the fingerprints were printed on, it was part of the joke!

In one diary entry Palin mentions an irate female book shop owner who complained about the fake fingerprints. Try as he may Michael could not arrange fingerprint free dustcovers for the shop owner. Well then said the woman, I will sell them without the dustcover. The thing was, under the dustcover the ‘bok’ had a fake soft porn cover. I think it was called ‘Tits N Bums’!

By the time of The Life of Brian the Pythons were trying to attract interest in the lucrative American market and Michael had various meetings and TV appearances on US TV, on one occasion travelling on Concorde to appear on the TV show Saturday Night Live with regulars John Belushi and Bill Murray. Former Beatle George Harrison came on board as a producer with his company Handmade Films and after EMI decided not to finance the film it was Harrison’s company that saved the production.

I have to say that personally, I was never a great fan of the Python films, I much preferred the quick and rapid-fire style of the TV show and its sketch format but also I felt that the films looked too real. The production values were just too good and I felt the stories were much more suited to the second-rate sets and backgrounds of, for instance, the Carry On films. Interestingly, Palin himself comments in one of his entries after seeing an historical film which looked visually outstanding that ‘this is the way we’re going to make a Python film!’

Another interesting aspect about the diaries was hearing about some things I had forgotten about like the three-day week, the Oil Crisis and the IRA bombing campaign in London. The three-day week meant power cuts on many weekdays and I remember sitting in my mum’s kitchen in candle light while my dad desperately tried to read the Manchester Evening News. Palin talks about the oil crisis and even petrol rationing in 1973 which I don’t really remember although in 1973 I was 16 and had just left school and had been released into the world clutching my four O’ levels. Palin and his friends were all from the university set of the late sixties and his university background is evident in his diaries.

Reading a diary isn’t like reading an autobiography and sometimes various things don’t quite make sense although I found Palin’s diaries much easier to read than Kenneth Williams’ diaries which I read some time ago.

The diaries are a fascinating read if you are a fan of Monty Python and even if you aren’t it is still interesting to see what a life your average TV comedy writer and performer leads. I particularly liked the making of Ripping Yarns which was a solo project for Palin (although Terry Jones contributed to the scripts) and clearly he was interested in all its aspects from the writing to the casting and the actual production. Later when discussing a new series of the show, the BBC told him they didn’t have the resources to make one. Interestingly, I watched something about the Goodies not long ago. They were waiting to make a new series and the BBC told them the exact same thing. The Goodies moved over to ITV!

One final personal memory about Monty Python. Years ago I used to work in the GM Buses control room. I was in the enquiry office taking calls from the public and we had the far corner of the control room to ourselves. Opposite me was Jed, a guy who hated the job and sat scowling at his desk waiting for his next call. Two young girls sat in the corner chatting and across from me was Mr Nasty, so called because of the various arguments he used to get into with the public. A young lad called Andy sat in the other corner.

Jed took a call quickly and efficiently, giving out bus times to the customer then quickly finishing the call. Next was Mr Nasty but a dispute started and I remember Nasty asking ‘you want a bus to the Stakehill Industrial Park in Rochdale but you don’t know where the Industrial Park is?’ ‘Why don’t I know where it is?’

This was my first week in the job and I remember wondering whether or not I had made a good move. The argument opposite me began to escalate and just then my phone rang. I picked it up and said ‘Hello, GM Buses’. A voice then asked me ‘Is this the right room for an argument?’

What? I looked around and my eye caught Andy quietly giggling to himself. I answered ‘I’ve told you once!’ just like John Cleese in the original Monty Python sketch.

I had found another Python fan.


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Favourite Film Directors Part 3- Stanley Kubrick

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

I was only 11 when I first saw 2001 and I remember my Mum being surprised that I had spent hours at the cinema on a lovely hot day. I watched the film in the huge movie theatre in Northenden, a suburb of Manchester, now a Jehovah’s Witness assembly hall. There were only a few people in the picture house that day and it was wonderful having this huge place almost to myself and seeing this incredible film in 70mm on the big screen. I recall being somewhat confused by it all, especially the jump from Neanderthal times to the future, until I bought the novel by Arthur C Clarke which explained things in a way the movie did not.

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

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

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

As I mentioned above, I was rather confused by the film and there were quite a few moments when I was wondering what was actually happening, for instance the jump from Neanderthal times to the future, the moment when the monolith sends its deep space signal and various other things too. All the technology that Kubrick displayed had its origins in science fact, both the space missions and the computer technology which make up the main parts of the story.

If you have never seen the film or read the book (shame on you) 2001 is about a mysterious monolith which appears on earth in neolithic times and helps the ape men of the day to develop. Later, in the future, the mysterious monolith is found buried on the moon and when it is exposed to sunlight for the first time, it blasts off a signal to Jupiter. (In the book the destination is Saturn, it was changed for the film as director Stanley Kubrick thought that the special effects department would struggle to create Saturn’s rings).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Films, Allegories and McCarthyism

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

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

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

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

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

On the Waterfront

Director Elia Kazan had originally employed Arthur Miller to write the screenplay for On the Waterfront but the two fell out over various things especially the fact that Kazan had identified eight former communists to the HUAC. Kazan then asked Budd Schulberg to write the script. There was still some difficulty in getting the film to the screen and eventually Kazan approached Sam Spiegel to act as producer. He was able to set up a deal with Columbia Studios.

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

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

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

Spartacus

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

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

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

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

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

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

High Noon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Things to do During a Pandemic (Part 2)

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

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

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

Young Winston.

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

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

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

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

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

Bridget Jones’ Baby.

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

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

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

Storyville.

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

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

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

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

Rocketman.

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

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

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


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The Almost But Didn’t Quite Make it Stars

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

The Avengers and Elizabeth Sheperd.

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

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

Elizabeth Sheperd as Mrs Peel.

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

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

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

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

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

Voyager and Captain Janeway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indiana Jones and Tom Selleck.

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

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

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

Back to the Future and Eric Stoltz.

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

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

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

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

Back to the Future and Crispin Glover.

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


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

Mars, Martians and Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe on Mars

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

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

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

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

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

The Martian

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

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

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

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

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

Mars.

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

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

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


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

Codes, Films, Christmas and John Wayne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wayne duly complied.

‘Action’ called Stevens.

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


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

19 Outstanding Instrumental tracks

As we come ever closer to Christmas, I think it’s high time for another music post. In the past I’ve done posts about Christmas chart hits, one about comedy chart hits and one listing some random hits from pop music’s vinyl past. These days I do like listening to chilled down electronic dance tracks, so I thought ‘what about a blog post about instrumental hits’? Anyway, here we go. I’ve tried to find advert free videos where I can but it’s not always been possible. Some tracks are film themes, some are TV themes and some are just great pop, jazz or soul tracks. Enjoy!

Theme from Rocky

One of the best things about the Sylvester Stallone movie Rocky has to be the theme tune. For a long time I used to have it as my ringtone on one of my first mobile phones. Its proper title is Gonna Fly Now composed by Bill Conti and the track made number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1977, the year the movie was released.

Axel F

Axel F by Harold Faltermeyer was the theme to Beverly Hills Cop, a forgettable film starring Eddie Murphy. If not for this catchy tune the film would long have been forgotton. The track made number 2 in 1985 but younger readers may remember the 2005 Crazy Frog version.

Theme from Hill Street Blues

Hill Street Blues was an outstanding TV show from the early 1980’s about a police station in an unnamed US city. The show won critical acclaim and according to Wikipedia won a total of 98 Emmy Award nominations. The show featured a lot of hand held camera work which gave the series a documentary look and the theme written by Mike Post reached number 10 in the Billboard top 100 and number 25 in the UK singles chart.

(Angela)Theme from Taxi

Angela was written by jazz pianist Bob James. The theme was written for episode 3 in the series but the producers liked it so much it became the main theme for the show.

Theme from Miami Vice

Miami Vice was an American TV cop show from the 1980’s and the theme music written and performed by Jan Hammer was released in 1985. The single reached number 5 in the UK charts.

Love’s Theme by the Love Unlimited Orchestra

Okay, that’s the film and TV themes sorted, let’s move on. Love’s Theme was by the Love Unlimited Orchestra, Barry White’s backing band. I’ve always loved this track and many years ago I frequented a bar in Manchester known as the Playground where the DJ used it as his theme tune. Every time I hear it I never fail to be transported back to those days in the 1970’s.

Apache by the Shadows

The Shadows were British singer Cliff Richard’s backing band and this worldwide hit made it to the UK number one spot in 1960.

Classical Gas by Mason Williams

Classical Gas was a track by Mason Williams and it was a one hit wonder from the year 1968. Steve, the Matty character from my novel, Floating in Space played it for me back in the 1970’s and I fell in love with it straight away.

Pepper Box by the Peppers

Pepper Box by the Peppers is a track you may think you have never heard of but as soon as you hear it, you’ll probably recognise it. It was a popular track way back in 1974 when it peaked at number 4 in the UK charts.

The Hustle by Van McCoy

The Hustle, what a great track! It just brings back memories of nightclubs back in the 1970’s. The Hustle was a single by Van McCoy and the Soul City Symphony. It went to number 1 on the Billboard chart and number 3 in the UK. Even better, here’s a clip from 1975’s Top of the Pops with Pan’s People dancing to the track.

Pick up the Pieces by the Average White Band.

I’m not totally sure how to categorise this one. I suppose it’s 70’s funk but feel free to tell me if it isn’t. It was released in 1974 but failed initially to chart in the UK. After it took off in the USA the track begin to sell in the UK and eventually made the number 6 spot.

Hocus Pocus by Focus

Hocus Pocus is a song by the Dutch rock band Focus, written by vocalist Thijs van Leer and guitarist Jan Akkerman. It was recorded and released in 1971 as the opening track of their second studio album, Moving Waves. I remember hearing it originally on the Alan Freeman radio show. Heavy rock isn’t usually my cup of tea but I kind of like this one.

Time is Tight by Booker T and the MG’s.

This track was recorded in 1968 and was used in a film called Uptight released that same year. A slightly slower version of the track was released as a single in 1969 and reached number 4 in the UK charts.

Soul Limbo by Booker T and the MG’s

Soul Limbo was a hit for Booker T and his MG’s in 1968 but is probably best known in the UK for being the theme for BBC TV’s cricket coverage.

Garden Party by Mezzoforte

Mezzoforte were a jazz fusion band formed in 1977 and their biggest hit was Garden Party which made it to number 17 in 1983.

Song for Guy by Elton John

Elton is not exactly known for instrumental works but this was released as a single in December 1978 reaching the number 4 spot in January of 1979. Elton dedicated the song to Guy Burchett, a messenger at Elton’s record company Rocket. Guy was killed in a motorcycle accident on the same day that Elton wrote the song.

Jazz Carnival by Azymuth

Azymuth are a Brazilian jazz funk band formed in 1971. Jazz Carnival was a 1980 hit for the group reaching number 9 in the UK charts.

Take Five by the Dave Brubeck Quartet

Take Five was composed by Paul Desmond and originally recorded by the Dave Brubeck Quartet in New York City on July 1, 1959 for their album Time Out. Two years later it became a hit and the biggest-selling jazz single ever. Numerous cover versions have been produced since then.

Theme from Shaft

The theme from Shaft was written and performed by Isaac Hayes and was the theme to the 1971 film starring Richard Roundtree as private eye John Shaft. The song won an Academy Award for best original song. In the UK the track reached number 4 in the music charts. I remember hearing this back in 1971 and after buying the single just playing it over and over. The flip side, Cafe Regio, was pretty good too and looking back this was the track that started off my love of soul and funk.

 


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

Reviewing Spielberg

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

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

Steven Spielberg the Unauthorised Biography by John Baxter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Best Book about Hollywood, Ever

Is ‘Bring on the Empty Horses’ the best book ever written about Hollywood? I really think it is.

It’s a book written from first-hand experience for starters. The author, British born movie actor David Niven arrived in Hollywood in the early 1930’s. He had decided to try his luck in the movie business and he had come to the right place because Hollywood, California was the centre of the film making universe.

Some years previously it had been a rural backwater of lemon and orange groves but the silent film pioneers had found it had the perfect climate for film making. Back then in the silent days films were made in the open air shot on sets with no ceilings to let in the abundant California light.

By the 1930’s, sound had well and truly arrived and the big studios all had their coterie of stars and David Niven has a pocketful of stories, anecdotes and sketches about them and the other bit players, extras, directors and writers who inhabited Hollywood between the years 1935 to 1960.

Working as a boat hand to make some extra cash, Niven came on board a small vessel one morning. His job was to mop the boat down, get the fishing rods and bait ready and make sure some coffee and breakfast was on the go. The charter that day was for a man known as the King of Hollywood, none other than Clark Gable. Gable turned out to be a friendly customer who enjoyed his fishing. Some years later when Niven had made his first forays into acting and had a seat at a table at the Oscar ceremony, he was understandably very happy indeed to find Gable greeting him enthusiastically, his stock at that particular table rising dramatically after Gable came over to talk about fishing.

Niven goes on to paint an affectionate portrait of Gable alongside some other essays on various stars of the time. My favourite must be the short chapter on Errol Flynn. Flynn and Niven shared a house at one time and Niven comments that Flynn was completely trustworthy in a way, because whatever happened, he would always let you down!

During the making of ‘the Charge of the Light Brigade‘ which Warner brothers decided to set in India rather than the Crimea, Flynn, the new star started to get a little big headed. One big brute of an extra decided to waggle a lance under the behind of Flynn’s horse to teach Flynn a lesson.  The horse consequently threw Flynn off. He got up, dusted himself down and proceeded to teach the big guy a lesson of his own by beating him into a pulp!

Flynn had a yacht named the Zaca and weekends on the boat included sailing trips full of wine, women and song. Many young girls appeared on the boat, none of whom produced any ID which was unfortunate for Flynn as he was later charged with statutory rape. The accusing girls appeared in the courtroom wearing school uniforms and in pigtails but happily for Flynn the court saw through that and he was acquitted, although the image that the press painted of him was one that he was happy with.

In later life Flynn was bankrupt and became a floating shadow of his former self, sailing the seas in the Zaca. Later he made a great Hollywood comeback playing his great friend John Barrymore in ‘Too much Too Soon.’ He died in 1950 aged only 50 and in a poignant moment, Niven living then in the south of France, takes a walk along the French coast only to find the dis-masted remains of the Zaca lurking quietly in a boat yard.

Another great portrait is the one that Niven gives us about Prince Romanoff, known as Mike to his friends who ran the famous Romanoff’s restaurant on North Rodeo Drive in Beverley Hills. He was also a former conman once known as Harry F Gerguson. Harry or Mike possessed an immaculate old Etonian accent and assumed the identity of the late Romanoff prince. His restaurant became a popular venue and by the end of the Second World War was a well-established Hollywood eating house. Niven tried to haggle with Mike many times and break down his stories of mingling with royalty, of Eton and Harrow and military academies like Sandhurst but to no avail. If he was a con man he was in the top echelon of his profession.

I’ve always loved George Sanders with his easy smooth talking suave style. Niven recounts various stories about him including some about his relationship with Zsa Zsa Gabor. During the break up of their marriage they stayed fairly friendly. However, George was well aware of the California divorce laws and decided that it was important to have evidence of Zsa Zsa’s relationship with her new lover. His plan was to break into his house –that Zsa Zsa had contrived to still live in- and photograph her in the arms of her new man. In case entry to the house proved difficult he took along his lawyer, a photographer and a brick with which to break in. Conscious of looking suspicious carrying the brick he gift wrapped it. On arrival at the lover’s nest the bedroom door was conveniently unlocked. They entered, took the appropriate evidentiary picture and then when tempers had cooled they all trooped down to the lounge. It was Christmas time and Zsa Zsa mentioned that George’s present was under the tree. Sanders passed her the brick, still gift wrapped and said ‘and here is yours!’

Many famous places appear in Niven’s book; the Brown Derby restaurant, Chasen’s and many other bars and restaurants frequented by long gone stars; Ava Gardner, Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Orsen Welles and many more. Niven also recounts a visit to some distant drinking den frequented by Robert Newton who appeared with Niven in ‘Around the World in 80 Days’. Niven and Newton imbibed a generous amount of alcohol but when Newton began to disclaim various Shakespearean passages to the locals Niven realised it was time to leave. The pair had arrived straight from the studio and David had no money with him so it was with some surprise that he heard Newton hiss that he had none either. “We have a tricky situation here” observed Newton rolling his eyes.

Happily the two made a quick exit in Newton’s Chauffeur driven ancient Rolls.

The book tells of the big studios like Warner Brothers and MGM and their great back lots.  There was little location filming in those bygone days and on the back lots could be found entire New York streets, French and Spanish villages, frontier towns, Indian camps, medieval castles, a railroad station complete with rolling stock, lakes with wave making machines and a Mississippi steamboat.

Small wonder then says Niven that ‘Gone with the Wind’ was filmed in Culver City, ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’, just off Catalina Island, and ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ in the San Fernando Valley.

I actually own two copies of this wonderful book. One is a smart hardback copy for my bookshelf. The other is the copy photographed for this post, a well-thumbed tatty copy that I pick up and take to the garden now and again or to the dentist or whenever I have a spare moment to spend in Hollywood’s golden years.


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