Movie Connections Part 2: Nora Ephron

A while back I wrote a post about my movie connections. Every time I see a great film it registers up there in the old grey matter and at some point I’ll take a closer look at the credits of those films and see if there was a connection. In the case of that particular post the connection was Terence Rattigan. Rattigan was a playwright who wrote many film scripts and adapted many of his own plays for the screen and in the course of my often extensive TV viewing I’ve come across a number of great films all written by him.

In another similar mental exercise, I examined another group of films and the common denominator turned out to be Nora Ephron. Now some of you out there may never have heard of Nora. Who was she anyway? Well Nora was a journalist, a screenwriter and a director. She’s probably most famous for penning the brilliant comedy When Harry met Sally.

Photo by David Shankbone -, courtesy Wikipedia

When Harry met Sally is one of my all time favourite films and one that I wasn’t keen on at first. It didn’t impress me that first time at the cinema, the second time I saw it on TV I thought, hey, this isn’t so bad and I made a particular effort to seek it out a third time. After that third viewing, I loved it so much I bought the DVD version.

I was sad to hear of Nora’s passing in 2012 and made a mental note to find out more about her. Naturally, being me, a lazy semi-retired English blogger and occasional maker of YouTube videos, I never did.

A few weeks ago and eight years after making that mental note I was scanning idly through the TV listings and noticed a documentary film about Nora called Everything is Copy. The writer and director, Jacob Bernstein turned out be Nora’s son so he was clearly qualified to make a documentary about his mother. It wasn’t the greatest documentary film I’ve ever seen but it was certainly interesting. The film told the story of Nora’s life through various interviews. One surprising one was with Carl Bernstein, the famous Washington Post reporter whose articles on Watergate with Bob Woodward revealed the Watergate scandal to the world and eventually forced President Nixon to resign.

Nora was married to Bernstein and after becoming pregnant for a second time with their other son Max, Nora discovered he was having an affair with Margaret Jay, a British journalist and friend. Nora used the experience to write a book called Heartburn which was later made into a film starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. I have to say I’ve not seen the film or read the book but once again I’ve made a mental post it note and stuck it firmly up there in my brain for further attention.

After watching the documentary film I felt even more determined to find out more about Nora so I went to abebooks on the internet and after some research ordered a copy of I Remember Nothing, a book by Nora that seemed to be a memoir. The book starts out as a sort of memoir, telling humorous stories about this and that, and her life without really giving much away. Nora wanted to be a journalist and after working for the Kennedy White House for a short while she joined the staff of the magazine Newsweek. In her book she tells the story of how Newsweek did not hire female writers and offered her a job as a mail girl. She doesn’t appear to have been upset by this despite it being blatantly sexist. She just got on with her job, still determined to be a journalist. In her book Nora makes the whole episode sound quite amusing, especially when she later writes a parody column during a newspaper strike and as a result gets invited to write for the New York Post. Over on Wikipedia, there is a slightly different story in which Ephron gets involved with a class action lawsuit filed against Newsweek for sexual discrimination.

I Remember Nothing is an amusing book although it’s a little short on copy for someone for whom everything is copy. I enjoyed it enormously although had I been reading it on holiday, I could have got through it in an afternoon by the pool. Even so, the book has some great stories, in particular I liked the one about when Nora was nearly an heiress and thought she was about to inherit a formidable sum of money. There is another one about Christmas dinner and the one about when a meal was named after her in a posh restaurant. All of the stories are nice blog post sized stories which if I were devious enough, I could easily steal for the days when I have no idea what to write about.

When Nora was married to Bernstein, she put together a screen version of All the President’s Men which was ultimately rejected (William Goldman eventually wrote the script) but her version was seen by someone else who offered her the chance to write the script for a television movie and that was how her screen career started.

Nora wrote the screenplay for When Harry met Sally in 1986 and apparently imagined herself in the role of Sally, and Rob Reiner, who directed the film, as Harry. Nora wrote the screenplay after interviewing Reiner and producer Andy Scheinman and various others about their lives.

There is one scene from When Harry met Sally that has become a classic. It’s the one where Harry and Sally are eating in what looks like a diner or cafe and Sally shows Harry how easy it is to fake an orgasm by demonstrating it there and then in the cafe. According to Wikipedia, the cafe was actually Katz’s Delicatessen at 205 East Houston street in Manhattan. Also, just while I’m in the mood for dishing out useless information, the lady in the film who says to the waiter, ‘I’ll have what she’s having‘ when Meg Ryan, who played Sally, had finishing orgasming was actually director Rob Reiner’s mother and the line was suggested by Billy Crystal who played Harry.

Personally, I’d be hard pushed to tell you my favourite scene in the film although the one where Harry tells his best friend about his divorce is a major contender. Harry says he only knew about the split when the moving men came to his house to shift his wife’s stuff. One of the movers wore a t-shirt with the legend ‘don’t f’**k with Mr Zero’ on his chest and Harry’s friend asks ‘are you saying Mr Zero knew you were getting divorced before you did?’

I thought the pairing of Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal was wonderful and I could never understand why the producers of films like You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle paired Meg with Tom Hanks. Then again, Nora actually directed both those films so maybe she just preferred Tom Hanks.

Here’s one of the crazy things I love about movie connections. Ages ago, I caught a film on TV about a woman who wrote a cookery blog. Can you imagine that, a film, an actual motion picture about blogging? Who could do that, who could make a picture like that? I missed a few minutes at the beginning of the picture and made a mental note (yes, another one) to make sure to record it next time it was shown. No, I didn’t record it the next showing but to answer my last question, who would make a picture about blogging, the answer was, surprise surprise, Nora Ephron.

In 2009 she released Julie and Julia, a film based on an actual blog by Julie Powell, an American who decides to cook her way through the cookbook of Julia Child, a 1950’s American cook played by Meryl Streep. As Julie blogs about her cooking the film flashes back to the life of Julia. It’s a great film and the only film I can think of which focusses on blogging.

Nora died in 2012 from pneumonia, a complication of the leukaemia she was suffering from. She had not shared her illness with friends or family, thinking it might impede her career. However, in I Remember Nothing, she left a list of things she would miss when she had departed:

They include Spring, a walk in the park, reading in bed, the view out of the window, Paris, butter and taking a bath.

She was 71 years old.


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The Good the Bad and the Sequel

The first thing to remember about films is this, they are not a public service, they are made to make money. They start life as a business proposition. Producers start by asking would the public want to see this? Would they pay to see this? Suppose we got famous film star Mr X to star opposite film actress Miss X? One sure fire way of making the public want to see something is by making the film again. How can they make it again? By making the sequel! Sequels can be good, they can be bad but sometimes they can be downright ugly . .

Let’s start with the good.

The Godfather

The daddy of all mafia movies, this film by Francis Ford Coppola is one of the great films of all time. Based on the book by Mario Puzo and with a script by Coppola and Puzo himself it excels in just about every area of film making. The acting (Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, James Caan, Robert Duvall and many others) is excellent as is the photgraphy, the editing and the soundtrack. Coppola fought to have Brando play the title role and even had to make a screen test before Paramount executives would accept Marlon as Don Vito Corleone.

The original book was too big to be filmed so only part of the story is used. Don Corleone meets with fellow mafioso Sollozzo who asks for the Don’s help in a drug smuggling enterprise, hoping to enlist Corleone because of his political connections. The Don declines to get involved as this would risk alienating those same political connections. Sollozzo’s answer is to assassinate Corleone, however his attempt fails.

Michael Corleone then murders Sollozzo but has to escape back to Sicily. The murder causes an all out mafia war. In an attempt to make peace Don Corleone meets with the other mafia Dons. The peace is made but Corleone realises that it is Don Barzini who is the true enemy.

After Don Corleone passes away Michael wins a final victory by murdering all his opponents.

The film was the highest grossing movie of 1972 and won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Brando) and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Godfather Part II

As I said earlier, the original novel was too long to fit into one film so Part II features a leftover narrative from the book, told in flashback and the continuing story of Michael as the new Godfather.

Robert De Niro plays a young Vito Corleone who emigrates to America to escape the vendetta that has left him an orphan and that story runs parallel with Michael Corleone’s plan to move his family from New York to Las Vegas. Michael suspects financier Hyman Roth to be behind a failed assassination attempt but decides to travel to Havana and meet with Roth to discuss a deal involving Cuban casinos. The revolution happens while they are there and Michael escapes from the island but discovers that his own brother, Fredo, is the one who has betrayed him.

The young Vito Corleone’s story continues in flashback. Having set up a successful business in New York, Vito finds that Fanucci, a local gangster wants a pay off. Vito’s colleagues are fearful and decide to pay off Fanucci but Vito persuades them to let him settle the matter. He will make Fanucci an offer he cannot refuse he says. Later, he secretly murders Fanucci and afterwards finds himself both feared and respected as the Godfather.

Michael is subjected to a Senate investigation into his activities but avoids prosecution by bringing the brother of the star witness into court. The suggestion is clear; the witness must decline to give evidence or his brother will die.

As Vito becomes more successful, he returns to Sicily to seek vengeance for his family and murders the Sicilian Don responsible for their deaths.

Michael has Hyman Roth murdered as well as his own brother Fredo, who betrayed the family.

Once again the performances are superb and one of particular note is that of veteran acting coach Lee Strasberg. He is excellent in this one off film performance as Hyman Roth. Strasberg’s workshop, the Actor’s Studio, once taught Brando, Clift and Monroe the ‘method’, the technique of acting devised by the Russian actor Stanislavski. Strasberg brought the method to the persona of Hyman Roth and created an outstanding if slimy character.

Godfather Part II won 6 Oscars and became the first sequel to ever win the Best Picture statuette.

Here’s the bad . .

Bridget Jones’s Baby

A film I’ve seen on TV during the lockdown was Bridget Jones’s Baby. The film is the third film in the Bridget Jones series following on from Bridget Jones Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. The film, like all the others in the series, was based on the book by Helen Fielding. The original film was pretty amusing, not completely my cup of tea but I enjoyed it.

The second, The Edge of Reason, was again, pretty amusing. Both films concern the adventures of young Bridget Jones. In the first film she works in London for a publishing company, has an affair with her boss and then leaves for a career in TV. Her parents set her up for a date with a guy called Mark which doesn’t work out but towards the end of the film Mark comes back for a second try and Bridget has to work out who she really wants to be with. The Edge of Reason was pretty much more of the same.

When I came to watch Bridget Jones’s Baby earlier this year 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 it’s tuned to Sky Sports news when I don’t even like sport? 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 the Graham Norton show 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. In fact, I’d have to put it into the bad category.

Wall Street.

Wall Street was a 1987 film by one of my favourite directors, Oliver Stone. It was a big hit for Stone, in fact an iconic film really. Michael Douglas was brilliant in the role of Wall Street tycoon Gordon Gekko, a man who is happy to manipulate the stock market for his own ends. Charlie Sheen is pretty good too. Sheen plays Bud Fox, a young stockbroker who is anxious to, in his words, bag the elephant, set up a deal with his hero, Gordon Gekko.

Fox’s father played by Sheen’s real life father, Martin Sheen, lets on to son Bud that Blue Star Airlines where he works as a union rep is about to receive a favourable ruling in a ongoing legal case. The ruling will free up Blue Star to expand into new routes. Bud manages to wangle a meeting with Gekko in which he lets slip about Blue Star.

Gekko calls Bud and buys stock in Blue Star and Bud’s star as a stockbroker begins to rise. Later Gekko wants more information and Bud decides to invest in an office cleaning company so he can spy and find more insider information. Bud makes more and more money and moves into an expensive apartment. Later, the relationship between Bud and Gekko sours when Bud finds out that Gekko is planning to dissolve Blue Star and sell off the assets. Bud strikes a deal with rival investor Sir Lawrence Wildman to steal the company away from Gekko.

The film shows the world of stocks, shares and investments in minute detail, the camera moves relentlessly among the young wheeler dealers watching the stock options and moving in for the kill. The character of Gordon Gekko, indeed the entire film has become an icon for yuppies and the eighties ethos of making a quick buck. A phrase of Gekko’s ‘greed, for lack of a better word, is good’ has become synonomous with eighties success and was inspired by a real speech from an investor to the 1986 graduating class of the U.C. Berkeley School of Business Administration.

Michael Douglas won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Gordon Gekko.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Money Never Sleeps was a 2010 sequel directed once again by Oliver Stone with Michael Douglas returning to his role as Gordon Gekko. Gekko is released from prison following his conviction for insider trading and securities fraud. Gekko’s estranged daughter Winnie is involved with Jacob Moore, a trader at KZI Investments. The company suffers in a recession predicted by Gekko and the managing director commits suicide. Jacob meets with Gordon Gekko and promises to help him rekindle his relationship with Winnie and in return Gekko will search for information about Bretton James who blocked help for KZI Investments.

It all gets a little complicated here but Gekko has hidden 100 million dollars in a trust fund account for Winnie. The money is freed up for Gekko to invest on her behalf but then Gekko does the double cross and exits with the 100 million in his pocket. After using it to set up his own successful company he hands the 100 million back but the whole thing is so complicated I found it hard to follow. I had thought that perhaps the Charlie Sheen character would play a big part in the film but Sheen only has a small cameo as Bud Fox. Shia LaBeouf plays the part of Jacob Moore but somehow never looks convincing, he never seems to fit in. The character of Jacob was supposed to be similar to that of Bud Fox in the original but the actor just doesn’t really look comfortable in the part. Douglas is good as Gekko once again but the whole film suffers from a lack of pace which is not helped by the complicated nature of the plot. Carey Mulligan plays Gekko’s daughter Winnie who once upon a time featured in one of my favourite episodes of the BBC sci-fi series Doctor Who.

Ultimately, an interesting film, not good, not ugly but I have to put it in the bad category.

Get Shorty

Get Shorty is a 1995 film based on the book by Elmore Leonard. The book is a fast paced read about a shylock, a loan shark called Chilli Palmer. In the film he’s played wonderfully well by John Travolta. Chilli has a couple of run ins with fellow mobster Ray Bones in which both times Bones comes off the worse. Chilli’s mob boss dies and Ray’s mob boss takes over the business and suddenly, Chilli finds himself working for Ray Bones.

Ray sends Chilli off to find out if a recently deceased client has left any money behind to pay off his loans. Chilli finds out that in fact the client is still alive after failing to board an aircraft that later crashed and killed all on board. Finding himself suddenly ‘dead’ the client takes off to Vegas with a suitcase of money to live the high life. Chilli goes off to find him but is asked by a casino owner to pay a call on producer Harry Zimm who also owes a great deal of money. Finding Zimm in Hollywood, Chilli, who is a big movie fan, pitches an idea to Zimm, a thinly veiled story of his life coupled with that of the client who missed the fatal aircraft flight.

Gene Hackman plays the producer Harry Zimm who also owes money to a drug dealer and Chilli offers to sort out the drug dealer in return for being part of a new project called Mr Lovejoy. Suddenly, Chilli is in the movie business.

Travolta is just brilliant as Chilli Palmer easily switching from friendly movie fan to hard faced loan shark. Look at me is the catchphrase Chilli uses to impress himself on a client. I love the way Chilli pops a cigarette into his mouth with accustomed ease and takes a smoke confidently enjoying the nicotine. There’s also a great scene where Chilli shows actor Martin Weir (Danny De Vito) how to act ‘tough’.

Get Shorty is funny and dramatic with tons of witty dialogue lifted directly from Elmore Leonard’s book. It’s a joy to watch and Travolta and Hackman are excellent as are Rene Russo as Zimm’s actress girlfriend and Delroy Lido as the gangster who has invested in another of Zimm’s films.

Get Shorty was a great success so fast forward 10 years to 2005 and cue Be Cool.

OK, time to reveal the ugly . .

Be Cool

Be Cool once again stars Travolta as Chilli Palmer only this time Chilli has become bored with the movie business and decides to move into the music industry. The film starts off well with the shooting of his friend Tommy Athens. Chilli offers to help Tommy’s widow (Uma Thurman) who now owes money to hip hop producer Sin Lasalle.

I enjoyed the action packed start but then just got bored watching some of the other stuff.  Linda Moon is a singer and Chilli decides to take over as her manager. Why, I don’t know because her singing isn’t that great. Her old manager might be Nick Carr played by Harvey Keitel. A guy called Raji could also be Linda’s manager or have a stake in her contract (I lost the plot somewhere about here) and he hires a hit man to take out Chilli. The hitman kills another hitman instead of Chilli and later a bunch of gangsta rappers appear wearing those crazy jeans that hang off their backsides. How they all managed to stuff handguns back there I don’t know.

The result is a dreadful dull film. I bought it on DVD ages ago on the strength of Get Shorty. I couldn’t really remember it, I’d clearly blocked it out of my memory so I watched it again for the purpose of this blog post otherwise I might have been tempted to press the eject button a lot earlier than I did. Even John Travolta, so good in the original cannot save this movie.

Take a look at the video below for a hint at how good the original was.


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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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6 Great British Films You May Never Have Heard Of!

The Night my Number Came up (1955) starring Michael Redgrave, Sheila Sim, Alexander Knox and Denholm Elliot. Directed by Leslie Norman.

A senior Royal Air Force officer (Michael Redgrave) is at a dinner party in Hong Kong and a naval Commander played by Michael Hordern, talks about a dream he had in which the Air Marshal and a group of 5 other companions were flying from Bangkok in a Dakota which crashed on a rocky shore. The Air Marshal is due to fly to Tokyo the following day but he is not unduly bothered as many of the details differ from his planned flight including using a different kind of aircraft, a Consolidated Liberator.

When technical issues ground the planned aircraft a Dakota airliner, like the one seen in the dream, is substituted, and a number of other passengers arrive to make the total number of people on board 13, the same number of people as in the dream. As the flight proceeds, other circumstances change so that eventually most of the details correspond to the dream. When the aircraft runs low on fuel due to becoming lost in bad weather the pilot manages to bring the aircraft down in emergency landing in a snowfield in the mountains and all on board survive. The naval commander hears about the missing plane and arrives at the RAF base to direct search parties to the correct area.

The director, father of the film critic Barry Norman, builds the tension in the aircraft as more and more people come to know about the dream and gradually become more and more anxious. It was interesting to find out when I researched the film that it was based on a real incident in the life of British Air Marshal Sir Victor Goddard. All in all, an excellent film with good performances from Michael Redgrave, Alexander Knox and a young Denholm Elliot.

The Dead of Night (1945) starring Mervyn Johns. A series of short stories that combine together. Each instalment had a different director.

This is probably one the great horror movies of the 1950’s, in fact, one of the great movies full stop. It’s a series of short stories all linked together by the central character played by Mervyn Johns. His character architect Walter Craig, arrives at a house in the countryside where he has been consulted on some building work. The house seems all too familiar to him and then he then realises that everything that happens he has already lived through in a dream, a nightmare in fact. As more guests arrive for the weekend he recognises them from the dream and is convinced something terrible is about to happen. When he confides this story to the others, they in turn all relate a supernatural story before the central theme reaches a terrifying climax. Two stories that were particularly good were one in which an unbalanced ventriloquist (Michael Redgrave) believes his dummy is alive and another where a woman played by Googie Withers buys an antique mirror for her husband and finds that the mirror has an hypnotic effect on the man.

An outstanding film and one that was highly rated by director Martin Scorcese and was voted the 35th best horror film of all time by Time Out magazine.

The Intruder (1953) starring Jack Hawkins. Directed by Guy Hamilton.

Another classic 50’s film starring Jack Hawkins. Hawkins plays Colonel Merton, an ex-army officer who returns home one night to find his London flat being burgled by a petty thief. Merton confronts the man played by Michael Medwin, only to find that the intruder is in fact Ginger Edwards, one of the men from his old command. He is shocked to see one of his former soldiers reduced to crime. He tries to talk to Ginger but accidentally knocks over his phone in another room which leads Ginger to think he has called the Police. When there is a knock at the door Ginger bolts and makes a hasty departure. Merton then decides to visit some of his old army comrades – Ginger mentioned he was in touch with one of them – in order to track the man down. Each old comrade tells a story about Ginger which all nicely link together to show how circumstances have worked against their old friend. A lovely film with excellent performances and a number of familiar faces from British film and TV, among them Dennis Price, Dora Bryan and George Cole.

The Long Arm (1956) starring Jack Hawkins and directed by Charles Friend.

This is a brilliant film, it really is. It’s a sort of CSI London from the 1950’s. Like the present day CSI series, this film shows the crime detection process using the then start of the art technology. Jack Hawkins is a police inspector and is called on to look at a robbery in London. The theft was from a safe manufactured by a company called Rock. There is little to go on and Jack returns to his 1950’s suburban home feeling rather disappointed. Happily his typical 1950’s housewife is there waiting for him, his tea is ready and his evening bottle of beer also all ready too. Hawkins spends a little time with his son before bed time and tells him all about his current case and the lack of clues. Well, says the boy, perhaps the thief is a super thief who has never been caught. This revolutionary thought rings a bell for Hawkins and he goes back down to Scotland Yard straight away for a meeting with the records guy played by Geoffrey Keen. Together they trawl through the card file (no computers back in the 1950’s!) of unsolved cases and find one relevant link. A set of robberies all from  safes manufactured by, yes you’ve guessed it, Rock.

OK next up is a visit to the Rock factory for more investigation but then the robber makes a fatal mistake. While fleeing from the scene of his latest heist the robber runs over and kills a passerby. Later the abandoned murder car is found and 1950’s style forensic technology uncovers various clues. The most interesting one is a rolled up newspaper used to clean the window. A fascinating look at newspapers and how they are produced and distributed follows and the police are soon on the trail of their man. I won’t give away the ending but the film kept me on my toes throughout and Guy Hamilton who directed some of the early Bond films throws in a little action to bring the film to a climax.

No Highway in the Sky (1951) starring James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, Glynis Johns. Directed by Henry Koster.

James Stewart plays an aircraft technical expert Theodore Honey who is trying to solve the mystery of a crash involving a new aircraft, the Rutland Reindeer, which has crashed in Canada. Honey theorises that the crash was a result of metal fatigue and sets up an experiment which involves the tailplane of the aircraft subjected to continual vibration in a controlled environment. When Mr Honey flies home on another Reindeer he is shocked to find that the aircraft is an early production model and is fast approaching the flight time that he has theorised the tailplane will fail. Mr Honey decides to warn the crew and also a famous film star aboard played by Marlene Dietrich. Consternation reigns in the cockpit but the pilot has no choice but to carry on. On arrival at Gander the pilot consults with experts in London and the aircraft is cleared to fly on. In a desperate act, Honey retracts the undercarriage and wrecks the plane to stop it from flying.

Stewart plays Mr Honey as a slightly eccentric character, very similar to his character in the film Harvey. Marlene Dietrich takes quite a liking to him as does the stewardess and they are both eager to help and support him and his young daughter when his theory is attacked from all sides. Needless to say, he is proved right in the end.

Last Holiday (1950) starring Alec Guinness. Directed by Henry Cass.

Guinness plays a pleasant mild-mannered salesman called George Bird who has no friends or family and finds out he only has a few weeks to live. He decides to spend the time he has left by going to a rather posh residential hotel where the residents find him a sort of enigma. His star rises here as he becomes involved with the residents and staff and people start to wonder about him. Who is he? Is he rich? Lucrative job offers come his way as well as love but only one person knows his secret, a member of staff that he confides in. In the end Mr Bird finds out he was wrongly diagnosed but the film ends on a sad note when he is killed in a car crash. Penned by author J.B.Priestley, it’s another wonderful British picture full of excellent performances with a whiff of sadness and poignancy about it.  Guinness’ performance is excellent and the underlying sense of inevitability is further enhanced by a haunting musical theme that we hear throughout the film.

If I had written this a few years back I might have been tempted to add this to a blog like Unseen TV which was a post about cinema and TV films which rarely get an airing on terrestrial TV. However, I am happy to see that all of the above films can be found on the new freeview channel 81 Talking Pictures.


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

Spiderman, Comics and the World of the Super Hero!

When I was a school kid which now I think of it, sometimes feels like years ago and other times feels like yesterday, I was a big, very big fan of comics. All my pocket-money went on comics and I would spend many a happy hour reading, lost in the world of comic book heroes. My Dad used to get me a copy of the Hotspur even though I knew it was really for him despite his denials. I read the Hotspur after I managed to prise it off him and a number of other comics like the Beano, The Tiger, TV Comic, TV 21 which was based on Gerry Anderson’s TV series and  whole host of other comics, all of which have faded into the world of comic history. Looking round the newsagents these days you don’t seem to see comics any more. Perhaps today’s youngsters are too grown up, too enthralled with computer games and television. Still, I loved those old comics and still do and I tend to think they kick started my imagination and made me want to be a writer.

Another type of comic I used to buy were American comics which back then were split into two types, DC comics and Marvel comics. Superman and Batman were the stars of DC comics along with the Flash, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman. On the Marvel side were Spiderman, the X-men, the Hulk, Ironman and many others.

Every summer I used to beg my mother for the latest summer 80 page Giant, which was usually one of the DC comics. It consisted of 4 stories from an ordinary comic reprinted in one bumper edition. A great staple of the 80 page Giant was the superhero ‘origin’, the story of how that particular superhero began his life of crime busting and derring do.

Fast forward to the present day and those superhero characters have made the leap from comic book pages to the big movie screen, mainly with the help of modern-day computer generated effects.

Superman.

Superman, made in 1978, started off the movie superhero craze and starred Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel. It was a movie made before the aforementioned CGI were even thought of. Many traditional techniques were used in the film such as back projection, miniatures and matte paintings. Wire riggings were used, suspended from cranes or the studio ceilings, to enable Christopher Reeve to fly as Superman.

Marlon Brando appeared as Superman’s father, Kal-El and many other major film stars added to the cast list and the budget. The shooting was constantly marred by cash flow issues but somehow the producers kept everything together and the film was released in December 1978 becoming a major financial hit, in fact the 6th highest grossing film of all time, despite a multi million dollar salary paid to Brando who appears in only part of the film.

Batman.

Batman hit the big screen in 1989 in a film directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader. A series of films followed with various actors taking on the role of Batman. Burton’s film was a dark, serious version of Batman in some ways returning to the vision of Batman that the original authors, Bob Kane and Bill Finger had first presented in 1939 when the comic strip began. The film depicts Gotham City as an ugly and bleak city where crime is an every day hazard.

I’m not sure I’d put the Batman films down as my all time favourites. They are actually a little slow with outbursts of action and violence. The Batman film franchise, like all film franchises, has rebooted itself several times. In 2005 came the film Batman Begins, based upon a new comic book version called the Dark Knight. Batman Begins starred Christian Bale as Batman and the first time I saw it, I wasn’t impressed. It didn’t resonate with my 1960s comic book memories and it seemed to me to be a sort of Batman meets Kung Fu, the 1970’s TV series. One of my work colleagues told me recently it was his favourite film ever so I watched it again after a busy late shift at work and actually, perhaps it’s not such a bad film.

Thor.

Thor was another comic book hero that became a feature film. In the comic as I remember it, Thor is actually a doctor who finds Thor’s hammer disguised as a walking stick, and when he bashes the stick to the ground the good doctor is transformed into the God of Thunder. The movie version released in 2011 was actually rather boring. I only managed about 40 minutes of it before changing channel. The X-men movie suffered a similar fate at the hands of my remote control. I think I managed about 30 minutes before going channel hopping. I don’t remember Wolverine from the comic books either. Cyclops, the Beast and Professor Xavier were all part of the X-men comic book version that I used to read, as was Invisible Girl, although perhaps that was the Fantastic Four. I did get to the end of the movie version of the Fantastic Four though, although another failure was Iron Man.

The Hulk.

Bruce Banner was a scientist who is accidentally exposed to gamma rays and finds that when he gets angry he morphs into a huge green-skinned mutant with incredible strength. There was a TV series made in the 1980s and a catchphrase of Bruce Banner’s, played by Bill Bixby was, ‘you won’t like me when I’m angry!’

In the 2003 film Erica Bana plays Banner and the Hulk is a creation of computer technology. I wasn’t crazy about the film, in fact the computer imaging looked more like a cartoon than CGI effects. The Hulk franchise was rebooted again in 2008 as The Incredible Hulk, this time Edward Norton playing Bruce Banner. In this film Banner is on the run from the American miliary and trying to cure himself of the effects of the gamma rays that transform him into the Hulk. The military however, want to use the gamma ray effect to create a ‘super soldier’ so they are intent on tracking Banner down. The film connected with the comics I used to read much more than some other superhero films and I enjoyed the film very much. The CGI effects were a big improvement on the earlier Hulk film too.

Spiderman.

One of my absolute comic book superhero favourites was Spiderman. The great thing about the 60s comic book version was that it wasn’t all about Spiderman. A lot of the appeal of Spiderman was the story of Peter Parker, the nerdy student who has a crush on red head Mary Jane Watson.

Peter gets bitten by a radioactive spider which gives him incredible spider powers: strength, agility and in the comics Peter develops this incredible synthetic web which he can shoot from his wrist, spin a web and swing from skyscraper to skyscraper across New York City. In 2002 the amazing Spiderman hit the big screen in a film directed by Sam Raimi and starring Toby McGuire as Spiderman. James Franco appeared as Peter’s fellow student but had I been casting the film, I think I might have been tempted to have Franco play Peter Parker. I thought that perhaps Toby McGuire was a little too wimpy!

Oh well, maybe I should stick to the comic books or even the old TV cartoon series. I did love that theme song . .


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.

Brando, Alfie and the Art of Texting.

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

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

Meatballs!

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

Definitely!

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some more texts

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

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

ME: You was really a mess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Brother: Your hands UP!

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

Me: She’s in beautiful condition!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, time for one last text to my brother:

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

 


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

Two DVD’s, a TV Movie and a VHS Tape

To Rome with Love.

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

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

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

Midnight in Paris.

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

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

Four Weddings and a Funeral

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

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

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

Capricorn One

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

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


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

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

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

Coronation Street.

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

Doctor Who.

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

Sarah Millican.

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

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

There’s Something about Mary.

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

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

The Intruder.

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

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


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

Floating in Space

The Men in White Suits

Alec Guiness.

In case you haven’t seen it, and I can’t imagine for a moment that you haven’t, The Man in the White Suit was a British comedy film made by Ealing Studios in 1951. The film starred Alec Guinness as Sydney Stratton, a scientist and researcher specialising in man-made fabrics. His dream is to discover an everlasting fibre that never wears out. He is dismissed from numerous jobs because of his demands for ever more expensive facilities. Circumstances occur where he becomes an unpaid researcher at the hi-tech Stratton Mill where he finally discovers his new fibre. Sydney is over the moon as he wears his prototype indestructible suit for the first time. His new cloth is about to be revealed to the world but panic sets in; will this mean the end of the industry? After all, surely there will only be one lot of cloth to be made as it never wears out? Both union and senior executives in the textile industry unite to prevent the fabric coming out to the public domain but mill owner’s daughter Daphne Birnley, played by the husky voiced Joan Greenwood, strives to help Sydney to pursue his dream.

At the end of the film an angry mob who have pursued Sydney are united in laughter when the fabric becomes unstable and Sydney’s white suit falls apart.

One of the highlights of the film is the sound effect we hear whenever Sydney’s research apparatus is revealed. It is a rhythmic burbling sing-song sound that becomes a sort of musical motif for Sydney Stratton. At the end of the film he goes on his way and looking at his notebook has a thought, has he realised what was wrong? The burbling sound fades in as Sydney walks away.

Paul Sinha. (Picture courtesy Daily Express)

Paul Sinha.

I don’t know about you but weekday afternoons just wouldn’t be the same without the Chase. The Chase is a TV quiz show where four contestants try to build up a prize fund then play against the ‘Chaser‘, a seasoned quizzer, to take home that fund in the Final Chase. Sometimes the contestants win, sometimes not. Mark Labbett is the perhaps the most well-known chaser. He is known as the ‘Beast’ and is a former schoolmaster who had a success on the TV show ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’. Anyway, my personal favourite is the Sinnerman, Paul Sinha. Paul began a stand up comedy career in London while he was a junior doctor. He has appeared on his own radio show and as a quizzer competed in University Challenge, Mastermind, and Brain of Britain. Paul joined the Chase in 2011 as the fourth Chaser. His nicknames include the ‘Sinnerman‘ and ‘Sarcasm in a Suit’. He is a smiling, witty and erudite competitor and always wears his trademark white suit.

David Essex.

David Essex was a performer who made his name in the early seventies although in his youth he had ideas of becoming a footballer. He played the lead in the stage musical Godspell and then went on to star in the film ‘That’ll be the Day’. I remember seeing his album in a record shop and thinking what a cool dude he looked in his white suit. The album was ‘Rock On’ and the single of the same name went to number 3 in the UK charts in 1973.

The next year David released one of my all-time favourite tracks ‘Gonna make you a Star’ which went all the way up to number 1. He also appeared on the double album ‘Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds’ and went on to star in the musical ‘Evita’. In 2011, he joined the cast of TV soap ‘EastEnders’.

 

Steve Higgins.

When I saw David Essex singing ‘Rock On’ wearing a white suit on ‘Top of the Pops’ for the first time, I thought he was the epitome of seventies cool and it occurred to me that one way to transform my gangling self-conscious self into something better might be to get that very same white suit. I couldn’t afford a suit at the time so I settled for a jacket, a white jacket, and I well remember admiring myself in the mirror before my first Saturday night out wearing it, sometime back in 1973.

The first problem I encountered with the jacket came on the bus into town. I sat on the back seat and in those days, the back seats of our local buses were a little notorious for being dusty and grimy as they were over the engine and absorbed all the engine fumes. Also there were people who put their feet up on the seats leaving marks to which people like me (the twerp in the white suit) were highly susceptible. Another thing is that all my life I have been cursed with being clumsy and once I had met up with my friends I somehow managed to spill beer all down my sleeve. Anyway, the night went on, more or less successfully. I certainly remember having a good time although the white jacket failed in its primary function; that of attracting gorgeous girls. Later on we stopped at the kebab shop and somehow a sizeable portion of chilli sauce managed to attach itself to my jacket. Rather than feeling like David Essex, I felt a little like Alec Guinness in the aforementioned ‘Man In The White Suit‘, wanting to get away from everyone! I never wore the stained jacket again and it lingered sadly in the back of my wardrobe smelling of kebab, chilli sauce, beer and diesel fumes until my Mum, on a major clean up splurge, decided to throw it out.

Of course, it could have been worse: I could have gone out wearing jeans, a white t-shirt and a red jacket and tried to look like James Dean! (Actually, that was another night!)


Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page for more information or click the picture below to order now from amazon!

Floating in Space

Burton, Taylor, and the Nature of Love.

I’m always recording films and TV shows to watch and the other day I scanned through my hard drive to find that some time ago I had recorded a movie called Burton and Taylor. It’s a made for TV movie, first shown on BBC Four. I found it on the drama channel and it’s about, as if you hadn’t already guessed, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

Back in 1983 when this film is set, Burton and Taylor were probably the most famous celebrity couple in the world. The only other couple of a similar status that I can think of are Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, a couple from a completely different era. Let me see who else comes to mind; Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, Posh and Becks. Hardly in the same class are they?

Back in the 1920’s, nearly a hundred years ago, silent movies travelled the world, unhampered by the constraints of language. Stars like Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were as famous in Moscow and Tokyo as they were in London and New York .

Fairbanks and Pickford in a postcard from the 1920’s

Mary Pickford was known as America’s Sweetheart in part due to her work during the first World War selling Liberty Bonds. She had a Canadian background but she became a US citizen when she married Fairbanks. Douglas Fairbanks made a series of swashbuckling films like Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers and The Thief of Baghdad. The couple bought an estate on Summit Drive in Hollywood which the press dubbed ‘Pickfair’. The house became the focal point of social life in the movie capital and the Fairbanks’ invited many famous people there. As well as the film stars of the day, HG Wells visited as did F Scott Fitzgerald, Amelia Earhart, Lord Mountbatten, Noel Coward and many others.

Along with Charlie Chaplin and the silent movie director D W Griffith, the couple founded the film company United Artists, but as actors they did not fare well when talking pictures came along and they retired from the screen. In retirement, Fairbanks wanted to enjoy his love of foreign travel but Pickford hated travelling, so on many occasions Douglas travelled alone. On one trip he met an English socialite, Lady Ashley and began an affair that ultimately led to the end of his marriage . Douglas and Mary were eventually divorced in 1936.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Image courtesy Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor met on the set of the film Cleopatra in 1961, a movie that went down in history as one of the most expensive ever made. Taylor didn’t want to make the picture so decided to ask for a ridiculous amount of money, confident that 20th Century Fox would never pay it. However, pay it they did and the troubled movie went into production. The Burton/Taylor TV film however focusses on the later years of the pair when they decided to star in a stage revival of Noel Coward’s witty play, Private Lives.

In the film, Taylor is played by Helena Bonham-Carter and Burton by Dominic West. West doesn’t really look much like Burton but captures his voice and persona well. Bonham-Carter as Liz Taylor does look surprisingly like the original and together they make a good reproduction of the famous couple.

The writer seems to believe, and whether it is true or not I don’t claim to know, that Liz Taylor engineered the theatre production of Private Lives as a way of bringing her and Burton back together again. They had already been married and divorced twice and the movie reveals that Liz clearly still had feelings towards Burton. On the first day of rehearsals she is surprised that Burton will not be lunching with her but spending time with his new girlfriend, Sally. Burton in turn is shocked that on the first read through it is clear that Taylor has not previously read the play. Burton of course knows it off by heart. He is the consummate professional actor and Taylor the consummate professional movie star. During the run when Taylor calls in sick, the production is halted rather than carry on with an understudy, as it becomes clear from the public reaction that the audience are not interested in the play without superstar Liz.

Helena Bonham-Carter and Dominic West (image courtesy BBC)

Burton and Taylor were clearly in love but love must have been difficult in the face of their superstar status, just as it was for Fairbanks and Pickford. I can imagine Burton’s upbringing in a mining community and Taylor, having been a star since childhood, were not personalities that could bend much for the other.

The film is interesting, enjoyable and gives the viewer a fascinating peek into the private lives of these two superstars of the past.

In one sequence where the pair sit down and reminisce together, Burton considers the nature of love and ponders about love’s important ingredients: Is it passion? Is it sex? I’m not even sure of the answers myself. Both sex and passion are important but so are respect, humour and understanding.

William Shakespeare was a man who knew a thing or two about love and one of his most famous sonnets, Sonnet 116 provides a quintessential definition of love. Love, according to this sonnet, does not change or fade; it has no flaws and even outlasts death.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

My favourite though, has to be this one;

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

I particularly like the two last lines. They tell us how the subject lives again in every reading of the sonnet which is a very wonderful thing that applies not only to this but to all other literary evocations of the past. Was the subject of this sonnet a real person or was it just an ode to wonderful women in general? It was a real woman, I suspect, although I am no Shakespeare expert but whoever she was, she lives again in this work, just as the author wished.

When I began writing this post about love, I was inspired by a distant memory, a quote, a distant few lines that seemed just out of reach in the back of my mind. When I finally brought those words into focus and tracked them down, I realised I must have read them in the Bond novel Goldfinger.

Some love is fire, some love is rust. But the finest, cleanest love is lust.” Wikipedia claims that when Ian Fleming used that line he was quoting from ‘The Wild Party’, a book length poem by Joseph Moncare March. Fleming changed the quote slightly in Goldfinger but I liked it so much myself, it inspired my own poem, Some Love.


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