A Bit of a Blog or a Blog of Bits: Christmas Version

Well, we’re at that time of year again, Christmas. This time it will be Christmas with a difference; no parties, no meals out, no pub nights. The Coronavirus has changed everything. When it comes down to it, I’m not a great Christmas fan. It was good years ago as a child, waking up with the excitement of it all; the presents, the food, the cosy evening watching classic TV. But now I find myself wishing it was all over. I find myself looking forward to my favourite time of the year, the spring when days are getting longer and warmer and the bad weather is beginning to ease and  things are gradually becoming more light than dark and more warm than cold. This Christmas I will be working, even though I only work three shifts out of nine it turns out that my three days this week have fallen on the 25th, the 26th and 27th. Still, I’ve worked Christmas days before now as well as New Year’s day and Easter and other holidays. This time however, I’ve promised myself I won’t be working another one.

There isn’t much to do during the lockdown and apart from work, the only excitement in my life has been TV, books and writing.

TV.

The good thing about Christmas, speaking strictly as a couch potato, is the good stuff that will be on the television. At least, the good stuff I expect will be on. Last week I sat and watched one of my favourite films Fantastic Voyage. It’s a brilliant film in many ways. Firstly, it’s so incredibly original. We’ve all heard of outer space and seen a hundred or more films on the subject but this film is something different, it’s about inner space. An important scientist lies stricken with an inoperable blood clot on the brain and the solution is this: take a team of doctors, put them in a submarine and shrink them down so that they are so small, so very tiny that they will fit in a hypodermic and can be injected into the scientist’s bloodstream so they can journey towards the brain and clear the blood clot from the inside. Brilliant, wish I’d thought of it. Some of the special effects are a little tame and to be honest, it’s a film that is ripe for a 2021 remake with 21st century CGI special effects. Even so, I enjoyed it just the same.

The film stars various well known actors, from the glamorous Raquel Welch to the villainous Donald Pleasance. Also starring is Stephen Boyd. Boyd was an Irish actor who appeared in over 60 films. Boyd was a good actor who seemed to vanish quite abruptly from our film and TV screens. I looked him up on Wikipedia to find out what had happened to him and discovered that he had died suddenly at a very young age. He hailed from County Antrim in Northern Ireland. His big movie breakthrough was the film Ben Hur in which he played the part of Roman Tribune Messala for which he won a Golden Globe award. He was only 45 when he died of a heart attack whilst out playing golf at a course in California.

A few days ago I watched a repeat of one of the Christmas episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond. One of the great things about that show is Liz and I both enjoy it. In this episode Ray, just like me, is wondering what presents to buy. In particular he wants something for Debra, his wife. Previous failed presents were a set of pyjamas, he bought the wrong ones and his present idea, a space heater. Brother Robert, the funniest character in the show suggests a first edition of Debra’s favourite book, To kill a Mockingbird. Ray gets the book, Debra is over the moon -Ray finally bought her a good present- but Robert ruins everything by revealing the book was his idea. That show always makes me laugh especially as I’m so bad at buying gifts.

Just as I was doing the final edit for this post I took a quick glance at the TV guide. Bypassing Stalkers who Kill scheduled for Christmas Day –somehow I don’t think I’ll be watching that– I noticed It’s a Wonderful Life showing on Christmas Eve. I love that film and come to think of it, I haven’t seen it for quite a few years. It’s about George Bailey played by James Stewart who looks forward to an interesting life of travel but then finds obligations force him to stay in the small town where he has always lived. George is beset by problems and even considers suicide but then his guardian angel -literally- arrives to help him. The secret of this film is, I think, the fact that despite the fantasy premise of the film, everyone plays their parts as if they were in a serious drama. The result is that the drama and emotion of the situation rises to the surface and we are left with a vibrant and dramatic piece of cinema.

Books.

Hollywood has always fascinated me, especially Hollywood’s Golden Age. Just recently I’ve been reading Murder Hollywood Style written by Samuel Marx and Joyce Vanderdeen. Samuel Marx worked in Hollywood for many years and was a story editor and later a producer. He was a friend of Paul Bern who had married the original platinum blonde, Jean Harlow, in 1932.

On the morning of September the 5th, 1932, Marx received a phone call advising him that Bern had been found dead that morning. Bern was a former script writer who now worked as a producer for MGM where he was assistant to Irving Thalberg. Thalberg was known as the ‘Boy Wonder’ of MGM having produced a number of hit films such as Grand Hotel and Mutiny on the Bounty. Marx was shocked by the news and went quickly over to Bern’s house. Thalberg was already there and Marx spoke to neighbour about a mysterious veiled woman who had arrived the previous night. She arrived in a limousine and the neighbour heard various sounds that evening. Some sounds of laughter, some of anger. Marx went to go inside Bern’s house but Thalberg told him not to enter. Bern had committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. It was not a pretty site. Louis B Mayer the famous head of MGM had been to the house already and the head of the studio police force was also there. Marx, who had dined with Bern and his wife Jean Harlow only recently was shocked and left for home.

Strangely nothing appeared on the news until the next day. Who was the woman in the limo and had Bern really committed suicide? Marx takes us on an interesting tour of 1930’s Hollywood and along the way talks about many of the famous personalities of the time as well as the background to MGM studios and the films they made. He explains how the studio managed the press and dealt with the law enforcement officials of the day. Nothing was allowed to upset the carefully managed careers of stars like Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, her co-star in the hit movie Red Dust which was completed after Bern’s death.

All in all, a fascinating read.

Writing.

I was watching a TV quiz show the other day and one of the celebrity contestants mentioned that he had just finished writing a book. He did it by setting himself a target of 2000 words per day. Now sometimes I’ve hit 2000 words myself although certainly not every day. Sometimes it’s just 200. Writing isn’t always that easy and working from home there are so many distractions like emails and time wasting web sites like Pinterest and eBay. On eBay you can not only waste time but also spend money that you didn’t want to spend. When I’m stuck on a blog post or any other writing project I tend to look back at my half finished projects and work on those. I have a whole stack of half written poems, some of which I wrote many years ago and recently I put together a collection of poems with a vague idea of publishing them on Amazon. Lo and behold, just then a publisher contacted me asking to publish my poems! It was an Indian publisher and over on their web page there was a lengthy portfolio of their published editions which will soon be joined by my own book, A Warrior of Words.

Hope you’re having a good socially distanced Christmas. All the best and I’ll see you over in 2021.

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A Few Pandemic TV Thoughts

Lockdown may have finished on December 2nd in the UK but if you live in a tier 3 region, like me, it’s still going on. OK, I understand the need for the lockdown, I know we have to prevent the virus from spreading but that doesn’t stop the whole thing being a pain in the neck. No quiz nights at the pub, no restaurant meals out and so on. Not only that but why does the virus have 2 separate names? Is it Covid 19 or is it Coronavirus? And where does the 19 come from? Was there a Covid 18?  Does this mean there have been 18 previous versions of this insidious plague? If so, why have we never heard of them? We, the public, need to know.

This being December it certainly isn’t the time of the year for relaxing in the back garden but at least we have our TV set to keep us entertained. What TV gems have I found this week?

Showing on an obscure TV channel, Forces TV, I found the old Gerry Anderson TV series UFO. The show still looks pretty good after many years on the shelf. Ed Straker, the boss of SHADO is still trying to defend the world from alien attack and he and his colleagues look pretty good in their natty suits. In fact the whole thing looks pretty futuristic despite its obvious 1980’s origins, more so than Star Trek which, as much as I love it, does look very 1960’s.

It just so happens that I can remember that SHADO stood for Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation. What is interesting about that is this: The other day I went into the bedroom to get something and forgot what it was I’d gone in there for and yet I still knew what SHADO stood for.  A contributory factor might be that as a youngster I fell off a playground roundabout right onto my head. In fact, I can remember it like it was yesterday, falling off head first and heading towards the ground, actually a concrete slab and taking a hell of a whack on my bonce. Yes, that hurt, it really did but I’m still wondering what I wanted in the bedroom.

Anyway, when I mentioned Star Trek above. I’m talking about the original Star Trek, not the slightly lacking Star Trek:The Next Generation. Captain Picard and the cocktail lounge atmosphere of his space craft was not my cup of sci-fi at all and while Picard was running all the command decisions past everyone from the ship’s counsellor up, Kirk was already hitting the aliens with phasers on stun and getting up close and personal with some gorgeous interplanetary beauty.

The original Star Trek, like UFO was shot on film and today looks pretty sharp compared to the Next Generation which was shot straight to video. The original series was given a digital makeover a few years back with digital effects and new CGI spacecraft and is looking pretty good these days. The franchise has spawned quite a few follow up series and films. After the Next Generation came Deep Space 9 which was just as bad as the Next Generation if you ask me and then Star Trek Voyager. I actually like Voyager but it didn’t start off well for me and as much as I liked Captain Janeway, her oddball hairstyles just annoyed the hell out of me until in the later series they decided to employ someone who actually knew how to style hair and Janeway ended up looking pretty normal.

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

While on the subject of cat suits, I feel I must mention, even just for a fleeting moment, the original cat suit girl who, at least in my mind, was Mrs Emma Peel played by Diana Rigg in the TV show The Avengers. The Avengers started off as a crime drama starring Ian Hendry as a police doctor, assisted in solving crimes by the dapper John Steed. Hendry left the show leaving Steed, played by Patrick MacNee needing a new assistant. His assistant was Kathy Gale played by Honor Blackman. She left the series to star in the film Goldfinger and Emma Peel was recruited as Steed’s new assistant. Kathy Gale was also a catsuit wearer although she seemed to prefer a leather version. When Emma Peel joined the series, the show moved from video to film and the production values increased enormously. The show also began to move in a sort of sci-fi fantasy espionage direction. Off the top of my head, I remember episodes about a mad scientist who shrinks other scientists and Steed, down to a small size, killer robots, time travel and cats that become wild animals.

Another problem with tight fitting cat suits must surely come whenever the wearer needs a bathroom break. Imagine having to strip right down just so you can have a wee. On board the Enterprise I can imagine that, like in any spaceship, space must be at a premium so the toilets must be pretty small. Now this is the perfect opportunity to introduce my own personal experience of using a ladies toilet. Years ago, when I had a cigarette vending machine round (writer, blogger, vending machine repairman -I’ve done it all) I remember visiting a pub in Prescot in Merseyside. I can’t remember the name of the place but it was the reverse of a normal pub in that most old pubs usually have a big room; the lounge and a small one, the vault, where men play cards, pool and darts. In this pub, the big room was the vault and the lounge was the small room. Anyway, after servicing the cigarette machine I wanted to use the toilet so I asked the cleaners, who were pretty fierce in that place, could I go in the gents. No she said, the floor was still wet but I could go in the ladies.

The ladies I soon found was actually two rooms, one with three toilet stalls and an outer room where you could wash your hands. The outer room had two huge mirrors for making sure your hair and makeup were OK and two comfy couches where the women could sit and presumably have a good natter before going back to join the men. Yes, that ladies toilet was a real eye-opener for me used to, like all men, smelly urinals.

Diana Rigg left The Avengers to become a Bond girl, just like Honor Blackman before her. Diana starred in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as the woman who finally got 007 to the altar only to be shot later by Bond’s enemy Blofeld.

Anyway, getting back to Star Trek, the latest series in the franchise are Discovery, which is rather like watching a very fast music video, I gave it a good 15 minutes and then had to switch off, and Star Trek Picard, which sees the return of Captain Picard and various other characters including Seven of Nine from Trek’s back catalogue. I actually quite fancy watching that but alas, not having Amazon Prime I’ve yet to do so. Pity because it actually looks pretty good from the clips I’ve seen on YouTube. Eventually it will filter down to the Freeview channels and one day I’m sure I’ll see it late at night on BBC2 perhaps.

William Shatner who starred as Captain Kirk in the original series is a firm favourite of mine and it would be rather nice to see his character pop up again. Star Trek: Kirk sounds like a pretty good idea for a new series to me. Shatner is now 89 years old and still going strong. His character was actually killed off in the Star Trek film Generations which started off pretty well, combining the usual sci-fi elements of Star Trek with an intriguing mystery; who is the mysterious Soran and what is he up to? As it happened what he was up to wasn’t really that interesting but the film marked the cinema handover from the original Star Trek cast to the new one. Pity really because as I mentioned above, I never really took to the Next Generation.

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

Another old show repeated currently on the CBS justice channel is The Fugitive starring David Janssen as Dr Richard Kimble, falsely accused of the murder of his wife. The show ran for four seasons but as viewer ratings began to fall, the series was cancelled. It was then that the producers hit on what at the time was an unusual idea. Instead of the show just ending, they decided to make an actual finale. Yes, they would wrap up the story of Kimble’s wife’s murder. Kimble had been searching for the supposed one-armed man he had seen leaving the murder scene for the past four seasons, now he would finally find him!

Back in the 1960’s, TV was not very highly thought of even by the TV networks themselves. So what if Kimble never finds the murderer. So what? It’s only a TV show. Of course, the viewers would disagree. They had kept faith with the series for four long years, they deserved a proper ending.

The final episode aired on August 29th 1967 and in the USA the viewing figures were a sensation: 72% of US TV viewers were watching that final episode and the show held the most watched record until November 1980 when someone shot JR in Dallas.

When I watched The Fugitive yesterday, I think we were up to episode 20 in season 4. Hope I remember to watch that final episode, then again, I still can’t remember what I wanted from the bedroom!


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Airports, Saturday Nights and Ally McBeal


I really hated work this week. I hated it for a number of reasons even though I only worked one day. Now as I’m semi-retired I only work three days anyway so one day, well, you might think ok, that’s not so bad, wish I only worked one day this week. Wrong! I actually wish I’d not worked any days. The first day I was poorly with a bad tummy. Day two I was still poorly although not quite as bad and day three I was feeling a little better so I went back to work. I was actually feeling bad about having those two days off, yes guilty about taking sick leave. Maybe I should have called in sick the third day and then after my six days off (yes, I get six days off) I’d be fully ready to start work again. Come to think of it, that would mean fifteen days off wouldn’t it? (Six plus three plus six, see what I mean?)

 Oh well, I still hated that one day either way. The funny thing is, I was recently looking at my horoscope and it said something about how I needed to get rid of something in my life to make room for something new. Is the cosmos hinting that I should just pack the job in? Would a great new job then come my way? It’s a nice thought but I’m not convinced. I tend to look at horoscopes for entertainment rather than to see into the future so I’ll just keep sending out my CV for now.

After my one day at work I thought I’d spend a couple of days at my mother’s house and make sure everything was ok. The garden was looking good. I had planned on giving the lawn a trim but I thought, what the heck, it’ll be ok for another week. More time for me to write and work on my various projects.

One long running project is the sequel to Floating in Space. It’s called the Girl in the Yellow Coat and it’s about a character that made a fleeting appearance in Floating, a girl in, guess what, a yellow coat. As I’ve not worked on it for a while, I started reading through what I had written so far, which then made me look back at Floating and read some of that. I love my writing, I really do. I’m not claiming it’s brilliant or anything but the thing is it’s written for me, I write it purely for myself so I’m bound to like it. The other thing is that a lot of my work is based on real things, real events and real people and sometimes when I read it I remember the real things that inspired the story. It’s like a walk down memory lane, looking back on things I’d actually forgotten about and people who I hadn’t thought about for years. Maybe that’s why I’m not making much headway on the book; I’m too busy reminiscing about stuff to get creative.

Another project I’m working on is making another version of one of my most popular YouTube videos; it’s called Manchester Airport 1986 and follows my late friend Steve and myself talking about spotting aircraft in and around the airport. I was never a real plane spotter myself but as a child living a stone’s throw from the airport, it was fun to tag along with my friends who were. I did love watching the big jet planes taxi out to the runway and blast off to their various destinations around the globe and people like Steve, Paul, Phil and various others all jotted down aircraft numbers into their notebooks. In the video, Steve and I visit a quiet country lane round the back of the airport where plane spotters gather and many other places like the Tatton Arms pub, ideally situated on the runway approach path and the old and original Airport Hotel. I say original because various other places have sprouted up in the area using that name.

On a whim on Saturday afternoon I decided to drag my brother out and cajoled him into filming with my video camera while I drove to the old locations. What about a sort of then and now video I thought, comparing the airport of 1986 to the huge place it has become now? Going into the airport itself I knew it was going to be different but I wasn’t prepared for just how different it actually was. There are three terminals at Manchester now and T2 was closed because of Covid 19. Anyway we wandered around and filmed various things although many areas seemed to be coned off and everywhere there were double yellow lines. Manchester Airport is not a car friendly environment and cars are discouraged from stopping or loitering. Nowadays you even have to pay to use the drop off and go areas.

I did manage to find the entrance to the multi storey car park which looked familiar. Back in 1986 Steve and I went to the top level and joined various other plane spotters watching aircraft but last Saturday I thought I’d save that for another day. I went off in search of that small lane round the back of the runway. That was easier said than done. Back in the 1980’s there was an old country pub called the Ship in Styal village, a posh village that is actually over the county border in Cheshire. It was a sleepy old pub and sometimes my friends and I would visit on a Friday or Saturday night.

On this particular Saturday afternoon the tiny car park was now three times as big as I remembered and was packed. The small lane was also crammed with parked cars making it hard to squeeze past. There is an old water mill further down that lane. We visited it once on a school trip. It’s nothing really exciting but today I could only imagine that all these visitors were either visiting the pub or the mill, after all there is nothing else in the village except the pub, the water mill and a small shop.

Eventually we managed to get past but in the old days the road carried on and eventually came to a steep hill just by the Valley Lodge hotel. Nowadays the road ahead seemed to have become a sort of pedestrianised walking area and traffic was forced off to the right. This must have been the old lane where we filmed in 1986 but the airport had grown and gradually encroached on and swallowed up some of the surrounding land. High barbed wire fences kept the public away and there were no longer any rough graveled parking bays to stop in. Eventually we came across a new and unfamiliar road which led us back into the airport itself.

The Tatton Arms looked similar to how it used to look but now it is now part pub and part bistro. We stopped for a moment, took a few pictures and left. Change is inevitable of course but I don’t think I was quite prepared for the scale of the change.

Getting back to Floating in Space, the main character, Stuart, is bored with his nine to five office job. He yearns for something different and lives for the weekend. The book starts off like this:

 The countdown starts on Friday afternoon at four thirty when my colleagues and I pour out from the Regal Assurance building and stream and scatter for the cars, buses, and trains that carry us away to different and better lives.  The countdown is for the weekend, and the weekend is one long high-energy cassette that plays on the hi-fi of life until that moment, that far distant moment, when the alarm bell rings for Monday morning and there are five days before you can rewind the tape and play it again.

That of course was 1977. In 2020 Stuart, like me might have been tempted to go into Manchester for a night out but Manchester is a hot spot as far as the Coronavirus is concerned. Bolton, a Manchester suburb has been forced back into lockdown because of a spike in Covid cases so for the time being I thought it might be better to just stay in and stay safe. That’s how I came to settle down in front of the TV with a can of Guinness and a packet of Doritos. I combed through my old VHS box looking for something I hadn’t watched for years. I picked up a couple of documentaries which looked interesting and then came across my Ally McBeal DVDs.

It’s a long time since I have seen Ally McBeal. It was a hit US show in the 1990’s and is something that I’ve never seen repeated even on all the new TV channels that have sprouted up, seemingly overnight. Ally was a Boston lawyer played by Calista Flockhart. She starts work at Cage and Fish, a Boston legal firm. The senior partners, John Cage and Richard Fish are two oddball characters presiding over a wacky company that has unisex toilets and on most nights everyone goes into a bar in the same building where resident singer Vonda Shepard regularly performs, sometimes handing the microphone over to the office staff. Barry White makes an appearance there as does Sting and other pop icons. The series is a comedy but with elements of drama, sentimentality and music all mixed in together.

My favourite character was John Cage played by Peter MacNicol. He was a shy character, unsure of himself who falls for Ally and fantasises about Barry White singing ‘You’re the First, My Last, My Everything’ in order to bulk up his confidence. In the first episode Ally loses her job at another firm because of sexual harassment, bumps into Richard Fish who immediately hires her and sets about suing the sexual harasser.

So that was my Saturday, getting lost at the airport, a place I used to know like the back of my hand. Staying in on a Saturday night and watching Ally McBeal, a TV show that was cancelled in 2002. What shall I do this Saturday I wonder?


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The Ramblings of a Locked Down Blogger

I thought for a minute of changing the title of my whole website to that which you can see above: The Ramblings of a Locked Down Blogger. Maybe even the crazy ramblings! Still, in a few weeks or perhaps months, the lockdown and Coronavirus will just be a bad memory. In fact, my first post lockdown restaurant visit has already been booked and my table and meal are actually only a matter of hours away.

It will be nice to socialise again and also to dress up. I’ve spent the last two months wearing the same small selection of jeans, shorts, tee shirts and sweaters. Will I still be able to fit into my smart shirts and trousers I wonder? Well, I’ll soon find out.

I have been watching a quite inordinate amount of TV during the lockdown. That has not been any hardship on my part, in fact it could be argued that watching TV is my default position. I do love TV but not any TV; I am quite choosy in what I watch. I love films and only a small fraction of the films I love have I seen at the cinema. The other 99% I have seen on my television set with constant supplies of either tea or red wine near at hand.

At my mother’s house where I come to tidy up and keep the garden in order, I have just recently been trying to sort through my vast supplies of VHS video tapes. Any VHS films I have can be just junked as they will be either shown again on TV or are available on DVD.

Documentaries are a different matter. Films are shown time and time again but great documentaries are seldom shown again. It’s the same with made for TV films. A great film I have on VHS is Across the Lake, a made for TV film starring Anthony Hopkins as record breaker Donald Campbell. I have not watched it for ages but it’s a great film, well written and with an excellent performance by Anthony Hopkins documenting Campbell’s last and fatal attempt at the world water speed record. Why the BBC don’t think of showing these outstanding made for TV films again I really don’t know.

You can see the entire film on YouTube but here’s a short clip:

One thing I love in films is originality. There are a thousand films with car chases and shoot outs and murders but it’s great to see something new. One DVD I watched recently is The King of Comedy. Even though it’s directed by Martin Scorcese it’s not a gangster film, it’s something very different. Robert de Niro stars as a wannabe stand up comedian who wants to get on a show hosted by Jerry Lewis. Jerry plays a TV comedian who is pretty much Jerry Lewis himself. He turns in this outstanding performance as a TV host who is kidnapped by De Niro and held hostage in return for De Niro getting a stand up spot on Lewis’ show. De Niro is helped by a Jerry Lewis obsessed fan played by Sandra Bernhard turning in another great performance. This is a film that is funny, dramatic and completely original. Keep a look out for it on your favourite TV film channel.

Another original film I saw lately was Big Eyes. It’s based on a true story of an artist, Margaret Keane, who turns out some popular and charming pictures, all of people with big eyes. Margaret is a woman who can paint but is not so good at selling and marketing her work. She meets future husband Walter who seems to be a bit of a whiz at the promotion lark. He decides to rent space on a local nightclub wall to get attention for both Margaret’s and his paintings. Surprise, surprise, it is Margaret’s paintings of the doe eyed girls that get all the attention but Walter decides to play the part of the artist as some people have mistakenly thought that anyway. Margaret plays along but gradually becomes very unhappy having to constantly deny her own work.

Big Eyes is, incredibly, a true story. Margaret eventually leaves Walter and has to sue to be finally acknowledged for her own talent. Margaret’s paintings are captivating although art critics are divided on her true worth as an artist. It’s worth noting though that Andy Warhol said this about her work: ‘It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.’

I’ve also been editing my own films during the lockdown. My friend Steve and I made a video about Manchester Airport in 1986 and it’s my second most watched film on YouTube with 16,000 viewings. In 2018 I realised that if I took out all the pop music used on the soundtrack the video would be eligible for monetising, that’s YouTube’s word for getting royalties from your video. I added some copyright free music, tidied a few bad cuts in the video and reposted it to YouTube. Rather annoyingly, YouTube decided just then that video producers have to have a minimum of 1000 followers to get royalties and as I only have about 220 that’s another income stream that has been denied to me.

When trolling through my VHS tapes I found another version of that same video. Yes, even 30 years ago I was still tinkering with my videos and re-editing them. Anyway, I took this one and re-made it again adding some sound effects and new music. Could YouTube stand a third version of the same video? I’m not sure but then again, some mainstream directors like to tinker with their own work when the time comes for the DVD version. I’ve got quite a few ‘directors cut’ DVDs in my collection like Aliens and Apocalypse Now to name but two.

During lockdown I’ve also been listening to my favourite podcasts. The BBC Radio 5 Live F1 podcast is a constant disappointment. When F1 races are on, the 5 Live people assume that listeners know what happened in the race. That’s not the case, I usually listen when I’ve missed the Channel Four broadcast on TV so I listen in for a race report not a load of F1 chit chat. When there are no races, like during the lockdown, I actually do want to hear some F1 chit chat, some gossipy stuff about which driver’s contract is about to expire, which designer is moving teams, will Vettel retire or go to the new Aston Martin F1 team? Stuff like that. No, they don’t even bother to do a podcast when there is no racing.

Instead I’ve been listening to my new favourite podcast, The Slowdown, a poetry podcast that usually lasts about 5 minutes, not too long, not too short. The presenter, US poet Tracy K Smith has such a wonderful voice she seems to make any poem sound good. Wonder if I could get her to read one of mine?


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Documentary: Sellers, Grant and Brando

Not long ago I came across a blog post about the best documentary films of all time and looking through it I noticed one about Marlon Brando. When I was younger I was very interested in Brando. I thought he was a great actor, one of the greatest in fact even though I think his stature has become diminished by his poor choice of roles in his later life.

Brando’s earlier films are a list of classic cinema greats and if he had perhaps died early like James Dean I’m sure many writers and cinema fans would have wondered what would have happened if Brando had lived, what great movies would he have made? Actually the answer is, not very many.

Anyway, before I get to Brando let’s look at some other examples of movie actor documentaries.

Peter Sellers as he filmed it.

The BBC Arena team made this film about Peter Sellers in 1995. It was created largely from cine film shot by Sellers himself, who was a lifelong camera enthusiast. The original documentary was made in 1995 and if I remember correctly, Sellers’ widow, Lynne Frederick had died and left behind a lot of Sellers’ effects, including his home movies which is how the film came to be made.

Normally, I’d say that you have to be interested in movie people and how movies are made to like this documentary but this film is so special I don’t think that rule applies.

The original film was in three parts and began with Sellers’ early days and his early films. The first cine films we see are black and white movies and as Sellers’ career takes off, his cine equipment also improves and he upgrades to colour and then on to sound. His own images show his young self as a sort of ‘spiv’, a Flash Harry sort of character with his double-breasted and shoulder padded jackets. An uneasy relationship with his mother emerges, as does a rather spoilt and volatile personality. His first wife talks about their early days and their life together and friends like Spike Milligan talk happily about successes like the Goon show and their beginnings in show business. Milligan had a 8mm camera and Sellars a 16mm one. Of course ‘Peter was richer,’ comments Milligan. ‘Richer by 8 millimetres!’

Sellers’ cine film is blended with interviews from various people who played a part in Sellers’ life.

Sellers as Group Captain Mandrake in Dr Strangelove.

Sellers as Group Captain Mandrake in Dr Strangelove.

A fascinating section concerned Casino Royale, the spoof James Bond film. Various directors were involved but Joe McGrath shot one segment with Peter Sellers and Orson Welles. McGrath was a TV director relishing the move into feature films, that is until Sellers told him he didn’t want to be in the same shot as co-star  Welles. A heated debate ensued which became physical. Sellers said he was going off to calm down. He never returned and if you ever see the completed movie, you’ll understand why Sellers’ character abruptly disappears too!

Sellers claimed to have no personality of his own and ‘borrowed’ them from the characters he impersonated. It’s interesting to watch the TV interviews included in the film where Sellers seems to mimic the Yorkshire tones of Michael Parkinson and again, in other snippets he is taking on the accents and style of his interviewers.

The film overall has a sort of melancholy feeling which I feel accurately represents Sellers’ persona. He was a sad character, disappointed in his life and loves. He was not happy with his last wife, Lynne Frederick and he even junked many of his cine films prior to his death as they didn’t seem to match his expectations. The mood of the film is further enhanced by a wonderful soundtrack full of sad saxophones and jazz tones.

There are some that put down documentaries that are full of so-called ‘talking heads’ but personally, if the talking head has something interesting to say, I like to hear them. However, in 2002 the BBC re edited the film by taking the soundtracks from the ‘talking heads’ and combined them with Sellers’ self filmed visuals. The result is now available as a BBC DVD. The original is much better though, in fact you can see all three parts on the video sharing site Vimeo:

Becoming Cary Grant.

The BBC does do a good documentary and a few months back I settled down to watch a documentary about the film star Cary Grant: Becoming Cary Grant.

Grant was the smooth talking and sophisticated star of many a Hitchcock film, indeed the documentary revealed ‘Hitch’ to be his favourite director. Grant and Hitchcock were both immigrants from the UK.

Cary Grant was born Archibald Leach in Bristol in the southwest of England. He had a rather sad childhood during which his mother disappeared. Various explanations were put to the young Archie including the lies that she had gone on holiday and later that she had died. In fact his father had his wife committed to an asylum where she languished until her rich and famous son returned to her much later. In fact, Grant did not learn that his mother was still alive until he was thirty-one years old.

Archie’s father remarried but Archie was not included in the new family. Instead he was sent to live with his grandparents. At school he developed a love of theatre and spent much time helping and later working at small theatres in Bristol. When he was only 11 he began working with a small troupe known as the Pender Troupe and when they went to undertake a new tour in the USA, the young Archie went with them, following in the footsteps of other performers like Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel.

In the USA, Archie toured the vaudeville circuit with the Pender Troupe and decided to stay on in the USA when the troupe returned home. He and some others formed their own troupe and Archie spent a lot of time doing various acts like stilt walking and unicycle riding. Gradually he moved on to better roles in various theatre productions and even had a screen test in the early 1930s, which was shown on the documentary. Archie, now using the name Cary Grant comes over as a loud-voiced individual, making many faces for the camera. Of course, as a vaudeville actor he was used to talking loudly and making exaggerated expressions but he soon learned to tone down his performance for the cameras.

The documentary uses text from Grant’s unpublished autobiography and it is clear an experience in later life had a great effect on him. Grant took part in a form of psychoanalysis using LSD which enabled him to confront issues from his early life which the actor felt had unduly affected his relationships as an adult, particularly with women, in fact he was married five times.

The film was interesting but focused mainly on the unpublished autobiography and many of his friendships and relationships that I have read about in other books were not even mentioned. A great part of the film also was Grant’s collection of home movies which were used throughout the film although many times what we were seeing was not properly explained. Towards the end of the film Grant’s daughter was interviewed and visits Cary’s old home. In one scene we see her visiting the patio shown in a earlier shot on one of Cary’s home movies. More interviews and perhaps some more location footage would have benefited this film enormously. Still, it was interesting and can be found on the BBC i-Player if you missed the original broadcast.

Listen to Me Marlon

After reading about this Brando documentary I did a quick search on eBay, found a very cheap copy for a couple of pounds including free delivery, and sat down to enjoy it. It is different to the two films above because rather than home movie or the  written word, the prime source of the film is audio tapes that Marlon recorded for himself. The big problem there is that while many are good recordings, others are not only poor quality, but Marlon’s non acting speaking voice is rather difficult to understand. He has a strange lisping, mumbling voice completely unlike the strong voice of many of his roles.

On top of that a droning piano accompanies much of Marlon’s recordings and many times I found myself rewinding to find out what he had actually said.

The Brando that emerges from this film is a sad man made sad perhaps by memories of a drunken mother and a violent father. In an early sequence Marlon senior joins his son the film actor on a TV show and the voice on one of Marlon’s tapes tell us how both of them were acting, one playing the loving son, the other playing the caring father. Marlon spent a lifetime looking to psychoanalysis for help, feeling inadequate despite his fame and success as an actor. It seems also that he despised his craft even though it gave him financial security to do and live however he wished.

Acting he reveals was the first time he did anything that he was praised for and the first to see his talent was Stella Adler, an actress who trained and nurtured him as an actor.

Brando appeared in a number of classic films including A Streetcar named Desire, Viva Zapata, and the Oscar winning On The Waterfront. Some of his later choices of film roles were just frankly disappointing especially during the 1960s. By the end of that decade he was persona non grata in Hollywood and when Francis Ford Coppola decided he wanted Brando to play Don Corleone in The Godfather, alarm bells were ringing in the executive offices at Paramount. Not only was Brando held in low esteem as an actor he also had a reputation as a troublemaker who caused delays and added more dollars to production schedules and costs.

I’m not sure Brando ever really appreciated what Coppola did for him. As well as giving him an Oscar winning role Coppola rehabilitated Brando in the film industry and made him a bankable star once again. Later, when Brando appeared in Apocalypse Now, he appeared on set massively overweight forcing Coppola to shoot him in darkness and shadows. Brando complained about the script too and began rewriting his own dialogue. On his personal audio tapes Marlon rants on about his treatment by the director but really, it was Francis Coppola who should have been complaining.

Listen to me Marlon was fascinating but ultimately a disappointing film. If I ever do a blog post about the best documentaries ever I’m sorry to say I won’t be including this one.


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TV, Books and the Lockdown Blues

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

Television

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spotify

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

Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blogs

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


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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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5 TV Chefs Who Will Change the Way You Cook!

I do like my food. Like everyone I have my likes and dislikes, for instance, I’m not a great lover of fish although I’ve been known to eat cod, hake, calamari and even mussels. Good food though is more than just ingredients or produce and a good chef is in his own way as much of an artist as a great painter or a poet. I do love watching great TV cookery shows and although I am not a great cook, I have sometimes tried to follow the advice of various TV cooks who have inspired me to make something exciting. The results will not be spoken about here but getting back to those TV chefs, who is your favourite?

Ken Hom.

A few years back when I first lived on my own, I saw one of Ken’s TV shows and began to wonder if I could actually make some tasty Chinese food. I remember going down to the Chinese supermarket in Manchester and picking up various things like sesame oil, lemongrass and of course, my first wok. Chinese cooking is quick and fresh and most of the work is in the preparation because the actual stir frying is a pretty quick process.

I followed all of Ken’s instructions and seasoned my wok and now and again I manage to dish out some reasonable food. I couldn’t quite find the clip of Ken Hom that I wanted to show but below is a recent clip with Ken talking about his food.

While I’m on the subject, wonder what I did with my wok?

Antonio Carlucci.

One of my favourite cuisines is Italian. Some people say pasta is boring but I’ve never really felt that at all. I love pasta, especially spaghetti and my favourite pasta dish is a very simple one spaghetti aglio olio e peperoncino. It’s basically spaghetti with garlic, olive oil and chilli. Simple and tasty and it’s always handy to have some fresh bread nearby to mop up the olive oil. Antonio Carlucci, who sadly died in 2017, made a great series back in the eighties and one of the highlights was where he visited some small Italian village and the locals showed him their authentic versions of pasta or how they made a ragu for instance. I’ve always liked simple rustic cooking and I think that is what is at the heart of Antonio’s food.

If I remember correctly that ragu was something involving tomatoes, onions and garlic, all of my favourite ingredients. I couldn’t find a clip from it on YouTube so here’s one of Antonio in his later years.

Jamie Oliver.

Jamie Oliver is a very modern cook and he seems to cultivate a sort of Jack the lad streetwise fast-talking persona but he really is a great modern chef. In his many TV shows he caters for the modern household where people come home from work after a busy day and inspires them to cook some simple and fresh food instead of just shoving a frozen pizza in the oven.

Jamie made his TV debut in 1999. He was spotted by a TV producer making a documentary about the River Cafe where he was working at the time. His TV show the Naked Chef followed soon after and his cookbook from the series was a best seller. I’ve got quite a few of his cookbooks in my collection which I always refer to when I get down to some serious cookery.

Here’s one of his many YouTube videos showing how to make another of my favourite Italian dishes, Bolognese.

Keith Floyd.

Keith Floyd is the master of the TV cookery programme and his shows from the seventies and eighties were the forerunners of some of today’s TV cookery shows. Floyd visited lots of places, soaked up the local atmosphere, checked out the local dishes and produce and then turned up somewhere, a village square, a beach or even a local restaurant and started cooking. During each monologue to the camera, Keith made sure the cameraman filmed exactly what he wanted him to film, giving a running commentary on the ingredients and the cooking process as well as directions to the cameraman. The supping of wine during the cooking was clearly compulsory. His shows were a mix of travelogue and cooking visiting various far flung places and his impact on the genre is still visible in today’s food programming.

Rick Stein.

Rick is a direct link to Floyd in many ways. Rick’s first appearance on TV was when Floyd visited his famous fish restaurant in Padstow and later when Floyd’s producer wanted to work with someone new, Rick turned out to be the obvious choice. Rick, together with producer David Pritchard produced a series called Ocean Odyssey which was a big hit and the two went on to make more foodie programmes together. A recent series and one of my favourites was Rick Stein’s Long Weekends. Incidentally, a while back I reviewed Ricks autobiography which is well worth a read if you ever see it on the bookshelves.

Graham Kerr.

I had always thought that Graham Kerr, AKA the Galloping Gourmet was Australian but a quick check over on Wikipedia showed me I was wrong. Kerr was born in London to Scottish parents who were hoteliers and later Kerr moved to New Zealand where he became a culinary advisor to the New Zealand Air Force.

In New Zealand Keith appeared in a highly successful cookery show called Entertaining with Kerr. Later the show moved to Australia and later still Graham and his wife Treena made the move to Canada. There Graham began a new cookery show produced by Treena called the Galloping Gourmet which again was very successful. The title came from Kerr’s fast moving and enthusiastic style in which he literally galloped into the studio.

The format of the show was a film travelogue followed by Graham cooking a dish inspired by his travels live in the studio. I remember watching his shows as a child where he would taste the dish and then give the camera a look of food rapture before running into the audience and grabbing someone to taste his food. I loved it and it’s always been one of my foodie favourites.


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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 motorist 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 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.