Tuesday, 22 January 2019

STAN AND OLLIE (2018) review

Steve Coogan makes an impressive Stan Laurel in this gentle biopic, but the acting honours go to John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy.

You’ve just enjoyed one valedictory biopic, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), when another one comes along to mythologise a much-loved entertainment act. This time, it’s the bowler-hatted monochrome comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. They pretty much monopolised cinema comedy in the 1930s, courtesy of Hal Roach studios, with a blueprint that still looks modern today: the innocent, daft one (Laurel, thin) and the one who isn’t as clever as he thinks he is (Hardy, fat), has been the subsequent model for everyone from Abbot and Costello – as the film bitterly notes – through Morecambe and Wise to Reeves and Mortimer.

Stan and Ollie and Bohemian Rhapsody are also similar in that they’re flexible with the facts when it comes to the story the writers want to tell. Jeff Pope’s screenplay suggests that Hardy’s failure to negotiate his way out of his contract with Hal Roach (Danny Huston, entertainingly odious) and sign a new one with Laurel at 20th Century Fox, caused a simmering fault-line between the pair that blows up into a major fight in the final reel (if they still have film reels these days). The truth is slightly different and apparently less dramaticLaurel eventually signed a new contract with Roach, delivering two more outings for the duo in A Chump at Oxford and Saps at Sea (both 1939), and the pair did go on to make films for Fox.

Another thing Stan and Ollie and Bohemian Rhapsody have in common is that they’re finely crafted, valedictory fairy tales. In Pope’s script, there’s much talk that “the show must go on” Queen wrote a song of the same name expressing exactly the same sentiments, funnily enoughand, at the expense of Ollie’s failing health, their final theatre tour of the United Kingdom in 1953 fulfils that showbiz cliché, making sure the Laurel and Hardy legend goes out on a high. (In another curious parallel, Bohemian Rhapsody does exactly the same thing with Queen’s triumph at Live Aid, shortly after Freddie’s announces to the band that he has AIDS). Delightfully, the film starts and finishes with perhaps their most famous routine, the dance from Way Out West (1937), firstly when it was committed to celluloid in the Hal Roach studios, the second time sixteen years later at the triumphant end of a show in Ireland. (It’s perhaps worth noting that Bohemian Rhapsody is also similarly bookended by Live Aid).

Like the Queen biopic, the story really isn’t the main reason to see Stan and Ollie. The joy of it is in the performances. Everyone will talk about Steve Coogan (Stan) and John C. Reilly (Ollie), but elsewhere in the cast there are some terrific characterisations. As the film’s publicity notes, the duo’s wives make a “formidable double act” of their own: Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) is diminutive and feisty, always looking out for her “Babe” (Ollie’s ironic nickname); Ida Kitaeva Laurel (Nina Arianda) is amusingly blunt and wary of the organiser of the tour, Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones), to the point where she comically always refuses to sit next to him. 

Jones’s Delfont is a real highlight, the archetypal, smooth managerial hypocrite with a bounder’s moustache. He can barely wait to be out of Stan an Ollie’s company when the tour starts, but as soon as audiences pick upafter he’s manipulated them into doing public appearances for no extra money, naturally – he’s overflowing with compliments. When Ollie is taken ill, Delfont is quick to suggest that Stan carries on with another partner, sharply reminding him as they have breakfast at the Savoy hotel that “those sausages won’t pay for themselves.”

Steve Coogan is very good as Stan, mastering the peculiar tone of voice, the bemused expressions and the famous slapstick routines, but, no matter how good he is, you can’t help feeling you’re watching Steve Coogan in a pair of prosthetic ears.

Reilly is another matter. He’s exceptional. He inhabits the part of Ollie to the point where you’re unaware you’re watching an actor in a fat suit. Reilly simply is Oliver Hardy. He’s the beating heart of the film: an innocent, big, soft-natured man who, the film indicates, only became famous because of Laurel’s dedication to writing and (uncredited) directing, and who had a – fatal – weakness for gambling and the expensive high life. There’s a very moving moment when Lucille and Ollie are cuddling in bed, his tiny wife dwarfed by the bear-like Hardy. “What do you see in a fat old man like me?” Ollie grumbles. “That’s my husband you’re talking about,” Lucille gently admonishes him (and Henderson’s American accent is faultless).

You can’t have Hardy without Laurel,” Stan states emphatically and he remains true to his word, at the eleventh hour walking out on a performance with Nobby Cook (John Henshaw) as a substitute Ollie. That’s commendable, not to say heroic, but here’s a darkness to the film hovering just out of shot, with Pope’s suggestion that Laurel and Hardy were so trapped by their reputations that they couldn’t help but give their audiences what they wanted. Just two examples: as they arrive at a rundown hotel in Newcastle and, later, at the much flasher Savoy, the duo go into crowd-pleasing comedy routines, their private and public personas fused together.

No matter. Stan and Ollie is a beautifully made, affectionatethough perhaps too sedate – appraisal of two exceptionally funny entertainers in their (unforgiving) twilight years.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

BREXIT: THE UNCIVIL WAR, Channel 4, 7 January 2018


An underplaying Benedict Cumberbatch (below) was on fine form in an
incisive dissection of the story behind the 2016 Brexit referendum.

George Orwell was a genius. His dystopian masterpiece, the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, was written just over 70 years ago, but in it he managed to pinpoint the most worrying malaise of modern culture. To summarise the book: under a totalitarian state, information is controlled to such an extent that facts and the past can literally be rewritten. Because of this, the book’s anti-hero, Winston Smith, can never be sure of events that happened – the ‘true’ history only exists in his memory – or even what year it actually is. As one of the slogans of the controlling Party has it, “Who controls the past controls the future.”

For all his brilliance, Orwell didn’t anticipate the internet. Compared to the online anarchy of information we now have, the Party’s singular control of documents, newspapers, books, magazines, films and television looks distinctly old fashioned. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, everyone believed in the Party because the Party controlled everything; here and now in 2019, no one knows what to believe because you can’t be sure of the provenance of anything any more.

The man who’s done a lot to accelerate the rise of this climate is political strategist Dominic Cummings; it’s also a pretty safe bet that he’s read Nineteen Eighty-Four. The central figure of James Graham’s film drama Brexit: The Uncivil War, Cummings was the architect of the Vote Leave campaign, which swung the result of the UK’s 2016 referendum on membership of the European Union in favour of withdrawing. Compellingly played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Cummings certainly knew how to manipulate information, which he did with the aid of the Canadian analytical consultancy AggregateIQ, whose sinister mission statement was “integrating, obtaining and normalising data from disparate sources.”

Cummings had a messianic zeal the digital age, insisting to his campaign team that “We are going to be making decisions based on science and data… no advertisers, no snake oil salesmen, or fucking Saatchis. We’re gonna follow algorithmic, statistical analysis.” Thanks to AggregateIQ he did, although the whole process was unethical. The company targeted three million disenfranchised voters who could swing the referendum in Leave’s favour through accessing information on social media sites, together with competitions and adverts that had nothing to do with the referendum but, worded correctly, could build a data profile of the people interacting with them. Cummings clearly knew AggreateIQ’s methods were immoral, as he kept the real reason for the young Canadians’ presence in the Vote Leave HQ hidden from his staff.

Despite Cummings’ belief in a new political discourse – his aloof disdain for what he saw as political dinosaurs, i.e. MPs, were some of the drama’s highlights – his tactics came down to sound bites, inflammatory slogans and unsubstantiated claims. Most famous, or rather infamous, were Take Back Control’ and the claim that, having left the EU, the £350 million the UK apparently paid the EU every week would be spent on the NHS. Look at the slogan again; it doesn’t say that the money – which its been subsequently proved never existed anyway – would or will be spent on the NHS, it just suggests it. That this was the main selling point on the campaign bus (above) shows how far Cummings’ independent campaign was able to flout electoral regulation, something that exasperated Craig Oliver (a quietly simmering Rory Kinnear), in charge of the Remain camp.

Kinnear featured in an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror anthology series, which warns of how technical and scientific advances can get dangerously out of hand. Famously, Kinnear played the prime minister in ‘The National Anthem(2011), in which, to save the life of a royal princess, he had to fuck a pig live across all media platforms. This time, in a drama that played out very much like a Black Mirror story in it's combination of black farce and tragedy, it was the whole country being shafted.

Farce: Cummings’ electoral “edge” resulting in a war of words over a threatened, non existent tidal wave of immigrants from Turkey, who wasn’t even an EU member. Tragedy: the murder of Remainer MP Jo Cox, the first British politician to be assassinated for decades. In the only scene that Iooked like artistic licence, Cummings and Oliver met shortly after Jo’s murder, the latter sullenly warning his opposite number that, in knowingly provoking racism, bigotry and violence, Cummings had no control over what he’d let loose. Equally as bad, Oliver accused him of developing a culture in which no one believed anything and just yelled at each other.

Fast forward to this week in 2019 and there’s been a lot of yelling at the media village outside parliament. During a TV interview, Remainer Tory MP Ann Sourby MP was branded “scum” and a “Nazi” by nationalists, then was harassed by the same mob in the street on the way to the House of Commons. She commented “This is what’s wrong with our country”, a wrongness Brexit: The Uncivil War squarely laid at Cummings’ door.

Forty years ago, Graham’s film would have been a Play for Today; fifty years ago it would have been an Armchair Theatre. In both cases, it would have been essential viewing on one of only three terrestrial channels. Today, Brexit: The Uncivil War was lost in the general, eternal babble of 24/7 media culture. Some of our more right wing newspapers even gloated that more people watched the football. 

Reflecting on events long after the campaign, a disillusioned Cummings concluded “It’s all fucked.” Even though his intellectual arrogance contributed to that situation, it’s hard not to agree with him. I’m sure George Orwell would have. 

Sunday, 30 December 2018

CLUB UNIQUITY BIG SHOW, Duke’s Head, Somerleyton, 28 December 2018 review

Unlikely though it might seem, Somerleyton's Club Uniquity is the Hacienda of Waveney.

It’s easy to feel the thud of apathy in your soul when live entertainment events in and around Lowestoft are so badly attended or, at least, the ones I’ve been too have been. This is why, the afternoon after the night before at Club Uniquity – based at the Duke’s Head pub in Somerleyton – I’m still buzzing. In fact, when I got in last night, I was so stoked up I didn’t want to go to bed. For a man who’s usually in bed by half nine these days, that’s a breakthrough.

My friend Lurch saw the American singer/songwriter Dean Friedman at Club Uniquity in the summer. If a quiet little place in Somerleyton could attract a major US musician on an acoustic tour, then it had to be worth investigating. Then Lurch told me that it was run by Paul Johnson (left), who we were both at school with.

Paul Johnson. When we were all incarcerated at Benjamin Britten High School, he was one of the cool guys. Judging by the way his positivity, enthusiasm and just plain funny personality informs Club Uniquity, he still is. (Back at the old grey school, Paul’s band did Sex Pistols covers, and I remember being honoured that he asked me to do a Sid Vicious painting on the back of his leather jacket. That was the height of street cred at BBHS in 1979). 

The aesthetic of the club is very simple: it’s cool and comfortable, with sofas and padded stools, so you can sit and watch the various musical acts in a relaxed manner as you have a drink. There’s none of the self conscious atmosphere that can be generated, when the audience has to stand and fill the floor space in front of acts they don’t know, or when they’re corralled into regimented rows of chairs that make it hard to get a refill or visit the bathroom. A sign above the stage says ‘This Club Was Built With Love’, and that attitude resonates in everything from the soft, atmospheric lighting to the framed pictures of Debbie Harry and Madonna on the walls. So… me and Lurch were there for Club Uniquity’s Big Show, which is held once a month, presenting a selection of varied acts. 

First up was singer songwriter Yve Mary B (left). I can only appraise things through the crazy paving of my musical reference points, so to me Yve’s set suggested country rock like the Cowboy Junkies with maybe a nod or two to Joni Mitchell. Not really my personal taste, but her guitar playing was hypnotically melodic and Ye has an equally beguiling voice. At Paul’s urging, she did an encore and then was joined by a friend for a duet with Lauren Dove. Thisextra time’ was all good naturedly spontaneous, the kind of thing that the atmosphere of Uniquity positively encourages.

Riddle was a different proposition altogether, a young guy throwing himself around the stage like Iggy Pop learning his moves, with a sound that put me in mind of Bruno Mars, with some inspiration from vintage Prince. Riddle has a voice of great range, but I felt that he would be better off dropping the acrobatics, and should have enough confidence in his material to play his songs straight, as Yve did. Can’t fault his vocal craft, though, although his between song banter could be sharpened up, particularly when Paul stole a big laugh from the mixing desk with his comment that perhaps Riddle, “would like to have his first homosexual experience.”

Yve and Lauren were back next as they’re both in TransEuropa, Paul’s band, together with an excellent, smiley drummer called Dan. Paul’s upbeat attitude to life shines through in a dance act that, to my mind, appear to be the product of a chemical love-in between Screamadelica and Dreadzone. The vibe was ‘up’ and genuinely fucking epic!”. Praising Yve and Lauren’s synchronised dance moves and harmonised vocals, Paul couldn’t help but endear you to him, grinning about how delighted he was to be jamming with such creative people; also, there can’t be many performers who can keep singing while adjusting the sound levels at the mixing desk. I’d love to know if TransEuropa are playing any festivals next year – they’d go down an absolute storm.

With a real buzz now in the room, last up were Coronation Kings (left). This is where things get even more surreal for me. Myself and Lurch were not only at school with, but were in the same class as, lead singer and guitarist Richard Barrett... I didn’t really know what to expect but, like all the acts on this evening in various ways, the Kings’ set was class stuff. Again – and this is only my opinion – their focused, immediately infectious rock brought to mind some of Kings of Leon’s catalogue, with Richard’s vocals reminding me a bit of John Power from Cast. They were really, really good, and I wasn’t surprised to discover, after doing some checking this morning, that their two stand-out tracks, ‘Waterfall’ and ‘Domino’, were issued as singles. An album’s apparently due in early 2019, which needless to say I’ll be purchasing.

What a great night! Club Uniquity doesn’t even charge an entrance fee, and the bar prices were so reasonable that I was convinced I’d been undercharged all night. Not only that, but whoever’s in charge of the music in the Duke’s Head clearly has a real ear for classics, as The Who’s revolutionary call-to-arms ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ was blasting out when Lurch and I stopped by for a concluding pint. (Not surprising, then, that the best covers band round these parts, the Austin Beats, are playing at the Duke on New Year’s Eve.)

It’s worth saying one more time: Club Uniquity is fantastic. I’ll happily trot out the cliché that it’s one of this region’s best kept secrets, but with nights as life affirming as this, it won’t be for much longer.

All images copyright respective artists.

Tuesday, 25 December 2018

MISSING BELIEVED WIPED, BFI Southbank, 15 December 2018

Gems from the BFI's annual archive trawl this year included animated Doctor Who, Morecambe and Wise and Mr Basil Brush (below).

Session 1: ‘Music and More’ 15:15, NFT1
Vince Hill at the Talk of The Town (1969) comes from an era when 40 minutes of television could be sustained just by the gifted vocals of a popular singer (bar one ill-advised and rather surreal detour into impersonating Ken Dodd, which Vince seemed to find a lot funnier than the audience). He discovered a 16mm film recording of this performance at the legendary West End venue in his garage, endearingly enough; recorded when he was in his pomp, with Vince's biggest hit ‘Edleweiss’ (from The Sound of Music) still serenading from the airwaves, the concert was a window on to a slick, easy listening world where hits of the day like the Kinks’ ‘Sunny Afternoon’ could sit alongside Rogers and Hammerstein’s ‘Maria’ from West Side Story. After the screening finished, Vince and his party left the building, which moved presenter Dick Fiddy to quip that, after all these years, “he’s still got an entourage.”

The BFI has always had a mutual love affair with the BBC’s evergreen sci fi saga Doctor Who, normally being the first with premieres of new stories and the screening of ‘lost’ episodes. This afternoon’s Who presentation fell between the two, as producers Rob Ritchie and Anne Marie Walsh unveiled a new, ten-minute animated version of the first episode of the 1968 Patrick Troughton story The Wheel in Space.

The animations were devised to replace lost telerecordings of episodes, matched to existing visual material and soundtracks. The Wheel in Space 1 was a joy: the technique has come a long way since 2016’s The Power of the Daleks, with fluid movements of the figures and accurate representations of Troughton’s facial expressions. Best of all, though, was being able to enjoy how skilled the makers of the 1960s episodes were, creating a strikingly odd mood and atmosphere through well judged sound effects. Wheel 1 will apparently feature on a DVD next year, which I’m sure will be well worth waiting for.

The truly bizarre Stars and Garters (1963-65) got another outing this year. Apparently set in a London pub as various acts like Adam Faith plied their trade, its chiefly notable for how clueless the invited East End audience are in front of the cameras are, one guy nearly spilling a pint in terror when confronted by a live python and another wandering into shot to hand round fags when he shouldn’t. The central section vanishes in a blaze of white out, and you can only speculate that whoever originally recorded it finally snapped and assaulted the telecine machine with a hammer.

Some great curios rounded off this session. It you wanted to know how ITV and BBC were perceived in the 1970s, you need look no further than clips from the Saturday morning children’s programmes Multi Coloured Swap Shop (BBC) – posh – and Tiswas (ITV) – punk. The former had Noel Edmonds, while the latter had Sally James ‘shaving’ her chin in a tin bath. Enough said... Finally, a clip from Lulu (1970) featured the late Aretha Franklin singing a truly inspiring, rafter rattling version of ‘Spirit in the Dark’. Heady times indeed in BBC light entertainment.

Session 2: ‘Philip Morris Presents’ 17:45, NFT1
First up in the second session was a chat between Dick Fiddy and Philip Morris, the CEO of Television International Enterprises Archives (TIEA), with all the presentations discoveries TIEA had made during the last few years. Despite his crippling workload of personal investigation into some very obscure TV stations around the world, Morris was upbeat about what might turn up in the future. Intriguingly and tantalisingly, both he and Fiddy looked forward to an event at the BFI in March 2019 they declined to discuss in detail. It might, or might not, be coincidence that it’s the same month as the animated version of the Doctor Who story ‘The Macra Terror’ is released on DVD...

Morris’ first find was the third episode of the children’s series The Basil Brush Show (1968). I love Basil Brush. As soon as you know that Ivan Owen’s fox puppet was based on the comic film actor Terry-Thomas – the dandyish waistcoat, the cravat and the distinctive gap between Basil’s two front teeth are the giveaways – the banter between the chirpy Basil and the show’s presenter, here the very modish ex-Likely Lad Rodney Bewes, is even more enjoyable. Like all the well remembered children’s shows, a lot of the entertainment value comes from when the kids’ show facade fractures and you realise you’re looking at two adult performers trying not to laugh or, in Owen’s case, trying to make Bewes laugh. Owen was a master at it.

This atmosphere of cheerful irreverence was ideal for pop acts of the day, in this case the Kinks performing ‘Days’. Impressively, the sound was very live: the practice of the time was for bands to re-record their current hit then mime to it during the given show (as per Top of the Pops). Until recently, the Kinks’ section had been missing. The restoration is truly stunning, also highlighting – as with Luluthat these were the days when cutting edge rock musicians would happily fill a spot on a light entertainment show, in this case in front of an audience largely made up of well behaved cub scouts.

It has to be said that the episode of Citizen James (1962), ‘The Day Out’, starring Carry On films stalwart Sid James, hasn’t aged well. Today, it plays like Hancock’s Half Hour without that series’ still contemporary-seeming sharp wit. Citizen James had the recurring themes of TV sitcoms of the period, namely humour based around characters on the financial make, or contriving to get off with pretty girls, in this case primarily Carry On star Liz Frazer. (Rather alarmingly for a children’s programme, there was even a sketch in The Basil Brush Show in which “Mr Rodney” paired off with a bathing-suited beach dweller). Interestingly, the reverse was true in some of the surviving clips from the Harry Worth show, as the middle-aged neurotic tried to avoid “a threesome” – yes, that was exactly the phrase used – with two lubricious single ladies of a certain age.

It might not be at all funny any more, but examples like this are a valuable insight into the social history of yesteryear. The same was true of this year’s closing presentation, a 1968 edition of The Morecambe and Wise Show. It’ll be no surprise to anyone that Eric Morecambe’s anarchic deconstruction of the light entertainment show was as funny now as it was 50 years ago (and, watching him now, it’s so obvious how much Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out (1990-91) owed to Eric). In this edition, you could also see the genesis of Morecambe and Wise’s elaborate song and dance routines of the 1970s, as the duo showed off what accomplished tap dancers they were.

was surprising was seeing the national treasures doing a long sketch about the IRA, complete with the complicity of guest star, Irish singer Ronnie Carroll, which climaxed with the gang’s jolly unmasking of a British spy. Never mind that it was set in the uprising of the 1920s, in light of 50 years of turbulent and bloody history in Northern Ireland – which commenced less than a year after this show was transmitted – the sketch now looks as acceptable as someone on The X Factor doing a stand-up routine about the Manchester suicide bomber.

But that’s part of the value of Missing Believed Wiped: seeing how public tastes change, as yesterday’s fripperies and accepted attitudes become today’s no-go areas. It’s valuable and fascinating, almost as important as the recovery of vintage television itself. Long may the BFI’s Missing Believed Wiped screenings be the place to see it

Cheers to Dick Fiddy for pulling together a blinder once again.