Tuesday 19 March 2019

THE STRANGLERS, Rock City, Nottingham, 11 March 2019 review


45 years on, punk pariahs The Stranglers are better than ever.

If it’s March, gallows-humour-intellectuals-masquerading-as-thugs The Stranglers must be on the road again. They first came to prominence in the Year Zero cauldron of punk in 1977, and I’ve been going to see them since the La Folie tour in 1981. My old school chum Lurch was among the fans on the coach trip I organised back then; thirty-plus years later, me and Lurch are still friends and we’re making what’s become, over the last three years, an annual March pilgrimage to worship at the altar of the meninblack.

It’s fair to say that me and The Stranglers have history. The last three decades have been a rocky time for them as well as for me, but, in our different ways, we’ve tried to weather the varying storms of relentless time. Gradually, over the last eighteen years, the perception of The Stranglers has shifted from punk-dinosaurs-who-won’t go-away to valued alternative rock innovators, whose continued live performances are events to be cherished.

It’s no coincidence that this critical rehabilitation – as well as a constant influx of new fans, if the many young faces in the audience at Rock City were anything to go by – is due in no small way to the presence of Mr Baz Warne, the mischievous guitarist and vocalist. He arrived in 2000 when the band were still a five piece with stand-alone singer Paul Roberts, re-energising the jaded New Wave veterans with his input to a trio of acclaimed and best selling albums – Norfolk Coast (2004), Suite XVI (2007) and Giants (2012). Today, songs from these records are greeted with as much enthusiasm as vintage anthems like ‘Something Better Change’ and Duchess’. One of the highlights of the set tonight is a searing, explosive ‘Unbroken’, the opening track on Suite XVI.

In short, Baz is such a comfortable fit with the two remaining original Stranglers – low slung bassist Jean Jacques Burnel and keyboard maestro Dave Greenfield – together withnew’ drummer Jim Macaulay (he replaced original drummer and founder Strangler Jet Black on tour in 2013), that it feels like he’s always been there. Baz knows he belongs and he loves it, if the amount of delighted grins on his face and good natured V-signs he flips at the audience is anything to go by. There’s something in the band’s creative DNA that makes it natural for them to be a four piece – Baz and Burnel looming menacingly at the front, Greenfield in command of an arsenal of keyboards to the rear right and Macaulay keeping the beat at back left.

No matter how many times I’ve seen them, The Stranglers continue to offer some surprises. There are always reinvigorated gems from their back catalogue which haven’t been played in an age and this year is no different. The eerily symphonic ‘Baroque Bordello’ from the classic 1979 LP The Raven – arguably the best album by the band’s first incarnation, though Lurch will disagree – made a welcome return, while from the 1980s ‘pop’ era we were treated to a slithering ‘Ice Queen’ and a rousing, rockabilly-esque ‘Uptown’, both off 1984’s Aural Sculpture. (Topically, the latter featured dialogue sampled from the chump who is Trump.)

Of more interest, to me at any rate, were three new songs. From what I could tell, the first, ‘Water’, (debuted on the 2018 ‘Definitive’ tour), deals with ecological issues, and is the equal of anything on Giants. The two other new compositionsLast Man in the Moon’ and ‘This Song’are in another league all together. The first is wistful and melancholic, while the second scales the gloomy heights of the melodic, misanthropic pop The Stranglers do so well. The last line, growled out by Baz as something like ‘I could get over you/If I really wanted to’, promises much for the forthcoming album that recent interviews confirm the band are now ready to record. Were ‘This Song’ to be released as a single, if there was any justice in the world it would go to Number One (if such things were still important).

Elsewhere, The Stranglers delighted us with sing-along standards like Tank’, ‘Princess of the Streets’, ‘Golden Brown’ and ‘Always the Sun’, together with more left-field fare such as utterly ferocious renderings of ‘Hey! (Rise of the Robots)’ and ‘Down in the Sewer’. The encore closer – as is traditional – was the band’s signature tune ‘No More Heroes’, sounding as vicious and vital today as it ever has.

According to the set list they should have also played their epic version of
‘Walk On By’, but, going by the rapturous audience reaction – especially exceptional for a Monday night – no one at Rock City felt short-changed. By now all The Stranglers were grinning, and took to the front of the stage to do something that would never have happened in the era of the band’s first singer and guitarist, the aloof Hugh Cornwell: a group hug and a group bow. That’s how happy they are to still be making and playing music that’s loved and appreciated the world over.

The Stranglers: the band that no one thought would last who keep on giving. Who’d have thought? 

Photo above by Lurch

Saturday 9 March 2019

SHAKESPEARE AND HATHAWAY, afternoons on BBC1, review


BBC1's Shakespeare and Hathaway is the new Bulman. Really.

There’s some quality comedy drama hidden away in the afternoons on BBC1. It’s so good it could inhabit an evening slot currently occupied by the likes of flashier fare like Death in Paradise.

The premise of Shakespeare and Hathaway – Private Investigators is essentially the same as it’s bigger budget, late-evening cousin: quirky criminal investigators in a singularly distinctive location. While Ardal O’Hanlon of Death in Paradise is lucky enough to become embroiled in humorously-slanted crime capers on a Caribbean island, Jo Joyner (Luella Shakespeare) and Mark Benton (Frank Hathaway)’s duo, named after the Bard and his wife Anne, inhabit the more-budget conscious, culturally prestigious English town of Stratford-upon-Avon (Shakespeare’s birth-place). They are aided in their comfortable, easy to digest cases by Patrick Walsh McBride’s arch out-of-work actor, Sebastian Brudenell.

Shakespeare and Hathaway – Private Investigators is defiantly old fashioned as it’s the kind of programme you tune in for to see the banter between the characters, rather than for the plots. Stories such as the blackmail of the owner of a tennis club, the sabotage of an old people’s home and the murder of Lu’s con-man fiancee – which leads to her joining Frank’s private eye business in the first episode – are all pleasingly novel in their way, with some clever twists, but it’s the central characters that keep you coming back for extra helpings.

Take Too Cold for Hell’, the last episode in the current series. The investigation of a series of thefts by removal men delivers a situation where the terminally perky, bouncily curled Lu and the overweight, lugubrious, ex-DI Frank impersonate a bitter, separating married couple. “Don’t buy your secretary thongs from Victoria’s Secrets then keep the receipts in your pocket!” snarls Lu in front of an embarrassed removal man, while Frank parries with “Don’t put your wife’s name on the deeds of the house YOU bought!” Later on, Lu pretends to be an Aston Villa supporter, comically interpreting Frank’s sign language telling her the score of last Saturday’s match – “One… Love...” – while Sebastian gets his traditional role in (almost) every episode of taking on a cover identity.Here, he portrays an unlikely BBC executive, pitching the sadly not unlikely new format of a TV quiz based in a tree house.

The supporting characters are equally enjoyable: no nonsense DI Marlowe (geddit?, played by Amber Aga), Frank’s ex-sergeant, who allows him liberal access to every crime scene, complemented by Tomos Eames’ wonderfully dour and straight-faced DS Keeler who, traditionally for this kind of thing, hates Marlowe’s old boss. Like every main character, they all get at least one great one liner per episode, but Keeler has a real gem here. Locked in a freezer with Frank and Billy ‘the Brick’ Porter (Ciaran Griffiths), he moans, “You actually think you’re gonna break out of here with a frozen fish?” In this episode, James Dreyfus joined in the fun as a Marbella-based gangster pursuing uncut diamonds. The series’ gimmick is to drop in quotes from Shakespeare, and you could tell Dreyfus enjoyed his turn, making a meal of “to sleep, perchance to dream” from Hamlet as he described a watery grave for Frank and co.

Free of any sex and violence because of the time slot, Shakespeare and Hathaway – Private Investigators unashamedly harks back to similar, vintage fare like Lovejoy, Pie in the Sky and particularly Bulman, in which, for all the roguishness or eccentricity of the protagonists, they had a heart of gold and the morality was clear cut. The tradition continues with S and H, where the grumpy Frank defends the petty thief Billy the Brick to Keller because the odds were stacked against Billy from the moment he was born to a junkie mother. In Lu, Frank and Sebastian’s office based in a period Tudor building there’s also – whisper it – a whiff of the offbeat ITC film series trios of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and Strange Report.

So, there’s nothing particularly new about S and H, but the way its been set up by creators Paul Matthew Thompson and Jude Tindall, and performed by the likeable cast, make it fresh, lively and engaging. Time to brush up your Shakespeare.

Tuesday 26 February 2019

CLUB UNIQUITY, Duke’s Head, Somerleyton, 22 February 2019 review

The first Club Uniquity of 2019 was, again, "****ing epic.

You can’t fault the quality and drawing power of these events. This time, myself and Lurch arrived only slightly late, but the place was packed for the very first act, Danny R.

I’d seen Mr R a few weeks ago at the Dock Tavern in Gorleston – another great venue for live music – and was impressed with him then. His acoustic guitar style and vocal style reminded me of Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac (and apologies to Danny if he thinks I’m way off with that comparison). Anyway, for the second time around he held my attention throughout, even though I’m not a huge fan of the stool rock genre. The same was true of the equally accomplished CJ Brown, whose soaring vocal power has to be heard to be believed.

The real eye opener for me was Zipfels Barber (left); with a name like that, it was difficult to guess what you were in for. If someone told you Lowestoft had produced a first-rate grunge rock band you probably wouldn’t believe them, but this four piece are living proof that that’s the case. Like the best bands of that genre, the intense guitar work and propulsive rhythm section are offset by some infectious melodies and choruses. They could have played for a lot longer, as the audience definitely didn’t want them to go. I look forward to seeing a full set in the near future.

The Zipfels had to go as they had to make way for the glorious Bloodshake Chorus. I’d heard about this band for what seems like years but, thus far, they’d eluded me. I didn’t really know what to expect when a band resembling the slightly more punked-up zombie cast of Night of the Living Dead took the stage.

Cue an ominous, brooding, gothy soundscape that gradually resolved into… ‘These Boots Are Made for Walkin’’ by Nancy Sinatra. And there’s the Bloodshake’s appeal in a nut shell: grand guignol and highly entertaining cover versions of 1950s and 1960s standards, guaranteed to get the audience joining in from the first number, which their Facebook page sums up best as “the undead brain children of George A. Romero and Buddy Holly.” Club Uniquity may usually be reserved for original music, but the Chorus’s approach to cover versions is so novel that they more than qualify as innovative.

‘Mann Slaughter’, the band’s larger than life front man, is the focus for this arresting collision of horror and pop, orchestrating his minions – Wyatt Hertz (guitar), Squadron Leader Doug Upp (bass), Vincent Blackshadow (drums) and Professor Frank Ensteinway (keyboards) – with a nod here and a hand gesture there. Mr Slaughter also has a voice of incredible range and volume, as demonstrated on the ballad I (Who Have Nothing)’, where he forsook the mic and could still be heard at the back of the club. When the Professor indulged in a keyboard solo, Mr Slaughter took a seat in the audience – I say seat, as it was my knee – before moving on to a more comfortable human sofa and barrage of eager selfies.

The set list couldn’t be faulted, with an apocalyptic ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’, compulsory singalong in ‘Sunny Afternoon’ and the riotous closer of ‘Delilah’. This time, the Bloodshake Chorus really did leave the audience wanting more, as there wasn’t time for an encore. By far the best way.

Four diverse, equally brilliant acts on one bill and, once again, I marvel at how Club Uniquity can put on quality like this without charging an entrance fee. Make the most of it, people.

Saturday 23 February 2019

DOCTOR WHO: LOGOPOLIS at the BFI Southbank, 17 February 2019

Doctor Who's Season 18 is in better shape than ever on Blu-ray, and was celebrated with a launch event that included the customary special guests.

It’s early 2019 and we’re already at the third BFI Southbank event to launch a new Doctor Who season Blu-ray box set, in this case Tom Baker's swansong, Season 18. I remember it well from the time; for a lot of fans of my generation, Tom was the Doctor and had certainly, mostly for better and not worse, made an indelible stamp on the programme over seven years. To discover in 1980 that he was leaving, after the departures of Lalla Ward’s Romana and John Leeson’s K9, sent an ever increasing tidal wave of excitement through Doctor Who fandom, with the major question being asked – how would the reign of the seemingly indestructible Fourth Doctor conclude?

Unevenly, as it turned out. Tom’s finale ‘Logopolis’ is a strange story. For every amazing concept like the Logopolis planet of mathematicians who can model every space/time event in the universe through spoken calculations, and TARDISes replicated inside one another, there’s some noticeably amateurish elements. Clunky expository dialogue, Janet Fielding’s overacting as new companion, air hostess Tegan (not her fault, as she wasn’t allowed to see rushes) and glaringly illogical story development – the Doctor and Adric can’t go to Logopolis because the Master’s TARDIS is hiding in theirs, then they decide go to Logopolis with the Master’s TARDIS hiding in theirs, after incomprehensibly trying to “flush him out” by landing underwater in the Thames – tend to back up script editor and writer Chris Bidmead’s on-stage assertion that they were “making it up as they went along.”

What really makes ‘Logopolis’, of course, is Tom’s iconic central performance. The trademark feral grin and Wildean quips so beloved of this incarnation are almost completely absent, replaced by a gloomy, fatalistic seriousness entirely in keeping with the funereal atmosphere of the story. As has become customary with these Blu-ray releases, new effects have been created for stories where the originals were found particularly wanting, and considering the importance of ‘Logopolis’ there’s no more deserving recipient. There are new renders of the planet and city itself and the Doctor’s climactic fall – rather shockingly – can now be enjoyed for the first time (though perhaps “enjoyed” isn’t exactly the right word).

You can’t fault the BFI’s approach to these events as they go out of their way to find complementary guests for their Doctor Who screenings, with the emphasis always on the people involved in the making of the story. They came up trumps here, with Bidmead and production manager Margot Hayhoe, as well as actors Matthew Waterhouse (Adric) and Adrian Gibbs (the enigmatic Watcher).

Hayhoe and Gibbs were up first, between episodes one and two, in a discussion chaired by the BFI’s always amusing Dick Fiddy. Commenting on the debate between the pair about where the lay-by was that the TARDIS landed, Fiddy quipped “I love a good lay-by conversation.”

In contrast to the flagship status that Doctor Who is afforded by the BBC today, Hayhoe revealed that the show’s standing within the BBC at the time of ‘Logopolis’ was very different, as it was afforded a miniscule budget compared with the prestigious classic serials: “That was one of the big bug bears of the producers – here was Doctor Who, which was one of the biggest sellers of the Corporation, and it wasn’t getting the money it deserved.” Gibbs, meanwhile, found the whole experience of making ‘Logopolis’ “an adventure” that kept on giving, as he was still asked to sign autographs. Reflecting on their experience of Tom Baker, Hayhoe admitted to being “terrified, because he had a reputation for being a little difficult sometimes. But he was absolutely fine, and I think it helped because it was his last one”. Gibbs, meanwhile, remembered “going to the pub a few times” with his leading man, a memory which drew an appreciative ripple of laughter.

Bidmead and Waterhouse were full of good natured bonhomie, the former particularly so. “I just want to say that this is a quite extraordinary event for me,” he said, marvelling at the almost sell-out audience. “38 years ago, we did something that we thought we’d bung out there, there’d be one repeat, and life would go on. And here we are 38 years later, and there are people in this audience who weren’t even born then… So, thank you, very much!” His endearing enthusiasm was rewarded with a round of applause.

Discussion between the two ranged over bringing a new scientific rigour to the programme under the executive producership of 1970-74 producer Barry Letts – rather ironic at the screening of a story in which mathematical magicians intone what are basically spells – and the observation in ‘Logopolis’ that Tom “rarely addressed his fellow actors.” “A stage tradition?” inquired joint host Justin Johnson. “Not really,” Waterhouse replied, to another outburst of laughter. “A Tom tradition.”

A more serious point Bidmead made was that the job of script editor on Doctor Who was almost unique within the BBC at that time. “Nobody knew what the job was – this was the point,” he observed. “There were lots of script editors around the BBC, of course, but everyone had a completely different idea of what a script editor should be. For some people it was just a matter of putting a few commas into the script, for others it wasn’t even that – you’d just be good at taking writers out to lunch… The pressure was so great, that we would have writers in, we’d have a brainstorming session, and they go away and come back with scripts two weeks later. And the scripts would not reflect what we’d talked about during the brainstorming session.” Such a situation inevitably resulted in Chris having to “ring up the caretaker and be let out of the building, because I was sitting there so late re-writing.”

The event could have gone on longer – always a sign that a screening has been well paced – and Chris regretted that he couldn’t stay to meet the fans, as he was professionally whisked away by his “entourage”.

The overall impression was of being left wanting more,
a criticism that certainly can’t be made of the forthcoming Season 18 box set, teasers from which were shown throughout the afternoon. As last words go, it looks like being the very definition of definitive.

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.