Friday, 25 September 2015


In 1966, two young filmmakers were able to film their journey across Communist Eastern Europe. Available now on DVD, Red Reflections is a fascinating insight into a period rapidly receding into history.

The austere, Cold War Moscow of 1966

This documentary is an enthralling piece of social and political history. If you like the 1960s you’ll love it: the film starts – in black and white, appropriately enough – as a young man, fashionably dressed in a polo neck, says goodbye to a dolly-bird girlfriend. He then hurtles across a London railway station to catch a train to Europe, in an equally fashionable jumble of A Hard Day’s Night-style, excitable hand-held camera work. From there, though, Red Reflections leaves the youthful mischief of '60s English cinema behind to embark on a sobering, enlightening and quite possibly unique journey into the heart of Communist Europe.

The popular image of the Soviet bloc
Young filmmakers Eric Mival and Richard Owen film on the streets and in the countryside of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and Russia in an accomplished verite style. It was a time when the closest most Western young people, and Westerners generally, got to Communism was through the villains in the spy fiction of Danger Man or The IPCRESS File, among many others TV series and films of the period. As the 1960s was the height of the Cold War spy craze, it’s an appropriate period touch that Mival secured Patrick McGoohan, best known at the time as the secret agent John Drake in Danger Man, to provide the voiceover for a quote about Western tourists being kept under surveillance, for possible recruitment as Communist agents. In terms of status, it’s like getting Daniel Craig to do it today.

Owen is a gifted writer, and his narration (synced audio being too expensive, apart from a couple of scenes) is perceptive, lyrical and forthright. The East Germany the filmmakers’ party of young English, American, Indian and Africans travellers find, that Owen memorably calls ‘a polemical world of deep blacks and harsh whites’, is easily recognisable as the frontline in Cold War fiction and fact. It’s the perspective of the ordinary people living there – which hardly ever, or perhaps never, features in spy stories – which makes you stop and think and reconsider what you’d previously thought about the political situation. One resident tells Owen that the so-called ‘Iron Curtain’, which included the Berlin Wall, was constructed to deter an attack from West Germany in 1961; the automatic reaction is to dismiss this as propaganda, but who knows? In that environment of plot and counter-plot, nothing was ever certain.

The spires of the East
Decades of preconceptions about the Communist bloc tumble further when Owen and company reach the countryside and rural towns, finding a ‘pride in the past… far removed from the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four and “Workers of the World Unite”’. In particular, in Czechoslovakia’s Prague – one of Europe’s oldest cities – Owen reflects on the ‘peaceful sanity’ where ‘Communism lies like a surface skin on this city. It is history which dominates.’ Of all his observations, with hindsight this is the most ironic, as two years after Red Reflections was completed, the Russians ruthlessly suppressed the liberal ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968. 24 months before the uprising, Owen could clearly tell there was something in the air.

With a noticeable absence of consumer goods like cars and televisions, young (and not so young) Eastern Europeans devote their spare time to music, either classical or folk, played in concert halls, restaurants, or, in one charming instance, as an audience dutifully assemble outside a young piano player’s house to hear him give a recital from his living room. The citizens’ dedication to making their own entertainment is moving and somehow inspiring. You can’t help feeling this attitude is culturally and socially more enriching than being in thrall to white goods and TVs.

Arriving in Moscow, Owen wryly notes the propaganda posters in Red Square ‘not advertising Omo or Daz [washing powder].’ This shift in perspective signifies the film as a balanced view of life behind the Iron Curtain: as well as all they’d found in the Eastern bloc that was positive, notably the Economics and Space Achievements Exhibition, Owen and Mival highlight the downside, challenging Russian students that their country is ‘a dictatorship’ and the ‘bureaucracy gone wild’ that blights everyday life. Perceptively, the filmmakers conclude that in the Iron Curtain countries it’s the ‘red tape’ that strangles freedom rather than military oppression. In a telling image, border guards carry a tray round their necks with an intimidating variety of official rubber stamps, while in Moscow, shoppers have to queue for a ticket to buy something, then queue to exchange it for the item they’ve chosen.

Rediscovered documentary gems like this should be cherished, as they challenge the preconceptions offered by the broad brush strokes of ‘official’ history. Red Reflections is well worth your time.

Images copyright Quoit.

Copies of the DVD are available from If emailing the site to order, please mention my blog to receive a £4 discount.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015


Doctor Who's back on and seems to be dividing the fans more than ever, but there's still plenty to enjoy.

Best publicity shot EVER. (Image copyright: BBC)

THE STORY – WITH SPOILERS: Davros, creator of the Daleks, is dying and looking for the Doctor via his mysterious emissary, Colony Sarff. Missy has been given the Doctor’s Time Lord ‘will’ and, through the ruse of freezing airliners in time, finds Clara and uses her to locate the Doctor. The trio are taken by Sarff to a reconstituted Skaro, the Daleks’ home planet, where Clara, Missy and the TARDIS are apparently exterminated. Back in time in the war between the Kaleds and the Thals, the Doctor prepares to execute Davros as a boy…

So, after blanket trailers that seemed to start in the middle of last year, Doctor Who is back. Predictably, the press are making a fuss that ‘millions’ have deserted the show and that it was ‘slaughtered’ in the ratings by The X Factor. Get past the hysteria and hyperbole, however, and you find that it was still the most watched programme of the day on BBC1. What intrigued me most over the weekend, and has done since Peter Capaldi materialised, is the reaction of the committed, i.e. other long-term fans like myself.

Look at Facebook or some of the online forums and you’ll find people saying that ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ was the last straw and it’s where they and Doctor Who part company, or that it was ‘terrible’ – one of the more printable descriptions. At the other extreme, one friend of mine thought it was the best episode since the show was revived in 2005. Last year, some fans I know, and have generally shared the same opinions with, thought that Capaldi’s debut series as the Doctor was the worst season of Doctor Who they’d ever seen. I couldn’t understand it: their views were so diametrically opposed to mine – I loved it, generally speaking – that it was like they’d been watching a different programme.

Each to their own
Because the series has been going so long and has varied so much in style and content, perhaps certain fans have their own ideas – usually dictated by the era they grew up with, I’d say – of what Doctor Who should be like. By any stretch of the imagination, what was shown on Saturday wasn’t ‘terrible’. Looked at objectively, it’s a more than competent piece of modern television, with pace, jeopardy, wit, exemplary special effects and good acting (OK, Jami Reid-Quarrell’s Colony Sarff was a bit one-note, but that character was dependent for its impact on visual effects, and it really was stunning when he disintegrated into a pile of writhing snakes). The friend I watched it with third time around over the weekend – I told you I was a fan – isn’t a Doctor Who enthusiast and she thought it was great.

2nd best publicity shot EVER.
(Image copyright: BBC)

So what did I think, as the kind of fan who’s a long-term watcher but who tries to keep an open mind? Hmm. The first time I didn’t really know what to think. With modern Who, I’ve never been a fan of the frenetic comic-strip type of story that hops around multiple locations. That’s why I preferred the more sedate pace of episodes last year, which I felt suited a more austere, older Doctor better. In fact, ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ felt very much like a Matt Smith story, particularly all that larking around with the electric guitar and the tank. That scene in particular seems to have got people’s goat. If it was designed to make the Doctor look cool I thought it fell flat. To my mind, having an angular, sharp-tongued Doctor the age of Methuselah dressed in severe threads achieved hipness last year. The gimmick of having him play the Doctor Who theme in the style of Slash from Guns N’ Roses felt like the nerdy kid at school trying to make you believe he’s ‘cool really’. Perhaps that’s why some people have gone postal on that sequence, as fans of my generation tended to be seen as nerdy at school if they liked Doctor Who.

The rough with the smooth
What else did we have? Daleks, Daleks and more Daleks. The Missy Master. Davros (young and old). UNIT. Skaro… you could be forgiven for thinking there was a Gallifreyan kitchen sink in there somewhere, too. Again, it’s a personal thing: with a few exceptions, I’m not big on stories that riff on Doctor Who’s heritage. (Mind you, as someone who sat open-mouthed in front of ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ in 1975, I did get a kick out of seeing the conflict between the Thals and the Kaleds again, particularly as it looked like the production team had gone back to the same quarry). I prefer the episodes – like last year’s ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ and ‘Flatline’ – which break new ground and/or take a good central idea and explore every angle of it. There were so many good ones scattered around ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’: you could have made a whole story out of Missy freezing the world’s passenger jets in time, as well as those macabre ‘Handmines’, the sort of surreal Gothic concept that Steven Moffat effortlessly comes up with on a regular basis. In fact, the more you think about it – dead bodies being cannibalised, presumably, and turned into weapons – the more disturbing it becomes.

Despite being rammed to the gills with continuity, the story clearly wasn’t a mess as my female chum, who’s only got a passing understanding of Who lore, was able to follow it. So if you like that sort of thing ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ worked, and as it’s only the first half of the story, we’ll really have to see next week’s episode to form a complete opinion of it.

(Image copyright: BBC)
What I liked the most were the performances. The rough edges of Capaldi’s Doctor appeared to have initially been smoothed down, but the same dangerous man who (might?) have pushed the Half-Face Man out of a flesh balloon was back in the cliffhanger – the first of many this year, hopefully. Jenna Coleman as Clara was as self-assured and feisty as ever; Missy (Michelle Gomez) had the funniest lines, to the extent that she nearly walked away with the episode, but was matched by the weary gravitas of Julian Bleach’s Davros. Thinking about it, I’d happily watch 50 minutes of the Doctor debating morality and ethics with the Dalek’s creator, and the scenes of that we did have were the story’s high points for me.


I’ve just written over a 1,000 words on the first part of a new series of Doctor Who. There can’t be many other TV series that are analysed in such detail episode by episode, and the passionate response of fans, positive or not, feeds that intense scrutiny. Even if I’m not 100% into ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’, I know that there’ll be more stories down the line that I’ll prefer, and that something mind-blowing will come along that you won’t see in any other TV show.

That’s why I’m still a Doctor Who fan.

Bit to rewind: Missy (Michelle Gomez) doing That Thing With Her Head.

Friday, 18 September 2015

RIPPER STREET Series 3 review

The Victorian thriller Ripper Street has again been getting down and dirty on BBC1. It's third series is better than ever.

I fought the law, and the law... (Image copyright: BBC)

Regular readers will know about my enthusiasm for Ripper Street, BBC1’s Victorian melodrama. For newbies, it’s based around the fictional Whitechapel cases of the decent but repressed Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen), his equally conflicted deputy Detective Sergeant Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn, unrecognisable from the family-friendly Soldier, Soldier) and the decorated and often drunk American military surgeon Captain Homer Jackson (if you’ll forgive me, a ‘spirited’ performance by the great Adam Rothenberg).

With its authentically grisly look at the squalor of the Victorian era, the series was a breath of fresh air for BBC costume drama after the cosiness of such fare as Larkrise to Candleford. Ripper Street wasn’t to everyone’s taste, certainly, which is why, for a while, it looked as if it was all over after the second series. It was a relief, then, when Amazon Prime Instant Video (previously LOVEFilM) picked up the funding for a third series, which would be shown on BBC1 several months after it was available on Amazon.

Ripper Street has always been unapologetically bleak. But the third series, in the best traditions of the Victorian Gothic novel and perhaps because it premiered online, has gone to some psychologically very dark places. Reid has been reunited with the daughter he believed dead, who’s been through harrowing mental agony because of her imprisonment by a childless couple, as well as her father’s investigation of the Jack the Ripper murders. ‘Long’ Susan (the glacial MyAnna Buring), Jackson’s estranged wife, drifts slowly into corruption while she paradoxically tries to improve the lot of Whitechapel’s citizens. Meanwhile, Drake is still grappling with his feelings for ex-whore turned actress Rose (Charlene McKenna), as Jackson oscillates between his surgery and a battle with the bottle. In one of the series’ best examples of Grand Guignol, he goes out drinking with a dead pig, dressed up in a hat and jacket, which he christens ‘Reid’. You wouldn’t see that on Call the Midwife.

(Image copyright: BBC)
That’s what sets Ripper Street apart from being a Victorian Deadwood, the HBO series that similarly revelled in the gutters of its era: the poetic and twisted strangeness. The most striking example, unusually in this image-obsessed age – as well as the reporter with a china ear, victims drowned in beer and a little girl who believes she’s a fairy – is Ripper Street’s dialogue. It’s ornate, gothic, even existential, a stylised Victorian idiom the actors clearly relish delivering. Delicious lines like ‘there is a stench around this man’ and ‘the clown we see cavorts everywhere but the stage’ fit Macfadyen’s simmering portrayal of an honourable man brutalised by the horrors he’s witnessed, while Flynn’s Drake (above with Reid), who looks like he belongs in a Dickensian thriller, has a neat line in earthy philosophy, with pearls of wisdom like ‘we fight monsters, we become monsters.’ A sign of the writers’ attention detail is that even the names of pubs reflect the visceral ambience; my favourite – The Lamb and Kidney.

Ripper Sreet 3’s debut online may be another reason why, this time around, the production team has played around with the series’ narrative. As well as the relationships between characters weaving satisfyingly and more prominently through each episode, they’ve tried a shock cliffhanger halfway through the season and a story told more or less in real time. The online environment is also more relaxed about violence, so, more than ever, Reid and his crew can shoot, punch and head-butt their way through the Whitechapel underworld like Old West gunmen (the composer recognised the similarity from when Ripper Street first started, with cheeky snatches of Western-style music from the title theme on). Notably, one story ended with the most violent scene shown on BBC television for years, as Reid repeatedly smashed a suspect’s head into a wooden post. Surprisingly, as far as I could see, no-one in the media even noticed it; perhaps a sign of how the social impact of terrestrial TV has dwindled.

The running story of the third series – Long Susan’s attempt to build a social utopia built on theft, dirty money and violent intimidation – sums up the whole ethos of the series, of basically decent people being contaminated by the brutal world around them. Striving for social acceptance through good works, abetted by her sinister adviser Mr Capshaw (softly-spoken John Heffernan, who easily wins the award for TV Villain of the Year), the irony is that Susan has become more of a criminal than when she ran a brothel. The disparity between public and private life is pleasingly authentic to the realm of Victorian fiction, and, significantly, still murmurs contemporaneously today.     

Ripper Street Series 3 ends tonight on BBC1. It’s a bit late to give it a go if you haven’t already, but a DVD/Blu-ray box set is imminent, so you can sink into the loquacious Victorian ambience at your leisure. Be aware, though, that the set apparently has the edited episodes shown on BBC1, rather than the longer ones seen online. 

So – Series 4, Amazon? By God’s boots, do not deny it!

Tuesday, 15 September 2015


Jeremy Corbyn's election as leader of the Labour Party is a watershed in British politics. It's about time.

Deep breath... (Image copyright: The Guardian)

I’m not overtly political. If anything, I’ve always been lightly left-wing, believing that a society should look after its citizens who can’t look after themselves, which means robust social, health and educational services which people shouldn’t have to pay for. For me, that’s just basic humanity.

Lately, though, particularly in London, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Cameron glove puppet didn’t care about anyone who earned under 50 grand and/or contributed to Tory party funds. Everywhere you look, public services are being cut from under people who desperately need them, from rubbish collection and street lighting to closing or putting out to tender public libraries.

Free for all
It’s no wonder people are disillusioned with politics. The closure of my local library in Blackfen, due in April 2016, has been my first experience of dealing with local councillors. It hasn’t been encouraging. Despite a petition of several thousand signatures from people who passionately believed that the library is an important community centre, and personal appeals to local politicians for it to remain open – largely because of the needs of the unemployed and pensioners – the decision to close it had clearly been made before Bexleyheath council issued a ‘consultation document’ to garner the local population’s reaction.  

Never mind that this makes a nonsense of democracy, the decision to close some Bexley libraries and keep others open was purely based on their geographical distance from each other. It’s absurd: hardly anyone uses Thamesmead library but they’re keeping it open; Blackfen, where as well as borrowing books and access to the internet, you’ll find regular coffee mornings, scrabble and reading groups – for children and adults – extremely conscientious staff who’ll help you with anything from council tax payments to Blue Badges for disabled drivers, is being closed. The newly-formed Blackfen community group, prompted by the closure of the library, hasn’t inspired much confidence either. So far, only one councillor out of 63 has bothered to turn up to meetings.

The great leap forwards
Against this general background of political indifference and arrogance, it’s an absolute revelation that “unfashionable” socialist Jeremy Corbyn has been elected leader of the Labour Party. Lest we forget, he only just scraped together enough votes to get into the leadership race at all; he’s also had to cope with almost blanket hostility, not just from the Murdoch media, but from his own party. Apart from the what-policy-am-I-on-this-week? leadership contenders Burnham, Cooper and Kendall, everyone from Tony Blair to Neil Kinnock has been queueing up to denounce Corbyn as the ghost of Militant Tendency past, a cancerous neo-Benn whose election would effectively make Britain a one-party state.

He condones Al-Qaeda, barracked someone; he’s taken donations from groups linked to Hamas, bleated someone else. To Corbyn’s credit, in the resulting media scrutiny he dealt with each and every criticism calmly and intelligently, and, I reckon, won over more supporters as he did so. His election with 60% of the Labour vote, in a society in which we’re led to believe public opinion is easily swayed by the media, is, for both moderate and radical left-wingers, inspiring and deeply moving.

Before Jeremy came along, political commentators would tell you that young people – i.e. anyone under 25 – weren’t interested in politics. I’d counter that by saying they were probably as fed up as most folks I know with the out-of-touch bunch we’ve have had sitting on both sides of Parliament for far too long. That Ed Miliband and David Cameron looked like they might be related is a neat, but rather sad, metaphor for how much each side of the political divide had come to look the same. This is a culture in which words like ‘integrity’ and ‘decency’ would earn you a cynical smile. It says it all that the main argument of Corbyn’s Labour critics for voting against him was to make the party re-electable. When all you’ve got to offer the electorate, apart from watered-down Conservative policies, is just the desire to be in Number 10 again, it really is time for a re-think. The demolition of Labour in Scotland proved that, and as Corbyn’s spent 32 years on the back benches, you could hardly accuse of him of wanting power for its own sake.

Before long, the media was reporting on how those fabled young people were turning up to Corbyn’s election meetings, and were enthused with the radical idea of – who’d have guessed? – creating a fair society. Corbyn’s tour was sold out and overflowing, while you could almost see the tumble weed blowing across the electoral trajectory of his opponents. As the reports proved, it wasn’t just youngsters who joined the crusade, but, basically, everyone who was fed up with austerity and the sense that everything good about English life is slowly being chipped away – libraries included. A renationalised, reunited rail network? Bloody hell yes.

It says a lot that on the day after he was elected, Jeremy turned down an appearance on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show to attend an NHS mental health trust’s fun day in his own constituency. Mental health trusts have been one of the major casualties of austerity cuts, and to see Corbyn’s show of solidarity with such a deserving organisation under threat made my heart sing.

Jeremy Corbyn, Prime Minister? After the revelations of last weekend, you never know.