Thursday, 29 October 2015


The latest James Bond adventure isn't as good as Skyfall, but it's still a fine example of the upward curve of quality that began with Casino Royale.

There’s a new Bond film out. That’s an Event. Can’t think of many other film franchises that inspire the same level of excitement; the Star Wars movies (certainly), perhaps the Harry Potters, maybe the Marvel Avengers series. The Bond phenomenon is curiously similar to Doctor Who, another fave of mine: over 50 years, generations have grown up with it, have their favourite actor in the role, have experienced highs and lows of excellence but, most importantly, can look forward to regular new adventures. My own introduction to 007 was in 1971 at the age of, um, 7 when I persuaded mum to take me and my mate Christopher Edwards to see Diamonds Are Forever. I can’t remember how I knew about James Bond, but for some reason I was very excited by the black and white reproduction of the wonderful poster, drawn by Robert McGinnis – film poster artists: remember them? – printed in the Lowestoft Journal.

Roll the Moviola: it’s 27 October 2015, and me and my lady friend have turned up to Cineworld in Bexleyheath at 10 am to see the 24th (official) Bond film, SPECTRE. I’m a grown man but I woke up at 4.30 I was that excited, and had a spring in my step on the way to the bus stop. We aren’t alone. The auditorium isn’t full, but there’s a varied turnout: whole families, fathers with sons (I have to say it – a great way of bonding) and senior, white-haired gentlemen who must have first seen a Bond film when Sean Connery was 007. The air of expectancy builds throughout the trailers – hell, even the Star Wars trailer made my spine tingle – before, to the delight of my inner fanboy, when SPECTRE begins Daniel Craig turns and fires into the famous gunsight, the first time he’s done so at the start of one of his Bond movies.

This is going to be a slightly tricky review as I can’t wax lyrical about many of the delights on offer, much as I’d like to, as I don’t want to spoil it for people who haven’t seen SPECTRE yet. What I can say is that, for me, after a brilliant first half the pace slackens – it’s a long film – and I found the climax a little disappointing.

Refreshingly, the Bond films have now almost become an ensemble, with M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Whishaw), (Naomi Harris) and Tanner (Rory Kinnear) all getting a stake in the action. SPECTRE also ties up threads left hanging from the previous Craig movies, reinforcing the quartet as a consistent mini-series within the Bond canon. Director Sam Mendes brings the same sense of immense scale and surreal opulence to SPECTRE that so energised Skyfall, particularly in the visual ingenuity he employs in the opening sequence set during Mexico City’s Day of the Dead festival. Overall, the humour is more subtle: M asks if Bond’s still in London after he sees a newspaper picture of an MI6 vehicle crashed in the river Tiber in Rome, and there are some good jokes in the preceding car chase.

You would, wouldn't you. (Image copyright: Eon Films)
The best news is that Daniel Craig is now completely comfortable in the tux and bow tie. Free from the angst of his previous three outings, this time around the writers have written to Craig-Bond’s strengths as a laconic man of dry humour, a roguish half-smile sometimes allowing a glimpse behind the emotional armour he acquired in Casino Royale. A few well-chosen, ironic words replace the creaky puns of old, and of all the Bonds, Craig totally convinces in the sex scenes with his aggressive, sensual love making; you really believe women can’t resist the sexual power of this guy (and maybe guys can’t either). As before, it’s hard to spot the stunt men in the visceral action scenes and Craig, now 47, looks as physically committed as ever. An almost off-hand touch demonstrates how freely confident Craig-Bond is in his lethal abilities, as he warns a security guard he could easily snap in two to ‘Stay!’

Developing Skyfall’s nods to the past, SPECTRE incorporates more pleasing references to former glories. There aren’t many actors who can pull off stepping out of a parachute into a Rome street with an air of nonchalance while wearing a bespoke suit. Craig can, and this sequence alludes to Connery shedding a wetsuit in Goldfinger to reveal immaculate evening dress. Other allusions take in You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Live and Let Die and For Your Eyes Only (among others). This is the way to do continuity: if you don’t recognise the references, it doesn’t affect your enjoyment of the film.  

An old enemy returns. (Image copyright: Eon Films)
The SPECTRE of the title is, indeed, the Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, the very same organisation that Connery battled in the ‘60s, who with their white Persian cats and volcano bases were as much a part of the 007 legend as Bond himself, until legal wrangles with a rival producer kicked in. The producers have even revived SPECTRE’s octopus logo, used to great effect in the amazingly baroque title sequence, in which a huge black octopus wraps its tentacles around various characters. SPECTRE’s plan is also pleasingly contemporary, building on ideas established in Skyfall.

I couldn’t help thinking that Bond’s connection to the villain was rather convenient and had the whiff of soap opera about it, especially as it comes after the well thought-out, mature psychology of what being a professional killer costs a human being, the concept central to Craig’s previous three films. It made 007’s decision over his enemy’s fate something of a first that doesn’t quite ring true, especially as his opponent has apparently been ‘the author of [Bond’s] pain’ from Casino Royale onwards. Then again, perhaps James thought his alternative was crueller.

Like the song says, if the writing is on the wall for Daniel Craig, which the ending suggests as it brings his four films to a satisfying conclusion, he couldn’t have picked a better production to bow out on. Mr Craig’s the first James Bond actor to become a producer on his own films – a sure sign of how highly thought of he is in the 007 movie empire – so it’d be a bloody shame if he did.

Crikey: considering I didn’t think I’d be able to say anything, I’ve said quite a lot. See you in two years, Mr Bond. Whoever you are.

Monday, 26 October 2015


New writer Catherine Tregenna delivers a poetic, amusing and haunting tour de force for Peter Capaldi and Maisie Williams.

Stand and deliver etc. etc. (Image copyright: BBC)

It’s very rare that the Doctor’s has to deal with the consequences of his actions. As was strongly hinted in ‘The Girl Who Died’, this week he would have to do so, facing up to the double-edged gift of immortality that he granted Ashilda (Maisie Williams). Inheriting the Viking girl’s story, Catherine Tregenna delivered a mature, philosophical consideration of responsibility, the cruel curse of living forever and the concurrent importance of making the most of the life you’re given. (Not bad for a series that began as an innocuous tea-time serial).

As one of Doctor Who’s few female writers (so far), it’s perhaps appropriate that Tregenna reinvented Ashilda as a proto-feminist heroine based on the legend of the Hertfordshire aristocrat Katherine Ferrers, who might, or might not, have taken on the guise of a highwayman at the time of Oliver Cromwell – the same period in which Ashilda, now Lady Me, is at large doing the same. While the historical setting gave the story a colourful flavour, what was essentially a two-hander between Capaldi and Williams really took flight in the exchanges between their two characters.

It was an uncomfortable, absorbing and bitter-sweet watch. The transformation of the naïve young Ashilda into the confident, intelligent, resourceful but deeply bitter and lonely Lady Me shows just why Williams is currently such a feted actress. The lyrical barbs she fired at the Doctor, among them the harsh ‘You’re the man who runs away’ and ‘You’re not my Dad’, forced the Time Lord, in one of Capaldi’s more subdued and sensitive performances, to face up to what he’d done to her. Although not her biological father, he’s obviously an absent and guilty surrogate one, secretly watching her progress throughout history.

As the story focused so much on the two’s relationship, the episode felt like it was set up to introduce a new companion – particularly as Clara was absent for most of the running time – but the ironic point was that Lady Me was too like the Doctor to travel with him. The resolution to their mutual issues therefore became the theme of the story, so it was satisfying to see that they both seemed to have learned from and come to terms with each other by the end. The one false note in Lady Me’s character, though, was how someone so apparently worldly wise and cynical fell so easily for the lies of the passing alien Leandro (Ariyon Bakare).

Another dandy highwayman.
(Image copyright: BBC)
Part of the Doctor and Lady Me’s conciliation came from Clara and Sam Swift the Quick (Rufus Hound, left) being the short-lived but vibrant ‘mayflies’ that gave the immortals’ lives meaning: Clara brightening the ‘emptiness’ of the Doctor’s 2,000 plus years, Sam’s mortality reawakening Ashilda’s humanity and sense of responsibility. Hound was great in a necessarily abbreviated part, particularly in the hanging scene when Sam was clearly putting a brave, laddish face on how terrified he was.  

One or two minor caveats: in a script that took pains to make sure Lady Me didn’t know what a burglar alarm or newspaper headline was, and offered such nuanced dialogue as ‘I didn’t know your heart would rust because I kept it beating’, ‘bullet’ and ‘Dad’ stood out as particularly anachronistic terms. It’s also hard to believe that Sam, a 17th century Englishman, would have known what an anteater is, considering their habitat is Central America.

And as much as I thoroughly enjoyed the episode, I couldn’t help thinking what the children watching made of it all. There was the requisite fun for kids – a highway robbery, comedy burgling of a country house at night, a lion-like alien breathing fire and the semi-customary explosions at the climax – but, really, they were secondary to an eloquent, adult tale with a very dark heart; in a neat visual touch, the Doctor and Lady Me’s relationship literally began in darkness and ended in (day)light.

If children were underwhelmed by ‘The Woman Who Lived’ on Saturday, happily it’ll be one of the black gems of Doctor Who they’ll rediscover as they grow up.

Bit to rewind: the Doctor reading Lady Me's journals.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

PUBLIC IMAGE LIMITED, Norwich UEA, 29 September. Review

John Lydon and PiL: real music for real people.

You gotta love John's sense of humour. (Image copyright: PiL)

Picture, if you will, a musically naïve 13 year-old sitting in front of Top of the Pops in 1977. He doesn’t know much about pop but he knows what likes, namely Boney M and Clout. On this particular night, his eyes widen, his mouth drops open, it feels like his hair really does stand on end and his perception of music – and, yes, his life – instantly change: it’s a genuine Road to Damascus moment. Blasting out of the screen and transforming him forever in its sonic maelstrom is ‘Pretty Vacant’ by the Sex Pistols.

John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten) changed my life. From that Top of the Pops onwards it was Rat Scabies, Jet Black and Joe Strummer rather than Jeff Lynne, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Freddy Mercury (although, if you think about it, Freddy is the John Rotten of pomp rock, and, oddly, I love him as much as I love Mr Lydon… which is worth a blog post all of its own). I was so excited about seeing bands that when I got to 1980 and the Sixth Form, I began organising coach trips to gigs at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, the nearest venue where groups I liked played. Seeing The Skids, The Teardrop Explodes, Wall of Voodoo, The Stranglers and many more over the years was all down to John. He was the punk rock progenitor.

29 September 2015 and I’m back at the UEA. It’s been a nostalgic week, showing the lady friend around my old haunts, but this PiL show has nothing to do with nostalgia, as indicated by a stripped-down, brick wall backdrop with that ingenious, timeless ‘PiL’ logo. There’s no support band, and John’s four piece play for nearly two hours, with a set of half new songs and half old – particularly ‘Poptones’ and a spine-jarring, terrifying ‘Religion’ – that sound like they were written yesterday. So what if John uses a lyric stand these days? Mark E Smith has for years, and it’s only for tracks from the latest album. Besides, it gives Mr Lydon the demeanour of a particularly volatile hellfire preacher, which couldn’t be a better image for him.

He’s a man who’s never given in and never given up. From the Bill Grundy Incident on, this was a boy that lived his life his own way. John’s said what he liked, even it’s sometimes been uncomfortable to hear – he does it tonight, snarling at some over-enthusiastic fans, ‘Get off my fucking stage. Show some respect: I’ve earned it’ – and, against the odds, has made music the way he wanted. OK, John did some adverts for a well-known brand of butter; but he did it to finance a new PiL album when no-one would sign them, which strikes me as a very punk rock thing to do. Since 1976, he’s been the unofficial spokesman for anyone who’s felt marginalised, victimised, ignored or alienated from the mainstream. Over thirty years on, John Lydon is the alternative Queen Mum – a national treasure.

His life and attitude is all there in the songs. ‘Death Disco’ is about the passing of John’s mother and, stretched out to nearly 10 hypnotic minutes, is as full of pulsing, primal rage as ever. Effortlessly switching styles from the avant garde dub of Metal Box to the soft metal of PiL’s 1980s incarnation, ‘Disappointed’ (a personal favourite) is the defiant anthem to being let down by someone close – something we’ve all experienced – while ‘Warrior’ is about the best kind of nationalism. ‘Public Image’ is still a floor-filling call to arms (and, mindful of the old ticker, my only mosh of the night). ‘Rise’, the last song, throws self-belief against self-doubt to produce something truly inspiring, summed up in the line ‘Anger is an energy’ which we bellow at the top of our voices back at the stage.

A couple of history punks were standing next to us, beginning the evening with an air of ‘Alright, old man, impress us.’ By the end, they were clapping and shouting for more along with the rest of the crowd. At 59, John can still take on unbelievers and win.

PiL didn’t play any Sex Pistols numbers. They didn’t need to. As the man said, ‘Real music for real people – that’s why we do it.’

Long may that be the case.