About admin

Ian Smith was born in Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, but at the age of 11 he moved with his family to the town of Peebles in the Borders region of Scotland. His family still lives there now. Since then, he has spent time in England, Switzerland, Japan, Ethiopia, India, Libya and a part of the Korean peninsula that isn’t visited very much. At the moment, he is in Tunisia in northern Africa, working as an academic manager. He writes, pseudonymously, short horror, fantasy and Scottish fiction. He has also published non-fiction on topics ranging from linguistic relativity to amateur-league Scottish football teams, to vampires. This blog will no doubt be as unstructured as everything else about him.

My favourite films of 2017

 

© Universal Pictures

 

Better late than never – well, I’ve been off on holiday for the past fortnight – here’s a round-up of the films I saw in 2017 and liked best.  My definition of a 2017 film is simply one that was released in the UK during the year.  I should say I’ve been extremely lazy about watching movies this last year and there are many I haven’t seen – indeed, I have DVDs of The Killing of a Sacred Dear, It Comes at Night, Toni Erdmann and the remake of The Beguiled sitting on my table at this very moment, waiting to be watched.

 

Baby Driver

Edgar Wright’s sleek, shiny riff on seemingly every bank-heist and car-chase movie made in the 1960s and 1970s – Bullit (1968), The Italian Job (1969), The French Connection (1971), Vanishing Point (1971), The Getaway (1972), The Driver (1978), etc. – is a triumph of style over substance.  But what the hell?  I loved it and I think I’m entitled to one guilty pleasure in 2017.

 

And few things are more pleasurable in this tale of a young getaway-car driver (Ansel Elgort) being forced by his boss (Kevin Spacy) to work with ever-more dysfunctional groups of bank robbers than its use of music.  Edgar Wright’s movies always have great soundtracks, but the songs here – everything from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s Bellbottoms to Focus’s Hocus Pocus – have never been as seamlessly and exhilaratingly woven into the action.

 

Blade Runner 2049

With Blade Runner 2049 Canadian director Denis Villeneuve achieved the impossible.  He crafted a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece that was as haunting, elegiac, philosophical and visually overwhelming as the original.

 

A Dark Song

Films usually make the practice of magic look easy.  You draw a circle, recite an incantation, perform a sacrifice and – hey presto! – your wish is granted.  The little-seen but fascinating Irish horror movie A Dark Song, directed by newcomer Liam Gavin, takes a different approach, however.  Here, fulfilling your goals with magic requires gruelling effort, endless repetition, numbing attention to detail, painful self-deprivation and much, much time.  A Dark Song has a bereaved mother (Catherine Walker) subjecting herself to months of confinement in a remote house carrying out arcane rituals under the unsympathetic eye of a hired occultist (Steve Oram) in the hope that eventually – eventually – she’ll gain access to a realm of angels and demons where she can communicate with her dead son.  It’s entirely possible, though, that Oram is a charlatan who’s doing this to cheat her out of a lot of money.

 

Inevitably, it’s something of an anti-climax when the angels and demons finally appear – they seem both too generic and too strange.  But the getting-there in A Dark Song is absolutely engrossing.

 

© Syncopy Inc. / Warner Bros

 

Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan’s epic recreation of the evacuation of 340,000 Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk in late May and early June 1940 suffered from unfortunate timing.  It was released a year after the British public, by a small majority, voted to leave the European Union.  Predictably, the film was seized upon by right-wing Brexiters as a timely reminder of what plucky little Britain is capable of when it finds itself in a tight spot – especially when quitting the European mainland is involved – while liberal Remainers lamented about it wallowing in nostalgia.  Well, bollocks to thatDunkirk is just a great film and writer-director Nolan deserves kudos for avoiding the usual war-movie clichés and applying his own special style to it.

 

Dunkirk is refreshingly un-clichéd in its depiction of the ordinary soldiers.  They’re frightened young men, scarcely more than boys, who aren’t being heroic but are simply trying to survive (and who expect to be ‘spat at in the streets’ for failure and cowardice if they do make it back to Britain).  Meanwhile, Nolan indulges his customary fondness for fragmented narratives and cuts between three different storylines that are happening over different time-frames and are Russian-doll-like in their sizes – a week when some soldiers struggle to stay alive on the French beaches, a day when an English yachtsman (a splendidly gallant and focused Mark Rylance) and his teenaged crew cross the channel to do their bit in rescuing the troops, and a few hours when two RAF pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) fight off enemy aircraft trying to decimate the men and boats below.  Gradually and satisfyingly, the storylines converge on Rylance’s little boat.  And also deserving praise is the intense and unsettling music by Hans Zimmer, which cranks up the tension to near-unbearable levels.

 

Free Fire

I said Baby Driver was my one guilty pleasure of 2017.  Well, I lied.  Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire was my other guilty pleasure of the year.  It doesn’t have a story so much as a situation – a 1970s arms deal goes wrong in a warehouse, so that the IRA men doing the purchasing (Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley), the intermediaries (Brie Larson, Armie Hammer), the dealer (a marvellously annoying Sharlto Copley) and various associates and henchmen spend most of the film’s 90 minutes pinned down and gradually being shot to shreds in a massive and complicated gun-battle.  Sneakily, this saves Wheatley the bother of having to write a proper script.  But the élan with which he directs the proceedings, the bickering, bitching dialogue (“As gorgeous as ever!” Copley tells Larson.  “Well, you’ve put on a bit of weight.  Did someone impregnate you?”) and the performances by the increasingly bullet-ridden cast make Free Fire a deliriously stylish – if not particularly substantial – experience.

 

© Rook Films / Film 4 Productions

 

Get Out

The classiest horror movie of 2017, Jordan Peele’s Get Out uses as its starting point the uncomfortable experiences of a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) enduring a weekend at the well-to-do countryside home of his white girlfriend’s family.  Her family and friends are soon making him cringe with their efforts to virtue-signal their liberalism and non-racism, enthusing about Barack Obama, Tiger Woods and the general wonderfulness of all things black, whilst simultaneously turning a blind eye to the fact that black servants are bringing them their food and drinks.  This being a horror film, Get Out reaches a point where it stops being a painful, satirical comedy of manners and starts being something altogether more paranoid and scary.  The result is impressively gripping but Get Out is to be applauded too for its humour.  Particularly funny is the hero’s excitable best mate (Lil Rel Howery), who’s the first person to realise something is seriously wrong: “You gotta get the f**k outta there, man!  You in some Eyes Wide Shut situation!  Leave, mother**ker!”

 

The Handmaiden

For The Handmaiden, South Korean director Park Chan-wook audaciously took Fingersmith, Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel of intrigue, duplicity, kinkiness and illicit (for the time) love, and transplanted its story from Victorian England to early 20th century Korea.  The resulting work is lusciously colourful and exotic.  It benefits too from spirited performances by actresses Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri as the identity-swapping heiress and maidservant at the centre of the plot.

 

© Moho Film / Yong Film / CJ Entertainment

 

The Love Witch

If Baby Driver was an aural treat, Anne Biller’s fascinating supernatural / feminist fantasy The Love Witch was 2017’s greatest visual treat.  Its story of a young witch (Samantha Robinson), who’s self-confessedly ‘addicted to love’ and will weave any spell and wreak any havoc in order to get it, is set in a kitsch, retro-1970s California where the frocks, hats, lipstick, nail varnish, eye shadow, sportscars, suitcases, wallpapers, upholstery and candles are a gorgeous rainbow of crimsons, light blues, lavenders, pinks and cherry reds.  The film itself is a tad long, but it’s highly enjoyable, with its sweet-but-sinister script containing plenty of satirical barbs about the lengths a spell-weaving gal has to go to find love in a man’s world.

 

Moonlight

Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, like Dunkirk, features a triptych of narratives – though here the narratives are in chronological order, showing the tribulations of the central character as a child (Alex Hibbert), adolescent (Ashton Sanders) and young man (Trevante Rhodes) while he wrestles with bullies, criminality, an errant mother and a growing awareness (and acceptance) of his homosexuality.  Brilliantly written and beautifully, almost poetically, filmed, Moonlight is a rare beast indeed, a Best Picture winner at the Oscars that actually deserved to win Best Picture.

 

© A24 / Plan B Entertainment

 

A Happy New Year as 2018 blaws in

 

Early in 2017 I posted something on this blog with the title Caledonian Culture War.  This was about the introduction in Scotland of baby boxes – from 2017, the parents of every new-born child in Scotland will receive a box full of baby-friendly goodies like a blanket, changing mat, towel, reusable nappy, sponge and thermometer, with the box itself able to double up as a crib.  Also in the box is a poem of welcome to the bairn written by Jackie Kay, Scotland’s Makar (poet laureate).  This is composed in Scots English and begins: “O ma darlin wee one / At last you are here in the wurld / And wi’ aa your wisdom / Your een bricht as the stars…

 

Unbelievably, some people had a problem with this.  And in the post, I stated I had a problem with them having a problem with it.

 

Yesterday I was surprised and delighted to find in this blog’s inbox an email from Jackie Kay, who’d evidently read the post and had decided to include me in her New Year greetings.  The greeting came in the form of a short poem, part of which addresses the baby-boxes controversy.  You can read it in full at the bottom of the Caledonian Culture War post, but I’ll reproduce the ending of the poem here, as the sentiment expressed is perfect for the beginning of 2018.

 

“…happy new year yin and all, wee yins and big yins and – here’s tae us taking a snip at oor cultivated cringe – and turning the whinge down to a low peep in this year about to blaw in, the year 2018, wha’s like us?!”

 

So as 2018 blaws in, I wish you all a happy, cringe-free and whinge-free New Year too.  Though I have no doubt that on this blog I will continue to find things to whinge about from time to time.

 

According to Western Christianity, today is the 8th day of Christmas, so technically we’re still in the middle of the festive season.  Here are photos I took the other night of the Christmas tree and New Year greeting outside the Asok Skytrain station on Bangkok’s Sumhumvit Road.

 

 

Deathlog 2017 – Part 2

 

© Paramount Classics

 

American Renaissance man Sam Shepard died on July 27th.  As a playwright he was responsible for Buried Child (1978), True West (1980), Fool for Love (1983), A Lie of the Mind (1985) and others; he acted in movies as varied as Days of Heaven (1978), The Right Stuff (1983), Black Hawk Down (2001) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007); he authored two novels and directed two films; and his screenwriting credits included Zabriskie Point (1970), Renaldo and Clara (1978) and of course Paris, Texas (1984), a movie I can’t think of now without hearing Ry Cooder’s elegiac slide-guitar score in my head.

 

Other casualties of July 2017 included the masterly horror-movie auteur George A. Romero, who died on July 16th; Welsh actor Hywel Bennett, one-time boyish-faced star of movies like The Family Way (1966), Twisted Nerve (1968) and Loot (1970), who died on July 25th; and Chester Bennington, singer with popular nu-metal band Linkin Park, who died on July 20th – I had little time for nu-metal music generally, but I thought Linkin Park were among the sub-genre’s least offensive practitioners.  Meanwhile, departing on July 15th was distinguished movie and TV actor Martin Landau, who first gained attention as a villain in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest back in 1959.  I’ll always remember Landau for playing Commander Koenig in the TV sci-fi show Space 1999 (1975-77) and playing a washed-up, drug-addled Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s delightful Ed Wood (1994).

 

© Toho

 

Where to start in August 2017?  Old Western movie-star Ty Hardin died on August 3rd, as did hard-working British TV and film actor Robert Hardy, who was still going strong in his eighties thanks to the Harry Potter franchise.  August 7th saw the passing of Japanese actor and stuntman Haruo Nakajima, who filled a rubber suit to play Godzilla in many a giant-monster movie for Japan’s Toho Company in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  Having played Godzilla in 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, Nakajima changed sides, donned an ape-suit and played King Kong in 1967’s King Kong Escapes.  Passing one day later was American country-and-western singer Glen Campbell, whom I’ll remember best for one of his occasional acting roles – as La Boeuf, the Texas Ranger who joins forces with Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) and Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 western True Grit.  The last day of August saw the demise of American TV actor Richard Anderson, fondly remembered by 1970s youngsters as Oscar Goldman in The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-78).

 

Another horror-movie auteur, Tobe Hooper – of Texas Chainsaw Massacre infamy – passed away on August 26th.  The great English science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss died on August 19th; while Gordon Williams, Scottish author of The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (1969), the basis for Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film Straw Dogs, died on August 20th.  And legendary Hollywood funny-man Jerry Lewis left us on August 20th.  To be honest, I found his comedy movies about as amusing as toothache, but I can’t deny an older Lewis was excellent as the cynical comedian / chat-show host Jerry Langford in Martin Scorsese’s twisted showbiz satire The King of Comedy (1982).

 

Bruce Forsyth, English TV gameshow host, entertainer and comedian – and supposedly the last person working on British television who’d first appeared on it prior to World War II – died on August 18th.  I found Forsyth’s all-singing, all-dancing, all-joking showbiz schtick hard to take, but I liked him for the guest appearance he made on The Muppet Show in 1976, when he helped Fozzie Bear stand up to those wizened, mean-spirited hecklers Statler and Waldorf.  That was definitely Bruce’s finest hour.

 

© ITC Entertainment

 

Len Wein, the great comic-book writer whose many achievements included creating the squishy half-man, half-plant Swamp Thing with the late Bernie Wrightson back in 1971, died on September 9th.  The following day saw the death of Irish-American author J.P. Donleavy.  I loved Donleavy’s 1955 novel The Ginger Man as a teenager, though I wonder if I would find it a bit juvenile if I read it again today.  Grant Hart, who manned the drumkit for the brilliant 1980s alterative-punk band Hüsker Dü, died on September 14th, and one day later yet another Twin Peaks (and Paris, Texas) alumni, the marvellous American character actor Harry Dean Stanton, passed away.  Another American actor, Bernie Casey, died on September 19th.  Casey’s roles included that of Felix Leiter in the ‘rogue’ Sean Connery / James Bond movie Never Say Never Again (1982), which made him the cinema’s first black Felix Leiter a quarter-century before Jeffrey Wright landed the part in the Daniel Craig Bond films.

 

Boxer Jake LaMotta, whose chequered career formed the basis for the classic Martin Scorsese / Robert De Niro collaboration Raging Bull (1980), died on September 20th.  A week later saw the death of Hugh Hefner, millionaire founder of Playboy magazine.  With his playmate-filled mansion and penchant for pyjamas, pipes and ship’s-captain hats, Hefner struck me as a sleazy and infantile old letch.  But I can’t belittle his literary taste – in between the nudie pictures, Playboy published work by Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Ian Fleming, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Joseph Heller, Shirley Jackson, Ursula Le Guin, Norman Mailer, Haruki Murakami, Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut and many more.

 

September 25th marked the death of English actor Tony Booth, best-known as a cast-member in the controversial but influential BBC sitcom Till Death Us Do Part (1965-75) and for being the real-life father of Cherie Booth, i.e. Mrs Tony Blair.  Here’s a fascinating fact: Booth claimed his great-great-great-uncle’s son was John Wilkes Booth, who was both an actor and the assassin of Abraham Lincoln.  I wonder if the staunchly socialist Booth felt tempted to emulate his ancestor once his son-in-law had been in office for a few years and shown his true colours.

 

The music world suffered another blow on October 3rd with the death of the agreeable American musician, singer and songwriter Tom Petty, while the comedy world said goodbye to the ground-breaking Irish comedian Sean Hughes on October 16th.  The same day saw the passing of venerable Guernsey actor Roy Dotrice, whose career stretched from The Heroes of Telemark (1965) to Hellboy II (2008), via 1984’s Amadeus where he played the title character’s father.  Like many a veteran British character actor, Doctrice got a late-career boost when he was cast in Game of Thrones (2011-present).  Other actors to die in October included Robert Guillaume – wonderful as Benson, droll butler to the chaotic Tate family in the American TV comedy Soap (1977-81) – and on October 9th the distinguished French actor Jean Rochefort.  Ironically, Rochefort may be best-known to English-speaking audiences for a role he didn’t play.  He was lined up to be Don Quixote in Terry Gilliam’s monumentally ill-fated and eventually-cancelled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.  In anticipation, Rochefort even learned to speak English.  The 2002 documentary Lost in La Manca tells the story of this epic that never happened.

 

From goseelivemusic.co

 

October 22nd saw the death of Daisy Berkowitz, one-time guitarist to Goth-metaller / shock-rocker Marilyn Manson, and on October 19th the Italian movie director Umberto Lenzi passed away.  Lenzi was prolific in several genres, but I’ll remember him chiefly for his 1974 thriller Spasmo, an elegant if not terribly sensible example of the Italian giallo genre.

 

November brought a rash of music-related deaths – Chuck Mosely, the 1980s frontman for the great American alternative / funk-metal band Faith No More, on November 9th; Michael Davis (nicknamed ‘Dik Mik’), who in the 1970s operated the appropriately futuristic-sounding ‘audio-generator’ for the legendary ‘space-rock’ band Hawkwind, on November 16th; and Australian-born TV composer Dudley Simpson, who died on November 4th.   Simpson’s career-highlights include the incidental music for Doctor Who during its creepiest phase in the 1970s and the unsettling and pulsating theme tune for The Tomorrow People (1973-79).  Saddest of all for me, however, was the passing on November 18th of Australian guitarist Malcolm Young, co-founder of AC / DC and mastermind behind that band’s mightiest guitar riffs.

 

November was also a bad month for British TV sitcom actors, witnessing the deaths of Keith Barron on November 15th and Rodney Bewes on November 21st.  In between television work, both men appeared occasionally in films – I particularly remember Barron in 1974’s movie adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot and Bewes (playing James Mason’s son) in the 1970 adaptation of Bill Naughton’s Spring and Port Wine.  Meanwhile, actor John Hillerman died on November 9th.  Hillerman played Higgins, the snotty English concierge of Tom Selleck’s building in Magnum P.I. (1980-88).  So convincing was he in the role that following his death I was surprised to learn he’d actually hailed from Texas.

 

© Universal Television

 

Finally, German actress Karin Dor died on November 9th.  In 1967’s You Only Live Twice, the villainous Dor tried unsuccessfully to kill Sean Connery’s James Bond by trapping him in a plummeting airplane.  Then her boss Ernst Stavros Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) punished her for her failure by dropping her through a trapdoor into a pool of hungry piranha fish – and lo, a cinematic cliché was born.

 

On December 6th, France mourned the death of its very own Elvis Presley, the Gallic rock-and-roller Johnny Hallyday.  I’m unfamiliar with Hallyday’s music, but fondly remember his acting performance in the 2002 movie L’Homme du Train.  In this, he starred alongside Jean Rochefort, who’d died just two months previously.  Indeed, the film’s ending, where both men die simultaneously and wind up standing together in ghost form on an ethereal railway platform, seems sadly and eerily prophetic now.  Five days later saw the death of English entertainer Keith Chegwin, whose relentlessly cheery presence was a staple of British children’s TV during the 1970s and 1980s, especially in Swap Shop (1976-82) and Cheggers Plays Pop (1978-86).  Later, self-deprecatingly and post-modernly, Chegwin played himself in Ricky Gervais’s TV comedy Life’s Too Short (2011-13) and the movie Kill Keith (2011); but I liked him best for his appearance, at the age of 14, as Fleance in Roman Polanski’s ultra-violent version of Macbeth (1971).

 

Bob Givens, the veteran American animator who designed the world’s coolest cartoon rabbit, Bugs Bunny, died on December 14th; while Christmas Eve saw the death of American actress Heather Menzies.  She was best-known for playing one of the Von Trapp children in wholesome musical blockbuster The Sound of Music (1965) but I preferred her for playing the heroine of a less wholesome movie, the Joe Dante-directed / John Sayles-scripted Piranha (1978).  Following her death, Dante called her a“lovely person who was immensely helpful and supportive as the star of Piranha, my first solo directing job.”

 

Finally, December 2017 saw the departures of two men who, in different ways, were excellent ambassadors for the world of science.  Heinz Wolff, the German-born scientist who appeared on British TV shows like Young Scientist of the Year (1966-81) and The Great Egg Race (1979-86) and who, with his bald, domed head and bowtie, looked splendidly like how you’d imagine a scientist to look, died on December 15th.  Meanwhile, space-shuttle astronaut Bruce McCandless, who in 1984 became the first human being to make an untethered flight in space, died on December 21st.  It seems dishearteningly symbolic that their deaths came at the end of a year when the most powerful man on earth was a nincompoop who didn’t just seem ignorant of science, but actively seemed to despise it.

 

From theinquirer.net

© NASA

 

Deathlog 2017 – Part 1

 

© Eon Productions

 

The Grim Reaper seemed to cull a record number of big-name celebrities in 2016: David Bowie, Prince, Umberto Eco, Muhammed Ali, George Michael, Carrie Fisher.  2017 has seen less carnage, but nonetheless some people I admired have passed away.  Here’s a post about them.  Links are provided to those people whom I’ve already written about on Blood and Porridge.

 

January 19th and 21st saw the deaths of British writers Hilary Bailey and Emma Tennant, who by a sad coincidence were friends and occasional collaborators.  I read some of Bailey’s work in the New Worlds Quarterly paperback series that she’d edited in the 1970s – the series was a reincarnation of the famous science-fiction magazine New Worlds that her one-time husband Michael Moorcock had edited during the previous decade.  I’m unfamiliar with Tennant’s work but have a tenuous link with her.  She belonged to the aristocratic Glenconner family who owned the Glen, a mansion in the hills a few miles southeast of my Scottish hometown of Peebles.  I’ve hiked past the Glen many a time and, according to Tennant’s Wikipedia entry, she lived there as a child and remembered it as “the strangest place possible.”

 

January 27th saw a further literary demise, of novelist and filmmaker William Peter Blatty.  He authored The Exorcist (1971), which was made into the ground-breaking and massively successful horror movie of the same name two years later.  In 1990 Blatty directed the film’s second sequel, Exorcist III, which has its admirers; and in 1980 The Ninth Configuration, a movie ignored on its release but now viewed as an offbeat classic.   Film critic Mark Kermode described Configuration as “a breathtaking cocktail of philosophy, eye-popping visuals, jaw-dropping pretentiousness, rib-tickling humour and heart-stopping action.”

 

© Warner Brothers

 

Also checking out in January were American character actor Miguel Ferrer – Albert Rosenfield in Twin Peaks (1990-91, 2017) – on February 19th; acclaimed English actor John Hurt on January 25th; Scottish politician Tam Dalyell on January 26th; and, on January 25th, the American film and TV actress Mary Tyler Moore.  Through her sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77), she was instrumental in getting American television to portray women in a more proactive and empowered fashion.

 

January 26th saw the death of a more conventional American TV performer, Mike Connors, who played tough-guy private investigator Mannix from 1967 to 1975.  Mannix fans presumably included a young Quentin Tarantino, who named a character after the P.I. in 2015’s The Hateful Eight.  Two days later saw the passing of keyboardist and guitarist Geoff Nicholls, who played in legendary Brum heavy-metal band Black Sabbath from 1980 to 2004.

 

February was had a relatively low death toll, although on February 17th we said goodbye to another Twin Peaks alumni, Warren Frost, who played the kindly Doc Hayward in its first two series in 1990-91 and briefly in its 2017 revival series.  And the much-loved movie character actor Bill Paxton died on February 26th.

 

March 14th saw the death of veteran American film producer Jack H. Harris, who’ll surely be remembered as ‘Father of the Blob’.  Not only did he produce hoary sci-fi monster movie The Blob in 1958 (starring Steve McQueen as an unfeasibly old teenager) but he masterminded its 1972 sequel Beware! the Blob, which was directed by none other than J.R. Ewing himself Larry Hagman and thus became known as ‘the movie that J.R. shot.’  Furthermore, Harris produced the 1988 remake, directed by Chuck Russell, and at the time of his death was trying to get a second remake off the ground.  On March 18th seminal rock-and-roller Chuck Berry passed away, and the following day the masterly American illustrator and comic-book artist Bernie Wrightson died too.  Checking out on March 26th was actress Darlene Cates, splendid as Johnny Depp and Leonardo Di Caprio’s mother in the 1993 movie What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?

 

© MGM / United Artists

 

American funny man Don Rickles died on April 6th.  I wasn’t a fan of Rickles’ humour (“Who picks your clothes?  Stevie Wonder?”) but as an actor he was memorably nasty in Roger Corman’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) and memorably pathetic in John Landis’s Innocent Blood (1992).  One day later, the English stage, film, TV and radio actor Tim Pigott-Smith passed away.  My juvenile self will always remember Pigott-Smith for playing: (1) Hotspur (to Jon Finch’s Henry IV, David Gwillim’s Hal and Anthony Quayle’s Falstaff) in the 1979 BBC production of Henry IV Part 1, which I was made to watch at school; and (2) Thallo in 1981’s Clash of the Titans.  Meanwhile, bowing out on April 12th was Charlie Murphy, elder brother to Eddie Murphy and a distinguished comic performer in his own right.  His Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories turn on Comedy Central’s Chapelle’s Show (2003-2006) was hilarious, perhaps most of all when he described an alleged encounter with Prince, where the diminutive funky singer-musician showed an unexpected flair for basketball.

 

We also saw the departures of American blues singer and guitarist Lonnie Brooks on April 3rd; hugely influential British comics artist Leo Baxendale on April 23rd; and American guitarist John Warren Geils Jnr, mainspring of the J. Geils Band on April 11th – how I loved the Geils song Centerfold when I was a fifteen-year-old.  American director Jonathan Demme, whose CV included Caged Heat (1974), Crazy Mama (1975), Melvin and Howard (1980), Stop Making Sense (1984), Swimming to Cambodia (1987), The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Philadelphia (1993), died on April 26th.

 

And American character actor Clifton James died on April 15th.  James was best-known for playing redneck police officer Sheriff Pepper in two Roger Moore James Bond movies, 1974’s Live and Let Die and 1975’s The Man with the Golden Gun.  (In the latter film, Sheriff Pepper turns out to be less of a redneck than expected.  Holidaying with his wife in East Asia, he refuses to have his photo taken with an elephant: “Elephants!  We’re Demy-crats, Maybelle!”)  For a more nuanced Clifton James performance, however, check out his supporting role in Richard Lester’s Juggernaut (1975).

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

Another notable movie policeman passed away the following month, on May 10th: Michael Parks, who played Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in Robert Rodriguez’s From Dawn to Dust (1996), Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) and the Rodriguez / Tarantino collaboration Grindhouse (2007).   Parks also played the villainous Jean Renault in the first two series of Twin Peaks (1990-91) – so yes, he was another Twin Peaks casualty of 2017.  Another man who was no stranger to violent action-thrillers, character actor Powers Boothe, died on May 14th.  Boothe’s career saw him perform in such gritty movies as Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort (1981) and Extreme Prejudice (1987), Oliver Stone’s U-Turn (1997) and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005).

 

Other notable actors departing in May included the cinema’s longest-serving James Bond, Sir Roger Moore, who died on May 23rd; and English character actor Geoffrey Bayldon, who passed away on May 10th.  Bayldon appeared in British horror films like The House That Dripped Blood (1970), Tales from the Crypt and Asylum (both 1972) but will be remembered by British TV viewers my age for playing a medieval wizard transported by magic to the present day in the children’s fantasy show Catweazle (1970-71).  Meanwhile, the musical world took a hit on May 18th with the death of yet another grunge-band frontman, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell.

 

From Wikipedia

 

Before taking leave of May, we should raise a glass of vodka to the memory of Soviet Air Defence Forces officer Stanislav Petrov, who died on May 19th.  Petrov is credited with saving the world from nuclear destruction in 1983.  Suspicious of an early-warning report about an American missile approaching the USSR, he disobeyed an order to launch a retaliatory strike.  The initial report turned out to be false, the result of a malfunction in the satellite tracking system.  Phew.  Looking at the shitty state of international politics in the early 21st century, I suspect we’ll need a few more people of Stanislav Petrov’s calibre in the years ahead.

 

June 2017 wreaked havoc in the world of children’s TV entertainment.  On June 9th it claimed Adam West, square-jawed star of the campy old Batman TV show (1966-68); on June 19th Brian Cant, narrator of the revered British stop-motion-animation shows Camberwick Green (1966), Trumpton (1967) and Chigley (1969); and on June 5th, the venerable Peter Sallis, who provided the voice for Gromit in Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit quintet.  Sallis also played Norman Clegg in all 295 episodes of the BBC’s seemingly never-ending sitcom Last of the Summer Wine (1973-2010) and appeared in a couple of Hammer horror movies.  I love the fact that he was in both the Hammer film Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and the Wallace and Gromit epic Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005).

 

© Aardman Animations

 

Anita Pallenberg, 1960s icon, actress and muse to the Rolling Stones died on June 13th and Dave Rosser, guitarist with the reformed American alternative-rock band the Afghan Whigs, died on June 27th.  Finally, June 30th saw the passing of Barry Norman, English movie critic and host of the BBC’s long-running Film… review show from 1972 to 1998.  I disagreed with many of Norman’s opinions – he could be annoyingly conservative and prissy in his tastes – but he performed his duties with undeniable wit, charm and aplomb.  And a long time before the Internet, when the UK media didn’t seem particularly interested in films as an artform, his weekly show was an invaluable lifeline for cinephiles like myself.

 

To be continued…  Alas.

 

© BBC

 

My favourite Christmas things

 

From pixabay.com

 

This Christmas and New Year, my better half – Mrs Blood and Porridge – and I decided to forego our usual custom of heading back to Scotland to visit my family, mainly because we couldn’t handle another late December / early January spent in the cold, wet, windy and generally shite winter climate of the Scottish Borders.  Instead we elected to stay where we are, i.e. in southern Asia.  We’ve just spent four days at Unawatuna Beach on the southern coast of Sri Lanka.  I’d like to say the experience was entirely the idyllic sun-drenched experience suggested by this photograph.

 

 

Unfortunately, half the time, the area was battered by thunderstorms and Unawatuna Beach looked more like this.

 

 

In addition, the hotel we’d booked into turned out to be still under construction, workmen with whining drills, snarling saws and clattering hammers working on a new function room at the end of our corridor and more workmen plastering the walls beside the outdoor swimming pool (even while it was pissing with rain).  The place looked like something out of Carry On Abroad (1972).  But overall we had an enjoyable sojourn there.  We’re now spending Christmas Day in Colombo and plan to visit Thailand for a week-and-a-half over New Year.

 

Anyway, sitting in our Colombo apartment this Christmas Day, listening to our neighbours setting off fireworks – which is how they seem to celebrate everything in Sri Lanka – I find myself wondering what my favourite Christmas things are, in terms of books, films, TV, music and art.  Here’s what comes to mind.

 

© Vintage

 

Books.  Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) doesn’t do much for me these days, probably because I’m overly familiar with its plot and characters – who isn’t?  But a few months ago, I finally got around to reading Susan Hill’s enjoyable Gothic pastiche The Woman in Black (1983).  Hitherto knowing it only by its 2012 movie adaptation, I was surprised to discover The Woman in Black qualifies as a Christmas story.  At least, it uses the Victorian custom of telling ghost stories at Christmas-time as a framing device.  It’s during such a seasonal storytelling session that the middle-aged narrator gets unwillingly transported back to his youth and he begins to recall the terrifying experiences he had as a young man at Eel Marsh House.

 

Films.  A little while ago I wrote about the grim 1971 Australian movie Wake in Fright.  I realised it could be described as a Christmas movie, because its story of debauchery and squalor takes place during the festive season – though with the sweltering, fly-ridden Outback providing a background to the Christmas trees, decorations and carols.  In fact, if you fancy an Antipodean anti-Christmas double bill, you should watch Wake in Fright back-to-back with 2005’s Nick Cave-scripted The Proposition, whose climax has Ray Winstone and Emily Watson sitting down to a genteel English Christmas dinner in the heat and dust of the 19th century Outback while a pair of crazed bushrangers gallop towards their house intent on rape and murder.

 

© First Look Pictures

 

For more properly seasonal cinematic fare, though, I guess you can’t go wrong with The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) or the Finnish monster-Santa epic Rare Exports (2010).  And I have a soft spot for 1982’s beautifully animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ 1978 picture-book The Snowman.  I particularly like the version of it that has a prologue featuring David Bowie, who tells the story as a flashback and makes out this happened to him as a child.  Thus, the man who was Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke also flew with a snowman to the North Pole and met Santa Claus when he was a wee boy.  Wow, that David Bowie really lived a life!

 

© BBC

 

Television.  To me, Christmas TV means two things – comedy and (again) ghost stories.  Any time I’m in the UK during the festive season it isn’t difficult to track down on a Freeview channel one of the following comedic classics.  First, the 1974 Steptoe and Son Christmas special in which Harold tries to persuade his decrepit dad Albert not to spend Christmas at home in the rag-and-bone yard for once and spend it on holiday abroad instead.  This episode is poignant because it’s one of the few where Harold actually enjoys a victory and it was also the last Steptoe episode ever broadcast.  Second, the 1975 Christmas edition of Porridge where Fletcher, Gobber and co. form a Christmas carol-singing choir to hide the noise of an escape tunnel being dug out of Slade Prison.  And third, the 1996 Father Ted special where Ted and Father Dougal’s Christmas shopping takes an unexpected turn when they get trapped inside ‘the largest lingerie section in Ireland’.  I find it sad, though, that I haven’t massively enjoyed any festive TV comedy made in the last 20-odd years.  (Incidentally, if you say you like the Mr Bean episode where he ends up with a giant Christmas turkey stuck over his head, you don’t deserve to live.)

 

© BBC

 

As I mentioned earlier, Christmas was traditionally a time for telling ghost stories.  The BBC’s supernatural dramas that were broadcast every Yuletide during the 1970s under the title of A Ghost Story for Christmas now seem deeply festive – even though the stories themselves didn’t have Christmas-time settings.  (That said, most of them were based on works by M.R. James, who liked reading his latest tales to his friends at King’s College, Cambridge, “at the season of Christmas”.)  1971’s The Stalls of Barchester (based on a James story) and 1976’s The Signalman (based on a Dickens one) are probably the most memorable; 1977’s Stigma, set in the present day and using an original script by Clive Exton, is the subtlest and saddest; and 1975’s The Ash Tree, based on another James story, is the freakiest, ending with a pack of little spider-things with human faces scuttling up the branches of the titular tree to a bedroom window.  All the episodes are currently up on Youtube.

 

© Charlemagne Productions Ltd

 

Music.  Christmas songs are generally dreadful – apart from the Pogues’ Fairy Tale of New York and Run DMC’s Christmas in Hollis – and the songs that get to the Christmas number-one spot in the UK are generally worse than dreadful, especially now that they’re usually sung by the latest non-entity to have rolled off the Simon Cowell Conveyor Belt of Karaoke.  But for an enjoyably berserk Christmas listening experience, you can’t beat the heavy metal versions of Christmas songs like Silent Night and Jingle Bells recorded in 2012, 2013 and 2014 by the late, legendary actor Sir Christopher Lee, star of the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars movies and many horror ones.  The combination of the nonagenarian Lee’s still-booming operatic voice, twiddly power-metal guitars and Christmas – what’s not to love?

 

Art.  In the last few years English-speaking culture has become aware of the goat-horned, curly-tongued Krampus, the demonic figure of Germanic and Slavic folklore who acts as an anti-Santa Claus and goes around at Christmas punishing children who’ve been naughty.  Among other things, there’s been a Hollywood movie made about him, 2015’s Krampus, and he turned up in a 2016 festive episode of the BBC anthology series Inside No 9.  Only recently did I discover that mainland Europe has had a long tradition of exchanging Krampuskarten, greeting cards featuring the Krampus.  These include some bawdy ones where the saucy old festive demon is seen cavorting with buxom young ladies.  Here’s a few examples – charming in their visual designs and quaintly Roald Dahl-esque in their sentiments.

 

From krazywolf.com

From krazywolf.com

From krazywolf.com

 

So Merry Christmas – I trust Santa Claus has been good to you.  Or if you’ve misbehaved, the Krampus has been bad to you.

 

Brian’s big three

 

© The Guardian

 

August 19th saw the death of the great English science-fiction novelist, short-story writer and editor Brian Aldiss.  Everybody has to go sometime, and Aldiss undeniably had a longer and better innings than most – he expired a day after celebrating his 93rd birthday, he wrote over 80 novels and over 300 short stories and was still writing until recently, and in his later years he acquired a wheelbarrow-load of awards, honours, fellowships and honorary doctorates including an Order of the British Empire in 2005 for ‘services for literature’.  But I was still saddened to hear of his passing because he was responsible for three of my all-time favourite sci-fi novels, Non-Stop (1958), Hothouse (1962) and Greybeard (1964), written when Aldiss was on a creative roll in his thirties.

 

Non-Stop has as its premise a common science-fiction device that solves the challenge of how humans can ever hope to colonise earth-type planets in orbit around other stars – because the distances separating our star system from other star systems are vast and would take a very long time to cross.  The device in question is a multi-generational starship, i.e. a spacecraft big and well-stocked enough to sustain several generations of humans living (and dying) inside it while it makes a voyage as long as several human lifespans.  Hence, it’s the descendants of the people originally on board who reach the destination planet.  (Other common sci-fi solutions to this challenge are putting the crew in long-term suspended animation through some yet-to-be-invented cryonic process; or simply having magic spaceship-engines that can travel many times faster than light.  Yes, Star Trek, I’m looking at you.)

 

The multi-generational starship in Non-Stop, though, is in trouble.  Thanks to an epidemic that decimated the crew in the voyage’s early days, society on board has broken down.  The ship is overrun with a tenacious species of creeping plant that’s escaped from its agricultural section and turned the rooms and corridors into jungles – ‘the tangles’.  Roaming wild in the undergrowth are various animal species that have escaped too.  Meanwhile, the descendants of the surviving crewmembers have divided into tribes and factions and live in different parts of the ship as primitive, superstitious scavengers and hunter-gathers, no longer knowing their true whereabouts or their ancestors’ mission.

 

The novel’s hero is the quaintly-named Roy Complain, a member of a tribe living precariously in the starship’s bowels – they spend their lives hacking their way along the corridors and settling temporarily in the spaces they’ve created while the creepers reclaim the spaces they were in earlier.  Complain falls in with Marapper, his tribe’s crafty and mysterious priest and the only tribe-member who suspects that they’re on board a spaceship, and they and a few others set off on an expedition through the seemingly endless corridors and seemingly impenetrable undergrowth to locate the ship’s control room.  What follows is an inversion of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899).  Instead of the characters journeying from civilisation to savagery, the characters here attempt to journey out of savagery and rediscover civilisation.

 

© Pan Books

 

Along the way, Aldiss has great fun conjuring up strange creatures for his heroes to encounter – mutants, rats that have developed a worryingly-high level of intelligence, and mythological ‘giants’ and ‘others’, who are supernatural creatures believed to take on the guise of humans.  (The real identities of the giants and others are explained later.)  You’d expect the narrative to slow down in its later stages as the characters approach the truth of their existence, but Non-Stop’s narrative gets ever-more hectic – becoming a rollercoaster of incidents and plot-twists as Aldiss hits the reader with more and more revelations about the starship’s situation and about what the ship is capable of.  Non-Stop clocks in at a modest 250 pages, but by the time you’ve finished it, such has been the amount going on that you feel you’ve read something twice the length.

 

If Non-Stop is a rollercoaster, then Hothouse is a helter-skelter.  Set in the very distant future, it depicts an earth that has one side permanently facing an enlarged sun.  The sun-facing side is covered in a vast mesh of undergrowth that’s actually the branches of one gigantic, mutant banyan tree.  In this sweltering, jungle-choked world, only a few species of animals have survived – including human beings, who’ve shrunk to a fifth of the size they once were.  All the other life-forms are plants, often mobile, intelligent, carnivorous and deadly.  Hothouse follows a band of humans on an odyssey across this psychedelically weird but highly dangerous future-earth.  Along the way, some of them end up on the moon, which no longer orbits the earth but is stuck in a fixed point, snagged amid giant cobwebs spun by huge spider-like plants called traversers.

 

Hothouse began life as five loosely-connected short stories published in a magazine in 1961 and as a result its novel-version feels disjointed and episodic.  But that doesn’t matter – what’s important is Aldiss’s imagination, which seems as fecund as the jungle-buried world of the story’s setting.  He has a glorious time describing its flora and fauna.  In addition to traversers, there are tigerflies, termights, sharp-furs and sodals, much-evolved future incarnations of wasps, termites, baboons and dolphins respectively; a sentient fungus called the morel, which forms a disturbingly symbiotic relationship with any host it manages to attach itself to; and the tummy-belly men, humanoid creatures linked to a tree by umbilical cords, who prove hilariously harassed and hapless when those cords are cut and they’re let loose.

 

© Sphere Books

 

On its publication some reviewers, including the traditional sci-fi writer James Blish, condemned Hothouse for its disregard for scientific accuracy, and especially for having the moon mired in giant space-cobwebs and no longer able to move in orbit.  I’m sure Aldiss knew this was nonsense himself, but the image of a cobweb-trapped moon seemed so entropically powerful that he couldn’t resist sticking it in the book.

 

After the gleeful inventiveness displayed in Non-Stop and Hothouse, Greybeard, set in southern England in the near-future, seems an altogether more sombre work.  But its melancholy premise quickly draws in the reader and creates a world that feels both credible and bewitchingly strange.  In Greybeard, humanity has been sterilised by a mishap involving nuclear weaponry in the late 20th century – still the future in 1964, the year of the book’s publication – and by the early 21st century the remaining human population has aged to the point where you’re considered young if you’re in your fifties.

 

Greybeard begins with the titular character – real name Algy, but nicknamed Greybeard due to the colour of his lengthy facial hair – and his wife Martha living in the English countryside in a village community that’s been cut off from the surrounding world for a decade.  Ten years earlier, Britain ceased to be governable.  Already tottering from the economic, cultural and psychological impact of having no young people, society finally collapsed thanks to a devastating cholera epidemic.  Since then, nature has reasserted itself and the cities, towns, roads and farms have vanished beneath the undergrowth – or, as the country’s system of rivers and lakes revert to their natural state, beneath water.   What remains of humanity, meanwhile, is old and senile.  They’ve regressed to a medieval level of superstition and paranoia, with people terrifying one another with tales of marauding Scots raiders, packs of killer stoats and even malevolent ‘gnomes’ in the encroaching woods.

 

Greybeard, Martha and a couple of friends decide to leave the village before it entirely deadens their wits and they become as infantized as its other wrinkly inhabitants.  They sail along the River Thames and into slightly less isolated regions, where they encounter a market-fair that resembles a geriatric re-enactment of Merrie Olde England, complete with bawdy octogenarian prostitutes; then the university town of Oxford, where a feudal society has evolved under the stewardship of some venerable Oxford dons; and finally a phantasmagorical inland sea of mist, tiny islands and sunken villages.  Here, they make some surprising discoveries about what’s really going on this verdant new world that seems determined to leave humanity behind.

 

The science fiction writer Adam Roberts, who wrote the introduction for my edition of Greybeard, has likened Aldiss’s descriptions of the post-civilisation English landscape to the work of Thomas Hardy.  I wouldn’t go as far as that, but the way that Aldiss invokes this mouldering-yet-blossoming future England certainly has an impressive, elegiac power.

 

© Signet Books

 

Incidentally, in the right hands, I think all three novels would make great movies – though I doubt if that will happen now because, in the years since their publication, many of their ideas have appeared onscreen in less impressive forms.  The notion of a multi-generational starship going wrong was the basis of at least one TV show, 1973’s terrible The Starlost.  Modern developments in cinematic special effects could now bring the jungle-world of Hothouse to spectacular and terrifying life, but cinema audiences have already been treated to a lavishly-detailed, alien jungle-world in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009).  Mind you, comparing the benign, hippy-dippy jungle of Avatar to the one in Hothouse is like comparing the music of Coldplay to that of Rage Against the Machine.

 

And Greybeard’s concept of a childless world was used by P.D. James in her 1992 novel Children of Men, which was filmed by Alfonso Cuarón in 2006.  I haven’t read James’s book, but I’ve seen, and really enjoyed, the movie.  Nonetheless, I feel Children of Men (the film at least) wimps out in setting its action soon after the child-extinguishing apocalypse, so that many of its adult characters are still relatively young.  Whereas Greybeard, depicting a world populated entirely by old and nearly-old people, takes the idea to its disturbing extreme.

 

So yes, 2017 saw the sad departure of Brian Aldiss.  But at least in Non-Stop, Hothouse and Greybeard, we have three great books with which to cherish the life of Brian.

 

Glorious international foodstuffs 4: hot butter cuttlefish

 

From yamu.lk

 

Hot butter cuttlefish is surely the King of Snacks in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city.  Most citizens regard it as the as the chewiest and spiciest thing on their local menus.  As Colombo is a coastal city, it’s appropriate that the dish is a seafood one.

 

It’s a wonderful concoction involving strips of cuttlefish (obviously) that have been coated in egg-white, cornflour, salt and turmeric powder and then deep-fried in oil; a sauce of chili powder, butter, garlic and sugar; and various accoutrements including sliced capsicum, chives, spring onions and chilis.

 

According to an investigation by Colombo’s prominent food / drink / events website www.yamu.lk, the best hot butter cuttlefish in the city is served up at the Barracuda Restaurant, a beachside venue in the Dehiwala district specialising in Chinese and Thai cuisine.  Mind you, this survey was conducted in 2014, and as times change and (importantly) chef s change too, Barracuda may not be top of the hot-butter-cuttlefish league today.  (I should say I’ve eaten and drunk in Barracuda many times but for some reason I’ve never sampled the dish there.)

 

I’m biased, but personally I’d suggest an unpretentious Colombo pub as the best place to procure hot butter cuttlefish – even though you usually eat it in a dim, enclosed environment full of the smell of beer, spirits and cigarettes and the sea seems very far away.  Indeed, this dish and beer are a marriage made in heaven.  Nothing tastes better when you’ve drunk a couple of pints and suffered an attack of the munchies.  I’m partial to what’s served in the public bar of the Atlantica Hotel on Galle Road.  Overall, though, I’d probably nominate the Randoli Sports Club on Kirula Road as Colombo’s very best purveyor of the dish.

 

One last thing.  In my view, the accoutrements – the onions and chilis – should be cooked for only the briefest of times, so that when they arrive on the plate with the deep-fried cuttlefish they’re almost raw and able to sting your tongue and moisten your eyes when you bite into them.  This gives an additional, delicious edge to the dish’s taste.  But it means that the greatest hot butter cuttlefish isn’t for people with wimpy taste-buds.

 

Gun me kangaroo down, sport

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

Occasionally I post pieces on this blog under the self-explanatory title Great Unappreciated Films.  For my next great, unappreciated film I’d intended writing about the 1971 Australian epic Wake in Fright, but then I realised Wake in Fright isn’t unappreciated any more.  Yes, it flopped on its initial release, despite being nominated for the grand prize at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, and for a long time afterwards it only existed in heavily-cut and low-quality versions.  However, following restoration and remastering work during the noughties, a new version of Wake in Fright was shown at Cannes in 2009 and now, belatedly, the film is seen both as a classic in its own right and as an important precursor to the New Wave of Australian Cinema that produced the likes of The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), Mad Max (1979), My Brilliant Career (1979) and Breaker Morant (1980).

 

Thus, Wake in Fright is deservedly appreciated today.  But what the hell.  I’m going to write about it anyway.

 

Directed by Ted Kotcheff, Wake in Fright tells the story of John Grant (Gary Bond), a young Australian schoolteacher beset by frustration and a sense of injustice.  He dreams of moving to England – something that many young Australians were doing in real life at the time, most famously Barry Humphries, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes – and becoming ‘a journalist’.  It has to be said that for someone wanting to make a career from writing, he spends suspiciously little of the film, none of it in fact, doing any writing.

 

For now, though, John’s stuck in a school in a tiny Outback settlement surrounded by vast expanses of nothingness – which Kotcheff highlights at the film’s start with a 360-degree panning shot that still looks impressive today.  John’s exile here shows no likelihood of ending soon, because to leave his job he needs to pay off a bond signed with the Australian government to cover the costs of his teacher-training.

 

Wake in Fright begins with John finishing his final lesson before the Christmas vacation and taking a train to a mining town called Bundanyabba, where he plans to catch a plane to Sydney for a few weeks in the company of his glamorous city-based girlfriend.  But his plans go askew when he arrives in Bundanyabba, ‘the Yabba’ as it’s known to its inhabitants, and he spends a night there before the plane flies.  In succession, John enters a drinking establishment that isn’t so much a pub as a factory, cranking out industrial numbers of glasses of beer for the Yabba’s thirsty (male) citizens; befriends a hulking policeman called Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), who takes him to a late-night eatery; discovers a gambling den at the back of the eatery where money is bet, won and lost on the tossing of pairs of coins; gets involved in a game and impulsively bets everything he has in the hope of winning enough to pay off his bond; and loses everything, so that the next day he wakes up penniless, unable to pay for his flight and marooned in the Yabba.

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

By this time, he’s also met local eccentric ‘Doc’ Tydon, who’s played by none other than the great English actor Donald Pleasence.  When you see the crazed, drunken Pleasence tossing the pair of coins on which John’s fortunes depend, you know it’s going to end badly.

 

Thereafter, John – initially disdainful of the macho, swaggering, hard-drinking, hard-gambling mindset that seems to possess most of the Yabba’s male inhabitants – gradually sinks to the point where the same mindset possesses him.  He meets a well-to-do man called Tim Hynes (Al Thomas) who invites him home and introduces him to his daughter Janette (Sylvia Kay).  Hynes, obviously seen as a bit of soft touch by his Yabba neighbours, soon has a crowd in his living room drinking his beer and leering after Janette, including the ubiquitous Doc Tydon and a pair of young bogans called Joe (Peter Whittle) and Dick (future Australian movie star Jack Thompson).

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

After a severe all-night drinking session, John – now stained, grubby and worse-for-wear – comes to in Tydon’s shack, a hellhole with kangaroo meat heaped in greasy pans and clusters of dead flies stuck to dangling flypaper strips.  We don’t get to see the outdoor toilet – the Donald Pleasence dunny – but according to the dialogue it’s even more hideous than the shack.  It transpires that John drunkenly arranged to go on a kangaroo shoot with Joe and Dick, who soon show up at the shack in a vehicle loaded with guns and booze.  All four head into the Outback to hunt ’roo and what follows is Wake in Fright’s most notorious sequence, wherein the quartet blast away a pack of kangaroos and wrestle with and stab to death the wounded ones.  Such is the carnage that even in 2009, during the film’s re-screening in Cannes, a dozen people walked out of it.

 

Now completely deranged – John included – they wreck an Outback pub on their way home.  The next day, after waking up in Tydon’s shack in an even worse condition, John manages to stagger off.  Appalled by his own degradation, he attempts to hitchhike out of the Yabba and the whole way to Sydney, but again things don’t go according to plan.  Finally, despairing and practically psychotic, John hits on another way of escaping from the Yabba, the most drastic way possible…

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

It’s easy to see why, when Wake in Fright was released in 1971, Australian audiences stayed away in droves.  With its scenes of heavy-duty and illicit drinking (“Shut the door, mate,” someone shouts when John walks into a pub and finds the entire male population of the Yabba boozing inside, “we’re closed!”) and incessant gambling (men standing robotically at rows of bar ‘pokies’ or acting as a baying mob in a backroom den), and with its depictions of violence, sexism and general macho bullshit, it doesn’t portray Australian culture of the time in a flattering light.

 

One scene sure to bait 1970s Australian viewers takes place in a pub.  The boozers and gamblers suddenly fall silent, stand to attention and face an ANZAC memorial wall-mural while a radio announcer exhorts them to ‘remember the fallen’.  When the silence ends a moment later, they dive back to their beer glasses and slot machines.

 

Then there’s the gruelling kangaroo shoot where bullets tear bloodily through what are clearly real animals.  That must have traumatised international audiences, whose main image of Australia in 1971 was probably formed by the popular, cuddly kids’ TV show Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1968-70).   A statement in the film’s end-credits assures us that the kangaroos weren’t slaughtered for the film.  Rather, Kotcheff and his crew shadowed a group of professional ’roo hunters one night, filmed the shootings (which would have taken place whether Wake in Fright was made or not) and then spliced the documentary footage into the film.

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

What the filmmakers did isn’t above criticism, though.  It’s been pointed out that the powerful spotlight they used to film the hunt also enabled the hunters to blind and target their prey.  Kotcheff later described the experience as a ‘nightmare’ because, as the night continued, the hunters became drunk, their shooting grew less accurate and kangaroos ended up horribly maimed.  Things got so bad that the film crew pretended there’d been a power cut, so that the spotlight no longer worked and the shooting had to stop.  Most of the footage proved to be so upsetting that Kotcheff decided he couldn’t use it – though what is used is bad enough.

 

The footage was also shown to the Royal Australian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals.  They actually urged the filmmakers to include it in Wake in Fright, hoping it’d spark an outcry and help such madcap hunting to be banned.

 

Wake in Fright is a pretty grim watch, then, but its cast is a pleasure.  Gary Bond, with his finely-sculpted features, blond hair and sonorous, cultivated voice, achieves a perfect balance between arrogance and vulnerability – he’s priggish but we still worry about him as his situation goes from bad to worse.  Also effective are Chips Rafferty as the lugubrious policeman Crawford, who partakes of the roughneck culture around him without overdoing it and views John’s gradual succumbing to it with mixed disdain and concern; Al Thomas as the good-natured but pathetic Hynes – in the Outback, his costume of fedora, shirt and bow-tie, baggy shorts and knee-length white socks seems designed to invite ridicule; and Sylvia Kay as Hynes’s daughter Janette, whom John discovers is less repressed than she first appears.

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

But the true star of Wake in Fright is Donald Pleasence.  As Doc Tydon, he explains himself thus: “I’m a doctor of medicine and a tramp by temperament.  I’m also an alcoholic.  My disease prevented me from practising in Sydney but out here it’s scarcely noticeable.  Certainly doesn’t stop people from coming to see me.”   I wondered how convincingly the man who played Ernst Stavros Blofeld in You Only Live Twice (1967) would appear in the milieu of Wake in Fright but Pleasence nails it.  He’s perfect whether he’s sober and observing icily how John flinched at the touch of Crawford’s ‘hairy hand’; or drinking beer whilst standing on his head to demonstrate how the oesophagus muscles are stronger than gravity; or winding John up with talk of the ‘open’ relationship he enjoys with Janette; or drunkenly raving on a pub-porch about “Socrates, affectability, progress” being “vanities spawned by fear” while Joe and Dick punch lumps out of each other behind him.

 

It’s possible to dismiss Wake in Fright as an expression of middle-class disdain for the lower-brow culture and less-mannered behaviour of the proletariat.  But I feel that’s a misinterpretation.  When John complains to Tydon about “the aggressive hospitality” of the Yabba, and “the arrogance of stupid people who insist you should be as stupid as they are,” Tydon retorts: “It’s death to farm out here.  It’s worse than death in the mines.  You want them to sing opera as well?”  And when John slips down the slippery slope – a slope Tydon has already descended – it’s not because (like in another 1971 movie, Straw Dogs) he’s had to become a brute to fight off other brutes around him.  In John’s case, he’s entered an environment so harsh it can turn any man into a brute.

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

Plus, it’s worth noting that some people whom John encounters on his dark odyssey, like Crawford and Hynes, exhibit more kindness than he does himself.  Even Tydon, who at times seems beyond all help, shows some decency at the end.

 

Finally, as it’s December, I should say that Wake in Fright qualifies as… a Christmas movie!  Its events take place during the Christmas vacation and, amid the heat, dust, beer and puke, there are Christmas trees, decorations and carols.  (2005’s The Proposition, another gruelling Australian Outback movie, highlighted the irony too of celebrating a sweltering Australian Christmas with the trappings of a wintery northern-European one.)

 

So why not order that DVD of Wake in Fright from Amazon now?  And on December 25th, should your loved ones tire of watching It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) or The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), you can treat them to something different – the squalor, drunkenness, brawling, vandalism, vomit, sweat-stains, flies, kangaroo-slaughter and Donald-Pleasance-going-bananas that constitute the Wake in Fright Christmas experience.

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

Welliweediya Cemetery in Negombo

 

 

Wellaweediya Cemetery on Sea Road in the coastal town of Negombo is the most atmospheric graveyard I’ve come across so far in Sri Lanka.  Its aura of spooky otherworldliness is despite it being only walking distance from one of the biggest tourist drags on Sri Lanka’s western shore.

 

Mind you, the weather conditions on the afternoon I visited the cemetery probably helped the mood.  The sky was melancholically dark.  Nervy gusts of wind kept whipping up and dying again, each one punting leaves, litter and wisps of sand and dust a few yards further along the ground.  It seemed just a matter of time before the clouds were rent asunder and thunder and lightning started raging over the seafront.  This gave the place a sense of tropical desolation – like it wasn’t located in a Sri Lankan beach resort at all, but on a Caribbean island in some voodoo or zombie horror story.

 

You couldn’t have asked for a more Gothic way of entering the cemetery – through corroded gates that were topped with evil-looking barbs and flanked by a pair of forlorn stone angels whose wings had been largely broken off.

 

 

Inside, one thing that unsettled me was how the ground was mostly composed of sand.  I usually associate cemeteries with soil – firm soil, solid enough to hold things in the ground.  This sand looked anything but solid.  It was heaped into long V-shaped mounds before each cross or headstone, which rather morbidly mapped out the dimensions of the coffins and bodies a little way underneath.

 

 

Across the sand was strewn a lot of debris – scraps of paper, pieces of string, lengths of ribbon and shreds of greenery, which presumably were remnants of disintegrated wreaths and other grave-decorations.  But more recent tributes to the deceased remained intact.  There were arrangements of ferns and fronds, often wilting and resembling sprawling green crowns, and orchid-like flowers, whose colours the elements had bleached to a faded pink.

 

 

The graves were marked mostly by crosses.  Some were made of wood but coated in a thick, treacly black paint.  A few were covered in small, pale-coloured tiles.  Standing at the end of an occasional grave-mound was a miniature shrine, a glass-fronted case containing a religious figure – the glass commonly misted and sickly-looking with condensation.

 

 

One disturbing sight was a grave where the mound of sand had been dug into.  A large hole in the mound’s side showed that something had been burrowing into it.  Unless, that is, the hole had been made by the grave’s occupant burrowing out.

 

 

Finally, while I was there, Wellaweediya Cemetery was infested with crows.  They were happily using the crosses and gravestones as perches, climbing frames and stepping stones.  And needless to say, their loud non-stop cawing cranked the graveyard’s atmosphere several notches higher on the ‘creepy’ scale.

 

 

You’ve been DUPed

 

© BBC

 

The most memorable joke cracked by the late British funnyman and game-show host Bob Monkhouse was this one: “People used to laugh when I told them one day I’d become a famous comedian.  Well, they’re not laughing now.”

 

I’m sure many commentators living north and south of the Irish border are saying something similar now that Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations with the European Union have ended up stuck between a rock and a hard place.  The rock is the Republic of Ireland’s aversion to the creation of a ‘hard border’ between it and Northern Ireland and its demand for both parts of the island to have ‘regulatory alignment’ (i.e. Northern Ireland quietly remaining in the EU’s customs union and single market).  The hard place is the insistence by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, on whose ten Westminster MPs May’s minority Conservative government depends for support and survival, that Northern Ireland gets treated no differently from the rest of the United Kingdom during Brexit (i.e. if the UK quits the customs union and single market, Northern Ireland does too).

 

In other words: “Brexiters used to laugh when I told them the Irish border would be a massive problem if the UK voted to leave the EU.  Well, they’re not laughing now.”

 

Their attitude in the run-up to the Brexit vote in June 2016 wasn’t so much one of laughter, though, as one of sheer disinterest and ignorance.  It depressed me that on the morning of June 24th, just after the vote’s result was announced, the BBC showed a panel of British politicians taking questions from an audience.  An Irishman in the audience raised the border issue and was rudely and almost roundly ignored.  (The only panel-member to acknowledge his concerns was, significantly, Alex Salmond.)

 

Not that the British political or media establishments have shown any lessening in their ignorance of things Irish since then.  For instance, a recent editorial in The Sun advised Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to ‘shut his gob’ about Brexit; and right-wing politicians and commentators have generally talked about the Irish Republic so high-handedly you’d think they believed it was still one of Britain’s colonial possessions.  All this is despite the Republic of Ireland, as one of the remaining 27 members of the EU, having a veto over any deal between the EU and the departing UK that it sees as damaging to its interests.

 

Mind you, if you really want to soil yourself and experience all-out, full-frontal ignorance among the players in this fiasco, you should check out the Democratic Unionist Party.  The DUP includes among its ranks such God-bothering, science-disdaining eejits as Thomas Buchanan, a campaigner for the teaching of creationism in schools who rejects evolution as a “peddled lie” because, he reckons, “the world was spoken into existence in six days by His power”.  Then there’s Sammy Wilson, who maintains that climate change isn’t happening and has denounced the Paris Agreement as “window dressing for climate chancers”.  It’s mind-melting that Wilson was once Northern Irish Environment Minister.  And let’s not forget Trevor Clarke, who until very recently believed that HIV affected gay people only.  With IQs at near-subterranean levels, it’s unsurprising that the DUP is able to hold conflicting views without seeing any illogicality in holding them.  Most notably, it chants endlessly about Northern Ireland being exactly the same as the rest of the UK, for example, whilst insisting that Northern Irish law continues to ban abortion and same-sex marriage, both of which are legal in the rest of the UK.

 

© The Independent

© Belfast Telegraph

 

And low IQs might explain why, for a fiercely Christian outfit, it seems to have a lot of difficulty interpreting the teachings of Jesus Christ, which I thought were explicit in stating that Christ’s followers should not behave like corrupt, shifty, greedy, hypocritical tossers.  For instance, there was the ultra-dodgy Renewable Heat Incentive, or ‘cash-for-ash’ scheme, which was introduced in 2012 while the party’s leader and one-time Northern Irish First Minister Arlene Foster ran Northern Ireland’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.  Ostensibly, this encouraged people to switch from fossil fuel to biomass heating systems.  In reality, it meant unscrupulous farmers – many of them no doubt DUP voters – could set up biomass heating systems in empty cowsheds and still claim back £1.60 for every £1 they spent.  The scheme’s believed to have cost taxpayers some £400 million.  And then there was a £425,000 donation to the DUP from the shady anti-Scottish-independence organisation the Constitutional Research Council, rumoured to have really originated in Saudi Arabia, India or even Putin’s Russia.  In 2016, £282,000 of this was spent by the DUP on a ‘Vote Leave’ advertisement in a newspaper that wasn’t even published in Northern Ireland.

 

The most hilarious instance of DUP sleaze and sinfulness, though, was the 2009 scandal involving Iris Robinson – senior DUP figure, wife of Arlene Foster’s predecessor as party leader and First Minister Peter Robinson, and well-known denouncer of homosexuality as an ‘abomination’ – who had an extramarital affair with a lad young enough to be her grandson and also illegally procured some £50,000 to help him with a business project.  While Iris obliterated the seventh and eighth commandments, hubby Peter was content to line his pockets with hefty political salaries, allowances and alleged fixer-fees in direct contravention of what Matthew chapter 19, verses 16-26 said about camels, eyes of needles, rich men and heaven.  No wonder the pair of them have been dubbed the Swish Family Robinson.

 

© The Week UK

© Daily Mirror

 

From all accounts, Theresa May, the Republic of Ireland government and the EU were close to agreement yesterday on ‘regulatory alignment’ between the northern and southern parts of Ireland when Arlene Foster and the DUP scuppered it.  The deal would have helped to cushion the massive economic blow that Brexit looks certain to inflict on Northern Ireland.  (And the DUP is aware of this threat – soon after the 2016 referendum, and having championed a leave vote, the DUP saw no shame in sending Northern Ireland’s Agriculture Minister, Michelle McIlveen, scuttling off to Brussels to beg for continued EU support for Northern Irish farmers.)  And at best, it could have given the Northern Irish economy a real boost – imagine how attractive the place might have looked to investors as a corner of the UK that was still in the EU’s customs union and single market.  But as I’ve said, the DUP refused to countenance anything that’d make it different from the rest of the UK (apart from having medieval anti-abortion and anti-same-sex-marriage laws, obviously).  And among its members and supporters are plenty of red-white-and-blue nutters who’d saw off their own legs and strangle their own grandmothers if they thought it’d make them more British.

 

Ironically, I think this is hastening the very thing that the DUP abhors, which is the prospect of a united Ireland.  Although demographics are changing in Northern Ireland, with Roman Catholics looking set to soon outnumber Protestants, it seemed to me there was a large, mainly middle-class section of the Catholic community who were reasonably relaxed about staying part of the UK so long as Northern Ireland remained politically and economically stable and they had the safeguards guaranteed by 1998’s Good Friday agreement.  However, with the impending shitstorm of Brexit, I suspect many of those moderate Catholics will now swing towards supporting union with the south.  (When people asked me, I used to tell them I didn’t expect to see a united Ireland in my lifetime.  Now I’m starting to wonder.)

 

Amusingly, in the short term, if this spat continues between Theresa May and the DUP and the latter withdraws its support for the former, May’s government could collapse – resulting in yet another general election and the possibility that Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn becomes the next UK prime minister.  And it’s well known how old lefty Jeremy was, in the past, good friends with some people from Northern Ireland who definitely aren’t on Arlene Foster’s Christmas card list.

 

© Belfast Telegraph

 

Meanwhile, I sympathise with the many folk in the UK who, thanks to this crisis, have finally discovered that their country’s post-Brexit future depends on the whims of a political party from Northern Ireland whose asininity, venality and zealotry is truly of Trumpian levels.  Happy days.