Death log 2016 – part 2

 

© Hat Trick Productions

 

Just before I bid adieu to 2016, here’s a second posting paying tribute to those people whom I liked and admired who passed away during the year.

 

Firstly, two people who died in the first half of 2016 but whom I forgot to mention in my previous posting.  American author Harper Lee left us on February 19th.  Her classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) was both an indictment of racial injustice in 1930s Alabama and an affirmation of human goodness, as epitomised in the characters of upstanding lawyer Atticus Finch and the scary-but-good-hearted Boo Radley.  Rather less wholesome was the character played by Irish actor Frank Kelly, who died on February 28th, in the classic 1990s TV comedy Father Ted.  Kelly’s Father Jack Hackett was a man reduced by a lifetime of hard (and un-priestly) living to a sedentary existence in the world’s grottiest-looking armchair, from which he would occasionally bellow, “Feck!  Arse!  Drink!  Girls!”  Father Jack couldn’t have been further from the charismatic, cerebral and articulate person that Kelly was in real life.

 

© Richmond Film Productions / Rank

 

TV comedy lost another talent on July 2nd with the death of British comedienne, actress and writer Caroline Aherne, famous for acting in and co-writing the sitcom The Royle Family (1998-2012) and for playing the titular host in spoof chat-show The Mrs Merton Show (1995-98).  July 2nd was also a day when cinema took a double hit, seeing the deaths of filmmakers Michael Cimino, co-writer of Silent Running (1972) and Magnum Force (1973) and director of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), The Deer Hunter (1978) and ruinously expensive western Heaven’s Gate (1980); and Euan Lloyd, producer of the not-to-taken-seriously mercenary epic The Wild Geese (1978) with Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Roger Moore, its demented sequel The Wild Geese II (1985) and laughably right-wing SAS thriller Who Dares Wins (1982).

 

Meanwhile, record producer Sandy Pearlman died on July 26th.  He’d worked on classic albums by two bands who, while they were equally loved at Blood and Porridge, were wildly different in their styles: the Blue Oyster Cult’s Agents of Fortune (1976) and The Clash’s Give ’Em Enough Rope (1978).

 

© CBS / Epic

 

A number of veteran character actors died around the middle of the year.  William Lucas, star of such fascinatingly oddball British movies as X the Unknown (1956), The Shadow of the Cat (1961), Night of the Big Heat (1967) and Tower of Evil (1972) died on July 8th.   The New Zealand actor Terence Baylor, who died on August 2nd, will be remembered for uttering the most quotable line in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979).  After Graham Chapman’s reluctant messiah Brian pleads with a crowd of followers to leave him alone because they’re “all individuals” and the crowd mindlessly chants back at him, “We are all individuals!”, Baylor pipes up: “I’m not.”  He also appeared in Terry Gilliam’s The Time Bandits (1981), which lost another cast-member in August – the excellent Kenny Baker, who died on August 13th.  Baker was best-known for being the man inside R2D2 in the Star Wars movies and he was honoured at Blood and Porridge in this entry:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6802

 

There were also many deaths among the American acting fraternity.  Comic actor and writer Gene Wilder died on August 29th.  Though Wilder was best-remembered for playing the title character in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), for me his finest hours came in two Mel Brooks movies made in 1974 – playing the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles and Dr Frederick Frankenstein (“Pronounced ‘steen’”) in Young Frankenstein.  Two days later the hard-working character actor Jon Polito passed away.  Polito was a regular in the films of Joel and Ethan Cohen, appearing in Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), The Big Lebowski (1998), The Man Who wasn’t There (2001) and most memorably Miller’s Crossing (1990) where he played the mobster Johnny Caspar.  And on September 5th Hugh O’Brian, veteran of many a western movie and TV show, rode off into the sunset.  As the villainous Jack Pulford, he had the distinction of being the last person to be shot dead onscreen by John Wayne, in Wayne’s swansong The Shootist (1976).

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

September 16th saw the departure of Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning American playwright Edward Albee, whose work included The Zoo Story (1958), The Sandbox (1959), A Delicate Balance (1966) and most famously Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), made into a movie four years later and distinguished by splendidly unhinged performances by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as a booze-sodden university couple from hell.  Filmmaker Curtis Hanson, who started off writing interesting little movies like The Dunwich Horror (1969), The Silent Partner (1978) and White Dog (1982) and ended up directing the brilliant L.A. Confidential (1997), died on September 20th.  A somewhat less reputable filmmaker died on September 26th: Herschell Gordon Lewis, whose ultra-cheap but sensationally gory horror movies like Blood Feast (1963) and 2000 Maniacs (1964) were by no stretch of the imagination good, but left enough of an impression on Blood and Porridge to warrant this entry:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6940

 

Another American purveyor of low-budget celluloid sensationalism, Ted V. Mikels – of The Astro-Zombies (1968), Corpse Grinders (1971) and Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (1973) fame – died on October 16th.  October 13th saw the death of multi-tasking Italian Dario Fo, described on his Wikipedia page as an “actor-playwright, comedian, singer, theatre director, stage designer, songwriter, painter, political campaigner for the Italian left-wing and the recipient of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature”, whose dramatical works made him “arguably the most widely performed contemporary playwright in world theatre.”  Ten days later, the comic-book world said farewell to artist Steve Dillon, who cut his teeth on British comics like Doctor Who Magazine (Abslom Daak), 2000 AD (Judge Dredd, Rogue Troopers, ABC Warriors) and Warrior (Marvelman, Laser Eraser and Pressbutton) in the 1980s and ended up working on acclaimed American titles such as DC Comics’ Hellblazer and Preacher in the 1990s and Marvel Comics’ Punisher in the noughties.  And on the same day, Jimmy Perry, who scripted the much-loved TV comedy Dad’s Army (1968-1977) with David Croft, died at the age of 93.

 

© Arena Productions / MGM Television

 

On November 5th, the English actor John Carson died.  As well as being a regular face on British television, he appeared in three memorable Hammer horror movies: Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974) and best of all Plague of the Zombies (1966), where he played a voodoo-practising Cornish squire saving on labour costs by using reanimated corpses to work in his tin mine.  Passing away on November 11th was actor Robert Vaughn, famous on television for playing Napoleon Solo in The Man from UNCLE (1964-68) and equally famous in the cinema for being the longest-lasting member of the titular septet of gunslingers in John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven (1960).  Between those two dates, on November 7th, the great Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen expired, having delivered one final album, You Want It Darker, just the previous month.  Here’s what Blood and Porridge said about Cohen at the time of his death:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=7111

 

The great Irish novelist, short story writer and playwright William Trevor died on November 20th, while actor Andrew Sachs passed away three days later.  Most famous for playing the Barcelonan waiter Manuel in John Cleese’s classic sitcom Fawlty Towers (1975-79), Sachs was the son of a German Jew who fled to Britain to escape Nazi persecution in 1938 – an irony missed by right-wing British tabloid the Daily Mail, which printed the refugee-scare headline MIGRANT NUMBERS HIT NEW RECORDS next to the news of Sachs’ death on its front page.

 

© Hammer Films

 

Valerie Gaunt, who died on November 27th, made only two movies in the late 1950s before leaving the acting profession, but she made a big impression in them; playing Justine, the fickle maid who tries to blackmail Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein in the 1956 horror classic The Curse of Frankenstein, and playing Christopher Lee’s vampire bride in 1958’s equally classic Dracula.  And the venerable character actor Peter Vaughan, who played Grouty in the sitcom Porridge (1974-77), played Maester Aemon in blood-tits-and-dragons saga Game of Thrones (2011-2015) and gave many memorable performances besides in films and TV, died on December 6th.  Here’s Blood and Porridge’s tribute to the great man:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=7196

 

© Spitting Image Productions / ITV Studios

 

Astronaut John Glenn, the fifth person to travel in space in 1962, and also the oldest person to travel there as a crewmember of the Discovery space shuttle in 1998, died on December 8th.  Two day later saw the death of the avuncular Scottish weatherman Ian McCaskill, who presented forecasts on the BBC from the late 1970s to the late 1990s and was regularly lampooned on TV puppet show Spitting image (1984-96).  On December 18th, the world said goodbye to actress and all-round personality Zsa Zsa Gabor, who could appear in a masterpiece like Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and a camp Grade-Z pudding like Queen of Outer Space in the same year (1958) and be inimitably Zsa Zsa-esque in both.  Distinguished British TV director Philip Saville died on December 22nd.  His career highlights included 1977’s Count Dracula, probably the most faithful adaptation ever of Bram Stoker’s seminal vampire novel; 1982’s condemnation of Thatcherism, Boys from the Blackstuff; and 1986’s gaudy and saucy TV version of Fay Weldon’s Life and Loves of a She-Devil.

 

Pop star George Michael died on Christmas Day.  I wasn’t a fan of his music, but from his philanthropic work (which included donating the royalties of his ever-popular festive anthem Last Christmas to the Band Aid charity) and from the fact that he lived his life with a healthy disregard for the strictures of Britain’s prurient tabloid press, I’d say he was a thoroughly good bloke.  And finally, the lovely and witty Carrie Fisher, aka Princess Leia in the Star Wars films, died on December 27th.  (Even more tragically, her mother Debbie Fisher passed away the following day.)  A depressing indication that in the shithole year that was 2016, you weren’t safe even if you were a fairy-tale princess.

 

© Lucasfilm Ltd / 20th Century Fox

 

Who is the Macbeth-est of them all?

 

(c) Studiocanal S.A. / Channel Four Television

 

In response to some big anniversary celebrations going on in the United Kingdom at the moment, I have just succumbed to the urge to watch a movie about regicide.

 

No, the celebrations that made me do this weren’t those marking Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday, which has predictably caused epic levels of shameless bowing and scraping, toadying, grovelling and brown-nosing in the British media.  To give just one of many examples, the Daily Mail’s Chris Deerin tweeted a photo of the Queen posing with various grandkids and great-grandkids accompanied by the message: “It’s all about a family.  That’s why it works.  It’s beautiful.”  Oh, pass the sick-bag.

 

I’m actually referring to the festivities marking the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death on April 23rd.  And the film I have just watched is the Justin Kurzel-directed version of Macbeth, released a year ago and starring Michael Fassbender as the king-stabbing, crown-grabbing title character.  It’s left me with mixed emotions.

 

On the negative side, the drama feels subdued at times, thanks to the amount of low-volume muttering and mumbling going on that rather takes the fire out of Shakespeare’s lines.  I suspect the reason why the cast, which includes Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth, David Thewlis as Duncan, Paddy Considine as Banquo, Sean Harris as Macduff and Jack Reynor as Malcolm, downplay things is because the main actors are Irish, French and English and they don’t feel terribly comfortable doing the required Scottish accents.  The film contains a couple of hardy old Scottish character actors as well, David Hayman and Maurice Roëves; but, playing Lennox and Menteith respectively, they’re well down the cast-list.

 

There’s also much that’s been chopped out of this version of the Scottish play.  It runs for an hour and fifty minutes, which is forty minutes less than the stage production scheduled for the Globe Theatre in London this summer.  Out goes the post-regicide comedy relief with the porter; and most of the “Double, double toil and trouble / Fire burn and cauldron bubble” hijinks with the witches.  There’s no murder scene in Macduff’s castle, which deprives us of the first murderer’s cry of “What, you egg!” followed by the pun, “Young fry of treachery!”  There’s no sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, though she gets to utter her “Out, damned spot” line elsewhere.   And I don’t recall hearing Macbeth intone Act 3 Scene 2’s “Light thickens and the crow / Makes wing to the rooky wood. / Good things of day begin to droop and drowse / Whiles night’s black agents to their prey do rouse,” though maybe it was just buried low in the mix.

 

On the other hand, the film looks lovely – and that’s in spite of the post-Braveheart quantities of dirt, mud, blood, woad, facial hair and scar tissue on view.  I’m sure Visit Scotland won’t complain about the free advertisement that this Macbeth provides for the Isle of Skye, where many of its outdoor scenes were shot.  Mind you, a good part of it was also filmed in England, at Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland and Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire.

 

(c) Studiocanal S.A. / Channel Four Television

 

And the final sequence, where Macbeth squares up to Macduff, is stunning.  Their swordfight takes place against an infernal and almost hallucinogenic orange-red backdrop while Birnam Wood burns off-screen.  For yes, the scriptwriters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso have cooked up – and ‘cook’ is the operative word – a novel way of bringing Birnam Wood to the castle on Dunsinane Hill.

 

One element that Kurzel and his writer add to this Macbeth, as opposed to cut out of it, creates an interesting motif.  They preface the drama with a scene where Macbeth and his wife bid adieu to their only child, whose body is laid out on a funeral pyre.  Their subsequent childlessness is contrasted with the situation of Banquo, who has a son, Fleance; and that of Macduff, who has a brood of kids.  (The little Macduffs aren’t put to the sword by anonymous assassins, as in the play, but are tied to stakes on a beach and set alight by Macbeth himself.)  Even the witches here have a couple of offspring — one of them is nursing a baby and there’s a little girl-witch who turns up to help Fleance escape when his father gets murdered.

 

Indeed, the childlessness / fecundity ironies come thick and fast.  We see Macbeth press a dagger against his wife’s womb at one point and inflict a nasty-looking crotch wound on Macduff at another.  And when Duncan fatefully arrives at the Macbeths’ place to stay for the night, his hosts lay on a choir of little children for his entertainment.  Though it has to be said that Duncan and his entourage watch the show with as much enthusiasm as parents having to sit through a primary-school nativity play.  No wonder Duncan’s bodyguards get so drunk afterwards.

 

(c) Caliban Films / Playboy Productions / Columbia Pictures

 

Maybe my real issue with Justin Kurzel’s new Macbeth is simply that I kept expecting Fassbender and Cotillard to suddenly disappear in a puff of smoke and be replaced by Jon Finch and Francesca Annis – who were the stars of Roman Polanski’s version of Macbeth back in 1970, a movie that made a big impression on me.  I was 16 when I saw it, so no doubt one reason why I took to it was because the film’s qualities – its simultaneous bleakness, bloodiness, bawdiness, gothic-ness, gorgeousness, rebelliousness and sophistication – mirrored the mix of emotions and hormones seething in my teenaged head and body at the time.  And also, at 16, I probably felt a connection with the film because Finch and Annis were both so young when they made it.  In fact, their youthfulness suggests they have little power to control their destinies.  They’re swept along with events, propelled by dark forces that are both political and supernatural.

 

Polanski’s Macbeth was disliked by many critics who were upset by its violence and were disturbed by the fact that Polanski’s recent past had been pretty violent too.  In August 1969, his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and four others were butchered at his home in Beverly Hills by followers of the hippie-cult lunatic Charles Manson.  Pauline Kael, the film critic for the New Yorker, even wondered if Polanski’s staging of the murders of Macduff’s family was an attempt to recreate the carnage that Manson had authored in his own life.  Famously, the film’s screenwriter, Kenneth Tynan, challenged Polanski about the amount of blood shown in this scene – to which the director retorted, “You should have seen my house last summer.”

 

One other cinematic Macbeth I know is the 1948 production directed by, and starring, Orson Welles.  I watched this on TV a long time ago and wasn’t impressed by its apparent staginess and melodramatics – by then I was in thrall to the Polanski version.  However, lately, I’ve watched a few parts of it on Youtube and revised my opinion of it somewhat.  Yes, it’s cheap.  Welles made it for Republic Pictures, a studio that normally specialised in low-budget westerns, had to shoot it on some of Republic’s leftover western sets and had only a 23-day shooting schedule.  But scenes like Act 3 Scene 4, where Banquo’s ghost shows up at the feast with ‘no speculation’ in his eyes and shaking his ‘gory locks’ at his killer, are surprisingly well-staged.  Though I suppose you’d expect that from Welles.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9BUg7WG2Z4

 

There are problems, however.  Though he was only 33 at the time, Welles was already getting portly and resembled Falstaff more than Macbeth; and it doesn’t help that he appears in an eccentric costume that, he grumbled later, made him look like the Statue of Liberty.

 

(c) Republic Pictures / Mercury Productions

 

And then there are the accents – dear God.  Welles’s American cast dial the fake twee Scottish-ness up to 11 and roll their ‘r’s for minutes at a time.  Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth gets shrill and hard to listen to and even Welles himself, during his more excitable moments, ends up sounding like Scottie in Star Trek.  Meanwhile, the witches’ accents are so piercing that they remind me of Molly Weir in those advertisements that she used to make for Flash, the household cleaning agent, back in the 1970s: “Flash cleans baths without scr-r-r-r-ratching.”

 

So all respect to Orson Welles and Justin Kurzel.  But at the end of the day, it’s Polanski’s Macbeth that’s the Macbeth for me.

 

Beckett’s belle and the Antichrist’s nanny

 

From bernerzeitung.ch

 

The names Samuel Beckett and The Omen don’t normally crop up together in the same sentence.  However, they have certainly done so over the past few days as tributes have been paid to actress Billie Whitelaw, who unfortunately passed away on December 21st.  Whitelaw was a close collaborator with legendary Irish playwright Beckett from their first meeting in 1963 until his death in 1989; and she was also a considerable film presence whose most noticeable (if not subtlest) role was as Mrs Baylock, the demonic and psychotic nanny of the equally demonic and psychotic Damien Thorn, son of the Devil, in the first of The Omen movies in 1976.

 

Whitelaw’s association with Beckett saw her appearing in such works as Play, Eh Joe, Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby.  The one I’ll always remember her in, though, is Happy Days, a TV version of which I saw back in the 1980s.  Its central metaphor is no more subtle than the character of Mrs Baylock in The Omen: a prattling woman of some maturity disappears piece by piece into a mass of sand.  In the first act, she’s buried to her waist in the stuff, while by the second act she’s up to her neck in it.  But it’s also a hard-to-forget metaphor and it definitely sums up Beckett’s bleak view of life, the universe and everything.  (When trying to account for Beckett’s unrelentingly grim outlook, I’ve always liked the theory forwarded by Irish singer, musician, boozer and raconteur Shane McGowan.  He attributed Beckett’s gloom to the fact that he was the only man in Ireland who’d ever wanted to play cricket for Ireland.)

 

Hard-to-forget too is Whitelaw’s turn in The Omen.  After arriving in the Thorn household, her first salutation to Damien is, “Have no fear, little one.  I am here to protect thee!”  And she certainly shows her devotion to the Satanic little tyke when she disposes of his hapless mother, played by Lee Remick, by shoving her out of a hospital window with the result that she crashes through the roof of an ambulance passing below.  Her final hissing, spitting, downright-animalistic confrontation with Damien’s ‘official’ father, Gregory Peck, is memorable too.  In fact, Whitelaw’s Mrs Baylock is one of the great evil minions in horror-movie history.  (Incidentally, in 2006’s nondescript remake of The Omen, the one thing the filmmakers got right was the recasting of Mrs Baylock.  For the remake, they hired Mia Farrow – who of course had past form with Satanic children, having played Rosemary in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby in 1968.)

 

The Omen aside, Whitelaw’s movie CV was pleasingly varied.  In 1960’s The Flesh and the Fiends, directed by John Gilling and the best cinematic telling of the story of notorious Edinburgh body-snatchers-cum-serial-killers Burke and Hare, she played the luckless Mary Paterson – a prostitute whose body turned up on the dissecting table at the Edinburgh Medical School under the nose of a horrified medical student who’d only very recently spent an evening with her.  The same year, she appeared in Val Guest’s Hell is a City, the grittiest and hardest-boiled British crime drama before Mike Hodge’s Get Carter in 1970; while in 1967 she played Hayley Mills’ mum in Roy Boulting’s Twisted Nerve, one of those warped, sleazy psychological thrillers that British cinema was adept at turning out at the time.  Another warped and sleazy piece she appeared in was 1972’s strangler-on-the-loose thriller Frenzy, the nastiest film in Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre.  And 1990 saw her play Violet Kray, mother of the London East End’s favourite homicidal gangster siblings, in Peter Medak’s The Krays.

 

She also turned up on television.  Back in the 1950s she played the daughter of Jack Warner’s title character in Dixon of Dock Green, the first British TV cop-show of any note.  In 1980, she provided Michael Elphick’s romantic interest in the BBC’s morally-dodgy but entertaining Nazi comedy, Private Schulz.  My favourite TV memory of her, though, dates to 1977 when she appeared in Supernatural, a stagey but atmospheric Gothic-horror anthology show that was scripted by her husband, the dramatist Robert Mueller.  In the two-part Supernatural story Countess Iliona / The Werewolf Reunion, she played a woman who during her youth had been used and abused by a series of powerful men and eventually, to spare them embarrassment, ‘married off’ to a brutal aristocrat living in a remote mountain castle.  After the aristocrat dies mysteriously, she invites those former beaus who’d mistreated her – played by Ian Hendry, Edward Hardwicke, John Fraser and Charles Kay – to her castle.  What they don’t know is that the aristocratic husband didn’t really die, but got infected with something that leaves him hairy and bloodthirsty when there’s a full moon.  And Whitelaw intends to use him, like a monstrous attack dog, to right a few wrongs.

 

I last saw Billie Whitelaw when she was playing a villainess in 2007’s Hot Fuzz, the second of the ‘Cornetto’ trilogy directed by Edgar Wright and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.  At the movie’s climax we see her blazing determinedly at Pegg and Frost with an AK47.  Which I think was as good a way to bow out as any.

 

(c) Working Title

 

At the Edinburgh Festival: I, Tommy by Ian Pattison

 

I, Tommy, written by Ian Pattison and a fixture at the Gilded Balloon Teviot during the Edinburgh Fringe, is based on a political and media saga that shows no sign of ending.  Here’s the story so far:

 

One.  Tommy Sheridan, Scotland’s highest-profile man-of-the-people socialist firebrand, whose opposition to Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax once resulted in him spending six months at Her Majesty’s pleasure in Saughton Prison, gets elected to the newly-created Scottish Parliament in 1999.  Hurrah!

 

Two.  Tommy actually gives a good account of himself during the first term of the parliament.  The well-to-do blethering classes of Middle Scotland (who would sooner cut their own throats than live in the Independent Socialist Republic of Scotland that Tommy espouses) come to see him as a good, if slightly misguided chap, with barrow-loads of integrity.  Even Scotland’s golf-playing tax-exile-in-chief Sir Sean Connery sings his praises.  Hurrah, hurrah!

 

Three.  Tommy’s hard work is rewarded in 2003 when he is re-elected, and five fellow members of the Scottish Socialist Party are newly elected, to the Scottish Parliament.  By now, even the Sunday Post, a D.C. Thomson newspaper whose politics had formerly been somewhere to the right of Vlad the Impaler’s, is printing breathless Hello-style profiles of Tommy at home with his attractive, flame-haired, ex-air hostess wife Gail.  Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah!

 

Four.  Working on the assumption that if something or someone seems to be too good be to be true, it generally isn’t, the News of the World, a newspaper emanating from the evil empire of Rupert Murdoch, starts digging up muck on Tommy.  It claims that Tommy, who is a teetotaller and has always presented himself as being whiter than white (though his habit of spending hours on a sunbed have actually made him oranger than orange) has had an extra-marital affair.  Later, lurid details emerge about him attending a swingers’ club in Manchester.  The Scottish public, who’d always assumed that a swingers’ club was where you went when you wanted to listen to some golden oldies by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Junior, receives a sudden education in what the term actually means.  Boo!

 

Five.  In 2006, Tommy sues the News of the World for libel, wins the case and receives £200,000 in damages.  In some quarters, Tommy is now revered as a saintly knight who managed to slay the fearsome dragon known as Rupert.  Hurrah!

 

Six.  However, by now, Tommy has also fallen out with the Scottish Socialist Party – most of his ex-comrades believed and even gave evidence supporting the News of the World’s allegations.  The split has fatal political consequences for all of them, because Tommy and the SSP’s remaining Members of the Scottish Parliament lose their seats at the 2007 election.  Meanwhile, the News of the World prepares to appeal the previous year’s court decision…   Boo!

 

Seven.  Tommy ends up in court again, accused of telling lies when he accused the News of the World of telling lies about him.  To fund his defence, he appears on Celebrity Big Brother alongside such political, cultural and intellectual heavyweights as La Toya Jackson, Coolio and Verne Troyer, who played MiniMe in the Austin Powers movies.  He is found guilty of perjury and at the beginning of 2011 is sentenced to three years in Barlinnie Prison.  The line on Tommy Sheridan, propounded by an unholy alliance between the Murdoch press and the Scottish Socialist Party and now officially sanctioned by the Scottish courts, is that he’s a duplicitous shag-happy liar.  Boo, boo!

 

Eight.  It’s 2012 and good behaviour in prison wins Tommy an early release.  He vows to clear his name and, with the News of the World closed down (‘put down’ sounds a more appropriate phrase) and Murdoch’s News International company reeling after the phone-hacking scandal, people are prepared to take his protests of innocence a little more seriously than they were a year earlier.  And according to a BBC news report this week, Bob Bird, former editor of the News of the World’s Scottish edition, has been ‘charged in connection with the defamation action of former MSP Tommy Sheridan’.  (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-19409581)  Hurrah…  possibly.

 

Apart from the events of the last few days, Ian Pattison’s play covers all of the above in a comical – or an even more comical – manner and portrays Sheridan the way that the Scottish courts / News of the World / Scottish Socialist Party say he is, i.e. a shag-happy liar.  Note, however, that the story is not yet over and we may possibly have to revise our image of Tommy.  Again.

 

Played by Des McLean, Sheridan as he’s depicted in I, Tommy is a great comic creation – a preening, posing numbskull driven by a gargantuan ego (“All rivers flow into the Sea of Tommy,” he says of his socialist followers and forebearers) and an equally large libido.  Pattison writes his dialogue in a patois combining the vernacular of the Glasgow housing schemes with the rhetoric of deadly-earnest socialism (which Sheridan carries over into his private life, addressing Gail as “Sister wife…”) and McLean is spot-on in his delivery of the resultant Tommy-speak, investing it with the fiery yet somehow monotonous tones of a politician who takes himself way too seriously.  And his left arm seems to spend the play permanently locked in an up-in-the-air clenched fist / Black Power salute.

 

Unsurprisingly, the real Tommy Sheridan is no fan of the play and claims that Pattison has distorted his story.  The writer, he says, “read two books about me…  dishonest, nasty and politically motivated books.”  (http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/tommy-sheridan-says-fringe-play-1271318)  But he should really be worried about Des McLean’s version of him gaining a wider audience, for example, by turning up on television, because it could destroy his political career (or what’s left of it).  Just as the Spitting Image puppet representing 1980s Liberal Party-leader Sir David Steel as a useless pipsqueak midget did serious and lasting damage to Steel’s image among voters, and just as Tina Fey’s portrayal of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live convinced a lot of people that Palin was a backwoods thicko (though arguably Palin did a good enough job of convincing people herself),  folk could easily confuse McLean’s Sheridan and the real Sheridan, to the latter’s detriment.

 

The humour in the play isn’t especially subtle, with Pattison missing no opportunity to milk a joke out of the material, high-brow or low, satirical or plain coarse.  It’s roughly on par with the level of humour in Spitting Image (which was funny without being particularly clever) or, indeed, in Pattison’s most famous work, the long-running Scottish TV series Rab C. Nesbitt.  What’s important, though, is that the jokes keep coming and most of them are on target, so that the play is funny.

 

Rab C. Nesbitt was, in its day, one of the best things on Scottish television (and its titular character is surely the greatest comic figure produced by Scottish TV in the last quarter-century), but it gradually wore out its welcome, with Pattison relying more and more on the audience’s affection for the characters and exploiting an ever-thickening vein of sentimentality.  Here, however, Pattison has fresh meat to get his teeth into and his comic mojo has been reinvigorated.  Satisfyingly, there’s no sentimentality and the characters are treated mercilessly, including Gail – shown here as an ambitious, scheming but none-too-bright harpy – and Tommy’s eccentric Shirley Bassey-loving mother Alice, who comes across in the play as a demented old bat.  Indeed, such is Pattison’s determination to leave no aspect of the Sheridans unmocked that I’m sure he will be criticised for being both class-ist and religiously prejudiced – he makes fun of Sheridan’s humble Glasgow origins and cracks more than one joke about Gail and Alice’s devout Catholicism.

 

But whether you believe Tommy Sheridan is a sinner or a (sinned-against) saint, he is at the end of the day a politician — and considering who they are, what they do and how much power they can potentially wield, politicians have to be the property of satirists.  Thus, I’m afraid, as in love and war, all’s fair in political satire.

 

At the Edinburgh Festival: Oliver Reed – Wild Thing by Mike Davis and Rob Crouch

 

Before I begin this review, I have to declare a bias.  I’m from the Scottish Borders town of Peebles and people there regard the late hellraising movie star Oliver Reed as an honorary Peeblean.  In 1995, Reed was staying in the area whilst making a film called The Bruce – a sub-Braveheart effort that, like most of Reed’s late-career films, was fairly dreadful – and one day he managed to find his way to the raucous public bar of the Crown Hotel, known to locals as ‘the Croon’, on Peebles High Street.  If you’re to believe the Scottish tabloid press, Reed took such a shine to the Croon, and the regulars of the Croon took such a shine to him, that he took up permanent residency in the bar for the next couple of days.

 

Indeed, the Scottish edition of the Sun printed a front-page headline saying SHAME ON EWE, with a photo underneath of Reed slumped against the inside of the Croon’s front door whilst cradling a toy sheep in his inebriated arms.  Some unsuspecting soul was on the street outside, trying to open the door and get in, and he must’ve been thinking: “What’s blocking this door…?  Oh…  Oh, look…  It’s Oliver Reed.”

 

Thereafter, Reed made Peebles his port-of-call whenever he visited Scotland.  He even elected to spend his sixtieth birthday there in 1998.  And when he died of excess the following year, BBC Radio Scotland sent a reporter to Peebles to interview Peter Cassidy, the owner of the Croon.  During the interview, Peter observed that although Reed had died at the relatively young age of 61, he’d managed to cram into his time on earth twice as many years’ worth of living.

 

My fear when I approached Oliver ReedWild Thing, which has just finished its Edinburgh Fringe run at the Gilded Balloon Teviot, was that the play’s focus would be very much on those 122 years’ worth of ‘living’ – the industrial consumption of alcohol, the partying, the brawling, the hi-jinks with fellow hellraisers like Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins and Keith ‘the Loon’ Moon, the notorious chat-show appearances where he’d turn up in the studio completely trolleyed, the tattoo he famously bore on his penis – at the expense of his film career.  And the first half of that career, at least, was pretty impressive.

 

He started out as a bit-player in the late-1950s British film industry – for example, he was the leader of the teddy-boy gang who beat up Norman Wisdom in The Bulldog Breed.  (Thanks for that, Ollie.)  Hammer Films discovered him and began his development as a star, casting him in both their costumed swashbucklers (Pirates of Blood River, Captain Clegg, The Scarlet Blade and The Brigand of Kandahar) and their internationally famous horror movies (The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll, Paranoiac and The Curse of the Werewolf, which offered the oddly prophetic spectacle of Reed turning into a slavering, out-of-control monster whenever the sun went down).

 

After that, he found proper fame between the mid-1960s and early 1970s making trendy comedies like The System, The Jokers, I’ll Never Forget What’s ’Is Name and Hannibal Brooks for Michael Winner – it’s difficult to believe now, but prior to the bitchy restaurant reviews in the Sunday Times, the car insurance commercials and the Death Wish movies, Winner was regarded as one of Britain’s most promising directors – and making more challenging, sometimes-quite-bonkers fare like Women in Love, The Devils and Tommy for the late, great Ken Russell.

 

In his prime, Reed was unlike any leading man that the British film industry had seen before (or has seen since, for that matter).  He could be charming, he could brood and smoulder, and he could come across as an utter brute: sometimes, all three qualities seemed to exist within his burly frame at the same time.  It’s a shame nobody got around to casting him as Heathcliff in a late-1960s version of Wuthering Heights.

 

In popular terms, his high-water mark was probably Richard Lester’s Musketeers films of the mid-1970s.  The most entertaining versions of Alexandre Dumas’ novel ever made, they managed to be funny, knowing and exciting, and were packed with faces that were iconic in the cinema of the time: as well as Reed, they featured Raquel Welch, Faye Dunaway, Michael York, Christopher Lee and Charlton Heston.

 

Around this time, Reed got the opportunity to make it in Hollywood.  He was offered the role of Quint, the Captain-Ahab-like character in Steven Spielberg’s record-breaking blockbuster Jaws, before it was given to Robert Shaw.  Financially, the role would probably have set him up for life, but he passed on it.  Now I love Shaw’s performance in Jaws, but I consider the possibility of Reed in the role as one of the great might-have-beens of film history.  Can you imagine the film 10 minutes before the end, with the shark leaping up on the boat’s deck, grabbing Oliver Reed and dragging him roaring and cursing beneath the waves, while he beats the beast on its nose with a harpoon?  (Though knowing Reed, he’d probably have been beating it with an empty beer-keg.)

 

An incident in Stringfellow’s nightclub, where he vomited over Steve McQueen, no doubt helped to blow his chances in Hollywood too.

 

By the end of the 1970s, with the British film industry in terminal decline, his career was on the skids.  Although he got the occasional good role – usually thanks to directors who, in different ways, were as maverick as he was, like David Cronenberg, Nicholas Roeg and Terry Gilliam – most of his movies were either so bad they were good (Piers Haggard’s Venom) or so bad they were dismal (Winner’s Parting Shots).  And from this time onwards, he cultivated a grotesque parallel career rampaging about the television chat-show circuit.  He’d turn up on programmes like After Dark, The Word and Aspel and Company, totter around drunkenly, insult feminists and threaten to whip out his penis.  With hindsight, it’s debatable how much of this behaviour was genuine inebriation and how much was playacting.  By then, he was aware that British TV viewers expected – wanted – him to be a drunken hooligan doing outrageous things in front of the cameras, and he didn’t wish to disappoint his public.

 

This warped sense of showmanship was one element in the combustible mixture that powered Reed.  Other elements included a restlessness that came from having an extremely low boredom threshold, a fondness for pranks and japery – no wonder he got on so well with Keith Moon – and a genuine love of boozing in ordinary pubs with ordinary Joes far removed from the well-heeled and pretentious film-industry thespians whom he despised.

 

But it wasn’t quite over for Reed’s film career, for in the late 1990s Ridley Scott came calling and gave him an important role in his sword-and-sandals blockbuster Gladiator.  When you look beyond Scott’s brilliantly-choreographed battle sequences, and beyond Russell Crowe’s pecs, you realise that Reed’s performance as Proximo, the weary ex-gladiator who become’s Crowe’s reluctant ally in his plot against Roman Emperor Joaquin Phoenix, is one of the best things in the film.  Shrewdly, Scott gave him the best lines.  (“Die to be remembered as men!”)

 

It probably would’ve revived Reed’s fortunes as an actor but, alas, he didn’t live to see the end of filming.  While on location in Malta, Reed visited a British-style bar in Valletta called The Pub, got into a major drinking-session-cum-armwrestling-tournament with some sailors from the Royal Navy frigate HMS Cumberland, and suffered a fatal heart attack.  At least how he died was consistent with how he’d lived.

 

Oliver Reed – Wild Thing, written by Mike Davis and Rob Crouch, and with Crouch in the title role, is set in The Pub in Valletta on the last day of Reed’s life.  It has the ageing and soon-to-depart hellraiser reminiscing about, and sometimes acting out, the highlights of his life.  Thankfully, the highlights covered by the play include those on Reed’s acting CV – Hammer, Winner, Russell, the Musketeers and Gladiator, plus the B-movies and Z-movies that came in the 1980s and 1990s – as well as the incidents of drunken excess.

 

Rob Crouch does an excellent job capturing the many shades of Ollie – drunkard, charmer, hooligan, barroom philosopher, buffoon, rebel, overgrown schoolboy, prankster, exhibitionist and occasionally something of a bitch (as evidenced by catty remarks about Jack Nicholson’s height and the thickness of Raquel Welch’s ankles).  So good is Crouch during the play’s most exuberant moments that you forget it’s him on the stage and not Reed himself.  He becomes almost shamanistic in his ability to channel the unruly actor’s spirit.

 

It is not a play, if you’re of a shy and retiring disposition, to watch whilst sitting in the front row of seats – as I found out.  While Crouch / Ollie cavorts above you, you find yourself on the receiving end of a rain of spittle and beer-flecks.  And it becomes alarming when he gets onto the topic of the Musketeers films and, with great relish, starts waving a large and realistic-looking sword above the audience’s heads.  (During the making of those movies, so enthusiastically did Reed enter into the swordfight sequences that the stuntmen ended up deliberately injuring him, figuring that they’d better put him out-of-action before he killed somebody on the set.)  Spectators in the front seats were also hauled onstage to participate in the drama.  It wasn’t long before I found myself up there, acting the role of the barman in The Pub, and handing out beers.  At least, Crouch / Ollie invited me to have one myself.  Having a beer with Oliver Reed in 2012 – not many people can claim they’ve done that.

 

One last thing – two and a half years ago, my Dad and I were on holiday in Malta and we visited The Pub, scene of Ollie’s last stand and now, inevitably, something of a shrine to him.  Here’s a picture of my Dad and Oliver Reed.  (Oliver Reed is the one hanging on the wall.)

 

 

And here’s a link to a pertinent website: http://www.oliverreed.net/.

 

At the Edinburgh Festival: Six and a Tanner by Rony Bridges

 

“Ye’re a bastart, da!”  So begins Six and a Tanner, a one-man play written by Rony Bridges and starring David Hayman, currently showing at the Assembly Rooms as part of the Edinburgh Fringe.  The unnamed speaker, a Glaswegian sharing the stage with a coffin that contains the remains of his father, then starts talking about Christmas when he was four years old.  This was the Christmas his father decided to tell him that Santa Claus didn’t exist.  At least this meant that he couldn’t keep blaming Santa for the crumminess of his son’s Christmas presents – the previous Christmas, when his son’s airplane (made out of clothespegs) fell apart the first time he tried to fly it, the father’s only response was that Santa’s “a cheap bastart”.

 

And here begins a diatribe – a 70-minute diatribe, during which the now middle-aged son rants, raves and sometimes just quietly, bitterly reminisces beside his father’s corpse while it rests in a funeral parlour, awaiting cremation.  He lambasts the old man for his many failures and foul-ups, which resulted in his own life, his childhood and beyond, being so joyless.

 

My initial reaction to this was, what, another slice of urban brutalism / poverty porn from the west of Scotland?  Here is a genre that for decades has been explored by writers (Robin Jenkins, Archie Hind, James Kelman, Agnes Owens, Jeff Torrington) and filmmakers (John Mackenzie, Ken Loach, Peter Mullan), to the point where the outside world must think that the only books written and the only films made in Scotland concern dysfunctional families struggling with alcoholism / drug addiction / domestic violence / gangsters / sectarianism whilst living in desperate conditions in Glasgow.  However, as parts of that city still have some of the shortest life expectancies and lowest health standards in Europe, I suspect that Glaswegian miserabilism will remain a large feature on Scotland’s artistic landscape until the day arises – if it ever arises – when politicians manage finally to sort out the city’s problems.

 

Besides, if Six and a Tanner is anything to go by, there is still good, dramatic material to be mined in this territory.  And thankfully, Bridges imbues much of it with humour – black humour, naturally.  Indeed, some of the anecdotes that surface during the son’s lengthy harangue struck me as being too comical to be feasible – the black kitten that his father drunkenly buys one night in the pub, only to discover that it’s actually a panther-cub that’s been swiped from Glasgow Zoo, for example, or his mother’s less-than-tactful decision to use his wedding day to announce that she’s had enough and is running off with the postman – though having read that the play is autobiographical on Bridges’ part (and having known a few Glaswegians in my time who seemed capable of such things) I wonder now if those anecdotes are so far-fetched.

 

The nature of the play means that much of its effectiveness depends on the performance of its one performer, and David Hayman is well up to the job.  Hayman found fame at the end of the 1970s playing Jimmy Boyle, the real-life gangster-turned-sculptor, in John Mackenzie’s TV film A Sense of Freedom, although international audiences may know him better for playing Malcolm McLaren in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy and playing the villain in Ken Loach’s My Name is Joe.  Here, Hayman conveys both the corrosive bitterness of someone whose life has been twisted out of shape by his old man’s inadequacies and the resourcefulness, humour and imagination of someone who’s had to develop such qualities from an early age in order to stay sane.  I did wonder about the character’s age and the time-frame he was supposed to inhabit – references to disco, Mods and Roy Rogers raised questions about whether he was meant to be a child of the 1970s, the 1960s or earlier – though that is Bridges’ fault rather than Hayman’s.

 

Three-quarters of the way through the play, when the son recalls how he discovered that his father had become homeless, had taken to the streets and had disappeared, and – despite everything that’d happened before – he set out to find the old loser, there seems to be a danger that the story will descend into sentimentality.  (Surely, I thought, it wouldn’t end with father and son in each other’s arms and the latter exclaiming, “I love you, pop!”)  It’s noticeable too that Hayman’s energy levels go down a little at this point.

 

However, that doesn’t happen.  We learn that, on his deathbed, the old man sprang one last, nasty surprise on his son – and the son wreaked some final, blackly-comic revenge on him.  Satisfyingly, in the gospel according to Six and a Tanner, the sins of the father are ultimately visited on the father.